wall painting at Panjikent

the silk road(s)

Over the past century or two, the concept we’ve come to call “the silk road” has taken on a romantic haze which obscures truth. Here are some of the most popular myths, and some truths modern historians suggest instead.

Myth: They called it the silk road.

The truth: It’s a modern term, only applied in the 19th century. (It was largely popularized by a German geologist and explorer in 1877, but there’s evidence of its use earlier in the century as well.) But just because the weren’t booking passage on a trip called “The Silk Road” with travel agents doesn’t mean there weren’t numerable and regular trade routes across Afro-Eurasia which folks could rely upon.

Poem extolling the wonderfulness of living in Dunhuang, because of the reliable trade routes running through. [Found 1907, Dunhuang Cave Library. Held at the BnF.]

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Myth: There was only one silk road.

The truth: Historians have read many extant documents and traced physical evidence to build a picture of a web of trade which stretched across three continents. (Because of this, if necessary to refer to them, it’s closer to reality to call them the silk roads.)

Map by Martinjanmansson on Reddit, vetted and linked by The Medieval Academy.

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Myth: It was only a land route.

The truth: It was land and sea. As you can see below, we have a picture of thriving and reliable sea routes, often dictated by seasonal weather.

Map showing the expected route of the Tang or Belitung Shipwreck. [Wikipedia.]

For example:

In the 9th century, an Arab ship running its regular trade route sank, and with it all of its cargo—cargo which gives us a perfect snapshot of trade at the time.

A large portion of this cargo included about 60,000 ceramic pieces of all shapes and sizes and kinds, and the story of these ceramics going between Iraq and China is a fascinating story of artistic conversation.

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Myth: It went only across Eurasia.

The truth: Since antiquity, Africa was known to be an integral (and, in some regions, very rich) cog in the massive, interlinked engine of trade across Afro-Eurasia. It was only when European colonization, imperialism, and the transatlantic slave trade began did it become “necessary” to excise most of Africa from the picture. Historians are finally beginning to weave it back in.

The Catalan Atlas, created in 1375 by a Jewish illuminator in Mallorca. Digitally assembled. Africa and the Sahara are in the bottom left.

For example, the copper for the sitting figure on the right comes from a similar region to where the ivory madonna on the left was made, and the ivory for the madonna came from a Savannah elephant, indigenous to the region in Africa where the seated figure was made, indicating a mutually beneficial trade arrangement.

Virgin and Child, French, ca. 1275–1300
Tada Seated Figure, Ife, late 13th/early 14th century

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Myth: It went only east and west.

The truth: As described above, it went north, south, east, and west. The web of trade connected three continents, from Britain to Japan, from India up to Mongolia, Zimbabwe to Russia.

And nothing demonstrates the multidimensional spread of trade routes like the trade of textiles for horses.

While we mostly think of the camel when we think of the Silk Roads, the horse was equally if not more important. Horses were necessary for foreign relations, autonomy, intercommunication, military might, and for the recreational diplomacy of hunting and polo.

Royal Horse and Runner • India • 16th–17th century • Persian horse in Mughal style

While we mostly think of the camel when we think of the Silk Roads, the horse was equally if not more important. Horses were necessary for foreign relations, autonomy, intercommunication, military might, and for the recreational diplomacy of hunting and polo.

But mostly due to the constraints of weather and geography, maintaining an adequate breeding population was difficult in many regions of the world. Therefore, they needed to be obtained from elsewhere—diplomatically, less-than diplomatically (war), or through trade.

The trade of textiles for horses is a commonality that weaves together regions for thousands of years; historian James Millward has called it “the warp and weft of the silk road”.

Equestrian figure • Inland Niger Delta region, Mali • 13th-15th century
Zhou Lang, “Tribute Horse” (Yuan original of 1342 now lost, Ming-dynasty copy).

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Myth: It was only about connecting Europe and China. (Do not pass go, do not collect $200.)

The truth: It was just as much about all the stops and people in between. Without all the connection points, not only would goods be unable to get from place to place, but there wouldn’t have been as many goods.

meet the Sogdians

the main cities of Sogdia, according to a wonderful site dedicated to the Sogdians at the Smithsonian Museum of Asian Art.

The Sogdians were primarily a merchant society (merchants, craftspeople, entertainers) who traveled primarily across Central and East Asia. At their height from around the 4th–8th centuries CE, they were the trading engine of The Silk Roads.

Detail from a wall painting at Panjikent, a Sogdian town in what us now Tajikistan, depicting a man at a banquet. First half of the 8th century CE.
Jug. Tibet or Sogdiana, 7th–8th century CE. Note the golden Sogdian in the bottom register playing the pipa behind his head.

Besides the Sogdians and the Khotanese—both civilizations fundamentally necessary to intra-regional Eurasian trade, who enabled and encouraged movement of trade and people—the tough geography of Central Asia also required rest stops with resources and knowledge if travellers were to succeed. The Dunhuang oasis is one such location.

the Dunhuang oasis

In the early 20th century, a cave was found in Dunhuang containing several thousand texts in many languages, all pertaining to various sorts of topics related to Silk Road trade, excepting actual trade itself. They talked about logistics, communications, advice for travellers, and more, including this phrase sheet translating between Chinese and Khotanese, not unlike the ones modern travellers access on their smartphones today.

Khotanese/Chinese phrasebook (phrase sheet), on the verso of item S.5212 at the International Dunhuang Project, found in the Dunhuang library cave.
9th century Hebrew prayer amulet found in the library cave of Dunhuang
9th century protective amulet, the sole Hebrew document found in the library cave.

Paper, its spread and its use, is possibly the most important consequence of the Silk Road trade routes.

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Myth: It was only about silk.

The truth: The legacy of historical trade is about so much more than silk, so much more than commerce, so much more than goods. Trade allowed religions, technological innovations, and culture to spread, so our world would be incalculably different if this long- and short-distance trade hadn’t happened.


An essential Buddhist text about the tenet of nonindividuality, the Diamond Sutra is our earliest extant printed book. Block printed in China in 868, and thereafter making its way to the cave library at Dunhuang, its a perfect representation of the way paper allowed religion to spread. In addition, missionaries carrying paper and religion could more easily travel alongside experienced merchants than they could have on their own.


Many of the plucked and bowed string instruments of Asian and European modern ensembles were developed and spread by horse-riding folk of the steppe. In fact, any number of bowl-bodied, four-stringed instruments like the pipa, the lute, the oud, and the barbat share a common lineage.


Four wontons and a dumpling found desiccated in a cave in Turfan. 7th or 8th century.

Wine grapes, citrus, sugar cane, eggplant, buckwheat, rice, peaches, alfafa, watermelon, and more traveled the trade routes alongside other goods and culture. The dry conditions at the oases of Turfan preserved many perishable items, like these two wontons and a dumpling at left, giving us an opportunity to see intimate details of food culture. This specific form of dumpling traveled along the silk routes, demonstrated by its existence in traditional cuisine as well as the linguistics of their names.


The silk roads flowed with stories. One such shared tale is the Alexender Romance, originally written in the 3rd century Greece and spreading throughout Afro-Eurasia.

The three manuscripts below are connected by the way in which they transform the tale of Alexander to suit the culture and location in which they were made. At center, the English tale depicts the story of Alexander with a soothsayer at the trees of the Sun and Moon, getting a prophecy. At left, Alexander is getting his prophecy from a Waqwaq tree, a traditional element in Persian storytelling. And at right, Alexander takes the place of high strength and protective ability within an Ethiopian amulet scroll. In the Ethiopian tale of Alexander, the exotic queen Candace is relocated from Ethiopia (which, after all, would not have seemed exotic to Ethiopians) to Babylon.

Iskandar and the talking tree. The Bodleian MS Ouseley, Add. 176, f. 311v. Shiraz, c. 1420-25.
Poems and Romances (The Talbot Shrewsbury book). British Library Royal MS 15 E VI f. 18v, England, 1444–1445
Ethiopian prayer scroll. British Library Or MS 12859. Ethiopia. 18th century.

The variations of this story as it travels from culture to culture illustrate our similarities, our differences, and how we are all at the center of our own worlds.

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Myth: It only existed in the Middle Ages.

The truth: Historians of the silk routes generally began detailing its trade a few centuries BCE and stop sometime in the early modern period, but this timeframe is almost arbitrary. Interregional trade went back much further, and the trade of textiles for horses continues up to the current day. But this is the framework historians generally stick to.

In short, study of the Silk Roads is a useful place to start when approaching the study of premodern communication, exchange, and connectedness.

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