As the land routes of the Silk Roads expanded from the 1st century BCE onwards, merchants played an evolving role as facilitators not just of long distance trade but also of intercultural exchange and dialogue. The nature of their work, particularly in terms of the distances covered and the types of goods that were traded, was subject to considerable change over time. Key examples of these changes included the introduction of new wares for trade, as well as other innovations such as the gradual shift, from Sogdian to Persian, in the ‘lingua franca’ (common language) spoken by land route merchants, and the introduction, and widespread adoption, of coinage. In addition, merchant’s roles evolved to include helping facilitate the spread of a number of religions, particularly Buddhism, across the land routes of Central Asia.
In the earliest days of the Silk Roads, trade generally took place between locations that were both relatively similar and located a short distance from each other. In these cases trade would usually involve objects of daily use and be motivated by a surplus in one region and a deficit in another. Comparatively, long distance trade was based on the exchange of non-essential items or luxuries, which were subject to changing tastes and preferences. One of the earliest examples of these ‘luxury’ items was lapis lazuli jewellery, which was traded across Western Asia as early as the 3rd century BCE. The Lapis usually originated from the Pamir Mountains of modern day Afghanistan and the jewellery produced with it traded throughout the region as far as Egypt where it was also very popular. In addition, gold, silver and precious stones were other desirable trade wares.
During the Achaemenid period (550 BCE – 330 BCE), a Persian civilization stretching from the Balkans to the Indus Valley, long distance trade networks became more complex, with a wider array of objects in high demand. As such, large companies of merchants began to form to organize far-reaching trade across routes that connected the western bounds of the Achaemenid civilization (as far west as Egypt) with parts of the Indian Subcontinent. Around this time, coinage began to be used, making trade easier and more efficient.
Around the same time, silk became an important good in the trade between the societies of China and the nomadic people from the steppes of Central Asia and regions to the northeast. Prior to this, a small trade had developed between central China and regions to the immediate west where silk from the former was exchanged for jade from the latter. During Han China (206 BCE – 220 CE), which coincided with the establishment of the Greco-Bactrian state (256 BCE – 125 CE) centred around the north of present day Afghanistan, the silk trade between China and regions as far away as the Iranian Plateau began to flourish. During this time merchants moving across Central Asia were generally held in high regard in society for braving the risks associated with travelling such great distances and the role they played in providing valued goods.
Similarly the Parthians (247 BCE – 224 CE) maintained a favourable attitude towards mercantile activity and during this period caravan cities flourished across the region stretching from the northern reaches of the Euphrates river to the eastern regions of the Iranian Plateau. It was not until after the 3rd century CE that merchants began to take on an important role in the transmission of various religions across the Silk Roads. From the 4th century CE onwards settled civilizations, including the Romans and the Sasanians (224 – 651 CE), began to place more of an emphasis on incorporating religion in state policy. As such, missionaries became an important part of this wider framework and as a result, merchant’s caravans were often accompanied by Buddhist, Christian, Zoroastrian and Manichaean missionaries.
Silk Roads trade and commerce remained an important vehicle for cultural exchange and the diffusion of religions. Merchants specifically, played a vital role in the building of extensive networks of exchange of not only goods but of knowledge, ideas, cultures and beliefs.