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Definition: Silk Road from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Ancient and medieval overland route of about 6,400 km/4,000 mi by which silk was brought from China to Europe in return for trade goods; it ran west via the Gobi Desert, Samarkand, and Antioch to Mediterranean ports in Greece, Italy, the Middle East, and Egypt.

Buddhism came to China via this route, which was superseded from the 16th century by sea trade.



Summary Article: Silk Road
from Encyclopedia of Global Religions

The Silk Road, a term first coined in the 19th century, describes the network of overland trade routes connecting China, India, and the Mediterranean through Tibet and Central Asia. Caravans traveling by land across the Silk Roads were the primary mode of exchange between the East and the West from the second century BCE until the regular use of sea routes started in the 15th century CE. High freezing mountains, desolate deserts, and the scarcity of water restricted travelers to a few traversable paths, where difficult terrain was interrupted by occasional oases and towns.

Traveling the Roads

The Silk Road was regularly traveled in both directions. From China, the Silk Road begins at Chang'an, although trade was also conducted with Japan. The Silk Road passes west through China along the Gansu corridor to Dunhuang. From Dunhuang, travelers either used the northern route around the Taklamakan Desert through Kucha and the foothills of the Tian Shan Mountains or the southern route to Khotan. From Khotan, travelers could go south across the Kun Lun and Himalayan mountain ranges to India or rejoin the northern route at Kashgar. From Kashgar, paths led south across the Pamir Mountains to Kashmir, but the main route led west to Samarqand. Beyond Samarqand, one route turned north at Bukhara, passing Khiva on the way to the Caspian Sea. Alternatively, the Silk Road continued west across Persia to the Mediterranean. Other trade routes extended through Arabia, North Africa, and Europe. Merchants generally did not travel the full length of the Silk Road. They instead acted as intermediaries who carried goods along a portion of the route and acquired different goods to trade on the return trip. Most products were exchanged between neighboring regions rather than being carried to the end points of the Silk Road.

Trade and Commodities

As the name implies, silk was an important commodity often carried by trade caravans from southern China to the Near East, Arabia, or Rome. The silk trade accounted for a substantial portion of state revenue, so the Chinese ordered all aspects of silk production to be kept secret: Anyone attempting to smuggle silkworm eggs or mulberry leaves out of China would be put to death. Sassanian Persian merchants, often middlemen for the silk trade, also understood the value of the secret and sometimes propagated disinformation about the origin of silk and the methods of its production. Despite attempts at secrecy, a fifth-century Chinese princess successfully smuggled silkworm eggs to Khotan by hiding them in her hair. In the sixth century, two Nestorian monks hid silkworm eggs in hollowed staves and carried them to the Byzantine court in Constantinople. Trading silk to the West was a lucrative business, but silk was not the only commodity traded on the Silk Road. Horses, gold, precious gems, jade, fabrics, and produce were carried by caravans between Silk Road towns. Unavoidably, travelers also spread cultures and ideas, with a noteworthy example being advances in medical science.

History Along the Silk Road

People, commodities, ideas, religions, music, and art moved along the Silk Road since the fourth century BCE, when the Macedonian empire of Alexander the Great expanded east from Greece as far as Kashmir. Aspects of Hellenistic Greek culture influenced developments in Central Asian art, architecture, language, religion, and coinage.

In the third century BCE, China was unified under the Qin Dynasty. Continuous conflicts between China and the Xiongnu nomads in the area of modern-day Mongolia motivated the Chinese to build the Great Wall for defense. In 138 BCE, the Chinese Han Dynasty court sent Zhang Qian, a military liaison, west to seek allies against the Xiongnu.

In the following centuries, China and the nomadic tribes of Central Asia and Mongolia were in constant conflict. The Xiongnu were replaced by the Xianbei, and the Yuezhi engaged the Parthians in Bactria. By the seventh century, the Gokturks had established a powerful empire (kaghanate) stretching along the north of China from the Korean peninsula to the Caspian Sea. The Parthians were succeeded by the Sassanian Persian Empire, which was conquered by the Arab armies in the seventh century. It was also during the seventh century that the tribes of Tibet united to form the Tibetan empire.

The Arabs, Tibetans, Chinese, and Turkic tribes in Mongolia fought over the Silk Road territories until a period of political destabilization in the mid-eighth century. The An Lushan (or Rokhshan) rebellion led to a 15-year hiatus in Tang dynastic rule in China. At the same time, the Tibetan empire was also destabilized when the emperor was killed in a revolt led by his ministers. In Damascus, the Umayyad caliphate was defeated in a coup, which led to the establishment of the ‘Abbāsid caliphate. During this period, the Uighurs succeeded the Gokturks as the ruling kaghanate. The Uighurs helped the Chinese defeat the An Lushan rebels and resist a Tibetan invasion from the south. The Uighur kaghanate made Ordu-Baliq its capital (the ruins of which are called Kharabalghasun) and became extremely wealthy through a trade arrangement requiring the Chinese to pay exorbitant fees (in the form of silk) every year to purchase cavalry ponies. Advancing Kirghiz armies seized the Uighur capital in 840 and occupied the Uighur lands. The fleeing Uighurs were initially accepted by the Chinese as refugees and made camp along the Yellow River. Three years later, the Chinese army attacked and slaughtered thousands of Uighurs, forcing them to flee south and west along the Silk Road.

In the 11th century, the Seljuk Turks conquered an area extending from modern Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. The Seljuk capital was Nishapur until the empire collapsed in the 12th century due to internal revolts. The 13th century saw the rise of the Mongol Empire under the leadership of the warlord Temujin, who would later be called Genghis Khan. By the reign of Kublai Khan, the Mongol Empire had conquered most of the continent, forming an empire that included Korea, China, Central Asia, most of the Middle East, and parts of eastern Europe. Civil wars caused this empire to disintegrate into separate khanates. Kublai Khan retained control of China, Tibet, and regions to the north beyond the modern boundary of Mongolia and ruled them as the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty. Marco Polo's travels to the Mongol Empire lasted 17 years, from 1274 until 1291.

Use of the Silk Road declined with the establishment of the east-west sea routes. Beginning with the Portuguese in 1517, European cargo ships traveled from Europe around the Cape of Good Hope, north to India, and through the Straits of Malacca to arrive at Macao in southern China.

Religion on the Silk Road

Although the date when Zoroastrianism was first practiced in Persia is uncertain, it was the religion of the Archaemenid Persian Empire during the sixth century BCE and may even have been carried as far as China during that time. The Sassanians codified the religion, and Sogdian Zoroastrians could be found in most towns along the Silk Road from Damascus to Chang'an.


In the third century BCE, the Mauryan Emperor Asoka converted to Buddhism and encouraged its propagation by sending missionaries through Hellenized Bactria and Persia all the way west to Anatolia. Missionaries were also sent south to Sri Lanka, northeast to Nepal and Tibet, and into Southeast Asia. Asoka also sponsored the building of thousands of Buddhist stupas. Buddhism became common in Silk Road towns in Parthia, Sogdiana, Tibet, the oasis towns around the Tarim Basin, and China. A Kuchean monk named Kumarajiva contributed to the spread of Buddhist doctrine by translating sutras from Sanskrit into Chinese. Bodhidharma was an Indian monk who transmitted Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism to China and is credited as the founder of Shaolin kung fu. Fa Xian (Fa Hsien) was an early fifth-century Chinese monk who traveled to India to retrieve Buddhist scriptures, and the travels of the monk Xuanzang in the seventh century are famously recorded as the Journey to the West.


Originating in third-century Persia, the teachings and priests of the prophet Mani were known in the Roman Empire, Persia, Central Asia, Greater Mongolia, and China. In the eighth century, Sogdian merchants from Samarqand introduced the Uighur ruler to Manichaeism, whereupon he converted and ordered the religion to be propagated among his people. His efforts were unsuccessful: Many people quickly reverted to shamanistic practices and a traditional meat diet.


The Nestorian diophysite school of Christianity broke away from the Byzantine Church and was conveyed by both Syrian missionaries and Sogdian merchants east across the Silk Road. Nestorianism was popular among Turkic tribes until the 13th century. The Tang emperor permitted the construction of a Nestorian monastery in Chang'an, but except for a brief resurgence during the Yuan Dynasty, antiforeign sentiment caused Nestorianism to disappear from China by the 10th century.


In the seventh century, Islam spread with the Arab conquests across Persia and Bactria as far as Sind (modern Pakistan). Arab armies that had entered Transoxania in the eighth century confronted the Chinese armies northeast of Samarqand in 751. Although the Arab armies were victorious, they did not advance farther east along the Silk Road. Individual traders proceeded along the Silk Road, settling and raising families as far east as China. The influence of these settlers may account for the origins of the Hui Chinese ethnic group, who can be distinguished from other groups by their practice of Islam.

See also

‘Abbāsid Caliphate, Alexander the Great, Ancient Near Eastern Religions, Asoka, China, Christianity, Constantinople, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Global Religion, Islam, Kashmir, Mahayana Buddhism, Manichaeism, Mediterranean World, Mongol Empire, Mongolia, Rome, Stupa, Umayyad Dynasty, Zen Buddhism, Zoroastrianism (and Parsis)

Further Readings
  • Foltz, R. C. (2000). Religions of the Silk Road: Overland trade and cultural exchange from antiquity to the fifteenth century. New York: St. Martin's Press.
  • Wood, F. (2002). The Silk Road: Two thousand years in the heart of Asia. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • Newlon, Brendan
    SAGE Publications, Inc.

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