The silk road is not a single road, as the name suggests. It refers to a huge network of trade routes, spread over present day China, South Asia, and West Asia, connecting them to the Mediterranean region, North Africa, and Europe. It covered an astonishing 4000 miles from China to Rome. The road promoted cultural exchange along with trade in various goods and services across the ancient civilizations. Pilgrims, missionaries, nomads, and armies traveled on the route, promoting a better understanding of civilizations like China, India, Rome, Persia, and Arabia.
The term 'silk road' was first used for this route in 1877, by Ferdinand Von Richthofen, a German geographer. The silk industry originated in China. The demand for clothes made from this elusive material and the technique to master the art of its production is credited to the Chinese civilization. The demand for Chinese silk was quite high, and it prompted the creation of extensive trade routes. Thus, the silk road was formed. The long journey was laden with deserts, cruel winds, poisonous creatures, and huge mountain ranges. In addition to these, there was always a fear of looting. Therefore, merchants would go a certain distance initially, and passed on their goods to others, who then traveled further. Thus, trade was carried out in stages in the beginning of the route's history.
As it crossed the commercial pockets in China, the road bifurcated into northern and southern routes. The northern route extended towards the northwest, through the Chinese province of Gansu, and further split up into three more routes. The first two rejoined in the Taklamakan desert, while the third moved through the Tian Shan mountains, the southern part of present day Kazakhstan, before bifurcating again. One branch ended up at the Black Sea. Another branch traveled southwards, towards the southern route. Another route, originating at Xian province in China, passed through present day Uzbekistan, Iran, and Iraq before ending into the western fringes of the Roman Empire. The route brought a wealth of goods like dry fruits and condiments from the Persian Empire; aloe, myrrh, glass work, handicrafts, medicines, and slaves from Egypt and other African countries; and spices, sandalwood, and precious stones from India, to China. In exchange, the Chinese bartered with porcelain and, most importantly, silk.
The southern route passed through northern India, Mesopotamia, and Turkestan, along with a brief journey through the sea. Once it crossed into Iran, many merchant ships plied through the Mediterranean sea from ancient Italy. The Han Dynasty in China recognized the value of the silk road and extended it through Central Asia and provided military protection to the caravans. The Chinese and the Indian cultures were exposed to the Western world like never before. The Indian civilization served as the middleman between the goods of the Roman empire and Chinese silk and handicrafts. Camels, horses, mules, and a lot of domestic animals accompanied the flow of people along the route. Two of the biggest religions of the world, Buddhism and Islam, spread far east from India and the Arab civilization, respectively, through the silk road.
Around 760 AD, the trade suffered greatly under the Tang Dynasty, only to be revived later by the Sung Dynasty. The increasing number of sea routes in the 14th century, however, led to a permanent decline in the popularity of the Silk Road. Nevertheless, it remains one of the most iconic reminders of our past, and the initiator of the first wave of globalization in human history.