The Silk Road was not actually a road, but a network of land and sea routes that evolved over centuries. It was not the first trade network by any means, since ancient civilizations like the Indus Valley Civilization, Mesopotamia, and Egypt also engaged in trade.
It was, however, one of the largest and most impactful trade networks in history.
In addition to the big states like Egypt, Greece, and China, there were also nomadic people who would move about in between these places. Eventually these nomads began to exchange goods along their travels.
The Persian royal road was built in the 5th century BCE and spanned almost 2000 miles from the Tigris river to the Aegean sea. With regular relay points, they were able to move goods and messages 10x more efficiently than a single traveler.
When Alexander the Great conquered Persia and expanded his empire, the trade network extended even further east. Eventually China got word of this great trade deal and wanted to get in on it, so they started sending people west.
And so, the Silk Road was created with two main routes. One from the Middle East to Central Asia, and one from Central Asia to China.
Silk was obviously a valuable export along the Silk Road (eventually becoming so popular that Rome wanted to ban it), but there was a variety of goods including jade, sliver, iron, cotton, ivory, spices, incense, and eventually gunpowder.
The goods travelling along the Silk Road mostly affected the lives of rich people, but the Silk Road itself affected everyone else too. It had a huge economic impact because even though most people couldn’t afford silk, anyone could join the industry and participate in the production of it.
The Silk Road wasn’t just about trading goods though, one of the most important things that travelled on the Silk Road was ideas.
The Silk Road was the primary route for the spread of Buddhism, which was dying out in India, to Asian countries like China, Korea and Japan. It also led to a spread of Islam from the Arabian peninsula to South Asia.
It wasn’t all good though, because the Silk Road was also important in the transit of diseases like measles, smallpox, and the bubonic plague. The plague would eventually kill off almost half of Europe in only a few years.
The Silk Road facilitated the transmission of goods and ideas across many different countries, leading to the preservation and growth of various cultures, as well as the creation of huge economic opportunities. It also facilitated the transmission of diseases, something we are all too familiar with during these COVID times.