The Trade Routes of the Silk Road: Linking Ancient Empires

Main routes of the Silk Road

The Silk Road, most scholars agree, spanned the distance between Antioch in Syria to Xian in China. The Silk Road evolved from a composite of regional networks of routes established by nomads centuries earlier. The trade routes converged at major commercial centers and chased the horizon in every direction. Major geographic obstacles coerced the routes to circumnavigate and follow the dramatic contours Asia’s landscape.

Early Trade on the Silk Road

The earliest records of trade occurring across the Silk Road are dated around the first century BCE. The trade of Chinese made silk drove and fueled economies of kingdoms, large and small for a millennium. From the very beginning, the silk trade played a substantial role in international commerce. Silk was not only a valuable traded commodity, but was also accepted as currency from Rome to Baghdad and onto Xian.

The Silk Road was not a continuous route. The trade routes were a series of complex networks that independently evolved from the paths carved by the earliest migrations of prehistoric humans. The trails snaked over, through, and around the known world, navigating a distance of over 3,000-miles.

From the Gobi Desert to Mesopotamia

Travelers of the Silk Road had to contend with some of the greatest geographic features on the planet. The trade routes labored across the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts for hundreds of desolate miles. They climbed 20,000-foot pinnacles and touched the roof of the world. The routes navigated the peaks of the Pamirs, the Hindu-Kush, the Himalayas, the Kunlun, the Tianshan, the Caucasus, and the Iranian plateau.

The Silk Road also crossed the Euphrates, the Tigris, the Oxus, the Jaxartes, the Indus, the Ganges, and the Yellow rivers.

At times the trade routes were too dangerous to traverse due to wars, weather, or banditry. During periods of stability the migrations of merchants, holy-men, and the peripatetic happened on a extraordinary scale. People traveled, voluntarily or not, thousands of miles to the far reaches of the known world. Colonies, fortresses, and outposts of trade were established everywhere along Silk Road.

Governing Trade on the Silk Road

Each empire carefully governed trade within its own sovereignty. Commercial centers were the terminal destinations and hubs of commerce and culture. Customs agents stopped foreign merchants at the borders, where the caravans were searched and inventory taken, identities confirmed, and customs paid.

Agents refused entry to travelers, or denied permission to conduct business within their empire, and would sometimes confiscate cargo in the name of the state. The Chinese and the Persians were notorious for draconian regulations complicated by a bevy of restrictions designed to favor domestic production.

Oases Across the Silk Road

The oases that dotted the Silk Road were smaller, incredibly remote, but no less important. Usually spaced a day’s journey apart, a caravan, at journey’s end, could water and feed its animals, or replace ones that perished along the trip. Some oases were fertile, others were desiccated mud huts, but they supplied the traveler with shelter and food in whatever form. Provisions could be exchanged for shelter and water with the local inhabitants . The locals would sell their specialties to merchants, who turned the goods in distant larger markets for profit. Oases names took on peculiar tones like: Bitter Well Halt, Eyelash Oasis, or Gates of Sand.

Linking the World’s Greatest Empires

It crossed the borders of the world’s greatest empires: the Roman, the Byzantine, the Persian, the Kushan, the Arabic, the Turkish, the Mongol, and the dynasties of China. For centuries commodities, livestock, agriculture, art, technology, science, and theology coursed through the trade arteries of the Silk Road.

The Silk Road crossed the boundaries of language, culture, religion, and politics. Commerce was the vital link that helped established peaceful relationships between nations and people who shared little in common but the pursuit of wealth and opportunity. The role it played in the evolution of humanity is of an epic nature.


  1. Luce Boulnois – Silk Road: Monks, Warriors & Merchants on the Silk Road, Odyssey Books and Guides, 2004
  2. Mildred Cable with Francesca French – The Gobi Desert, Readers Union & Hodder and Stoughton, 1950