The first con­ta­ct betwe­en the peop­le who inha­bi­ted the remo­te areas of Eura­sia took pla­ce in pre­hi­story. In later peri­ods, various pro­ducts found their way from East to West and vice ver­sa. In addi­tion to arti­fa­cts, mate­ri­als, resour­ces, ani­mals and plants, the exchan­ge of ideas, know­led­ge and expe­ri­en­ces, human migra­tion, but also the trans­mis­sion of various pat­ho­gens were sig­ni­fi­cant. The most famous rou­te or the net­work of roads con­nected east and west of Eura­sia was cal­led the Silk Road.

The name Silk Road (Sei­den­straße) was coi­ned by the Ger­man geo­grap­her Fer­di­nand von Rich­t­ho­fen in the second half of the 19th cen­tury. Alt­hough von Rich­t­ho­fen also used the plu­ral ver­sion of the name, usu­al­ly, the public ima­ge pre­sen­ted that the­re was a sing­le inter­con­ti­nen­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Howe­ver, such a for­mu­la­tion is not cor­rect becau­se in rea­li­ty the­re was not one com­ple­te com­mu­ni­ca­tion line or road; inste­ad, the­re were a seri­es of smal­ler and lar­ger rou­tes con­necting the areas from the Kore­an Penin­su­la and China to the Medi­ter­ra­ne­an. In paral­lel, seve­ral rou­tes went through Cen­tral Asia, parts of Rus­sia, the Mid­dle East and pre­sent-day Turkey. 

“The name Silk Road (Sei­den­straße) was coi­ned by the Ger­man geo­grap­her Fer­di­nand von Rich­t­ho­fen in the second half of the 19th century. 

In addi­tion to land rou­tes, mari­ti­me rou­tes were also acti­ve, inclu­ding a wider area from the Far East to East and Nort­heast Afri­ca. About that con­nection betwe­en east and west or Silk Rou­te, it was com­plex com­mu­ni­ca­tion and an infra­struc­tu­ral net­work con­si­sting of roads and sea rou­tes, lod­gings, shri­nes, tra­de cara­vans, mar­ket­pla­ces and cities should there­fo­re always be spo­ken by using the plu­ral name — Silk Routes.

Picture (priVate photo). Text: Chinese objects on the islet of Our Lady of the Rocks in Montenegro

Chin­e­se objects on the islet of Our Lady of the Rocks in Montenegro

(pri­va­te photo)

Besi­des, the name of the road net­work hides ano­t­her dif­fi­culty. Name­ly, alt­hough we know today that silk was not the only or even the most important pro­duct tra­ded, it beca­me part of the name, which furt­her distor­ted public opi­ni­on about tra­de and com­mu­ni­ca­tion wit­hin the Eura­si­an con­ti­nent. Silk was an exo­tic and luxurious pro­duct, so it was not in mass usa­ge and was not wide­ly tra­ded. Howe­ver, resear­chers of the 19th c. like von Rich­t­ho­fen viewed silk as the most luxurious and impres­si­ve pro­duct to arri­ve from the Far East to Cen­tral and Western Asia and Euro­pe, so it’s not sur­pri­se that they named the enti­re rou­te after it. Also, the tra­de of food, bevera­ges and spi­ces, plants and ani­mals, metal, cera­mic and glass pro­ducts, and raw mate­ri­als and wor­ks of art was of much gre­a­ter value. In addi­tion to all that, the­re was human traf­fi­ck­ing and the sla­ve market.

Spe­aking of ini­ti­at­ing and main­tai­ning all kinds of enco­un­ters and tou­ches of East and West, we should have in mind that human resour­ces were cruci­al. Human efforts in achie­ving the securi­ty of goods and peop­le on a long jour­ney, and the orga­niza­tion of suf­fi­ci­ent resour­ces for peop­le and ani­mals, overco­m­ing the geo­grap­hi­cal fea­tu­res of the area, as well as all poli­ti­cal insta­bi­li­ties, were cruci­al for the syste­ma­tiza­tion and main­tenan­ce of tra­de net­wor­ks. The ways of silk depen­ded on human efforts, so they chan­ged accordingly.

Alt­hough the rela­tions of East and West date back to the past, the so-cal­led The Silk Rou­tes, accor­ding to tra­di­tio­nal histo­ri­o­grap­hy, was deter­mi­ned only by the establis­h­ment of more stab­le and lar­ger poli­ti­cal enti­ties, i.e. empi­re. The Roman and Han Empi­res were pri­ma­rily lea­ders becau­se they were situ­a­ted on the western and eastern points of syste­ma­tic com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Howe­ver, despi­te the fact that some archa­e­o­lo­gi­cal finds such as Roman glass in tombs in the cities of Guangzhou and Luoy­ang dated to the 1st cen­tury BC and AD, as well as Chin­e­se sil­ks in the West, con­firm the pre­sen­ce of certain con­ta­cts in the time of Rome and the Han dynasty, it is chal­len­ging to deter­mi­ne the exi­sten­ce of syste­ma­tic com­mu­ni­ca­tion, or to fol­low the line/trip of an object that would show direct con­ta­ct. The­re is no doubt that some Roman and Chin­e­se mer­chants and expl­o­rers tra­ve­l­ed far from their homes, but it is still dif­fi­cult to prove that they regu­lar­ly rea­ched China and Rome by par­ti­ci­pat­ing in the main­tenan­ce of a well-orga­nized com­mu­ni­ca­tion net­work. It is very like­ly that the exchan­ge of goods, know­led­ge, ideas and peop­le took pla­ce in many directions, in which various poli­ti­cal enti­ties, peop­les and indi­genous com­mu­ni­ties such as Part­hi­ans, Sas­sa­nids, Seleucids, Pon­tus, Arme­ni­ans, Bactri­ans, Sog­di­ans, Jews, Arabs, Indi­an and many others such as noma­dic com­mu­ni­ties play­ed a major role. The­se com­mu­ni­ties had dif­fe­rent roles in per­me­at­ing the west and the east, from pro­duction (pro­du­cers, sup­pli­ers), tra­de (inter­me­di­a­ri­es, tra­ders), pro­tection (sol­di­ers, pri­ests) to cri­me (rob­bers, kidnappers).

In order to gain gre­a­ter con­trol over tra­de and eco­no­mic exchan­ge in Asi­an areas out­si­de their home ter­ri­tory, the medi­e­val empi­res Byzan­ti­um and the Sui and Tang dyna­sties orga­nized poli­ti­cal and mili­tary campaigns. Their com­mon inte­r­est in Cen­tral Asia encou­ra­ged a much gre­a­ter exchan­ge of goods, peop­le and know­led­ge. Chin­e­se fine art in the Mid­dle East, Byzan­ti­ne figu­res in pain­tings and reliefs in China and the making of foreign scul­p­tu­res, the appea­ran­ce of exo­tic pro­ducts such as the still unde­fi­ned “gol­den pea­ches” in Chang’an, or in the remains of Byzan­ti­ne money found in China show the­se links. But all the­se clu­es are still not enough to prove the exi­sten­ce of strong and struc­tu­red tra­de links. Even the sig­ni­fi­cant amo­unts of Byzan­ti­ne money found in China are not strong enough evi­den­ce becau­se much of that money was imi­ta­tions used in China for fune­ral ritu­als and as, as Wal­ter Schei­del wri­tes, exo­tic jewel­ry made of gold and silver.


Monu­ment to Marco Polo at Bei­jing Foreign Stu­di­es University

(pri­vat foto)

The Silk Rou­tes rea­ched their peak after the Mongols conque­red vast expan­ses of Asia and Euro­pe. For the first time, they poli­ti­cal­ly uni­ted the enti­re area whe­re the tra­di­tio­nal “Silk Rou­tes” deve­l­oped, cre­at­ing the poten­ti­al for strengt­he­ning tra­de, eco­no­mic and poli­ti­cal ties. After the mili­tary conquests, the­se areas enjoy­ed certain securi­ty for a rela­ti­ve­ly short time, which furt­her faci­li­ta­ted the trans­fer of goods, peop­le and know­led­ge. There­fo­re, it is not sur­pri­sing that at that time the three most pro­mi­nent pas­sen­gers, Marco Polo, Ibn Batu­ta and Wil­lem van Rubruk, under­took their tra­vels, leaving writ­ten tra­ces of China, and have been orga­nized dif­fe­rent exchan­ge inclu­ding Bla­ck Death, ter­rib­le disea­se which have been spre­ad via Mongo­li­an Empi­re and Silk Routes.

The Silk Rou­tes con­ti­nu­ed to con­nect East and West even after the decli­ne of the Mongol Empi­re, playing a sig­ni­fi­cant role in the trans­mis­sion of know­led­ge of goods and peop­le and during the reigns of the Ming and Qing dyna­sties. Howe­ver, the­se pat­hs gra­du­al­ly began to fall into the back­gro­und over that long peri­od, espe­ci­al­ly during the reign of the Qing dynasty. Name­ly, the appea­ran­ce of Bri­tish, French, Dutch and Portu­gu­e­se ships and, for examp­le, the establis­h­ment of direct diplo­ma­tic ties with impe­ri­al Rus­sia chan­ged the natu­re and spe­ed of various inte­r­a­ctions betwe­en East and West.

In addi­tion to the exchan­ge of tra­de goods and ser­vi­ces, the Silk Rou­tes have sig­ni­fi­cant­ly faci­li­ta­ted the exchan­ge of ideas, innova­tions and know­led­ge. In addi­tion to the above, this net­work of com­mu­ni­ca­tion has con­tri­bu­ted to the spre­ad of reli­gions, such as Chri­sti­a­ni­ty and Islam to the East and Bud­dhism to the West, as well as per­me­a­tion in cul­tu­re and art. The key importan­ce of the Silk Rou­tes as a sym­bo­lic con­nection betwe­en East and West, but also a ter­ri­tory of huge Eura­si­an spa­ce full of archa­e­o­lo­gi­cal remains, is evi­den­ced by the UNESCO ini­ti­a­ti­ve from 2014. The Silk Rou­tes ente­red the Wor­ld Her­i­ta­ge List and beca­me a com­mon pro­tecti­ve her­i­ta­ge that will increa­se scho­lars­hip, research and tourism.


Hill, J. E. (2009). Through the Jade Gate to Rome: A Stu­dy of the Silk Rou­tes during the Later Han Dynasty, First to Second Cen­turi­es CE. Scotts Val­ley, Cali­for­nia: Cre­a­teS­pa­ce Inde­pen­dent Publis­hing Platform.

McLaug­hlin, R. (2010). Rome and the Distant East: Tra­de Rou­tes to the Anci­ent Lands of Ara­bia, India, and China. Lon­don & New York: Continuum.

Ning Qiang (2004). Art, Reli­gion and Poli­ti­cs in Medi­e­val China: The Dun­hu­ang Cave of the Zhai Family. Hono­lu­lu: Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawaii Press.

Powers, M. J. (1991). Art and Poli­ti­cal Expres­sion in Ear­ly China. New Haven, Con­necti­cut: Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press.

Whit­fi­eld, S. (1999). Life Along the Silk Road. Oakland: Uni­ver­si­ty of Cali­for­nia Press.

Hopkirk, P. (1984). Foreign devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Cities and Trea­su­res of Chin­e­se Cen­tral Asia. Amherst, Mas­sa­chu­setts: Uni­ver­si­ty of Mas­sa­chu­setts Press.

Liu Xin­ru (1998). The Silk Road: Over­land Tra­de and Cul­tu­ral Inte­r­a­ctions in Eura­sia. Was­hin­g­ton DC: Ame­ri­can Histo­ri­cal Association.

Saje, M. (2016). Zgo­d­ovi­na kita­j­ske (History of China). Ljubl­ja­na: Društ­vo Slo­venska Matica.

Yung, P. (1987). Xinji­ang: The Silk Road: Islam’s Over­land Rou­te to China. Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press.

林梅村 [Lin Meicun]《丝绸之路考古十五讲》[The fif­te­en discus­sions about Silk Road archa­e­o­lo­gy] 北京大学出版社2006年.

The chap­ter tit­led The Silk Rou­tes has been part of book: Z. Sto­pić, G. Đurđe­vić, 2021, Svila, zma­je­vi and papir: kineska kul­tu­ra, civi­liza­ci­ja, povi­jest i arhe­o­lo­gi­ja (Silk, Dra­gons and Paper: Chin­e­se Cul­tu­re, Civi­liza­tions, History and Archa­e­o­lo­gy), Zagreb: Alfa (in Croatian).

Top­fo­to: Omer Farooq, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wiki­me­dia Commons

Om “Stem­mer fra verden”

Seri­en ’Stem­mer fra ver­den’ er en sam­ling af inter­na­tio­nalt mate­ri­a­le, som kan bru­ges i under­vis­nin­gen til kon­kre­ti­se­ring af den sto­re histo­rie. Dis­se men­ne­skers stem­mer og beret­nin­ger kan knyt­tes til for­skel­li­ge emner i histo­ri­e­un­der­vis­nin­gen. På en måde er de anven­del­se af histo­ri­en på men­ne­sker i dag.

Tan­ken er at fort­sæt­te seri­en, hvis der er inter­es­se for det. Har du ide­er til seri­en, må du ger­ne skri­ve til


Gor­an Đurđe­vić (Djurd­je­vich) is a Cro­a­ti­an archa­e­o­lo­gist and (environ­men­tal) histo­ri­an who is Ph.D. can­di­da­te of Archa­e­o­lo­gy at Capi­tal Nor­mal Uni­ver­si­ty (CNU) in Beijing.

Zvoni­mir Stopić 

Dr Zvoni­mir Sto­pić is an Assi­stant Pro­fes­sor at Capi­tal Nor­mal Uni­ver­si­ty in Bei­jing, an Assi­stant Director at the CNU’s Cen­ter for Stu­dy of Civi­liza­tions (文明区划研究中心), and is a lec­tu­rer at the Zagreb School of Eco­no­mi­cs and Mana­ge­ment (ZSEM).