The term “silk road” was named when German geographer and historian Ferdinand von Richthofen first used it to describe the trade routes connecting China and the Far East with the Middle East and Europe. The Silk Road, which is defined in many resources as an ancient trade route, is not a single linear axis but a road network composed of branch roads connected to the main axis or distinct axis with the impact of political or commercial conditions of the era. The article here will provide an overview from its establishment until it abruptly ended with the rise of the Ottoman empire, where the Silk Road was not only a platform for the global exchange of goods but also became a medium to exchange ideologies, religions, different cultures, and traditions, which created a new system of international trade and businesses, and inns, what were called “caravansaries”, the architectural treasures of the Silk Road, where a structure like palaces was created for merchants to exchange goods, do business, a place to interact, and resting places for humans and animals, religious mosques, churches, medicinal aids for injured, kitchens, commercial goods storage, etc. The article here will describe the Silk Road from an architectural perspective as well as its short history on different terms like the royal road, the beginning of this concept of trade routes, history, the Silk Road to China, the Silk Road economic Belt, Silk Road Spices, Eastward exploration, and caravansaries.


Trade has existed for thousands of years, beginning with simple local exchanges, the distances gradually extending and the first real trade routes appearing. In 1800 BC, navigators began to travel along the coasts between the Indian subcontinent where spices such as black pepper and cinnamon are found and the southern part of the Arabian peninsula where the tree that produces incense grows. Dromedary caravans then transport these luxury products across the Arabian desert to Petra, which becomes an important crossroads between Egypt and Mesopotamia. In 331 BC, Alexandria the Great, during his conquest, founded the city of Alexandria. Soon merchant ships link the new city to the rest of the Mediterranean basin. Alexandria then becomes the great warehouse for trade between India and Europe.

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The incense route map indicating History of the major trade routes_©

The silk road

In east Turkistan, the precious stone jade is found, which is much sought after in China as it’s a sign of wealth and power. Nomads then engaged in trade of this stone with the Chinese for tea, a drink that was much appreciated in arid environments. However, further north, a confederation of nomadic tribes threatens China. In 139 BC, the Chinese emperor sent Zhang Qian as an ambassador to the unknown lands in the west there to propose an alliance with Yuezhi against the Xiongnu. But the ambassador, Zhang Qian, is captured and held in prison for 13 years. On his return to China, he reports to the emperor all that he has learned about the people of Central Asia and their products. He mentions the majestic race of horses unknown to China. To obtain some of these horses for the first time, the emperor agrees to trade silk, which had been forbidden to export until then. This is the opening of the silk road, which gradually extends to the middle east.

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The map shows first trade of silk and horses beginning of silk road. source: Bates, [email protected] bates] (2021) History of the major trade routes, Geo history’s 20,2021

In a short matter of time, with the help of their new horsepower, the Han dynasty in China was successful in addressing the Xiongnu threat. Impressed by Qian’s journey to the west and its collaboration, the Chinese emperor decided to take things further ahead, triggering the official opening of the Silk Road in 130 BC, connecting east to the west through a network of trade routes spanning roughly 4000 miles from end to end, starting from Han in China to the tips of Europe.

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History of the major trade routes, Geo history’s 20,2021_Bates, Mattews (2021)

300 Years Before the opening of Silk Road there existed Royal Road

The trade routes existed before the Silk Road. It was the Persians under Darius I and the Persian empire who created the original known as the Royal Road, which stretched from Susa in modern-day Iran more than 1,600 miles west to Sardis near the Mediterranean Sea in modern Turkey. It was established during the Achaemenid Empire some 300 years before the opening of the Silk Road and was quite impressive, the writings of which by messengers provided would later form the basis of the United States postal service creed. The Persians expanded the royal road, integrating small routes that connected Mesopotamia to the Indian sub-continent and northern Africa through Egypt. Alexander the Great, the ruler of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedonia, expanded his dominion into Persia via the Royal Road. Parts of the thoroughfare were ultimately incorporated into the Silk Road.

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Map of royal road_Bates, Mattews [@mattews bates] (2021)
Silk road history

During the first and second centuries B.C., trade routes between East and West began as the Roman empire and the Kushan empire ruled territory in what is now northern India, which also benefited from the commerce created by the route along the Silk Road. It soon began to be the ultimate route for messengers, merchants, and explorers and was used in a few ways, the main being for commercial trade. The term we know now was not coined until the 19th century. The Silk Road did serve as the major contributor to the trade of silk throughout the region and spanned over. For a long time, silk only came out of China because the Chinese discovered how to harvest the material from cocoons of silkworms and had strategically hidden this from the rest of the world, and the products created from it were sold throughout Europe through the silk road. The Chinese commodity with this near obsession with silk also demonstrated that the silk road brought different cultures and ideas together with the area it touched.In the case of Rome and silk, the remarkable demand for the product put Rome in the position of an unfavourable balance of trade, which deeply bothered the emperors. That was never rectified until the 476 fall of the Western Roman Empire. The Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantines, would put an end to it.

After discovering the source of this infatuating material, Emperor Justinian sent two men undercover as monks to China to steal enough silkworms to start a new production of silk in Byzantium. The expedition worked and now the Eastern Roman empire could save itself from the high price of silk induced trade imbalance of their western counterpart. Silk was not still the popular material of trade; additionally, products from East to West such as teas, dyes, spices, porcelain, paper, gunpowder, and medicine were all frequently traded. Paper and gunpowder would go on to have major impacts in the modern European world, with gunpowder changing warfare as they knew it and paper quickly becoming a primary canvas for writing as the Eastern trade changed western culture and the world and the West did the same for the East. Western merchants sold products like glassware, textiles, animal furs, certain foods like honey, fruits, live animals, blankets, armor, and horse-riding necessities. That alone started new inspiration and new ways of life being passed along the network of trade routes, and this also included religions and ideologies with the help of merchants that travel.

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Map by: Esri/Newsela staff. The following goods (displayed on the map from left to right) are just a few examples of the many exchanged during this era: glass, grapes, Arabic spices, horses, textiles, stones, Indian spices, iron, china, and silk. Languages and religions also spread along these roads._

All this was done as most merchants and messengers never traveled the whole silk road. In reality, the vast majority of traders, especially those from India, would only go part way to sell their goods to other merchants, and that man would go on and do the same. This created a large system of middlemen and also allowed for the opening of new businesses and caravansaries, inns, resting places, markets, religious places, and medicinal aids for the common caravans that would pass through the route, which also gave employment to robbers.

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Ancient Chinese Silk Road_

Silk road to China

The Silk Road routes invented a vast network of strategically located trading posts, markets, and thoroughfares designed to streamline the transport, exchange, distribution, and storage of goods. Routes extended from the Greco-Roman metropolis of Antioch across the Syrian Desert through Palmyra to Ctesiphon (the Parthian capital) and Seleucia on the Tigris River, a Mesopotamian city in modern-day Iraq. From Seleucia, routes passed eastward over the Zagros Mountains to the cities of Ecbatana (Iran) and Merv (Turkmenistan), from which additional routes traversed to modern-day Afghanistan and eastward into Mongolia and China. Silk Road routes also led to ports on the Persian Gulf, where goods were then transported up the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Routes from these cities also connected to ports along the Mediterranean Sea, from which goods were shipped to cities throughout the Roman Empire and into Europe. Interestingly, the ancient Greek word for China is “Seres,” which means “the land of silk.”

Eastward exploration

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Portrait of venetian explorer Marco polo Image source:

It was Marco Polo who spent three years alongside his father, aged only 17, traversing the Silk Road until they finally reached the Chinese palace of Kublai Khan in 1275 AD. The Polos would stay in Asia for years more, where the young man traveled to places he had never seen and met new people and cultures that he never imagined. When Marco Polo traveled along the silk road and returned to Venice in 1295, bringing back all the knowledge and experience that he had gained from his time in Asia, he shared it all with Europe in his book. He shared language, culture, religion, discovery, and so on, all along the silk road, making an ancient road network an invaluable part of history and our world today.

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Marco polo travel map of silk road_

Caravansaries the Architectural treasures of silk road

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Ancient communication route in the world_

The caravansaries emerged concerning the commercial potential of the nations on the international merchandise roads, have transformed into external trade centers in their regions and cultural and economic attraction centers, and have generated the oldest cores of most of the existing settlements. It is indicated in various resources that there were 250-300 caravansaries on this road network during Seljuck’s era, which is considered the era of its heydays.

These castle-like structures seen from a distance were designed in a way to integrate all the functions for the requirements of the caravan convoys inside, and they are located in a 30–40 km range, which indicates the distance of caravans. These buildings, located on the Silk Road, were also considered at 6400 km in length and represented security places for the caravans. They consisted of bunkhouses, kitchens, storehouses, commercial goods, cisterns, barns for the animals of passengers, hay barns, masjids for religious needs, libraries, hammams, hospitals for medical needs, pharmacies, shoe houses for repairing and manufacturing shoes for the needs of poor passengers, shoeers, coachmen, and many exchangers for managing these facilities and for financial issues.

The silk road created a new requirement for merchants. Carrying goods to distant countries, the missionaries, the craftsmen, the voyagers, the couriers, and the travellers, were all stopped down at these caravansaries, which were secured by the state. Travelers and caravans could utilize these services for 3 days without paying any fee. The patients in the caravans were treated until they regained their health. The animals were treated by the vets and the treatment expenses were met by Waqfs. The buildings constructed by the sultans were regarded as the most important structures in terms of commercial, economic, and social characteristics of that era. Even though they have similar functional properties, they become different and special buildings with their sizes and adornments in terms of architectural characteristics among other caravansaries. It is mentioned in some resources that there are only eight buildings in Anatolia that represent these structural properties.

Sultanhanı Kervansarayı_

Collapse of silk road

The vast network was not always a positive influence on China. The Silk Road carried the bubonic plague throughout China and also provided the framework for later European maritime invasions In many ways, it was the silk roads that have to be credited for monumental moments in history, as it was the opportunities provided by the incredible trade network that had sent Europeans to the seas in response to Ottoman interventions. Thus, the silk roads worked in a variety of ways as they served as a hub for international trade and commerce, allowing easier passage for messengers from east to west.


Büyükmõhçõ, Gonca. (2012) ‘CARAVANSARIES: the architectural treasures of the silk road and the case of Kayseri-sultanhani’, Archi-Cultural Translations through the Silk Road 2nd International Conference, Mukogawa Women’s Univ.Available at:

Peter Frank, Opan. (2017) ‘The silk road a new history of the world, New York: first vintage books edition.

History editors, [@History Editors] (Sep 20, 2021) Silk Road, Available at:

Hunter, Martin B. [@Hunter Martin B] (2018) History of the ancient silk road. Available at:


Salma sultana graduated master’s in architecture from the Iuav university of architecture Italy, born in 1992, and obtained her bachelor's from India, she works for her own architecture practice named Zahaa designs. She likes to be a curator of architecture exhibitions also curated for the la biennale exhibition in Arsenale in Venezia. She a Ph.D. student of a german university in Brandenburg working on historical architecture conservation her final achievement in the field of architecture is to create an innovative sustainable solution for concrete and bring awareness by joining a teaching profession in the sustainable architecture department.

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