The key time of growth and importance for the silk road was from 500-1500 C.E. The silk road was important for reasons like spreading culture and being the first of many routes of trade, inspiring many to come like the sand and sea routes, and more -- but the most important things it brought to the period were the spread of religion, disease, and the formation of new cities.
Religion is one of the many things that was changed during the life of the silk roads. Buddhism in particular was majorly impacted by the silk roads. Buddhism was allowed to flourish and prosper largely due to the merchants. Many of these merchants favored the religion that of Hinduism. Buddhism appealed to these merchants because they did not like the ways of Hinduism as it was Brahmin dominated and held the caste system very highly in its roots. Buddhism’s universal message appealed greatly to the merchants who, while on their trade routes would spread the message of buddhism to anyone who would listen.
Many Indian traders and Buddhist Monks used the trans-European trade routes to bring the new religion to central asian cities such as Merv and Samarkand. By the first century many inhabitants of these towns and others surrounding them and all across Eurasia had converted to Buddhism. These large cities were allowed to freely convert to Buddhism without pressure from conquest or foreign rule. These new Buddhist cities were heavily reliant on long-distance trade and found a connection in the religion to larger more wealthy civilizations in India. These cities were also advanced by Buddhism. Traveling monks or merchants could gain religious prestige by building monasteries and supporting monks. These monasteries also provided a resting place for traveling monks and merchants to resupply and rest before traveling on.
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Many of these cities became centers for learning and commerce. Buddhism progressed slowly outside of these cities. It was slow to catch on in pastoral societies due to the absence of a written language, but as the pastoral societies became more reliant on the silk road trade it grew and became more popular. This was the case in the nomadic Jie people who controlled much of China after the fall of the Han dynasty. The leader of these people came to know a buddhist monk and as their relationship grew, thousands converted and hundreds of temples were constructed. Buddhism itself was also changed by the silk roads. It changed from a more materialistic faith to being more focused on secular affairs. The beginning bowls became more of a symbol rather than a daily task.
Also the doctrines of Buddhism were altered in many ways. They were more devotional and focused on earning merit and emphasizing compassion. The religion also picked up many things from other cultures on the routes of trade. Including some of Alexander the great, and the mythological figure Herakles. The silk roads changed Buddhism greatly and in many ways. These changes can even be seen in modern day Buddhism.
The cities that surrounded the silk road were also heavily impacted during this time period. Many cities were impacted by the silk roads both in good and in bad ways. Many cities along the routes grew and became huge economic cosmopolitan centers of trade. The passing of goods, ideas, people, and knowledge created the perfect environment for cities like Merv and Khotan to grow and flourish.
Many cities were formed specifically because the silk road was close by, and those cities grew quickly. However, it also caused many cities and small societies to die out if they were too far from a trade route they were often overlooked and forgotten. Cities far from the road were often left alone to diminish and die off. The silk roads allowed for the growth and flourishing of many cities, and also the collapse of others, that heavily impacted the world and history.
The spread and impact of disease was also heavily impacted by the silk roads. Many big cities along the trade routes had become developed characteristic disease patterns, immunities for certain disease and ways of dealing with them. However when people from other cities came into contact with these diseases they were entirely unprepared to deal with them. Trade was a risky and dangerous profession during this time. Trade merchants had no way of knowing whether or not a city was disease free or a raging center for a deadly virus. Widespread diseases affected the Han Dynasty and the Roman Empire because the silk roads promoted trade all throughout Eurasia. Because of this, new diseases were easily spread around the continent.
Smallpox and measles spread rapidly through Rome and China, subsequently the rise of these deadly viruses allowed Christianity and Buddhism to grow in these countries both offered compassion in the midst of all the suffering. The Silk roads also played the key role in the spread of the bubonic plague as people with the disease sought help in nearby cities when taken ill on the route. The deadliest outbreak of a disease ever recorded happened between 1346 and 1350. The Black Death, causing Europe to lose one third of its population in such a short time.
However this did have some benefits as farmers and urban workers could demand higher wages and also hurt stately land-owning nobles as the price of their grain and crops dropped heavily. The silk roads was a passageway for death and disease during this time period and alloted for the death of millions of people all throughout Eurasia. This may not have been good to the population, but it was important for history.
The silk roads caused many things to change over time and also to stay the same and persist through our ever changing world. Religion, cities, and disease, were all heavily affected and changed by the silk roads. There were also many factors of those three things that stayed the same even through the time of change. Factually, the most heavily impacted thing seemed to be religion. Buddhism was so highly impacted by the silk roads and was allowed to flourish into the world’s seventh largest religion. Shi Le, the leader of the Han Dynasty was so impressed and agreed so heavily with the ways of Buddhism that he convinced thousands of people to convert to Buddhism and eventually almost an entire country. The silk roads were and are such a big part of our history and they impacted the lives of every single one of us, whether we know it or not.
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