The contribution of ancient Iranian civilization to the Silk-Road
In ancient times, homes in China acted as a market for handicrafts and its cities were thriving enters of commerce. Among the major handicrafts at that time was the production of silk fabrics. The silk industry in China can be traced back to the second millennium BCE.
The prized silk fabric would be offered to buyers in homes and shops. There were so many stores in each town that it seemed that a major part of the workforce of that time was involved in the production of silk. In the second half of the thirteenth century, that is during the rule of Kublai Khan, the silk industry in China had reached the same level of sophistication as the European industry of the eighteenth century. According to Marco Polo, the guilds in the then China had established meticulous pay scales, working hours, and a system for pricing of silk. Sometimes they reduced production so that the market would not be glutted with silk, resulting in the reduction of the price of silk.
This delicate commodity would reach the markets in Persia and Rome through a long route that came to be known as the Silk Road. The road stretched from the western gates of a city which is now called Hsian, in China's Chanxi Province, and passed through the southern part of Gobi Desert to reach western Turkistan. It then passed through Sin Kiang and Kashghar to reach Jihun (Ceyhan). After passing through such major cities of the time as Samarkand, Bukhara and Merv, the Silk Road then reached the Iranian border. In Iran, the Silk Road connected the cities of Tous, Neishapour, Damghan, Gorgan, and Rey before it divided in Qazvin. One of its branches went toward Azarbaijan and Trabazan, and the other branch ran through Hamadan, Baghdad or Mosul, Antakya (Antioch) or Capadoccia and Sardis (near Izmir) to reach Istanbul and then Rome via the Mediterranean Sea. The road with its branches connected India to Tous via Peshawar, Kheibar, Kabul, Qandahar and Herat. A vast part of this road was under the control of the Soghdian and Ayghouri caravans.
The caravans connected the big and thriving cities located along the Silk Road. Economic exchanges between the West and the East were carried out by the same caravans. There existed big warehouses in some of the cities located along the long road, cities such as Khotan (Ho-Tien) in Turkistan (in China), Bukhara and Samarkand. The businessmen travelling along the road usually spoke Chinese, Persian, Turkish or Arabic, depending on which city they frequented to conduct their business.
Realizing the economic significance of the Silk Road, most countries that were not on this road coveted the riches and prosperity that this road would bring to any place that was on its route. India was one such country which was able to utilize the Silk Road to export its cotton products, herbal medicines, precious stones, jewelry, and iron and steel products.
The then Parthian dynasty ruling over Persia made huge profits from customs duties levied on goods transported on the Road that stretched from Euphrates to Turkistan in China and then joined the Silk Road. The Parthian dynasty, which was in favor of expanding East-West trade relations, closely supervised the road.
The Silk Road consisted of a series of surface and marine routes that linked various civilizations. Although is not known exactly when the road was built, its remains date back to the pre-Christian era. This road made a great contribution to the development of human civilization. In Iran, the Silk Road was of special importance. Considering the role of silk in ancient times, it can be said that the history of Iran and the Silk Road were intertwined. The Silk Road connected old centers of Iranian civilization that were located along the route. The trade and cultural exchange between the two great countries of Iran and China were carried out via the Silk Road.
It seems that as early as 2,000 BCE people knew how to produce silk. However, one finds no evidence of silk during the Achaemenid era except for those Chinese silks that reached Iran on the way west. King Darius the Great established military checkpoints on these roads in order to ensure the safety of the caravans. The road between the city of Shush and Sardis was the continuation of the Silk Road, which had been built to boost the silk trade between the East and the West. By playing a key role in the Silk Road, Iran made great contributions to the booming of silk trade and to the exportation of this commodity to the West. During the Parthian era, the Silk Road was still an important route for the exchange of commodities between various countries. Some steps were taken to repair and expand the Silk Road during the reign of the Parthian Emperor Mehrdad II, the Great.
In this period Iran signed the first trade agreement with China, which was under the rule of the Huns. Chang Ki Yen was the head of a 100-man delegation that visited Iran. In his account of his travel to Iran, he gave some very interesting information about life in the Parthian Empire. He wrote about a region located on the shores of the "Western Sea" [Caspian Sea]. He said that the people of the region dedicated their time to farming. They were especially good at cultivating rice. He went to Babol via Sad Darvazeh (The City of One Hundred Gates) and Hamadan. He planned to make a trip by sea between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea, but was prevented from doing so by the Parthian government, which did not want the Chinese to know about Iran's sea routes. According to the Chinese envoy, there were clever businessmen in Iran who made silk and shining paints. In the year 97 CE another ambassador named Kam Ying was dispatched to Iran by the famous Chinese warrior Pan Chao. Following him, another ambassador came to Iran who wrote, "the Romans intend to enter into silk trade with China via Iran but the Parthians are reluctant to let them do so. They themselves want to be the intermediary in China's silk business." During the Parthian era, there were customs offices along Iran's border with other countries. They registered all goods imported into, or exported from, the country and reported them to special centers. Iran, as a country located between China and Europe, played a key role in connecting various cultures and civilizations that existed along the Silk Road. After so many centuries, the road still invites all governments along its course to expand their ties and revive their old culture and civilization.