Routes Followed by the First Silk Road

Episode 16: Silk Roads: Perils of Caravans and Camels

Foundations of Asian Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin

Film Review

Prior to the development of the Silk Road* trading networks, China played no part in Afro-Eurasian trade networks dating back to 1500 BC Phoenician traders.

During the Han dynasty, the Silk Road began at the capitol Changan and traveled west along the Great Wall to the Dunhuang oasis, where snow melt from mountains on three sides provided a steady supply of water. It was a prime example of caravan cities that sprung up all along the Silk Road to provide traders secure storage for their goods and food and water for themselves and their camels. The emperor stationed a military garrison there to search all pack camels for smuggled silk worms, pods and eggs.**

After Dunhuang the Silk Road split into northern and southern branches skirting the Taklamakan Desert. The separate routes rejoined at Kashgar and continued on to Samarkand, where goods were handed on to Kushan traders. The northern Silk Road continued through the Kushan and Parthian Empires. To reach the Mediterranean from the Parthian Empire, camel trains needed to cross the treacherous Zagros Mountains.

A southern Silk Road branch, leading to India, peeled off from the Kingdom of Khotan on the southern border of the Taklamakan Desert.

Without the domestication by steppes nomads of the Bactrian camel, there would have been no Silk Road. Native to Central Asia, the Bactrian camel has two humps (consisting entirely of fat), unlike the single-humped Arabian camel. The Bactrian species has two-toed webbed feet to give them good traction in sand and sealable nostrils to protect them against sand storms.**

The first Silk Road trade saw silk and Chinese inventions moving west and religious ideas, Western art and new foods moving east.

*The name “Silk Road” was first coined by the German explorer von Richtenhofer in the 19th century.

**To ensure their most valuable export, China had to ensure the West never learned the secret of silk production. The Romans believed silk fibers grew on trees. Archeological evidence suggests the Chinese domesticated silk worms as early as 5,000 BC.

***According to Benjamin, there are only 1,000 wild Bactrian camels left, though thousands are still used throughout Central Asia as pack animals.

Film can be viewed free on Kanopy.

The Intertwined Role of Steppes Nomads and Early Chinese Civilization


Episode 2: Journey to the East

The Foundations of Eurasian Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)

Film Review

This lecture is an introduction to the Benjamin’s 48 episode course The Foundations of Eurasian Civilization.

About half the course is devoted to China, considered the cradle of Eastern civilization. However it will also cover China’s immense influence on the West, beginning with the Confucian about efficient bureaucracy,* and the essential role of numerous Chinese inventions in theĀ  industrialization of western society.

By the fall of the Tang dynasty in 740 AD, China had created the wealthiest and most powerful state (population two million) the world had ever seen, thanks to Chinese peasants creating the world’s most successful commercial farming system.

At the same time, the steppes nomads to the north of the first Chinese cities (and their ferocious horse archers – see Barbarian Empires of the Steppes) also had a massive influence on early Chinese civilization. Their repeated booty raids on China would lead the first Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huangdi (founder of the Qin/Ch’in Dynasty) to build the first border length wall in 221 BC.

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers were conscripted to build the wall, with tens of thousands losing their lives. The wall failed to stop the raids.

It would be the steppes nomads, and their domestication of the Bactrian camel, that made possible the Silk Roads, the first overland network of international trade.

*American founding father Benjamin Franklin was a big fan of Confucius and adopted many of his ideas in developing his approach to democratic government.

Film can be viewed free with a library card at Kanopy.

The Importance of the Early Silk Road(s)

Silk Road Maps 2018 - Useful map of the ancient Silk Road ...

Episode 23: New Ideas Along the Silk Road

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

In this lecture, Benjamin traces the shifting pattern of routes that comprised the “Silk Roads” that linked five empires between 100 BC and 400 AD: Roman, Parthian (modern day Iran), Kushan (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal), Han (northern China) and Xiongnu (southern China). The robust trade this produced led to increased political stability in Rome (after 100 years of civil war) as agriculture flourished and coins were issued for the first time. Crossing enormous spans of desert, these trade routes arose following the domestication of the bactrian camel, with its two humps (consisting of stored fat) and tolerance for cold, drought and high altitude made theĀ  possible.

The Romans imported silk, iron, cloves, nutmeg and cardamon from Asia, while the Han and Xiongnu empires imported grapes and glassware from Rome, art objects from India and Egypt and horses from the Central Asian steppes.

According to Benjamin, the collective learning spread by the Silk Roads was just as important as economic trade. Images the sculpted Roman deities would lead to the first sculpted rendition of Buddha in the Xiongnu and Han empires and the emergence of Mahayana Buddhism. The Silk Roads also facilitated the spread of Christianity by Paul of Tarsas between 35-55 AD.

Unfortunately they also facilitated the spread of epidemics of smallpox, bubonic plague and measles. The Roman population dropped from 60 to 40 million between 150-400 AD. This drastic decrease in population contributed to the eventual collapse of both the Roman and the Han (which experienced comparable losses) empires.

Sea trade also flourished during this period between Africa and East Asia, using the summer monsoon trade winds to travel east and the winter trade winds to return.

Vanishing after the collapse of the Roman and Han empires the Silk Roads were revived around 600 AD.

This film can be viewed free on Kanopy.