Silk, Spices and the onset of Exploration

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

For most of human history, the world meant mostly a landmass consisting of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Much of the remaining parts of the world were relatively unknown –​ especially the Americas (both North and South) and Australia. So, every history book you pick up, it is mostly these three regions that fill up the pages. And these regions, distant as they were, were still able to communicate and carry on trade with each other. All this was possible because of the fabled road in history, known as the Silk Road.  

Silk Road is a network of roads connecting East with the West, meaning China and other parts of South and East Asia with Europe, passing through Central Asia and the Middle East. Although the term Silk Road is used, it was not a single road going from East to West, but rather a network of routes (which is why some historians even favor the word Silk Routes).  

And it was these networks of roads that connected some of the greatest civilizations and empires in history, like China, India, Persia and Rome, for more than a millennium.  

Although formally established in 130 BC during the Han Dynasty in China, the history of the Silk Road predates back even further, and one can trace its origin in modern day Iran. Some 300 years before the formal opening of Silk Roads, there was already a road called Royal Road which connected a place called Susa (in modern day Iran) with a place called Saris (near Mediterranean in modern day Turkey). So, in that sense, the Silk Road was an extension to the Royal Road, stretching more towards East and China.  

The name of the route, Silk Road, comes from a product that was highly valued for much of our history. As Silk has both aesthetic value (bright and luminescent) and practical value (cool, comfortable, soft, and yet very strong), it is no wonder Silk is valued even today. But it was the simple supply-demand economics dynamics that ensured Silk was valued way more in history than it is today.  

For the longest time in history, only the Chinese were the ones who knew how to make Silk, and Silk was perceived as some sort of a Chinese secret. In order to maintain its high demand, the Chinese were also able to carefully guard the Silk-making procedure. Thus, both its inherent value and scarce availability meant Silk was not only a high valued and costly product, but also a high prized symbol for opulence and high status. Silk in that way was very much the Gucci and Rolex of the Silk Road times, and was a product only the upper class and elite could afford in Europe.  

Silk’s association with China is highlighted by the fact that the Greeks and the Romans would use the word Serica (meaning Silk) for China, and Silk’s overall importance to the ‘East-connecting-West’ trade routes is testified by the name of the route itself, the Silk Road.  

The Silk Road, despite serving primarily as a trade route, also served as a medium of transfer of ideas, innovations, and inventions, and above all  –​ culture and religion. Be it Greek and Roman philosophies making its way to the East, or Eastern philosophies and religion making its way to the West, the Silk Road was instrumental in the assimilation of knowledge all around the landmass that was considered the world at the time. Buddhism, one of the most followed religions and philosophies in our world today, spread to Central Asia, China and Japan from the Indian Subcontinent through these very same routes.  

While Silk was an important commodity to be traded in the route (from China to Europe and rest of Asia), there was another commodity that was valued equally in Europe, and the one that would go on to have even more significant role in the world. It was the spices that played a pivotal role in filling up the half-empty maps of the world known at the time.  

Spices on a simple thought might seem important because of the aroma they add to food. But the main benefit of spices was its role as a food preservative (remember there were no refrigerators back then). Biologically, spices are the defense mechanisms adopted by certain plants to fight back against the microbes, the main agent of degeneration. Thus, spices when mixed with food, especially meat, preserved it for a longer period of time.  

However, some of the important spices that were very much in demand in Europe were found mostly in the tropical regions of Asia around Indian Ocean, known as the Indies.  The Indies meant South Asia and South East regions in Asia, mainly the current day South India, Sri Lanka, and the islands in Malaysia and Indonesia. There was a particular group of small islands known as Maluku Islands in present day Indonesia which fascinated the Europeans, and were also famously known as the ‘Spice Islands’. The Silk Roads that connected Asia with Europe were pivotal for transportation of these spices from the Indies to Europe, with some historians even calling the Silk Roads ‘Spice Roads’ considering how heavily spices were sought after at the time.

Cities along the Silk Roads flourished because of the accumulation of wealth brought upon by trade. Cities lying along the Silk Roads –​ like Merv (in present day Turkmenistan), Samarkand (Uzbekistan), Damascus (Syria) and Constantinople (Turkey) –​ were some of the most prosperous cities in the world during the Silk Road era. And as Mediterranean in Constantinople was the endpoint of the Silk Road and the opening of Europe, countries and cities on the ‘right side’ of Mediterranean were the ones that flourished more than any other region. No wonder Greeks and Italians were known for their influence and grandeur in Europe for long, and cities like Venice were the symbol of wonder and affluence in the West.  

It was during the era of Mongols that the influence of the Silk Road reached its peak. As we discussed in our previous article, the presence of a single empire from Pacific in the East to Black Sea in the West meant Mongols could control the entire Silk Road under their influence. And due to Pax Mongolica, they could ensure the safe end to end passage within the Silk Road.  

However, after the fall of Mongols, things were about to change. As Mongols had long ensured the safe passage of merchants and traders along the Silk Roads, the fall of the Mongols also meant the fall of that secured passage. Therefore, the Europeans needed an alternative to the Silk Roads to get the much coveted Silks and Spices, among hosts of other important products. This is what led the Europeans to feel the need to explore.  

Also, it is important to remember that it was Asia where the riches lied for much of history. India and China alone constituted two-third of the world economy at one point. One question that I would often ask myself as a kid was why couldn’t the Indians or the Chinese ‘discover’ Europe and not the other way around, and I would often think the reason for that was the Europeans being way more advanced. But now that it is testified by many historians that it was Asia that was as advanced as Europe or even more –​ one of the principal reasons why the Europeans ventured to explore and not the Asians was because of their necessity. They needed the products of the East more than the other way around, and it would be a pivotal reason that would trigger them to explore.  

Also, the experiences and accounts of the East through Silk Roads, especially during the Mongol era, had meant Europeans were very eager to explore the fantasy land of the East. Accounts of explorers like Marco Polo inspired more Europeans to explore towards the East. Almost 200 hundred years after the passing of Marco Polo, it was another Italian, known by the name of Christopher Columbus, who started off his journey in search of the vast riches of East, with a copy of Marco Polo’s book. His letter to the monarchs who had sponsored him had the words ”Concerning the lands of India, and a Prince called Gran Khan”, which testifies how valuable the Indies and China –​ the land of Spices and Silk ​–​ was for the Europeans. And in that sense, it was the Silk Road that incited and inspired Europe towards the Age of Exploration.  

And it would be the two countries lying on the ‘wrong side’ of Mediterranean –​ Portugal and Spain ​–​ and not the ones that had long enjoyed their monopoly on trade by being on the ‘right side’, that would be pioneers of the new age of exploration. The Iberian Peninsula nations Portugal and Spain, lying on the western side of Mediterranean, were not connected directly with the Silk Roads like Italy and Greece. Portugal specially was a nation lying on the back of Europe, not even connected to Mediterranean, facing only the Atlantic Ocean on its back. It was the Portuguese, fittingly, who started the era of Exploration. 

But in order to buy the spices, the Europeans needed something that would be valued highly in the East. The Europeans needed the silver and gold, and there was one such place that was known for its riches of gold –​ the western coast of Africa, popularly known as the Gold Coast of Africa. So, the Europeans –​ the Portuguese to​ be precise –​ pioneered the age of exploration by exploring the western coast of Africa.

So, the next​ destination –​ in mapping our journey of human history –​ is the land of Africa. 

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