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Even more facts about the Silk Road

By Valerie Hansen

The “Silk Road” was a stretch of shifting, unmarked paths across massive expanses of deserts and mountains — not a real road at any point or time. I previously examined the historical documents and evidence of the silk road, but here are a few more facts from camels to Marco Polo on this mysterious route.

When were the peak years of the Silk Road trade?

The peak years of the Silk Road trade were between 500 and 800 C.E., after the fall of the Han dynasty and Constantinople replaced Rome as the center of the Roman empire. The Tang dynasty stationed troops in Central Asia and many Iranians came to the Tang territory at that time.

Who were the most important traders on the Silk Road?

Government officials were very important. Rulers strictly supervised the movement of people and trade, and played a major role as the purchasers of goods and service. During the periods when the Chinese stationed troops in Central Asia — primarily during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) and the Tang (618-907 C.E.) — trade boomed. When they did not, trade declined. Most of the private traders were peddlers who traveled on small circuits, selling many locally produced goods.

Westerner on a camel, Chinese Tang Dynasty (618-907). Shanghai Museum. Photograph by PHG. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Was the camel the most frequently used animal?

No, donkeys and horses always outnumbered camels. Camels could carry loads across the desert, but they were difficult and irascible, and most travelers preferred to ride horses and donkeys or to travel in carts drawn by them along dirt roads.

How far did most people travel on the Silk Road?

Most individual travelers moved in small circuits along the Silk Road of perhaps a few hundred miles (around 500 km) between their home and the next oasis. The Silk Road trade was a trickle trade mainly between adjacent towns, and almost never involved large camel caravans crossing great distances. The most famous exception — if not the most reliable traveler — was Marco Polo (1254-1324) who claimed to travel all the way from Europe to China by land and to return home by sea.

What is the legacy of the Silk Road?

The Silk Road provided an avenue for the transmission of ideas, technologies, and artistic motifs, and not simply trade goods. Silk Road oasis towns didn’t engage in “trading” so much as translating, absorbing, and in many instances, modifying the belief systems that passed through them. Religious practitioners, scholars, and a number of remarkable linguists in these Silk Road communities contributed to the accessibility of Buddhism, which originated in India and enjoyed genuine popularity in China, but Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, and the Christian Church of the East (based in Syria) all gained followings. Before the coming of Islam to the region, members of these different communities proved surprisingly tolerant of each other’s beliefs. Individual rulers might choose one religion over another and strongly encourage their subjects to follow suit, yet they permitted foreign residents to continue their own religious practices.

Valerie Hansen is Professor of History at Yale University. Her books include The Silk Road: A New History, The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600, Negotiating Daily Life in Traditional China: How Ordinary People Used Contracts, 600-1400, Changing Gods in Medieval China, 1127-1276, and, with Kenneth R. Curtis, Voyages in World History.

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