The Romans learned of silk in the second century BCE. Silk was a beautiful fabric that was soft and seemed to glow. Clothing made of silk was a sign of great wealth.
The Chinese were careful to keep the secret of how they made silk. We know today that silk is made from a sticky substance produced by silkworms, which are the tiny caterpillars of silk moths. When silkworms hatch, they eat mulberry leaves until they are big enough to spin cocoons. The cocoons are boiled, and the fibers are extracted and woven into silk.
Silk traveled on a 4,000-mile long network of trade routes that connected China to Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Historians call it the Silk Road. Very few people traveled the entire length of the Silk Road.
In addition to silk, Chinese merchants sold tea, spices, and jade. Jade is a hard, shiny stone used to create beautiful carvings. In exchange, the Chinese received gold, silver, precious stones, glass, ivory, horses, elephants, and wool.
In the thirteenth century, Mongol armies used the Silk Road to expand their empire. The first Mongols on the Silk Road were nomadic warriors who attacked and looted the markets along the trade routes. In time, the Mongols developed their own efficient trade along the Silk Road.
In 1269, Marco Polo traveled from his home in Italy to China on the Silk Road. His book about his adventures became well known, but Polo’s stories of China were so amazing that many Europeans could not believe they were true.
Along with goods, ideas also traveled the Silk Road. Buddhism was introduced to China during the Han Dynasty by merchants from India. Over time, Buddhism lost much of its influence in India, but became very popular in China.
Devastating illness also traveled this trade route. The Black Death took the lives of nearly half of the people of Europe between 1348 and 1350. Scientists believe the plague began as a bacterial disease in Central Asian rats. At the western edge of the Silk Road, goods were loaded onto ships on the Black Sea. The ships transported rats together with goods to cities throughout Europe. Fleas living on the blood of the rats bit the sailors on board. When the sailors returned to Europe, they carried the deadly, contagious disease.
When the Mongol Empire disintegrated and the Mongols no longer policed the trade routes, the Silk Road lost its importance. It became even more dangerous when bandits learned to make Chinese gunpowder. During the fifteenth century Portuguese sailors learned to circumnavigate Africa via ships, which were faster and safer than the Silk Road. The use of the Silk Road as a trade route came to an end.
Source: The Silk Road, Article #1
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