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Geographical Setting of the Silk Roads

Silk Road in Sumur, India today (sanjoyg/flickr)

Silk Road in Sumur, India today (sanjoyg/flickr)

by John Major

The term Silk Road denotes a network of trails and trading posts, oases and emporia connecting East Asia to the Mediterranean. Along the way, branch routes led to different destinations from the main route, with one especially important branch leading to northwestern India and thus to other routes throughout the subcontinent. The Silk Road network is generally thought of as stretching from an eastern terminus at the ancient Chinese capital city of Chang’an (now Xi’an) to westward end-points at Byzantium (Constantinople), Antioch, Damascus, and other Middle Easterncities. Beyond these end-points, other trade networks distributed Silk Road goods throughout the Mediterranean world and Europe, and throughout eastern Asia. Thus in thinking about the Silk Road, one must consider the whole of Eurasia as its geographical context. Trade along the Silk Road waxed or waned according to conditions in China, Byzantium, Persia, and other regions and countries along the way. There were always competing or alternative routes, by land and sea, to absorb long distance Eurasian trade when conditions along the Silk Road were unfavorable. For this reason, the geographical context of the Silk Roadmust be thought of in the broadest possible terms, including sea routes linking Japan and Southeast Asia to the continental trade routes.

In dealing with the context of the Silk Road, it is important to remember that the nation-state is a modern invention, and clearly defined and bounded countries did not exist before modern times. Scholars, for example, are reluctant to use the word “China” in talking about pre-Han dynasty times (that is, prior to the 2nd century BCE), because no concept corresponding to a nation called China existed then. Similarly, when we talk about the Silk Road passing through Afghanistan, it is with the understanding that there was in some sense no such place; the land existed, its population existed, but no nation-state called Afghanistan existed before modern times. Throughout history, boundaries shift, peoples move from place to place, countries and kingdoms come into being and vanish, cities change their names. It is hard to avoid using modern geographical names for convenience, but it is necessary at the same time to avoid projecting modern concepts, such as the idea of the nation-state, back into a past where they do not belong.

The Concept of Asia
Asia can be fruitfully thought of as the major part of a larger physical territory, the continent of Eurasia. The Eurasian landmass is bounded by the Atlantic, Arctic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, and the Red and Mediterranean Seas, including islands and archipelagos east and south of the landmass (excluding Oceania).

Asia may also be thought of as a collection of smaller entities, subcontinent- size regions occupying Eurasia’s major eastern part. Over the course of history, most of these regions have interacted through trade, religion, and other factors, while a wide range of cultural differences and formidable geographical boundaries have also separated them. Once Eurasia is seen as a whole, erasing the ancient but artificial and geographically meaningless division of the land mass into “Europe” and “Asia,” it becomes possible to visualize the important geographical and cultural regions into which the continent is subdivided, and the trade routes that linked them together, sometimes over very extensive distances and across formidable physical barriers.