Silk Road Encounters
Learn more about the history and cultures of the Silk Road.
The Geographical Setting
The term Silk Road does not refer to a single, clearly delineated road or highway, but rather denotes a network of trails and trading posts, oases, and emporia scattered all across Central Asia. All along the way, branch routes led to destinations off to the side of the main route, with one especially important branch leading to northwestern India and thus to other routes throughout the subcontinent. The Silk Road network is generally thought of as stretching from an eastern terminus at the old Chinese capital city of Chang'an (now Xi'an, just west of the great bend where the Yellow River emerges into the North China Plain) to westward termini at Byzantium (Constantinople), Antioch, Damascus, and other Middle Eastern cities. But beyond those end-points, other trade networks distributed Silk Road goods throughout the Mediterranean world and Europe, on one end, and throughout eastern Asia on the other.
Thus it is not possible to think clearly about the Silk Road without taking into consideration the whole of Eurasia as its geographical context. Trade along the Silk Road waxed or waned according to conditions in China, Byzantium, Persia, and other countries great and small along the way. There was also competition for alternative routes, by land and sea, to absorb long-distance Eurasian trade when conditions along the Silk Road were unfavorable.