Why “the Silk Roads” as a term is more evocative than it is exact

German traveler and geographer Baron Ferdinand von Richthoften (1833-1905) traveled as part of the Eulenberg Expedition from Prussia to Asia, publishing his findings from 1877 to 1912 in five volumes. Richthofen and Sven Hedin were creatures of their time, shaped in the era of high imperialism when the competitive colonialism of European powers elevated the status of geography, cartography and exploration.

Hedin and his counterparts gained much of the fame that these expeditions brought, but it was Richthofen who first coined the term Seidenstrassen (Silk Roads) to describe and make sense of the latitudinal chain of sites found. under the deserts of Inner Asia, leaving a semantic heritage that has endured. Richthofen’s legacy has not gone unchallenged and researchers have sought to clarify and criticize the concept of the “Silk Roads”.

In the first place, the Silk Road was neither a single road nor a static set of roads, but an unstable and shifting bundle of connections subject to the vicissitudes of ecological change and political power. The latitudinal artery through Eurasia which is commonly regarded as the Silk Road proper also branched longitudinally north and south, bringing spices, cotton fabrics and other goods from the subcontinent and the world of the Indian Ocean in the trade circuits of the Silk Road.

Each of these branches consisted of competing bundles of routes, some shorter, safer, cheaper, or more comfortable, depending on the authority in power, the time of year, and the terrain. This fibrous mass of land routes existed, of course, in a complementary and competitive relationship with the overseas routes through the China Sea, the Strait of Malacca, the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf. .

Second, the emphasis on silk is misleading, as it favors one product and one direction of trade – namely, East to West. The mass of connections making up the Silk Roads meant that a number of goods moved in a number of directions across Eurasia.

These included exotic elephant ivory and rhino horn, luxury textiles made of silk and other threads, and precious illuminated manuscripts. The more mundane items of trade, with a broader spectrum of “consumption”, included foodstuffs, pack animals, animal products, raw cotton, and cotton fabrics; of these, horses, paper, and gunpowder have had a much more powerful and profound impact on the course of world history than silk.

In addition, the Silk Roads review has tended to highlight Asia’s role as a producer or supplier of global goods, but has obscured the corresponding attention to its consumption patterns. This is all the more remarkable given that Asia dominated the world economy before the rise of what Immanuel Wallerstein called the “modern world-system”. Trade with Europe and, more importantly, “intra-Asian trade,” brought buyers – from rural nomads and herders to urban khans (kings) and padshahs (emperors) – in contact with a range of products.

Silk Roads, as a term, is more evocative than exact. It does not encompass everything that has been traded across Eurasia, but can serve as a shortcut for a wide variety of goods traveling on a range of routes.

It has become deeply ingrained in academic vocabulary, having proven popular among academics as well as the public. It even shifted from Western academic discourse to, for example, the language of Iranian academics in the late 1950s and 1960s, who spoke of “sculpting the historical geography of a Greater Iran whose cultural impact has grown. felt as far as China ”. .

In short, it is a term which will undoubtedly continue to sow the seeds of the learned imagination. Such (re) evocations of the Silk Roads, and those highlighted throughout this book, force us to imagine broad continuities through historical eras against relatively short interludes of flux, stasis or decline. Rather than dismantling the Silk Roads, it is worth seeing them as a shortcut for the complex and changing mass of connections and exchanges that have woven states, societies and economies together across Eurasia.

Both heuristic and historical subject, the “Silk Roads” seem a meaningless abstraction unless the most reductive conceptualizations are discarded. But thinking with the Silk Roads is fruitful because it helps us focus on the fact that – for most of the previous two millennia or more – long-distance trade and movement through continental interiors was the rule and not the exception.

Rather than seeing the expansion of long-distance maritime commerce after around 1500 as the start of an irreversible and insurmountable transformation in the way people and things move, it would be better to see it as a very recent aberration, and may -be temporary. In the last century, air transport has become a more important vector of human mobility, and in our new ecological age, railways are experiencing a renaissance in the movement of people and things.


The Silk Road was neither a vast artery crossing Central Asia, nor Central Asia simply the exchange of branches at the central section of a latitudinal axis whose role and purpose in the world economy were inextricably linked to east-west trade.

The volume and value of trade along latitudinal routes showed signs of slowing down at the time of the withdrawal from the empire established by Tamerlan (or Timur Lang: b 1336), this alleged decline continuing in the wake of the ” European discovery of the direct sea route to Asia.

The latter change would have resulted in the settling of east-west trade from the Silk Road routes to the sea routes via the Cape of Good Hope. Yet historians are beginning to understand that the European discovery of transoceanic routes was both creative and diverted of trade, so that the increase in Europe’s maritime trade with Asia was largely a result of the expansion of the maritime traffic – and thus the extent of the underlying business and production activities – rather than a complete displacement of caravan traffic.

In other words, land trade has undergone some absolute decline, but the most important impact has been the way in which trans-Eurasian caravan traffic has been gradually eclipsed in relative terms by transoceanic maritime transport and has become more marginal to world trade as a whole – a phenomenon examined more closely in this book.

Extracted with permission from India and the Silk Roads: the story of a trading world, Jagjeet Lally, HarperCollins India.

Comments are closed.