A traditional hut used once during the silk road trade route.

History of the Silk Road

The "Silk Road" refers to a series of routes that crisscrossed Eurasia from the first millennium B.C.E. through the middle of the second millennium C.E. The best known segment of the Silk Road began in the Chinese capital of Chang'an (Xian), diverged into northern and southern routes that skirted the Central Asian Taklamakan Desert, converged to cross the Iranian plateau, and ended on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean in cities like Antioch and Tyre.By the 4th century B.C.E. when Alexander the Great crossed the Indus River into Central Asia, Chinese silk had already found its way to the Mediterranean. Important periods for the Silk Road were the Chinese Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.-C.E. 220), the Chinese Tang dynasty (C.E. 618-907), and the Mongol Khanate (13th and 14th centuries). The Mongols, who ruled a vast empire, safeguarded a northern Silk Road land route that crossed the Eurasian steppes.

Sea routes, important for trade and for communication, may also be considered part of the Silk Road. During the Han dynasty, Chinese ships traded with Southeast Asian kingdoms. During the 7th and 8th centuries, Chinese, Korean and Japanese ships crossing the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan brought continental goods to Japan. The 8th-century Shôsôin collection of objects, which originally belonged to a Japanese emperor, is the single most important group of Silk Road-related luxury items still in existence. This collection reflects the arts of the Mediterranean world, Persia, India, Central Asia, China, Korea and Japan. Chinese ships also sailed to India and Persia, and even, in the 15th century, to Africa. Indians and Arabs traded along the southern sea routes, and in the 16th century Portuguese and other Europeans sailed to East Asia.

Many important scientific and technological innovations migrated along the Silk Road to the West. Transfer of these innovations, including gunpowder, the magnetic compass, the printing press, silk, mathematics, ceramic and lacquer crafts, was gradual, so that the West had no clear idea as to their origins. Musical forms and instruments traveled the Silk Road. String, wind, and percussion instruments from both East and West influenced each other. A five-stringed lute from India and four-stringed lutes from Persia are found in the Shôsôin collection. The Persian mizmar, a reed instrument, seems to be an ancestor of the European oboe and clarinet. Cymbals were introduced into China from India and Chinese gongs traveled to Europe.