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Silk Road

Map of the Silk RoadMap of the Silk Road The Chinese of the Han dynasty were traders whose merchants took silks from China to the West. An overland road, known as the Silk Road, stretched from the Chinese capital, Chang’an, to Damascus, not far from the Mediterranean coast, a distance of 6400 kilometres (4000 miles). Marco Polo was one of the first Europeans to travel its entire length in the 1270s.

A caravan of merchants set out from China.A caravan of merchants set out from China.
Emperor Wu (156-87 BC)Emperor Wu (156-87 BC)


Long before the arrival of European travellers, such as Marco Polo, the Chinese had already explored much of Asia. The expansion of the Chinese Empire began during the reign of the Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220). In 138 BC, Emperor Wu sent one of his court officials, Zhang Qian, into central Asia. The purpose of his mission was to find allies against the Xiongnu (probable ancestors of the Huns), a nomadic tribe who had been making raids in north China. Instead, Zhang was captured by the Xiongnu and held as their prisoner for the next 10 years. However, Zhang was allowed to travel extensively during his captivity. When he finally returned to China after 13 years, he brought valuable information about trading opportunities with the West.

Merchants soon began to transport their goods across the Gobi Desert to Kashgar, a trading post at the foot of the Pamir Mountains. Here, they met merchants from the Middle East. Chinese silk and spices were exchanged for gold, silver, cotton and other goods from the west. The silks and spices were then sold on to distant cities, such as Rome. The trade route became known as the Silk Road.

The term Silk Road or Silk Route was not used until the late 19th century, when a German traveller called Ferdinand von Richthofen first coined it (“Seidenstraße”).

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