Silk Road Timeline
The "Silk Road," a 4000 mile-long network of interconnecting
roads, or caravan tracts, served from ca. 500 BC to 1500 A.D. as the
major highway for transporting material goods and knowledge between
Europe, the Near East, India, and China ?a the four major centers of
civilization at the time. Over this period of almost 2000 years, exotic
and commercial goods, skills, knowledge, and religion ?a as well as
silk ?a crisscrossed the Eurasian continent, and shaped the course of
European and Asian history and culture.
ca. 3000 B.C.:
China breeds silkworms and produces silk; it is the first country to
ca. 500 B.C.-200 B.C.:
China begins to conceive commercial methods of transporting silk ?a
a material seemingly coveted by all ?a to the West. The Silk Road evelops
gradually as a series of trading roads from China through Central Asia
to India. One of its first uses, however, is to bring jade into China
from the city of Khotan, located on the southern edge of the Taklamakan
Desert in Central Asia.
4th century B.C.:
Buddhism begins to spread north from India.
3rd century B.C.:
The Bactian and Arabian camels, both vital for desert caravan travel,
2nd century B.C.:
The Silk Road "opens" for commercial trade of silk and other
goods. The road consists of several different branches that follow a
path of oasis towns around the edges of foreboding deserts and harsh
mountain ranges, and then reconnect in the city of Kashgar. Most trade
is done over relatively short distances by middlemen who receive a share
of the profits; between Rome and Beijing, goods are sold and bartered
several times for other objects as the traders make their way from one
end of the route to the other. As regional governments legally can tax
foreign traders passing through their territories, local factions periodically
battle to gain control of commercial interests along their portion of
the Silk Road.
Although known as the "Silk" Road, the route transports and
trades many other items than the delicate and colorful silk. The Chinese
proffer beautiful paper, fragrant spices, furs, jade, rhubarb, tea,
bronze sculpture, gunpowder, compasses, lacquered goods, ceramics, and
the skills to make iron and steel. But as they need crucial, practical
items such as horses, the Chinese buy from the Westerners (ie people
from Central Asia and the Mediterranean) items such as: gold, ivory,
precious metals and stones (jade, lapis lazuli), wool rugs, tapestries,
nuts, peaches, jasmine flowers, frankincense and myrrh oils, herbal
medicines, glass, cucumbers, onions, sandalwood incense, pepper, cotton,
Kohlrabi cabbage, and animals such as yaks, camels, lions, peacocks,
and elephants, as well as Fergana horses. By these exchanges, across
thousands of miles and hundreds of cultures, the Silk Road opened up
both East and West to new peoples, ideas, and religions.
At this same time, Buddhist missionaries and pilgrims begin travelling
on the Silk Road between India, Central Asia, and China. Musicians also
travel the route, which allows for a thorough, and at times surprising,
dissemination of national styles and cross-fertilization of instruments.
206 B.C.-220 A.D.:
The Han Dynasty, a time of dramatic growth in China, is established.
Military campaigns expand the borders of the empire as far as the western
end of the Taklamakan Desert, in the modern region of Xinjiang. This
allowed the empire to develop and control the Silk Road trade with Central
Asia and beyond. The first export of Chinese silk to the Roman Empire
occurred during the Han period.
Zhang Qian, a diplomat during the Han dynasty, is sent from the capital
city of Chang'an (Xi'an) to create alliances with and develop a trading
route to the West. His success leads to the establishment of the first
commercial land route between East and West.
Purportedly, the Romans encounter silk for the first time ?a in battle
with the Parthians, who ruled Persia and carried silk banners during
combat. The Romans subsequently establish a trade system (through middlemen)
to obtain the material from the Chinese.
Silk is first seen in Rome; silk garments quickly become the fashion
1st century A.D.:
Buddhism begins to spread from India into Central Asia. Monks also arrive
in China, where they preach and worship; sacred books, texts, and examples
of Buddhist art are introduced.
A series of factional disagreements and tribal invasions ends the Han
Dynasty, throwing China into chaos and dividing the country. People
yearn for the stability they believe a new religion might offer them.
3rd century A.D.:
Across Asia, silken clothing is woven, albeit still using silk thread
purchased from the Chinese.
4th century A.D.:
Buddhist cave temples, the world's largest, are carved into the mountainsides
in Dunhuang, China. The secret of silk-making leaks out along the Silk
Road's westward route.
5th century A.D.:
Silkworm farms are created in Central Asia with eggs smuggled out of
China by a Chinese princess.
6th century A.D. (early):
Buddhism reaches Japan, while China already is home to 2 million Buddhists.
It is a time of great culture and enlightenment: Buddhist schools are
established, monasteries and temples dot the land, scripture is translated
enthusiastically into the vernacular. The Uyger people take control
over most of northwest China.
6th century A.D.:
Silkworm farms are built in Europe.
Mohammad (the Prophet) is born in Mecca. While in his early 20s, he
works with a camel caravan to transport frankincense and silk from Mecca
north to Syria.
The Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) is established in China. Receptive to
foreign cultural influences, Buddhism continues to flourish.
Mohammad (the Prophet) dies.
Through the work of Christian missionaries, Christianity begins to take
root in China.
Under the leadership of the Arab general Uqba Ibn Nafi, the newly-established
religion of Islam begins to sweep through Africa into Spain; in Europe,
it reaches as far as Poitiers, France.
ca. 750 A.D.:
Traffic along the Silk Road peaks, then begins a gradual decline. The
Chinese capital of the time, Chang'an (Xi'an), is the richest city in
the world, with a population of almost two million (5000 of whom are
8th century A.D.:
Conversion to Islam begins in Central Asia. Moslems damage or destroy
most of the Buddhist statues and wall paintings in Xinjiang, China's
westernmost region; temples and stupas are abandoned and gradually buried
beneath the sand due to the desert's blowing winds. After capturing
papermaking craftsmen in China, the Arabs introduce papermaking skills
into Central Asia and Europe.
As the Tang Dynasty declines further, the Imperial government suppresses
Buddhism, concerned about the religion's growing power. They destroy
4600 temples and persecute almost 300,000 monks and nuns. The importance
of the Silk Road continues to eclipse.
10th century A.D.:
China's enlightened Tang Dynasty collapses (907 A.D.). Buddhism declines
further, and Central Asia loses its preeminence as the crossroads of
Indian and Chinese culture. The Chinese government bans foreign religions.
The Uigher people of Xinjiang, who ironically were responsible for the
spread of Buddhism into parts of central Asia, now embrace Islam. Kirghiz
Turks establish kingdoms in the nearby trading cities of Dunhuang and
12th century A.D. (early):
Seagoing trade begins to replace overland commerce on the Silk Road.
Italy establishes its own silk production and weaving.
13th century A.D.:
Islam swiftly envelops much of central Eurasia. It is one of the last
overland "imports" to reach the Tarim Basin in northwest China
before bandits make mountain passes too dangerous for travel.
Under the leadership of the Khans, the Mongols conquer China ?a indeed
a large portion of Asia ?a opening it up again to new ideas and peoples
from the outside world. Products and ideas now flow more freely under
the "Pax Mongolica," reaching great distances in both directions.
During the relatively liberal Mongol rule in the 13th century, Islam
is tolerated and begins to expand its power throughout China ?a hence
the many fine examples of mosques that still may be found along the
Kublai Khan establishes the Yuan Dynasty, unifying all of China from
Central Asia to Korea. During this period European travelers first begin
to arrive in China, marking the true beginning of "East-West"
The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) is established after defeating and expelling
the Mongols. The Ming rulers once again isolate China ?a cutting off
contact with outside nations, emphasizing nationalism, and erecting
land barriers in a fearful attempt to protect the country from (perceived)
14th century A.D.:
Better ships and new sea routes now offer more efficient and safer trading
by sea than by land. Compared to the new shipping routes, overland trade
on the Silk Road is longer, harder, and more expensive, especially with
competing political groups taking control of different portions of the
route. Gradually, the Silk Road's lively trading towns fall into disuse.
Ravaged by the Taklimakan Desert's brutal sandstorms, the towns disappear
under drifting sand dunes. And, as a final blow, Europeans have now
learned the art of producing silk.
15th century A.D.:
Fearing even the potential strength of the Uyger people in northwestern
China, the Ming rulers end silk trade on the Silk Road; the center of
silk trade moves to Lyons, France. Sea trade now dominates.
15th century A.D. (end):
The city of Turfan, long a bastion of Turkish Buddhism, converts to
Islam along with its ruler. The entire Central Asian basin now has converted
ca. 1870 A.D.:
The term "Silk Road," coined by the German scholar Baron Ferdinand
von Richthofen, is first used.
20th century A.D. (early):
Famed archeologists, including Sven Hedin and Aurel Stein, attempt to
unearth the legendary "lost" cities of the Silk Road.
20th century A.D. (late):
High technology assists archeologists in their search for ruins of ancient
Silk Road cities "lost" in the region's inhospitable deserts:
NASA satellites that use synthetic aperture radar (and long-wavelength
microwave radiation) fly on the space shuttle in 1994. Theoretically,
it is now possible to "see" from outer space objects on earth
buried beneath one to two meters of fine, dry sand, as well as hard
objects lying on the ground.