Silk Road Trade: History Of Gunpowder

Silk Road trade: History of Gunpowder. Merchants braved the crossing of Mountains and deserts to bring gunpowder West along the Silk Road, changing the face of warfare.

No overland route in the history of humanity has ever been surrounded by as much intrigue and mystique as the mythology-shrouded trade route known as the Silk Road. While its primary function was to bring highly-prized silken threads and cloth from the Orient to Europe and North Africa, many other exotic goods would follow those same paths through the Himalayas, including one weapon which would change not only the way war would be waged, but bring about an entire new way of life.

Gunpowder, known as "Black Powder" or "Saracen Powder" to the people of Medieval Europe, is generally thought to have originated in China, where explosive grenades, bombs, and rockets were already in widespread use by 1000 CE. Because it is a mixture of sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter (potassium nitrate), gunpowder must be mechanically, and very carefully, mixed. Highly sensitive to sparks, it is a very delicate mixture, which often led to explosions and death because of careless handling of the ingredients. Adding to its value was the fact that, in the beginning, the "recipe" for gunpowder was not common knowledge, and only a few special weapon-makers knew how to make gunpowder at all.

But how did this hazardous and highly volatile weapon reach the European kingdoms, and how was it linked to the Silk Road? To understand the complex series of events, which brought gunpowder West, one must first travel back through history to one of the world's oldest and most mysterious trade routes.



The Silk Road began as an ancient trade route between China and the Persian Empire, by which princely garments of silk were traded for rich tins, gems, and valuable livestock. It ran from what is, today, western Iran to Dunhaung (Tun-huang) in Northwest China. But this was no simple route to travel, as later European explorers and merchants would discover. After passing to the south of the Caspian Sea, it divided into two branches. The northern branch went through Samarkand, while the southern branch followed along the Oxus River (now the Amu Darva). After skirting the edges of the Takli Makan Desert, the routes rejoined in northwest China.

The Silk Road originally began and was maintained by nomadic tribes and Chinese merchants, but it eventually became dominated by the West. In the 10th century, it fell under Islamic control, and was then passed into Mongol hands by the 13th century. After the opening of sea passage between Europe and the Orient in the 15th century CE, the Silk Road declined, and later lost. However, Silk Road left history a rich and mysterious legacy of world-altering events.

The gunpowder, which traveled in the caravans of merchants, had the greatest impact on Western life since the birth of steel. Following the passing of control in the 10th century, Arab scientists began to study and experiment with gunpowder and its applications in warfare. In the 11th century, when Europe invaded Arabia the Arabs turned their newfound weapon on Christian troops, sparking both fear and interest on the war-enamored West. From the opening days of the Crusades, the secret of gunpowder traveled back to Europe along with tales of its destructive force. However, the initial lack of interest in science and discovery, which pervaded Europe, made gunpowder an useless commodity. However, as later Crusades opened up the horizons to European exploration, gunpowder became an aid rather than an obstruction.

Up until this time, European warfare was primarily hand-to-hand in nature, instituting a strict code of chivalry. Gunpowder and the creation of crude cannons and guns took away the necessity of chivalry, and eventually turned death into a gentleman's sport, with the rise of pistol duels. At the same time, as was used in cannons, gunpowder negated the effectiveness of castle walls. As the cannons of battle shrank into guns, armor became a burden rather than protection.

No one weapon has so thoroughly changed the course of human history as gunpowder has. From its ancient source in China, it traveled the danger-laden paths of silks and spices and with it traveled the knowledge to both remake and destroy the world. Perhaps that is why it comes as no surprise that the Silk Road, a path of danger and intrigue would be the one to carry this most controversial of prize.

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