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Sunday, 19 June 2016

World History: The Silk Road
International trade is something that shapes our entire lives. Products travel all over the world before we actually use them. Writing this I am wearing a jumper made of cotton from China where it was then shipped, (or flown), to another area of the world to be made into a jumper, then it was sent to Ireland to have the print on the front be put on, then to the General Post Office in Dublin where I bought it and now, I am writing this blog wearing the jumper in England. This international travel of goods is common. However, it is not a new phenomenon. This international goods exchange is far older than modern day globalization. It is far older than the overseas trade routes established by European empires starting from the mid-seventeenth century. The ancient Silk Road established a series of routes stretching from China to Rome to the Horn of Africa to Java almost in the second century BCE and, managed to last in some form or another until the fifteenth CE. Goods, ideas and even diseases spread across Eurasia and Africa which we shall look at today.

The establishment of the Silk Road was not thanks to the Emperor of China messaging the Roman Senate saying they'll send a certain amount of silk in return for a certain amount of wine. In fact the trade of Chinese silk had happened long before the formation of the Silk Road; silk has been found in Egypt dating from around 1070 BCE, apparent Caucasoid individuals (the Tarim mummies) have been found in what is now western China around 1600 BCE and Chinese silks were known in Athens by 550 BCE. However, the Silk Road managed to only emerge thanks to stability along trade routes. The stability of Han China, the Kushan Pakistan, Parthia (modern day Iran) and Rome allowed a relatively safe trade route going from China, through central Asia, through the Near East and to the Mediterranean. Merchants could buy Chinese silk and then travel to a place in the west with a reduced chance of being killed, robbed or both by warring soldiers, nomadic peoples or rebels. However, when the empires did intervene on the Silk Road it wasn't the help facilitate trade but rather for military purposes. For example, in 102 BCE Han emperor Wu-ti led an expedition to Ferghana in modern day Uzbekistan to seize the famed war horses there when the locals refused to give them as a tribute. The reason for this was because was that they wanted to horses to help fight the nomadic peoples north of the Great Wall. 

How it worked
A 19th Century painting of Silk Road merchants:
Merchants did not travel from Ch'ang'an, for example, all the way to Rome and Athens. Instead they would go to export goods to a town or city, trade there and return home. An example would be a silk merchant could set off from Ch'ang'an and go to Ferghana to sell his silk. When the exchange was done he would return to Ch'ang'an to get more silk. Silk had to be traded as the finished product itself because the Han emperors put a ban on exporting silkworms out of China. Silk is taken from the cocoons of silkworms which were found in China, Korea, north India, Japan and what is now eastern Russia. It was very important for China to keep the silk making process a secret as most of the economy rested on silk making. Silk was originally used to write on and the Chinese would make silk to pay nomadic peoples north of the Great Wall not to attack them. If states found out the process they could make their own silk, China would lose it's main export and the main thing that they used to pay off nomads. Hence, a penalty of death was imposed on anyone who stole the secret. At first western and eastern goods filtered to different areas of the world through dowries or gifts, quite possibly the Hsiungu tribes north of the Great Wall helped spread the knowledge of silk, which landed in the hands of the elite. We shall get to what was traded later but only the rich bought items off of the Silk Road. 

What was traded and the results
Silk, obviously, was China's main export. It was found as far west as Colchester in England and as far north as Sovetskoye in Kazakstan. Rome in particular went gaga over silk. It was light, could keep you warm in the winter and could be styled into a wide range of clothing for the rich. However, more austere Roman senators and emperors did not like silk clothing at all. At times the Senate even tried to ban silk as Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) said it was draining the economy of gold and silver as people were buying stuff from the east, (there isn't actually any evidence to support Pliny's claim), and it was seen as indecent. Silk was far thinner than the textiles used in Europe so it was seen as being very indecent by figures like Seneca the Younger. China also exported raw materials such as jade and silver in high quantities. Japan managed to get into the Silk Road trade. Treasures from Shoso-in in Nara built around 752 CE have been found in the Middle East, Turkey and Greece while Shoso-in also had glass from the Byzantine Empire (the eastern half of the Roman Empire), Han mirrors and Persian goods. Roman coins have been found at Vyadhapura in Cambodia, in Java and in countless sites in India. Ivory was exported in great numbers from the Horn of Africa and, incense and spices came from the Arabian peninsula. Slaves were even bought and sold. Chinese records mention 'Syrian jugglers' in the courts.
Although only the rich bought goods from the Silk Road the poorer sections of society did benefit from it. People have to be hired to make silk, coins, glass and the other goods. As a result the cities developed a new class of laborers specialized in making certain goods. The Silk Road also helped merchants become influential. Before the Silk Road merchants were not ranked highly in society. They did not rule, did not farm and did not make anything so they were seen as less important compared to a smith or carpenter. The rich were willing to pay lots for these goods which propelled merchants higher up in social ranking. Many cities were founded thanks to the Silk Road. Central Asian nomads were hired by merchants to escort goods and they capitalized on this. Travelling merchants would want to stop somewhere safe for food and rest so the nomadic peoples built towns. As these towns saw more travelers they grew to be important cities. Afghanistan became a major hub and the city of Palmyra in modern day Syria became one of the richest cities in the Roman Empire. These towns and cities became trading places for the capitals, in Palmyra's case the goods were shipped directly to Rome. In fact, Rome's wars against Parthia was partially influenced by the urge to secure goods from the east. The Silk Road also saw the expansion of geographical knowledge thanks to the maritime trade. A Voyage around the Red Sea was written in the first century CE describes both Indian and Chinese courts. Many places are mentioned in the book: Mosyllon and Nikon in Somalia, Naura, Suppara and Palaepatmae in India and Palaesimundu in Sri Lanka. 

Religion and Disease
Religion spread rapidly thanks to the Silk Road. When we last looked at Buddhism, (, it had been virtually wiped out in India and, was surviving only in China. In China a new branch of Buddhism called Mahayana Buddhism developed (where nirvana is seen as more heavenly and the Buddha is seen as divine). Thanks to the Silk Road it spread back to India and got a foothold there. It also spread to Korea and Japan where Buddhist texts spread to Japan thanks to a sixth century diplomatic mission from Korea. Christianity and later Islam spread rapidly thanks to the Silk Road as Christian and Muslim traders would take their respective religions with them as they went east. Quite likely Islam became the dominant religion in Central Asia for this reason as Central Asia was the main focal point for the Silk Road. The sea routes aided this with Christianity spreading quickly to Ethiopia via the sea and Islam to Indonesia via the maritime routes. By the thirteenth century the Silk Road had declined, however, but an unlikely source revived it: the Mongols. However, the Mongols brought negatives as well.
Smallpox had spread to Europe and the Middle East thanks to the Silk Road but the Mongols spread another disease. Also smallpox was spread unintentionally. The Mongols spread another disease to weaken cities under siege: the Bubonic plague. This caused the Black Death. There are no exact figures for the death toll but between 75 and 200 million across Eurasia are supposed to have died, including up to 60% of Europe's population. It was so devastating that it took until the seventeenth century for the world population to recover.

Permanent Decline
Despite the occasional need for resurrection the Silk Road lasted until the 1450s but by the 1500s it had permanently died. One of the reasons was the collapse of the Mongol Empire. The Silk Road depended on stability so political decline in Central Asia cut of China from western Asia and Europe. Another reason was the Ottoman Empire conquering Constantinople in 1453. The Ottomans were anti-European so refused to trade eastern goods which ended one end of the Silk Road. The final reason why it collapsed was because of the Age of Exploration. After Magellan circumnavigated the globe a new trade route was discovered. Europeans could trade directly with the empires of China and India so there was no need to go use the peoples of Central Asia. Although one part of global trade had ended an entirely new one had begun.

The Silk Road may have collapsed but it shaped the world we live in. Christianity, Islam and Buddhism are global religions thanks to the Silk Road instead of being merely regional ones. Trade shaped the lives of people on a grand scale and played a greater part in shaping the world than any war, monarch or revolution. I thank you for reading and the sources I have used are as follows:
-The Times Complete History of the World edited by Richard Overy
-The Penguin History of the World by John Roberts
-Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789 by Merry Wiesner-Hanks
-A History of Japan by R.H.P Mason and J.G. Caiger

Next time we'll look how a city in Italy conquered the world and how a republic became an empire without the need of Jar Jar Binks and a clone army.

For a list of other World History posts please see here

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