20080217-silkart sogdian 8th cen sl rd fou.jpg
8th century Sogdian silk
Once traveled by camels and merchants carrying silk, porcelain and spices, the 2000-year-old Silk Road was an important corridor for trade and cultural exchanges between Asia and Europe.The name Silk Road conjures up images of caravans trudging through some of the world's highest mountains and most god forsaken deserts. This was true for parts of the route but only tells part of the story. The Silk Road was not one well-established road, but a complex, constantly-changing network of land and sea routes between China, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and Europe that was in operation roughly from the 1st century B.C. to the A.D. 15th century. It fell into disuse in the age of sailing in the 16th century. The term Silk Road was coined in 1870 by German geographer Ferdinand van Richthofen, the uncle of the Red Baron.

In terms of a trade network between East and West, the Silk Road was both an overland and sea route. The main all-land Silk Road route went from Xian in eastern China via Kashgar in Western China, Samarkand in Central Asia and Baghdad in the Middle East to coastal cities on the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean such as Alexandria in Egypt, Aleppo in Syria and Trabzon in present-day eastern Turkey, where connections were available to Europe. The main sea route went from China via the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean to Basra on the Persian Gulf or Suez on the Red Sea, where the goods were then carried overland across Persia and Syria or through Egypt to ports serviced by European merchants such as Alexandria.

Travelers on the overland route could feed their animals off the land and find food and drink along the way. In the early era of the Silk Road, goods were often traded trough barter, only later was money used. Silk Road routes were often disrupted and always changing due the presence of bandits, political alliances, passes closed by snow, droughts, storms, seasonal changes, wars, plagues, horsemen raids, and natural disasters. Many Silk Road towns and caravanserais were located within fortresses for protection from bandits and marauding horsemen. Many also had security forces.

Good Websites and Sources on the Silk Road: Silk Road Seattle ; Silk Road Foundation ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Silk Road Atlas ; Old World Trade Routes; Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project ; International Dunhuang Project ; Marco Polo: Wikipedia Marco Polo Wikipedia ; Works by Marco Polo ; Marco Polo and his Travels ; Zheng He and Early Chinese Exploration : Wikipedia Chinese Exploration Wikipedia ; Le Monde Diplomatique ; Zheng He Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Gavin Menzies’s 1421 ; First Europeans in Asia Wikipedia ; Matteo Ricci Books: on the Silk Road "The Silk Road" (Odyssey Guides); "Marco Polo: A Photographer's Journey" by Mike Yamashita (White Star, 2002); “Life along the Silk Road” by Whitfield, Susan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); “The Silk Route: Trade, Travel, War and Faith” by Susan Whitfield, with Ursula Sims-Williams, eds. (London: British Library, 2004); “The Camel and the Wheel” by Richard Bulliet (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975). You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link:; Television show: Silk Road 2005, a 10-episode production by China's CCTV and Japan's NHK, with music by Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. The original series was shown in 1980s.

Chinese, Roman and Persian empires in AD 1

Origin of the Silk Road

The Persian and Indo-Greek, or Bactrian, civilizations of Central Asia were China’s neighbors to the west. Together with China, these empires were among the world’s most advanced civilizations in the centuries that coincided with the empires of Rome and Byzantium in the West, from roughly 200 B.C. to A.D. 1000.

After the Alexander the Great’s conquest of western Asia in the 3rd century B.C., the Mediterranean became linked to the Indus Valley in present-day India-Pakistan and the Fergana Valley in Central Asia, opening of the route across the Tarim Basin and the Gansu Corridor to China. This came about around 130 B.C., when the Han Dynasty ambassador Zhang Qian (originally dispatched to help form alliance against the proto-Mongol Xiongnu) traveled widely in Central Asia and established contacts with China there. After the defeat of the Xiongnu, Chinese armies established themselves in Central Asia and opened the strategic Hexi corridor in western China, facilitating trade between the Chinese capital Changan and eventually the rest of East Asia.

The Chinese Emperor Wu di (141-87 B.C.) became interested in developing commercial relationships with the sophisticated urban and trading centers of Fergana, Bactria and Parthian Empire: According to the Hou Hanshu, a late Han period historical record, after hearing Zhang Qian: Wu di “reasoned thus: Fergana (Dayuan “Great Ionians”) and the possessions of Bactria (Ta-Hsia) and Parthian Empire (Anxi) are large countries, full of rare things, with a population living in fixed abodes and given to occupations somewhat identical with those of the Chinese people, but with weak armies, and placing great value on the rich produce of China”.

The Chinese were greatly attracted by the tall and powerful horses (named “Heavenly horses”) from the Fergana Valley, which were also sought after and valued for fighting by the nomadic Xiongnu. The Chinese subsequently sent numerous embassies, around ten every year, to these countries and as far as Seleucid Syria(established by the successors of Alexander the Great). The Hou Hanshu reads: “Thus more embassies were dispatched to Anxi [Parthia], Yancai [who later joined the Alans ], Lijian [Syria under the Seleucids], Tiaozhi [Chaldea], and Tianzhu [northwestern India]… As a rule, rather more than ten such missions went forward in the course of a year, and at the least five or six.” The Chinese campaigned in Central Asia on several occasions and there were reports of direct encounters between Han troops and Roman legionaries (probably captured or recruited as mercenaries by the Xiong Nu).

“The “Silk Road” essentially came into being from the 1st century B.C., following these efforts by China to develop trade and political contacts to the West and India. The Han Dynasty Chinese army regularly policed the trade route against bandits and nomadic horsemen such as the Xiongnu and Huns. Han general Ban Chao led an army of 70,000 mounted infantry and light cavalry troops in the A.D. 1st century to secure the trade routes, reaching to the Tarim basin in present-day western China. Ban Chao campaigned across the Pamirs and reached the shores of the Caspian Sea and the borders of Parthia. From there the Han general dispatched the envoy Gan Ying to Rome.

20080321-silkroad hofstra u3366.gif

Products of the Silk Road

Valuable commodities carried west on the Silk Road included silk and porcelain from China; pepper, batik, spices, perfumes, glass beads, gems and muslin from India; incense, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg from the East Indies, diamonds from Colcond; nuts, sesame seeds, glass and carpets from Persia; and coral and ivory from Siam. Other goods that made their way west included furs, ceramics, medicinal rhubarb, peaches, pomegranates, and gunpowder. In cold areas, flint and steel were among the most sought after products..

The Chinese were not as interested in goods arriving from the West as Europe was in goods arriving from the East. Even so traders coming from the West brought fine tableware, wool, horses, jade, wine, cucumbers, and walnuts. Ivory, gold, tortoise shells, dugs and slaves and animals such as ostriches and giraffes came from Africa. Frankincense and myrrh were brought from Arabia. Mediterranean colored glass was treasured almost as much in some parts of the East as silk was in the West.

According to UNESCO: “Whilst the silk trade was one of the earliest catalysts for the trade routes across Central Asia, it was only one of a wide range of products that was traded between east and west, and which included textiles, spices, grain, vegetables and fruit, animal hides, tools, wood work, metal work, religious objects, art work, precious stones and much more. [Source: UNESCO ~]

“The maritime trade routes have also been known as the Spice Roads, supplying markets across the world with cinnamon, pepper, ginger, cloves and nutmeg from the Moluccas islands in Indonesia (known as the Spice Islands), as well as a wide range of other goods. Textiles, woodwork, precious stones, metalwork, incense, timber, and saffron were all traded by the merchants travelling these routes, which stretched over 15,000 kilometers, from the west coast of Japan, past the Chinese coast, through South East Asia, and past India to reach the Middle East and so to the Mediterranean.” ~

Silk and the Silk Road

Silk was prized as a trade item and was ideal for overland travel because it was easy to carry, took up little space, held up over time, weighed relatively little but was high in value. By weight silk was worth as much as gold and often used as a form of money and could be given as bribes and as tribute.

The silk carried on the Silk Road came in the form of rolls of raw silk, dyed rolls, cloth, tapestries, embroideries, carpets and clothes. Much of the silk that left China was in the raw form and it was turned into embroidered cloth and art work in cities such as Samarkand in Central Asia, Baghdad in the Middle East and Lhasa in Tibet.

In the Silk Road era, silk was used for book coverings, wall hangings, clothes, purses, slippers and boots. It was decorated with floral patters and images of birds and mythical beasts such as winged lions and dragons with elephantine snouts stitched with gold or silver thread. The origin of objects could be determined by examining figures, weaves and threads.

Daniel C. Waugh of the University of Washington wrote: “Although it was only one of many products traded, silk perhaps best encompasses the history of economic and cultural exchange across Eurasia along the "Silk" Road. The value of silk gave it particular appeal as a political and religious symbol, it was widely accepted as a currency, and it served as a medium for artistic exchange. The complex history of silk is both well documented and in some ways but poorly known. [Source: Daniel C. Waugh, University of Washington, *]

Books and Sources on Silk: A) Rudenko, S. I. Kul'tura khunnov i noinulinskie kurgany (Moscow-Leningrad: AN SSSR, 1962). B) Scott, Philippa. The Book of Silk (London: Thames and Hudson, 1993/2001). C) Silk and Stone: The Art of Asia (London: Hali, 1996), esp. Ch. 11 (Alan Kennedy, The Emperor's Treasure House: Seventh and Eighth Century Textiles in the Shosoin"), 12 (Shelagh Vainker, "Silk of the Northern Song: Reconstructing the Evidence"). D) Watt, James C. Y. et al. When Silk Was Gold: Central Asian and Chinese Textiles (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; Abrams, 1997). E) Zhao, Feng. Treasures in Silk (Hong Kong: ISAT/Costume Squad, 1999).

Silk Making, See Agriculture, Economics

Early History of Silk

20080217-sworm3 sk rd fd.jpg
silk worm production
According to a Chinese legend, silk was discovered in 2460 B.C. by the 14-year-old Chinese Empress Xi Ling Shi who lived in a palace with a garden with many mulberry trees. One day she took a cocoon from one of the trees and accidently dropped it in hot water and found she could unwind the shimmering thread from the pliable cocoon. For hundreds of years after that only the Chinese royal family was allowed to wear silk. Xi Ling Shi is now honored as the goddess of silk.

Richard Kurin, a cultural anthropologist at the Smithsonian institution, wrote: “Silk cultivation and production is such an extraordinary process that it is easy to see why its invention was legendary and its discovery eluded many who sought its secrets. The original production of silk in China is often attributed to Fo Xi, the emperor who initiated the raising of silkworms and the cultivation of mulberry trees to feed them. Xi Lingshi, the wife of the Yellow Emperor whose reign is dated from 2677 to 2597 B.C.E., is regarded as the legendary Lady of the Silkworms for having developed the method for unraveling the cocoons and reeling the silk filament. Archaeological finds from this period include silk fabric from the southeast Zhejiang province dated to about 3000 B.C.E. and a silk cocoon from the Yellow River valley in northern China dated to about 2500 B.C.E. Yet silk cloth fragments and a cup carved with a silkworm design from the Yangzi Valley in southern China dated to about 4000-5000 B.C.E. suggest that sericulture, the process of making silk, may have an earlier origin than suggested by legend. [Source: “The Silk Road: Connecting People and Cultures” by Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian institution ]

The earliest evidence of silk was found at the sites of Yangshao culture in Xia County, Shanxi, where a silk cocoon was found cut in half by a sharp knife, dating back to between 4000 and 3000 B.C. The species was identified as Bombyx mori, the domesticated silkworm. Fragments of primitive loom can also be seen from the sites of Hemudu culture in Yuyao, Zhejiang, dated to about 4000 B.C.. The earliest example of silk fabric is from 3630 BC, and was used as wrapping for the body of a child. The fabric comes from a Yangshao site in Qingtaicun at Rongyang, Henan. Scraps of silk were found in a Liangzhu culture site at Qianshanyang in Huzhou, Zhejiang, dating back to 2700 B.C.. Other fragments have been recovered from royal tombs in the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600 – c. 1046 B.C.). [Source: Wikipedia]

Evidence of silk weaving includes impressions found on a bronze urn dated to 1330 B.C. The provincial museum in Hangzhou houses silk threads and embroidery knots that may be 4,500 years old. In 1982 brickyard workers stumbled across a ancient tomb from 300 B.C. with remarkably well preserved silk quilts and gowns. Tombs in the Hubei province dating from the 4th and 3rd centuries BC contain outstanding examples of silk work, including brocade, gauze and embroidered silk, and the first complete silk garments.”

The secret of making silk remained in China for thousands of years. Imperial law decreed death by torture to anyone who disclosed it. No one is sure when the secret first seeped out of China, but it is known to have reached Japan by way of Korea by the A.D. 4th century and said to have been brought there by four Chinese girls. It is also said that silk was brought to India by a Chinese princess who hid eggs and mulberry seeds in the lining of her headdress.

See China’s Secret About Silk Leaks Out Under EARLY HISTORY OF SILK AND THE SILK ROAD

Silk Trade

20080217-170px-BegramGladiator 2n cen greco-roman wiki.jpg
2nd century Vase with
gladiator found in China
According to UNESCO: “The Chinese monopoly on silk production however did not mean that the product was restricted to the Chinese Empire – on the contrary, silk was used as a diplomatic gift, and was also traded extensively, first of all with China’s immediate neighbours, and subsequently further afield, becoming one of China’s chief exports under the Han dynasty (206 BC –220 AD). Indeed, Chinese cloths from this period have been found in Egypt, in northern Mongolia, and elsewhere. [Source: UNESCO ~]

“At some point during the 1st century BC, silk was introduced to the Roman Empire, where it was considered an exotic luxury and became extremely popular, with imperial edicts being issued to control prices. Its popularity continued throughout the Middle Ages, with detailed Byzantine regulations for the manufacture of silk clothes, illustrating its importance as a quintessentially royal fabric and an important source of revenue for the crown. Additionally, the needs of the Byzantine Church for silk garments and hangings were substantial. This luxury item was thus one of the early impetuses in the development of trading routes from Europe to the Far East.” ~

Richard Kurin, a cultural anthropologist at the Smithsonian institution, wrote: “Conventionally, historians refer to three periods of intense Silk Road trade: 1) from 206 B.C.E. to 220 C.E., between the ancient Chinese Han dynasty and Central Asia, extending to Rome; 2) from about 618 to 907 C.E., between Tang dynasty China and Central Asia, Byzantium, the Arab Umayyad and Abbasid empires, the Sasanian Persian Empire, and India, and coinciding with the expansion of Islam, Buddhism, Assyrian Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Manicheism, and Judaism into Central Asia; and 3) during the 13th and 14th centuries, between China, Central Asia, Persia, India, and early modern Europe, made possible by Mongol control of most of the Silk Road. Some would add a modern Silk Road period, beginning in the 19th century with the "Great Game" — the competition between Russian and British colonial powers for influence over Central Asia — and extending through today. [Source: “The Silk Road: Connecting People and Cultures” by Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian institution ]

Early Silk Trade

20080217-130px-ForeignMerchant tang dyna wiki.jpg
Sogdian merchant

Daniel C. Waugh of the University of Washington wrote: “Discoveries in Egyptian tombs indicate that some Chinese silk made its way to the Mediterranean world at least as early as 1000 B.C. The routes of transmission presumably were the same which developed more extensively in later centuries, overland across the heart of Asia or via the coastal trade around Southeast Asia and into the Indian Ocean. In most histories though, the real beginning of the "Silk" Road dates to the establishment of the Xiongnu (Hun) nomadic empire on the northern borders of China around 200 B.C. and the development of a relationship between the Xiongnu and the Han Imperial court whereby large quantities of silk were shipped to the nomads to buy peace along the frontiers and ensure the supply of horses and camels for the Chinese armies. This transmission of silk into Inner Asia established the pattern for later centuries, the nomads receiving both finished garments, embroidered or woven with Chinese designs, and raw silk yarn and unfinished cloth. [Source: Daniel C. Waugh, University of Washington, *]

“Striking evidence of the Xiongnu's appreciation for the silk has been uncovered in the royal burials at Noin-Ula in Mongolia, dating from the second and first century B.C. The fabrics discovered there include woolens and silk embroidered with silk thread or decorated with silk appliques. Of particular interest is the fact that some of the embroidery depicts faces of individuals who have distinctly "western" features, suggesting the possibility that even at this early stage in the history of the Silk Road weavers from further west were employed by the Xiongnu in processing the "raw materials" imported from China. Such a pattern of the exchange of craftsmen involved in silk processing recurs throughout the history of the Silk Road. We cannot be certain who were the "westerners" depicted in the Noin-Ula embroidery, but there is substantial archaeological evidence even from some centuries earlier documenting the presence in Inner Asia of people with "Indo-European" features and documenting as well interactions between the Achaemenid Empire of Persia and the peoples of the steppe regions of Southern Siberia and Mongolia. *\

“The quantities of Chinese silk shipped on a regular basis to the nomads down through the centuries were substantial, often tens of thousands of bolts of silk or packages of silk floss annually. Possibly the peak of this exchange was reached in the T'ang Dynasty in the eighth and early ninth centuries, when as much as one-seventh of the government's annual tax revenue paid in silk was being used to obtain horses for the imperial army. The silk was important to the nomads, who acquired a taste for the luxury it provided. The process of building and maintaining a nomadic confederacy of the numerous tribes in the steppe was dependent in part on the ability of the nomadic ruler to distribute on a regular basis to his allies and relatives luxurious silks. Yet it seems quite clear that the quantities of silk sent to the nomads far exceeded their needs. The surplus has to have provided one of the important means for the nomads to acquire other goods they sought by trading the silk to those further west. Thus it is no coincidence that Roman sources from around the first century B.C. begin to indicate a sizeable influx of silk into the Roman Empire, within a century or so following the initial agreements by which the Han supplied the Xiongnu with silk on an annual basis. By the first century CE, Roman moralists complained that the taste for the luxury (and for other luxuries imported from the east, such as spices) was bankrupting the empire. *\

Spices and the Silk Road

Spices were among the most valuable commodities carried on the Silk Road. Without refrigeration food spoiled easily and spices were important for masking the flavor of rancid or spoiled meat. Basil, mint, sage, rosemary and thyme could be grown in family herb gardens in Europe along with medicinal plants. Among the the spices and seasonings that came from the East — mainly affordable to merchants and nobles but not ordinary people — were pepper, cloves, mace and cumin. Ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and saffron — the most valuable of spices from the East — were worth more than their weight in gold.

Pepper, one of the spices that Columbus was looking for when he landed in the America in 1492, had been coming to Europe along the Silk Road at least since Roman times, when many Roman cookbook recipes called for pepper. In the A.D. first century, the satirist Persius wrote:
The greedy merchants, led by lucre, run
To the parch'd Indies and the rising sun
From thence hot Pepper and rich Drugs they bear,
Bart'ring for Spices their Italian ware...

The Malabar Coast of India and the islands of Indonesia have traditionally been the sources of peppercorns for pepper. During the Middle Ages, one medieval town sold 288 kinds of spices, many of whom had an unknown origin. Cinnamon, people were told, came from an exotic bird and cloves were netted in the Nile by Egyptians. Caravans that carried pepper were heavily armed.

Spices were often carried by sea rather than overland. According to UNESCO: “The maritime trade routes have also been known as the Spice Roads, supplying markets across the world with cinnamon, pepper, ginger, cloves and nutmeg from the Moluccas islands in Indonesia (known as the Spice Islands), as well as a wide range of other goods. Textiles, woodwork, precious stones, metalwork, incense, timber, and saffron were all traded by the merchants travelling these routes, which stretched over 15,000 kilometers, from the west coast of Japan, past the Chinese coast, through South East Asia, and past India to reach the Middle East and so to the Mediterranean.” ~ [Source: UNESCO ~]

Merchants on the Silk Road

According to the Asia Society Museum: “The most successful traders of the Silk Road were the Sogdians, an Iranian people who inhabited the region of Transoxiana (corresponding to the modern-day republics of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) in Central Asia. Indeed their language became the lingua franca of the Silk Road. Already by the fourth century, the Sogdians had established numerous communities in China, particularly in Gansu and Ningxia.” According to the “New Tang History,” ca. 9th century, “Men of Sogdiana have gone wherever profit is to be found.” [Source: “Monks and Merchants, curated by Annette L. Juliano and Judith A. Lerner, November 17, 2001,Asia Society Museum == ]

“The Sogdians were not only merchants; they were also interpreters, entertainers, horse breeders, craftsmen, and transmitters of ideas. Sogdian scribes were among the first translators of Buddhist texts into Chinese. The majority of Sogdians, however, retained the Zoroastrian beliefs and practices of their homeland and built temples in their communities in China. The Chinese were fascinated by the Sogdians' religious rituals and the uninhibited dancing that took place in these temples. ==

“Cemeteries at Guyuan and Yanchi in Ningxia are two of the few sites directly relating to Sogdians discovered so far, and the most important archaeological evidence of these communities. The occupants were members of the Shi clan whose ancestors had migrated from Kesh, a Sogdian city south of Samarkand. The Guyuan tombs reveal a complex mix of indigenous Chinese and exotic traditions. The tombs themselves were conventionally Chinese in structure, and many of the contents were Chinese. But other objects were either imported or inspired by foreign types or technology. The tombs thus testify both to their owners' adoption of Chinese material culture and to and the links they retained with their ancestral homeland far to the west.” ==

Currencies on the Silk Road

20080212-paper money brook.jpg
Early paper money
According to the Asia Society Museum: “Trade along the Silk Road was conducted using a combination of barter and monetary exchange. Silk, exported in huge quantities from China, was in effect a form of currency (it was also a form of tribute used to buy off the nomads), but due to its perishable nature relatively little has survived. Coins, on the other hand, have been found at widely dispersed sites along the Silk Road, providing evidence of routes, the circulation of currencies, and of cultural exchange. [Source: “Monks and Merchants, curated by Annette L. Juliano and Judith A. Lerner, November 17, 2001,Asia Society Museum == ]

“The two major currencies of the Silk Road, the silver drachm of Sasanian Iran and the gold solidus of the East Roman or Byzantine empire, were struck (stamped) from precious metals. Because their metal was never debased nor their weight reduced, they were ideal for transnational trade. Chinese coins were cast bronze and enjoyed little circulation outside China. ==

“Numerous Sasanian and Byzantine coins have been found in Gansu and Ningxia, particularly in the tombs of officials and merchants of foreign descent. However, it is not certain to what extent they were used as currency, since some are pierced for use as pendants or clothing embellishment and others are not true coins but imitations. ==

The Mongols were the first people to use paper money as their sole form of currency. A piece of paper money used under Kublai Khan was about the size of a sheet of typing paper and had a furry felt-like feel. It was made from the inner bark of mulberry trees and, according to Marco Polo, was "sealed with the seal of the Great Lord."

"Of this money," Marco Polo wrote, "the Khan has such a quantity made that with it he could buy all the treasure in the world. With this currency he orders all payments to be made throughout every province and kingdom and region of his empire. And no one dares refuse it on pain of losing his life...I assure you, that all the peoples and populations who are subject to his rule are perfectly willing to accept these papers in payment, since wherever they go they pay in the same currency, whether for goods or for pearls or precious stones or gold or silver. With these pieces of paper they can buy anything and pay for anything...When these papers have been so long in circulation that they are growing torn and frayed, they are brought to the mint and changed from new and fresh ones at a discount of 3 per cent."


The Sogdians were the inhabitants of fertile valleys surrounded by deserts, the most important of which was the Zeravshan valley, in today’s Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The French scholar Étienne de la Vaissière wrote: “This Iranian-speaking people had a fifteen-centuries-long historical identity between the sixth century B.C. and the A.D. tenth century when it vanished in the Muslim, Persian-speaking world. Although the Sogdians constructed such famous towns as Samarkand and Bukhara, they are quite unknown. Only specialists on the Silk Road know that they were among the main go-betweens of the exchanges in the steppe, in Central Asia, and in China during the first millennium CE, and especially between the fifth and the eighth centuries CE. During this period, the “inland silk road” and the “Sogdian trading network” are almost synonymous. [Source: Étienne de la Vaissière, École pratique des hautes, études Sciences historiques, et philologiques, Paris,Silk Road Foundation newsletter]

Albert E. Dien wrote in a Silk Road Foundation article: “Western Turkestan, the area of modern Uzbekistan and Tadjikistan, was an important area in the history of the Silk Road. It was the area through which the Road passed, and the inhabitants were very much involved in the commercial activity which took place along its route. This area, known variously as Transoxiana (that is, across the Oxus, or the Amu Darya) or Eastern Iran (meaning really the eastern extension of Iranian culture) is a fascinating area, well worth exploring. It is an area where a number of cultures met, that of the Greco-Roman world, of Iran and India, and to some extent even China. It is a dry, semi-arid area, containing the fearsome Kara Kum and Kyzyl Kum deserts, traversed by some rivers from which water could be diverted into agriculture, and thus support some cities with large populations, really an oasis culture. Trade and agriculture supplied the economic basis of what were important cultural centers. But at the same time, the area abutted on the steppes, and there was almost constant pressure from nomads to the north and east, across the Syr Dary, to move in with their herds and to raid, and if successful, to become the rulers of this rich land. It was in effect the early-comers fending off the late-comers, because the inhabitants of Transoxiana were an Iranian population who had themselves moved in from the steppes and who had settled down. [Source: Albert E. Dien, Silk Road Foundation =]

“The area can be divided into three parts, Sogdiana, Fergana and Khorezm. Sogdiana was made up of the Zaravshan and Kashka Daryâ river valleys, Ferghâna is along the upper Syr Daryâ River, and Khorezm is in the delta region of the Amu Daryâ. The Achaemenid empire conquered the area in the 6th century BC, and the names of these areas are recorded in the list of Cyrus' conquests at Behistun. But then the Persians had to defend the area against the nomad peoples, and in fact, Cyrus was killed in 530 BC while fighting the Massagetae to the east of the Caspian. There followed periods of rule by the Seleucids, the Bactrian Greeks, the Parthians, the Kushans, and then a new nomadic group, the Hephthalites (or White Huns) fresh off the steppes, who helped put an end to the Kushan empire. Then came the Sasanians, whose rule lasted until their conquest by the Arabs in the 7th-8th centuries. =

“Ferghâna was especially noted for its horses, and these early on attracted the attention of the Chinese who wanted to improve the breed they used for their cavalry. An envoy was sent to purchase the desired animals, but was not only turned down, but was killed. General Li Guangli was then sent in 104 BC with an army of 60,000 over the Pamirs to seek revenge and to bring back the Fergana horses, known to the Chinese as "blood-sweating" or "heavenly" horses. Li besieged the city of Tashkent, but failed to take it and returned with the remnant of his army. Reaching the frontier of China, he asked for permission to proceed on to the capital. This was denied him, reinforcements were sent, and he was told not to come back without the horses. This gave him added determination, and the second expedition was successful, returning in 101 BC with 1000 horses. This marked the start of Chinese activity in the area west of the Pamirs, which was sporadic to be sure, but which did not end until the defeat of a Chinese army by a joint Turkish-Arab force in 732. =

Alp Arslan on the throne in Herat

Early Sogdian Trade

Étienne de la Vaissière wrote: “The contemporary Sogdian, Chinese, Arabic, Byzantine, and Armenian sources describe the Sogdians as the great traders of Inner Asia. They managed to sell their products - musk, slaves, silverware, silk and many other goods - to all the surrounding peoples. A Greek text describes their trading embassies to Byzantium, some caravaneers’ graffiti prove that they were in India, Turkish vocabulary is a testimony to their cultural and economic power in the Turkish steppe...But their main market was always China. The Chinese branch of their network is by far the best known, and in China the number of new discoveries on the Sogdians is quickly growing. [Source: Étienne de la Vaissière, École pratique des hautes, études Sciences historiques, et philologiques, Paris,Silk Road Foundation newsletter]

According to the Encyclopedia Iranica: “The people of Sogdiana were the main caravan merchants of Central Asia from the 5th to the 8th century. Little is known of the origins of Sogdian trade. The first mention of Sogdian merchants is found in the Shiji (Shih Chi), written around 100 B.C. and based on reports by the earliest Chinese envoys to Central Asia: “Although the states from Dayuan west to Anxi speak rather different languages, their customs are generally similar and their languages mutually intelligible. The men all have deepset eyes and profuse beards and whiskers. They are skilful at commerce and will haggle over a fraction of a cent” (Sima Qian, in Shiji, chap. 123, p. 3174; tr. Watson, p. 245). [Source: Encyclopedia Iranica +++]

Archeology bears witness “only to limited regional trade in Sogdiana (turquoise from Fergana to Samarkand), contrasting with that of the neighboring regions (Chinese imports to Fergana). The economy appears to have been very little based on money and, rather, to have been dominated by agricultural exchange. China of the Han period sent numerous embassies with a large number of rolls of silk and other products of the empire, in order to ingratiate itself with the nomadic aristocracies (Yuezhi, Wusun, Kangju) who dominated political life in Central Asia, so as to fight against its Xiongnu enemies. The Sogdians traded with the Chinese envoys on a small scale, while in Bactria and Gandhara merchants discovered how much they would be able to benefit by developing a market for Chinese silk in India, Iran, and the Hellenized Near East. The latter decided to re-export the silk brought by the embassies and even took the road to China, pretending to be ambassadors so as to buy the silk right at its source (Han shu 96 A, p. 3885; tr. Hulsewé and Loewe, p. 109). The Sogdians were to imitate them. In 29 and 11 B.C., ambassadors from Kangju, a nomad state centered on the middle reaches of the Syr Daria but at that time including Sogdiana, presented themselves at the Chinese court pronouncing the word “commerce” (Han shu, chap. 96 A, p. 3893; tr. Hulsewé and Loewe, p. 128). +++

“The unification of southern Central Asia and northern India within the Kushan empire during the first and third centuries of our era further reinforced the importance and prosperity of the powerful merchants from Bactria and Taxila and led to the creation of the main economic center of the Middle East. Buddhist sources show that Sogdian merchants, who were not on the main roads situated farther to the south (Ptolemy, tr. Ronca, pp. 31-36, misplaces Samarkand) emigrated as far as India, benefiting from this prosperity (biography of the monk Kang seng hui [Seng-Houei], born in the early 3rd century, tr. Chavannes, 1909, pp. 199-200; Grenet, 1996). The Sogdians were then the pupils and apprentices of the Kushan merchants. Part of the commercial Sogdian vocabulary is of Bactrian origin (Sims-Williams, 1996, pp. 50-51). +++

“The Sogdian commercial network grew sufficiently to ensure that in the early 3rd century, in Gansu, the representatives of Kushan and Sogdian merchants were placed on the same level and together participated in political negotiations (Sanguo zhi, chap. 4, p. 895). However, the main proof of Sogdian commercial expansion in the direction of China is provided by a set of letters, the Sogdian Ancient Letters (tr. Sims-Williams, 2001; Grenet, Sims-Williams, and de la Vaissière, 2001). Written in 313 in the Gansu corridor, these show the presence of Sogdian merchant communities in the main cities of the region, as well as in inner China. They also show that the merchants were organized within networks. The second letter, written in Gansu, is addressed to Samarkand. The descendants of the Kushan rivals are also mentioned in this text, since the Indian (?yntkwt) and Sogdian communities of Luoyang had been decimated by famine. It is hard to tell what became of the great trade during the following century, but in 439 the Sogdian merchants were the main foreign merchants in Gansu (Wei shu, chap. 102, p. 2270; Enoki, 1955, p. 44). From the same period, in the passes of the High Indus, are found more than 600 inscriptions by Sogdian caravaneers, against only about ten Bactrian inscriptions (Sims-Williams, 1989, 1992)—a fact which gives evidence of the replacement of Bactrian merchants by Sogdians.” +++

Central Asia Trade Routes

Sogdiana and the Silk Road

The Sogdians were centered in what is now northern Tajikistan and southern Uzbekistan (Raspopova and Shishkina, 1999). From the fifth to the eighth centuries, the Sogdians were the main caravan merchants of the Silk Road which passed through the Sogdian cities of Samarqand (their capital) and Bukhara (Vaissiere, 2004). The Sogdians also established extensive colonies in what is now western China. Their influence was so extensive that Sogdian, an east-Iranian language, was the lingua franca of Central Asia during the seventh century (Dien). The region to the south of Sogdiana, Ustashana (also called Sorushna) was also populated by Sogdian speaking people (Negmatov, 1999). Its capital, Bunjikat, was near present day Istravshan in northwest Tajikistan (Bosworth, 2005). The dialect of Sogdian spoken in Ustrashana in the eighth century has been identified through lexical and phonological similarities as the language from which modern Yagnob has descended (See Below).[Source: Bahrom in History, October 15, 2007]

Albert E. Dien wrote in a Silk Road Foundation article: Sogdiana was more actively involved with the Silk Road. The names of its major cities, Samarkand and Bukhârâ, must call to mind the area and significance they had for the Silk Road. Even in the earliest period, before those cities were founded, the Sogdians were the major participants in the Silk Road caravans, their language became the lingua franca across Asia, their alphabet the source of later alphabets to the east, they carried with them such religions as Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and Nestorian Christianity. They were a strong presence in the markets of the capitals of China, and some letters of the early 4th century, found in a tower of the Great Wall, reveal that the various Sogdian colonies in Central Asia kept in touch with the "home office" in Samarkand. [Source: Albert E. Dien, Silk Road Foundation =]

“The several Sogdian principalities, mostly small, were formed in antiquity, and some minted their own coinage. Many were at least nominally subject to Samarkand, but their situation would change with each new "super power" that exerted control over the area. For a time, for example the Turkish khagans on the steppes supported the Sogdian rulers, protected Sogdian trade, and employed Sogdians as officials and diplomats. The Chinese were also treated as overlords in the 7th century, but as distant ones, and Sogdiana suceeded in gaining its independence. During that 7th century there was rapid development of the capital at Samarkand, there was an expansion of trade, as evidenced by the abundance of coins, there was progress in silk weaving and handicrafts, and the Sogdian merchants not only thronged the Silk Road east to west, but also the "Fur" road, north to the Urals. The many silver and gilded vessels found through Central Asia and in China are now believed to have been manufactured in Sogdiana, not in Iran to the west. =

“With the coming of the Arabs in the later half of the 7th century, there were important changes. Iran had been conquered and there were raids across the Amu Darya, but in the early 8th century, the conquest of Transoxiana began in earnest. The governor-general of Khurâsân, the great general Qutayba ben Muslim, in 706 to 712, took over, and the local rulers became the vassals of the Arabs. There were some local uprisings, the area suffered from the campaigns, some of the cities being abandoned or destroyed, and with the change in the caliphate dynasty, from the Umayyads to 'Abbâsids, in 750, came large scale conversions to Islam. =

“We must not think that the Sogdians were simply passive subjects of the various powers which came to rule over them. During and between those periods of outside rule, a number of city-states had grown up, very decentralized, with an elite of knightly landowners lording it over large, irrigated estates, and rich merchants who were on a social par with the knights. Though some scholars have likened the social and political situation to that of feudalism, actually that is going too far. There was little stability in succession of rule, and it would seem that the community, or some segment of it, had a say in the selection of rulers. Bukhara, for example, had no ruler, and in the case of Pendzhikent, the city had its own income and own officials. Sogdian society thus displayed a highly developed economy but a weak state system, with little centralization. It was this lack of centralization that made the area so vulnerable to the attack of the Arabs.” =

Silk Road Communication and the Spread of Ideas

The Silk Road was a conduit for ideas, technology and culture as well as trade. Innovations introduced to Europe from China included playing cards, porcelain, art motifs, styles of furniture, paper money, printing and gunpowder. The Silk Road also facilitated the transmission from one to culture to another of music and dance, language, written scripts, and artistic and craft styles. It is said that in the A.D. 1st century 36 languages were spoken in the markets of the major Central Asian cities.

According to UNESCO: “Perhaps the most lasting legacy of the Silk Roads has been their role in bringing cultures and peoples in contact with each other, and facilitating exchange between them. On a practical level, merchants had to learn the languages and customs of the countries they travelled through, in order to negotiate successfully. Cultural interaction was a vital aspect of material exchange. Moreover, many travellers ventured onto the Silk Roads in order to partake in this process of intellectual and cultural exchange that was taking place in cities along the routes. Knowledge about science, arts and literature, as well as crafts and technologies was shared across the Silk Roads, and in this way, languages, religions and cultures developed and influenced each other. One of the most famous technical advances to have been propagated worldwide by the Silk Roads was the technique of making paper, as well as the development of printing press technology. Similarly, irrigation systems across Central Asia share features that were spread by travellers who not only carried their own cultural knowledge, but also absorbed that of the societies in which they found themselves. [Source: UNESCO ~]

“Indeed, the man who is often credited with founding the Silk Roads by opening up the first route from China to the West in the 2nd century BC, General Zhang Qian, was on a diplomatic mission rather than a trading expedition. Sent to the West in 139 BC by the Han Emperor Wudi to ensure alliances against the Xiongnu, the hereditary enemies of the Chinese, Zhang Qian was captured and imprisoned by them. Thirteen years later he escaped and made his way back to China. Pleased with the wealth of detail and accuracy of his reports, the emperor sent Zhang Qian on another mission in 119 BC to visit several neighbouring peoples, establishing early routes from China to Central Asia.” ~

Silk Road and the Spread of Religion

Buddha from Kizil Caves

Beginning in the A.D. 2nd century the Silk Road became a pathway for the flow of Buddhism from India to China and back again. In the 8th century it was the route in which Islam was introduced to Central Asia and western China from the Middle East. Zoroastrianism, Manichaesm, Nestroain Christianity, Judaism, shamanism, Confucianism and Taoism were also spread on the Silk Road.

According to UNESCO: “Religion and a quest for knowledge were further inspirations to travel along these routes. Buddhist monks from China made pilgrimages to India to bring back sacred texts, and their travel diaries are an extraordinary source of information. The diary of Xuan Zang (whose 25-year journal lasted from 629 to 654 AD) not only has an enormous historical value, but also inspired a comic novel in the sixteenth century, the 'Pilgrimage to the West', which has become one of the great Chinese classics. During the Middle Ages, European monks undertook diplomatic and religious missions to the east, notably Giovanni da Pian del Carpini, sent by Pope Innocent IV on a mission to the Mongols from 1245 to 1247, and William of Rubruck, a Flemish Franciscan monk sent by King Louis IX of France again to the Mongol hordes from 1253 to 1255. Perhaps the most famous was the Venetian explorer, Marco Polo, whose travels lasted for more than 20 years between 1271 and 1292, and whose account of his experiences became extremely popular in Europe after his death. [Source: UNESCO ~]

“The routes were also fundamental in the dissemination of religions throughout Eurasia. Buddhism is one example of a religion that travelled the Silk Roads, with Buddhist art and shrines being found as far apart as Bamiyan in Afghanistan, Mount Wutai in China, and Borobudur in Indonesia. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Manicheism spread in the same way, as travellers absorbed the cultures they encountered and then carried them back to their homelands with them. Thus, for example, Hinduism and subsequently Islam were introduced into Indonesia and Malaysia by Silk Road merchants travelling the maritime trade routes from India and Arabia.” ~

Study of Ancient Toilets Reveals Silk Road Helps Spread Disease

In July 2016, researchers from the University of Cambridge and China's Academy of Social Sciences and Gansu Institute for Cultural Relics and Archaeology announced they hade found evidence of parasitic worms at an ancient Silk Road site in northwestern China. The researchers investigated latrines at the Xuanquanzhi relay station, an archeological site that once served as a rest stop for the Silk Road between 111 B.C. and A.D. 109 AD and found “hygiene sticks” that had bits of cloth stuck to them that were used by people to clean up after using the latrine. Analysis of bits of feces on these sticks revealed eggs from four species of parasitic worms: roundworm, whipworm, tapeworm and Chinese liver fluke. [Source: Piers Mitchell, Affiliated Lecturer in Biological Anthropology, University of Cambridge, The Conversation, July 22, 2016 ]

Han dynasty toilet with pigsty

Piers Mitchell of the University of Cambridge wrote: “Given that the Silk Road was a melting pot of people, it is no wonder that researchers have suggested that it might have been responsible for the spread of diseases such as bubonic plague, anthrax and leprosy between China and Europe. However, no one one has yet found any evidence to show how diseases in eastern China reached Europe. Travellers might have spread these diseases taking a southerly route via India and the Middle East, or a northerly route via Mongolia and Russia. But our team has now found the earliest evidence for the spread of infectious disease organisms along the Silk Road. The results have been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science Reports. ==

“We investigated latrines at the Xuanquanzhi relay station, a fortified stopping point along the Silk Road that was built in 111 BC and used until 109 AD. It is located at Dunhuang, at the eastern end of the Tamrin Basin, an arid region that contacts the fearsome Taklamakan Desert. When the latrines were excavated, the archaeologists found sticks with cloth wrapped around one end. These have been described in ancient Chinese texts of the period as a personal hygiene tool for wiping the anus after going to the toilet. Some of the cloth had a dark solid material still adhered to it after all this time. ==

“We realised that this material was feces when we looked at it with a high-powered optical microscope. We also found the eggs of four species of parasitic intestinal worms in it. This may seem surprising but the eggs of many species of intestinal worms are very tough and may survive thousands of years in the ground. This indicates that some of the people using this latrine 2,000 years ago were infected with parasites. The species included roundworm (Ascaris lumbricoides), whipworm (Trichuris trichiura), Taenia sp. tapeworm (likely T. solium, T. asiatica or T. solium) and Chinese liver fluke (Clonorchis sinensis). ==

“Roundworm and whipworm are parasites found right across the world in the past and indicate poor personal hygiene, as the worms are spread by the contamination of food and hands by human feces. Taenia sp. tapeworm is spread by eating raw or undercooked meat such as pork and beef, and again has been found across large areas of the world in the past.==

“Meanwhile, Chinese liver fluke – which can cause abdominal pain, diarrhoea, jaundice and liver cancer – is only found in regions of eastern and southern China and Korea, as it has a complex life cycle. It is restricted to areas with wet marshy countryside, as the parasite must pass through the intermediate hosts of a water snail and freshwater fish before it can infect humans. The humans have to eat the fish raw if it is to infect them. In modern times, the closest area to Dunhuang where Chinese liver fluke is found is 1,500km away, and the region where most cases of infection are found is 2,000km away. ==

“Discovering evidence for Chinese liver fluke at a latrine in the arid region of Dunhuang was really exciting. The parasite could not possibly be endemic in that region as there are no marshy areas needed for its life cycle. Instead, it shows that a person who became infected with the liver fluke in eastern or southern China was able to travel the huge distance to this relay station along the Silk Road – at least 1,500km. Our finding suggests that we now know for sure that the Silk Road was responsible for spreading infectious diseases in ancient times. This makes more likely previous proposals that bubonic plague, leprosy and anthrax could also have been spread along it.” ==

Silk Road Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site

In June 2014, part of the Silk Road was named a UNESCO World Heritage site. reported: “The application was jointly submitted by China,Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. It is the first time China has cooperated with foreign countries for a World Heritage nomination. China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan formally launched the project to apply for adding the initial section of the Silk Road and the routes network of the Tian-shan Corridor onto the World Heritage list.The section is about 5000 kilometers long. It consists of 33 historical sites along the route, including 22 in China, 8 in Kazakhstan and three in Kyrgyzstan. They range from palaces and pagodas in cities to ruins in remote, inaccessible deserts. "The purpose of including the Silk Road onto the World Heritage list is to let people remember it and protect it. The silk road is a road for exchanges. It is a road of friendship. It promoted the cultural development of mankind," said Chinese Academy of Social Sciences archaeologist Liu Qingzhu. It is the first silk road heritage in the world. [Source:, June 21, 2014]

The UNESCO World Heritage Site, formally known as the “Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang'an-Tianshan Corridor”, encompasses the section the Silk Road in China, beginning in present-day Xian, and Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. According to UNESCO: “This property is a 5,000 kilometers section of the extensive Silk Roads network, stretching from Chang’an/Luoyang [present-day Xian], the central capital of China in the Han and Tang dynasties, to the Zhetysu region of Central Asia. It took shape between the 2nd century B.C. and 1st century AD and remained in use until the 16th century, linking multiple civilizations and facilitating far-reaching exchanges of activities in trade, religious beliefs, scientific knowledge, technological innovation, cultural practices and the arts. The thirty-three components included in the routes network include capital cities and palace complexes of various empires and Khan kingdoms, trading settlements, Buddhist cave temples, ancient paths, posthouses, passes, beacon towers, sections of The Great Wall, fortifications, tombs and religious buildings. [Source: UNESCO]

Image Sources: Map, Hofstra University; Merchant, wikipedia; Sogdian Silk, Silk Road Foundation; Silk production, Silk Road Foundation; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.