The German traveller and geographer Baron Ferdinand von Richthoften (1833–1905) travelled as part of the Eulenberg Expedition from Prussia to Asia, publishing his findings from 1877 to 1912 in five volumes. Richthofen and Sven Hedin were creatures of their time, moulded in the age of high imperialism when the competitive colonialism of the European powers raised the status of geography, cartography, and exploration.

Hedin and his counterparts garnered much of the fame that these expeditions brought, but it was Richthofen who first coined the term Seidenstrassen (Silk Roads) to describe and give meaning to the latitudinal string of sites found under the deserts of Inner Asia, thereby leaving a semantic legacy that has endured. Richthofen’s legacy has not gone unchallenged, and scholars have sought to clarify and critique the concept of “Silk Roads”.

In the first place, the Silk Road was neither a single road nor a static set of routes but an unstable and shifting bundle of connections subject to the vicissitudes of ecological change and political power. The latitudinal artery across Eurasia that is commonly taken to constitute the Silk Road proper also branched off longitudinally north and south, bringing spices, cotton cloth, and other goods from across the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean world into the circuits of Silk Road trade.

Each of these branches consisted of bundles of competing routes, some shorter, safer, cheaper, or more comfortable, depending on the ruling authority, the time of year, and the terrain. This fibrous mass of overland routes existed, of course, in complementary and competitive relation with overseas routes across the China Sea, the Malacca Straits, the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, and the Persian Gulf.

Second, the emphasis on silk is misleading, for it prioritises a single commodity and a single direction of exchange – namely, from the Orient to the Occident. The mass of connections constituting the Silk Roads meant that a number of commodities moved in a number of directions across Eurasia.

These included exotic elephant ivory and rhino horn, luxury textiles of silk and other threads, and precious illuminated manuscripts. The more mundane items of exchange, with wider spectra of “consumption”, included foodstuffs, pack animals, animal products, raw cotton, and cotton cloth; among these, horses, paper, and gunpowder exerted a much more powerful and profound impact on the course of world history than silk.

Furthermore, examination of the Silk Roads has tended to foreground Asia’s role as a producer or supplier of global goods but has obscured corresponding attention to its patterns of consumption. This is all the more remarkable given that Asia dominated the global economy before the rise of what Immanuel Wallerstein termed the “modern world-system”. Both trade with Europe and, more crucially, “intra-Asian trade”, brought buyers – from rural-dwelling nomads and pastoralists to urban khans (kings) and padshahs (emperors) – into contact with a range of goods.

Silk Roads, as a term, is more evocative than accurate. It does not encompass everything that was exchanged across Eurasia, but can serve as shorthand for a wide array of goods moving over a range of routes.

It has become deeply embedded in academic vocabulary, having proven popular amongst scholars as well as publics. It has even crossed over from Western scholarly discourse into, for example, the language of Iranian scholars from the late 1950s and 1960s, who spoke of “carving out the historical geography of a Greater Iran whose cultural impact was felt as far away as China”.

It is, in brief, a term that will undoubtedly continue to seed the scholarly imagination. Such (re-)evocations of the Silk Roads, and those highlighted throughout this book, compel an imagination of broad continuities across historical epochs against relatively short interludes of flux or stasis or decline. Rather than dismantling the Silk Roads, it is worth seeing them as shorthand for the complex and changing mass of connections and exchanges that knitted together states, societies, and economies across Eurasia.

Both as heuristic and historical subject, “Silk Roads” seems a vacuous abstraction unless the most reductive conceptualisations are discarded. But thinking with the Silk Roads is fruitful because it helps us focus on the fact that – for most of the previous two millennia or more – long-distance exchange and circulation across continental interiors constituted the rule and not the exception.

Rather than seeing the expansion of long-distance maritime trade after c 1500 as the beginning of an irreversible and insurmountable transformation in the way people and things moved, it might be better viewed as only a very recent, and perhaps temporary, aberration. In the last century, air travel became a more important vector of human mobility, and in our new eco-age the railways are enjoying a renaissance in the movement of people and things.

The Silk Road was neither a vast thoroughfare that cut across central Asia, nor was central Asia merely the interchange of the branches at the central section of a latitudinal axis whose role and purpose in the global economy was inextricably linked with east–west exchange.

The volume and value of trade along the latitudinal routes showed signs of a slowdown around the time of the retreat of the empire established by Tamerlane (or Timur Lang: b 1336), this purported decline continuing in the wake of the European “discovery” of the direct sea route to Asia.

This latter shift supposedly resulted in the decanting of east-west trade from the Silk Road routes to maritime routes via the Cape of Good Hope. Yet historians are starting to appreciate that the European discovery of the trans-oceanic routes was both trade-creating and trade-diverting, so that the increase in Europe’s maritime trade with Asia resulted for the most part from the expansion of shipping traffic – and thus the extent of underlying trade and production activities – rather than from some complete displacement of the caravan traffic.

In other words, overland trade suffered some absolute decline, but the more important impact was the way in which the trans-Eurasian caravan traffic was gradually dwarfed in relative terms by trans-oceanic shipping and became more marginal to global trade as a whole – a phenomenon examined more closely in this book.

India and the Silk Roads: The History of a Trading World

Excerpted with permission from India and the Silk Roads: The History of a Trading World, Jagjeet Lally, HarperCollins India.