The History of Exploration: The Silk Road
In our modern day, exploration has naught but become a luxury. People bored of their city lives spend their free time in the wilderness to recreate the feeling of adventure and novelty.
However, exploration in the past was born from the needs of nomadism, cultural exchange and territorial expansion. People would seek out new territories, discover new civilizations and in doing so trade of unique goods would commence. These goods would transmit the cultures of their respective communities through trade and in turn create concentrated hubs of economic and cultural activity within the main trading sites.
The Silk Road is one such example, and were commonly used trading paths dating as far back as 5000 BCE. Most historical accounts say the earliest trading goods mostly dealt in jade but as silk degrades rather quickly, it is hard to know when Chinese silk first became a well known commodity in its pipeline.
Though as its name suggests, silk was at least one of the primary trading commodities in the years the Silk Road was active. Part of which was because the Chinese guarded their silk making techniques jealously making it their sole supplier for a time.
A singular trading route?
Strangely enough, the entire concept of the “Silk Road” is in fact relatively new with no clear name over its use over the years. The phrase “Silk Road” was coined in 1877 by Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, a geographer who worked in China.
A “relatively straight and well travelled” land route from China to Europe was envisioned through his atlas. Though, archaeological evidence disputes this claim and instead demonstrates “a patchwork of drifting trails and unmarked footpaths.” This in turn demonstrates the Silk Road was not a well travelled trade route for common goods and was instead a means of cultural exchange for prized goods between cultures.
The Legacy of the Silk Road
Following this, most claims of economic prosperity using the Silk Roads were not entirely true. The Silk Road was actually prized as a place with a rich cultural legacy rather than for its economic impact. Due to its long distance, common goods or necessities were not commonly traded. Instead, it was luxury goods like Chinese silk, Indian spices and Roman glassware that was mainly traded.
More often than not, traders, nomads and travellers would mix with the local residents and absorb other groups that followed, creating new cultural dynamics in the region.
When did the Silk Road first begin to be used?
We do know when The Silk Road was first initialised as the complex network of trade routes that allowed the exchange of goods and culture. Through direct settlements and diplomatic relations with inhabitants in local areas, China’s ambitious efforts to consolidate a road to the Western world and India essentially allowed The Silk Road to come into being roughly during the 1st century BCE.
With more trade routes further secured by Han Chinese armies in the 1st Century CE, this period is generally when most archaeologists agree the land based Silk Road was initiated and globalised. On the other hand, the maritime Silk Route seemed to have been initiated around the 1st century CE, extending from China to Sri Lanka then India and finally Egypt.
Different regions had goods that were novel to other parts. This encouraged people to set out and initiate trade. Spices from the East Indies, glass beads from Rome, silk from China, animal furs and horses from the Eurasian steppe all travelled along the Silk Road.
When was the Silk Road used?
The Silk Road would be maintained, controlled and used by a variety of cultures and empires throughout the 1st to 15th Century as a means of trade and cultural exchange. It would peak in use between the 6th and 9th Century CE, after the fall of the Han dynasty and Constantinople replaced Rome as the center of the Roman empire. The Tang dynasty would station troops in Central Asia while many Iranians would come to the Tang territory.
The Fall of the Silk Road
However, after the fall of the Byzantine Empire, fragmentation of the Mongol Empire and the discovery of alternative maritime trade routes, the Silk Road entered rapid decline and disintegration in the 15th Century. The final nail in the coffin was the fall of the Safavid Empire, leading to the total collapse of the Silk Road and putting an end to its legacy.
Exploring the modern day
As you can see, the feeling of exploration between then and now is still rather similar. Experiencing new things and seeing new sights. Though the reasons for doing so today may be different from it was back then, I believe that everyone should seek to have an adventurous mindset. It is only through living life adventurously and trying new things that you do not stagnate in whatever it is that you do.
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