from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

  • An ancient trade route between China and the Mediterranean Sea extending some 6,440 km (4,000 mi) and linking China with the Roman Empire. Marco Polo followed the route on his journey to Cathay.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

  • proper n. An extensive interconnected network of trade routes across Asia, North and Northeast Africa, and Europe, historically used by silk traders.

from WordNet 3.0 Copyright 2006 by Princeton University. All rights reserved.

  • n. an ancient trade route between China and the Mediterranean (4,000 miles); followed by Marco Polo in the 13th century to reach Cathay


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  • "Venice was the most commercially minded city on earth. It was the way station that linked the Silk Road with the Rhine, where French wine found its way onto boats to Alexandria and Constantinople and where traders swapped pepper, ginger, and cotton from the East for horn, fur and metal from the West. Venice was founded on commerce and businessmen ran the place. Money was all anyone talked about."

    --Greg Steinmetz, The Richest Man Who Ever Lived: The Life and Times of Jacob Fugger (NY and London: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 7

    February 6, 2017

  • "Most of what we have learned from these documents debunks the prevailing view of the Silk Road, in the sense that the 'road' was not an actual 'road' but a stretch of shifting, unmarked paths across massive expanses of deserts and mountains. In fact, the quantity of cargo transported along these treacherous routes was small. Yet the Silk Road did actually transform cultures both east and west. ... 'Silk' is even more misleading than 'road,' inasmuch as silk was only one among many Silk Road trade goods. Chemicals, spices, metals, saddles and leather products, glass, and paper were also common. Some cargo manifests list ammonium chloride, used as a flux for metals and to treat leather, as the top trade good on certain routes."

    ... "The term 'Silk Road' is a recent invention. The peoples living along different trade routes did not use it. They referred to the route as the road to Samarkand (or whatever the next major city was), or sometimes just the 'northern' or 'southern' routes around the Taklamakan Desert. Only in 1877 did Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen coin the phrase 'Silk Road.' He was a prominent geographer who worked in China from 1868 to 1872 surveying coal deposits and ports, and then wrote a five-volume atlas that used the term for the first time."

    --Valerie Hansen, The Silk Road: A New History (Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 2012), 5 and 6-7


    "The Silk Road was one of the least traveled routes in human history and possibly not worth studying--if tonnage carried, traffic, or the number of travelers at any time were the sole measures of a given route's significance.

    "Yet the Silk Road changed history, largely because the people who managed to traverse part or all of the Silk Road planted their cultures like seeds of exotic species carried to distant lands. Thriving in their new homes, they mixed with the peoples already there and often assimilated with other groups who followed. Sites of sustained economic activity, these oasis towns were beacons enticing still others to cross over mountains and move through oceans of sand. While not much of a commercial route, the Silk Road was important historically--this network of routes became the planet's most famous cultural artery for the exchange between east and west of religions, art, languages, and new technologies.

    "... Nothing unusual in the landscape would catch the eye of someone flying overhead. ... No one living on these routes between 200 and 1000 CE, the peak period for the Chinese presence, ever said 'the Silk Road.' 

    "These routes date back to the very origins of humankind. Anyone who could walk was capable of going overland through Central Asia. ... The earliest surviving evidence of trade goods moving across regions comes around 1200 BCE...." (page 235)

    More from the rest of the book: 

    "The evidence at hand makes it clear that Silk Road commerce was largely a local trade, conducted over small distances by peddlers. Technologies, like those to make silk and paper, and religions, like Zoroastrianism and later Islam, moved with migrants, who brought the technologies and religious beliefs of their motherland with them to their new homes, wherever they settled." (p. 139)

    "In 745 the Tang central government sent a payment of fifteen thousand bolts of silk in two installments to a garrison near Dunhuang. ... As the French scholar Éric Trombert astutely remarks, 'One has here a concrete example of two military convoys, each carrying more than 7,000 bolts of silk, that has nothing in common with the images of caravans of private merchants to which we are accustomed.' These individual payments ... are much higher than all the individual transactions recorded in the Turfan documents, which involved at most a few hundred bolts of silk. ... This record affords a rare glimpse of payments sent to the military before the An Lushan rebellion: the Tang government injected massive amounts of money--in the form of woven cloth--straight into the Dunhuang economy." (p. 184)

    "In the Dunhuang economy of the ninth and tenth centuries, locally produced goods circulated in small quantities. Traffic to distant places was limited, commodities of foreign origin rare. The trade had little impact on local residents, who continued to live in a subsistence economy. State-sponsored delegations played a key role in the movement of goods; envoys, including monks, are the one group that was certainly moving from one place to another. This picture of the Silk Road trade matches that given by the excavated materials from the other sites. Rather than trying to explain why the Dunhuang documents do not mention long-distance trade with Rome and other distant points, we should appreciate just how accurate their detailed picture of the Silk Road trade is." (p. 197)

    "While the Silk Road has long been viewed as a highway for a procession of camels led by a merchant in business for himself, the documentary record challenges this impression." (p. 226)

    December 30, 2016