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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)

The Mediterranean
The Mediterranean is the western convergence point of the overland and the maritime trans-Eurasian trade routes. The Mediterranean channeled widespread distribution of Silk Road goods throughout western Eurasia—just as Northeast Asian sea routes distributed Silk Road goods onward to Korea and Japan. Chinese silk brocade that had come overland for thousands of miles on the Silk Road and Chinese porcelain that had made the trip by sea might eventually be loaded on the same ship in Tyre for shipment westward to Rome or Marseilles.

It is important to see the Mediterranean as a single region, uniting North Africa and southern Europe, and marking the gateway to the Atlantic Ocean. Trading ships criss-crossed in every direction, from at least the early 1st millennium BCE. As early as 500 BCE, Phoenician mariners had likely passed through the Strait of Gibraltar and explored routes both down the Atlantic coast of Africa and up the Iberian coast to the Bay of Biscay.

The Middle East
A region with few firm physical boundaries, the Middle East is generally taken to include all of the territory between the eastern Mediterranean and the western reaches of Persia (modern Iran), extending from the Anatolian (Turkish) shores of the Black Sea in the north to the Arabian Peninsula in the south. It has close ties to the Mediterranean world, to Egypt and North Africa, and to the Silk Road networks of Persia and Central Asia.

Mesopotamia, the area bounded by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in present-day Iraq, was perhaps the world’s earliest cradle of civilization, part of the ”fertile crescent” that extends through southern Anatolia and down the eastern Mediterranean coast. Elsewhere, much of the Middle East is desert traversed by caravan routes linking scattered oasis cities, much as is the case along the Silk Road farther east. Silk Road traffic coming from Central Asia passed through the Middle East along many routes and with many destinations.

While in some sense the Middle East was an end-point for the Silk Road, it was perhaps more important a trans-shipment zone. The Middle East also marked the western terminus of the maritime trans-Eurasian trade, as Arab and Indian ships carried goods in both directions across the Arabian Sea. Westbound goods either passed through the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf en route to Baghdad and Damascus, or went to Aden for shipment up the overland route along the western edge of the Arabian Peninsula to Mediterranean ports.

South Asia
India rides on a tectonic plate that has been drifting northward for millions of years. Slamming into Eurasia, India has plowed up the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau, isolating South Asia from the rest of Eurasia behind a formidable barrier of mountains. In the northeastern borderlands between Burma, Bangladesh, and China, huge rivers— the Yangtse, Mekong, Irawaddy, Salween, and the Ganges—pourdown from the mountains and the plateau, and then flow through deep   parallel valleys, making direct overland contact between India and China extremely difficult. All along India’s northern frontier, caravans used passes through the Himalayan escarpment to transport salt to people of the Tibetan Plateau, bringing animal products, turquoise, and other local goods in return.

India’s principal route inland went through the Indus Valley of the northwest, then over the Khyber Pass or other passes into what is now Afghanistan. Spices, pearls, gemstones, cotton cloth, and other goods were added to the traffic of the Silk Road by this route, and Chinese, Persian, and other Silk Road goods flowed back to India in return. Eastern and western coastal cities of India served as intermediaries on sea routes linking East and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and points beyond, trans-shipping goods in both directions and adding new goods as well.