“The Silk Road” is a term coined in the 19th century by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richtofen (1833-1905) to encompass a network of land-based, maritime, and river routes along which commerce flowed in the classical era between the inhabited lands of the Greco-Roman oikumene and tianxia, the cultural and political space of Chinese influence; a vast zone mediated by the nomadic Arab populations of Central Asia. Roughly 8000 kilometers (almost 5000 miles) of caravan roads joined China to the Mediterranean through the Middle East and Asia Minor. Silk was conveyed along with other precious merchandise as far as Rome, and with them traveled ideas, religions, and knowledge.
The caravan roads unspooled along two principle branches: a northern route from today’s Xi’an crossed Gansu to Kashgar, and from there proceeded across today’s Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan to Baghdad and the Mediterranean; and a southern route that crossed Karakorum to the Indian Ocean, where ships into the Persian Gulf reached ports where goods were transported on to Baghdad and the Mediterranean.
The first trade exchanges between the Near East and the Mediterranean took place on the Royal Persian Road during the 4th century BCE, but it was the conquests of Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) that consolidated relations between the Mediterranean world and the East.
The most easterly city of Alexander’s empire was established in today’s Tajikistan, and one of his admirals, Nearchus, traced out the first navigable route from the Indus River delta to the Persian Gulf. Later Hellenistic expansion reached as far as the eastern borders of the Taklamakan Desert, advancing cultural exchange to and from Mediterranean civilizations.
In 97 CE the Chinese empire came west as far as today’s Ukraine, encountering along the way Roman troops in Parthia, southeast of the Caspian Sea. Through such contacts silk came to Rome, but it was especially the later Byzantines who developed trade in this precious textile, establishing strong commercial relations with China and opening new caravan routes across Crimea and the Red Sea to circumvent the blockades imposed by their Persian enemies.
The military stability guaranteed by the expansion of the Mongol Empire from 1215 to 1360 gave new resilience to the Silk Road as a channel of commerce and communication between East and West. Christian missionaries and merchants (Venetians and Genoese in particular) often frequented the road to carry out important diplomatic exchanges among popes, French kings, and Mongol emperors, especially Kublai Khan (1215-1294) and Temür Khan (1265-1307). Marco Polo (1254-ca. 1324) was a protagonist in this history, and the Republic of Venice was considered the portal to the Orient and the European point of arrival of the Silk Road. Thus it was the most appropriate place to publish a world map such as that by Fra Mauro (active ca. 1430-ca. 1459/1464), so centrally focused on relations between East and West.