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The Silk Road in the Pre-Mongol Era Essay

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Updated: Sep 5th, 2021


The historic silk route or the Silk Road is one of the finest examples of the quest that the people even in those days used to display in order to carry out trade and business. In fact, the policies of globalization date back to the later part of the 20th century, but if we minutely analyze the trade along the Silk Road, we find that the barter trade of goods and commodities en route the Silk Road is an example of the globalization practices of those times.

Modern-day globalization has opened up newer vistas of trade and business all around the globe. It is said that the opening up of economies has now tilted the balance in favor of market forces, which is helping the consumer by way of providing quality at reasonable prices.

During the 2nd Century BC, the traders used to have an influence on the respective governments, while now the MNCs are effectively dictating the policies to the governments. MNCs have now begun to explore the markets outside their domestic grounds. Therefore, studying the historic Silk Road, its inception, its emergence as a reliable trading route, and its role in transforming the social relations and economies will help in understanding the relevance of prevailing ‘globalization practices’ during the period.

Silk Road – Network of Trade Routes

The historic Silk Road is in fact not a single highway or road, but it is a network of interconnected routers. Some of these routes became famous as the Silk route, as silk was an important commodity being traded along the routes which had a connection with China and the Chinese silk. In their urge to explore the business prospects, Western travelers took the route across the Torugart Pass from Chinese Turkestan through to the Central Asian countries, including the fabled caravan cities of Samarkand, Burkaha, Merv, and Mashad. Other routes across Pakistan and Afghanistan, and on through Iran and/or Turkey to the Mediterranean.

Though it is not a single road, yet the formal opening of the Silk Road is stated to have taken place in the late second century BC, when Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, started expanding his empire into Central Asia, where his imperial routes and agents connected with the existing routes to India, the Middle East, and Rome1. Historians have roughly divided the Silk Road into three regions:

  • Northern Silk Route: It goes through Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Russian Federation, and Mongolia.
  • Central Silk Route: Passing through the Caspian Sea, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Xi’an in China, and also extends into China’s Xinjiang Province, the Tian Shan Mountains, and the Karakoram Highway.
  • Southern Silk Route: includes Egypt, Israel, Syria; also extending further south to Iran, Pakistan, and through the Khyber Pass to Afghanistan.

The German geographer, Baron von Richthofen termed2 the trade route as “seidenstrasse” or Silk Road in the 1870s, for its overwhelming use in trading Silk. Some of the countries which were on the Silk Road, like China, the Central Asian countries Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and the Caucasian states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia as part of attracting tourists and providing a boost to the tourism industry. Silk Road or silk route is commonly known as a road of prosperity, business and trade ties. This is the road connecting different regions/ countries in the Asian subcontinent and parts of the Mediterranean.

India, China Persia, Rome, ancient Egypt, and Mesopotamia are some of the regions through which this route passes. During the early days, silk was also used as a writing material, and manuscripts were written on silk cloth using it as paper. China was at the forefront of the silk trade and exported silk to many countries around the world. In fact, silk was invented in China around 3000 BC. And it was during 200 BC that Han rulers took control of the Tarim region. The Silk Road was subsequently opened under China’s control and the route to the Western part of the world started working.

Chinese traders used Silk Road for trade, which resulted in establishing of the Silk Road. Subsequently, other countries also started using the road for carrying out their trade-related activities thus strengthening the mutual relationship. In fact, the ‘silk road’ is not a road as such, but a long stretch of trade route taken by the trading community. The trail spread mainly across Central Asia, resulted in prosperity not only along the route but in nearby regions as well, as branches from the main route emerged out of the Silk Road towards newer destinations in the interiors of the region. During those early days, the Roman, Parthian, Kushan, and Chinese worked towards providing stability to the Silk Road.

In fact, history is replete with examples indicating military ambitions being turned into trade relations or vice-versa. The spread of the Silk Road is also stated to have emanated from the desire for military and political purpose in 2nd century BC. To fight against Xiongnu’s repeated invasion a court official was sent by the then ruler Han Wudi to the Western Regions3. But the court official Zhang Qian was captured by Xiongnu and detained for 10 years. When Zhang Qian escaped from prison, he started off his journey towards Central Asia and gathered a lot of information about the potential available for trade along the way. Gradually this information started translating into trade along the route with Silk being the prime commodity.

Though the ‘route’ as such was named as Silk route, it was used for trading many other items including some precious commodities. Team of traders heading towards china used to carry gold and other precious metals, ivory, precious stones, and glass, which was not manufactured in China until the fifth century. On their return, these teams used to carry items like furs, ceramics, jade, bronze objects, lacquer, and iron4.

While returning home these traders used to sell these items along the route, or sometimes used to barter these items for some other stuff, from the local markets in other countries/ regions. Different countries had on offer different types of merchandise for China while the Chinese started off with silk and then added more items on the trade. For example, India traded with China in gems & jewelry, semiprecious stones, and glass which are the forte of India for many centuries.

Buddhism also spread from India to China through the silk route. The famous Chinese philosopher Fa-Hsien was one of the first known Chinese travelers who took the Silk Road for traveling towards India around 300 AD. Marco Polo, the famous traveler took 24 years while traveling through Asia. He also chose the Silk Road for his adventurous journey. His travels ignited the urge for industrialization in the Asian subcontinent.

It is a well-known fact that business and trade result in the amalgamation of different societies and cultures. The Silk Road also had a big influence in taking Buddhism from India to China. Today, besides Daoism and Confucianism, Buddhism happens to be one of China’s three main religions. Research studies have come out with the fact that Buddhism became so prevalent in China within five years of opening trade along the Silk Road that as many as 90% of the population converted to Buddhism5 during those times. Buddhism prospered during the first half of the Tang dynasty, but during the second half, the widespread acceptance of a foreign religion started generating counter-reactions, thus diminishing its effect to some extent.

Today we can very well boast of the ICT era that led to a technological boom in the industrial world, but historians credit Marco Polo’s travelogue for bringing about the technological changes. In fact, the silk route led to industrialization in this part of the world proved to be a turning point for technological advancements. Marco Polo with his entourage did a lot of purchasing from one region and sold it in another region along the silk route, which strengthened the trade practices along the Silk Road. The products sold by him were appreciated by the people because till then people did not have much idea about the products being made by neighboring countries and regions.

Though Osterhammel and Petersson identify the period from 1750 to 1880 as an era that gave rise to the phenomenon of free trade development and as an important step towards globalization but Marco Polo’s trade along the silk route, during the first half of the 14th century could very well be termed as the beginning of globalization. Trade along the Silk Road prospered during the times when China was ruled by a succession of non-Chinese dynasties belonging to different ethnic groups, as these groups depended to a great extent on outsiders for trade.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) launched a ten-year project6 entitled ‘Integral Study of the Silk Roads: Roads of Dialogue’ in 1988, to highlight the complexities of cultural interactions arising from the encounters between East and West, and help in shaping the multiple identities and the rich common heritage of the Eurasian peoples. Many expeditions were undertaken as part of the project to retrace, by land and by sea, some of the Silk routes.

This involved the active participation of many experts from all the related countries. The objective of the study was also to explore the possibility of stimulating researches along with the international and national levels for promoting the concepts of multiple identities and common heritage by undertaking field studies of scientific, technological, and cultural exchanges taking place between the East and West.

Trade activities along the Silk Road suffered a decline owing to change in political equations in China and neighboring India. When power passed on to the Song dynasty, it proved to be weak in retaining control over the strategically important central and northern part of China, which resulted in the loss of control over Central Asian trade, thus diminishing the role of the Silk Road. Subsequently, Chinese rulers started paying more attention to the sea route for carrying out trade. Thereafter when Mongols came to power during the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century, the Silk Road was once again revived for trade.

It is indeed an irony that China is termed as the pioneer of globalization because of the silk route, but today, when many countries around the world have opened up their economies to globalization, China is rather slow in picking up the threads, with much more caution. During the 14th century, Silk Road proved to be the lifeline of business and trade with different parts of the world, not only along the silk route but in areas like Korea and Japan as well. Goods used to be traded from one end of the Silk Road to another, along the Eurasian region, via the route itself, from where these goods used to be traded across to other regions using maritime trade.

Port cities were the most crucial components of carrying out businesses. This way trading activities acquired a global proposition, benefiting many parts of the world. This was the form of globalization that China helped in spreading throughout the world.

In fact, the free trade regimes like NAFTA, SAFTA, etc. which have started appearing on the scene nowadays in the name of free trade also have their roots in the Silk Road. During those times, there were many types of rules and regulations prevalent in different parts of the world, but when Marco Polo went out on tour along the Silk Road to many places around the world, he helped in communicating some of the business practices being carried out in one part of the world to other regions. This was a definite boost to the practice of free trade.

By the 19th century, when economic interests became supreme to all other interests, the Asian subcontinent became a hotbed of activities, with colonial powers from the west taking control of many parts of the region. Silk Road too became a part of this struggle for supremacy.

When British traders landed in India, they were there for trade, but subsequently, these traders became rulers of almost the entire India. Subsequently, in order to strengthen its control over India, England started taking control of the Silk Road. Rivaled by Russian forces, England was largely successful in taking control of some parts of Afghanistan Tibet, which helped in strengthening its control over India. Having strengthened themselves in the neighborhood of China, these rulers started extracting concessions from Chinese rulers. At the same time, Russia took control of many parts of central Asia. These developments led to the closure of the all-important Silk Road.

The curiosity about knowing more about this aspect of globalization of earlier times has forced even WTO (World Tourism Organisation) to undertake a ‘Silk Road Project’. In one of its General Assembly meetings held in Indonesia in 1993, WTO decided to create a long-term tourism project for promoting a special ‘Silk Road Tourism Concept’. The ‘Samarkand Declaration on Silk Road Tourism was adopted in 1994 by 19 participating countries, which marked the formal launch of the project. It was and proclaimed that the development of sustainable tourism along the route would benefit both tourists as well as local populations.

There are, in fact, talks of reviving the Silk Road between India and China nowadays, as these two big economies are busy talking about cooperation in different fields. Once bitter rivals, now India and China are trying to come closer so that both nations can realize the fullest potential of globalization. Let us wait for another revival of the Silk Road.


  1. Imperial Tours (2008). The Silk Road. Web.
  2. Sairam (2007).WTO Silk Road Project. Web.
  3. Travel China Guide (2008). History of the Silk Road. Web.
  4. UNESCO (2002). The Silk Roads: Roads of Dialogue. Web.
  5. UNESCO (2001). The Silk Roads. Web.
  6. Wild, Oliver (1992). The Silk Road. Web.
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