More than war and conquest, more than voyages of exploration, trade is the most significant kind of encounter between two or more civilizations. Even in ancient times, trade connected and benefited diverse cultures. Egypt, for example, received artwork, tools, and other valuable items from its neighbors in Africa, western and southern Asia, and the Mediterranean basin, as is demonstrated by archaeological finds in Egypt. Likewise, Egyptian items have been found in all those places. In a similar way, trade among various native civilizations in the western hemisphere can be detected by the existence of unique its from one region beyond found in other regions, sometimes far away, and occurring many centuries ago, before the arrival of European explorers and travelers in the western world.
The main trade routes of the eastern hemisphere are called the Silk Roads (or sometimes Silk Road). They included highways, rivers, canals, and sea lanes. Trade existed before the growth of the great empires, but the empires unintentionally facilitated trade as they built and improved roads. The Persians were among the first, tying their large empire together with roads for royal messengers and for the army; these roads were built and maintained by the government for its own purposes, but they were used as well by merchants and traders. The Mauryan Empire in India imitated the Persian development of roads, and the Han Dynasty also improved the roads of China. Phoenician and Greek travelers began commerce throughout the Mediterranean world, and the process of government-facilitated transportation was completed under the Romans. Two thousand years ago, Chinese silk could be bought in Rome and Italian glass could be bought in Chinese cities. People did not always know what they were buying: European purchasers assumed that silk was made from a plant textile, and Chinese purchasers assumed that glass was some sort of stone found in the far west.
Very few people traveled the Silk Roads from one extremity to the other. Most items were bought and sold several times on their way from one civilization to another. Merchants in the ancient world were like truck drivers who picked up a trailer in one city and drove it down the highway to another city, then acquired a new trailer in the second city and drove it back up the highway to the first city. Of course merchants made a profit every time they sold in one city what they had bought in another Various kinds of taxes—tolls, fees, and permits, among others—also increased the cost of the items that traveled on the Silk Roads. As a result, silk was an expensive luxury in the Roman Empire, and glass was an expensive luxury in China. The governments in the middle, including the Persians and the Mauryans, became wealthy because of the money they gained from the use of the Silk Roads within their borders.
Anything that could be bought and sold traveled on the Silk Roads: textiles, artwork, tools, precious metals and gemstones, ivory and precious woods, grain and vegetable foods, livestock (which was transported alive and slaughtered after delivery to keep the meat fresh), spices, work animals, and human slaves. Some slaves were condemned criminals, others were debtors, and many were prisoners captured in war; they came from all kinds of civilizations and cultures. Today, descendants of African slaves live in India and China, far from their native land, just as other displaced Africans later found themselves in the western hemisphere. Spices were preferred by merchants because of their compactness—spices had a greater value per pound or per cubic inch than any other commodity. Spices were valued, not only as flavoring and preservatives in food, but also for perfumes, medicines, and ingredients in magic potions and powders.
In addition to commodities, other ephemeral things traveled on the Silk Roads. Ideas traveled from place to place. Technology from China and Arabia was brought into the Roman Empire and its European successors. Political and economic ideas were introduced into new places. Religions traveled along the Silk Roads—especially Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Less ephemeral but equally significant, diseases also traveled the Silk Roads. Parasites, bacteria, and viruses all were spread by travelers carrying cargo from one city to the next. The bubonic plague, or Black Death, of the 1300s is only the most famous outbreak of disease linked to Silk Road exchanges; smallpox, measles, leprosy, anthrax, and liver flukes were also carried from place to place by travelers using the Silk Roads.
Empires rise and fall. Kingdoms wax and wane. Civilizations emerge, prosper, and decay. The economy continues through all these changes, shaping and uniting people in ways that human governments can neither imitate nor control. J.