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Silk Road

The Oxford Companion To Archaeology
Richard TaupierRichard Taupier

Silk Road 

The term “Silk Road,” first appearing at the end of the nineteenth century, is attributed to the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833–1905). It refers to a network of caravan routes and trading centers crossing Eurasia and extending as far as Japan and Korea in the East, Rome and northeast Africa in the West, and India in the Southwest. While the main trunk of the Silk Road extended from China to Rome, at various times important spurs connected that trunk to Mongolia and Tibet, to Kiev and Veliky Novgorod in early Russia, on to the Baltic, Germanic, and Nordic countries, and to Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia. Many of those extensions were not land, but sea routes. Indeed, the routes shifted with the rise and fall of states and empires and frequent wars and turbulences that disrupted trading and made travel too perilous for all but the most daring. It was not only important trade goods such as silk and textiles, gems and precious metals, spices, wines and dried fruits, horses and camels, and porcelains, lacquers, and carpets that passed along those routes, but technologies, weapons, slaves, art, ideas, languages, and religions as well. Caravans and traders rarely traveled from end to end along the silk roads. The oasis cities in Eurasia and the coastal and river trading centers at the farthest extents served as the places where merchants traded goods and paid taxes to local authorities and purchased the pack animals, manpower, and foodstuffs needed for their travels. Thus trading cities often became centers of great wealth and culture. The wealth of those cities supported larger states and even empires. Steppe states often depended heavily on taxation and luxury goods passing along the silk roads for their survival. While heavy use of the silk roads extended from the third century BC to the seventeenth century AD, exchanges along all or parts of the silk roads took place long before and after those dates. In the early fifteenth century, silk ceased to be an important Silk Road commodity as sea routes grew in importance.

Geography of the Silk Road.

Chang’an, China (modern Xi’an), served as an early eastern terminus of the central Silk Road. The main western route crossed the Yellow River at Lanzhou, continuing through the Gansu Corridor to Jiayu Guan Pass, where it passed beyond the Chinese Middle Kingdom. From there it reached the Takalamakan desert, some 1,200 miles (1,931 km) from east to west and bounded to the north and south by the Tian Shan and Kun Lun mountains. The desert averaged 250 miles (402 km) between these mountains, with an average annual rainfall of less than an inch. Caravan travel was made possible only because of a chain of oasis cities ringing the desert on the north and south at the foothills of the mountains from which water flowed from snow melt and glaciers. Irrigation canals and storage systems enabled agriculture and gardens and trees that provided summer cooling for residents and travelers. The Silk Road split into routes passing along the north and south edges of the Takalamakan. A second northern route led north of the Tian Shan Mountains through the cities of Turpan, Talgar, and Almaty, in modern Kazakhstan, and west to Samarkand. Along the northern edge of the Takalamakan the cities of Hami, Turpan, Kucha, and Kashgar served as major stops. The southern Takalamakan route linked Dunhuang, site of the Maogao Buddhist caves, Miran, Khotan, Yarkand, and Kashgar, where it rejoined the northern route at the western edge of the Tarim Basin. Routes from Yarkand and Kashgar turned south across the Karakhoram Mountains into the upper Indus region and the Ganges River basin. West of Kashgar, northern and southern routes crossed the Pamirs. The southern route along the Wakan Corridor led to Balkh (in modern Afghanistan) and Merv at the eastern edge of Persia. The northern route led through the Ferghana Valley to Samarkand and Merv. From eastern Persia, routes continued to the Tigris-Euphrates valley, to seaports on the eastern Mediterranean, and to Rome by ship. Alternately, routes passed overland through modern Turkey to Constantinople and into Eastern Europe.

City‐States and Empires.

Many of the oasis cities of the Silk Road were independent city-states for much of their existence. At other times they served as centers for larger kingdoms or fell under the control of empires and existed as semi-autonomous polities, as long as they provided the revenues their rulers demanded. Dunhuang, for example, was established as a Han Dynasty garrison town circa 120 BC, but was later incorporated into the Tibetan and Tangut empires. A southern Silk Road spur extended from Dunhuang to Lhasa in Tibet and on to India. Khotan, a major center of Mahayana Buddhism, served as the capital of a city-state of the same name. Legend indicates that the son of a Kushan emperor founded Khotan in the third century AD. Its mulberry grove silkworms produced silk, which it exported along with jade and pottery. The name of the city of Kashgar is of Iranian origin. The earliest mention occurs at the time of the Han Dynasty. It also was associated with the Kushans. Some Silk Road cities were of prehistoric origins. Archaeological evidence places Merv’s origins in the third millennium BC. The Uighurs are credited with having established the kingdom of Turpan, which lasted from AD 856 to AD 1389, with Turpan as its capital. For most of its history, Buddhists and Idikuts shared power. Samarkand, now the second-largest city in Uzbekistan, was renowned as a center of Islamic scholarship. Its name is derived from the Sogdian word for “stone fort.”

The multiethnic nature of these cities can be attributed to the many empires that rose and fell along the Silk Road over its history. Greeks under Alexander III of Macedon (356 BC to 323 BC) conquered the ancient Persian Empire and greatly extended European influence, knowledge, and access to the early Silk Road. The Chinese imperial Han Dynasty (206 BC to AD 220), its capital Chang’an serving as a principal eastern Silk Road terminus, extended Han political control into the Tarim Basin and sent diplomats as far west as Fergana (Uzbekistan), Sogdiana (in Persia), and Greco-Bactria in efforts to fashion alliances against the nomadic Xiongnu. The Kushan Empire (AD 30 to AD 375), established by the Indo-European–speaking Yuezhi tribe from modern Xinjiang, gained control of much of the western portion of the Silk Road. They became key supporters of Buddhism under the Emperor Kanishka I, and sent Buddhist missionaries along the Silk Road. Buddhist influence extended so far west that the Northern Wei (AD 386 to AD 534) was the first Chinese dynasty to adopt it as a state religion. The Tang Dynasty (AD 618 to AD 907) reestablished Chinese sovereignty as far west as Kashmir and Persia. The Pax Sinica (Chinese Peace; ca. AD 639 to AD 678), established by the Tang, ushered in extensive East-West cultural exchanges. The Tibetan Empire (AD 618 to AD 841) wrested control of much of the central Silk Road from the Tang for significant periods. The Uighurs, Gokturks, and Khitans also allied with and contested Chinese and Tibetan powers during the latter half of the first millennium AD. The Tibetan ethnic Tangut Empire (1038 to 1227) controlled the eastern Silk Road along the Gansu Corridor before falling to the Mongols (1206 to 1368). The subsequent Pax Mongolica ushered in a new period of cultural exchange similar to that of the Tang period. With the fall of the Mongol Yuan (1368) and Il-khanate (1335), a long period of turmoil ensued in which various Mongolian, Turkic, and Muslim leaders vied for control of portions of the central Silk Road. The consolidation of Eurasia under the Qing (1644–1912) and Russian (1721–1917) empires spelled the end of the Silk Road, as it had been historically known.


All of the world’s religions have influenced the Silk Road, but those most specifically associated with it are Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Christianity, Manichaeism, and Islam, in that chronological order. Zoroastrianism, or Mazdaism, once among the world’s largest religions, was founded prior to the sixth century BC in ancient Persia and greatly influenced the early western Silk Road. Buddhism (circa fifth century BC) began to displace it along the Silk Road under Ashoka the Great of the Mauryan Empire (321 BC to 185 BC) and much more so under Kanishka the Great of the Kushan Empire (AD 30 to AD 375). It remained a principal Silk Road religion throughout the Chinese Qing Dynasty. Nestorian Christianity, developed circa AD 430 by a Patriarch of Constantinople and persecuted by Western theologians, was pushed eastward along the Silk Road. Its influence was long-lived and widespread, such that at the time of Chinggis (Genghis) Khan there were Nestorians among the Mongol Horde. Manichaeism (circa AD 250) was a synergistic religion that combined elements of Christianity, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism. Islam, however, dominated the later days of the Silk Road. Founded in AD 622 by the prophet Muhammad, it was politically grounded in the Islamic caliphate, which by 750 had expanded to subsume much of the western Silk Road. Islamic merchants began to dominate Silk Road trade, and many Silk Road cities became predominantly Muslim and shared in the Islamic golden age, seen as ending with Mongol victory over the caliph in Baghdad in 1258. However, nearly all Turkic peoples in Eurasia soon embraced Islam and continue to do so until the present time.

Travelers, Explorers.

In the second century BC, the Chinese military leader Zhang Qien was sent by the Han emperor Wudi to negotiate an alliance with the Persians against the Xiongnu. He traveled over 3,000 miles (4,800 km) and returned with reports of lands as far west as Rome. The Chinese Buddhist pilgrims Fa Xian (fourth century AD) and Xuan Zang (seventh century) both traveled the Silk Road from China to India and left extensive memoires. Six centuries later, during the Pax Mongolica, Marco Polo traveled from Italy to Khanbalik (modern Beijing). Rabban Sauma, a thirteenth-century Chinese Nestorian Christian, made the same journey in the opposite direction. Both left accounts rich in information on medieval Asia. In the late nineteenth century, numerous explorers rediscovered the oasis cites of the Silk Road. They included Ferdinand von Richthofen, Sir Aurel Stein, Albert Van Le Coq, Prince Otani of Japan, and Sven Hedin. They uncovered extensive evidence of Indian, Chinese, Tibetan, Greek, and Mediterranean influences. The artifacts they carted off to museums fueled interest in the Silk Road and a demand for greater knowledge. In the past decade, many Silk Road cities and modern nations have engaged in discussion under the UNESCO World Heritage program on how best to preserve and present to the public the rich cultural history of the Silk Road.


Boulnois, Luce. The Silk Road: Monks, Warriors and Merchants on the Silk Road, translated by Helen Loveday, 2004. Elverskog, Johan. Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road, 2010. Le Coq, Albert von. Buried Treasures of Chinese Turkestan, introduction by Peter Hopkirk, 1985. Millward, James. Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang, 2007. Morgan, David. The Mongols, 1986. Polo, Marco. The Description of the World, translated and annotated by A. C. Moule and Paul Pelliot, 1976. Rossabi, Morris. Voyager from Xanadu: Rabban Suama and the First Journey from China to the West, 1992. Schafer, Edward. The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study of T’ang Exotics, 1963. Stein, Aurel. Ancient Khotan, 2 vols., 1907. Stein, Aurel. Innermost Asia, 4 vols., 1928. Stein, Aurel. Ruins of Desert Cathay, 2 vols., 1912. Xuanzang. The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions, translated into English by Li Rongxi, 1996.

Richard Taupier