The Silk Road refers to terrestrial and maritime routes with a length of approximately 8,000 kilometers that linked east of China to Western Europe through a network of connected routes. This route was built on older routes to trade royal and precious goods in the ancient time.
Since 150 BC, the Silk Road was officially administered by the three world powers of that age i.e. the empire of China (Han), Iran (Parthian) and Eastern Rome (Byzantine). Throughout history, the rulers of the lands located along the Silk Road had always tried to secure it. Therefore, Silk Road played a crucial role in constructive relations in the ancient world, with safeguarded security, built-along caravanserais as well as shopping and trade centers that provided for merchants throughout the route.
Silk brocade, jasper, lacquer-ware and porcelain dishes, paper from Samarkand, spices and sandal wood from India, saffron powder and pistachio from Iran, minerals and aromatic essences from Somalia and glass bottles from Egypt were among precious goods at that time which were transported via Silk Road to reach Europe.
In addition to its commercial importance, the Silk Road was a route for exchanging culture, art, religion, philosophy, literature, language, architecture, science and even disease. Hence, UNESCO suggested the title “The Road of Intercultural Dialogue” to highlight the importance of this ancient road in the creation of a shared history between ancient civilizations.
The first attempts to construct the Silk Road in Iran coincided with the reign of Parthian King Mithridates II (124-76 BC). It connected China to the Mediterranean Sea through Iran. In Iran, in terms of its contemporary borders, the main northern route of Silk Road stretched from Tous and Neyshabur to Damghan and continued up to Ray. From Damghan (Shahr-e Qumis or Hecatompylos), it was split into two further roads: one of them was stretched toward Mazandaran and the other one continued to Ray. At that time, Ray was the confluence of several roads linking different parts of Iran. The road from Khorasan was divided into two branches in Ray:
- one route was toward Qazvin which was divided into two other branches; one route reached contemporary Baghdad in Iraq through Hamadan, Kermanshah and Qazvin. The other route was stretched to Anatolia and Constantinople through Soltaniyeh and Tabriz.
- The second route passed through Ray, Isfahan, Shiraz and Kerman and eventually reached the shores of the Persian Gulf and the Oman Sea.
In the late 19th century, the notable German geographer and land surveyor, Ferdinand von Richthofen, suggested the name of Silk Road because of the most valuable goods which was traded i.e. silk. He played a central role in introducing Silk Road to the world by creating comprehensive maps of the routes. In addition, archeological researches on this Road proves the existence of systematic and well-thought-out structures along the trade routes in Asia and Europe. For example, by identifying caravanserais and equipped residential spaces, ancient bridges, ancient paved roads and watchtowers. Iranians were the pioneers in the construction of bridges, caravanserais, bazaars, timcheh (plaza), guide towers and fortresses along the routes.
Caravanserais in Iranian cities such as Sarakhs, Neyshabur, Semnan, Ray, Qazvin, Saveh, Hamedan and Kermanshah are proper extant structures belonging to this ancient Road. Ribat-i Sharaf (Sarakhs) which is currently known as the museum of Iranian brick decoration of Iran, Ribat-i Mahi (Sarakhs), Ahowan Anushirvani (between Ray and Damghan), Deir-e Gachin (Qom), Shah Abbasi (Karaj) and Miandasht are the most prominent caravanserais in the course of the Silk Road.
Today, some of these caravansaries have converted to gorgeous accommodations. In fact, staying in such caravansaries resembles a journey through history. Numerous bridges, guide towers, wells, qanat (underground channel to transport water), water reservoirs, and ice-houses are other noticeable attractions of this route.
The terrestrial and maritime routes have existed since the earliest time. These two kinds of routes completed each other enabling merchants to frequently transport their goods. In 1453 CE, Ottomans ceased the main historical overland Silk Roads to put pressure against Europeans. By this decision, trade and exchanges were limited to the maritime routes. The intermediate ports connected southern Iran China, and India to other parts of Iran, Mesopotamia and Western Asian lands. The Yellow Sea, the East and the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, the Oman Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea had strategic ports through which maritime fleets belonging to various countries transported goods between the three continents of Asia, Africa and Europe. The collection of these sea routes were known as the Maritime Silk Road. The most prominent Iranian ports and islands of the Maritime Silk Road were Chabahar, Minab, Hormoz, Qeshm, Bandar Abbas, Kish, Siraf and Bushehr.
Bandar Siraf (currently known as Taheri) has been one of the main Iranian ports since ancient times. Siraf Port played the central role in maritime trade in Iran until the tenth century CE. It was a busy port for international trades in ancient times and a hub for storing international commodities which belonged to the Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Buddhist merchants who traded between the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean ports. In 2016, the Silk Road Mayors Forum was held Caravanserai of Sa’d Al-Saltaneh in Qazvin in which 300 cities from 73 countries which were in the routes of the Silk Road were introduced for expanding sustainable development planning in cultural, economic and tourism fields. Organized by UN-HABITAT, the countries pledged to conduct respective cultural activities with the purpose of developing constructive tourism interactions.