The history of the Silk Road

At over 4,000 miles long, the Silk Road is the longest and most famous historical trade route in the world. Discover the history of the Silk Road before setting out on your own adventure to Central Asia.

By Kieran Meeke

Published 13 May 2024

Where does the Silk Road – or any road – begin and end?

You may say it starts at one of the major cities connected by it, such as Constantinople or Xian - but which one? Or, does it rather arise from one minor road feeding traffic into the main flow, like a tiny rivulet that is the source of the mighty Amazon?

It’s understood to link East and West, but we in the West think more often of the things brought to us – such as silk, tea, gunpowder, printing or the Black Death – rather than that which travelled eastwards – cotton, ivory, gold and Buddhism. And in Central Asia, they see themselves as sitting at the centre of a series of trading routes that allowed a profit from passing on goods and ideas from both East and West.

The ‘Silk Road’ is a name first used in 1877 by German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen (uncle of the ‘Red Baron’, WWI flying ace Manfred von Richthofen). He studied geology before shifting into the effect of a changing environment on the human populations of Central Asia.

So he was writing about neither a distinct road nor about silk, which was not the primary commodity in regional trade. It was merely the lightest and most valuable. He even thought that the sea route – later dominated by the Spanish and Portuguese – was more important than the land route.

The 4,000-mile trade route began to take shape during China’s Han Dynasty (207-220BCE) and existed in its historic form until the 1400s.

Its decline was due to maritime trade becoming faster, safer and more convenient than crossing endless political boundaries or fighting off robbers. After all, 17-year-old Venetian merchant Marco Polo travelled overland to Kubla Khan’s palace in what is now Beijing, but he returned home in 1295 by ship, and Columbus was looking for a quicker sea route to India, China, Japan and the Spice Islands when he stumbled on America, hoping to bring back rich cargoes of silk and spices.

For the traveller the Silk Road remains a romantic idea, a desire to trace the footsteps of traders, adventurers and explorers from earlier centuries. We look for the traces in the caravanserais of Iran or Georgia, amid the fallen Roman columns of Jordan or Syria, or in the market places of Uzbekistan and Turkey.

And what a thrill it is to find that we can often see them.

In Uzbekistan, you can stand in Samarkand’s Registan and conjure up images of the camel caravans that once passed through this vast square. Registan means Sandy Place and it was deliberately not paved – a marked contrast to the three massive turquoise-tiled madrasas that overshadow it – so as to protect the feet of these beasts of burden.

Samarkand, once the capital of the Persian province of Sogdiana, was a crossroads where the route from China met the route from Constantinople, with a branch heading south to Afghanistan and India.

Samarkand’s markets hold faces from all over Asia and beyond. Gold-toothed women, swathed now in bright polyester rather than silk, sell spices that still come from afar: saffron from Afghanistan or Azerbaijan; fennel from India, black pepper from Vietnam or Indonesia; coriander from Pakistan.

Others sell the tandoor-baked flatbread that remains a perfect food to carry on long journeys. You’ll find this 'non' (naan) bread hawked for sale at every stop on the high-speed train that links Tashkent and Samarkand with Bukhara, Uzbekistan’s major cities.

This railroad is longer and further south than the northern route of the Silk Road that went from China through Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan into Uzbekistan.

That route led north of the Caspian Sea towards Venice and Rome. The southern route skirted Tajikistan and Afghanistan to go south of the Caspian towards Alexandria but both converged near Samarkand.

No trader ever travelled the entire route; it was rather a network of interlocking regional trade with goods being passed on for profit at every stage. As regimes and weather changed, so did the route, avoiding water holes that dried up, or rulers who demanded too many taxes.

Mud-brick Bukhara – which at one point replaced Samarkand as the country’s capital – is perhaps the most atmospheric for those in search of the past.

Its tree-shaded water tanks were vital to life in the city’s desert setting and one can imagine livestock and people thronging to them after days of thirst. Nowadays, they are swimming pools for children but still a place for young and old to mingle and chat in the evening cool. A caravanserai remains, although its arcades now house craft and clothes sellers rather than weary travellers.

The caravanserai was the motel of its time, allowing valuable goods and livestock to be locked away behind walls at night to protect from literal highway robbery. As well as a place to rest or have a warm meal, they were also somewhere to trade with local people, exchange news from the road or learn some words of a new language.

Many hundreds of other such rest stops still survive throughout Central Asia and beyond.

Although many date to later centuries, they mostly follow the earlier model of having separate spaces for animals and goods, often with room upstairs for travellers.

In Azerbaijan, two of the five 18th-century caravanserais in the city of Shaki have been carefully restored. The largest is now a modern hotel, while the other is preserved as a historic monument.

One of the most haunting is at Selim, near Lake Sevan in Armenia. It is built into a rocky mountainside and is easily defensible, with sturdy walls and only one door.

The carved stonework and pillars splitting it into three areas – the central one with its troughs was reserved for the animals – give the feeling of an abandoned church. Light and ventilation comes from openings in the roof that cast bright beams onto the flagstone floor. Inscriptions in Persia and Armenian record it was constructed in 1332 during the reign of Khan Abu Said II (it was restored in the 1950s).

It must have been a noisy and smelly place, but a welcome shelter from the harsh winds of this desolate mountain pass.

One of the best-preserved caravanserais is at Tash Rabat in Kyrgyzstan; you can actually spend a night if you are hardy enough. Its remote setting gives a real feel for its history, especially if you arrive on horseback as many visitors do.

Kyrgyzstan has become noted for horseback expeditions that focus on its nomadic past, but the camel was always a more reliable beast of burden.

In the Kyzyl-Kum desert on the border of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, you can ride a camel with Kazakh herders for a few hours or several days. It's a landscape that is harsh and unforgiving, bitterly cold in winter and scorching hot in summer.

Drinking camel or horse milk, eating camel or horse meat, and sleeping in a yurt under the stars is an immersive experience in what experiences the traveller of old faced when meeting new cultures.

What a contrast it must have been to reach a caravanserai such as Sa’d al-Saltaneh in Qazvin, near Tehran, which is perhaps 150 years old in its existing form. Its detailed brickwork and airy rooms with many domes, connects directly to the city’s main bazaar as well as being near baths and a mosque.

It’s easy to overlook that Islam is one of the strongest remnants of the Silk Road.

Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam were the great proselytizing faiths that spread along the route, while Hinduism, Judaism and Shinto remained isolated in their places of origin.

The first religion to grab hold was Buddhism, whose missionaries took it from India to Afghanistan and then into China by the first century.

In Tajikistan, you can see Central Asia’s largest Buddha statue at the capital of Dushanbe. The 1,600-year-old sleeping Buddha was hidden in pieces during the Soviet era but later restored.

It's now in a museum that also holds remarkable Zoroastrian and Hindu artefacts, showing how so many religions co-existed and mingled here.

Taoism spread in the other direction, from China towards the west, and you can discover its traces in many of the Buddhist temple complexes of Central Asia. Christianity came later, reaching China in 635 according to a stele in Xian that records the arrival of a missionary from Persia.

But it was Islam that eventually had the most appeal, with its central themes of morality, compassion and accountability, bringing fairness to finance and hospitality to strangers. Almost half of the world’s Muslims live in Central Asia and the many and varied mosques you see there are the most powerful and visible reminder of how the Silk Road changed the world.

Discover more about our holidays to Central Asia, a region once very much at the heart of the ancient Silk Road.

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