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What is the Silk Road?

The Middle East was part of the Silk Road connecting Europe with Asia.
Silk fabric.
A silkworm with its cocoon.
Camels were used by caravans that passed through the stretches of the Silk Road that traversed the Gobi desert.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 23 September 2014
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The Silk Road is a famous trade route which connects Europe and Asia, meandering through North Africa and the Middle East along the way. In fact, several trade routes made up this road, depending on the goods being traded and the preference of the merchant using the route, and some of these routes continue to be used today. The “silk” in the name is a reference to one of the most famous Chinese exports, although far more than silk was carried along this network of trading routes.

The connection between Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe appears to be ancient. Numerous archaeological sites have uncovered evidence of extensive trade dating back thousands of years. In addition to trading goods, these early cultures also engaged in cultural exchanges, with languages, alphabets, mathematical ideas, religious concepts, and beliefs diffusing in both directions across the Silk Road long before the rise of Christianity.

As civilizations expanded and became more sophisticated, the Silk Road came to play a prominent role. Goods, ideas, cultural practices, and religions flowed freely along the it, and it was viewed as increasingly vital by nations which relied heavily on trade in silk, porcelain, spices, and other specialties from the East. Disease also traveled along the Silk Road An array of northern, southern, and sea routes comprised the complex network roads, with camels, elephants, horses, and ships being used to navigate the roughly 5,000 mile (8,000 kilometer) long sprawl of trading routes.

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Free exchange along the Silk Road persisted well through the 15th century, when the rise of Islamic empires began to constrict trade. Foreign relations breakdowns also compromised the security of the route, as nations began to vie for supremacy in regions like the Middle East, making it difficult to transport goods along the Silk Road. The development of alternative trading routes by sea became a pressing concern, leading to the discovery of the Americas and extensive shipping routes along the way.

This trading route has become so widely famed that it is a tourist attraction in some regions. Travel companies which specialize in travel through Asia sometimes offer special Silk Road tours, allowing people to explore the routes used by numerous traders, missionaries, and explorers for centuries. In some regions along the road, little has changed in the way of traditional lifestyles and transportation over the centuries, giving travelers a glimpse of cultures which are thousands of years old.

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