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The description of this trade route to the west as the `Silk Road' is misleading. In fact, no single route or road was taken. In crossing Central Asia, several different branches developed, passing through different oasis settlements. The name `Silk Road' is relatively new in historic terms, and was actually coined by a nineteenth century German scholar named von Richthofen

It is often thought that the Romans had first come in contact with silk on one of their campaigns against the Parthians in 53 B.C. It is said that the Romans learned from Parthian prisoners that silk came from a mysterious tribe in the east, who they referred to as the silk people, or `Seres.'  Caravans heading towards China carried gold and other metals, ivory, precious stones, and glass to trade. In the opposite direction, besides silk, furs, ceramics, jade, bronze objects, lacquer, and iron were carried.  The most significant commodity carried along this route though, was not silk, but religion. Buddhism came to China from India, along the northern branch of the route and Christianity also made an early appearance on the scene. 

Prosperous as the Silk Road was, it was always influenced by the political atmosphere of the day. A stable political environment meant that trade went smoothly, a turbulent state of affairs meant that trade was hindered. The height of the importance of the Silk Road occurred during the Tang dynasty in the seventh century, when, at that time, many favorable policies were adopted that encouraged trade.

The later demise of the Silk Road was caused by the development of a trade route by sea from Europe to Asia. It was becoming easier and safer to transport goods by water rather than overland. Ships had become stronger and more reliable, and the route passed through promising new markets in Southern Asia. The overland problems of `tribal politics' between the different peoples along the route and the presence of middlemen, all taking their cut on the goods, took their toll on the Silk Road, and prompted many traders to choose the sea routes.  

As trade with the West subsided, so did the traffic along the Road, and all but the best-watered oases declined. The grottos and other religious sites were long since neglected, now that the local peoples had espoused new religions, and the abandoned towns and sites became buried deeper beneath the sands.

Renewed interest in the Silk Road only emerged among Western scholars towards the end of the nineteenth century, when archaeologists sought the Silk Road's treasures from the past. But, on May 25th, 1925, a student demonstration in the port of Shanghai resulted in a riot and the British opened fire, killing a number of rioters. This created a wave of hostility towards foreigners throughout China, and effectively brought the explorations of the Western archaeologists to an end. The Chinese authorities started to take a much harsher view of the foreign intervention, and organizing archaeological trips became very difficult. The Chinese demanded that all artifacts be turned over and this effectively ended foreign exploration of the region. The treasures of the ancient Silk Road are now scattered in museums in about a dozen countries. The biggest collections are located in the British Museum and in Delhi, India. 

Today, the Silk Road is increasing in importance once again. The construction of roads and the discovery of large oil reserves under the desert is encouraging development. The area is rapidly becoming industrialized. The trade route itself is also being reopened, and trading is being encouraged by the recent trend towards a `socialist market economy' in China. Since China opened its doors to foreign tourists at the end of the 1970s, tourism is recognized as a lucrative commodity. This has encouraged Chinese authorities to strive to protect the remaining historical sites and restoration of many of the sites is underway.

This ancient trade route has seen many changes since its birth before Christ, through its brightest days in the Tang dynasty, until its slow decline approximately seven hundred years ago. Once again though, because of changes in the political climate, the Silk Road may yet see international trade again, but on a scale never thought possible in the days of traveling by camels and horses.


 

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