The ‘Silk Road’

You can download a PDF of this map here. All the maps on this page are designed by Paul Oram with input by Elena Paskaleva.

A Short history of the Silk Roads

The rich history of the region we indicate as ” Central Asia” is closely intertwined with the so-called Silk Road, the proverbial pre-modern highway of global interaction connecting the ancient empires of East and West. Though a network of trade routes has been flourishing in this area for a long time, the term ‘Silk Road’ itself is a 19th century invention of a German scholar, Ferdinand von Richthofen. It was an immediate hit and the romantic connotation of the ‘Silk Road’ still continues to inspire travellers, traders and governments. A recent example is China’s New Silk Road initiative, a trade and development strategy that started in 2013 as OBOR, ‘One Belt One Road’, and has been renamed the Belt and Road Initiative in 2016. This initiative demonstrates the growing importance of Central Asia as a focal point of geopolitical interests and global ambitions of world powers. Another testimony of the perennial success of the label ‘Silk Road’ is the 2015 bestseller of Peter Frankopan, entitled The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. In this work, Frankopan makes a strong case for a less Eurocentric approach to global history, following in the footsteps of a number of other historians who have argued the centrality of Central Asia in world history.

Silk was only one of the goods that circulated along the many roads that connected the different parts of Asia with each other and with Europe and Africa. Other goods would include a variety of textiles and fur, food, spices, gold, cattle, horses and pottery. Slaves, including elite slaves like military slaves and concubines, would also be taken extensive lengths along the Silk Roads to be put to work far from their original homes.

The Silk Roads or Silk Routes were (generally) not roads in the sense that they were paved or otherwise indicated as actual roads. The Silk Roads were a network that connected cities through trade, with traders, pilgrims and other travelers following more or less the same routes over time.

It is important to note that traders would usually not accompany the goods all the way from the most eastern parts of Asia, to the most western parts, instead goods would change owners several times along the way and many goods were intended from the start for (semi-)local markets. Inhospitable terrains and climates as well as political instability were important factors in the constant evolution of roads/ routes.

The overland silk roads and maritime silk routes changed overtime dependent on the governance and political powers of the empires and the seasons of the year. The northern summer roads and the southern winter roads were defined by the complex geography of Central Eurasia, its eastern and western edges. The East-West maritime patterns were determined by the monsoon winds through the Indian Ocean. This is a composite map that identifies the major cities and ports threaded on these paths and the natural features that inherently determined their patterns.

UNESCO Thematic Collection of Cultural Exchanges along the Silk Roads:
Architecture, Monuments and Urbanism

The Silk Roads had many advantages to offer and was very lucrative for those involved. It also had it’s downsides. The first global pandemic -Black Death- spread effectively along the Silk Roads. Additionally the advantages of controlling the trade routes, was very much sought after and that meant that war was always around the corner.

The entire area of the Silk Roads has experienced a long succession of different dynasties, empires and rulers as a result of that. You can find a timeline with an overview of the many different dynasties and empires in different regions here.

The heritage left behind by all these dynasties is large and varied. On this website the focus lies on the heritage of the rulers from Turkic nomadic descent who established large empires in the Middle East and Asia between the 11th and 14th centuries. In this section of the website you are introduced to their material culture and architectural achievements.

Here you can download a map showing the different regions

Here you can download a map showing the climate zones of the silk roads