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READ: The Silk Road

Heavenly horses, see-through clothing, camel-shaped gravestones. The ancient, vast trade network we call the Silk Road connected Eurasia and North Africa. And it was about a lot more than silk.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Fill out the Skimming for Gist section of the Three Close Reads Worksheet as you complete your first close read. As a reminder, this should be a quick process!

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

For this reading, you should be looking for unfamiliar vocabulary words, the major claim and key supporting details, and analysis and evidence. By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. How did the growth of imperial power expand trade, according to the author?
  2. What were the Pax Sinica and Pax Romana, and how did they impact trade?
  3. Why were camels the best way for traders to move their goods on land?
  4. What was the role of women in silk production, and why is that role significant?
  5. According to the author, what were some things the Silk Road spread without even trying?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

At the end of the third close read, respond to the following questions:
  1. What would you expect to happen along the Silk Road during a period in which the Roman Empire, and then the Han Dynasty, collapsed? What evidence would show whether this was, in fact, happening?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

The Silk Road

Photograph of several people traveling on camelback, outside of a tall stone wall. Behind the wall are impressive, multi-level structures.
By Rosie Friedland and David Rheinstrom for Khan Academy. Revised by Eman M. Elshaikh
Heavenly horses, see-through clothing, camel-shaped gravestones. The ancient, vast trade network we call the Silk Road connected Eurasia and North Africa. And it was about a lot more than silk.


Silk. Today we know it as a soft, shiny, fabric used for expensive clothes and many other things. Back in the first century CE, during the rule of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, silk was a much, much bigger deal. The luxury fabric, imported at great cost from China, had become a symbol of decadence and excess among Romans. With greater demand than supply, merchants figured out a way to unravel the silk they bought from China and re-weave it into more silk, but now it was much thinner. As in, you could see through it. Since silk was used for clothing, this became a bit of a problem on the streets of Rome.
Seneca the Younger, a writer and imperial adviser, complained of people wearing silk, "I can see clothes of silk, if materials that do not hide the body, nor even one's decency, can be called clothes." At one point, in the year 14 CE, the Imperial Senate made it illegal for men to wear silk.
This prohibition on silk did not last. The demand for silk among wealthy members of the Roman community continued to drive trade between the Roman Empire, China, India, and many places in between. To understand what caused this trade in silk, we need to look at how Chinese silk got to Rome.

State power and the Silk Road

One cause of expanded trade was the growth of imperial power. Near the end of the second century BCE, the Han dynasty, led by Emperor Wu, was in conflict with nomadic communities, called the Xiongnu. Xiongnu horsemen had raided Chinese settlements along the northern border for many years. After mounting many campaigns against the Xiongnu, Emperor Wu decided it was time to find a new source of horses if they were ever going to win this fight.
A sculpture of a horse. It is standing, balanced on one hoof, on the back of a bird.
Heavenly Horse” of Ferghana, depicted in a 2nd century CE bronze sculpture from Han China. By G41rn8, CC BY-SA 4.0.
He sent a representative named Zhang Qian to find allies who could help fight the Xiongnu. Zhang returned to China, eager to discuss the wonders he had seen in Ferghana (modern-day Uzbekistan, in Central Asia). This region produced rice, wheat, and grapes—but it was best known for its legendary, strong, "heavenly" horses.
As a tradable item, these "heavenly horses" of Ferghana were as desired in China as silk was in Rome. China imported so many horses that the Dayuan people who controlled the Ferghana valley eventually said "no more!" Han China decided if they couldn't buy the horses, they would take the land, leading to a three-year conflict known as the War of the Heavenly Horses. By 101 BCE, the Ferghana valley belonged to Han China. But here is the interesting side-effect: control of the Ferghana valley also opened a route to the West.
With a new supply of horses, Han China had increased its military strength throughout Asia. The expansion of Han control led to the first Pax Sinica—or Chinese Peace. During this time, the standard of living in China rose and cities grew in size. Economic growth and political stability led to increased demand for luxury goods from far-off places.
Meanwhile, the Roman Empire was expanding, too. Victory in the Punic Wars gave Rome control over the western Mediterranean Sea. Over the next few centuries, Rome expanded to control all of the Mediterranean shoreline.
The first century CE saw the beginning of the Pax Romana—Roman Peace. For about 200 years there were hardly any wars. As with Han China, political stability brought more trade. Rome began to trade regularly on overseas trading routes to India, going through Egypt.
Although Rome and Han China expanded greatly, there was still a lot of distance between them. Central Asia is covered with mountains, deserts, and vast grasslands, so it's not like people traveled through it for fun. Traders, who had a good financial reason to take these difficult trips, provided an essential link in creating networks between the Roman and Han empires.
Map shows the great extent of the Silk Road trade routes, reaching across the Indian ocean, from Egypt through China.
Extent of Silk Roads. Red is land route and blue is sea/water route. Public domain.

Travel on the Silk Road

Traders had to find ways to move their goods efficiently. This is where camels come in, as they were the best way to travel. Nomadic peoples in Central Asia started domesticating camels as early as the second millennium BCE. For example, the Han Chinese used camels captured from the Xiongnu to carry military supplies. Camels were tough. They withstood the harsh desert conditions of Central Asia and could carry up to 500 pounds! Without pack animals—especially camels—transporting goods over land on the Silk Road would not have been worth the trouble.
Stone carving of a camel walking behind two travelers.
Relief with camel, Persepolis, Iran. By Nick Taylor, CC BY 2.0.
Land wasn't the only way to travel. Merchants made use of the ocean to transport goods, too. Sailors didn't need camels, but a strong understanding of wind patterns and storm systems was required to successfully navigate the vast, dangerous waters. For example, in the Indian Ocean, monsoon winds blow from the northeast in the winter and from the southwest in the summer. With a southwestern wind pushing them east, merchants were able to travel from the Red Sea between Egypt and Arabia to India in the summer and then back to the Red Sea in the winter. This essential information was exchanged among sailors and made its way beyond the Indian Ocean.

The effects of exchange

One obvious effect of trade along the Silk Road—and for long-distance trade in any context—was that more goods were available in more places. Silk became so hotly desired that it was used like money in central Asia. What was so special about it? Unlike other fabrics, it was unusually soft and always had an appealing shimmer. This is because silk is a protein fabric made from the cocoons of silkworms (not from plants). The Romans surely would have made their own silk if they could. But how you got from cocoon to fabric was a process the Chinese kept secret all the way until the sixth century CE. The fact that China remained the only producer and distributor of silk meant that trade goods continued to travel across Asia.
Women were in charge of silk harvesting and weaving. Their production of silk generated lots of money from both the trade on the Silk Road networks and through the payment of taxes to the government. This means that the roles taken on by women made their jobs important for the benefit of the Han dynasty and its economy.
Map shows the Red Sea and the land surrounding it (east Africa, Saudi Arabia, India, southeast Asia). Blue arrows point south and west, showing the winter winds from the northeast. Red arrows point north and east across the Red Sea, showing the summer winds coming from the south.
A map of the monsoon pattern, made by Khan Academy. Map shows the Red Sea and the land surrounding it (east Africa, Saudi Arabia, India, southeast Asia). Blue arrows point south and west, showing the winter winds from the northeast. Red arrows point north and east across the Red Sea, showing the summer winds coming from the southwest.
Chinese silk was not the only commodity traded along these routes. China also exported ginger and lacquerware (a kind of glazed pottery), spices came from the East Indies, glass beads from Rome, and furs from animals of the Caucasian steppe. Unfortunately, the Silk Road also made it easier for enslaved peoples from many locations to be transported along its routes.
This massive movement of goods, people, and ideas had some major effects, including cultural developments. During the rule of the Tang dynasty of China, for example, sculptures of camels from the caravans that frequently traded in China were placed in graves. Clearly the animals made an impression!
Then there are those two other things that new trade routes tend to spread without even trying: ideas and diseases. Both would have large effects on the communities along the sea lanes and camel routes of Silk Road networks. Toward the end of the second century, a plague tore through the Roman Empire, killing 10 percent of the population. Historians think this plague first appeared in China before following the trade routes to the Near East, where Roman soldiers were campaigning.
As for the exchange of ideas, Buddhism came to China through trade with India. The Sogdians of Central Asia often acted as traders between India and China. Sogdians also translated Sanskrit sutras (short scriptures) into Chinese and spread the Buddhist faith as they traded. Other faiths, like Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, and Christianity also traveled along the sea and land routes. These religions developed and changed as they were introduced and became accepted in new areas.
So now we have a sense of the economic and political conditions that enabled Chinese silk to make its way to Roman markets. Both the Han Chinese and Roman Empires controlled vast territories and kept them relatively peaceful. The Han conquered their way into Central Asia. From there, nomadic traders carried goods farther west or south.
Trade brought new belief systems, new ideas, new diseases, and new goods to places that would be forever changed by the Silk Road.
A partially destroyed piece of paper with written text.
Part of a seventh-century purchase contract, exchanging a fifteen-year-old enslaved person for six bolts of silk and five Chinese coins. This contract is from the city of Turfan, an oasis city along the Silk Road. By Discott, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Author bios
Rosie Friedland is a content contributor at Khan Academy. She has created materials for a variety of Khan Academy's test prep offerings, including free SAT prep in partnership with College Board. She has also worked on course materials for Grammar, World History, U.S. History, and early-grade English Language Arts.
David Rheinstrom is a content creator at Khan Academy, and a former Grammar Fellow. Together with Rosie Friedland and Paige Finch, he developed the Grammar section of the website, and has contributed work to the test prep domain, World History, U.S. History, and a collaboration with the National Constitution Center. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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