Shop

Customized Lesson Plans

World History Lesson Plans

U.S. History Lesson Plans

Free Stuff

Tee Shirts

History Cat Lessons: Creative and Engaging

The Ancient Silk Road

The Silk Road



The Silk Road was once a place where legends were made -until the 1500s or so, and then Columbus came along and ruined everything (or improved if you're the glass half-full type). Before Europeans found an all water route to connect Europe and Asia people had to transport their goods the old fashioned way, by camel.

The Silk Road spanned 6,200 miles of some of the roughest, bandit infested terrain on the planet. But the profits were high and so the risk was worth it. Especially if you were rich enough to pay someone to do the traveling for you.  The Silk Road inspired stories of wealthy merchants, deadly bandits, fabulous cities, ghosts and genies, and the explorers and merchants who traveled these ancient roads all for one thing- to get stinking rich.

The Silk Road itself is a bit of an enigma. For starters, it's not just one road, but a collection of hundreds of roads and camel tracks that connected the cities of Asia with the cities of Africa and Europe.



Secondly, the Silk Road was not always even on land. Because merchants had to deal with things such as freak storms, crossing vast deserts, climbing treacherous mountain passes, all while avoiding bandits who are looking to relieve you of some of that precious cargo- many merchants chose to sail along the coast of Asia and take their chances with bad tempered sea gods.

A Chinese merchant starting off in Chang'an would stock up on all of the supplies needed for a journey that could take 6 months or more, depending on far he was willing to travel. Typically, the farther a merchant traveled the more profit he could keep for himself, and the greater the risk of something going horribly wrong.

 

Only a small percentage of merchants tried to make the entire 4,000 mile journey. Before starting off a merchant would have to buy camels, axes, rope, cloth, salted meats and vegetables that were preserved to resist spoiling in the days before refrigerators.  In Chang'an a merchant would also load up on goods that would fetch the highest price along the way. The ideal trade good should be light-weight to reduce the number of pack animals and rare to fetch the highest price. Chinese artisans may not have had high status in ancient China, but it was their work that made the Silk Road worth the risks. China became famous for its iron and bronze work, finely decorated lacquer boxes, bamboo products, and the most highly prized of all-silk.

The Fabric that Changed the World


 

"The finest silk comes from the silkworms produced by the Bombyx mori moth. The moth cannot fly nor can it see. Its only job is to lay eggs. One moth will lay approximately 500 eggs over a 4-6 day period. Soon after that the moth dies. It takes around 30,000 silkworms to produce 12 pounds of raw silk."

Silk was the epitome of luxury back in ancient times (after all it had a whole trade route named after it). The story of silk is wrapped in mystery. According to legend, the Chinese princess Shi Ling Xi was drinking a cup of hot tea under a mulberry tree when a silkworm cocoon fell into her cup. When she unraveled the cocoon one of the world's greatest secrets had been revealed! Silk making was a well-guarded secret for the next 2,000 years. Anyone who let this secret slip could face the death penalty. This threat worked pretty well because it wasn't until after the Middle Ages that Europeans began to learn how to manufacture their own silk. Legend has it that the secret of silk escaped China when a Chinese princess smuggled cocoons out of the country with her when she married a foreign prince by hiding them in her elaborate hairdo.

Deserts & Bandits.



Travelling west from Chang'an a caravan head towards the Gansu Corridor, a 600 mile stretch of some of the most difficult terrain along the Silk Road. The Gansu Corridor is the wild west of China. Caravans of up to a hundred merchants would group together for protection and to increase the odds of surviving one of the harshest stretches of terrain in Asia.

To south of the Gansu Corrdior is the mountainous Tibetan Plateau; to the north lies the Gobi Desert. Merchant caravans would follow the mighty Yellow River for many miles and then head north away from the mountains to follow a string of oases that dot the desert. The desert itself was a challenge with scarce water, flash flooding from sudden thunderstorms, and extreme temperatures that could range from 130°F in the day to a brisk 50 degrees at night. Caravans navigated by the stars and after Han times the Chinese came up with another way of finding their way- the magnetic compass. However, getting sunburned and lost were not the only worries a caravan faced. Bandits often roamed these remote regions looking to relieve some of the valuable cargo of silk, spices, and gems that merchants transported. Merchants often traveled in large, heavily armed groups. Some even hired professional soldiers for added muscle.



The goal of most merchants was the Jade Gate- the most western point in ancient China, just west of the town of Dunhuang which was an important town to resupply. Before making this 1,000 mile journey the caravan would make a stop at the military outpost of Jiayuguan, marking the end of the Great Wall of China. The Great Wall itself reflects the long history of China and its constant battle against the nomadic tribes that led raids on the Chinese settlements that existed on the fringes of the empire.



To protect their western borders the Chinese began building a series of military posts connected by a wall in the 5th century BCE. These early walls were often just earthen barriers built between mountain passes. Over the centuries this wall became more sophisticated being built of stone, which connected with other sections walls. until by the Ming Dynasty (1500s), all of these walls were connected into one big Great Wall spanning over 5,000 miles along China's northern border with Mongolia.

​Ghosts in the Desert?

"When a man is riding through this desert by night and for some reason -falling asleep or anything else -he gets separated from his companions and wants to rejoin them, he hears spirit voices talking to him as if they were his companions, sometimes even calling him by name. Often these voices lure him away from the path and he never finds it again, and many travelers have got lost and died because of this. Sometimes in the night travelers hear a noise like the clatter of a great company of riders away from the road; if they believe that these are some of their own company and head for the noise, they find themselves in deep trouble when daylight comes and they realize their mistake. There were some who, in crossing the desert, have been a host of men coming towards them and, suspecting that they were robbers, returning, they have gone hopelessly astray....Even by daylight men hear these spirit voices, and often you fancy you are listening to the strains of many instruments, especially drums, and the clash of arms. For this reason bands of travelers make a point of keeping very close together. Before they go to sleep they set up a sign pointing in the direction in which they have to travel, and round the necks of all their beasts they fasten little bells, so that by listening to the sound they may prevent them from straying off the path."

---- Marco Polo, Travels

Point of No Return

Western China- 200 BCE

 

If a caravan hadn't bought a few camels yet, picking one up in the markets of Dunhuang would have been a wise move. Beyond the frontier city of Dunhuang lie 620 miles of brutal desert known as the Taklamakan. The name Taklamakan actually comes from combing two Arabic words, Tark- 'abandoned' and 'makan'- place. We know what you're thinking. It sounds like the perfect spring break vacation spot.

The Uyghur people of western China adopted this name after Islam replaced Buddhism in Central Asia in the 700s CE. The name is fitting as hardly any life exists in a region where rain rarely falls, summer heat soars to 130°F and frigid Siberian winds cause winter temperatures of -20°F or colder. Because little vegetation grows here, sudden sandstorms can arise without warning causing an unlucky traveler to be trapped and lose his way.



For travelers trying to reach the Middle East and Europe by land, this way was the only way. The Taklamakan lies in a valley surrounded by treacherous mountains that block moisture laden clouds. The safest route is through a place known as the Desert of Death. Known as ships of the desert, camels have several advantages that make it suited to these harsh and unpredictable climates. Since fresh water is so scarce, merchant caravans would make their way along the edge of the desert where can be found a string of oasis towns where merchants could resupply and pick up valuable items coming from India.

 

Despite a slight PR problem, the Desert of Death was actually a pretty lively place. The mountains and deserts forced caravans into a narrow route that brought together the people from India, China, and the Middle East. Buried in the dry desert sands, 4,000 year old mummies, preserved by the arid climate have been uncovered. What's remarkable is that some of these mummies were from as far away as Europe! The mountains also hide another well-known secret. High up on the cliffs can be found caves decorated with Buddhist frescoes and statues that date back to the time of the Buddha himself (around 500 BCE). Archaeological evidence tells us that these caves were used as meditation centers for Buddhist monks seeking enlightenment.

Just on the other side of the Taklamkan Desert lies the ancient market town of Kashgar (kashi), which today is at the westernmost extreme of China. Back in Han times Kashgar was outside of the Chinese world. Kashgar is one of the most famous market towns along the Silk Road. Kashgar was built by trade and became especially famous for its wool carpets and spice markets.

The Trail of Bones

Central Asia

 

Heading west, the Caravan has survived the extremes of the Taklamakan, outpaced roaming bandits, and now has an even bigger challenge to face. At the junction of India, Central Asia, and China are a chain of mountains that divide the continent in half. It is here that the Himalayas, Tian Shan, Karakorum, and Hindu Kush Mountains all come together in a place called the Pamirs. High up in the Pamirs can be found the highest road (and one of the most deadly) in the world- the infamous Trail of Bones.



To better understand the difficulties of the trail, let's talk geography. Scientists believe that 100 million years ago India was an island that gradually was being driven by plates deep within the earth towards the Asian mainland. About 65 million years ago these two land masses found each other as India crashed (at a rate of about 2 inches per year- NASCAR speeds by geologic standards) and the great mountains of Asia began to form. Flash forward to today and you have a region where nearly all of the world's tallest mountains can be found.

 

​The heavyweight champion of these mountains is Mt. Everest at 29,035 feet (and growing). However, tallest doesn't always mean baddest. On the border of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and Tajikistan are some of the roughest climbs on the planet. Picture Asia (or look on a map) and you will see how these mountains divide India and SE Asia from the rest of the continent like a giant rugged wall.

 

There are only a few places called passes where you can safely (somewhat) pass through. A traveler making his way west from China or east from Rome would have had to cross through one of two passes. The Khyber Pass on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan will take you into the Indian heartland and beyond to Thailand and Vietnam. The northern route takes you to China by way of the much feared Karakoram Pass. Wedged between two mountain ranges, travelers were funneled into the Karakoram Pass.

Protected by the mountains (most of which are higher than 20,000 feet) the pass saw little snow, which made it easy to travel during the winter. (Most travelers tried to be long gone by then).

However, snow is the least of a traveler's problems. The Silk Road rises to over 18,000 feet causing altitude sickness if you weren't careful. Many travelers did not understand that their shortness of breath, dizziness, stomach cramps, and vomiting was caused by altitude sickness, which occurs at about 8,000 feet and higher. Travelers' diaries instead blame the wild onions, one of the only forms of vegetation that grow here.  Experienced travelers know to ascend the mountain slowly to avoid this sickness.

 

The high altitude created another hazard for caravans passing through. Because the mountains act as a funnel, frigid winds can whip along the pass at very high speeds. These winds can bring a blizzard with little or no warning causing a caravan to get disoriented and walk straight off narrow paths.



If the altitude sickness and the windstorms didn't get you; bandits might. Much of the pass is wide enough to allow a caravan of horses and camels through. In some places the path narrows to barely a footpath hugging a mountain cliff. Here people would unload the pack and carry the load themselves. These narrow paths were the most dangerous leg of the journey leading to countless deaths of animals and people- thus, the Trail of Bones. It is here that bandits would hide waiting for a struggling caravan to pass by. One nearby pass, the Khunjerab is known as the Vale of Blood because of all of the deaths caused by bandit attacks.



The Karakorum Pass was one of the most vital links in ancient times between the eastern and western worlds. Valuable goods and information had to cross here first.  Merchants braved these hazardous passes because just beyond were the famous market cities of Central Asia and the Middle East where items like Chinese silk and Porcelain, Indian cotton, and tea would sell for 100 even 1,000 times what merchants had paid for them at the start of their journey.

The Crossroad of the Silk Route

Samarkand 500 CE

 

Having made 2,300 mile journey from through the Taklamakan desert and over the Karakoram Mountains, the caravan would find themselves at the halfway point between Xian China and Rome at the ancient city of Samarkand. Samarkand (now in modern-day Uzbekistan) must have been a welcome sight to weary eyes. The city was surrounded by high walls and massive gates that took several people to open and close each day. Inside, the city was laid out in a grid pattern with houses ranging from mud brick for the poor to grand palaces for the wealthy.



The city of Samarkand is an ancient one and a stroll down its streets will tell tales of the Greek influence brought by Alexander the Great, Persian architecture, monuments to the Buddhists, Zoroastrians, and Christians who once called Samarkand home, and evidence of Arabic and Islamic influence can be seen everywhere in Central Asia where Islam has been the dominant religion since the 700s.

Travelers often wrote about the gardens that could be found all across the city. One traveler even wrote that the trees of Samarkand are so numerous that you can barely see the houses from outside of the city. Probably more than any other city on the Silk Road, Samarkand shows us how trade can bring people and culture together. In the city center is the Rejistan Square surrounded by turquoise domed mosques, madrasas (Islamic schools), and universities.


 

As a hub of trade merchants flocked to the suqs of Samarkand. Silks and Porcelain came from China. Ivory and spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper came from India, white slaves and furs from Russia, glassware from Rome, incense and perfume from Arabia. The people of Central Asia were known as skilled merchants and some of the finest rugs, metal works and horses came from these parts.

Samarkand became a very wealthy city and history tells us that wealthy cities often get conquered- a lot. Samarkand was at one time controlled by the Greeks, Parthians, Persians, Arabs, Sassanids, Mongols, and the Russians who tore down the city walls and gates after they took over in the 1930's. Today it is the second largest city in the independent country of Uzbekistan and the glory of its Silk Road days can still be seen in its medieval buildings, mosques, and gardens that line the city streets.


 

As a hub of trade merchants flocked to the suqs of Samarkand. Silks and Porcelain came from China. Ivory and spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper came from India, white slaves and furs from Russia, glassware from Rome, incense and perfume from Arabia. The people of Central Asia were known as skilled merchants and some of the finest rugs, metal works and horses came from these parts.

Samarkand became a very wealthy city and history tells us that wealthy cities often get conquered- a lot. Samarkand was at one time controlled by the Greeks, Parthians, Persians, Arabs, Sassanids, Mongols, and the Russians who tore down the city walls and gates after they took over in the 1930's. Today it is the second largest city in the independent country of Uzbekistan and the glory of its Silk Road days can still be seen in its medieval buildings, mosques, and gardens that line the city streets.

Test Page 

This site was designed with the
.com
website builder. Create your website today.
Start Now