Mesopotamia, the area between the Euphrates River and the Tigris River is mainly silted ground wich proved out to be very fertile. This is where people first started agriculture, the rise of civilisation. There was no longer a need for people to gather food, they could grow it. People started to live in villages. The areas around the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Persia also turned out to be very fertile. These were conquered by the Persians, who had a stable government and were very good in building infrastructure. They were able to cover 2.500 kilometres in a week. They started irrigating their fields and products were transported to different places, which enabled people to start living in cities. As people started trading the necessity of growing there won food was no longer.
Around 500 BC, the Persian Empire was the land of plenty and it stretched all the way from Asia to the Mediterranean. Trade was flourishing and most of the money earned was invested in a strong army, to conquer even more territory. The Persians were getting silver from Egypt, ivory from India and they were building enormous structures in several cities. They extended the territory from the Black Sea to Central Asia and Mongolia. In the North they encountered aggressive Nomads, but they were good for trading horses.
The Greeks were afraid of the Persians, until Alexander of Macedonia became king, who became known as Alexander the Great. Alexander was not looking at Europe, there were no cities and no culture. He was aiming for the East. He conquered Egypt and also took Babylon from the Persians. He conquered all the Royal roads that connected the Persian cities. Alexander built Forts around the cities to protect them against the Nomads that lived on the plains. This whole network of fortifications resulted eventually in the Great Chinese Wall.
Alexander died in Babylon at the age of 32, but he achieved a lot in his lifetime. Seleucus, his successor, became governor of the areas Alexander the Great had conquered. An area that stretched from the Tigris River to the Indis River and from the Mediterranean to the Himalayas, a true empire. Seleucus founded the Seleucus Dynasty, which ruled the area for three centuries. In those days Greek language and cultured was educated as far as India.
During the Han Dynasty in the second century BC, the empire extended into China. There was a lot of trade in horses for the army. The best horses came from the Fergana valley and the Pamir Mountains in today’s Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Nomads were good hunters and they formed a threat, they would get a lot of products in exchange for peace. The main product was silk, a strong but light material that could easily be transported. When the price off peace became to high, China used crusades to expel the Nomads more to the North.
Slowly trade between China and the rest of the world started. The journey through the Taklamakan Desert was a difficult and harsh one. A northern and a southern route through the desert arose. After the desert, the route continued through the Pamir Mountains. Traders on the Silk Road had to deal with extreme differences in altitude and temperature. The camel became a favourite way of transportation; this animal could cope with all the difficulties. In the beginning only expensive and scarce products were transported. Silk was the absolute number one. In China there were often not enough coins to pay the soldiers, so they were paid with silk.
In the meantime in Persia, the Arsacides took over from the Seleucides. The Arsacides were based on a combination of Greek and Persian influences.
Rome was the first city in Europe to grow from a village into a city and the Romans were ready to conquer the world. They were very combative; Gladiator fights in big arenas were their entertainment. With a well-trained army at their hands, they conquered Gaul in 52 BC. Gaul was the area that we know today as France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxemburg and the western part of Germany. The Romans were only interested in areas with big cities, where many people could pay taxes. They were not interested in Great Britain, but they were interested in the Egyptian port town of Alexandria and the agriculture area’s in the delta of the Nile River. The Romans took their chances when queen Cleopatra was in a sad state after the assassination of Julius Caesar. When the Roman army of Octaves defeated the Egyptians at Actium, queen Cleopatra committed suicide.
Rome was flourishing, emperor Augustus proclaimed Rome was made of bricks when he came to power and made of marble when he left. In all the areas conquered by the Romans, people were obliged to register. The Romans sent a delegation to Judea, to count the people to see if there were enough taxes to gain. Joseph, Maria and their child Jesus were also registered.
In Rome they thought of Asia being the land of comfort and luxury. Emperor Augustus send his soldiers to Asia, but they got drunk and lazy, realising there was more to life then the regime they were used to in Rome. Augustus made several attempts to get to know the land behind his new borders. He wanted details about the trade routes in Persia and Central-Asia. He was also interested in waterways via the Red Sea to the east. Roman traders made it all the way to India, Roman coins have been found in India from the time Augustus was emperor. These Roman traders brought the most extravagant products from everywhere. Expensive fish, living birds, silver toothpicks, jade, ivory and so on. Not all Romans were happy with the unnecessary luxury. Another thing they were not happy with was Chinese silk. The thin material was giving way to much of the female curves, it was almost transparent. The price had gone totally out of control; it was expensive to keep their women satisfied. At that time the price of silk was about 100 times the normal price. Money was flowing from the Roman economy to Asia, about 10% of their yearly budget and about half their coin production.
Villages along the trade routes were flourishing because of the trade in silk. Roads were improved and villages became cities. Impressive buildings were constructed in Tashkent, Bukhara and Samarkand in today’s Uzbekistan. Palmyra in Syria became the Venice in the sand and Petra in Jordan was located on the route between the Arab world and the Mediterranean. Trade fairs were organised in cities at the crossroads of different routes.
The Romans had little contact with the Chinese, because the Persians were in between. Sometimes diplomats joined a trade caravan. In the second century, Romans again had great ambitions; they conquered many Persian cities, among others Babylon. Romans were able to gain a lot of money by taxing all products on the trade routes in their newly acquired territories. They invested the money in port towns, because overseas trade was on the rise.
The Persians were feeling the pressure from their Roman neighbours. In the year 220 the Sassanids came to power. They decided to move regional power to central power. New severe rules for traders and markets were made and it worked. Persia was flourishing again and this brought Rome to totter.
Around 300 AC the Roman empire stretched from the North Sea to the Black Sea and from the Limes to the Caucasus and Yemen. Expanding their territory was more and more difficult. Rome became a victim of it’s own success; they became the target of the neighbouring nations.
The Romans needed a new strong leader. Emperor Constantine stepped forward, the son of a high officer. He built a new city that needed to match Rome. He chose the location of the old city of Byzantium, where Europe and Asia meet. He built enormous palaces and a horse race track and called the city Nova Roma. Soon his city became known as Constantinople. A strategic location, where many trade routes met. This way he could keep an eye on the trade and the taxes.
It was very busy on the different Silk Roads; about 2000 years ago there was already a great connection between Europe and the East. This is how pottery from France ended up in India and silk from China came to Rome. Locally minted coins went all over the world. Christianity also spread via de Silk Road, a religion from the East. Rome may be the forefather of Europe, but it was greatly influenced by the East. The rise of the Silk Road was an intriguing time.
(Resume by Marica van der Meer from a book by Peter Frankopan)