Trading Silk for Horses: The Surprisingly Simple Origins of the Silk Road

Trade linked China and the Roman world along the Silk Road, fostering not only commerce but a robust exchange of wisdom and beliefs.

Soft, strong, and shimmering—silk was first cultivated in China, perhaps as early as the mid-third millennium B.C. The art of turning the cocoons of the silkworm moth (Bombyx mori) was, according to legend, discovered by the wife of the Yellow Emperor, a mythical forebear of the tribe that later founded China’s first dynasty, the Xia, in circa 2070 B.C. While she was drinking tea in the shade of a mulberry bush, a cocoon fell into her cup. Instead of throwing it away, she examined it and discovered that pulling on a strand could completely unravel it.

Traditionally, silk production was entrusted to Chinese women and carefully guarded as a state secret. Revealing the confidential methods of sericulture was punishable by death. Centuries later, it would be these silken threads that would weave together a vast trade network, linking the lands of China to Rome.

In the 19th century German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen looked for a term to describe the trade routes that shuttled silks and other luxury goods between the Far East and the Mediterranean from the first century B.C. until the Middle Ages. It seemed appropriate to name it for the item most associated with Eastern opulence, and Richthofen’s term, “Silk Road,” has stuck ever since.

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