Ancient Trading Routes: Silk Route, Spice Route and Trans-Saharan
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Ancient Trading Routes: Silk Route, Spice Route and Trans-Saharan

Facts and information about ancient trade routes - the Silk Road, the spice route and trans-Saharan route, and a profile of the father of the Silk Road, Chang Ch\'ien.

From ancient trade routes, business trading has gone a long way. Nowadays, traders and trading companies talk about international currency trade and online trading exchange. During the ancient times, trade routes included passing through dangerous mountain ranges to crossing the Sahara with camel trains.

A “trade route” is a series of pathways and stoppages used for the commercial transport of cargo. Thinking of pure silk trading today is hard to imagine how early traders took many months to travel thousands of miles risking their lives to acquire such indulgence. Prehistoric people traded things they had for things they desired. Along with agriculture came the development of marketplaces. Imperial rulers fostered trade as a means of increasing tax revenues along with spreading their culture and domain.

The invention of wheeled carts made it possible to travel greater distances, and upcoming business-minded people began to follow in the tracks of others, developing the first great trade routes.

The Silk Road Route

The name “Silk Road” applies to several different routes that took traders from China to Central Asia, Northern India, Mesopotamia, and the Roman Empire. Some 4,000 miles (6,440 km) long, the road passed through the vast mountain ranges, forests, and deserts between the West and China. Marco Polo followed the Silk Road to China and later charmed Europe with his accounts.

Caravans coming from the West carried gold and other valuables including precious stones and glass to trade for Chinese silk, porcelain, jade and bronze items. These valuable goods were exchanged and bartered along the way. Ideas and beliefs also spread from region to region, notably Buddhism, which spread from India into China.

Father of the Silk Road: Chang Ch’ien

Chang Ch’ien (157-87 BCE), is considered as the father of the Silk Road. During the Han dynasty, China was troubled by raiding tribes. In 138 BCE, as commander of the imperial guards, Chang Ch’ien volunteered to seek for new alliances. Captured and held for 10 years, he escaped to journey as far as Bactria, in modern-day Afghanistan, passing through Turkistan on the way. His journey lasted 13 years, and he returned to China with a wealth of knowledge.

The Spice Route

Spices have been traded for thousands of years. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs tell of the trade in spices, which were so valuable that they were used in place of money and were seen as the greatest of gifts. King Solomon was once presented by the Queen of Sheba with “twenty talents of gold and spices of very great store.”

For many centuries, Arabs controlled the trade between the East and the Mediterranean for many centuries. They monopolized trade by refusing to reveal their sources, even exaggerating the difficulty of obtaining their aromatic goods. The earliest sea route was thought to be from the East Indies across the Indian Ocean, and then either north to the Persian Gulf or across the Arabian Sea to the Red Sea. From these destinations, spices went to Babylon and on to Europe.

The Trans-Saharan Route

Throughout history, gold has always attracted the attention of exporters. Before the discovery of the New World in the 15th century, roughly two-thirds of the gold circulating in the Mediterranean came from West Africa. Trade between Africa and the Mediterranean was initiated by the Berber peoples of the desert. They crossed the Sahara with their camel trains.

Before the Muslim conquest of North Africa in the late 7th century, trans-Saharan trade was sporadic. However, the expansion of Islam increased the demand for gold, and the Arabs turned increasingly to West Africa, trading salt and other goods for the precious metal.

Trading exchanges shifted to newer routes between nations with the advent of modern times. International trade business involves currency trading and other business trading strategies and platforms, carried out under free trade agreements, which allow commercial goods to cross borders with relaxed restrictions. Modern transportations include rail routes, automobiles, and cargo airlines.

Image Courtesy: Southern Harbour Scene with Merchants Oil on canvas, by Abraham Storck, Wiki Creative Commons


Aldridge, Susan, Elizabeth K. Humphrey and Julie Whitaker. Know It All. Sydney: Simon & Schuster, 2008

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Comments (10)
Luigi Ragusa

So, Chang Ch'ien died in 87 B.C.E, but he can come back to go on a journey in 138 C.E.? Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't that impossible?

Luigi Ragusa

thanks for fixing the mistake



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