he Silk Roads call up romantic images in our minds of distant lands and exotic customs, but historically, their practical effect has been to de mystify: They have helped to create contacts among far-flung peoples and cultures, and make things that had been distant and exotic less strange. The tales of travelers, and the exchange of goods and ideas, everywhere helped to create awareness of a wider world beyond the local experience.
While the trade in silk gave the Silk Roads their name, silk was only one of the things carried on them. Ideas traveled along with the commercial goods, making the Silk Roads one of the great channels for interaction among societies. We can think of the history of that interaction as passing through five great stages.
The first stage is the long period of prehistory. At this time there were migrations of peoples and, resulting from their occasional contacts, exchanges of goods but no regular patterns of trade.
The emergence of the early complex agricultural and urban societies marks the second stage. In this era, the great civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, northern India, and China were each developing in relative isolation. Real trade, however, and the exchange of ideas between neighbors, were beginning along the geographical traces that were to become the Silk Roads. Gradually a group of interacting societies emerged that extended beltwise across the eastern hemisphere - a group of societies that some scholars have called the "ecumene." It is in the development of the ecumene that the Silk Roads have their significance.
The Silk Roads were the connecting link among the societies of the ecumene. At first they were simply the routes that traders traveled between two major areas, but the demands for services along the way - and the profits from managing the trade - created thriving intermediate cities that became significant actors in world history themselves. The already established societies also benefited, and the increased activity led to the third stage of the Silk Roads' history.
In this stage the Silk Roads came into their own as the "Main Street" of the ecumene. During this period - which lasted for more than 1,500 years, from around 500 BC until after the year 1000 of our era - great empires united the regions all along the route. In the West, the Romans unified the Mediterranean region, while in the far East Chinese civilization expanded from the northern valleys into the south and to the west. Between the Mediterranean and China were the great empires of the Middle East and of South and Central Asia.
By 500 BC great highways stretched over thousands of miles in some areas. In the Middle East, the imperial highways of the Persians, including the famous Royal Road, joined Mediterranean lands to Central Asia. The Middle East became the central link in the pattern of interactions. Then, in the fourth century BC, Alexander the Great led his armies from Macedon on the far western end of the ecumene through the Middle East and into Central Asia and northern India, bringing Greek ideas into those regions and opening the Mediterranean world in turn to new ideas and new products from the East.
China became more involved in the second century BC. It is often said that the actions of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, who ruled from 141 to 87 BC, mark the formal opening of the Silk Roads. He expanded his empire into Central Asia, where his imperial routes and messengers connected with the existing routes in the Middle East. Silk was an important part of the trade that resulted, but extensive commerce in a variety of goods moved in all directions across the ecumene.
Almost no one traveled directly from one end of the Silk Route to the other. The Middle Eastern successors to the old Persian Empire - the Parthians and then the Sassanians - played a key role as controlling middlemen in the network of trade. Goods and ideas traveling along the route all passed through the hands of the Middle Eastern merchants and rulers.
In the last centuries of this third stage, the names of the significant actors changed but the basic roles remained the same. In the Mediterranean, Roman unity ended with the emergence of the Byzantine Empire and the Western European kingdoms. In China the Han Dynasty fell and, after four centuries of decentralized rule, the Tang Dynasty reestablished imperial control.
The greatest change, however, came in the middle regions, where a new unity was provided by the emergence of Islam. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Central Asian steppes, a new world force made itself felt. The experience of the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century laid the foundations of unification for the middle regions of the Silk Roads, while creating an expanding community of believers. Muslim merchants carried both their trade goods and their faith.
A fourth stage in the long history of the Silk Roads had begun by the 13th century. Until then, the great civilizations of the ecumene had interacted with each other but remained basically separate; by that time, however, certain cultures and societies had achieved expansions that crossed regional boundaries. Islam, beginning in the Middle East, expanded both into the old Roman world and into India, while Buddhism moved from India to China and Japan. Religious communities and polities that stretched across more than one civilization had become possible.
The largest of the new empires was the Mongols', whose territories included China, Central Asia, much of the Middle East and eastern Europe. For the brief period during which much of the Silk Roads was under the control of a single ruler, travelers moved back and forth in relative security, leaving their accounts behind for us to read. To Westerners, the best known of these travelers is Marco Polo, but others are equally famous in their own lands, such as the 14th-century Muslim traveler Ibn Battuta (See Aramco World, January-February 1978).
Those days of glory for the Silk Roads gradually came to an end by the 16th century. The great empires at the center of the route began to lose their strength. More important, they began to lose their control over the trade of the eastern hemisphere. Sea routes had always existed as alternatives to the Silk Roads, but they had been less reliable and usually more dangerous. However, during the 15th and 16th centuries, the sea routes from the Indian Ocean - both around Africa and through the Middle East -became increasingly important.
By the 19th century, with the opening of the Suez Canal and the development of the steamboat, the Silk Roads had entered their fifth stage. They had become a goal for those seeking the romance of the past but had little economic importance in the patterns of world trade. For more than a century, adventurous travelers have found the challenge of discovering some part of the Silk Roads' faded glories to be one of the great experiences of modern travel.
Dr. John Obert Voll, chairman of the Department of History at the University of New Hampshire, has written on Muslim minorities in China and the USSR. He is co-editor of Eighteenth Century Renewal and Reform in Islam and author of Islam: Continuity and Change in the Modern World.