Decline of the Silk Road Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The establishment of a new sea route to Asia by explorers and traders, particularly the Portuguese, led to the decline of the Asian trade route called the Silk Road. Climatic changes, politics, and religion also played roles in the road’s abandonment. The sea route was the prelude to the colonial occupation by European powers of southern Africa and most of the lands bordering the Indian Ocean.

Summary of Event

At its greatest extent, the Silk Road stretched some 5,000 miles from Chang’an in central China to the Mediterranean coast ports of Antioch and Tyre (now called Sur). Actually a series of overlapping and sometimes-competing routes, the road acted as a passage not only for commodities such as silk, ivory, and spices but also for ideas, inventions, and even religions. Trade;Europe with Asia Silk Road Gama, Vasco da Alvares, Jorge Dias, Bartolomeu Henry the Navigator, Prince Tamerlane Tamerlane Henry the Navigator, Prince Dias, Bartolomeu Gama, Vasco da Alvares, Jorge Cabral, Pedro Álvares

Activity along the Silk Road was at its height in the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries, after which the road slowly began to decline. This decline, however, was not caused by one single event. Instead, a number of factors led to the route’s decay and gradual abandonment, the development of a new sea route being the most significant. The sea route would supplant the Silk Road.

Climatic change was another factor in the road’s decline, taking place over many centuries. Many towns and trading posts along the lengthy desert stretches of the Silk Road relied on water from oases fed by far-off mountain glaciers. As the glaciers gradually shrank, the oases shrank and so did the trading posts and towns. Furthermore, if war or banditry disrupted the maintenance of the watercourses feeding the oases, even briefly, the surrounding sands encroached, soon burying the sites.

Religion was another factor contributing to the road’s decline. During the eighth century, the Tang Dynasty of China (618-907) became alarmed over the growth of Buddhism Buddhism;China , which had spread along the Silk Road, and began persecuting the religion’s adherents and razing their temples. Islam Islam;Asia reached Central Asia about the same time, and because Islam prohibits the veneration of images, believing it leads to idolatry, Islamic converts destroyed the great wall paintings and Buddhist statues of China’s western province of Sinkiang. These developments marked an end to the religious tolerance that had distinguished the Silk Road for much of its history.

Political developments also contributed to the demise of the route. After a period of gradual decline, the Silk Road experienced a partial rebirth under the Turko-Mongol conqueror Tamerlane in the late fourteenth century. Hoping to force trade to pass through his lands, especially his capital city of Samarqand, Tamerlane simply destroyed the cities along the competing trade routes to the north. Samarqand prospered as a result, but when the warrior died in 1405, his kingdom fell into a number of warring states. Bandits began to prey on traders in greater numbers, and it became difficult to maintain and protect smaller trading centers and outposts, many of which would be reclaimed by the desert until their rediscovery in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In a move related to the growing unrest in the region, the Chinese effectively closed the eastern end of the Silk Road to commerce. After an initial period of commercial expansion, particularly by sea, the nationalistic Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Ming Dynasty (1368-1644);closure of Silk Road[Silk Road] turned its back on the western world and on the trade routes that led there, hoping not only to preserve its cultural identity but also to defend itself against peoples to the northwest.

Active in Central Asia, Muslims eventually came to dominate the western end of the Silk Road, too. Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) in Asia Minor had already been sacked by the Venetians in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade. Its conquest by the Turks in 1453 further weakened its usefulness as a market for the exchange of goods between east and west. Constantinople, fall of (1453) By this time, Muslims had almost complete control of the central and western Asian lands through which the road wound and were able to charge exorbitant taxes on the goods passing through them. Taxation;affect on Asian trade[trade]

Taken together, these events across the Asian continent encouraged European sailors and merchants to search for a sea route to the east, a development that would profoundly change the course of modern history. Exploration and colonization;Portugal of Asia In particular, the Portuguese prince Henry the Navigator fostered exploration by establishing a school for navigation in Sagres on the southeastern tip of Portugal. Explorer Bartolomeu Dias sailed down the Atlantic and rounded the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa in 1488, and in 1497-1498 Vasco da Gama extended Portuguese reach across the Indian Ocean to become the first European explorer to reach India by sea.

The voyages of Dias and Gama were preludes to a burst of Portuguese activity in the Indian and western Pacific Oceans. The country’s merchants established trading posts on the coast of India, on the island of Ceylon, and in what would become known as the Spice Islands, today’s Malay Archipelago. They achieved another milestone in 1514, when Jorge Alvares visited the Pearl River region of China. An employee of the Portuguese trading post in Melaka (in what is today Malaysia), Alvares became the first European to enter China by sea.


The opening of the sea route to Asia was not only a result of the Silk Road’s decline but also the cause of its final demise. Neglected, most routes of the Silk Road disappeared beneath the sands of the desert and were forgotten for centuries. In fact, the road was given its now-familiar name only in 1877 by German explorer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen. Its true extent was subsequently revealed by such explorers as Sir Aurel Stein of Great Britain and Sven Anders Hedin of Sweden in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In the years that followed Vasco da Gama’s expedition, trade by sea was found to be safer and less expensive than the cumbersome overland Silk Road, delivering a deathblow to the ancient route. Venice, which had profited from the spice trade at the western end of the Silk Road, was eclipsed by Portugal’s capital city of Lisbon. Even though the new route to Asia would prove to be vital, the changes it brought, including colonialism, were severe and long lasting.

Cultural and religious tolerance had for some enlightened periods been a feature of the Silk Road, but such would not be the case along the new route. Pedro Álvares Cabral led a second Portuguese expedition to India in 1500, but his overbearing behavior resulted in an attack in which fifty of his party died. In revenge, Cabral seized ten Muslim ships, confiscated their cargos, and killed their crews. On a subsequent voyage to India in 1502, Gama commanded a large and powerful convoy that raided Muslim trading posts along the east coast of Africa. Capturing the Muslim ship Meri, which was carrying several hundred pilgrims on a return trip from the holy city of Mecca, Gama burned and sank it, sending the pilgrims to their death. Such events were a foretaste of the centuries to come.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ball, Warwick. “Following the Mythical Road.” Geographical Magazine 70 (March, 1998): 18-23. Suggests that the Silk Road never existed in the form we imagine, but instead is the romantic creation of later writers and historians.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cuyvers, Luc. Into the Rising Sun: Vasco da Gama and the Search for the Sea Route to the East. New York: TV Books, 1999. A re-creation of the explorer’s epic voyage based on the PBS series of the same name. Map, colored illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Disney, A. R., and Emily Booth, eds. Vasco da Gama and the Linking of Europe and Asia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Papers presented at the Vasco da Gama Quincentenary Conference held in Australia in 1997 and addressing the historical, economic, religious, and cultural aspects of Gama’s accomplishments. Bibliographies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe. “Times and Tides.” History Today 47, no. 12 (December, 1997): 7-9. Considers Vasco da Gama’s role in the establishment of the sea route to Asia. Color illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Franck, Irene M., and David M. Brownstone. The Silk Road: A History. New York: Facts On File, 1986. Well-illustrated, detailed, and readable history. Maps on endpapers, extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Subrahmanyam, Sanjay. The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. The explorer and the myths surrounding him as seen from an Indian perspective. Maps, illustrations, bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Winius, George D., ed. Portugal, the Pathfinder: Journeys from the Medieval Toward the Modern World, 1300-ca. 1600. Madison, Wis.: Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies, 1995. Anthology of essays on Portuguese exploration, including several on the discovery of the sea route to India and Portugal’s subsequent activities in South Asia. Includes a bibliographic essay by the editor surveying all major sources pertaining to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

1454: China Subdues Burma

Aug., 1487-Dec., 1488: Dias Rounds the Cape of Good Hope

1511-c. 1515: Melaka Falls to the Portuguese

1531-1585: Antwerp Becomes the Commercial Capital of Europe

1565: Spain Seizes the Philippines

Dec. 31, 1600: Elizabeth I Charters the East India Company

Categories: History