The Silk Road-Part 4 of 4-Trade and Culture

This is the fourth part of the series based on the research done by learners at The Integral School, Hyderabad on the ancient Silk Road. The research team consisted of Aravind Bandreddi, Qutub Khan Vajihuddin, Aatmesh and Zoya Kadeer. This document was prepared by Aatmesh.

My research areas :

  • Trade 
  • Culture – what is culture, cultures throughout the silk road.
  • Art – Sharing of art, technology and tastes in art
  • War – Evolution of war tactics and technology due to the silk road
  • Art, war and farming come under “culture”


The silk route was a large expanse of trade routes that spanned between ancient Rome, China, India, Mesopotamia and numerous other countries and empires. It is called the silk route because much of the route came about due to demand for silk and silk textiles. Along with silk, a myriad of other goods, ideas, religions, technologies and people traveled back and forth due to trade and convenient trade routes. The influences of the silk road upon trade, culture, art, agriculture and technology are undeniable.


Trade is the exchange of goods between two (or more) parties. Trade occurs when a party wants a certain commodity, which they themselves have no way of producing. Trade is considered a peaceful way to acquire goods, as opposed to taking goods by force.

The concept of trading goods brought about the silk road. One item in particular kicked off trade between the east, west and most of the ancient world. This item was silk.

The production of silk, or sericulture is thought to have arisen around 3000 BC. Myths tell of a Chinese empress who is credited with making silk from silkworms and creating the loom as well. Two inventions that made China important. Although its discovery happened early on, silk was not traded until the the creation of the silk route (around 1000 BC) and the secrets of sericulture stayed with China for a few millennia, passed on from one dynasty to another. During these millennia, the construction of three individual walls – which would join and form the great wall later – began in an effort to protect China from nomads.

In the following centuries (following the division of the Zhou dynasty in 475 BC), China was in a civil war. The region was split into seven different states, each vying for more land and seeking to conquer the others. At this time, two nomadic groups were also harassing the Chinese borders. These nomadic were located to the north and east of China, they were the Xiongnu and the Yuezhi. The Xiongnu were called the huns and they later united and became the mongols while the Yuezhi (which was a confederacy) became a part of the Kushan empire.  During this time period, one of the seven warring states (in China) adopted Xiongnu techniques of war. They began using light armor, horses and long spear, which worked extremely well on the mountainous terrain. Soon, (due to the success of nomadic tactics) all of the other states did likewise. The only problem they had was that their horses were not strong, fast and agile. To solve this, some of the states began trade with the Yuezhi. The Chinese states got fine breeds of horse, while the Yuezhi received technology which they had no way of making on their own. This deal worked out well, and it is a perfect example of trade.

Following what is thought to have been the beginning of trade between China and another power, the Chinese wanted to know about people who lived to the west of them. At this time, the Qin dynasty had ended the period of the seven warring states, uniting them. The emperor of the Qin dynasty sent an envoy to the then mythical region of Bactria (modern day Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) in order to gain knowledge about the people there, in the hopes of establishing military, political and commercial relations. The envoy was successful and helped establish trade between China and Bactria (the Bactrians were descendants of the generals of Alexander the Great). Due to the envoys information, the emperor realized that bamboo products from China were already being sold in Bactria. To his surprise, goods that had been traded to the Yuezhi, reached the Bactrians. This is an example of goods being traded for and with. The Yuezhi traded for the bamboo products (giving China horses) and then traded with them or traded them away, in exchange for some Bactrian goods. It was now that the first few routes of the silk route were created. This lead to the greatest expanse of trade routes in the history of the world.

The early routes : Upon realizing the benefits of trade, the Chinese began creating pathways to make travel easier. The process was extremely laborious and the results were far from perfect, as the pathways were still dangerous. These paths were tough to create – as they crisscrossed through montane regions – and even tougher to travel through. But as trade flourished, the need to improve them the routes increased, resulting in better and safer pathways.

Once the Yuezhi, Bactrians and the art of trading was discovered, the Chinese emperor sought to establish relations with these foreigners. Unfortunately, the only known way of reaching the Yuezhi and Bactrians was through Xiongnu territory. The Xiongnu often seized whatever came their way and maintained hostile relations with both China and the Yuezhi. This caused the Chinese emperor to propose an alliance with the Yuezhi, in order to defeat the Xiongnu and establish a safe trading route. By the time the emperor’s information reached the Yuezhi (it would have taken a few years) they had already been thoroughly defeated by the Xiongnu and driven out to the Hindu-Kush mountain range. Now the Chinese began searching for new ways to reach Bactria as well as new nations to trade with. During the next few decades, the search began and the Chinese dealt with the Xiongnu in two ways. The first involved a truce with trade in the form of silk being giving to the nomads, in exchange for peace. The second simply involved fighting back and attacking the Xiongnu directly. Here trade was used as a means to keep peace and satisfy the Xiongnu.

Decades later, once the threat of the Xiongnu became less imminent, the Chinese explorer Zhang Qian (who had obtained knowledge about Bactria and the Yuezhi) lead an expedition towards modern day India. Along the way he was stopped by certain other tribes, but gained knowledge of India. Later, he sent out four other expeditions in order to make contact with India. These expeditions were a success and Indo-Chinese relations began. Through India, silk and other goods had a way of reaching the west. Also, along with Chinese goods, Indian goods such as saffron and spices were being sold (to China and other countries). The pathways that lead crisscrossed between India, China and central Asia were the first few routes that later made up the silk route.

The first caravan city : The distance between countries was great. No merchants traveled the full distance, but instead gave their goods to intermediaries, or middlemen that would transport the goods. Once the intermediaries received the goods, they would increase the price of the goods and sell them, thus turning a profit. Countries who received goods from these intermediaries had no way of knowing the original price of the goods and therefore ended up paying more money. The intermediaries also dissuaded countries from contacting each other directly in order to maintain this chain of profit. During the early years of the silk route, these stops where goods were exchanged became trading cities. They were called caravan cities, and were essentially cities where travelling caravans stopped to trade. Many of these cities were located near oases and fertile land, making them perfect for inhabitants. The reason these places became cities is due to the fact that people began moving there, making them cities rather than stops along the route.

These cities developed on their own, not by design of the Chinese or other nations, but due to convenience, as traders began meeting in certain areas. They often rested in places that were located close to the pathway, in order to reduce travel time. These areas soon gave rise to lodges and places of worship for the traders and people who were travelling. Centuries later, these stops became trading cities and intermediaries themselves, where people could come to trade for foreign items without having to travel all the way to another country.

The first of these caravan cities was called Dunhuang. It was located to the East of the Taklamakan desert and South of the Gobi desert, in a fertile oasis. Dunhuang was the location of a large section in the great wall and it housed its own army garrison, farmers and merchants. It was located near a river which made it perfect for civilization. Being the most westerly point of China, traders from the west always arrived there first. It was often the drop off point or trade point for merchants and travelers. Slowly over centuries, it became a hub for trade with goods from central China, middle Asia and even further West making their way there. Many times, traders from the West enlisted the help of the Uighurs (a people living near the Taklamakan desert) to take their goods across the desert and into Dunhuang as they had no experience with the terrain. Dunhuang was also located along the hexi-corridor (a main pathway of the silk road), making it a more popular destination. Over time Dunhuang turned into the perfect caravan city with bustling markets, a river, places of worship, good protection and a great location for almost anything. It was one of the first socially and culturally rich places.

Transport along the routes  : Ultimately, the desire to trade brought about better ways to travel, not only in the form of routes, but in the form of animals, methods and technology as well.

Traders began travelling in caravans. Caravans are groups of people, especially traders or pilgrims, travelling together across certain distances. Travelling in caravans was safe as traders could look out for each other and their goods. These caravans depended on the animals like horses and camels that were used to transport both the merchants and the goods. Animals were also used for their other properties such as wool, hide, milk etc.   

Since animals played a huge roles in travel and transport, merchants and travelers began looking for stronger and healthier animals to help them travel faster or with more goods. They realized that different animals were better suited to certain environments. For example, sheep and yaks were very well suited to cold, rocky terrain and the former were extremely strong, capable of bearing enormous loads. Their wool and fur was also useful in creating clothing for the cold weather. Horses were best suited to flatter landscapes and were the fastest animals for transportation. Certain breeds of horses could also traverse mountainous areas, making them very valuable. Horses were also some of the only animals used in war, due to their speed and strength. Travelling through cold places, or travelling fast could be easily accomplished by the above animals, but perhaps the most valuable animal (for transporting goods) in the history of the silk road was the camel, which could travel through deserts.

Camels were specifically designed for deserts. They possessed long eyelashes which allowed them to see well amidst sand storms, their humps stored additional water and fat which they could access whenever they needed and they also had in built instincts that directed them to water sources. In addition to all theses traits, camels were capable of carrying extremely heavy loads, more than horses, yaks or any other animals in fact. Their docile nature also made them relatively easy to domesticate and they were so self sufficient that their owners never considered them a burden.

The animals used for transport often varied. Many caravans made journeys through different kinds of terrain and switched animals upon entering new terrain (or traded their goods there). If they were carrying a message or information, they would be required to continue the journey. This allowed herders of these animals to make a living as well, as they sold or rented their animals. Along with the animals, technology such as saddles and footstraps developed in order to make travel more comfortable and easy. The importance of animals during the silk road were undeniable, making them more valuable and important to the trade of ideas and goods.  

Goods transported : The goods that were traded along the silk route ranged from Roman glassware to Chinese textiles. Spices and ivory from Africa, wool from the steppes and saffron from India were among the goods that could be found throughout the routes. The most popular item was, of course silk.

Sericulture was exclusive to China for many centuries as silkworms could be found in Asia. The production of silk began when a Chinese empress observed the texture of a silkworm cocoon and created techniques to use it as a textile. Soon, upon realizing that silk moths were attracted to mulberry trees, the empress planted more of these trees. This lead to an increase in silk moths, creating an opportunity to create more silk. The process of creating this silk began when the moth laid its eggs. Following that, the eggs hatched and worms emerged. Upon their emergence, the worms fed on mulberry tree leaves and began spinning cocoons (this process took a few months). The fibres or threads from these cocoons made silk. To harvest the fibres, people would steam the cocoons (killing the infant creature inside) and rinse the fibres in hot water so as to loosen them up. Following that, people just had to combine the fibres from the cocoon into threads. These threads were silk threads, which would then be woven and made into garments. This process was one of the most closely guarded secrets in the history of the silk route. Without the knowledge of sericulture, Rome needed to trade with China.

During the early stages of the silk road, trade between the nomads of central Asia and China consisted of horses, alfalfa, grapes in exchange for silk and technology. Later, the nomads and empires of central Asia began trading woolen clothing, carpets, blankets and other items to the mediterranean and China. They sold camels, military equipment and precious stones as well.

Parthian tapestries were very popular in China as the method of processing wool and creating tapestries was unknown there. ‘Foreign items’ were popular everywhere as they were new and exclusive. For the same reason, the wealthy citizens of Rome valued silk and the wealthy people of China valued Parthian tapestries.

China traded silk with all nations, as well as porcelain and cutlery, which were expensive and popular in Rome (due to Rome not having the knowledge of how to make them). In return for silk, China received glassware from Samarkand, metalwork from the Arabs, precious stones and spices from India as well. India itself had knowledge on sericulture, so they did not trade for silk, but for paper, porcelain or bamboo. Indian spices, ivory and textiles were also popular in the West and sold very well. The Indians and Chinese didn’t know exactly where their products went as the same goods were traded with and for multiple times.

China and most nations did not directly receive goods from Rome (or any other place), but rather traded with intermediaries. These intermediaries were geographically close to the places where they sold. For example, China never directly traded silk with Rome. Instead, China traded with India or central Asian countries, who then traded with the Romans. The intermediaries also traded Roman goods to China and kept certain goods for themselves.

These intermediaries made there money through trade between other nations. They made sure that people buying from them had no knowledge of other sellers. They also claimed to have created goods like silk, so that buyers would value their usefulness and not simply conquer their land. The intermediaries controlled the circulation of information, goods and much more, making them very important.


Culture is defined as the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society. There were numerous cultures throughout the silk route, each of which changed and inspired change in traders and citizens. Travellers took with them their ideas, religion, ideas and much more. The cultural exchange along the silk route was even more important than the exchange of goods.

Religion – The spread of religion was one of the greatest impacts the silk route had. The most prominent religions practiced along the silk route were Islam and Buddhism. Religion spread throughout the silk route due to travelers, religious leaders and traders.

Traders from foreign lands brought with them their religious beliefs and religious idols, artefacts. During their lengthy travels, these traders spoke with the locals, exchanged ideas, debated and told stories as well. To people who had not accepted any religion in particular, the stories and ideas the traders spoke of could make them choose to follow that religion. Many monks and religious men also traveled with caravans, spreading their religion. Also, caravan cities were hot spots for traders from all different religions. This meant that there were various places of worship for all religions, exposing the citizens and other traders to these religions. Rulers of caravan cities and cities where there were many traders were also often accepting and open to all religions. If they were prejudiced against a certain religion, then traders who followed that religion would not maintain mercantile relations with them, decreasing the wealth and popularity of that city. Most merchants liked to trade with people of certain religions. These religions were ones that had rules about honesty and other such ideals. If a trader followed Islam (for example) merchants were likely to trade with a him, due to the rules of his religion (honesty, no bribers, cheating etc.). Also, many rulers allowed their people to practice the religion of their choice and loved religious debates. These leaders allowed preachers from all religions in their lands.

Another way that religion spread was through religious leaders, preachers and people wanting to propagate their religion. These people would send envoys to countries and empires, with hopes of extending the reach of their religion. Their goal was to allow more people to follow their religion, as they believed it was the best and truest one. Many a times, they would bring wealth, art and goods to tempt people into following their religion. They would also spend lots of money and make their place of worship more extravagant. This influenced people to choose that religion, as it prospered. The religion that leaders, rich and influential people followed was also a key factor. Most citizens followed their rulers or people they admired.

Religious school and monasteries were set up anywhere where that particular religion was popular. Scholars, worshipers often made journeys called pilgrimages to places that were held sacred in their religion. They would come back to their lands with new knowledge in the form of art, scripts and much more. These people often were rewarded back home and also felt more enlightened. An example of this would be the Chinese monk who traveled to India in hopes of collecting sacred Buddhist texts. He spent 18 years wandering, learning and searching before bringing the texts back to China. He was received well by his emperor and rewarded with wealth and position. He also saved Buddhism as it was growing less popular in India. Interestingly, the reason for Buddhism’s decline in popularity (in India), was that Islam had come in the form of new rulers who were muslims. The diversity in religion also lead to the creation of new religions. These religions were influenced by existing ones and they combined the past with the present ideals well. Many major religions were actually influenced by older ones that are now dead so to speak.

All religions had their own ceremonies and traditions. They also influenced artwork and architecture profoundly, as many paintings, buildings, statues were based on religious figures, characters and shapes.

Art – Art, like ideas and technology was traded throughout the silk route. Different styles of art have been found all over the silk route, proving that art styles were traded, learnt and used by different societies.

Artwork sold really well. It was one of the most expensive and desired goods in trade. Famous artists got great money and jobs from emperors and customers alike. Most art buyers were wealthy and art was used to show position in society. The more expensive, intricate a piece of art was, the more rich the owner of it was. This caused many nobles to compete and spend more money on art, making good artists richer. Also, artists of certain religions were popular with buyers of the same religion. These artists also specialized in religious works such as murals depicting deities. The works of these artists was widespread as many of them can be found today, all over the silk route.

Islamic calligraphy and Buddhist symbols have been found in Dunhuang and Palmyra (a caravan city) as well as many distinctly religious buildings (mosques, temples, monasteries). The method of creating domes or pillars that were fit for these types of buildings was passed on from one artist to another. Religious people also taught their disciples how to create art and write in order to help them practice their religions better.

Buddhist paintings were very popular and Buddhism was widespread, so many artist learnt how to make these paintings and tapestries. These artists taught foreigners (in exchange for something) who could then create these paintings for their respective rulers, buyers. For example, if the Buddhist ruler of China loved the way Islamic paintings looked, he would hire an artist or ask one of his artists to learn how to make them. If both methods didn’t work, he would be forced to trade for these paintings. Many a times, artists could achieve positions of importance in the court of rulers if they knew many art forms. This made learning different art form more important. Also, many apprentices of painters, architects etc. could travel with their masters and gain more knowledge. Adventurers and pilgrims also needed some artistic abilities as they needed to document or map out a certain region. They could also remember a place or show information about it in the form of drawings and paintings.

Out of the many instances of artworks being spread all over the routes, the ivory mirror from India in Pompeii, the distinctly Roman Bodhisattvas and the Chinese porcelain in Arabia show just how far ideas and artwork traveled along the silk route.

War – War influenced the silk road as it challenged the concept of trade and relations between countries. Trade was a peaceful way of acquiring goods. If the goods were horses or gold, then there was no special production or technique involved in making them. This means that those goods could be taken by force, as opposed to trading. Trade occurred most of the time because wars were expensive, tiring and often not worth the effort. But when countries did not possess good relationships, war or force was used. For example, the Chinese emperor sent gold to the Dawan empire in exchange for horses with godlike speed, stamina and strength. The Dawan emperor saw his horses as divine and refused to part with them, killing the Chinese envoy. The Chinese emperor who had previously wanted to trade was now enraged and decided to take the horses by force. The Chinese emperor sent his troops over and destroyed the Dawans, taking all the horses along with them back to China. The Chinese could have conquered the area (where the Dawans were), but it was too far away from China and in the event of an invasion it would be impossible to supply reinforcements in time. For this reason the Chinese simply returned with the horses.

War was also a way by which empires could expand, taking hold of new lands and resources. The caravan city of Palmyra was extremely wealthy and well located. When the Roman empire took control of it, foreign goods became less expensive, more accessible and the Romans made good money. The importance and benefits of controlling a caravan city or a major pathway along the silk route was great. It allowed rulers to control trade, goods coming into the city. This lead to them taxing goods, creating tolls for roads, making money off accommodation and more. This only happened due to the fact that the Roman armies were powerful and able enough to subjugate the city. Also, the fact that the city was close enough to the nearest Roman occupies land was important. If suppose, the Romans tried to conquer Dunhuang, the distance between Dunhuang and the most easterly point of the Roman empire would be too great. Since the Roman empire (and China for that matter) had a relatively fixed geographical point, they could only threaten so much of the world and expand so much at a time. The Mongols however, were not stopped by that as they were nomads. They conquered China and controlled trade along the silk route  leading towards its (the silk route’s) decline.

The Mongols had been amassing power for centuries. Their ancestors, the Xiongnu, terrorized the Qin and Han dynasties. They were adept at the art of steppe warfare and had amazing tactical, geographical knowledge. This made them a constant threat to China and other countries. Once the reign of Genghis Khan began, the Mongols were more powerful than ever. He had united all the nomads on the Mongolian plateau, creating a huge army known as the golden horde. Their military was huge, with great horses, weapons and knowledge of the steppes. Genghis realized the worth of trade along the routes and sought to gain control of all the routes. Despite the military power of the Mongols, Genghis realized that they could not be in all places at once. He then proceeded to destroy many of the Turkish and Arabic cities along the route, effectively controlling trade between the far West and East. This made the Mongols the only middlemen. Trade continued, but the money and profit went to the Mongols. A few generations later, Kublai Khan conquered China. This was an important period during the silk route, as Kublai’s rule saw cultural diversity and the peak of trade. At about this time, the maritime or sea routes became popular. This did not affect trade on land for a couple centuries, until it became more widespread. Once the Mongols fell, the silk route began its decline.


Afterword :

The decline of the silk route occurred slowly due to many reasons. The first was the fact that the secret to sericulture had been revealed, making the value of Chinese silk reduce. The Persians made their own silk, and there were many other countries that provided cotton, spices and more. This caused an economic problem in China, making trade between the far West and East less abundant. The emergence of the maritime routes and the advancement in nautical technology also meant that the land routes were used less over far distances. The maritime routes connected the island countries further east of China as well. Also, these routes eliminated the need for middlemen, ensuring that fair prices would be paid. The transition from trade by land and sea put an end to the use of the silk route. Trade still occurred, just not along the pathways that made up the silk route.


250 bce : 226 ce – Parthian Empire rules Persia.

221 bce : Qin Dynasty united China.

206 bce–220 ce : Han Dynasty rules China.

Second century bce to second century ce : Petra flourishes as caravan city.

145 bce :Sima Qian, the grand historian of China, born; Greek authority in Ai Khanoum, Afghanistan, ends.

140–87 bce : Reign of Han emperor Wudi.

129 bce : Zhang Qian reaches the court of the Yuezhi on the bank of the Oxus River.

130 bce–300 ce : Kushan Empire rules Afghanistan and extends its territory to India and part of Central Asia.

100–200 bce : Cyzicus travels to India via the Red Sea.

Late second and early first centuries bce : Parthians and Romans vie for Syria.

104 bce : General Li Guangli sets off to conquer Dawan so as to obtain its superior horses.

64 bce : The Parthians defeat the Seleucid regime.

33 bce : Han emperor Yuandi makes peace with the southern Xiongnu and sends Wang Zhaojun from his palace in Chang’an to be the bride of the chief Huhanxie.

30 bce : Egypt becomes a Roman province after the death of Cleopatra, the Ptolemaic queen.

23–79 ce : Pliny the Elder lives.

50 : Kushans cross the Hindu Kush Mountains to enter India.

76 : Buddhism starts to spread out of India via Afghanistan.

97 : The Later Han emperor Zhangdi summons all military commanders to return to China from the Central Asian frontier; Ban Chao decides to remain on frontier.

148 : Gan Ying, sent by Ban Chao, travels to the coast of the “West Sea”—either the Persian Gulf or the Mediterranean—but does not reach Rome

First to second centuries : Parthia and India trade with the Romans “at sea”.

165 : Buddhist preacher An Shigao settles in Luoyang.

227 : The Romans take over Dura, conferring the name Europus on the city.

256 : Sassanid Dynasty replaces Parthian rule in southern Mesopotamia.

267 : Destruction of Dura, a caravan and garrison city.

269 : Odaenathus, king of Palmyra, successfully pushes back the invasion of the Sassanids.

272–274 : Palmyraean army occupies Egypt and a large part of Anatolia; Zenobia declares Palmyra independent from Rome.

Later third and early fourth century : Kharoshthi script used in Niya, an oasis in the Takla Makan Desert.

Fourth to fifth century : Development of the Bamiyan Buddhist complex.

366 : Creation of the Mogao caves in Dunhuang initiated.

399–416 : Faxian, accompanied by several monks, travels to India and returns to China.

420 : Xianbei conquers other petty states of nomadic origin and establishes the Northern Wei Dynasty.

460 : Northern Wei emperor initiates creation of huge statues of the Buddha at Yungang

527–565 : Justinian I rules.

532–537 : Byzantine emperor Justinian I builds St. Sophia.

589 : Sui Dynasty unifies China.

Early sixth century : The Turks appear on the northern border of China.

571 : The Turks commission Sogdian chief Maniakh as their ambassador to Byzantium.

630 : Xuanzang sets off for India from China.

650–705 : Reign of Empress Wu Zetian of the Tang Dynasty.

651 : Arabs conquer Iran.

661–750 : Umayyad Caliphate establishes the first Islamic empire, based in Damascus.

704 : Arab army starts conquest of Central Asia.

750–1258 : Abbasid Caliphate rules from Baghdad.

751 : Islamic army battles with Tang army at Talas, Central Asia.

786–809 : Caliph Harun al-Rashid rules.

825–912 : Ibn Khordadhbeh, Islamic geographer, lives.

895 : Byzantine emperor Leo VI issues The Book of the Eparch to the eparch (mayor) of Constantinople.

969 : Bishop Liudprand of Cremona visits Byzantium as an envoy of Otto I of Germany.

1055 : Seljuk Turks enter Baghdad and control the Abbasid Caliphate.

1206 : Genghis Khan (b. 1162) is proclaimed ruler of all the Mongols.

1271 : Khubilai declares himself the Chinese emperor of the Yuan Dynasty.

1275–1292 : Marco Polo travels in China.


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