Scores of history books recorded that the Silk Road was a network of trade routes connecting the East and the West in ancient and Medieval times. The term is used for both overland routes and those that are marine. The Silk Road involved three continents: Europe, Africa and Asia.
In addition to silk, a wide range of other goods was traded along the Silk Road, and the network was also important for migrants and travellers, and for the spread of religion, philosophy, science, technology, and artistic ideals. The Silk Road had a significant impact on the lands through which the routes passed, and the trade played a significant role in the development of towns and cities along the Silk Road routes.
Many merchants along the Silk Road were involved in relay trade, where an item would change owners many times and travel a little bit with each one of them before reaching its final buyer. It seems to have been highly unusual for any individual merchant to travel all the way between China and Europe or Northern Africa. Instead, various merchants specialized in transporting goods through various sections of the Silk Road.
Perhaps the most lasting legacy of the Silk Roads has been their role in bringing cultures and peoples in contact with each other, and facilitating exchange between them. On a practical level, merchants had to learn the languages and customs of the countries they travelled through, in order to negotiate successfully. Cultural interaction was a vital aspect of material exchange. Moreover, many travellers ventured onto the Silk Roads in order to partake in this process of intellectual and cultural exchange that was taking place in cities along the routes.
Knowledge about science, arts and literature, as well as crafts and technologies was shared across the Silk Roads, and in this way, languages, religions and cultures developed and influenced each other. One of the most famous technical advances to have been propagated worldwide by the Silk Roads was the technique of making paper, as well as the development of printing press technology. Similarly, irrigation systems across Central Asia share features that were spread by travellers who not only carried their own cultural knowledge, but also absorbed that of the societies in which they found themselves.
According to several historical accounts, indeed, the man who is often credited with founding the Silk Roads by opening up the first route from China to the West in the 2nd century BC, General Zhang Qian, was on a diplomatic mission rather than a trading expedition. Sent to the West in 139 BC by the Han Emperor Wudi to ensure alliances against the Xiongnu, the hereditary enemies of the Chinese, Zhang Qian was captured and imprisoned by them. Thirteen years later he escaped and made his way back to China. Pleased with the wealth of detail and accuracy of his reports, the emperor sent Zhang Qian on another mission in 119 BC to visit several neighbouring peoples, establishing early routes from China to Central Asia.
Despite all these, some historian seriously argued that the Silk Road’s historical importance has been vastly exaggerated. It was the sea that was the most important link between east and west. There must be a thousand books about the Silk Road. But as its latest biographer Valerie Hansen writes: “The ‘road’ was not an actual ‘road’ but a stretch of shifting, unmarked paths across massive expanses of deserts and mountains. The quantity of cargo transported along these treacherous routes was small. The most active parts were within central Asia and to Persia and Arabia. In terms of volume of long distance trade, the sea has always been of vastly greater importance. According to one Roman estimate, it was twenty-seven times more expensive to move goods by land than by water. In addition, land routes were more susceptible to wars and disorder. As for the so-called Silk Road silk arriving in Rome most likely came either from central Asia or India, not China”.
Evidence of some trade between the Mediterranean, Egypt, the Gulf, India and eastward can be traced way back before the current era. But it was Rome’s conquest of Egypt that led to development of massive trade with India, with an estimated hundred ships a year with cargo capacity of 200 tons or more leaving the Roman red sea ports for Africa and India. But this was not high value goods. Rome’s imports included special types of marble as well as spices, gems and other luxuries. Wine and glass were leading exports. The trade generated much tax revenue for the Roman treasury but a trade deficit also drained the empire of silver. Indian traders at the time were already familiar with the Malay peninsula and Sumatra to the east, known as the land of gold, Suvarnabhumi in Sanskrit or Chryse to the Greek traders.
A first century document written in Greek referred to very large ships trading between India and Chryse. Ptolemy’s second century map, which served as the West’s main source of geography for the next 1300 years, clearly denoted the peninsula and some locations on it. Romans also noted sailing “rafts,” a reference to the outrigger vessels common throughout the archipelago, and that the boats of the region were sewn in which the the planks joined together with fibers.
History well recorded the fact that the first Roman known to have reached China arrived in 166 CE almost certainly by sea as he brought gifts of rhino horn and ivory. Another arrived by sea in 226 CE near Haiphong, Vietnam, then under Chinese rule and met the emperor in Nanjing. Most likely they came by sea, from India to the peninsula, transited across it by land, and then proceeded via ports at the Mekong mouth and Vietnamese coast.
By then, Indian traders had long been bringing Hinduism, Buddhism and writing to the peninsula, and then on to Sumatra, Java, Cambodia and the central and southern coasts of Vietnam. They also brought kingship ideas which helped state development. Among the first of those was Funan on the Mekong delta whose power extended to the northern part of the peninsula. A third century Chinese envoy described its capital as a walled city with palaces and it used Indian style writing and gold and silver as currency.
Unlike the Indian-Roman trade there are no documents which give an approximation of the size of trade. But it certainly included bulkier items such as aromatic woods, metals and metal products as well as spice, incense, ivory and textiles – Indian cotton as well as Chinese silk, even horses. China was the biggest single market, but the Chinese merchants themselves did not normally venture south. The dangers outweighed the profits if the foreigners would come to them. If they did so, it would have been on the ships.
Rome’s trade with the east declined with the empire. Meanwhile in the east it picked up driven, in part, by the development of direct sailing from India to Sumatra, Java and China via the Melaka strait. This was highly seasonal, driven by the monsoon shift from northeast in winter to southwest. This gave huge importance to the ports on the east Sumatran and north Java coasts as intermediaries. For most of the next thousand years between them they were the most important players in the seas between India and China.
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