Question: Introduction to the Silk Road - what was it and why was it important?
The Silk Road (or Sichou zhi lu 絲綢之路) is a term coined in the late 19th century by a German scholar to describe the trade routes that connected the Middle East, Ancient India and the Mediterranean to China. It was not one singular route but rather a network of routes overland and overseas.
Starting during the Han Dynasty (206BC - AD 220)
, silk was the major commodity being exported along these roads but it was along these routes that cultural, technological and agricultural innovations exchanged hands. For example, Buddhism spread through China along the Silk Road in the 1st century. There were many stops along the route that ended in Chang'an, the capital city of the Tang Dynasty (618-907)
where the modern city of Xi'an now sits.
After the Tang Dynasty the Silk Road’s importance deteriorated somewhat as trade focus shifted east but the routes remained open and significant and saw a reinstatement of importance under Mongol Rule. It was along these routes that Marco Polo came to China during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368).
As the Yuan Dynasty's grip over China waned, disunity along the routes prevailed with the rise of separate states and the increased use of sea routes for trade. The Silk Road's significance steeply declined after the fall of the Yuan Dynasty.
Today tourists can trace the footsteps of ancient caravan traders with tours along the Silk Road. There are many ancient sites and cities within China whose history dates back to the time when trade thrived overland. Tour operators often have Silk Road itineraries. Taking a Silk Road tour can be a fascinating way to see and understand China's ancient history and ties with the rest of the world.
My colleague who writes the Ancient/Classical History site for About.com has many, much more in-depth articles about the Silk Road. Read on from links below.