Reopening the Ancient Silk Road During the Renaissance

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  • 0:08 Follow the Silk Road
  • 1:21 Background
  • 2:22 The Khans & Renaissance Europe
  • 3:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will go on a historic road trip along the famous Silk Roads that connected Europe and Asia. As we go along, we'll cover the Mongol Empire, the mixing of cultures through trade, and the Renaissance.

Follow the Silk Road

I've heard of following the Yellow Brick Road, but a Silk Road? Now the magical Land of Oz is just going overboard. Actually, the Silk Roads were very real and were a series of trade routes that spread across Asia and connected China to the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. They were named this because of the very lucrative silk import and export business that brought many merchants to China. All in all, the various routes that comprised the Silk Roads crossed 4,000 miles of the Eurasian supercontinent. That's a lot of roads!

The Silk Roads were major factors in history because they allowed for people, objects, and ideas to spread quickly across the Eurasian continent. Commercial products, such as silks, spices, livestock, gems, and minerals, were passed between merchants. People as diverse as soldiers, monks, pilgrims, and diplomats travelled the continent. Philosophies, religions, ideas, and technologies passed between kingdoms.

Even disease may have travelled the Silk Roads; some experts think the Black Death, the plague that hit Europe, entered through rats following Silk Road merchants. In the 13th century, the Silk Roads dramatically changed European society. But before we can discuss that, we need a little background on the Silk Roads.

A Little Background on the Silk Roads

People had been trading across Asia for millennia. In fact, Chinese silk has been found in Egypt that dates to 1000 BCE. The first true Silk Roads, however, were developed by China's Han dynasty around 200 BCE when they began building real roads that were protected by troops and forts.

The original Silk Roads were crucial in the development of nearly every Asian and Middle-Eastern culture because these trade routes helped spread ideas, technology, and wealth. Major players in the Silk Road trade included China, India, Persia, Armenia, and Syria. Even the ancient Greek and Roman empires both heavily participated in the Silk Roads and traded their knowledge and products for ivory, spices, technology, and minerals.

A lot of money travelled the Silk Roads. As we can imagine, this made them targets to other powers. After Rome fell in the 5th century, less people travelled from Europe on those roads and they became less safe. Around 300 years later, the Tibetans captured crucial points on the trade routes and China lost control, effectively spelling the end of the Silk Roads.

The Khans and Renaissance Europe

In 1207, a great Mongol leader named Genghis Khan united the Mongol tribes and started a conquest of Asia. Under Genghis Khan, the new Mongol Empire dominated the continent. At its height, the Mongol Empire covered over 12 million square miles. 12 million square miles! That is still one of the largest empires in history.

European merchants hadn't been able to get to China for centuries because the Silk Roads were controlled by dozens of different kingdoms that either taxed or killed foreigners for passing through. Suddenly, the Mongol Empire controlled taxes and foreign policy, and the Silk Roads opened up once again.

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