The Silk Road is composed of several trade routes that linked China with the West in ancient times. It spread throughout the Asian continent and connected China with Central Asia, the Mediterranean regions, and even areas in Africa and Europe. The Silk Road was formally established by General Zhang Qian who was sent by Emperor Han Wudi to lead the westward expedition of the Han Dynasty. He reached some Western Regions and developed the Silk Road connecting the East and West’ economies and cultures.
The Silk Road’ original purpose was not for commodity exchange, and instead, it was for military and political reasons. To seek allies to fight against the Xiongnu (people of the nomadic tribes from Central Asia) who tried invading the region repeatedly, General Zhang Qian was sent by the emperor to the Western Regions.
Later, Zhang Qian reported to Emperor Han Wudi that the Western Regions were interested in developing commercial relationships with the Han. Again, General Zhang Qian was sent to visit the Western Regions, bringing with him hundreds of bulls, sheep, and silks to present to them. Silk was especially preferred by them. Later, ambassadors from the Western Regions were sent to Chang’an (capital of the Western Han Dynasty, today’s Xi’an) with their local products. From then, the exchange of commodities, knowledge, inventions, and so on became frequent, benefitting not only the regions engaged in the exchange, but the people who lived along the Silk Road.
The collapse of the Han Dynasty caused the trading on the Silk Road to decline. However, the founding of the Tang dynasty revitalized the Silk Road, reaching its climax. In this time, silk and embroidery were still the main products transported along the Silk Road. Meanwhile, more merchants, pilgrims, and missionaries from the Western Regions came to Chang’an (capital of the Tang Dynasty) through the Silk Road, expanding the exchange of ideas, knowledge, religions, philosophies, and cultures. Buddhism was introduced to the region at this time.
The starting point of the Silk Road in the Han and Tang Dynasties was its role as the capital city Chang’an (today’s Xi’an). It went through some cities of Gansu Province such as Lanzhou, Tianshui, Zhangye, and Jiuquan along the Gansu Corridor and reached Jiayuguan Pass of Dunhuang, which was a major post along the Silk Road.
When the Silk Road came out of Gansu Corridor into Xinjiang, it broke into three main routes: southern, central, and northern routes. The southern route ran west along the northern foot of Kunlun Mountains and went through Ruoqiang County, Minfeng County, and Hotan area, reaching Kashgar. Then, it went over the Pamir Plateau and reached India or passed through Afghanistan and Central Asia to reach the coast of the Mediterranean Sea or Arabian Sea. The central route ran along the southern foot of the Tianshan Mountain range through Loulan of Rouqiang County, Korla City, and so on and then across the Pamir Plateau reach to Russia. The northern route ran along the northern foot of the Tianshan Mountain range. It started at Hami County and went through Turpan, Urumqi, and the Ili River Valley, reaching the area along the Black Sea.
The trading along the Silk Road declined sharply as the Tang Dynasty fell and as the Marine Silk Road was formed. The prosperous Silk Road was a good operation for more than a thousand years before it fell into disuse. The then rich cities with solid ramparts and bustling streets have submerged in the vast desert. Today, people can only trace their splendid history in the endless amount of remains.
Nonetheless, the Silk Road not only played a crucial role as a bridge for the exchange of civilizations among the Asian region between them and Europe, but also improved the exchange, integration, and development of various world civilizations.