The Silk Roads

cash (2)

AP Theme

Economic Systems

Learning Objective 2.1A

Explain the causes and effects of growth of networks of exchange after 1200.

Historical Development 1

The Silk Roads were the primary land trade and communication networks that connected Eastern and Western Eurasia.

Historical Development 2

Improved commercial practices and technologies led to an increased volume of trade and expanded the geographical range of the Silk Roads.

Historical Development 3

The Silk Roads led to to the growth in power of trading cities and the diffusion of goods, knowledge, and technology across Afro-Eurasia.


The Silk Roads

Since the earliest humans migrated out of Africa, communities have maintained trade links with their neighbors and built new relationships across great distances. As transregional interactions increased over the last few thousand years, so did the transformation of human societies. The need for trade between communities comes from the uneven distribution of resources across the earth’s surface.

The Silk Roads were one of the major global trade networks. By 1200, merchants had been traveling along the Silk Roads for 1300 years. The name of the trade routes refers to the trade of Chinese silk; however, silk was only one of many products that moved within the Silk Road network. While commerce along the routes was indirect, and few distant civilizations directly interacted, these indirect trading systems were the primary connectors between societies spread across Eurasia.

What Were the Silk Roads?

The Silk Roads were a network of land-based trade routes that connected societies across Eastern and Western Eurasia. The following were significant features of the Silk Roads.

  • The routes connected nomadic pastoral peoples in Central Asia with agricultural civilizations across Eurasia. 
  • The routes shifted throughout history as populations moved, and areas became more or less stable for trade to move across.
  • The routes were a relay trading system. Goods people did not travel the whole length of the trading network but only went partway before selling their goods to the next merchant who would move them further. 
  • Trade mainly was in luxury goods meant for consumption by elite classes. 
  • Transportation prices were high due to limits on how much trade volume animals could carry. 
  • Culture, disease, ideas, and technology also moved along the routes.

Relay Trade

The Silk Roads was a relay trade network. Like in a relay race where no one person runs the entire course length, relay traders do not travel the whole distance of trade routes. Trade was indirect. Many civilizations that bought and sold each other’s goods did not directly interact. Instead, they move goods between a series of relay stations within a region. Merchants generally operated between the same relay stations within areas where they knew the people and landscape. 

  • When merchants arrived at a large relay station, they would sell their goods to the next merchant, who would then carry them to the next relay station, where the process would begin again. 
  • Merchants moved between relay stations in caravans of multiple traders, usually using camels to move their goods.

What Led to the Creation of the Silk Roads?

The growth of the Silk Roads resulted from a combination of political, economic, social, and environmental factors that developed for thousands of years and created an environment in which trade could thrive.

Impacts of Trade Along the Silk Roads

The lives of agriculture peasants and artisans changed as they modified their economic production to produce trade and export goods. For example, in China's Yangzi River delta, many peasants switched from growing food crops to producing silk, paper, porcelain, and iron tools. In Persia and India, artisans expanded their production of cotton and silk textiles.

The power and wealth of the merchant class increased. Over time, the power of the merchant class challenged the power of the landed aristocracy. Despite traditional Confucian views that reviled merchants as parasites that gained off others' hard work, the Chinese merchant class gained great wealth. In 12th century Persia, the merchant Ramisht accumulated a fortune worth millions of dollars. He used some of his wealth to engage in philanthropic activities, including building a hospice in Mecca and covering the giant Kaaba (the holiest site in Islam) with Chinese silk.

Historical trend: The landed aristocracy will continue to lose power as societies commercialize and merchant wealth surpasses wealth produced f

Increased trade encouraged increasing economic specialization (expertise at producing a specific good) and decreased self-sufficiency as societies bought increasing amounts of goods from outside their borders.

Urbanization increased as economies commercialized, and growing numbers of people lived in cities producing products, engaging in commerce, or providing services.

New technologies such as gunpowder, paper, and the printing press changed civilizations as they diffused from the areas of their invention worldwide.

Ideas and philosophies, such as Buddhism and Islam, spread from their cultural hearths throughout new regions.

Crops and animals expanded into new locations. For example, camels, which are native to Central Asia, spread with traders to the desserts of the Middle East and North Africa. Grapes moved from the Mediterranean west to China.

Diseases like the plague spread across regions killing millions in their path.

Consumption patterns changed as new items and products became available first to elite consumers and later to lower classes.

Increasing numbers of people and groups interacted. The Italian merchant, explorer, and writer Marco Polo traveled through Asia along the Silk Roads between 1271 and 1295. It was Marco Polo who first introduced the concept of paper money to Europe.

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