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the silk road

Silk Road Encounters
Learn about the Silk Road.
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The Historical Background
The Silk Road itself was pioneered sometime during the mid-first millennium BCE and not established as a regular trade route until near the end of that millennium. The history of the Silk Road properly begins with the prior history of long-distance travel, trade, and population movements across the trans-Eurasian steppe belt.

Horseback riding, as opposed to the use of horses to draw wheeled vehicles, became common on the steppes during the second millennium BCE. This further facilitated the long-range movement of peoples across the steppe belt. It also, in eastern Eurasia, set up the dynamic of competition for land, whether to use it for agriculture or pasture, in the Inner Asian borderlands of China. For hundreds, even thousands of years to come, the enduring problem of Chinese foreign policy would be how to deal with mounted nomads on their northern frontier. Eventually, the threat from the north would encourage the Chinese to look to the corridor linking their own northwest with the deserts and oases of Central Asia — to look, in other words, to the Silk Road as an alternative to leaving all of their non-maritime long-distance trade in the hands of the nomads of the steppes.
Just as the domestication of the horse made possible the pastoralism of the steppe, the domestication of the camel, probably around 800 BCE, made possible trade on the Silk Road. The deserts of Central Asia are impassible to carts and chariots, and horses are not hardy enough to carry pack cargo through the dryness and lack of edible grass of the desert environment. With the domestication of the camel, (generally used as a pack animal rather than for riding), caravan trade along these desert tracks began. The caravan trade was advantageous for China because it was not controlled by potentially hostile nomadic tribes, and because it offered a shorter route to the oasis emporia of Central Asia and the Middle East, but the steppe trade never disappeared entirely. Trade, both along the steppe belt and on the newly developing Silk Road, was still small-scale and irregular, but it did succeed in carrying goods over long distances. Chinese silk was known in the Middle East, Greece and Egypt at least by the mid-first millennium BCE.

In 220 BCE a confederation of northern nomadic tribes, collectively known as the Xiongnu, greatly increased the political and military threat of the steppe peoples to China's northern frontier. Under the Han dynasty (206 BCE–7 CE, and the Latter Han, 25–220 CE), rulers dealt with the Xiongnu with a combination of appeasement (bribes of silk, cash and other goods, and Chinese princesses as brides for Xiongnu chieftains) and military pressure. In 138 BCE, the Han emperor sent an envoy, Zhang Qian, to what the Chinese called "the western regions" to scout out the territory and try to form an anti-Xiongnu alliance with a western people, the Yuezhi. The latter goal failed, but Zhang Qian, who traveled for years and went as far as the Pamir Mountains, brought back much valuable intelligence about trade routes and local products, as well as military intelligence. The Chinese inflicted a severe military defeat on the Xiongnu in 121 BCE, and spent the next sixty years trying to consolidate control of the western regions. By 60 BCE, Chinese control extended far out along the Silk Road to the approaches to the Tarim Basin, and state-sponsored trade had begun on a regular basis. Thus began the first great era of trade along the Silk Road.

The Chinese government was especially anxious to buy good horses for military use, and the best horses in the world, it was thought, were bred in the Ferghana Valley (just to the north of what is now Afghanistan). To obtain them, government procurement agents, traveling with military escorts, brought caravans laden with silk (collected by the Chinese government from the peasantry, in payment of taxes on land) via the Silk Road as far as Ferghana. (The return trip was made as quickly as possible, with fodder and water for the horses carried by camels; even so, losses of horses on the return trip were sometimes heavy.) The security provided for the silk caravans inspired private merchants to tag along, and both state and private Silk Road trade flourished. The Chinese exported mainly silk textiles, but also medicinal herbs, carved jade, and a wide variety of luxury goods; they imported not only horses, but also glassware, raw jade, gold and silver, and luxury goods from the western regions of Eurasia.

Trade was carried out mainly by intermediaries, and goods changed hands several times during the course of a journey between China and the Middle East. Caravan drivers and their animals customarily traveled back and forth over one particular segment of the route. Each time an item changed hands its value rose, so that goods were very expensive indeed by the time they reached their final destination. The oasis merchants who served as intermediaries in this down-the-line trade, as it is called, were careful to discourage longer-distance trade by exaggerating the distances and dangers involved, and they suppressed detailed accounts of distant lands, treating such information as trade secrets. One odd result of this is that the two greatest empires of the classical world, Rome and Han China, were in regular trade contact but were still almost entirely ignorant of each other. As far as we know, no Chinese merchant ever visited the Rome of the Caesars, and no Roman ever crossed the Silk Road to the Chinese capital at Chang'an.

In the period of political disunion that followed the fall of the Latter Han dynasty in 220 CE, lasting until the reunification of China under the Sui dynasty in 589, northern China was ruled by a succession of non-Chinese dynasties of various ethnic origins and affiliations. Trade along the Silk Road continued under the patronage of these dynasties, even if somewhat hampered by a fragmented political situation and the waning of Chinese military power in the northwestern regions. These dynasties were almost all ardent devotees of Buddhism, and in part for that reason these centuries were a great era for the creation of cliff sculptures, cave temples, monasteries, temples, and other centers of Buddhist worship throughout northern China as well as the parts of the Silk Road under Chinese control or cultural influence.

The second great era of Silk Road trade began not long after China was reunified under the short-lived Sui dynasty and continued under its successor, the Tang (618–907). The Tang, often regarded as the most powerful and glorious dynasty in all of Chinese history, was also to some extent a "conquest dynasty" partly of non-Chinese descent; some of the ancestors of the ruling family of the Tang were Turks. Tang power extended far out into Central Asia, almost to the Pamirs, and that power was used to encourage and defend the Silk Road trade. Tang China was open to foreign goods and ideas to an unprecedented extent; trade brought new fashions (tight, long-sleeved jackets for women), recreations (polo), music (many new instruments and new musical styles), furniture (chairs replaced floor mats), and many other innovations from Turkish and Persian culture areas to China's west.

Tang power in northwestern China waned abruptly after 751, when Chinese and Arab armies fought a battle at the Talas River (in present day [x]). This battle between the expanding forces of Islam and Chinese troops stretched thin at the end of a long supply line ended in a sharp defeat for China, and a rapid withdrawal of Chinese troops from the northwest toward China proper. The situation was made worse when a military rebellion in 755–763 shook the dynasty to its roots; even after the rebellion was put down, Tang power never rose again to its former heights. As usual, political fragmentation and weakness led to a decline in trade along the Silk Road.

After the fall of the Tang dynasty, power in China eventually passed to the Song dynasty (Northern Song, 960–1127; Southern Song, 1127–1279). But the Song state lost control over the Central Asian trade routes, and even northwestern and northeastern China were in non-Chinese hands. Having flourished exceedingly under the Tang, the Silk Road in Song times began to play a diminished role in Eurasian trade.

Once the Silk Road had been established during the Han dynasty, the dynamics of the trade remained relatively stable over the centuries. However during periods when a decrease or collapse of trade occurred, the oasis city-states declined, and the desert is full of ghost towns that were once prosperous trading centers. Trade on the Silk Road declined after the early twelfth century, because the Song dynasty's loss of north China to Ruzhen invaders from Manchuria led the Chinese to concentrate their long-distance trade on maritime routes from the central and southern Chinese coasts. The conquest of most of Eurasia in the thirteenth century by Chinggis Khan and his successors resulted in severe damage to a number of oasis cities (the Mongol conquerors typically laid waste any city that had the temerity to resist their attack).

Nevertheless, trade did flourish under the Mongols, ushering in the third great age of Silk Road trade. This was the era of the extraordinary trip of Marco Polo from Italy to China (and back by the maritime route); many other travelers also made trips from one end of the Silk Road to the other. Envoys from France and from the Papal Palace at Rome came to Mongolia seeking an alliance with the successors of Chinggis Khan in a crusade against the Arabs in the Holy Land; the Mongols declined.

The Mongol Empire began to collapse in disunity even before the generation of Chinggis's grandsons had ended. In the fourteenth century a new and even more ferocious conqueror, Timur Leng (Tamerlane) re-established part of the empire, with its capital in the oasis city of Samarkand. His kill-and-destroy campaigns against other oasis cities completed, in many cases, the damage done by Chinggis Khan and only partly repaired thereafter. Cities were depopulated, fields and orchards dried up, and the Silk Road trade never recovered. The Ottoman Empire, which took control of most of the Byzantine and Arab-Islamic worlds in the fifteenth century, did not succeed in extending its control into Central Asia. Ming dynasty China adopted a policy of appeasement towards the Mongol and other nomads of the northern frontier, and stressed maritime trade in the early fifteenth century, before turning its back, at least officially, on foreign trade altogether after the middle of that century. By the sixteenth century, long-distance trade between western and eastern Eurasia began to shift decisively to maritime routes, and into the hands of entirely new players in the game. European nations were pioneering new maritime trade routes, and taking that trade into their own hands.
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