The Silk Road

To transport silk and spices in the year 1200 from Chang’an, China [now Xian], to Antioch, Damascus, Tyre, and other markets near the Mediterranean Sea meant traveling across 4,600 miles of desert and mountains by foot, horse, or camel. Chang’an was the largest city in the world with over a million people. The principal road passed through the Jade Gate in the Great Wall of China to Turfan, then to Samarkand, then to Bagdad [the ancient city of learning].

Some treasure-laden ships sailed south from Bagdad along the Tigris River to the Persian Gulf, then through the Strait of Hormuz to the Indian Ocean. Other goods traveled overland to Alexandria in Egypt, or Beirut in today’s Lebanon and Israel, where they were shipped through the Mediterranean to Venice, Constantinople, and Ceuta.

The western trip through pirate-invested waters from Tyre to Constantinople was over 600 miles; from Tyre to Venice, over 1500 miles. Once in Constantinople, the merchandise traveled by land through the Byzantine Empire in carts pulled by men and donkeys. Once in Venice, the goods had to be hauled over the steep Alps to points in Western Europe.

Venice was a separate country then, not just one of many cities in Italy as she is now. Because of her location along the trade route, she was the richest city in Western Europe. She was the most powerful European city on the Mediterranean after she conquered Constantinople in 1204. A tight upper class of merchants and property owners controlled the city. They were represented by a Doge [the Latin word for Duke].

Venetian ships controlled much of the Adriatic Sea. Her armies manned outposts on the Dalmatian coast and in Greece to protect her traders. Before the Muslim Mamluks pushed the Christians out of the Outremer, the Venetians held significant trading posts there, too. They had a major colony in the then Muslim city of Alexandria on the Nile in Egypt. It was when the Venetians lost their footing in the Middle East that they were so eager to take control of Constantinople.

By the middle of the 1300s, fleets of Venetian galleys, known as flotillas, sailed annually to England and Flanders in the Netherlands to sell their goods. They purchased English wool, leather, and tin. They stopped to trade in Gaul [France], Viscaya [Biscaya], Galicia, and Portugal along the way in both directions.

There were also Muslim-controlled silk roads in Northern Africa. They culminated in Ceuta, where the shape of Africa makes a small point and nearly kisses the continent of Europe ten miles across the waterway guarded by The Pillars of Hercules [the Strait of Gibraltar]. We spoke about the importance of this strait in our chapter on the Ancient World.

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