History of Iran

Silk Road
The ancient trade route between the Mediterranean Sea and China
By: Jona Lendering


The Silk Road is the name for the trade route between the Mediterranean Sea and China. The first users of the road must have lived in the first half of the first millennium BCE, but the name 'Silk road' dates from the first century BCE. Its most famous traveler lived more than twelve hundred years later: Marco Polo of Venice (1254-1324 CE).


At the beginning of the sixth century BCE, the trade route started in Babylon, from where it passed through Opis/Ctesiphon (Baghdad) and Egbatana (Hamadān) and modern Sāveh - the place where Marco Polo was to see the tombs of the three Magi who had visited Jesus of Nazareth. Whatever the historical value of the story of the Magi, they must have traveled along the Silk road.

From Sāveh, the road continued to Rhagae (Ray near Tehrān), the religious capital of ancient Media. Further to the east, it passed through Parthia and reached Hecatompylus (Šahr-e Qūmes near Dāmghān) and Susia (Tūs near Mashhad). Here the road forked. The southern branch went through the Arian capital Artacoana (Herāt) to Kapisa (Kandahār) in Arachosia, and from there either to the southeast to the Lower Indus or to the northwest to Gandara (the valley of the Kabul) and the Punjab.

The northern branch went from Susia through the Karakum desert, passing along the oasis Margiana (Mary or Merv) and the Scythian tribes along the Amudar'ya, to Maracanda (Samarkand) in Sogdiana or to Bactra (Balkh, near modern Mazār-e Sharīf) and Drapsaca (Kondūz). Here, lapislazuli could be found, a precious article that was much appreciated in Babylonia and Assyria. Other articles that were traded were horses and camels.

Almost no one traveled beyond Drapsaca, but there were a few continued upstream along the Amudar'ya. The most important towns along this road were modern Tāloqān, Feyzābād, and Eshkāshem. The traveler had now reached Wakshan, a small strip of land along the upper Amudar'ya, which is also called Ab-i-Panja. At the eastern end of this valley, he had to climb the Pamir mountains -the pass is 4,923 meters high- after which he reached a place named Stone Tower. It is probably identical to Taxkorgan and it seems to have been the place where westerners bartered their goods with the products from the Far East. Here, a second trade route joined the Silk road: across the Khunjerab pass, one could go to Kashmir and the capital of the Punjab, Taxila.

Another exchange point between westerners and Chinese was modern Kashi, an oasis in Xinjiang. It was reached by a more northerly branch of the Silk road.

When the Chinese traders went home, they first passed along the Desert Without Return (Taklimakan) until they reached the Jade Gate (Anxi). From here, they continued via modern Yumen to Lanzhou, from where they could go to Chang'an, the City of Eternal Peace, which may be regarded as the last station of the road.

Chang'an was the capital of China under the rule of he emperors of the Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE). Under the emperor Wu-ti (141-87 BCE), the Silk road was really opened. This ruler had to campaign against the Hsiung-nu nomads in the north -they are the ancestors of the Huns- and c.130 he sent out his general Chang Ch'ien to find allies and to buy the famous Iranian war horses from Nisaia. Although Chang Ch'ien failed in his mission, he had visited Bactria and had found the way to the west.

Trade was made easier when the Chinese acquired Xinjiang (also called Chinese Turkestan) in 104-102 BCE. The caravans received some protection from the authorities for a substantial part of their route. Moreover, bridges and paved roads were constructed. Beyond the Jade Gate, the political situation was more complex: the Pamirs were dominated by sometimes aggressive mountain tribes and the empires of the Parthians and Seleucids were fighting a more or less permanent war. Nonetheless, the Chinese received horses and other valuable articles -myrrh, frankincense, aloeswood- from the west; and the Parthians, Seleucids, Greeks and Romans acquired bales of silk, which had been carried by donkeys, mules, horses, yaks and camels for almost thousands of kilometers.

In the West, silk was considered more precious than gold and it remained very rare and expensive. To the best of our knowledge, the Roman emperor Elagabalus (218-222 CE) was the only Roman to wear a dress of pure silk. The westerners called the Chinese simply the Silk People (Seres); the capital of the Han dynasty, Chang'an, was known as Silk City.

When the Han dynasty collapsed in the third century, the trade between east and west was reduced to a minimum. According to the Byzantine historian Procopius (500-570 CE), two Christian monks discovered the secret of the silk production. The emperor Justinian (527-565 CE) immediately dispatched secret agents to steal silkworm eggs and to bribe silk experts. They were successful, and from this time onward, silk was also produced in the Mediterranean.

This was not the end of the Silk Route, however, because the West remained interested in buying gums and spices. When the T'ang (618-907 CE) dynasty restabilized China, the long-distance trade route was reanimated. It became a road to spread Christianity as well: in 635 CE, Nestorian missionaries from Ctesiphon reached China. As we have already seen, its most famous traveler was Marco Polo, whose story is invaluable.