Werner Forman Archive: Silk Road the ancient maritime route

The Silk Road - copyright Werner Forman Archive
Werner Forman Archive press release – 5 July, 2018.

The Silk Road - copyright Werner Forman ArchiveThe Silk Road was a network of land and sea trading routes linking China to Europe, and aiding the development of Korea, Japan, the Indian subcontinent, Iran/Persia, Europe, the Horn of Africa and Arabia, during the period from about 220 BCE to the 18thCentury. Though silk was the major trade item exported from China, many other commodities flowed along the route, as well as religions, philosophies, technologies, and unfortunately, diseases.

In ancient times, waterways were a much more viable method of long-distance transportation than land. Although the high seas were dangerous, coastal and inland waterways were usually reasonably safe. What mattered was the payload – three men with a cargo sailing boat can carry many tons of merchandise at a decent speed with good winds. If they were reduced to animal-drawn wagons, they could only move small amounts at a walking pace. So sea trade was vital to the emergence of the Silk Road. Despite the hazards of being wrecked, it was probably safer to travel at sea, than risk bandits overland.

Although the sea route to India had been sailed by early Chinese, it was the Tang Dynasty (618-907) which really increased the scope by trading via the Persian Gulf and Red Sea into Persia, Mesopotamia (sailing up the Euphrates River in modern-day Iraq), Arabia, Egypt, Aksum (Ethiopia), and Somalia in the Horn of Africa. From there the goods could go onward to the Mediterranean and Europe. When Marco Polo journeyed to China, his party went partly by sea, and partly overland.

Besides commerce, exploration was another draw for major powers looking to expand their geopolitical reach, so often merchants doubled as explorers and diplomats, as can be seen by Marco Polo and his group ending up as emissaries of Kublai Khan to the Pope in 1268-71.

The Modern Silk Road

In a way, not much has changed in the 21st century New Silk Road project. (Now known as the Belt and Road Initiative). You can still carry more goods in a container ship than a wheeled vehicle, even if it is powered by diesel engines, not oxen. Obviously, it is now much safer to travel, and with GPS, rest facilities and weather forecasts you are not likely to suffer the tribulations of earlier travellers. Collaboration between states through the new MSR not only produces economic gains but results in increased exchange between societies that should promote goodwill rooted in harmony, cooperation and mutual benefit – which was why the ancient Silk Road was such a success for so long.

Photograph © Werner Forman Archive.