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What Was the Silk Road?

Despite its name, the Silk Road was much more than just a road. Established during the Han Dynasty of China around 130 BCE and operated for over 1,000 years, the Silk Road was one of the most important trade routes in history and responsible for spreading goods and ideas between Europe and East Asia, and many cities along the way.

Establishment of the Silk Road

Aerial view of winding, curving roads marking the old Silk Road route between China and India
Credit: Rudra Narayan Mitra/ Shutterstock

The Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) consisted of the first rulers of China to officially open trade outside of Asia. To do so, they needed a road on which traders could safely travel the thousands of miles required to reach other countries. The road started in Xi’an (also known as Sian) in central China, followed the Great Wall, crossed the Pamir mountains, and then went through Afghanistan to the Mediterranean Sea. From there, goods were shipped by boat across the sea to Europe. In total, the route covered more than 4,000 miles of land.

It wasn't just a single passage, though: The Silk Road was made up of several different routes, which traders could choose to travel depending on what countries they wanted to visit, weather conditions, or to avoid hostile groups.

Since it stretched over thousands of miles, it wasn’t reasonable for one person to cover the entire route. Instead, a series of outposts and markets allowed merchants to trade their wares in increments, letting the next person in line carry the goods farther down the road.

Trading Along the Silk Road

Open air market in Jerusalem, Israel, with assorted garments and silk trade products
Credit: Aleksandar Todorovic/ Shutterstock

As stated in its name, silk was one of the primary goods traded on the Silk Road, but it was by no means the only thing. Goods traveling from east to west included tea, dyes, spices, medicine, ivory, rice, paper, and gunpowder.

Trade is, by definition, not one way. The Chinese also wanted goods from Europe and the Middle East. Goods traveling west to east included horses, dogs, animal furs and skins, fruit, gold, silver, camels, weapons, and armor.

In addition to the physical goods, ideas and culture were also spread by the Silk Road. All cultures involved in trading learned more about the others and even adopted some of their practices. Buddhism, the primary religion in China, was originally established in India and spread to China through the Silk Road.

More Than Trade

Camel caravan going through the sand dunes in the Gobi Desert
Credit: Nithid/ Shutterstock

Of course, the primary objective of the Silk Road was trade, but a large, easy-to-travel passage can be used for many other purposes. Many early Chinese military leaders and rulers used the route to travel to other countries, typically to make alliances or establish new trading partners.

Alexander the Great used the Silk Road to maneuver his armies and conquer new lands. He also used the roads to maintain his massive empire once it was established.

One of the more famous travelers on the Silk Road was Marco Polo, who traveled from Italy to China around the year 1300 CE. He was a merchant who also had an affinity for travel and writing and wrote a book called Book of the World’s Marvels about his travels.

The Silk Road Today

Along the famous Silk Road of central Gansu Province China
Credit: Robert_Ford/ iStock

The Silk Road is no longer in use today. It was permanently closed by the Ottoman Empire in 1453 when they decided to boycott trade from China. For nearly 600 years, the road has been left untraveled in its entirety. Some portions of the road have been turned into modern highways. The Karakoram Highway is a paved section of the original Silk Road that links Pakistan to Xinjiang, China, but it’s used more as a tourist attraction than as an official travel route.