Similarities Between Silk Road and Indian Ocean Trade

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Long-distance trade made a pronounced, long-term impact on the economic, social, and cultural landscapes of the classical empires. Without trade routes, the large-scale exchange of goods and ideas responsible for this impact would not have been possible. The Silk Road of the Han dynasty and the trade routes of the Persian empire served as facilitators of social, cultural, political, and religious exchanges between peoples of the classical empires.

Both the Silk Road of the Han dynasty and the trade routes of the Persian empires were not a single road, but a network of land-based routes and sea lanes. The Persian trade routes included newly constructed highways such as the Royal Road and sea lanes throughout the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and Arabian Sea (Bentley,146). All regions of the empire contributed to the overall economy by supplying particular goods. For example, India supplied gold, ivory, and aromatics while Anatolia supplied gold, silver, tin, iron, and copper. During the time of Alexander the Great and his Seleucid successors, long-distance trade in Persia increased significantly. As Alexander the Great moved into Central Asia after conquering Persia, the system of Greek, Egyptian, Persian, and Indian culture and trade moved farther east than it had ever before (TedEd: The Silk Road, 1:48-2:04). This movement laid the foundation for connecting China with the West. In the second century BCE, a Chinese ambassador named Zhang Qian was sent to negotiate with nomads in the West but returned to the Han Emperor with tales of sophisticated civilizations, prosperous trade, and exotic goods (TedEd: The Silk Road, 2:07-2:20). After hearing this story, the emperor sent ambassadors and merchants to Persia and India to trade silk and other items for western goods. This officially linked China to the western world, expanding existing routes from Greece to China. Over time, eastern and western routes would merge to form an integrated system across Eurasia and into Northern Africa. Long-distance trade of this magnitude had never been done before and was a groundbreaking idea for the people of the time.

Utilizing land routes in addition to sea lanes, allowed an empire to expand the influence of its power, goods, and ideas. Seas lanes provided access to land routes through port cities. Goods could be brought into a port city from a foreign land to be purchased by merchants who would then move the goods inland by way of land routes — all trade, whether by sea or by land, linked producers with consumers.

Across the classical empires, the trading of goods from faraway lands, particularly luxury items, aided in the formation of distinct boundaries in social structures. Foreign goods became symbols of high status and wealth in society as only the wealthy could afford to purchase these items. For example, silk items from China became a mark of high status and in some places, nobility. Gold, jewels, and spices were also coveted goods and representations of wealth and high status in society.

Goods were not the only thing exchanged; ideas were as well. Merchants, as well as missionaries, spread their religious ideas along the trade routes. Buddhism and Christianity were among the religions spread along the Silk Roads and became popular in various regions of Eurasia. Buddhism first spread to Central Asia in oasis towns along the Silk Roads through merchants who stopped there for food, rest, lodging, and markets (Bentley, 245). From approximately 100 BCE to 800 CE, Buddhism was the most prominent religion of silk road merchants. Towns along the routes depended heavily on trade by merchants, so they were allowed to build monasteries and bring monks and scribes into the communities. Many residents of these oasis towns adopted Buddhism. From the oasis towns, Buddhism spread to the steppes of Central Asia and China. Nomadic peoples frequented the oases to trade yields from their herds for grain and other items. In the early centuries CE, the nomadic peoples began to take significant interest in Buddhism and by the fourth century, had spread it throughout Central Asia. Christian missionaries traveled the trade routes and attracted followers in various areas of the world. Christianity did not dominate the east as it did in the Roman empire, but the religion did have a large following in southwest Asia. Christianity was among the major religions of the region. Drawing inspiration from Indian traditions, many Christians in southwest Asia, were followers of strict ascetic practices. They refrained from sexual relations, declined life’s comforts, and some even withdrew from society (Bentley, 247). Some became hermits while others withdrew from society as monastic communities devoted to God.

Christianity and Buddhism are only two of the many religions that traveled the trade routes of the classical empires, altering the religious landscape of societies with each exchange of ideas. Islam spread to southern Asia and blended with the culture and beliefs to create new faiths such as Sikhism. These religions likely would not have reached these areas without the trade routes because the groups likely would not have had contact with one another otherwise.

In addition to social, cultural, and religious exchanges, political exchanges occurred along the trade routes as well. Many of the classical empires issued standardized coins, which made trade among the empires easier. The use of standardized coins began in Lydia in 640 BCE when the kings issued metal coins that were measured and ensured their value. The use of coins was easier than weighing ingots or bullion for transactions (Bentley, 145). Using standardized coins became popular and captured the attention of merchants from other areas. Those merchants took the idea back to their homeland where it also gained popularity among the people and was adopted by their government.

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Capital cities from which they ruled their empires and provinces sprang up across the globe and became the norm. Governments constructed roads with the original purpose of communication between the capitals and provinces, but these roads would eventually become the link between them and the outside world, fostering trade and for a time, prosperity. Until the epidemic outbreaks of the second and third centuries, the empires were a part of a large-scale imperial trade network. After the catastrophic effects and losses from the outbreaks that left many empires in a state of chaos, leaders began to increase their empire’s self-sufficiency and lessened participation in long-distance trade. They blamed the foreigners in their lands brought by trade routes for the outbreak of disease and the resulting political, social, cultural, and financial instability. Those who continued trading outside of their territory shifted their policies and began trading in smaller, regional networks.

While both the Han and the Persian trade routes served as facilitators for social, cultural, political, and religious exchanges between peoples of the classical empires they also had differences. The Silk Roads of the Han dynasty were a large network of land and sea routes stretching from China to Greece and Northern Africa.

The Indian Ocean Trade Network occurred between the end of the sixth century and the mid-fifteenth century. It was instituted as a location where people from various regions could come together to trade. Socially, the Indian Ocean Trade Network influenced many things. Firstly, the Indian Ocean Basin served as a zone where people from various regions could meet to trade. This led to the improvement in ethnic diversity amongst the regions. One of the Sub-Saharan empires, Mali, was known to commonly practice polygamy, the practice of having more than one partner at the same time. Similarly, trade led to a cosmopolitan lifestyle and a citizen of the world. It also led to the increasing growth of city-states in Africa, such as Mombasa, Mogadishu, and Zanzibar. Another religion influenced by the Indian Ocean Basin is the Muslim and Jewish traders who established themselves and traveled far. Like many other regions, Islam was influenced by the Indian Ocean Basin, resulting in the standardization of marriage and family.

The Indian Ocean Basin also had a political effect on the people. Politically, the trade in Sub-Saharan Africa led to the formation of three large empires, Ghana, Mali, and Songhay. The trading empire had a strong patriarch and groups of rulers controlling and leading. Like Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia suffered some political consequences from the Indian Ocean Basin. They were constantly attacked and didn’t have the means to defend themselves. This resulted in the destruction of temples and the vicious death of thousands of Hindus.

This basin had other influences on regions based on their interactions with the environment. The Indian Ocean served as a natural barrier that allowed people from different regions to meet up and provided a solution for transportation, people traveled in a w shape in order to reach the smaller bodies of water. However, they had to wait for just the right time to travel through the water. Consequently, port cities were established, and these cities were set in place for people to wait for the next monsoon until they could travel. The Sub-Saharan Empire used trade to rise to power by trading resources in their environments such as gold, ivory, dates, and textiles. Like many other communities, Muslim and Jewish traders formed trading communities. The Jews traveled and reached places like China while Muslims dominated the Indian Ocean Trade.

Culturally, the Indian Ocean Trade has had an impact on various regions and religions. The Indian Ocean connected a variety of regions with different environments, resulting in exotic and unique goods being traded. This likely led to the spread of cultural traditions, art, and architecture. People also moved and traveled through the Indian Ocean, which resulted in the spread of the Austronesian language, the spread of Islam, and religious teachers and missionaries. Similarly, Muslim traders began converting Southeast Asia and Jews practiced as they traveled. In South Asia, the Indian Ocean trade was dominated by Arabs and this resulted in the displacement of Hinduism and Buddhism influence in Southeast Asia. Those who were Islam had a growing literacy rate and established traditions and cultural symbols, such as the “death-nail of Buddhism”.

Last but not least, the Indian Ocean trade had economic influences on the regions. For instance, Mali relied on agriculture and farming. South Asia also was influenced economically by the Indian Ocean Basin. Since they were constantly attacked with no means to protect themselves, they would pay special taxes for protection. Like Mali and South Asia, the Chinese were also influenced economically by trade. China had the most advanced economy in the world, they participated in international trade, had a powerful navy, and developed high internal markets.

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Similarities Between Silk Road and Indian Ocean Trade. (2023, March 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from
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