What was the Silk Road? - Central Asian Economy
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What was the Silk Road?

Mongol herdsman
Mongol herdsman

May 2016 - The first people moved into Central Asia about 50,000 BC. They were probably following the big animals that they hunted for food and leather skins - the wild aurochs and the wild horse. The great grasslands of Central Asia were a good place for aurochs and horses, because they eat grass.

By about 4000 BC, people in Central Asia had figured out how to tame horses and cattle that they herded around, so they didn't have to follow the wild herds anymore. Soon they began to ride the horses, so they could keep up with their cattle herds more easily, and they got donkeys from Sudan. By 2500 BC they had tamed camels too.

The Sogdians and other Central Asians also began to build big irrigation systems to be able to farm the dry grasslands in what is now Afghanistan, Uzbekhistan, and Turkmenistan. This irrigation allowed the Sogdians to grow fruit to export on the Silk Road.

By about 400 BC, thanks to the peaceful time of the Zhou Dynasty in China and the Persian Empire in West Asia, Central Asian people like the Sogdians began to use their camels and horses and donkeys to carry things to trade from one end of Asia to the other. One of the most important things these traders carried was silk from China, so the road they rode on was called the Silk Road. Central Asian traders also carried their own wool carpets, steel, sugar and medicine, paper, pottery from China, cotton, cinnamon and pepper from India, ivory, gold, and ostrich eggs from Africa, silver and gold from Spain, amber and furs from Russia, Greek perfume and wine, figs, and walnuts, and glass from the Hellenistic kingdoms.

The Silk Road did even better in the Middle Ages, when the Mongols united all of Asia under one empire, from China all the way to Turkey and India, and the rest of West Asia and North Africa was united under Islam. The long peace was good for traders, though the Mongol wars may have destroyed the old irrigation systems.

But all these people moving along the Silk Road also brought germs with them. Beginning in 1328 AD, the bubonic plague, or Black Death, spread from China or Central Asia to Europe and North Africa, killing tens of millions of people. People were afraid of strangers. They thought they might be bringing diseases with them. At the same time, the Mongol Empire collapsed, and the new Ottoman Empire blocked trade to the West. So by 1400 AD, trade slowed down a lot on the Silk Road.

Now that they couldn't get their silk, cotton, spices, paper, steel, and porcelain from the Silk Road anymore, traders in Europe began to look for a way to get these things themselves by sailing ships from Europe to India and China. The first of Frederick III's ships sailed around Africa to India in 1498 AD, and reached China in 1517. Because it turned out to be cheaper to trade between Europe, India, Africa, and China by sea than over land, that was the end of the Silk Road. People in Central Asia kept on herding and selling cattle and horses, but they were never again as rich as they were when they were running the Silk Road.

Learn by doing: scavenger hunt for Silk Road trade items in your house
More about the Sogdians

Bibliography and further reading:

More about Central Asia
After the Silk Road
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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