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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)

Northeast Asia
This region encompasses the rocky Shandong and Liaodong Peninsulas o fnortheastern China, southern Manchuria, Korea, and Japan. Its coast is lined with many harbors, while peninsulas and islands enclose several seas—the Bohai, the Yellow Sea, and the East Sea/Sea of Japan. In ancient times this region was relatively isolated from the inland culture and political states of northern China, and formed part of an East Asian coastal culture that is still imperfectly understood.

Gradually, Northeast Asia came under an expanding Chinese cultural zone. Sea and overland traffic from Shandong and Liaodong to Korea, and trade to Japan either directly or via Korea, spread elements of Chinese culture to the northeast by around the 4th century BCE, and at an accelerating rate thereafter. Eventually, Buddhism spread to Korea and Japan by this route. Silk Road goods were also dispersed via these searoutes from as far away as Persia.

Northern Europe
Europe is virtually just a peninsula on the western tip of the great Eurasian continental landmass. For much of history northern Europe was too remote, too sparsely settled, and too culturally “backward” to play more than a marginal role in long-distance trade across Eurasia. But, even in ancient times, trade routes within Europe connected the region to the Mediterranean and thus to the Silk Road. Goods were carried from the Black Sea, up the Danube, and down the Oder to the Baltic even before the Roman conquest of Gaul in the middle of the 1st century BCE.

In medieval times the growing prosperity of Europe led to an increasing appetite for the spices, gems, textiles, and other luxury goods of lands to the east. New trade routes were pioneered, such as, beginning around 1000 CE, the Viking route from the Baltic through the trading settlement of Rus (near modern Moscow) and down the Volga to the Caspian Sea. Eventually, the European search for direct access to the riches of India and China led to entirely new maritime routes around Africa and across the Atlantic, and a revolution in the distribution of political and economic power throughout the world.