What was the Silk Road?

The Silk Road was a trading route – or network of trading routes – that connected China with the West in ancient times. The name ‘Silk Road’ was only coined in the 19th century, but the routes it refers to originated around the second century BC.


How did the Silk Road come into being?

In 138 BC the Chinese emperor dispatched an envoy called Zhang Qian to make contact with a tribal group in central Asia. When Zhang arrived, he was captured and kept as a prisoner for several years, but was eventually freed and returned to China where he told, among other things, of the magnificent Arabian horses he had encountered.

The Chinese authorities were keen to acquire these horses and so began a process of long-distance trade with central Asia. Meanwhile, from the west, central Asia had come into contact with European civilisations, initially through the conquests of Alexander the Great who reached as far as India in the fourth century BC.

Later on, it was the growing Roman empire that was coming to dominate the region and so the emerging Silk Road acted as a bridge between the East and the West, through central Asia and the Middle East.

A 16th-century painting of the Tower of Babel

Why is it called the Silk Road?

It’s because silk was one of the key goods traded along the route. The Chinese had learned how to manufacture this luxurious material from silkworms perhaps as early as the third millennium BC and, for a long time, they were the only people who could produce it. It was highly prized by other civilisations – especially Ancient Rome – and so it became one of China’s main exports and the currency by which they often paid for the goods that they required.

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The name Silk Road is a little misleading, though, because silk was only one of a large number of different items that were traded on the network, which also included textiles, precious metals, spices and furs.

How did these items travel across the Silk Road?

The Silk Road stretched around 4,000 miles, so extremely few people would have travelled the entire length of it themselves. Generally goods were carried by a number of different traders, having been exchanged several times along the way. The traders themselves journeyed in groups – sometimes containing hundreds of people – riding on camels or horses or occasionally travelling by foot. Some items were also carried by sea, as maritime Silk Roads developed.

Was it just goods that travelled on the Silk Road?

Not at all. In fact, perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Silk Road is the mixing of cultures and ideas that it facilitated. Along the road, people from many different civilisations got to meet each other and the results were extraordinary. Religions in particular were spread along the road and this is how, for example, Buddhism travelled from India to China. Technology was also disseminated via the Silk Road, including the Chinese inventions of paper and gunpowder.

When did the Silk Road come to an end?

The road was still in use in the late middle ages and famously the Venetian explorer Marco Polo travelled along it to China in the 13th century (although his story is increasingly questioned by historians). However, it went into decline not long afterwards for a variety of reasons, including attacks on the Chinese empire and the growth of European sea routes to the East.

Nowadays, the Silk Road has become a popular route for tourism, while policymakers speak about developing new silk roads across Asia to boost economic growth in the continent.


This content first appeared in the August 2015 issue of BBC History Revealed