The Ancient Silk Road



The Silk Road was an ancient network of trade routes, formally established during the Han Dynasty of China, which linked the regions of the ancient world in commerce between 130 BCE-1453 CE. As the Silk Road was not a single thoroughfare from east to west, the term ‘Silk Routes’ has become increasingly favored by historians, though ‘Silk Road’ is the more common and recognized name.

The European explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324 CE) traveled on these routes and described them in depth in his famous work but he is not credited with naming them. Both terms for this network of roads were coined by the German geographer and traveler, Ferdinand von Richthofen, in 1877 CE, who designated them ‘Seidenstrasse’ (silk road) or ‘Seidenstrassen’ (silk routes). Polo, and later von Richthofen, make mention of the goods which were transported back and forth on the Silk Road.

From West To East These Goods Included:

  • Horses
  • Saddles and Riding Tack
  • The grapevine and grapes
  • Dogs and other animals both exotic and domestic
  • Animal furs and skins
  • Honey
  • Fruits
  • Glassware
  • Woolen blankets, rugs, carpets
  • Textiles (such as curtains)
  • Gold and Silver
  • Camels
  • Slaves
  • Weapons and armor

From East To West The Goods Included:

  • Silk
  • Tea
  • Dyes
  • Precious Stones
  • China (plates, bowls, cups, vases)
  • Porcelain
  • Spices (such as cinnamon and ginger)
  • Bronze and gold artifacts
  • Medicine
  • Perfumes
  • Ivory
  • Rice
  • Paper
  • Gunpowder

The network was used regularly from 130 BCE, when the Han officially opened trade with the west, to 1453 CE, when the Ottoman Empire boycotted trade with the west and closed the routes. By this time, Europeans had become used to the goods from the east and, when the Silk Road closed, merchants needed to find new trade routes to meet the demand for these goods.

**Lying camel with guide, China, Tang Dynasty, early 7th century CE. Made from stone with a white glaze. Exhibited at Museum Rietberg, Zurich, Switzerland.

The closure of the Silk Road initiated the Age of Discovery (1453-1660 CE) which would be defined by European explorers taking to the sea and charting new water routes to replace over-land trade. The Age of Discovery would impact cultures around the world as European ships claimed some lands in the name of their god and country and influenced others by introducing western culture and religion and, at the same time, these other nations influenced European culture. The Silk Road – from its opening to its closure – had so great an impact on the development of world civilization that it is difficult to imagine the modern world without it.

Persian Royal Road

The history of the Silk Road pre-dates the Han Dynasty in practice, however, as the Persian Royal Road, which would come to serve as one of the main arteries of the Silk Road, was established during the Achaemenid Empire (c. 550-330 BCE). The Persian Royal Road ran from Susa, in north Persia (modern day Iran) to the Mediterranean Sea in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) and featured postal stations along the route with fresh horses for envoys to quickly deliver messages throughout the empire.

These lines would, centuries later, form the creed of the United States of America’s post office. The Persians maintained the Royal Road carefully and, in time, expanded it through smaller side roads. These paths eventually crossed down into the Indian sub-continent, across Mesopotamia, and over into Egypt.

China & The West

After Alexander the Great conquered the Persians, he established the city of Alexandria Eschate in 339 BCE in the Fergana Valley of Neb (modern Tajikistan). Leaving behind his wounded veterans in the city, Alexander moved on. In time, these Macedonian warriors intermarried with the indigenous populace creating the Greco-Bactrian culture which flourished under the Seleucid Empire following Alexander’s death.

Under the Greco-Bactrian king Euthydemus I (260-195 BCE) the Greco-Bactrians had extended their holdings.  According to the Greek historian Strabo (63-24 CE) the Greeks “extended their empire as far as the Seres” (Geography XI.ii.i). `Seres’ was the name by which the Greeks and Romans knew China, meaning `the land where silk came from’. It is thought, then, that the first contact between China and the west came around the year 200 BCE.

The Han Dynasty of China (202 BCE – 220 CE) was regularly harassed by the nomadic tribes of the Xiongnu on their northern and western borders. In 138 BCE, Emperor Wu sent his emissary Zhang Qian to the west to negotiate with the Yuezhi people for help in defeating the Xiongnu.

Zhang Qian’s expedition led him into contact with many different cultures and civilizations in central Asia and, among them, those whom he designated the `Dayuan’, the `Great Ionians’, who were the Greco-Bactrians descended from Alexander the Great’s army.  The Dayuan had mighty horses, Zhang Qian reported back to Wu, and these could be employed effectively against the marauding Xiongnu.

The consequences of Zhang Qian’s journey was not only further contact between China and the west but an organized and efficient horse breeding program throughout the land in order to equip a cavalry. The horse had long been known in China and had been used in warfare for cavalry and chariots as early as the Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1046 BCE) but the Chinese admired the western horse for its size and speed. With the western horse of the Dayuan, the Han Dynasty defeated the Xiongnu. This success inspired Emperor Wu to speculate on what else might be gained through trade with the west and the Silk Road was opened in 130 BCE.

Between 171-138 BCE, Mithridates I of Parthia campaigned to expand and consolidate his kingdom in Mesopotamia. The Seleucid King Antiochus VII Sidetes (138-129 BCE) opposed this expansion and, also wishing revenge for the death of his brother, Demetrius, waged war against the Parthian forces of Phrates II, Mithridates successor. With the defeat of Antiochus, Mesopotamia came under Parthian rule and, with it, came control of the Silk Road. The Parthians then became the central intermediaries between China and the west.

Goods Traded Via The Silk Road

While many different kinds of merchandise traveled along the Silk Road, the name comes from the popularity of Chinese silk with the west, especially with Rome. The Silk Road routes stretched from China through India, Asia Minor, up throughout Mesopotamia, to Egypt, the African continent, Greece, Rome, and Britain.

The northern Mesopotamian region (present-day Iran) became China’s closest partner in trade, as part of the Parthian Empire, initiating important cultural exchanges.  Paper, which had been invented by the Chinese during the Han Dynasty, and gunpowder, also a Chinese invention, had a much greater impact on culture than did silk. The rich spices of the east, also, contributed more than the fashion which grew up from the silk industry. Even so, by the time of the Roman Emperor Augustus (r.27 BCE – 14 CE) trade between China and the west was firmly established and silk was the most sought-after commodity in Egypt, Greece, and, especially, in Rome.

The Roman Love Of Silk

Prior to becoming Emperor Augustus, Octavian Caesar seized on the controversial topic of silk clothing to denounce his adversaries Mark Antony (83-30 BCE) and Cleopatra VII (69-30 BCE) as immoral. As they both favored Chinese silk, which was increasingly becoming associated with licentiousness, Octavian exploited the link to deprecate his enemies. Octavian would triumph over Antony and Cleopatra; he could do nothing, however, to curtail the popularity of silk.

The historian Will Durant writes: The Romans thought [silk] a vegetable product combed from trees and valued it at its weight in gold. Much of this silk came to the island of Kos, where it was woven into dresses for the ladies of Rome and other cities; in A.D. 91 the relatively poor state of Messenia had to forbid its women to wear transparent silk dresses at religious initiations. (329)

By the time of Seneca the Younger (4 BCE – 65 CE), conservative Romans were more ardent than Augustus in decrying the Chinese silk as immoral dress for women and effeminate attire for men. These criticisms did nothing to stop the silk trade with Rome, however, and the island of Kos became wealthy and luxurious through their manufacture of silk clothing.

As Durant writes, “Italy enjoyed an ‘unfavorable’ balance of trade – cheerfully [buying] more than she sold” but still exported rich goods to China such as “carpets, jewels, amber, metals, dyes, drugs, and glass” (328-329). Up through the time of the emperor Marcus Aurelius (r.161-180 CE), silk was the most valued commodity in Rome and no amount of conservative criticism seemed to be able to slow the trade or stop the fashion.

**The silk shroud of Charlemagne made with gold and Tyrian purple. The design shows a quadriga (four-horse chariot). 9th century CE. (Musée National du Moyen Âge, Paris)

Even after Aurelius, silk remained popular, though increasingly expensive, until the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 CE. Rome was survived by its eastern half which came to be known as the Byzantine Empire and which carried on the Roman infatuation with silk. Around 60 CE the west had become aware that silk was not grown on the trees in China but was actually spun by silkworms. The Chinese had very purposefully kept the origin of silk a secret and, once it was out, carefully guarded their silkworms and their process of harvesting the silk.

The Byzantine emperor Justinian (527- 565 CE), tired of paying the exorbitant prices the Chinese demanded for silk, sent two emissaries, disguised as monks, to China to steal silkworms and smuggle them back to the west. The plan was successful and initiated the Byzantine silk industry. When the Byzantine Empire fell to the Turks in 1453 CE, the Ottoman Empire closed the Silk Road and cut all ties with the west.

The Silk Road Legacy

The greatest value of the Silk Road was the exchange of culture. Art, religion, philosophy, technology, language, science, architecture, and every other element of civilization was exchanged along these routes, carried with the commercial goods the merchants traded from country to country. Along this network disease traveled also, as evidenced in the spread of the bubonic plague of 542 CE which is thought to have arrived in Constantinople by way of the Silk Road and which decimated the Byzantine Empire.

The closing of the Silk Road forced merchants to take to the sea to ply their trade, thus initiating the Age of Discovery which led to world-wide interaction and the beginnings of a global community. In its time, the Silk Road served to broaden people’s understanding of the world they lived in; its closure would propel Europeans across the ocean to explore, and eventually conquer, the so-called New World of the Americas. In this way, the Silk Road can be said to have established the groundwork for the development of the modern world.



In the Middle Ages, silk, which was sometimes the subject of the war or the peace, and from time to time seen as the rationale for international cooperations and rapprochements, had a vital importance for the Byzantines than for the other states. In addition to their symbolic meanings, silk and silk garments were used in many places from daily life to military, political and diplomatic relations in the Byzantine world. At the beginning, however, the procurement of this product, which could be achieved fully by import, was quite expensive. Later on, the Byzantines, who achieved the ability to produce silk, had a monopoly power in silk trade in their region in a short time, and used this power frequently to attain their foreign policy goals. In this study, it is discussed the formation of the Byzantine silk industry, the role of the silk and its use for various purposes by the Byzantines.

In the sixth century, due to the great demand for silk garments as the most precious textiles in the markets, the Byzantine State attempted to control the flow of gold to Iranians and to increase their share of this trade. By that time, Byzantium had rather become partners in this trade, buying silk from existing merchants in their border regions, but could not play any decisive role beyond its borders. Meanwhile, the Sassanids, who became the most important supplier of silk to the West by controlling the Silk Road for a long time after the abolition of the Parthian Empire, continued to supply Chinese silk more in Ceylon due to the Turkish invasions that upset trade routes in Central Asia at the beginning of the 6th century. However, the rulers of China gave Iran privileged silk trade rights in Ceylon in 519. While the Byzantine Empire attached importance to monopolizing silk imports within its borders, it tried to break the trade monopoly of the Iranians, especially in the Indian Ocean, by the Ethiopians. The First Iustinianos (527-565), who revived the friendly relations established with Ethiopia during the time of Constantios the Second (337-361), with the help of the Ethiopians, the trade of silk was brought to the eastern borders of Byzantium at that time, from the Iran route, in the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea recently He hoped to direct it to Eyle Harbor (Aqaba), which he founded and fortified. However, this attempt was unsuccessful and Iustinianos was content with renewing the treaty, which declared Nisibis as the center where silk imported by the Persians could be exported to the Byzantine Empire. (Dvornik, 1974: 169; Tezcan, 2014: 109-110).

Byzantines’ desire to acquire silk from the first links of the supply chain for cheaper prices and sometimes efforts to get rid of the monopoly of the Iranians, whom they were at war with, prompted them to seek cooperation with the Turkish states in the region. Meanwhile, the Gökturks were extremely uncomfortable with Iran’s monopoly in silk trade. In 568, Istemi Khan, Khan of the Western Turkic Empire, from Mongolia to Turkistan, sent a delegation of envoys to Iustinianos’ successor, Iustinos II (565-578) and offered an alliance against the Iranians. This offer was ready to be accepted; Because the Byzantines would have gained a strong ally in their struggle with Iran, and would have the opportunity to disrupt the Iranian route and disrupt the dominant role of the Persians in the silk trade by directing the Silk Road from China to the Black Sea to the lands of the Göktürks and Sogdak Turks. With these intentions, a Byzantine envoy delegation headed by Zemarkhos reached an agreement by discussing the details of the alliance in question at the palace of the Turks. Lazica, in the last section of the empire’s trans-Caucasus trade route ending in the Black Sea, would play an important role in the execution of this cooperation between Byzantium and the Turks. Because as a result of the peace agreement that Iustinianus made with the Persians in 561, Lazica, which came under Byzantine control again in return for large amounts of money, was in a strategic position that secured the northern trade route with the main supply store and distribution station of Chinese silk. (Dvornik, 1974: 170; Ostrogorsky, 2006: 68; Tezcan, 2014: 110-113; Turan, 2009: 105).

By the sixth century, when the silk trade became extremely profitable, another attempt by the Byzantine rulers, who wanted to gain more from this trade and to get rid of foreign dependency, aimed to gain the empire’s ability to create its own silk industry. Of course, an important part of owning this industry was silkworm breeding and obtaining raw silk. Information on the beginnings of silkworm technology is given by the sixth century Byzantine historians Prokopios and Theofanis. According to Prokopios, silkworm eggs were brought secretly by two Persian monks at 553 or 554 (Lopez, 1945: 12; Prokopios, 2014: 500-501). Silkworm breeding and silk, which has long lived in China These two monks, who knew the art of spinning, met with Emperor Iustinianos and told him the secrets of the Chinese about silk production processes. The monks spoke at this meeting that the raw material of silk is “a place beyond India” as its main homeland. Again, in the same meeting, they mentioned the name of this place as “Serinda”. By promising great favors, the emperor persuaded them to take and bring what they told in the story. The monks returned to China and since it was impossible to transport live maggots, they came again with the silkworm eggs they took with them (Feltham, 2009: 3; Tezcan, 2014: 111; Vasiliev, 1943: 210-211). Since the climate in the Byzantine country was suitable for the growth and cultivation of mulberry trees, whose leaves were the only food of silkworm, the caterpillars that hatched in spring quickly adapted to the new environment. The cocoons obtained from them were turned into threads and thus the Byzantine silk industry began to develop (Bailly, 1970: 98; Dvornik, 1974: 169; Galliker, 2014: 41; Jacoby, 2004: 198-199).

What the Byzantine patriarch Photius, who lived in the ninth century, told Theofanis about the arrival of silkworm technology in Byzantium is slightly different. This difference is related to the number of people who brought silkworm eggs and where they were brought from. According to Photius, Persians who brought silkworm eggs to Istanbul by hiding them inside a cane or a bamboo branch were only one person and came from “Serer country” (Galliker, 2014: 41; Photius, 1994: 52-53).

In any case, the Byzantines, who somehow provided silkworm eggs during the Iustinianos period and learned the secrets of their production, soon developed their own silk industry they created. With the rapid growth of the new industry, the number of mulberry trees in the country has also increased and many large mulberry trees have been created for this purpose. Subsequently, silk factories were established in various parts of the empire and these developed in a short time. Beirut, Antioch, Alexandria, Thessaloniki, Corinth, and Thebes became remarkable silk production centers outside of the imperial capital. Athens stood out with fabric dye manufacturing. The dyes produced here most likely went to silk and other weaving workshops in Corinth or Thebes. Meanwhile, Thebes in particular was very important in terms of their quality of workmanship, with their much more precious silks than others, and as the main producer of silks in the empire (Andreades, 1948: 62; Angold, 1984: 249; Vasiliev, 1943: 211). Byzantine silk produced in these cities was exported to Europe and decorated many palaces and private homes of wealthy merchants in the West. However, the most famous silk weaving centers was undoubtedly the factory in the capital Istanbul. In this factory, under the administration of the imperial or state guild, the techniques applied in all production stages from the beginning are kept as an important state secret, primarily for the emperor, the palace people and some other distinguished people, precious fabrics and dresses were woven and dyed. In the sixth century, second-quality silk products were not manufactured for sale to the public in qualified textile factories and workshops affiliated with the state guild, except for a short time. Along with this, more production was made of silk items allocated to court notables. This surplus was precious textiles produced to be given to senior officials as a salary or to be sent as gifts to foreign churches or governments (Liu 1996: 78; Lopez 1945: 3-4).

Silk and silk products had an extremely important place in the medieval trade. However, what made silk important for Byzantium was that it was a strategic product used by the Byzantine State for its various purposes, beyond being merely a commercial value. So much so that it was seen as “the blood of the Romans” because of its importance. But, of course, for silk to work sufficiently for the desired purposes to be achieved, depended on its rarity. For this reason, the Byzantine rulers paid maximum attention to the fact that silk dresses like silk dresses were not in circulation. In order for such clothes not to be easily obtained, the sale of silk to foreigners was prohibited and merchants who violated this ban were punished with various penalties (Harris, 2003: 27; Lopez, 1945: 11, 23). It was not surprising that the Byzantine rulers did not leave silk weaving to private industry for the same reason. Demosia Somata, or in other words, the imperial weaving guild of clothers, tailors, purple dyers and embroiderers were responsible for the production of these precious fabrics and garments. Meanwhile, the masters and workers of the imperial weaving guild kept their places in a kind of caste system, leaving their jobs to their children. Care was taken to ensure that these individuals were not set free in case they were hired by private citizens eager to wear imperial clothing. However, when the number of these workers, whose places were guaranteed, increased over time and the number of unqualified people who joined them increased, these excesses due to the caste system were employed in other positions shown by the state during the time of Iustinianos. Later, VII. In the first half of the century, a law enacted by the Emperor Heraclius (610-641) restricted the entry of children or relatives of guild members to the state guild, and new appointments were prohibited unless a clear quota was established. Instead, candidates who wanted to get into this job had to be successful in a flawless exam administered by the masters of the profession and other civil servants (Lopez, 1945: 4-5).

This situation gave credit to the members of the weaving guild, which produced valuable textiles for the state. Because they were no longer incompetent ordinary workers, but competent masters and artists. For a long time they were seen as a kind of aristocracy of the working class. So much so that a special place was reserved for members of this class to attend the ceremonies in the palace. Meanwhile, works belonging to various stages of the silk weaving process, which the Byzantine rulers paid special attention to, were brought together and gathered in several buildings. Thus, while the small production workshops turned into factories, productivity and production profitability increased. Again, qualified people working in this business, such as tailors, clothers, gold embroiderers and purple dyers, were placed in the imperial palace, allowing them to do their work here or in the immediate vicinity of the palace. Preserving the quality of silk fabrics produced in Istanbul was not only an economic but also a strategic priority for the Byzantines. Maybe that’s why less mastery of women workers in factories requiring jobs were given. Because they could escape or reveal their production secrets to strangers (Lopez, 1945: 6). Undoubtedly, the prohibition of sending silk workers and craftsmen working in Istanbul to abroad and not allowing silk merchants to sell materials outside the capital or to bring the fabrics produced in the countryside to the imperial store were also measures to preserve the superior quality and rarity of silk products in the capital. Despite being Byzantine citizens, Jews were also prohibited from selling silk fabric or other materials, and they were not employed in the silk industry as much as possible. By the 10th century, some of them could find jobs in fabric production. However, Jews probably worked in the states and in the heavily labor-intensive phases of fabric manufacturing that no one wanted to do, such as dyeing (Angold, 1984: 249; Lopez, 1945: 23-24).


When the city was renamed Byzantium in the fourth century A.D.[1], the city of Constantinople, located in the heart of the eastern section of the then-Roman Empire, eventually came to be the urban capital of the Byzantine Empire. This capital of the Byzantine Empire played multiple roles in the kingdom, such as to house the emperor and produce agriculture, enough to partially sustain itself if the city ever came under siege.[2] Another integral role of the city was that Constantinople was an urban nexus of trade, connecting to cities both near and far. Constantinople played a crucial role in the sustainment of the Silk Road in the late Antique and Early Middle Ages, by both importing and exporting various coveted goods, as well as ideals, to and from other countries.

Various valuable goods and ideals  moved in and out of Constantinople. These goods traded as far as up to hundreds of miles outside of the city walls of Constantinople, and passed through multiple countries. One type of coveted good that Constantinople moved was Christian relics, due to the prominence of Christianity within the city. Another valuable good that made its way into the borders of Constantinople was silk, and later leaders of the city tried to procure the means of producing silk. Christianity was exported out of the empire eastward, and reached as far as China. These different goods and ideals demonstrate the prominent role that Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire as a whole, had in the trade of the Silk Road.

The first type of good that moved its way both in and out of Constantinople was Christian relics. Constantinople, and the Byzantine Empire surrounding the city, were Christian societies. Christianity started to take hold in Constantinople when Constantine the Great of the Roman Empire issued the Edict of Milan in 312 A.D., which placed Christianity as the official state religion of the Roman Empire.[3] After the Byzantine Empire broke off from the Roman Empire, Christianity took root in the society of many of the cities, including Constantinople. Emperors started to place themselves in the center of the newfound ideology that took prominence within the Empire. Emperors centered themselves as a type of a “new David”[4], as a type of holy figure that legitimized the emperor’s power. These types of declarations helped to solidify the power of the emperor and cemented Christianity into the Byzantine Empire. When the city of Constantinople was attacked, people believed that the presence of holy relics of Christian figures (especially of the Virgin Mary) helped to protect them. Although a good number of these relics from the Virgin in Constantinople were more than likely fictitious in that the relics did not actually did not belong to the Virgin[5], people still believed in the saving power of the relics.   During one siege on Constantinople, “the Virgin herself appeared to the people, brandishing her sword, encouraging the combatants and inspiring them to redden the waters of the imperial city with the blood.” [6] The inhabitants of Constantinople truly believed that keeping holy relics within their walls protected them.

This belief of divine protection from holy Christian figures consequently led to the desire to obtain more of these relics, most specifically from the holy land of Israel. Emperors took to retrieving relics of various places in the Middle East, such as Jerusalem. Items such as the “True Cross” were coveted after, and even after various wars with neighboring empires such as the Sassanid, who controlled these objects or the land that the holy objects remained in, a return with these relics resulted in a “triumph” and celebration.[7] Pilgrims made trips down to the holy land in search of relics, albeit for different reasons such as to relive moments that had been preached to them in a present sense. When the people of Constantinople were preached to in the present sense at Christian masses, these people gained stronger desires to relive the moments of the Christian liturgy by collecting relics and visiting holy lands.[8] Regardless, a desire for holy relics led the people of Constantinople to travel down to the Middle East to bring back holy relics with them.

The second good that moved in and out of Constantinople was silk. Like Christianity, the prominence of silk in the Byzantine Empire, specifically Constantinople, originated in the Roman Empire. The trade of silk from the Far East started with the Roman Empire, within which silk was quite fashionable. “Women from wealthy Roman families became … enamored with the silk crepe.”[9] People paid large sums of money to obtain silk, as silk was seen as a highly prestigious object. Silk remained a coveted object throughout the history of the Roman Empire.

As a result of this desire that originated within the Roman Empire, the people of Constantinople viewed silk as highly desirable. However, the purchase of silk was very costly for the Byzantines, as the “the only [land] supplier available to them was Persia whose prices were exorbitant.”[10] Silk purchases ultimately accounted for a large drain upon the Byzantine treasury. Eventually, the Byzantines tried to bring the means of production to within their own empire. The Romans were not able to find out how silk was produced and were forced to purchase silk from abroad. One scholar of the Roman world, Pliny the Elder, believed that the Chinese obtained silk from the trees in “their forests; after a soaking in water they comb off the white down of the leaves.”[11]   Byzantine Emperors, such as Justinian I, brought monks from the Far East that carried “silkworm eggs, that they had managed to keep in good condition.”[12] With silkworms eggs, Constantinople, and the Byzantine Empire, as a whole were able to secure the means of producing silk, rather than purchasing silk for high prices. “Under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, Constantinople became a center of silk production.”[13] Constantinople was able to internally produce silk for other sections of the Byzantine Empire

Finally, alongside these goods, Christianity was also exported out from Constantinople to places as far as China. One prominent division of Christianity that was exported out far east was Nestorian Christianity. During the early 5th century A.D. in the Byzantine Empire, a dispute arose over how Christ should be described. Two main competing viewpoints either described Christ as “two distinct persons, one human and one divine,”[14] or as one God that had always been singular. One prominent leader of the first viewpoint, Nestorius, was appointed Patriarch of Constantinople in 428 A.D.[15]. Nestorius taught the two-person viewpoint of Christ until he was driven out of Constantinople and banished to Egypt by leaders of the competing viewpoints, who ultimately won over the favor of the rulers of the Byzantine Empire.

Nestorian Christianity made its way to China in the 7th century A.D. over the routes of the Silk Road. However, the Nestorians did not win very many converts over to Christianity, as a Chinese census only listed around 3,000 Christians and Zoroastrians living in China during the Tang dynasty.[16] However, in 845 the Tang dynasty outlawed all foreign religions, including Nestorian Christianity, and by 980 a “Nestorian monk told a Muslim writer in Baghdad that he … had found no Christians surviving anywhere in the country [China].” [17] Regardless, Nestorian Christianity was a religion that was exported on the Silk Road by Constantinople.

So in conclusion, Constantinople, as well as the Byzantine Empire were prominent players in the Silk Road trade. Constantinople imported and exported various goods from afar, such as Christian holy relics and silk. These items were highly coveted after in the Byzantine world. Constantinople also exported Nestorian Christianity via the Silk Road, where Nestorian Christianity reached as far as China. However, Nestorian Christianity didn’t last long in some places in the east, as a Nestorian monk had reported seeing no traces of Christianity surviving within China during the mid-9th century. Other items such as alum and perfumes were also traded across the Silk Road from Constantinople.[18] All of these various goods and ideals demonstrate the integral role that Constantinople played in the Silk Road trade in the Late Antique and Early Middle Ages.


Nestorianism is the Christian doctrine that Jesus existed as two persons, the man Jesus and the divine Son of God, or Logos, rather than as a unified person. This doctrine is identified with Nestorius (386–451), patriarch of Constantinople. This view of Christ was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431, and the conflict over this view led to the Nestorian schism, separating the Assyrian Church of the East from the Byzantine Church.

The Assyrian Church of the East refused to drop support for Nestorius and denounce him as a heretic, and it has continued to be called “Nestorian” in the West, to distinguish it from other ancient Eastern churches. However, the Church of the East does not regard its doctrine as truly Nestorian, but rather teaches the view of Babai the Great, that Christ has two qnome (essences) which are unmingled and eternally united in one parsopa (personality). According to some interpretations, the origin of this confusion is mostly historical and linguistic: for example, the Greeks had two words for “person,” which translated poorly into Syriac, and the meanings of these terms were not even quite settled during Nestorius’ lifetime.

Missionaries of the Assyrian Church of the East spread Nestorianism throughout Persia and Central and East Asia. “Nestorian” Christianity reached China by 635, and penetrated Mongolia and Korea. Its relics can still be seen in Chinese cities such as Xi’an.

Origins Of Nestorianism

Nestorianism originated in the church during the fifth century as an attempt to rationally explain and understand the incarnation of the divine Logos, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, as the man Jesus Christ. Nestorianism taught that the human and divine essences of Christ are separate and that there are two persons, the man Jesus Christ and the divine Logos, which dwelt in the man. In consequence, Nestorians rejected such terminology as “God suffered” or “God was crucified,” because the human aspect of Jesus Christ which suffered was separate from his divinity. They rejected the term Theotokos (“Giver of birth to God/Mother of God”) for the Virgin Mary, suggesting instead the title Christotokos (“Giver of birth to Christ/Mother of Christ”), because in their opinion Mary gave birth to only the human person of Jesus and not the divine.


Nestorius was a pupil of Theodore of Mopsuestia in Antioch, Syria, and became Patriarch of Constantinople in 428. In 428 he began to preach against the use of the title “Mother of God” (Theotokos) for the Virgin Mary, suggesting that she should instead be called “Mother of Christ” (Christotokos). He distinguished between the human aspect and the divine aspect (Logos) of Christ, and argued that God could not suffer on the cross, because he is omnipotent. Therefore, the human aspect of Christ died on the cross, but not the divine. Political rivals of Nestorius, including Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria, seized on the opportunity and accused him of implying that Christ was two separate persons with separate experiences. Nestorius responded that he believed that Christ was indeed one person (Greek: prosopon).

Cyril of Alexandria recommended that Pope Celestine I condemn Nestorius, and had him deposed and declared a heretic at the Council of Ephesus in 431. The council affirmed that Christ was one person, and that the Virgin Mary was the mother of God. In 435 Emperor Theodosius II issued an edict exiling Nestorius to a monastery in the Great Oasis of Hibis (al-Khargah), in Egypt, securely within the diocese of Cyril, and condemning all of his writings to be burned.

The condemnation of the Council of Ephesus resulted in the Nestorian schism and the separation of the Assyrian Church of the East from the Byzantine Church. The Assyrian Church of the East refused to drop support for Nestorius and denounce him as a heretic, and it has continued to be called “Nestorian” in the West, to distinguish it from other ancient Eastern churches. The Byzantine Church was soon divided again over the question of whether Christ had one or two natures, leading to the Council of Chalcedon and the Chalcedonian schism.

Christological Implications

From the point of view of the Chalcedonian theology which is held by most Western and Orthodox churches, the teaching of Nestorius has important consequences relating to soteriology and the theology of the Eucharist.

During the Protestant Reformation, some groups were accused of reviving the schism of Nestorius when they denied the “Real Presence.” The “Real Presence” is the term various Christian traditions use to express their belief that, in the Eucharist, Jesus the Christ is really (and not merely symbolically, figuratively or by his power) present in what was previously just bread and wine.

The Involvement Of The Assyrian Church

After the Council of Ephesus, a strong Nestorian party developed in eastern Syria centering on the School of Edessa. In 433 a theological reconciliation took place between Cyril of Alexandria and John of Antioch, and a number of dissenting bishops affiliated themselves with the Syrian Church of Persia, which held the teachings of Theodore of Mopsuestia in high esteem. The Sassanid Persian kings, who were at constant war with Byzantium, saw the opportunity to assure the loyalty of their Christian subjects and supported the Nestorian schism. They granted protection to Nestorians in 462, and executed the pro-Byzantine Catholicos Babowai who was then replaced by the Nestorian bishop of Nisibis Bar Sauma (484). Nestorianism was officially adopted at the Synod of Seleucia in 486. The Nestorians were expelled from Edessa in 489 by the Emperor Zeno and immigrated to Persia. The Persians allowed the transfer of the school of Edessa, to the Persian city Nisibis, where it became even more famous than at Edessa.

The main theological authorities of the school had always been Theodore of Mopsuestia and his teacher Diodorus of Tarsus. Unfortunately, few of their writings have survived. The writings of Nestorius himself were only added to the curriculum of the school of Edessa-Nisibis in 530, shortly before the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553 condemned Theodore as Nestorius’s predecessor.

At the end of the sixth century. the school went through a theological crisis when its director Henana of Adiabene tried to replace the teachings of Theodore with his own doctrine, which followed Origen. Babai the Great (551–628), the unofficial head of the church at that time who revived the Assyrian monastic movement, refuted him and wrote the normative Christology of the Assyrian Church, based on Theodore of Mopsuestia.

The Book of Union is Babai’s principal surviving work on Christology. In it he explains that Christ has two qnome (essences), which are unmingled and eternally united in one parsopa (personality). This, and not strict Nestorianism, is the teaching of the Assyrian Church. However, the Assyrian Church has continued to be called “Nestorian” in the West to distinguish it from other ancient Eastern churches, despite the fact that Babai’s Christology is basically the same as that of Catholicism and Orthodoxy; the Baltimore Catechism teaches that Christ is one “person” (like Babai’s parsopa) but has two “natures” (Babai’s qnome).

The Spread Of Assyrian “Nestorianism”

The Assyrian Church produced many zealous missionaries, who traveled and preached throughout the Persian Empire and Central and East Asia during the seventh and eighth centuries. During the same period many Nestorian scholars, having escaped the Byzantines, settled in Gundishapur, Persia and Muharraq in Bahrain, bringing with them many ancient Greco-Roman philosophical, scientific, and literary texts. Nestorian Christianity reached China by 635, and its relics can still be seen in Chinese cities such as Xi’an. Around this same time, Nestorian Christianity penetrated into Mongolia, eventually reaching as far as Korea. The Nestorian Stele, set up on January 7, 781, at the then-capital of Chang’an, describes the introduction of Christianity into China from Persia in the reign of Tang Taizong.

The legacy of the missionaries remains in the Assyrian churches still to be found in Iraq, Iran, and India.

There is evidence from within the hadith that Muhammad had contact with Nestorian Christians. Particularly of interest are the similarities between Muslim raka’ah (ritual prayer) and the genuflections performed by Nestorians during Lent.

Nestorianism In China

Christianity was first introduced into China through representatives of the Church if the East, popularly known as the Nestorians, during the Tang Dynasty (it has also been suggested that the Patriarch of Seleucia-Ctesiphon created a metropolitan see in China in 411). In China, the religion was known as Jingjiao (景教). The Nestorians initially entered China as traders rather than as official missionaries, and were largely of Hebrew extraction, tracing their lineage to those who did not return to Palestine following the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities.

During the early centuries of Christian expansion, they considered the message of Jesus a fulfillment of their Jewish faith. Eventually, the Nestorians intermarried with other Syriac-speaking peoples east of the Euphrates and spread their faith throughout Turkestan, Mongolia, China and Japan. Some records indicate that Jacobite Christians also visited China during this period, but their impact was minimal. A stone stele erected at the Tang capital of Chang’an in 781 and rediscovered in the seventeenth century describes flourishing communities of Christians throughout China, but beyond this and few other fragmentary records relatively little is known of their history.

What is known, however, is significant. The Nestorians faced the world’s vastest empire at the zenith of its cultural, intellectual and administrative attainment. Tang China possessed a most sophisticated religious and ethical system; its people had long lived in an environment of religious syncretism. When Tang forces conquered Turkestan (630) and reopened the ancient trade route to the West, Alopen, the Persian bishop, felt the time had come to evangelize this mighty empire. He was welcomed by the authorities, in line with their policy of toleration and interest in fostering foreign religions.

When Alopen arrived at Chang-an (635), he was almost immediately commissioned to translate the Nestorian Sutras into Chinese. Scholars were assigned to assist him. In 638, the first Christian book was published, The Sutra of Jesus the Messiah. It sought to introduce the Chinese to the Christian faith and specifically pointed out that the gospel contained nothing subversive to China’s ancient traditions, because loyalty to the state and filial piety were the essence of the law of Christ. This pleased the emperor, and by decree he proclaimed the virtue of the Nestorian religion, gave Alopen the title of “Great Spiritual Lord, Protector of the Empire” (metropolitan Chang’an), and opened China’s doors to the gospel: “Let it be preached freely in our empire.”

The Nestorians established monasteries in China’s key cities and proclaimed their faith aggressively, phrasing the Christian message in the philosophical language of the Confucian court in order to make it intellectually acceptable to the Chinese scholars.

Although the ancient stele says, “The religion spread throughout the ten provinces….monasteries abound in a hundred cities,” the Nestorians experienced a series of setbacks as a result of court intrigues, the jealousy of Daoist and Buddhist leaders, and the upheavals of civil war. Their medical knowledge and surgical skills gave the Nestorians a good name, but Nestorian Christianity was classed with Buddhism and Zoroastrianism as another “foreign religion.” Although their monasteries were self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating, Chinese clergy were only permitted to fill the lowest ranks, which suggests that their priority was serving the foreign trading community.

The vitality of this church diminished with the passage of time and with increased isolation from religious centers in Mesopotamia. In 745 Emperor Xuanzong of Tang (reigned 840–846) issued an edict stating that the temples popularly known as “Persian temples” should be thenceforth known as Da Qin (Roman) temples. By the middle of the ninth century, government hostility toward Buddhism was extended to other foreign religions, and the emperor decreed that Christianity also be proscribed:

As for the Da-chin (Nestorian) and Muhu (Zoroastrianism) temples, these heretical religions must not alone be left when the Buddhists have been suppressed; they must all be compelled to return to lay life and resume their original callings and pay taxes, or if they are foreign they shall be sent back to their native places (Johnson 2008, 25).

The opposition to Buddhist excesses, which had first arisen among Confucian officials, was continued by a pro-Daoist emperor. Christian monks and nuns were evicted from their monasteries and forced to seek a secular living, and their properties were confiscated. Books and artifacts were destroyed and leading figures, especially those of foreign extraction, were forced to hide and hold underground services or to flee. Missions from Persia and Bactria in the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries strengthened the churches in some provinces, but evidence of their condition or survival throughout Tang provinces is fragmentary.

In 986 a Syrian monk reported to the Patriarch:

Christianity is extinct in China; the native Christians have perished in one way or another; the church has been destroyed and there is only one Christian left in the land (Lee 2010, 65).

Nestorianism was particularly active in Asia during the twelfth century, being a state religion of Kidans in the times of Elyui Dashi. It was also one of the widespread religions in the empire of Genghis Khan.


During the 10th-century migrations of the Turkish peoples from Central Asia and southeast Russia, one group of nomadic tribes, led by a chief named Seljuq, settled in the lower reaches of the Syr Darya (Jaxartes) River and later converted to the Sunni form of Islam. They played a part in the frontier defense forces of the Sāmānids and later of Mahmud of Ghazna. Seljuq’s two grandsons, Chaghri (Chagri) Beg and Toghrïl (Ṭugril) Beg, enlisted Persian support to win realms of their own, Chaghri controlling the greater part of Khorāsān and Toghrïl, at his death in 1063, heading an empire that included western Iran and Mesopotamia.

Under the sultans Alp-Arslan and Malik-Shāh, the Seljuq empire was extended to include all of Iran and Mesopotamia and Syria, including Palestine. In 1071 Alp-Arslan defeated an immense Byzantine army at Manzikert and captured the Byzantine emperor Romanus IV Diogenes. The way was open for Turkmen tribesmen to settle in Asia Minor.

Because of Toghrïl Beg’s victory over the Būyids in Baghdad in 1055, the Seljuqs came to be seen as the restorers of Muslim unity under the Sunni caliphate. While Alp-Arslan and Malik-Shāh expanded the empire to the frontier of Egypt, the Seljuq vizier Niẓām al-Mulk oversaw the empire’s organization during both their reigns. The Seljuq empire, political as well as religious in character, left a strong legacy to Islam. During the Seljuq period a network of madrasahs (Islamic colleges) was founded, capable of giving uniform training to the state’s administrators and religious scholars. Among the many mosques built by the sultans was the Great Mosque of Eṣfahān (the Masjed-e Jāmeʿ). Persian cultural autonomy flourished in the Seljuq empire. Because the Turkish Seljuqs had no Islamic tradition or strong literary heritage of their own, they adopted the cultural language of their Persian instructors in Islam. Literary Persian thus spread to the whole of Iran, and the Arabic language disappeared in that country except in works of religious scholarship.

The Seljuq empire was unable to prevent the rise of the Nizārī Ismaʿīlīs, a Shiʿi sect thought to be responsible for the killing of vizier Niẓām al-Mulk in 1092. More importantly, the empire was undermined by the Seljuqs’ practice of dividing provinces among a deceased ruler’s sons, thus creating numerous independent and unstable principalities. Internecine struggles for power followed.

The last of the Iranian Seljuqs died on the battlefield in 1194, and by 1200 Seljuq power was at an end everywhere except in Anatolia.

Alp-Arslan’s victory at Manzikert in 1071 had opened the Byzantine frontier to Oğuz tribesmen, and they soon established themselves as mercenaries in the Byzantines’ local struggles. Their employment by rival Byzantine generals vying for the throne of Constantinople (now Istanbul) gained them increasing influence, and gradually they assumed control of Anatolia as allies of the Byzantine emperor. They were driven to the interior of Anatolia by Crusaders in 1097; hemmed in between the Byzantine Greeks on the west and by the Crusader states in Syria on the east, the Seljuq Turks organized their Anatolian domain as the sultanate of Rūm. Though its population included Christians, Armenians, Greeks, Syrians, and Iranian Muslims, Rūm was considered to be “Turkey” by its contemporaries. Commerce, agriculture, and art thrived in the kingdom, where a tolerance of races and religions contributed to order and stability.

A war against the Khwārezm-Shāh dynasty of Iran instigated in 1230 by the Rūm sultan ʿAlaʾ al-Dīn Kay-Qubādh (Kaikobad) I led ultimately to the disintegration of Rūm and of Seljuq power. The loss of the Khorezmian buffer state meant that when the invading Mongols reached Turkey’s eastern frontiers, the Seljuqs could not fend them off. At the Battle of Köse Dagh in 1243, Seljuq autonomy was lost forever. For a time the Seljuq sultanate continued as a Mongol province, although some Turkmen emirs maintained small principalities of their own in distant mountainous districts. The Seljuq dynasty died out at last early in the 14th century.


The Ottoman Empire was one of the mightiest and longest-lasting dynasties in world history. This Islamic-run superpower ruled large areas of the Middle East, Eastern Europe and North Africa for more than 600 years. The chief leader, known as the Sultan, was given absolute religious and political authority over his people. While Western Europeans generally viewed them as a threat, many historians regard the Ottoman Empire as a source of great regional stability and security, as well as important achievements in the arts, science, religion and culture.

Origins Of The Ottoman Empire

Osman I, a leader of the Turkish tribes in Anatolia, founded the Ottoman Empire around 1299. The term “Ottoman” is derived from Osman’s name, which was “Uthman” in Arabic.

The Ottoman Turks set up a formal government and expanded their territory under the leadership of Osman I, Orhan, Murad I and Bayezid I.

In 1453, Mehmed II the Conqueror led the Ottoman Turks in seizing the ancient city of Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire’s capital. This put an end to 1,000-year reign of the Byzantine Empire.

Sultan Mehmed renamed the city Istanbul and made it the new capital of the Ottoman Empire. Istanbul became a dominant international center of trade and culture. Mehmed died in 1481. His oldest son, Bayezid II, became the new Sultan.

Rise Of The Ottoman Empire

By 1517, Bayezid’s son, Selim I, brought Syria, Arabia, Palestine, and Egypt under Ottoman control.

The Ottoman Empire reached its peak between 1520 and 1566, during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent. This period was marked by great power, stability and wealth.

Suleiman created a uniform system of law and welcomed different forms of arts and literature. Many Muslims considered Suleiman a religious leader as well as a political ruler.

Throughout Sultan Suleiman’s rule, the empire expanded and included areas of Eastern Europe.

What Countries Were Part Of The Ottoman Empire?

At its height, the Ottoman Empire included the following regions:

  • Turkey
  • Greece
  • Bulgaria
  • Egypt
  • Hungary
  • Macedonia
  • Romania
  • Jordan
  • Palestine
  • Lebanon
  • Syria
  • Some of Arabia
  • A considerable amount of the North African coastal strip

Ottoman Art And Science

The Ottomans were known for their achievements in art, science and medicine. Istanbul and other major cities throughout the empire were recognized as artistic hubs, especially during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent.

Some of the most popular forms of art included calligraphy, painting, poetry, textiles and carpet weaving, ceramics and music.

Ottoman architecture also helped define the culture of the time. Elaborate mosques and public buildings were constructed during this period.

Science was regarded as an important field of study. The Ottomans learned and practiced advanced mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, physics, geography and chemistry.

Additionally, some of the greatest advances in medicine were made by the Ottomans. They invented several surgical instruments that are still used today, such as forceps, catheters, scalpels, pincers and lancets.

The Ottoman Empire And Other Religions

Most scholars agree that the Ottoman Turk rulers were tolerant of other religions.

Those who weren’t Muslim were categorized by the millet system, a community structure that gave minority groups a limited amount of power to control their own affairs while still under Ottoman rule. Some millets paid taxes, while others were exempt.

Decline Of The Ottoman Empire

Starting in the 1600s, the Ottoman Empire began to lose its economic and military dominance to Europe.

Around this time, Europe had strengthened rapidly with the Renaissance and the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Other factors, such as poor leadership and having to compete with trade from the Americas and India, led to the weakening of the empire.

In 1683, the Ottoman Turks were defeated at the Battle of Vienna. This loss added to their already waning status.

Over the next hundred years, the empire began to lose key regions of land. After a revolt, Greece won their independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1830.

In 1878, the Congress of Berlin declared the independence of Romania, Serbia and Bulgaria.

During the Balkan Wars, which took place in 1912 and 1913, the Ottoman Empire lost nearly all their territories in Europe.

When Did The Ottoman Empire Fall?

At the start of World War I, the Ottoman Empire was already in decline. The Ottoman army entered the war in 1914 on the side of the Central Powers (including Germany and Austria-Hungary) and were defeated in October 1918.

Following the Armistice of Mudros, most Ottoman territories were divided between Britain, France, Greece and Russia.

The Ottoman empire officially ended in 1922 when the title of Ottoman Sultan was eliminated. Turkey was declared a republic on October 29, 1923, when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938), an army officer, founded the independent Republic of Turkey. He then served as Turkey’s first president from 1923 until his death in 1938, implementing reforms that rapidly secularized and westernized the country.

The Ottoman Legacy

After ruling for more than 600 years, the Ottoman Turks are often remembered for their powerful military, ethnic diversity, artistic ventures, religious tolerance and architectural marvels.

The mighty empire’s influence is still very much alive in the present-day Turkish Republic, a modern, mostly secular nation thought of by many scholars as a continuation of the Ottoman Empire.



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[1] Peter Sarris, Byzantium: A Very Short Introduction. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 19

[2] Sarris, Byzantium, 25.

[3] Sarris, Byzantium, 14.

[4] Averil Cameron, “Images of Authority: Elites and Icons in Late Sixth-Century Byzantium.” Past & Present, no. 84 (1979): 21.

[5] John Wortley. “The Marian Relics at Constantinople.” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 45,2 (Summer, 2005): 172.

[6] Cameron, “Images of Authority”, 5.

[7] Christopher I Beckwith, Empires of the Silk Road. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,2009), 120.

[8] Derek Kreuger, “Liturgical Time and Holy Land Reliquaries in Early Byzantium.” In Saints and Sacred Matter, edited by Cynthia Hahn and Holger A. Klein, 111-31. (Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2015) 124.

[9] Xinru Liu, The Silk Roads: A Brief History with Documents. (Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s,2012), 9.

[10] Luce Boulnois and Bradley Mayhew, Silk Road: Monks, Warriors & Merchants on the Silk Road. (Hong Kong: Odyssey, 2004,) 229.

[11] Pliny. “Natural History.” In The Silk Roads: A Brief History with Documents, edited by Xinru Liu, 59-73. (Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012.) 60

[12] Boulnois and Mayhew, Silk Road: Monks, Warriors and Merchants, 232.

[13]Marian Vasile, “The Interplay Between Aesthetics, Silk, and Trade.”Geopolitics, History and International Relations 5, no. 1 (2013): 131.

[14] Richard Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road: Premodern Patterns of Globalization. 2nd ed. (NewYork, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 61.

[15] Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road, 61.

[16] Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road, 69.

[17] Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road, 70.

[18] Boulnois and Mayhew, Silk Road: Monks, Warriors and Merchants. 301.


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