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the silk road

Silk Road Encounters
Learn more about the history and cultures of the Silk Road.
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.
The terrain of the Silk Road was difficult, the possible routes were numerous and complex, and the dangers of the journey were deadly serious. What made the trade possible at all, besides the techniques of caravan travel and the expertise of the caravaneers, was the existence of substantial oases across Central Asia. These islands of greenery, watered by rivers and springs, ranged in extent from a few square miles to hundreds of square miles, but even the largest were isolated by huge expanses of surrounding deserts. In mapping all of the alternative routes of the Silk Road, one can easily imagine the terrors and hardships of the desert; one can imagine also the joys of arriving at oases like Dunhuang, Hami or Herat, filled with sweet water and fresh fruit to refresh the traveler and provide respite before the journey's next stage.

Much of the Middle East is desert, traversed by caravan routes linking scattered oasis cities, much as is the case along the Silk Road further east. Silk Road traffic coming from Central Asia passed through the Middle East along many different routes and with many different destinations; the Middle East was in some sense an end-point for the Silk Road, but perhaps more importantly a trans-shipment zone.
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