Silk Road Trade & Travel Encyclopedia
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Trade History of the Silk Road, Spice & Incense Routes


The Silk, Incense and Spice Routes

Frankincense from Arabia, silks from China, spices of southeast Asia.

Maps
Incense, Spice, Silk Routes (overland & maritime)


INCENSE

Important trade routes, known collectively as the "Incense Route" were mostly controlled by the Arabs, who brought frankincense and myrrh by camel caravan from South Arabia. The network of routes also served as a channel for trading of Indian, Arabian, African and East Asian goods. The incense trade flourished from South Arabia to the Mediterranean between roughly the 3rd century BCE to the 2nd century CE. This trade was crucial to the economy of Yemen. Frankincense and myrrh trees were seen as a source of wealth by its rulers.

The demands for scents and incense by the empires of antiquity, such as Egypt, Rome and Babylon, made Arabia one of the oldest trade centers of the world.

Frankincense was a product traded along the Incense Route. It is an aromatic resin obtained from trees of the genus Boswellia and is used in incense, as well as in perfumes. Although it is known as "frankincense" to westerners, the resin is also known as olibanum, which is derived from the Arabic al-lubān (roughly translated: "that which results from milking"), a reference to the milky sap tapped from the Boswellia tree. It was in Lebanon that the resin was sold and traded with Europeans. Frankincense has been traded on the Arabian Peninsula and in North Africa for more than 5,000 years. In Christian tradition, the Magi (also referred to as the Three Wise Men, or Three Kings from the East) are said to have visited Jesus after his birth, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. More...

Myrrh, a reddish-brown resinous material collected from the dried sap of certain trees, was a product traded along the Incense Route. The original myrrh species is Commiphora myrrha, which is native to Yemen, Somalia, and the eastern parts of Ethiopia. The related Commiphora gileadensis, native to Israel, Palestine and Jordan, is now accepted as an alternate source of myrrh. Myrrh has been traditionally used by many cultures as a perfume, incense, medication, or embalming ointment. In addition to its pleasant scent, it also has antimicrobial properties. Myrrh originated from the Arabian Peninsula, where the gum resins were first collected. Its trade route reached Jerusalem and Egypt from modern Oman (then known as the Dhofar region) and Yemen, following the Red Sea coast of Arabia. Herodotus wrote in the 5th century BC, "Arabia is the only country which produces myrrh, frankincense, cassia and cinnamon." Diodorus Siculus wrote in the second half of the first century BC that "all of Arabia exudes a most delicate fragrance; even the seamen passing by Arabia can smell the strong fragrance that gives health and vigor." The Ancient Egyptians imported large amounts as far back as 3000 BCE. Myrrh was to embalm the dead, as an antiseptic, and burned it for religious sacrifice (archeologists shiny black or dark brown deposit that analysis believe is chemically closest to myrrh). In Ancient Rome, myrrh was priced at five times higher than frankincense. Pliny the Elder refers to myrrh as one of the ingredients of perfumes, and specifically as the "Royal Perfume" of the Parthians. It was also used to fumigate wine jars before bottling, and as a luxurious flavoring for wine. More...

Trade Routes between Africa, Arabia, Europe and Asia

Trans-Saharan Trade Routes stretched across the Sahara Desert between Mediterranean countries and sub-Saharan Africa. While existing from prehistoric times, the peak of trade extended from the 8th century until the late 16th century, and included trade between Europe and Africa. Before the Phoenicians took control of vast areas, three ancient routes connected to the Mediterranean coast of Africa (the herdsmen of the Fezzan of Libya, known as the Garamantes, controlled these routes as early as 1500 BC). From the 5th century BCE to the 5th century of the modern era, the Fezzan was home to the Garamantian Empire, a city state which operated the Trans-Saharan trade routes between the Carthaginians -- and later the Roman Empire -- and Sahelian states of west and central Africa. More...

Phoenicia centered in modern-day Lebanon and the coast of Syria, was an ancient civilization. Phoenician civilization was an enterprising maritime trading culture that spread across the Mediterranean during the period 1550 BC to 300 BC. The Phoenicians often traded by means of a galley, a man-powered sailing vessel. More...

Carthage located in Tunisia, existed for nearly 3,000 years on the Gulf of Tunis, becoming a large and rich city, and thus a major power in the Mediterranean. Its central location in the Mediterranean enabled it to control of the waters between Sicily (Italy) and Tunisia. Carthaginian commerce covered vast sea and land routes throughout the Mediterranean, far into the Atlantic, and by land across the Sahara desert. Carthage's massive merchant fleet, which surpassed even those of the cities of the Levant, visited every major port of the Mediterranean, Britain, the coast of Africa, and the Canary Islands. Merchants at first favored the ports of the east: Egypt, the Levant, Greece, Cyprus, and Asia Minor (Turkey). However, after Carthage's control of Sicily brought it into conflict with Greek colonists, it established commercial relations in the western Mediterranean, including trade with the Etruscans. Carthage traded in almost every commodity wanted by the ancient world, including spices from Arabia, Africa and India. Carthage also sent caravans into the interior of Africa and Persia, while its ships traversed the maritime trade routes. According to Roman sources, Phoenician colonists from modern-day Lebanon founded Carthage in 814 BC (led by Queen Elissa, "Alissar," an exiled princess of the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre). Carthage was an international metropolis, and relied heavily on foreign mercenaries, especially in overseas warfare. The core of its army was from its own territory in north Africa (such as ethnic Libyans and Numidians). These troops were supported by mercenaries from different ethnic groups and geographic locations across the Mediterranean who fought in their own national units; Celtic, Balearic, and Iberian troops were especially common. The navy of Carthage was one of the largest in the Mediterranean. The sailors and marines of the Carthaginian navy were predominantly recruited from the Punic citizenry, unlike the multi-ethnic allied and mercenary troops of the Carthaginian armies. More...

Palmyra The city of Palmyra, located in Syria, is an ancient oasis city of the Silk Road where the Incense Trail, and overland subsidiaries of the Spice Route once met. Silk Road traders detoured to Palmyra on their way to the Mediterranean coast in search of Phoenicia’s royal purple dye. Purple silk was so expensive by the time it reached Rome that even the wealthiest could afford only a decorative colored strip on their clothes. The city’s ancient ruins date to the first and second centuries. More...



SPICE

Spice Routes As trade between India and the Greco-Roman world increased spices became the main import along the Spice Routes from India to the Western world, rivaling silk and other commodities. The Indian commercial connection with South East Asia proved vital to the merchants of Arabia and Persia during the 7th century and the 8th century. The Abbasids used Alexandria, Damietta, Aden and Siraf as entry ports to India and China. Moluccan products of Indonesia (from the "Spice Islands"), which were shipped across the ports of Arabia to the Near East, passed through the ports of India and Sri Lanka. After reaching either the Indian or the Sri Lankan ports, spices were sometimes shipped to East Africa, where they were used for many purposes. On the orders of Manuel I of Portugal, four vessels under the command of navigator Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope, continuing to the eastern coast of Africa to Malindi to sail across the Indian Ocean to Calicut. Once the wealth of the Indies was discovered by the Europeans, the Portuguese Empire was one of the early European empires to grow from the spice trade.

Spice Trade was a commercial activity of ancient origin. Civilizations of Eurasia were involved in the spice trade since ancient times (see Greco-Roman world and Incense Route of Roman-India Trade). Over the centuries many centers of trade flourished, including the maritime trading nation of Axum in northeastern Africa, and cities in the Levant, the Republic of Venice, and the Ottoman Empire. Although the spice trade was dependent on overland ancient routes, maritime trade routes led to the rise of commercial activities. During the medieval periods Muslim traders dominated maritime spice trading routes throughout the Indian Ocean, linking regions in the Far East, and shipping spices from trading centers in India westward to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, from which overland routes led to Europe. Trade was transformed by the European Age of Discovery. The route from Europe to the Indian Ocean via the Cape of Good Hope was pioneered by the Portuguese explorer navigator Vasco Da Gama in 1498, resulting in new maritime routes for trade, which eventually ushered in an age of European domination in the East, as well as increased cultural and commercial exchanges between diverse cultures, while nations struggled to gain control of the trade along the many routes. More...

Trade Routes between Europe and Asia during Antiquity

Long-distance trade played a major role in the cultural, religious, and artistic exchanges that took place between the major centers of civilization in Europe and Asia during antiquity. Some of these trade routes had been in use for centuries. The trade routes served principally to transfer luxury goods, raw materials, and foodstuffs between the East and West. Some areas had a monopoly on certain materials or goods. China, for example, supplied West Asia and the Mediterranean world with silk, while spices were obtained principally from South Asia. These goods were transported over vast distances— either by caravans and pack animals overland, or by seagoing ships—along the Silk and Spice Routes, which were the main arteries of contact between the various ancient empires of the Old World. Another important trade route, known as the Incense Route, was controlled by the Arabs, who brought frankincense and myrrh by camel caravan from South Arabia. The demands for scents and incense by the empires of antiquity, such as Egypt, Rome and Babylon, made Arabia one of the oldest trade centers of the world. Cities along these trade routes grew rich providing services to merchants who rested in oasis towns (similar in function to a roadside inn, known as a "caravanserai"). These centers served as international marketplaces, and areas where knowledge was also exchanged. Cities such as Palmyra and Petra, on the fringes of the Syrian Desert, flourished mainly as centers of trade supplying merchant caravans and policing the trade routes. They also became cultural and artistic centers, where peoples of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds could meet and intermingle. The trade routes were the communications highways of the ancient world. New inventions, artistic styles, religious faiths, cultures, languages, and social customs, as well as goods, were transported.

Trade between the Romans and the Empires of Asia

By the end of the first century BC, there was a great expansion of international trade involving five contiguous powers: the Roman Empire, the Parthian Empire, the Kushan Empire, the nomadic confederation of the Xiongnu, and the Han Empire. Although travel was treacherous and knowledge of geography limited, numerous contacts were made as these empires expanded, while preading ideas, beliefs, and customs. Items and commodities were moved over long distances through trade, barter, scholarship, religious teachings, gift giving, and the payment of tribute. Transport over land was accomplished using river craft and pack animals, notably the sturdy Bactrian camel. Travel by sea depended on the prevailing winds of the Indian Ocean, and upon the monsoons (winds which blow from the southwest during the summer months, and from the northeast in the autumn). A vast network of strategically located trading posts (emporia) enabled the exchange, distribution, and storage of goods. From the Greco-Roman metropolis of Antioch in the Mesopotamian region, routes crossed the Syrian Desert via Palmyra to Ctesiphon (the Parthian capital) and Seleucia on the Tigris River. The city of Palmyra was an ancient oasis city of the Silk Road where the Incense Trail, and overland subsidiaries of the Spice Route once met. From Palmyra the route led east across the Zagros Mountains to the cities of Ecbatana and Merv, where one branch turned north via Bukhara and Ferghana into Mongolia and the other led into Bactria. The port of Spasinu Charax on the Persian Gulf was a great center of seaborne trade. Goods unloaded there were sent along a network of routes throughout the Parthian empire (up the Tigris to Ctesiphon; up the Euphrates to Dura-Europos; and on through the caravan cities of the Arabian and Syrian Desert). Many of these land routes ended at ports on the eastern Mediterranean, from which goods were distributed to cities throughout the Roman Empire. Other routes that crossed the Arabian desert may have ended at the Nabataean city of Petra, where new caravans traveled on to Gaza and other ports on the Mediterranean, or north to Damascus or east to Parthia. A network of maritime routes linked the incense routes and ports of South Arabia and Somalia with ports in the Persian Gulf and India in the east, and to ports on the Red Sea, from which goods was transported overland to the Nile and then to Alexandria.



SILK

The Silk Routes (or the Silk Road) are a network of ancient overland trade routes that extended across the Asian continent and connected China to the Mediterranean Sea.

(Homwork Help / Definition)

The "Silk Routes" are collectively known as the "Silk Road." For almost 3,000 years, the Silk Routes were important paths for commercial, cultural, and technological exchange between traders, merchants, pilgrims, missionaries, soldiers, rulers, nomads and urban dwellers from Ancient China, India, Persia, Asia Minor, and countries of the Mediterranean. Extending over 6,000 miles, the routes enabled people to transport goods, especially luxuries such as silk, slaves, satin and other fine fabrics, musk, perfumes, spices, medicines, jewels, glassware and porcelain. The routes served as a conduit for the spread of knowledge, ideas, religions, cultures, and disease between different parts of the world (along with maritime routes from China, India, Asia Minor, Europe, Arabia, North Africa, and the Mediterranean). Trade on the Silk Road was a significant factor in the development of the great civilizations of China, India, Egypt, Persia, Arabia and Rome, and in several respects helped lay the foundations for the modern world. Although the term the Silk Road implies a continuous journey, very few who traveled the route traversed it from end to end. For the most part, goods were transported by a series of agents on varying routes, and were traded in the bustling mercantile markets of the oasis towns. During the Han Dynasty (206BC—220AD) the central Asian sections of the trade routes were expanded, largely through the missions and explorations of Zhang Qian who traveled upon the Silk Routes between 138 BC to 139 BC. In the late Middle Ages, transcontinental trade over the land routes of the Silk Road declined as sea routes increased and maritime trade developed. Though silk was certainly a valued trade item from China, many other products were traded, and various inventions, religions and philosophies traveled along the Silk Routes.

History of Silk

For centuries silk has been sought after by many peoples and countries. The silk trade began even before recorded travel took place on the Silk Road. The discovery of an Egyptian mummy with silk (in the village of Deir el Medina near Thebes and the Valley of the Kings) serves as evidence that the silk trade from east to west can be dated to about 1070 BC, although the Silk Road was known to be open during the days of the Han and Roman empires (the Chinese emperor Han Wu is credited for sending envoys to Persia and Mesopotamia during the second century BC for diplomatic purposes, with gifts that included silk).

Historical records suggest that sericulture developed as early as c. 4000-3000 BCE. It is certain that by the second century BC, silk-making had spread throughout southern China. For more than a thousand years, silk was so valuable that it was often used as currency. The process of making it was also a jealously guarded secret which the Chinese managed to keep until the fifth century. Although the Emperors of China strove to keep knowledge of sericulture a secret to maintain the Chinese monopoly, mass production of silk today has reached over 30 countries. However, the major center of production is still China.

Silk Industry/Production The silk industry began in China sometime before the middle of the 3rd millennium BCE, according to historic Chinese records. It became an important feature of the Chinese rural economy. Silk weaving became a major industry and one of China's chief exports in the Han dynasty. The caravan route across Central Asia, known as the Silk Road, took Chinese silk to Syria, and on to Rome. According to legend, about 140 BCE, sericulture as well as silk had spread overland from China to India. By the 2nd century CE India was shipping its own raw silk and silk cloth to Persia (a few centuries later, Japan, also developed in sericulture). Persia became a centre of silk trade between East and West under the Parthians (247 BCE–224 CE). Silk dyeing and weaving developed as crafts in Syria, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Although some raw silk from East Asia was used, most yarn was derived by unraveling silk fabrics from the East --  and Silk culture remained a secret of Asia. Eventually a strong demand for the local production of raw silk arose in the Mediterranean area. It is said that Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (from 527 to 565) persuaded two Persian monks who had lived in China to return there and smuggle silkworms to Constantinople (now Istanbul) in the hollows of their bamboo canes (c. 550 CE). Thus, many believe that these silkworms were the beginning of all the varieties that stocked and supplied European sericulture until the 19th century. Silk culture flourished in Europe for many centuries, especially in the Italian city-states, and from 1480 in France. Silk continues to be an important luxury item of trade.

Overland Silk Routes

As it extends westwards from the ancient commercial centers of China, the overland, intercontinental Silk Road divides into the northern and southern routes bypassing the Taklamakan Desert and Lop Nur.

The northern route began in China at Chang'an (modern-day Xi'an). The route travels northwest through the Chinese province of Gansu from Shaanxi Province, and splits into three further routes, two of them following the mountain ranges to the north and south of the Taklimakan Desert to rejoin at Kashgar; and the other going north of the Tian Shan mountains through Turpan, Talgar and Almaty (in what is now southeast Kazakhstan). The routes split west of Kashgar with one branch heading down the Alai Valley towards Termez and Balkh, while the other traveled through Kokand in the Fergana Valley, and then west across the Karakum Desert towards Merv, joining the southern route briefly.

One of the branch routes turned northwest to the north of the Aral and Caspian seas and on to the Black Sea. Yet another route started at Xi'an, passed through the Western corridor beyond the Yellow Rivers, Xinjiang, Fergana (in present-day eastern Uzbekistan), Persia and Iraq before joining the western boundary of the Roman Empire. It has been recorded that the northern Silk Road caravan route brought to China many goods such as "dates, saffron powder and pistachio nuts from Persia; frankincense, aloes and myrrh from Somalia; sandalwood from India; glass bottles from Egypt, and other expensive and desirable goods from other parts of the world."

The southern route is mainly a single route running from China, through Karakoram. Today there exists an international highway connecting Pakistan and China, known as "Korakoram Highway." The route then continues to the Turkestan–Khorasan region, Mesopotamia, and into Anatolia, with southward routes enabling the journey to be completed by sea from various points.

The branch which crosses the high mountains, then passes through northern Pakistan, over the Hindu Kush mountains, and into Afghanistan, rejoins the northern route briefly near Merv. From there it follows a nearly straight line west through mountainous northern Iran and the northern tip of the Syrian Desert to the Levant, where Mediterranean trading ships plied regular routes to Italy, and land routes went either north through Anatolia or south to North Africa. Another branch road traveled from Herat through Susa to Charax Spasinu at the head of the Persian Gulf and across to Petra and on to Alexandria and other eastern Mediterranean ports from where ships carried the cargoes to Rome.

Silk Road (Silk Routes) Chinese Section of the Silk Road

The Chinese Section of the Silk Road began in the city of Xi'an in Shaanxi Province, passed through the provinces of Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai and continued westward through Xinjiang into Central Asia. More than half of the Silk Road (which stretched between Xi'an in China to the Mediterranean Sea and Turkey) was located in China.

The Xinjiang region is strategically located at the junction where the most ancient branch of the famous “Silk Route” joining China and the West meets with one of the main routes from ancient India and Tibet, crossing from Central Asia to other areas of China. Xinjiang was the crossroads for not only goods, but also was home to the northern and southern routes which enabled technologies, philosophies, and religions to be transmitted from one culture to another.

Maritime Silk Routes

As much as 1,400 years ago, during China's Eastern Han Dynasty, a sea route, although not part of the formal Silk Route, led from the mouth of the Red River near modern Hanoi, through the Malacca Straits to Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka and India, and then on to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea kingdom of Axum, and eventually to Roman ports. From ports on the Red Sea, goods including silks, were transported overland to the Nile and then to Alexandria from where they were shipped to Rome, Constantinople and other Mediterranean ports.

Another branch of these sea routes led down the East African coast, called "Azania" by the Greeks and Romans in the 1st century CE, as described in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (and perhaps 澤散 Zesan in the 3rd century by the Chinese), at least as far as the port known to the Romans as "Rhapta," which was probably located in the delta of the Rufiji River in modern Tanzania (commonly referred to as Zanzibar).

Cities such as Istanbul, Venice, and Guangzhou were key transportation hubs and trading ports which could be considered maritime cities of the Silk Road. Thus, European and Asian ports were indirectly connected to caravan routes of the Silk Road.

Maritime trade between East and West developed across the Indian Ocean between Alexandria in Egypt and Guangzhou in China. From Guangzhou, the Silk Road extends from China, to present day Brunei, Myanmar (Burma) Thailand, Malacca, Ceylon, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Iran and Iraq. In Europe it extends from Israel, Lebanon (collectively, the Levant), Egypt, and Italy (Venice) in the Mediterranean Sea to other European ports or caravan routes such as the great Hanseatic League Fairs via the Spanish road and other Alpine routes. This water route has been called by some sources as the Indian Ocean Maritime System. (See also Roman-India routes)


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