To answer the question very simply: The Silk Road was a series of ancient roads that connected Rome to China. It was one of the most important trade routes in history and was responsible for spreading goods and ideas between the two world superpowers and every city in between. The Silk Road was established during the Han Dynasty of China around 130 BCE and operated for over 1,000 years before being shut down in 1453 CE.

Establishment of the road

Aerial view of winding, curving roads marking the old Silk Road route between China and India
Credit: Rudra Narayan Mitra/ Shutterstock

The Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) consisted of the first rulers of China to officially open trade outside of Asia. In order to do so, they needed a road on which traders could safely travel the thousands of miles needed to reach other countries. The road started in Xi’an (Sian) in central China, followed the Great Wall, crossed the Pamir mountains, and went through Afghanistan all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. From there, goods were shipped by boat across the sea to Europe. In total, the route covered more than 4,000 miles of land.

While it may sound like there was one main road, the Silk Road was made up of several different routes. Traders could travel the different routes depending on what countries they wanted to visit, weather conditions, or to avoid hostile groups.

Ancient trade

Open air market in Jerusalem, Israel, with assorted garments and silk trade products
Credit: Aleksandar Todorovic/ Shutterstock

Obviously, from its name, silk was one of the primary goods traded on the Silk Road, but it was by no means the only thing. Goods traveling from East to West included:

  • Silk
  • Tea
  • Dyes
  • Spices
  • Medicine
  • Ivory
  • Rice
  • Paper
  • Gunpowder

Trade is, by definition, not one way. The Chinese also wanted goods from Europe and the Middle East. Goods traveling West to East included:

  • Horses, dogs, and other animals
  • Animal furs and skins
  • Fruit
  • Gold and silver
  • Camels
  • Weapons and armor

In addition to the physical goods, ideas and culture were also spread by the Silk Road. All cultures involved in trading learned more about the others and even adopted some of their practices. Buddhism, the primary religion in China, was originally established in India and spread to China through the Silk Road.

Traveling the road

Camel caravan going through the sand dunes in the Gobi Desert
Credit: Nithid/ Shutterstock

Since it covered more than 4,000 miles, it wasn’t reasonable for one person to cover the entire route. Instead, a series of outposts and markets allowed merchants to trade their wares at increments, letting the next person in line carry the goods farther down the road. Eventually, the goods made their way to the extremes of the route.

More than trade

Winding trail of the Silk Road with mountains in the background
Credit: Rudra Narayan Mitra/ Shutterstock

Of course, the primary purpose for the Silk Road was trade, but a large, easy-to-travel passage can be used for many other purposes. Many early Chinese military leaders and rulers used the route to travel to other countries, typically to make alliances or establish new trading partners.

Alexander the Great used the Silk Road to maneuver his armies and conquer new lands. He also used the roads to maintain his massive empire once it was established.

One of the more famous travelers on the Silk Road was Marco Polo, who traveled from Italy to China around the year 1300 CE. He was a merchant who also had an affinity for travel and writing. He wrote a book called “Book of the World’s Marvels” about his travels and the places he visited in Asia.

Silk Road today

Along the famous Silk Road of central Gansu Province China
Credit: Robert_Ford/ iStock

The Silk Road is no longer in use today. It was permanently closed by the Ottoman Empire in 1453 when they decided to boycott trade from China. For more than 600 years, the road had been left untraveled in its entirety. Some portions of the road have been turned into modern highways. The Karakoram Highway is a paved section of the original Silk Road that links Pakistan to Xinjiang, China, but it’s mostly used as a tourist attraction rather than an official travel route.