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Incense in Exchange for Gunpowder

The Silk Road: a trade route that altered the world.

Robbers attacking camel caravans, wars fought over silk and oriental spices, wild love stories in the middle of the desert: all manner of exciting legends have grown up around the Silk Road. The poetic name is a fairly recent invention for an ancient network of trade routes spanning the 6,500 kilometres that separate the Far East from the Mediterranean.

Some 200 years before Christ, the intricate network of roads gradually spread that enabled traders from Italy and Turkey to travel to China, crossing Syria, Uzbekistan and Mongolia to get there. They transported cardamom and curcuma, pepper and tea, bronze receptacles, porcelain and medicine over thousands and thousands of miles, travelling on foot or by camel through deserts with temperature differences of up to 75 degrees, across the snowbound passes of the Pamir Mountains at altitudes of 4,000 metres, and running the gauntlet of bands of thieves and highwaymen.

Festival »The Silk Road«

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Marco Polo

The men who embarked on the long journey risked their lives – but many returned with emeralds, rubies and fantastic stores to tell. The most famous of all these travellers was the Venetian adventurer Marco Polo, who set out for China in 1271 and didn't return to the lagoon city until 1295. Contemporaries could hardly believe the tales he told: he claimed to have been appointed to the highest offices at the court of the powerful Mongol ruler Kublai Khan in Beijing, to have counted no fewer than 10,000 concubines at the court, and to have introduced Christianity to the Far East at the Pope's behest. To this day, academics still argue about whether Marco Polo actually set foot on Chinese soil at all.

Marco Polo on his travels
Marco Polo on his travels © Wikimedia Commons

Silk: Valuable Caterpillar Spittle

One commodity was so sought-after among the merchants that it even gave its name to the trade route: silk. At the time, silk was the most precious of all materials; it was as valuable as gold, and extremely expensive to produce. Some 1,700 silkworm cocoons are needed to make a single silk dress.

No wonder, then, that the secret of silk manufacture was strictly guarded in China. Legend has it that anyone caught smuggling silkworms out of the country could reckon with the death penalty. In the end, the state secret is supposed to have been revealed by an Imperial princess of all people. But the hype didn't suffer as a result, and silk remained the most sought-after commodity in Eastern Asia.

The moth whose caterpillars spin the silk threads was domesticated some 5,000 years ago. The silkworm secretes protein from the salivary glands on its head, which it spins into a single thread several hundred metres long; it then encloses itself in the cocoon thus formed.

Silkworm cocoon
Silkworm cocoon
Silk threads at a market in Laos

Globalisation at Walking Pace

The mutual exchange on the trade routes was by no means confined to commodities. Armies, religions and cultural techniques like printing, the manufacture of paper, postal systems and such chemical knowledge as distillation made their way along the mighty branches of the Silk Road, not to mention ideologies, languages and entire peoples: this was the earliest form of globalisation.

Text: Anastasia Päßler, last updated: 8 Apr 2020

The name »Silk Road« is fairly recent in origin. The trade route has been in existence since the 2nd century BC, but it was only given its name in the 19th century by German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen.

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