Silk Road Milestones

Ancient Milestones in Central Asia and 

 on the Eastern Silk Road

529 BCE         Cyrus the Great reached Samarkand (then Maracanda)  and was killed in battle by the empress Tomyris, leader of a tribal confederation called the Massegetae, a little further east, near the banks of the Syr Darya River,  where Alexandria Eschate was established 200 years later.

516 BCE         Darius, descendant of Cyrus, invaded Central Asia and gained control of areas stretching from regions from Samarkand south thru what is now Karachi, including northern Afghanistan and Pakistan

329 BCE         Alexander also reached Samarkand and established Alexandria Eschate,  later known as Khujand; Alexander and his Greek successors established several states and empires in Central and South Asia which survived for more than 300 years

The sections of Asia conquered by Cyrus, Darius and Alexander cover what might be called the western, or Persian-oriented, segments of the Silk Road network. The eastern, or Chinese, portion of the network began just east of Samarkand and the mountain ranges that divide eastern and western Central Asia.

250 BCE (approx.)          Some time after Alexander’s campaigns in India, Greeks who settled in northern India and Afghanistan began to adopt Buddhism, or a form of Buddhism mixed with belief in the Hellenic gods. (In the ancient world, seemingly conflicting belief in more than one religion was not unusual.)

247 BCE         The Parthian (Persian) Empire (247 BCE – 224 CE) was a rival of the Romans, controlling land routes to Central Asia and preventing direct contact between China and Rome.  The Parthians taxed trade thru the empire, but did not prevent Roman ships from sailing the Indian Ocean.

206 BCE         The Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) is established, its emperor ruling all China. The Han were the first Chinese rulers to take interest in the West.

138 BCE         Envoy Zhang Qian travelled throughout Central Asia for 12 years, having been assigned by the Chinese emperor to explore the “Western Regions,”  which were largely unknown by China. Wikipedia says that “Zhang Qian probably witnessed the last period of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom.” He returned with detailed reports about the cities, empires and armies he encountered in areas from Samarkand to Bamiyan and south into India. Among the 99 Chinese who began the mission, only Zhang Qian and one other survived to return to China.

121 BCE (approx.)          The Jade Gate was established 50 miles to the northwest of Dunhuang  to mark the westernmost border of China. It was so called because camel caravans carrying jade entered China there. The Great Wall was then  extended to Dunhuang. This was still the Chinese border in Xuanzang’s time.

114 BCE         As a result of Zhang Qian’s reports, Turfan, Khotan, Kashgar and other cities of the Tarim Basin were gradually brought under Chinese control. While control of the area changed hands many times in later centuries, this area is now China’s Sinkiang Province.

106 BCE         Diplomatic ties are established between the Chinese and the Parthian (Persian) Empire (247 BCE – 224 CE), which prevented China from having direct contact with  the Roman Empire.

100 BCE (approx.)        Chinese silk is reported to have arrived in Rome for the first time   (though silk was found in a mummy’s tomb in Egypt dated to 1,000 BCE).

53 BCE           Roman emperor Crassus was killed and defeated by Parthians at the Battle of Carrhae. The Roman legions are said to have been fascinated by the brilliant red silk war banners of the Parthians.  10,000 Roman soldiers were transported to Central Asia to serve as slaves or mercenaries.

97 CE              Envoy Gan Ying travels as far as the Persian Gulf, unsuccessful in the mission to visit Rome assigned to him by the Chinese emperor; Parthian officials persuaded him to return to China because reaching Rome might take him another two years.

100 CE            Buddhism arrived in China sometime in the 1st or 2nd century CE,  making its way east from India via Samarkand.

366 CE            The first of the Mogao Caves are created. Hundreds more caves were created in subsequent centuries.

522 CE            Byzantine merchants managed to acquire silk worms in the East, bringing them West and ending the Chinese monopoly on silk.

570 CE            The birth of Muhammad.

629 CE            Xuanzang begins his 16-year journey to Central Asia (the "Western Regions”) and India.

709 CE            Arab Muslims capture Samarkand.

713 CE            The Arabs sack Kashgar.  Arabs, Persians, Turks, Greeks, Tibetans, Mongols, and other nomadic conquerors had vied with China and each other for control of the Tarim Basim and points west for 1,000 years.