The Silk Road—most of us have heard of it, and many of us can explain where it was located and what it was used for. But often, people are left wondering, ‘What is the Silk Road?’ Here are five intriguing facts that will help you understand the history of this legendary route. Going on our 18-day Silk Road expedition, which winds through central Asia by rail? Well, you may want to take a few notes. Just imagine how impressed fellow travelers will be when you casually work any of these intriguing details into conversation.
What is the Silk Road?
- The Silk Road existed for almost 2,000 years before receiving a name. Despite being trod upon by countless merchants, travelers, and military for almost 2,000 years, the Silk Road was not named as such until 1877 when the German geographer and traveler, Ferdinand von Richthofen, dubbed the route “Seidenstrasse,” which is German for “silk road.”
- The Silk Road began as a mere postal route. The Persian Royal Road, which connected Susa (modern day Iran) to the Mediterranean Sea in modern-day Turkey, is the parent route of the Silk Road. Established during the Achaemenid Empire (500-330 BCE), the route was equipped with numerous stations at which envoys could acquire fresh horses, food, and water.
- The US Postal System’s slogan is based on praise originally meant for the Persian Royal Road. “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor darkness of night prevents these couriers from completing their designated stages with utmost speed.” Sound familiar? Originally written by Herodotus—a Greek historian living in the 5th century BCE—regarding the efficiency of the messengers racing along the ancient postal route, these words have since been revised into the familiar motto of every US mailperson.
- Not everything “traded” along the Silk Road was wanted. While you are most likely familiar with many of the goods carried along the long and winding trade route, such as silk (but of course!), gunpowder, paper, spices, textiles, grain, even language and knowledge, there is at least one “item” that was carried from region to region that absolutely no one desired—disease. There is perhaps no better example of this than of Justinian’s Plague in Constantinople in 542 CE; a disease that most historians believe to be a strain of the bubonic plague, arrived via the Silk Road and spread violently and quickly.
- The Romans believed silk to be a . . . vegetable! China did such a superior job keeping the origins of silk a secret that the Romans thought silk grew on trees until approximately 60 CE. However, upon learning the truth, the Byzantine emperor Justinian assigned several men with the task of making their way into China disguised as monks, and making their way back out with stolen silk worms. The mission was a success, and thus ended China’s silk monopoly.
Now that you know what the Silk Road is, you’re ready for our overland adventure! To learn more about our journey by rail through Central Asia, visit our trip page.