Between the years 200 BCE and 1450 CE Eurasia saw some of the most dramatic changes we have record of throughout history. Empires rose and fell, territories were invaded, and lands were conquered. Religions were created, and traditions were started. Throughout all the chaos that change brings about, there was one constant, The Silk Roads. They connected all of Eurasia, and were a key component in the cultural and economic development of the continent. Throughout the millennia they were in use, the success and use of the Silk Roads depended on the prosperity and the state of the empires it ran through.
The fall of the Han Dynasty in 220 CE was the first of many events that would lead to the near-death of the Silk Roads. The end of the empire meant that China would break up into factions, as it had been before the Qin dynasty came to power. This meant that any journey through China would be a more complicated for the merchants on the Silk Roads, and therefore they would be less traveled. Rome, like China was a large contributor to the trade along the Silk Roads and a dwindling empire. The Romans were struggling to fend off Barbarian attacks as well as a plague that we can assume came to Rome by way of the Silk Roads.
To add to the major loss of interest in trading in both Rome and China, the Parthian empire -who played an essential role in Silk Road trade-was overthrown. It would then become the Sasanian Empire, who favored trade by sea. Because of this the Silk Roads lost even more merchants and buyers. By 500 CE, traffic along the Silk Roads was sparse, and there was little interest in foreign trade among the most influential empires of Eurasia. The eventual recovery of the silk roads can be greatly attributed to the Tang dynasty.
China had already been unified during the Sui dynasty, hich preceded the Tang. Yet the country still was not in the shape it had been during the Han dynasty, before China broke into multiple dynasties. Under the Tang rule China’s state began to improve drastically as they grew in power. Not only did the Tang used their influence to encourage foreign trade, but they managed and protected the Silk Roads. To add to this, all of the countries of the West (Persia, Arabian, and Roman Empires) all were in a period of general stability, which means they had the resources to build relations with China.
Suddenly the Silk Roads became more secure than ever before and trade flourished in all of Eurasia. Because of this, this time is considered the Golden Age of the Silk Roads. Religions, fashions, food, ideas and innovations spread across the continent at a rapid pace as the demand for foreign luxuries grew among the wealthy. The Silk Roads saw many religious traditions evolve along it throughout time. Regular travellers on the Silk Roads often build shrines and temples of their own religion wherever they went, so they could continue their own practices even away from home.
Missionaries travelled with caravans, trying to spread the influence of their own religion as well as convert the people they came across. Buddhism was one of the firsts to take advantage of the Silk Roads. Buddhist merchants built shrines and temples all along the Silk Roads and the priests and monks in those temples would preach to whoever would listen, whether it be passing travellers or locals. Because of this Buddhism as a religion grew quite rapidly. Christianity was spread along the Silk roads as well, though primarily a type called Nestorianism.
An inscribed stone tablet in Xian from 781 talks about the arrival of Nestorian missionaries. By then there was many Nestorian Churches in the cities along the Silk Roads. By the end of the Silk Roads, many faiths had grown along it and there was physical evidence of these faiths everywhere. Temples and shrines to different religions, from Christianity to Buddhism to Islam to Manicheism, where scattering all along the Silk Road, making the cities it ran through some of the most culturally diverse at the time.
We see another significant spike in traffic along the Silk Roads when Genghis Khan united the Mongol people and began to conquer territories surrounding their own. Khan was a ruthlessly ambitious conqueror and wanted control of the Silk Roads as well as as much land as possible. However, the lands the Mongols took over were relatively peaceful under their rule. At it’s height, and extremely large part of Eurasia was under Mongol rule, which meant it was extremely safe to travel most of the Silk Roads and the increase in trade we see during this time reflects that.
Another major transformation in the ways of trade along the silk road was the invention of paper money and use of it by the Chinese in around 800 CE. The Tang invented what they called “Flying Cash” (called so because of it’s tendency to blow away), because it was much easier to travel long distances with. Flying Cash were simply paper certificates with different monetary values written on them that could be traded for solid money at the capitol. Due to fact that they were transferable, merchants on the Silk Roads exchanged Flying Cash like currency.
Flying Cash was never meant to be official currency, so there was very little in circulation. Real government printed paper money was not used until the Song dynasty in 1023. The official paper money could be exchanged for the standard coins at any of the issuing banks. Large amounts of paper money was much easier for merchants to travel with in comparison to the bulky coins that were usually seen at the time. The Silk Roads heavily relied on two variables that we see a static presence of throughout the years the Roads were successful.
These two essential components of the Silk Roads success were the willing participation of the Empires of Eurasia, and land trade by merchants being the primary choice as far as methods of trade. These two variable were almost constant throughout the years the Silk Roads were in use. In fact, the downfall of the once-great Silk Roads can be attributed to the loss of these two major components. With the overthrow of the Mongols and the rise of the Ming Dynasty in 1368, there was a startlingly dramatic decline in use of the Silk Roads.
In a short period of time it was apparent that the Ming encouraged isolation and did nothing to promote trade, while the great political powers of Eurasia cut themselves off from one another, to add to this, maritime trade was becoming more popular than ever. Suddenly the Silk Roads were losing the two necessary variables they had always had and relied on for success. All of these factors eventually lead to the collapse of the famous Silk Roads. The transformations along the Silk Roads between 200 BCE and 1450 CE reflect the development of Eurasia during this time.
The main religions in the regions all took turns being prominent along the Silk Roads until the Roads became a cultural mix of these religions, as there were temples, shrines and communities scattered throughout them. The spread of paper money would change the world and the way people would trade and travel forever. Tempo of the trade anywhere in the world throughout history depends on the state of the regions involved. We will always see a correlation between trade and political stability and the Silk Roads, during the millennia they were in use, serve as an excellent example of this concept.