The Silk Road
The Silk Road was the name for a network of routes from the countries of the Far East, like Japan and China, back to the eastern Mediterranean countries. Merchants traded goods back and forth. Cultural traditions were spread from one area to the other. In the mid 1800's a German geologist, Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, gave this name to the huge network of trade routes which had been in existence for hundreds of years.
These routes were both land and sea highways. Travelers and traders on these routes brought about an exchange of scientific, literary ideas, religious beliefs, and technological advances. Cultures became intermingled across this vast area. Large cities grew up along the routes.
The trade in silk was the earliest reason for the foundation of the great network of land and sea routes.Silk is the fiber produced by the silkworm for making its cocoon. The Chinese claim the making of silk fabric originated in China around the year 2700 B.C. It was used mainly for clothing for the royalty of the Chinese court.
In the 1st century B. C., silk was brought west into the Roman Empire. At that time and for many hundreds of years, silk remained a fabric for royal use. The Chinese tried to keep information about the manufacture of silk cloth secret, but gradually traders brought the secrets to other countries. Around 550 A. D., it is said that monks from India told the Roman Emperor Justinian in Byzantium about the process of making silk. Eventually, these monks brought eggs back to the emperor and demonstrated how the silkworms produced the silk from the fibers spun for their cocoon after eating mulberry leaves.
Although silk was the earliest product traded through this network of land and sea routes, many other products were brought along these paths. Grain, spices, metalwork, vegetables, fruit, animal hides, religious objects and jewels were just some of the goods introduced to other regions of the world this way.
As time went on, traders from one country had to make new land routes because of bad feelings or relations between one country and another. Also, if the terrain changed due to flood or drought, traders would have to develop new routes. On the land routes, merchant caravans would usually travel between certain points, using horses and camels, bringing products a specific distance, trading along the way and picking up other products to sell. They would then return along the same route.
The sea routes at first carried mainly spices, like cinnamon, ginger, pepper, cloves and nutmeg, from the Molucca Islands in Indonesia, called the Spice Islands, to the west. These sea routes became known as the Spice Roads. Sea routes developed between Arabia and China as early as the 700's A. D. Progress in the art of shipbuilding made sea travel quicker and safer. Zanzibar, an island off the east coast of Africa, and Alexandria, in Egypt, became two big ports along this route.
In the late 1400's, Vasco da Gama from Portugal sailed around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. Now it became possible for Europeans to trade with the Far East. In the next two centuries, the Dutch and the British became involved in this trade route and there was great rivalry between their countries.
The role the traders played in the interchange of culture and language between East and West was the greatest lasting result of the Silk Road.
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