Trade Routes of Ancient, Medieval & Modern World

Since times immemorial trade has played a significant role in human life in uplifting their living standard and enlightened them culturally and intellectually. Have we ever wondered how the world would have been without interaction with other civilizations? It is quite evident that there would have been no exchange of goods, ideas and knowledge and we would have been still living in dark ages. But how the interaction between civilizations took place? Humans have always been adventurous and ventured far to exchange goods. It’s a given fact that the resources are not spread evenly across the world. Different parts of the world are bestowed with different resources which alone are not enough to fulfill human needs thereby giving rise to the need of trading one good with another and exchanging ideas for betterment of their lives. In ancient times humans probably ventured over short distances to exchange goods but in course of time humans started venturing further and further across seas and oceans leading to the development of trade routes. The driving force behind these journeys was trade. With the passage of time, the path followed by traders developed into a network of routes through which goods were traded. All the trade routes were a network of road or sea that converged with the central path. The journey of the goods between all these links in the chain is what is called a trade route.

Along with the exchange of goods trade routes also helped in the exchange of ideas and knowledge.  Arabs took the knowledge of mathematics from India to the west along with spices and incense. Similarly, the knowledge of paper and gunpowder spread from China to Europe through the Silk Route by the traders. Trade routes have played a vital role in the speedy integration of the modern world which is now known as globalization. Now let’s have a look at some of the prominent trade routes of the world from ancient world to modern world:

Silk Route:

The Silk Route is a network of trade routes which linked Asia, Africa and Europe. The trade route was established during the reign of Han Dynasty of China. The Silk Route originated from Chang’an (now Xi’an) in China to East Mediterranean where foods were offloaded and loaded on to ships destined for different Mediterranean Ports.  According to some historians, the trade route was approximately 10,000 KM long. Although many commodities were traded along the route but “Chinese Silk” comprised major portion of the trade. And because of the popularity of Chinese Silk trade along the trade route, it was named the ‘Silk Route’ by Ferdinand von Richthofen, an eminent German geographer. Alongside trade, the Silk Route also allowed the spread of ideas, religions and technologies from East to West, such as Islam and Buddhism as well as gunpowder from China, via the Arabs.  The network was regularly used from 130 BC when it was finally closed by Ottoman Empire in 1453 AD to boycott trade with the west. The closure of the Silk Route by the Ottoman Empire forced the Europeans to seek for an alternative route to Asia, eventually opening up a new historical epoch. Here below is an interactive map of the Silk Route:

The important towns and settlements along the route were –
Merv (Turkmenistan); BukharaSamarkand, Urgench and Khiva (Uzbekistan); Otrar, Taraz and Chimkent (Kazakhstan); Dgul, Suyab, Novokent, Balasagun, Borskon, Tash-RabatOsh and Uzgen (Kyrgyzstan).


Spice route refers to a network of sea routes that linked the East with the West. Spice Route was a maritime network of trade routes. The main item of trade was spices which gave the name to the trade route. Other items such as ivory, silk, porcelain, metals and gemstones were also traded along the route. But precious goods were not the only points of exchange between the traders. Perhaps more important was the exchange of knowledge: knowledge of new people and their religions, languages, expertise, artistic and scientific skills. It originated from Japan, passing through the islands of Indonesia, southern India and Middle East it reached Mediterranean coast and then to Europe and North Africa. The Spice route was controlled by the Arabs making spices very dear (up to 15th century). They knew the Monsoon winds well and took advantage of the same. Between the 7th and 15thcenturies, Arab merchants supplied Indian spices to the West, but took care to keep their source a closely guarded secret. To protect their market, discourage competitors and enhance prices, they are known to have spread fanciful stories to satisfy the curious – such as cinnamon growing in deep glens infested by poisonous snakes – among other things.

With the closure of the Silk Road in 1453 AD, the Indian spices not only became expensive but difficult to procure as well. It forced the Europeans to look for an alternative sea route. Improvement in navigation technology helped the Europeans to find true origins of spices that gave life to their food and to forge direct relationships with Indonesia, China and Japan. In 15th century, Vasco da Gama a Portuguese discovered India and brought Indian spices to Europe for the first time via Cape of Good Hope. They controlled the Indian spices trade for nearly a century when the British took over the trade. Other spice producing countries like Indonesia was controlled by the Dutch and the British. Wars fought in the background of taking control of the spice trade expedited the globalization process.


Incense is a collective word used for frankincense and myrrh when burnt emitted aroma. Incense was a great source of wealth in the ancient world. The demands for spices and perfumes in the ancient world such as Mesopotamia, Syria, Israel, Egypt, Greece and Rome led to the development of an extensive network of trade routes, connecting the West to the East by land and by sea known as Incense Route. The fabled route flourished after the domestication of camels by Arabs from the 13th Century BCE to 2nd Century AD. The trade route stretched from India through eastern Africa and Arabia across the Levant and Egypt to Mediterranean ports. Both frankincense and Myrrh plants grew in Dhofar mountain of Southern Arabia (now Yemen) and the north of Somalia. The Arabs not only cultivated incense but also controlled its trade, making the region immensely prosperous.


Trade routes that extended from sub-Saharan western African kingdoms across the vast expanse Sahara desert to Mediterranean kingdoms. The Trans-Saharan trade route linked the kingdoms of Western African countries such as Ghana, Mali, and Songhai to the European World. This trade route emerged in 4th Century BCE and was at the peak from 8th Century AD to 16th Century AD. The domestication of camels, Islamization and the knowledge of the Berbers of the Sahara desert helped the trade to grow between 8th century AD and 16th century AD.

The Sahara desert even to this day remains dangerous, forbidding and very difficult to cross. However, the incentive to cross the Sahara desert came in the form two valuable commodities: Gold from the mines in the Western African kingdoms in exchange of Salt from the European world.  Other goods that were traded were – Spices, Ivory, Kola Nuts, Textiles, Ostrich Plumes and Slaves.

Some of the major trading cities were: Mali, Timbuktu, Djenne and Gao. By 16th Century the Trans Saharan Trade route was overshadowed by the European controlled trans-Atlantic trade routes and the wealth moved from inland areas to coastal areas, making the perilous desert route less attractive.


It is easy to understand why oil is so important in our lives. Oil is one of the important sources of energy and many other by-products such as farm fertilizers, plastic toys and other plastic goods, cosmetics, detergents, and nylon clothing. Even waxes for chewing gum are made from oil. Without oil the entire world economy can come to a halt and the repercussions can be devastating. The two strategically important oil trade routes are: – Strait of Malacca and Strait of Hormuz.

The most important single oil trade route in the world is probably the Strait of Malacca which lies between the mainland of Malaysia and Indonesia. The 900-km long (550 miles) Malacca Strait links Asia with the Middle East and Europe, carrying about 40 percent of the world’s trade. More than 50,000 merchant ships ply the waterway every year. About 15 million barrels per day (bpd) of Middle East crude passes through the strait and to Japan every year. Middle East crude accounts for 90 percent of Japan’s total imports.

Source: world economic forum (2011)

The Strait of Hormuz is another important oil trade route which lies between Oman and Iran. The Strait of Hormuz connects the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. 30% i.e. 17 million barrels per day (bpd) of the world’s seaborne oil shipments pass through the Strait of Hormuz in the Middle East. The other significant oil trade routes are:

Source: (based on 2013 data)


It is a developmental strategy and framework conceptualized by Chinese premier Xi Jinping that focuses on better connectivity and cooperation between China and Eurasian countries. OBOR tries to revive two major trade routes of the ancient world – land based Silk Road which stretched from Xi’an in China to Levant (eastern Mediterranean coast) and ocean based Spice Route which stretched from Japan to Levant. Both the Silk Road and Maritime Road merges at Levant thereafter moves on Europe.

OBOR is purely an economic initiative of China wherein it wants to revive and boost the languishing Chinese economy and create more jobs in the backdrop of decreasing capacity utilization and FDI in China. It is estimated that trade will touch $ 2.5 trillion over the next 10 years. China is utilizing the recently created AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) to give funds to other countries to create infrastructure apart from its own fund. OBOR once fully operational will cut transit time, less dependence on sea route and increase trade. OBOR will also push Chinese stature in the global affairs.

Other trade routes worthy to be mentioned are:

US led TPP (Trans Atlantic Partnership) and TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) and India led Cotton Route. But there success is doubtful on the backdrop of recent changes in policies by the US administration and India’s slow pace on the project.

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