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The Role of the Silk Road During Ancient Times

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The Importance of Trade in Ancient Times

Trade was a very relevant factor during ancient times around the world. The most powerful civilizations during the time used trade to climb the economic ladder. All around trading with different societies was exceptionally important for the growth of the economy and more. For my thesis, I will be discussing that because of trade, the standard of living has improved for all parties involved and the world would not be the same without the trade routes. An important element of globalization is trade. The countries of discussion will be, India during the first century, China Han Dynasty, and the Parthian rule over Persia. What all these civilizations have in common is a system of routes to trade materials and goods to different civilizations. Trade has spread the influences of different cultures around the world and has integrated itself in different societies and classes through the Silk Road and the Persian Royal Road. The benefits of trade are such as meeting people from new cultures and finding new opportunities for work. The spread of new materials has made living more convenient to buy from other societies. Trade within different civilizations is where immigration began and is still a relevant situation today.

The Role of the Silk Road

The Silk Road did not invent trade but it had radically expanded its scope around the world. Connections were formed and they have changed the world and have reshaped trade. The route connected from middle eastern Mediterranian such as Persia to eastern Asia India reaching China, there were also sea routes for trade. The Silk Road is a network of trade routes, and the goods travelled more than the travellers themselves. This is because goods moved back and forth between towns due to the many merchants. The traders took the materials further toward the destination while making even more money by the merchants raising the prices the further the luxuries travelled. The nomadic people of central Asia became highly important to the Silk Road because they were known for being experts for moving around, which meant they made for efficient traders. These people would have eventually settled down and create their own cities in central Asia. These small towns made for great pit stops along the way of the trade routes towards the large communities of China, Persia, and India. The nomads would have partnerships with professional merchants and reside in the small cities that were founded. Travelling traders would enhance the wealth of these nomadic towns because since they travelled by caravan and needed to make pitstops before reaching their destinations. On the account of trade, poor people were able to become wealthy without having status beforehand such as royalty, this just reveals that wealth has since time dictated the power one has.

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As mentioned earlier, China is where the Silk Road formally opened up for trade during the Han Dynasty which ruled from 206 BC to 220 AD. The Silk Road officially opened trade with the West in 130 B.C, the Silk Road routes remained in use until 1453 A.D. The reason why it came to a stop was because of the Ottoman Empire which boycotted their trade with China which eventually closed it. Silk has always been a common fabric in China for the rich and powerful to wear along with the common farmers, so much so, that Silk was used as a commodity to pay taxes in China at a point in time. Sericulture is the process of raising silkworms and extracting their silk, this was invented in China during the third millennium BCE. Silk was very useful because it was used to make beautiful clothing and it was adaptable because it kept you cool during warm seasons and insulated during the winter. China also invented paper, printing, gunpowder, and the navigation compas. This technology was revolutionary and the technology and knowledge spread throughout the trade routes as well. Because of these inventions, other regions saw how valuable these items were as well, due to this China earned more money and needed to find a way to produce more.

The ruling elites were in demand for exotic luxury goods from foreign lands and it was the motivation for trade, not to make more money by selling their own product.

When China started to trade with foreign countries at the Gate of Jade which is now Yumen City, foreign merchants were drawn to this area for trade because it was much safer than other routes. Other than the luxury goods, Chinese rulers realized that silk had an international value. Silk was so valuable and such a commodity in Rome that the roman government considered putting a ban on it because silk was more valuable than useful goods such as iron. Due to the effects of trade, more jobs in China were created and made a wide economic impact and made China much wealthier than it was before. Silk production was booming and more jobs opened up for those who needed it, they made more money making silk than other jobs they could have attained as lower-class citizens. Today’s world would not be the same without trade, the inventions of China discovered would not have been able to reach the global capacity today. Another trade partner that widely influenced China was India, what they had to offer was more valuable than tangible items and lasted the longest.

India during the ruling of Emperor Ashoka the Great circa 268 to 232 BC was an important trade vessel for the Silk Road, many societies traded with India, such as China, Rome, and other foreign countries. Traders of Bhamkachcha and Suppdraka who two tribes in India traded not only with the western countries but also with the eastern countries. The exports that India provided generally consisted of silk, cloth, spices, medicinal products, precious stones, and ivory. Foreigners would most commonly be after spices such as Rome, and India would be more well known for its Spice route for their riches than the name Silk Road more prevalent to China. India did not need much from Rome who so desperately sought out India for spices, such as pepper and cardamom etc, Chinese silk, and gemstones like Berly. What India obtained from Rome was Gold, Silver, Roman wine and more. Not only did India improve economically because of the trade, culture and religion between those who traded with India were exchanged as well.

The Spread of Religion

The religion of India was Buddhism and was very relevant within their culture. The Silk Road played a key role in propagating Indian culture so when merchants would trade with them, such as those in China, the religion began to integrate with their culture. The time period when Buddhism reached China was during the Han Dynasty era. Travellers and merchants introduced the religion to Dunhuang, a Chinese town still standing today which was along the Silk Road during ancient times, and from there Buddhism spread to the rest of China. There were a number of factors that hindered the spread of Buddhism because the goals of Confucianism which was the main religion in China at the time were much different from the goals of Buddhism. Confucianism is a more worldly Philosophy, in that it is concerned with how to govern well and was highly based on honouring the family, while Buddhism is more concerned with breaking the cycle of suffering and not politics. If an individual decides to be a Buddhist monk, they would remove themselves from the family lineage. In the end, Buddhism prevailed because of its encompassing trait because anyone regardless of status could follow it. The people found freedom entering a Buddhist monastery as their main religion. Eventually, the fall of the powerful Han Dynasty took place, and China experienced a period of disunity and suffering, but the emphasis of charity and kindness in Buddhism provided comfort and relief for the Chinese society. India influenced China intellectually, culturally, and artistically, even today Buddhism is one of the most followed religions in China all because of the benefits of trade.

The Cities Along the Silk Road

Persia which is now Iran today was ruled by the Parthian Empire during the mid-third century BC and lasted until 224 AD. This was an important civilization that contributed to the success of trade within the Silk Road. The Parthian empire was a centre of commerce between the Mediterranean and Asia. Persia was in between Rome, China and India which meant that traders would often use the Parthian Empire to meet halfway to obtain the goods that other regions desired. Persia during this era was populated with Persian and plenty of Roman people which helped aid Rome with trade. This was greatly profitable for Persia because of the silk trade, as mentioned before, and was highly valuable especially to the Romans which Persia had an upper hand because Roman traders would travel to Persia instead of China or other areas. Persia did not only trade with foreign goods, but with valuable items from their own culture as well. The Persian carpet, saffron and the precious stone turquoise were the Persian sought after luxuries.

The Silk Road passed across the northern regions of the Khorasan province of Iran the major cities located on the famous trade route were Nishapur, Mashhad, and Sabzevar. These cities played a major role when it came to the east and west and their cultural and economic exchanges. Within these cities were caravanserai’s, this is where traders would rest from their travel, and supported the commerce and information network of the Silk Road. Within Nishapur is where Omar Khayyam is from and seen as a prominent figure, Khayyam was a famous Persian mathematician, astronomer, Poet, and more. He has made great contributions to his field of study, such achievements involved a great contribution to algebra and Gregorian calendar we use today. Edward Fitzgerald, an English poet and writer was most famous for translating Khayyam’s work. The translations spread Khayyam’s discoveries around the world. His work would have never reached Fitzgerald if it was not for trade. The eighth Shia Imam Reza resided in Mashhad, he was one of the political and spiritual descendants of Muhammad. Imam Reza travelled along the Silk Road as well and spread the word of Muhammad. Shia Muslims around the world see Mashhad as a holy place. Sazebzevar was widely known on the Silk Road for their eleven bazaars, this is where merchants did their trading. These cities were important to the Silk Road because each town had an important form of commodity, whether it be ideas or physical goods.


The Silk Road undoubtedly changed history with its trade routes, the world would not be as globally knowledgeable about different cultures if it was not for trade. The Chinese did not discover the art of trade with other regions but expanded the range even further than could be imagined during the time. Important everyday inventions such as paper would not venture out of China without the traders and merchants trading the goods. Indias’s most significant achievement was the introduction of Buddhism to China, even today it is one of the countries main religions. Religion is very important to different regions of the world because it is a way of life an individual lives their life by, a religion can change a person’s life to a great extent. Persia, which is now Iran contributed immensely as a middle man for China and Rome. They helped by being a centre to meet halfway to lessen the travel for those who lived further east or west. The silk road helped aid the spread of the ideas of Omar Khayyam and the religion of Islam. The trade routes improved the economy for those involved by allowing the possibility to become wealthy for the poor citizens of society, being a merchant helped those climb the economic ladder. Overall, the world would be entirely different without trade, each region had their own specialties which were based on resources and unique skills that we would not have been able to enjoy and learn about today in the absence of the great trade routes.

Works Cited

  1. “Edward FitzGerald | British Author | Britannica.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 2019,
  2. Gershevitch, I., editor. The Cambridge History of Iran. Vol. 2, Cambridge University Press, 1985.
  3. Editors. “Silk Road.” HISTORY, 3 Nov. 2017,
  4. Liu, Xinru. The Silk Road in World History. Oxford ; New York, Oxford University Press, 2010
  5. Mark, Joshua J. “Silk Road.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 1 May 2018,
  6. “Mashad | SILK ROADS.” Unesco.Org, 2019,
  7. N.S. Gill. “The Parthians as Intermediaries in the Silk Trade.” ThoughtCo, 2018,
  8. Prakash Charan Prasad. Foreign Trade and Commerce in Ancient India. New Delhi, Abhinav Publications, 1977.
  9. Sardar, Marika. “The Metropolitan Museum’s Excavations at Nishapur.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–
  10. Whitfield, Susan. Life along the Silk Road. Oakland, California, University Of California Press, 2015
  11. “Wonders of Iran: Sabzevar.” Iranreview.Org, 2016,


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