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.

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