The Silk Road: 8 goods traded along the old network

The Silk Road was not a single route, but rather a vibrant trade network that crisscrossed central Eurasia for centuries, connecting distant cultures. Traveling on camels and horses, traders, nomads, missionaries, warriors, and diplomats not only traded exotic goods, but also transferred knowledge, technology, medicine, and religious beliefs that have reshaped ancient civilizations.

The term “Silk Road” was coined in 1877 by Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen, a German geographer, who focused on the flourishing silk trade between the Han Chinese Empire (206 BC to 220 AD) and Rome. But modern scholars recognize that the Silk Road (or Silk Roads) continued to allow transcontinental trade until large-scale maritime trade replaced land caravans in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Here are eight of the most important trade goods that fueled centuries of cultural exchange on the Silk Road:

1. Silk

It’s not for nothing that it’s called the Silk Road. Silk, first produced in China as early as 3000 BC, was the ideal land item of commerce for merchant and diplomatic caravans who may have traveled thousands of kilometers to reach their destination, historian Xin Wen explains. of Medieval China and Inner Asia at Princeton University. .

“Your carrying capacity was very limited, so you brought what was most valuable, but also the lightest,” says Wen, whose next book is titled The King’s Road: Diplomatic Travelers and the Construction of the Silk Road in Eastern Eurasia, 850-1000. “Not only does silk exactly match these characteristics – high value, low weight – but it is also extremely versatile. “

The Roman elite viewed Chinese silk as a luxuriously fine textile, and later when silk-making technology was introduced to the Mediterranean, artisans in Damascus created the reversible woven silk textile known as damask. .

But silk was more than a garment, says Wen. In Buddhist cultures, it was made into ritual banners or used as a canvas for paintings. In the important Silk Road settlement of Turfan in east China, silk was used as currency, writes historian Valerie Hansen, and in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AC), silk was collected as a form tax.

2. Horses

Terracotta statues of a horseman from the Qin dynasty, exhibited in France 1992.

Horses were first domesticated in the steppes of Central Asia around 3700 BC. Once the horse was introduced into agrarian societies, it became a sought-after tool for transport, culture and cavalry, writes historian James Millward in Silk Road: a very short introduction.

The silk trade for the horse was one of the most important and enduring trade on the Silk Road. Chinese merchants and officials traded rolls of silk for well-behaved horses from the Mongolian steppes and the Tibetan plateau. In turn, the nomadic elites valued silk for the status it conferred or the additional goods it could purchase.

Wen says that horses, providing their own means of transportation, were the ultimate high-value, low-weight product on the Silk Road, and were “a very unique luxury item for the elite of the Eurasian world. “.

It is not surprising that the famous tomb of Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BC) contains not only 8,000 terracotta warriors, but also lifelike statues of 520 chariot horses. and 150 cavalry horses.

3. Paper

Paper, invented in China in the 2nd century AD, first spread throughout Asia with the spread of Buddhism. In 751, the paper was introduced to the Islamic world when Arab forces clashed with the Tang Dynasty at the Battle of Talas. Caliph Harun al-Rashid built a paper mill in Baghdad that introduced papermaking to Egypt, North Africa and Spain, where paper finally reached Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries, Millward writes.

On the Silk Road, travelers carried paper documents that served as passports to cross nomadic lands or spend the night in a caravanserai, an oasis on the Silk Road. But the most important function of paper along the Silk Road was that it was linked to texts and books that conveyed entirely new systems of thought, especially religion.

“It is no coincidence that Buddhism spread to China around the same time that the paper became prevalent in the region,” says Wen. “Ditto for Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism. One of the central meanings of the Silk Road is that it served as a channel for the spread of different cultural ideas and interactions, and much of that was based on paper. “

4 spices

Cinnamon seller, miniature from Tractatus de herbis, 15th century France.

Cinnamon seller, miniature from Tractatus de herbis, 15th century France.

East and South Asian spices, such as cinnamon from Sri Lanka and cassia from China, were exotic and coveted trade items, but they generally did not travel the overland routes of the Silk Road. Instead, the spices were mainly transported along an ancient silk sea route that connected the port cities of Indonesia to the west via India and the Arabian Peninsula.

On the other side of the Silk Road, spices were valued for their use in cooking, but also for religious ceremonies and as medicines. And unlike silk, which could be produced anywhere silkworms could be kept alive, many spices were derived from plants that only grew in very specific environments.

“This means that there is a clearer origin for the spices than for some of the other luxury items, which adds to their value,” says Wen.

5. Jade

Millennia before the Silk Road existed, China traded with its western neighbors along the so-called Jade Route.

Jade, the crystalline green gemstone, was at the heart of Chinese ritual culture. When jade supplies became scarce in the 5th millennium BC, it was necessary for China to establish trade relations with western neighbors like the ancient Iranian kingdom of Khotan, whose rivers were rich in chunks of nephrite jade, the best variety of jade for sculpting intricate figurines and jewelry. The jade trade to China flourished throughout the Silk Road period, as did the trade in other semi-precious stones like pearls.

6. Glassware

Westerners often assume that most of the Silk Road goods traveled from the exotic Far East west to the Mediterranean and Europe, but the Silk Road trade went in all directions. . For example, archaeologists excavating burial mounds in China, Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines have found Roman glassware among the prized possessions of the Asian elite. The distinct type of soda-lime glass made in Rome and fashioned into vases and goblets would have been eagerly traded for silk, which the Romans were obsessed with.

7. Furs

The taiga is the vast expanse of evergreen forest that crosses Siberia into Eurasia and continues into Canada into North America. During the Silk Road era, Millward writes, the taiga attracted bands of hardy trappers who harvested fox, sable, mink, beaver, and ermine skins. This northern “fur route” provided luxurious coats and hats to Chinese dynasties and other Eurasian elites. Millward writes that Genghis Khan cemented one of his first political alliances with a donation of a sable coat. In the 17th century, at the time of the decline of the Silk Road, the rulers of the Chinese Qing Dynasty could buy furs from Siberian and Canadian trappers.

8. Slaves

Slaves were a tragically common “trade good” along the Silk Road. Raiding armies would take captives and sell them to private traders who would find buyers in distant ports and capitals, from Dublin in the west to Shandong in eastern China, writes Silk Road historian Susan Whitfield. The slaves became servants, entertainers and eunuchs for the royal courts.

Wen says that although slavery was ubiquitous in premodern Eurasia along the Silk Road, none of these kingdoms or societies could be classified as “slavery-based” in the same way as the slave trade. African functioning in the New World.

“Slaves looked more like an ornament of the life of the Silk Road elite,” says Wen, “not a major economic source. “

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