The Silk Road: Let’s walk through the history of this ancient road

Today, also a strategic commercial initiative of the People's Republic of China

Talking about the Silk Road without digressing is quite hard to do: it's a topic that merges past and present, legend and reality, the East and the West, and which includes economic development and breathtaking stories. Some speak of the new Silk Road referring to the ancient road that connected Eastern Asia to Europe; Others, instead, mention it to refer to the huge project that China launched a few years back.

Some perceive the Silk Road with the eye of the tourist, of the traveller who, walking along this road, will encounter minarets, mosques, fantastically coloured bazars, ancient capitals, deserts, snowy mountains, temples, noisy markets and water courses, like the Yellow River, next to which many Estern civilizations rose. And then there's who sees today's Silk Road, and thinks of the huge structural investments that must be made for the Silk road on land and by sea. The Silk Road is this and so much more: it's almost impossible to totally break up all the concepts.

The Ancient Silk Road

But what is actually the Silk Road? It's a road network built over two-thousand years ago, which extends for approximately 8,000 km. The ancient Silk Road includes mule tracks, river navigations and sea crossings. Many centuries ago, it linked the Chinese Empire to the Roman one.

It basically was a very long caravan route linking two totally different worlds, with one thing in common: Trade. It must be noted that the name of this trade network is not in any way ancient. It was, in fact, the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, in the last half of the XIX century, that spoke for the first time of a "Seidenstraße", in one of his works.

No precise date can be fixed for when this trade route between East and West saw its first light. What we do know is that for 1500 years it remained the main trade route by land. It began to take shape during the Han dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.), and precisely by demand of Emperor Wudi, who lived between 156 and 87 B.C. He, in fact, through the embassy of General Zhang Qian, established the first diplomatic and trade relations with the kingdoms of Central Asia, therefore creating the first caravans that travelled towards the areas that today can be found in North-Western China.

But why do we speak of a "Silk" Road, considering the many products that used to travel along this route? The Han Empire used this caravan route to import horses from Central Asia, to strengthen its army. In exchange for these strong horses, the Empire's merchants brought with them precious metals, spices, porcelains, paper, manufactured objects and silk.

Silk was totally unknown in the West, at least up until 53 B.C. It was Crassus, in fact, according to some historical sources, who first brought the first silk flags to Rome, after the Battle of Carrhae. Other sources state that the first flags were brought to Rome by Caesar's troops, after his expeditions in Anatolia. At the time, no one knew where this material originated from, which in any case was also prohibited by law, as it was deemed immoral. According to the annals, Rome and China traded for the first time in 166 A.D., by sea.

The ancient Silk Road was made of 5 different trade routes: the most famous one started from the Yellow River, crossed the Gansu, and then headed towards Central Asia and the West. Along this route, many products that changed history were imported into Europe. We are not just talking of silk, but especially of paper and gunpowder. These two products, as widely known, heavily influenced the world's history and progress, both for good and for the worst.

Times of when Europeans, following Marco Polo's trail and that of the other adventurous merchants, travelled along dusty caravan routes to trade goods with the Far East, are now long gone. The ancient Silk Road is not used anymore. Chinese President Xi Jinping, in 2013, decided to launch the project for the New Silk Road, to increase the economic stronghold of China on the West.

The New Silk Road

Today, the Silk Road must therefore be seen as a strategic commercial initiative created by the People's Republic of China, to permanently and fully strengthen its relations with all Eurasian countries, Italy included. The investment plan announced by China's leading man, is part of a project called "One Belt One Road”. In this case, also, the Silk Road multiplies itself taking different routes, a land one and a “sea" one. Overall, costs are approximately estimated to amount to $1 trillion, engaging over 4 billion people in the process.

Many parts of the new Silk Road are already perfectly functional. A first, efficient rail link between China and Europe has already been active for 8 years. It connects these two extreme poles in just 18 days, moving along a trade route that, before, by sea, used to require much longer times. Last year, a 5,400 km highway route between St. Petersburg and China was inaugurated.

Today, the new Silk Road represents business for China and for many other countries. Among the project's biggest financiers, besides the People's Republic of China, there's also India and Russia. Italy too is directly involved in the project, even if only for the part concerning the route by sea: the final part of this route should, in fact, end here, in Italy, after first having crossed the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea. In 2017, 3 different ports were made available to complete the project: Genoa, Venice and Trieste, the latter of these being the most important.