Silk Road on the Sea - China's Maritime Silk Road

Written by Ruru Zhou Updated Sep. 29, 2021

As early as the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty, there was a maritime Chinese trade route (not generally considered a Silk Road trade route, however) that originated at the mouth of the Hong ("Red") River in present-day Vietnam, near the present-day city of Hanoi. The route proceeded around the Indo-Chinese peninsula beyond the Thai-Malay Peninsula and then northwestward through the Malacca Straits to Ceylon and India, and eventually on across the Arabian Sea (the present-day Indian Ocean) to the Arabian Peninsula, where one route followed the eastern contours of the Arabian Peninsula up the Persian Gulf to the city of Al Basrah (present-day Basra in Iraq), while another route skirted around the Arabian Peninsula and continued up the Red Sea.

Maritime Silk Road Route

Xingjiang Local Accessories
 

Xingjiang Local Accessories

One of these Red Sea routes ended at the terminus city of Suez, where the goods were carried over land to Cairo, then were sailed down the Nile to the city of Alexandria and on across the Mediterranean Sea to the Sicilian Peninsula, from whence they were traded thoughout Europe. An alternate route ended near the ancient Nabataean city of Petra (think: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), from whence the goods were transported to Nabbatea's port cities along the Meditteranean and then onward to Sicily. Much of the Middle East at this time was still under the rule of Rome, though, with the advent of Islam under the prophet Muhammad (CE 632-732), whole swaths of the Middle East, including Syria, Mesopotamia and Arabia, were wrested from Roman control.

The traders who actually transported the "Oriental" goods across the Mediterranean during this period may well themselves have been descendants of the ancient Phoenicians, who had plied their trade across the Mediterranean from BCE 1500 to BCE 300, when the Phoenicians were eventually conquered by Rome. Phoenicia comprised roughly the strip of land on which present-day Israel sits, plus parts of ancient Syria and present-day Lebanon. Nabataea lay south of this, in what is present-day Lebanon

Of course, the Egyptians and the Nabataeans were themselves major consumers of Silk Road goods, and during the later period of the Silk Road trade (it still exists in a modern sense, of course), much of the silk exported from China was in the form of raw silk that was shipped to the Middle East to be processed into more exquisitely refined garments in keeping with the increasing demand for more delicate and more beautiful garments as a result of the saturation of the market - as today's economists would put it - with more common silk garments (think: silk damask, whose etymology derives from the name Damascus).

By the middle of the 15th century, barely a century after the decline of the overland Silk Road route, most of the volume of the maritime Silk Road trade had ceased as well. A limited maritime Silk Road trade in the most exquisite items of the Ming and Qing Dynasties continued. Especially items such as porcelain and lacquered furniture were popular at the courts of the kings and queens of Europe, and in the homes of the rising bourgeois classes.

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