The Role of the Silk Road in Creating the First Global Economy

Episode 8 Trade Across the Tarim Basin*

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

Between the 2nd century BC and the 2nd century AD, the Silk Road enabled the development of the first “global economy.” The West’s desire for Chinese silk was the primary driver of the Silk Road trade.

Harl traces the five main routes Silk Road traders took from China:

  • The most northern route ran through the Ganzu Corridor directly north of the wall separating China from the steppes. The Chinese posted a garrison at the Jade Gate** to tax all imports entering the country.
  • Traveling west, the Ganzu Corridor route split into a northern branch and a southern branch skirting the Taklamakan Desert
  • At Kashgar the route crossed the formidable Pamirs Mountains.
  • From there, a northern branch led north of the Aral and Caspian seas through Fergana (which traded horses along the Silk Road) to the Black Sea and a southern branch traversed Transoxiana*** south of the Caspian Sea to various Black Sea ports and (via Bactria****) to the Mediterranean.

He also discussed the complementary sea routes established by Mediterranean civilizations following the discovery of the monsoon trade winds in 116 BC. Egypt (run by the Ptolemys, a Greek dynasty) controlled the shipping around the Arabian peninsula to import silk from India.

In 31 BC, Rome secured the Mediterranean under the emperor Augustus. The Romans had an enormous appetite for Chinese silks and spices and gems from India.

*A desert area between the east Asian steppes and China, the Tarim Basin first came under Chinese control in the 1st century AD.

**The Jade Gate was a strategic Great Wall fort adjacent at the entry to the Ganzu corridor.

***Tranoxiana is the Roman’s name for a lower Central Asian region d in lower Central Asia roughly corresponding to modern-day eastern Uzbekistan

****Bactria was also a jumping off point for routes to India.

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