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The Classical Silk Road: Trade and Connectivity across Central Asia, 100 BCE–1200 CE  

Valerie Hansen

The Silk Road refers to all the overland routes connecting the major oasis kingdoms of Central Asia including Dunhuang, Turfan, Khotan, and Samarkand to their neighbors: the Chinese landmass, the Mongolian grasslands, the Iranian plateau, and the Indian subcontinent. The best-known routes ran east-west, but the north-south routes to the nomadic states of the Asian grasslands were also important. In the popular view of the Silk Road, extensive camel caravans carried goods over long distances, but this was rarely the case. Usually peddlers carried mostly local goods short distances. Government shipments to provision armies profoundly affected the region’s economy, because they involved much larger quantities than in the peddler trade. Rulers regularly exchanged envoys who carried gifts, exchanges that continued even when private trade fell off. Whatever the reason for an individual’s trip, almost everyone—whether envoy, missionary, artist, craftsman, or refugee—bought and sold goods to pay for travel along the Silk Road. Silk was not the primary commodity traded on these routes. Goods traveling east included ammonium chloride, paper, silver, gold, glassware, and aromatics such as spices, incense, and fragrant woods. Goods traveling west out of China included bronze mirrors, other metal goods, and paper, in addition to silk. Between 300 and 1000 ce, the most important function of silk was as a currency, not as a trade good, although it remained an important export throughout the period. A vibrant series of cultural exchanges occurred alongside these commercial exchanges. Technologies, medicine, plants, music, and fashion all moved in both directions across Central Asia. Multiple religions also entered China during this time. The term Silk Road may not be the most accurate term for these commercial and cultural exchanges, but, despite its flaws, the term has secured a firm place in both scholarly works and the popular mind.