One of the key goods traded along the Silk Road, a network of interconnected trade routes that ran for some 4,000 miles from China to Europe, was silk.


That might sound glaringly obvious, but the Silk Road – which was established in 130 BC by the Chinese Han Dynasty and active until the 15th century – did not go by that name at the time. It was only centuries later when, in 1877, the term was coined by German geographer, traveller and scientist Ferdinand von Richthofen.

And despite its famed moniker, silk was far from the only valuable resource to be transported on the long journey from east to west.

“It’s more a kind of an inspirational clue to make you think about all the other things that could be traded,” says historian Dr Sam Willis.

Why was silk so important to the Silk Road?

Silk farming, or sericulture, was an ancient skill perfected by the Chinese, the only people in the world who knew how to produce this remarkable material for thousands of years.

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“Legend has it that [the secret] was discovered by a princess who was sitting under a mulberry tree when a silkworm cocoon fell into her tea and began to unravel,” according to Willis, who was speaking on the HistoryExtra podcast.

“And from that, she realised that there was this incredible strand of material which could be woven.”

The industry involved growing silkworms, keeping them fed with mulberry leaves, and then cultivating the raw silk, which could then be worked into strong, beautiful textiles.

“The Chinese were the only people who knew how to farm it, they knew how to weave it and how to work it,” Willis explains.

Among the fine finished products were silk coats and silk dresses, sold by Chinese merchants to the West, and in increasing numbers as demand rose.

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What else was traded on the Silk Road?

More than silk was traded on the Silk Road. Spices, precious metals, handicrafts, clothing, furs, weapons and horses all got sent along the routes bound for foreign markets. Humans also became commodities, with enslaved labour a thriving business.

Depending on demand, goods could be transported along the entire length of the Silk Road, from eastern China to the Mediterranean Sea. Not many of the traders themselves, however, made the full journey.

Merchants would go backwards and forwards on short stretches, before handing over their cargo to the next link in the chain.

“Very few merchants travelled the entire length of the Silk Road,” says Willis. “The majority of the merchants travelled short distances to and fro, and became experts on particular legs of the journey.”

Knowledge was also traded on the Silk Road

With all this movement of people and goods over many centuries came an inevitable exchange of ideas.

“That’s the most important takeaway about the Silk Road,” asserts Willis. “Goods are going from left to right and right to left, but it’s the ideas that are important. Religion, science, maths and art.

“The single easiest way of demonstrating the power of the Silk Road is to go to Xi’an [in central China] where there is an enormous, eighth-century mosque,” he says.

Xi’an was one of the major ancient Silk Road cities, and the first city in China to encounter Islam. “Or if you want a more modern version, you can go to see the Catholic Cathedral in Guangzhou. Or the giant Buddhas in Dunhuang.”

What ideas were traded on the Silk Road?

This rich and world-changing cultural exchange flowed in both directions. From the east, knowledge of mathematics, astronomy and the Chinese invention of paper and gunpowder travelled west.

Going the other way, western knowledge of clockmaking and automata spread eastwards. “It’s all made possible by this great connection of people which happens on the Silk Road,” explains Willis.


Dr Sam Willis has made more than ten major TV series for the BBC and National Geographic including The Silk Road, Invasion! and Castles, and written history books including the Penguin Ladybird Expert Series: The Spanish Armada, The Battle of the Nile and The Battle of Trafalgar (2018). He was talking to Rebecca Franks on the HistoryExtra podcast episode: The Silk Road: everything you wanted to know