Human beings have always moved from place to place and traded with their neighbours, exchanging goods, skills and ideas. Throughout history, the immensity of Eurasia was criss-crossed with communication routes and paths of trade, which gradually linked up to form what are known today as the Silk Roads; routes along which silk and many other goods were exchanged between people from across the world. Maritime Routes also took shape, linking East and West by sea, and were used for the trade of spices in particular, thus becoming known as the Spice Routes.
These vast networks carried more than just merchandise and precious commodities however: the constant movement and mixing of populations also brought about the transmission of knowledge, ideas, cultures and beliefs, which had a profound impact on the history and civilizations of the Eurasian peoples. Many travellers ventured onto the Silk Roads, drawn not only by the attractions of trade but to partake in the intellectual and cultural exchange that was taking place in cities along the routes. Knowledge about science, arts and literature, as well as crafts and technologies was shared across the Silk Roads, and in this way, languages, religions and cultures developed and influenced each other.
These ancient roads, despite being thousands of years old, had no particular name. 'Silk Road' is a relatively recent designation dating from the mid-nineteenth century, when the German geologist, Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, named the trade and communication network Die Seidenstrasse (the Silk Road). The term, also used in the plural, continues to stir imaginations with its evocative mystery.
Travellers on the Silk Roads
Chinese adventurers were among the first intrepid travellers who, often risking their lives, ventured onto these Silk Roads. Their uncontested hero was General Zhang Qian, who is considered to have opened up the first route from China in the second century BC. Sent to the West in 139 BC by the Han Emperor Wudi to ensure alliances against the Xiongnu, the hereditary enemies of the Chinese, Zhang Qian was captured and imprisoned by them.
Thirteen years later he escaped and made his way back to China. Pleased with the wealth of detail and accuracy of his reports, the emperor sent Zhang Qian on another mission in 119 BC to visit several neighbouring peoples. The successful mission opened the way for future ambassadors and travellers from East and West.
Religion was another inspiration to travel along these routes. Buddhist monks from China made pilgrimages to India to bring back sacred texts, and their travel diaries are an extraordinary source of information. The diary of Fa Xian (describing his voyage from 399 to 414 AD) has made a substantial contribution to our knowledge of the history of Central Asia in the fifth century. The diary of Xuan Zang (whose 25-year journal lasted from 629 to 654 AD) not only has an enormous historical value, but also inspired a comic novel in the sixteenth century, 'Pilgrimage to the West', which has become one of the great Chinese classics.
People travelled these routes in both directions. During the Middle Ages, European monks and traders travelled to the East for a variety of reasons. Noteworthy among them were Giovanni da Pian del Carpini, sent by Pope Innocent IV on a voyage lasting from 1245 to 1247, William of Rubruck, a Flemish Franciscan monk sent by Saint Louis from 1253 to 1255, and Marco Polo, whose travels lasted for more than 20 years between 1271 and 1292.
In the nineteenth century a new type of traveller was born: archaeologists and geographers from the West, enthusiastic explorers looking for adventure. Coming from France, England, Germany and Japan, these researchers traversed the Taklamakan desert in western China, in what is now Xinjiang, to explore ancient sites along the Silk Roads, leading to many archaeological discoveries and numerous academic studies.
Throughout history, these Silk Roads, routes of dialogue, trade, interaction and exchange, have brought people and cultures together. First created as networks for trade and communication, these routes have shaped the history of Eurasia, its languages, sciences, cultures and religions, and left a lasting intellectual and artistic legacy.