Silk Road

Silk Road
   English translation of Seidenstrasse, a term coined by the German geographer and traveler Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833–1905) to describe the network of land and sea trading routes connecting China to India and the Near East and whose heart was in Central Asia. For more than a thousand years, from the second century to the fourteenth century, the Silk Road was a medium of commercial and cultural exchange between East and West. The trade route fell into disuse from the fourteenth century with the eclipse of Mongol power, whose stabilizing influence had encouraged trade, and the subsequent rise of maritime trade routes based in Western Europe. For several centuries the route was largely forgotten.
   The mid-nineteenth century witnessed the intensification of Anglo-Russian rivalry in Central Asia as the Russian Empire advanced steadily southward to threaten British India. In this context, Central Asia became a contesting ground between Russian and British adventurers and influence peddlers on whose heels arrived a host of scholars and explorers intent on studying the culture along the former Silk Road while pursuing their own host nation’s interests. Most notable among such explorers were the Swede Sven Hedin (1865–1952) and the naturalized Englishman Aurel Stein (1862–1943). Sven Hedin is credited with opening up the region for exploration after his groundbreaking journeys through the Taklamakan Desert in the 1890s. Stories of the region’s archaeological treasures soon attracted explorers representing Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and Japan. The effect of this intense period of activity, which lasted nearly up to the outbreak of World War I and in many ways mirrored larger imperial rivalries, was the birth of Central Asian studies. In the process, however, innumerable artifacts and ancient documents were looted from the region and taken to European museums and libraries.
   See also <>.
    Hopkirk, Peter. Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Cities and Treasures of Chinese Central Asia. London: John Murray, 1980.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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