The Silk Road was a trade route that went along the northern borders of China, India, and Persia and ended up in Eastern Europe near today's Turkey and the Mediterranean Sea. It was over 4,000 miles long.
The Silk Road was important because it helped to generate trade and commerce between kingdoms and empires. This helped ideas, culture, inventions, and unique products to spread across much of the settled world.
It was called the Silk Road because one of the major products traded was silk cloth from China. People throughout Asia and Europe prized Chinese silk for its softness and luxury.
Besides silk, the Chinese also exported teas, salt, sugar, porcelain, and spices. Most of what was traded was expensive luxury goods. This was because it was a long trip and merchants didn't have a lot of room for common goods.
Merchants and tradesmen traveled in large caravans protected by many guards. Traveling in a big group like a caravan helped in defending from bandits. Camels were popular animals for transport because much of the road was through dry and harsh land. Very few merchants traveled along the entire route. Goods were traded at many cities and trade posts along the way.
There wasn't just one route, but many routes. Some were shorter, but more dangerous. Others took longer, but were safer.
The silk trade was significantly expanded and promoted by the Han Dynasty which ruled from 206 BC to 220 AD.
Later, under the rule of the Yuan Dynasty set up by Kublai Khan of the Mongols, trade from China along the Silk Road reached its peak. During this time the Mongols controlled a significant portion of the trade route, enabling Chinese merchants to travel safely. Also, merchants were granted more social status during the Mongol rule.
Not all that was traded along the Silk Road was good. It is thought that the bubonic plague, or Black Death, traveled to Europe from the Silk Road.
Source: The Silk Road, Article #2
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