The Historical Silk Road

Authors: Zoltán Horváth, Attila Kiss

The Silk Road is a network of long-distance trade routes through which Chinese silk got across the nomadic empires of the Eurasian steppe and the cultural regions in the south speckled by high mountains and deserts to the basin of the Mediterranean Sea. The caravans, loaded with the luxuries of the West, headed from here back to the Far East. However, on top of premium products, innovations, cultural and artistic influences as well as religious systems travelled thousands of kilometres from China to Rome, and from the Eternal City to the Celestial Empire – on land and sea. The research of the Silk Road has significant Hungarian implications. It was discovered, archaeologically excavated and verified by Sir Marc Aurel Stein, a British scientist with Hungarian origins. He is considered the “archaeologist of the Silk Road” by the scientific community.

It is an interesting aspect in the history of science that the term “Silk Road”, a well-known notion seeming ancient and almost classical, was coined not so long ago. It was Baron Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen, one of the most important figures in German geography, who defined the notion of the Seidenstrasse in 1877. As soon as his work had been published the mirror translations of the word spread in the world languages: Silk Road (Silk Route) in English, La route de la soie in French, and Šëlkovyj put’ in Russian. Richthofen named an economic, geographic, historic and cultural complex which had already existed for more than 2,000 years then. Legates, soldiers, merchants, monks walked, fought, traded and pilgrimed on the route network for a long-long time. However, most of them could not recognise that the routes connecting two neighbouring cities comprised a system connecting Europe with the remotest parts of Asia, constituting a vast, organic unit. Thus, it was impossible to give the route they used one single name, understood by everyone. It was only at the end of the 19th century, at the birth of the science of modern geography when it happened. It is also the implication of this “partial knowledge” that very few people travelled along the whole length of the Silk Road. A rare exception is Marco Polo; not only did he travel all along the mainland section of the Silk Road, but he also sailed its sea route, and left his reports to the after-ages. Even Richthofen himself used the term he coined for a narrower region, the Central Asian section of the route network. Albert Herrmann was the one who extended the scope of the Silk Road farther west, towards Syria in his doctoral thesis in 1910.

Richthofen’s terms is just as appropriate as misleading. Although the valuable fabric was indeed one of the main products of this trade network, and, as a kind of “continental currency”, it was its drive as well, apart from silk many other products were exchanged along the routes, including chinaware, tea, spices, precious and semi-precious stones, glassware, non-ferrous and noble metals, weapons, other fabrics, etc. The special fabric had lost its exclusive status in the world trade conducted on the Silk Road by the end of the Middle Ages, since it was being produced almost at choice outside China as well. Therefore, there was no reason in the Western world to purchase it so far away. Silk trade did not depend on mysteriousness and exclusivity then, but the difference between production and transport costs. On the contrary, in market outlets any price was paid for products which were impossible to get in other ways – such as spices and gems.

The wide verticum of commercial articles has always been changing dynamically. This extremely sensitive system has reacted promptly to the drop-out of market participants and the changes in the needs of the market as well as local peculiarities. We should remember that the Silk Road was the main artery for commercial articles and, at the same time, for culture, languages, art, religious and philosophical doctrines, information and innovations between Asia and Europe.  As Sir Aurel Stein put it, “For centuries, it was the transport artery of contact between ancient India, China and Western Asia, penetrated by Hellenistic culture. It is a fascinating chapter in cultural history.” Indeed, this is the factor that makes the history of the Silk Road an extremely important chapter in the cultural history of mankind.

Hearing the name of the Silk Road, most people evoke the image of loaded camel caravans trodding slowly in a single file on barren land. In contrast, it is less well known that the Maritime Silk Road was at least as important as the overland route network.  Naturally, the two route networks were closely connected and organically interrelated. In different eras one route network was busier than the other. But the great majority of the goods reaching Persia, Rome and China saw horse- and camel caravans as well as the underdecks of even several ships. Silk, for example, covered the distance between Asia Minor and Rome by ship on the Mediterranean Sea most of the times, but the Parthian Empire could be avoided either on the steppes in the north or across the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. Therefore, the Silk Road, often named as the “Spice Road”, was not an independent trade route but formed an integrated part of a network of Eurasian scale.


The continental route of the Silk Road also included several natural barriers. These radically different geographical features, such as high mountains, deserts, large rivers divided the road into natural sections. These high mountain ranges often coincided with the political and administrative borders, and with the scope of the economic operations of caravans, too.  At the contact point of two different areas, such as a desert and a high mountain range, the caravan, having crossed the desert or the mountains, arriving from the east or the west, was unloaded. A new caravan took over the transported goods, and the first caravan turned back with the goods carried from the opposite direction. Naturally, it is not a rule that goods should be exchanged at such – in a geographical sense – remarkably differing points. For example, on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, thanks to a range of towns caravans did not have to go all along the desert, and within a couple of hundreds of kilometres the goods could be exchanged several times. This geographical segmentation allowed these sections to become the basis for the geographical division of the Silk Road. On this basis, latest researches divide the route of the continental Silk Road into four major sections.

Starting from the east, the first section is the segment crossing China in the strict sense, i.e. the inner regions of China. In most of the ancient times and the Chinese Middle Ages, the Empire –  being either united or divided –  was managed from two capitals, Chang’an and Luoyang, located on the fertile plain of the Huang He. It is not surprising that traditionally Luoyang and Chang’an, or as it is called today, Xi’an, are considered the starting points, or the endpoints, of the Silk Road. The Silk Road led from Chang’an across the central areas of China, Shaanxi and Gansu, to the funnel-shaped  Gansu-corridor and its endpoint, the city of An’xi. An’xi used to be the border city of China in a narrow sense, thus it closed the first section of the Road. From An’xi, the fertile lowland drastically changes: on the west, the barren Lop desert blocked the ways of caravans heading for west.

Here, where the Gobi and Taklamakan Deserts meet, commences the second, and the most exciting long section of the Silk Road, crossing the heart of Asia, the extremely dry, desert and semi-arid areas of Central Asia, enclosed by the Kunlun and the Tian Shan mountain systems. The second section is interesting mainly for scientific researchers, since this is the region where the mixing of different cultures can be detected at its best. Central Asia used to be the most important meeting point of the Greek-Roman, Iranian, Indian, Chinese and Central Asian nomadic cultures. This is well highlighted by the archaeological researches led by Stein in the archaeological sites of the Tarim Basin. In addition, in the course of time, these Central Asian areas did not just ensure transit traffic but actively participated in the production of the goods transported on the Silk Road, thanks to the mining and the industry evolving locally. For instance, silk was surely produced in Central Asia in 3rd century AD, but we can also think of the extensive trade of jade exploited around Khotan.

Basically, the caravans could follow two directions from An’xi: they either bypassed the Lop Desert from the north via Hamin and Turfan, or they turned southwest, and headed for Dunhuang. After Dunhuang the “southern” road split into two again:  the one going farther north passed Lake Lop Nur and the ancient city of Loulan and then reached Korla, where it met the northern route leaving Turfan and Karasahr. The more southward one passed Miran, and led to Khotan and then even farther west towards Jharkhand and Kashgar across a string of oasis towns, such as Endere, Cherchen, Niya, Keriya, fed by glaciers and located on the southern rim of the Taklamakan Desert, where the desert and Kunlun met. One or more routes branched out towards Tibet from this southern route, and farther west several other routes branched towards the Indian subcontinent. The goods could reach the Indian Ocean in the latter direction, through such important ports as Barygaza (Bharuch); but this was also the route on which the Indian culture entered Central Asia.

The section passing Hami also split into two at Turfan: one of the roads ran to the northwest, in the direction of Urumqi in East-Turkestan amidst the northern slopes of the Tian Shan mountain system and the Altai Mountain Range  towards Lake Issyk-Kul and Kokand. The other route running to the southwest passed Karasahr and then reached Korla, where it met the route coming from Lop-Nur. The united route passed Kucha, Aksu and TumSuk and running on the northern edge of the Taklamakan Desert reached Kashgar, where it joined the great southern route.

The western endpoint of the second section here was the region of two other high mountain ranges, the Pamir and the Hindu Kush. It is already the third section of the Silk Road which starts to the west from here, encompassing the areas of present-day Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, and the Iranian and Iraqi regions to their west.

An important road ran from Kashgar in the north-eastern direction, across the northern areas of the Pamirs all the way to Kokand, where it unified with the northernmost route coming from Urumqi. Then the road, after having passed Samarkand and Bukhara, reached Merv, exactly at the point where it met the route running further south from Kashgar to the southwest through former Bactria.  A route started towards the north from Bukhara, and proceeded in the valley of Amu Darya across the area between Lake Aral and the Caspian Sea (although according to some ideas this route diverged as early as at Kokand and bypassed Lake Aral from the north), then, after having crossed the South-Russian steppe, reached the Azov Sea, where the goods got to Constantinople and from there to Rome by ship.

The caravans proceeded on their journey from Merv by passing Nishapur and Ray. From Ray they got to the Black Sea either to the northwest, toward Tebriz and Trapezunt, or they arrived at the Euphrates by using the former Achaimenida “imperial road” via Ecbatana, Ctesiphon and Baghdad. The fourth, and last section of the Silk road started roughly here.

The Silk Road split into several branches to the west of the line of the Euphrates and several lines crossed the Middle East and Asia Minor toward the most important ports of the Mediterranean Sea, which, of course, changed from century to century. Goods were transported to – depending on the era – Ephesus, Tyre, Antioch, Acre, etc. Finally, the commercial articles made the last section of the long journey on sea to Rome, and later to Byzantium or Venice.


The maritime route network of the Silk Road was similar to the continental one in complexity, and also some of its sections were determined by geographical criteria.  The coastal areas of China were the easternmost endpoint of the maritime Silk Road. Although the power ranking of the port cities changed from time to time, there were some centres which could maintain their significance during ancient and medieval times. Such cities included Hangzhou next to the Grand Canal or Guangzhou, located farther south. The ships loaded with goods set sail in these ports towards south, the South-Chinese Sea.

The first section of the route passed the island of Hainan, along the coastal areas of present-day Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Mekong delta, then ended at the long, tapered end of the Malaysian Peninsula, in the Strait of Malacca. Some of the ships sailed up to this point only. The commercial articles were taken over new merchants and new ships here, adding the sought-after goods of South-Eastern Asia to their freight. In the Strait of Malacca, the ships turned north west and along the island of Sumatra, touching the Nicobar and the Andaman Islands, reached the open waters of the Bay of Bengal. Some of the merchants got to the estuary of the Ganges   from here, on the coastal waters, passing the Irrawaddy river delta.  Others cut through the Bay of Bengal, heading toward the southeast coastal areas of India and the island of Ceylon. The second, larger section of the road ended here. Departing from the highly important centre of sea trade, Sri Lanka, the ships got to such centres of commerce, important for centuries, like Calcutta or Mangalore on the other, western side of the Indian Peninsula, along the Malabar Coast. In the western basin of the Indian Ocean seasonality, characteristic of shipping, even more enhanced, primarily as a result of the strong monsoon effect with the wind direction changing in approximately every six months.

At the Malabar Coast, the network of the maritime Silk Road split into two again: ships either sailed along the shores and reached the region of the Persian Gulf after touching Gujarat, Sindh and Makran, or taking advantage of the monsoon winds, they turned west and reached the “horn of Africa”, that is the areas of present-day Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen across the Arabic Sea.  After having stopped at Aden they sailed along the Red Sea. The Suez region in Egypt (Myos Hormos, etc.) and the great commercial centres of the Persian Gulf became the two western endpoints of the maritime Silk Road on the northern coast of the Red Sea.

In the context of the maritime Silk Road, it makes sense to recall Chinese sea shipping, and China’s special relationship with the sea in general. The ancient and medieval Chinese Empire was fundamentally a country of an agricultural-bureaucratic nature. Consequently, the centre of gravity of power was in the inner regions of the mainland, while the coast, in comparison, was peripheric. In early days, rival powers were threatening from the sea, which further increased an aversion to the sea. Naturally, coastal shipping and coastal trade were pursued, but the Chinese ventured on farther expeditions only in certain, relatively short periods. Under the Mongolian Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) China’ maritime power and trade – as part of the Mongolians’ attempt of global expansion – became more and more important. When the purely Chinese Mings came into the throne, this tendency continued but with different emphases:  the new dynasty called for the policy of “national pride” after their liberation from the Mongolian rule. The main aim of the Mings was to found the reputation of a China driving out foreign conquerors and regaining its dignity as the greatest power of the Far East. This target was well served by those seven consecutive enterprises during which the Chinese government set off a naval expedition on the Indian Ocean all the way to the shores of Eastern Africa and the Arabic Peninsula in the early Ming era between 1405 and 1433. The enterprises aimed at establishing colonies, obtaining (or forcing) commercial rights, and putting vassal local governors in favourable positions. These expeditions transported all kinds of different goods to and from: the underdecks of the Chinese vessels were full of – in addition to the admired luxury products of the Celestial Empire (silk, blue and white Ming chinaware, spice and perfumes, etc.) – golden and silver objects, copper and iron instruments, and on their way back home they were full of exotic gifts sent to the emperor’s court.  This kind of expansive and simultaneously, open policy did not last long. The members of the Ming administration preferred the policy of isolation: China closed up again, and long-distance trade also came to a halt. The Chinese ships anchored only on Java and Sumatra, and later coastal shipping was also forced back by the proliferation of Japanese piracy. In a political sense, the fact that the capital of the Empire was relocated from southern Nanjing located by the river to northern Beijing meant the essence of all these. Coastal cities, despite their relatively high levels of development, were doomed to have a subordinate status against continental China. This phenomenon is a real paradox in the history of China, since they were the ones who invented the compass, essential to sailing, and they also excelled at ship-building until the 15th century. Under the Manju Ching dynasty this continental anti-maritime attitude further strengthened, in certain periods those who ventured on sea voyages were threatened with capital punishment. This approach determined the attitude of the court toward the European merchants arriving from the 15th century on. However, all this could not prevent the development of internal and – at times, “smuggling-like” – external trade; Chinese emigrants to South Asia became important participants in it.


The above mentioned seven great naval expeditions undertaken in the first third of the 15th century were the swan-song of the maritime enterprises of the old Chinese Empire. They had such volume that it is worth outlining their directions and courses in a few sentences.

In 1405, Zheng He, a eunuch born to Muslim parents in the southern Yunnan province in 1371, was appointed as admiral of the Chinese fleet. Together with the San-bao tai qian (Great Eunuch of the Three Treasures) title, Zheng He also was given a fleet no one had seen since Kublai Khan. The dimensions of the specific ships were imposing: the larger ones stretched 150 metres in length and 70 metres in width, and had up to nine masts, while the smaller ones were 45 metres in length, 20 metre in width, and had five masts.

In the summer of the same year, the ships were set afloat near Shanghai, and after having waited until the winter monsoon at the end of the year was over, they set sails towards south. [1.] Sailing along the shores of Cambodia, Siam and the Malay Peninsula they reached the Indian Ocean and anchored at the Nicobar Islands. They proceeded to Ceylon, and here the fleet split into two groups: one of them headed for India’s Malabar Coast, while the other one headed straight to Aden, sailed up the Arabic Sea, reached Hormuz, and from there turned to India. The fleet was united again, sailed up the Bengal Bay, down to the Andaman Islands, along the Burmese coast and finally returned to the southern ports of China in October 1407 – after having visited the island of Sumatra and destroyed the base of Chen Zuyi, the pirate commanding a fleet infesting the seas of Southeast Asia. [2.]

The long, two-year voyage was followed by a shorter expedition to Malacca, Sumatra and South India at the beginning of 1409. On Ceylon, the Chinese had to fight, because the king of Sri Lanka – referring to using his territorial waters – did not want to let the imperial fleet go. However, the admiral landed with two thousand warriors, took the palace, and king of the island was taken in shackles before the Chinese emperor in the autumn of 1411. [3.]

The third expedition was undertaken between 1412 and 1415, and targeted the island of Java. [4.] The fourth voyage was conducted in 1416 – the Great Eunuch sailed as far as the African shores. The Chinese had already been trading with the ports of Mogadishu, Brava and Malindi, where they sent “tribute” to the Emperor in 1415. Zheng He arrived home in August 1419, accompanied by African legates. [5.] The aim of his fifth voyage was to take them home in 1421-ben. [6.] The admiral’s sixth voyage was a short return to the most important commercial centre of Sumatra, the port of Palembang to inaugurate the new governor in 1424. [7.] His last, seventh expedition set off in 1431, and anchored in twenty countries in the next two years, including Arabia. The admiral died on the journey home, in the middle of the ocean. The great imperial fleet returned to its homeport in 1433, and never set sail again. The ships rotted on the embankment. But it was not only the fleet that perished: the officials opposing maritime expansion destroyed all the notes of Zheng He in the archives to prevent any enterprises following the admiral’s example.

In spite of all these, the voyages can be considered successful. From a commercial viewpoint, long-distance trade began to develop quickly.  However, it is difficult to see the effect the expedition had on the economy, because there are no reliable accounting data about the complete financial actions.  The delegations arriving at the imperial court were allowed to trade in the capital under strict circumstances. They had five days only, they could do business exclusively accompanied by an official, and were not allowed to buy weapons or metalwork. The voyages were successful on diplomatic terms as well.  The Mamluk Empire in Egypt is a good example: they sent two delegations to Nanjing in the first half of the 15th century.

The enhancement of China’s influence in South-eastern Asia was down to the voyages of Zeng He. The sea voyages wished to expand Chinese influence by peaceful means, and this foreign policy also included the construction of an enhanced defence on the southern borders. Quite obviously, the imperial court intended to monopolise sea trade in order to control maritime traffic. The foreign countries benignly tolerated all these aspirations for power, since they were afraid of military retaliation, and they could also see great profit in Chinese trade relations.

The continental and maritime route network described in this article are a kind of “common denominator”, embracing different eras, since the routes, the major posts and commercial centres mentioned above never co-existed. For example, no matter that Loulan or Niya was an important post on the Silk Road, in the 3rd and 4th centuries, the Buddhist monk-traveller, Xuanzang could not see them in the 7th century. Or no matter that the fortress of Miran and its surroundings was populated 300 years later, the most Marco Polo could see of it was ruins. Similarly, not only the routes changed, but also the ethnic composition of the population of the Silk Road, as it was one of the main scenes of the migration and ethnic processes of Eurasian nomadic peoples. In parallel, the nomadic empires controlling extensive parts of the Silk Road and profiting from it formed and disappeared one after the other.


The lines of the Silk Road were very volatile and might have changed even week by week within a region. In the case of ships, for example, they depended on the wind direction, while on the continent, they depended on the opportunities of getting drinking water or the changes of natural barriers – landslides, snowfall, snowbreak, sudden floods, earthquakes, etc. But it was also very sensitive to the tottering of the political and administrative situation. They were immediately ready to change the transport routes to bypass a politically unstable region if it was posing risks to the safety of caravans or ships.  For example, they abandoned mainland transport and after having approached the sea on the shortest route possible, they loaded the products on ships, and conveyed them in that way.  Later, when the political situation settled, the caravans could return onto their original paths. At times, the insecurity of maritime routes might have resulted in shifting the products onto continental routes.

Due to this kind of volatility, marking the exact route network of the Silk Road on a map is an impossible enterprise. During its history of several hundreds of years, trade was pursued on several dozens of routes at the same time, but there were periods when some routes were closed, and trade could be continued through one single channel. As a matter of fact, a series of maps would be needed to draw a more authentic picture either in the Han era or the era of Tibetan conquest, or of the approximate locations of the routes used in the 14th century.

Another implication of this volatility is that it is extremely difficult to assess the accurate length of the continuously changing routes – in a metric sense as well as the length of time a journey took. Thus, it is almost all the same whether we assess the entire length of the Silk Road eight or ten thousand kilometres; the line drawn between its two endpoints cannot reflect the vast distance which characterised the undoubtedly longest commercial route of the ancient and medieval times, and which the goods transported on it had to take in reality.

Basically, the continental and maritime route network of the Silk Road was located on a vast east-west axis crossing Eurasia, but answering the question what was the “main” direction of the Silk Road, that is, in which direction was trade more intense, is far from being easy. Although it seems that caravans and ships transported silk and other valuable articles of China from east to west, but naturally they did not turn back empty, but loaded with the valuable products of the western world. The outflow of noble metals and the financial deficit attributable to it primarily affected the western world – and as such, the Roman Empire – but a similar deficit could be detected at the eastern endpoint of the route network, in China as well. Due to their special approach to economy, they regarded silk as an instrument required for “presenting” neighbouring or distant peoples, the outflow of which was not counterbalanced by the inflow of any product of similar value, or noble metals. With regard to the fact that Greco-Roman art and philosophy, Nestorianism, Manicheism, and, in a certain sense, Buddhism proceeded from west to east, that is, to China, the weights of the scales level off.


Again, the periodisation of the history of the Silk Road is not an easy task. Even the accurate timeframe of the beginning of the Silk Road is not known. According to some opinions, Romans first saw silk on their military campaign against the Parthians led by Marcus Licinius Crassus in 53 BC. However, the silk findings in Egypt and the Middle East dating from much earlier times seem to contradict this theory. Although the circumstances under which these got here are subject to serious debates, many people highlighted that trade could commence much earlier on maritime routes than on continental ones.

It is absolutely sure that certain sections of the Silk Road, which were not interrelated at the time, were in use in the Neolithic era (new stone age). Later the migration of peoples speaking Indo-European languages could also affect certain sections of the Silk Road. Thanks to the expansion policy of the Persian Achaimenida dynasty, the vast area stretching from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea to the Hindukush got into one hand by 5th century BC. But neither the Persians, neither Alexander, the Great, who overthrew their empire, did not get farther east on the later route of the Silk Road. It is an entirely different matter that later the internal road networks developing in the western half of Asia at that time joined the newly opened Central Asian sections of the Silk Road without any considerable difficulty. The situation changed dramatically under the Parthian Empire replacing Greek rule. But the situation in China also had to change for this.

After the Qin dynasty managed to unite the Celestial Empire at the end of the 3rd century BC, the Han dynasty succeeding them started fast expansion. Military campaigns conducted against the nomadic peoples (Asian Huns, Xiongnus) attacking from the north and northwest, in order to secure the borders of the empire, played an important role in the expansion. Initially, the goal of this policy was to open the way across the Tarim Basin to the vast area of the Oxus region. This and making alliances against the Asian Huns were the reasons why the Han court dispatched imperial envoy, general Zhang Qian to the west, who returned from his long and adventurous journey thirteen years later, and made reports of distant western lands and famous commercial articles. He was the first person to reveal to the Chinese that over the ring of barbarian tribes great, educated nations live.  His travel opened a new era regarding the economic and political relations of China with the external world.

When periodising the further history of the Continental Silk Road, we can generally conclude that the history of the abovementioned regions of the continental Silk Road greatly differed, but practically the four big regions can be divided into two halves. While the political history of the Central Asian section of the Silk Road was tied up with the history of China with a thousand threads, it was much more independent from the political changes in the regions to its west, over the Pamirs. However, the third section of the Silk Road, the region of present-day Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, etc., rather formed one cluster with the fourth section, that is the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean, in terms of political history.

Another important aspect is the phenomenon of centre and periphery, which has been a constant feature of the entire history of the Silk Road. Due to its length and nature, the Silk Road ran through several centre areas, for example China and the Persian Empire. At the same time, its majority stretched across the peripheral areas of great empires (Rome, Byzantium, the Parthian and the Sassanid Empire, the Khalifat, the Kushan Kingdom, Tibet). Although the great empires continuously claimed these peripheries, but most of the time they managed to extend their power over these areas for short periods only. As a result, however, these bigger state formations hardly ever became direct neighbours or got involved in serious, permanent conflicts – except for the Euphrates region and the Middle East. In addition, on these peripheries a whole series of states of different sizes existed and prospered (often as independent city states) which recognised the nominal supremacy of the closest major power, such as the Sogdian city states, Palmyra, or the Shanshan Kingdom. Hence if we want to divide the history of the Silk Road into epochs based on the history of the great empires, we will certainly get a distorted result, given the fact, for example, that the regions of the Silk Road tried to ensure the continuity of trade even in the most difficult times, despite being badly shaken at times (for example, by the Islamic expansion).

Hence the periodisation of the history of the Silk Road before the 13th century can be very haphazard since very often there was no alignment between the political, social and economic changes taking place at its two ends: the rise of the Sassanid dynasty happened parallel to the decline of the Han dynasty, and nevertheless, the Silk Road worked very well. Thus more recent research puts much more emphasis on the continuity in the flow of trade, culture and information instead of forcing a detailing periodisation of political history.

There was only one single period during which almost the entire Silk Road got into the hands of one major power for a couple of decades: it was the period of the Mongol Empire. Although the wars accompanying the formation of the empire provoked a severe crisis in the life of the Silk Road, pax mongolica descending later enabled an unprecedented flow of goods and people.  However, the end of the Mongol period and the great discoveries starting from Europe marked the end of the history of the continental Silk Road, and trade almost completely shifted to maritime routes, bursting apart the traditional frameworks of the maritime Silk Road as well.

The last stab was made by European industrialism, which flooded the market with cheap European silk produced in Lyon and at other places. By the 16-17th century, the Silk Road turned into what it used to be before Zhang Qian’s journey: the scene of trade between Asian areas and smaller regions.


Today the People’s Republic of China thinks the time has come to open the “New Silk Road” manifesting the new dimension of long-distance trade. A gigantic project called „One Belt, One Road” is linked with this, which is the summary name of two gigantic enterprises. One of these, the “Silk Road Economic Belt” would connect China and Europe by interlacing the countries of the vast area in between into one coherent and interoperable zone with infrastructural investments, commerce, cultural relations – naturally with Chinese management. The other one, the “Maritime Silk Road” would connect China, South and South-eastern Asia and Europe in a similar way.

In practice its realisation would mean that within the framework of joint projects, businesses with Chinese dominance would construct roads, high-speed rails, pipelines, ports and airports with Chinese money, through which goods could flow much faster and without administrative hurdles.  The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, established with a capital of 100 billion US dollars and Chinese management, and the 40 billion US dollar Silk Road Fund, set up by Beijing, are to provide the jump-start the projects need. Naturally, much more money will be required in the long term, but this amount seems to be sufficient to launch the project. For China, the scheme has several benefits.  First, China has lots of free capital, which is worth investing. Second, it is equally important that in the PRC such construction capacities were created that the setback of Chinese constructions would entail closing thousands of construction companies and laying off millions of employees. Third, the continental Silk Road would run through the poorest provinces of China, inhabited by (also) ethnic groups, and it could contribute to their economic recovery.  China’s greatest commercial partner is the EU, and China is the second largest partner of the Union, thus if the regions form one economic belt, it would, as calculated by China, contribute to maintaining economic growth in the Asian country.

For different Asian countries, China is already a more important economic partner than Russia. It has particularly good positions in Iran, and strong presence in several countries of the Middle East. The plans reach out as far as the Balkan. The “Belt” would include the much talked-about Beograd-Budapest high-speed railway as well. It cannot be foreseen yet what will be realised from the planned investments, but the Chinese government seems to take the task set seriously, and even the implementation of some of its elements may tailor the traditional zones of influence, which may change the fate of entire countries. But we can conclude that “One Belt, One Road” will be the greatest enterprise in modern Chinese history – if it is completed.

Authors: Zoltán Horváth, Attila Kiss

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