A German explorer of western China and Central Asia coined the name Silk Road at the end of the 19th century. It describes a route of international commerce that linked China and Rome, exchanging many luxuries by camel caravans, most important of them China’s coveted silks.
Seres, which means the "land of silk", probably referring to China, was first mentioned in Greek accounts in the sixth century b.c.e.; some Chinese silk fabrics must have been traded to western lands in early times.
During the early Han dynasty (202 b.c.e.–220 c.e.) China appeased the powerful nomads called the Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu) by regularly giving them large quantities of silk, silver, and food. The Xiongnu traded some of the silk with other peoples.
Seeking to end the Xiongnu’s threat to China and their stranglehold of Chinese exports, Emperor Wu launched huge military expeditions against them beginning in 134 b.c.e., ending in the surrender of some Xiongnu tribes and the flight of others.
The overland route covered was more than 4,000 miles. No caravan traveled the entire route; rather it was a series of journeys in a network of trading centers where buyers and sellers converged.
The trans-Asian route began in China’s capitals Luoyang (Loyang) or Chang’an (Ch’ang-an); proceeded westward to China’s frontier city Dunhuang (Tun-huang), where the route split into two, skirting the Taklamakan Desert; then converged at Kashgar (at China’s present western frontier) on to Tashkent and Bukhara in Central Asia, where one branch split southeastward across Afghanistan to the Indian subcontinent and another westward through Merv in Iran (ancient Parthia) to Baghdad in Iraq, Antioch or Tyre on the eastern Mediterranean coast, thence by sea to Rome.
For much of the journey merchants were protected by the power of China and Rome under the Pax Sinica and Pax Romana. States and cities along the way benefited from charging of taxes and dues. When they became too burdensome, as happened with the Iranians, the trading countries sought to open new routes.
Thus, in the first century c.e. a sea route was opened that linked the southern Chinese port Guangzhou (Canton), across the Strait of Malacca and Bay of Bengal to India, then through the Persian Gulf or Red Sea to the Roman East to the Mediterranean. After the fall of the Han dynasty and the Western Roman Empire, the Tang (T’ang) dynasty in China and the Byzantine Empire continued the trading relations.
In addition to silk, other textiles, metals, gems, glass, horses, and spices were important items of trade. The road was also important for introducing new crops and food items across cultures and for exchange of technological innovations, for example, ground glass lenses from India and paper from China.
Finally, it was the route of missionaries and pilgrims that brought Buddhism from India to Central Asia and China and, less important, Nestorian Christianity, Judaism, and Manichaeanism from the Roman East and Iran to East Asia.
Marco Polo from Venice traveled via the Silk Road to China in the late 13th century, bringing tales of the fabled East to Europe. The Silk Road was finally eclipsed when Europeans discovered a sea route to Asia via Africa after 1498.