For some reason, we talk about the global economy and its advantages and disadvantages as if it’s some revolutionary idea we’ve come up since WWII. Not at all. And now that relationships and economies around the world are feeling somewhat fragile, we’re thinking that the global economy may shrink to a former shadow of its former self. Perhaps in the short term, but history would suggest that people around the world have always seen many benefits in trading what they have to offer for what others have to offer, regardless if it’s been by sailing ships, camels, mules, horses, container ships, airplanes, or over the Internet. Let’s take a look.
The Silk Road. 130 BC – 1453 AD
The Chinese sold silk (for a very long time they were the only ones who knew how to make it and it was in high demand), but they also traded teas, salt, sugar, porcelain, and spices. It was a long trip, and merchants didn’t have a lot of spare room for questionable goods, so most of what they traded was high-end stuff. They brought back things like cotton, ivory, wool, gold, and silver.
Spice Route (aka Maritime Silk Road). 2000 BC – 1498 AD
Traders on the sea-based Spice Route bought and sold goods from port to port. The principal and most profitable goods they traded in were spices – surprise, surprise. As early as 2000 BC, spices such as cinnamon from Sri Lanka and cassia from China found their way along the Spice Route to the Middle East. Non-spice goods included ivory, silk, porcelain, metals and gemstones. But along with precious goods they also exchanged knowledge: knowledge of new peoples and their religions, languages, expertise, artistic and scientific skills. The ports along the Spice Route (Maritime Silk Road) acted as melting pots for ideas and information, from one port to the next.
Incense Route. 7th century BC – 3rd century AD
The Incense Route, a path spanning more than 1,200 miles, was used by traders and their camel caravans to carry frankincense and myrrh, collected in Ethiopia, Somalia, and southern Arabia and dispatched from Yemen and Oman, through the Negev desert, to the Mediterranean port in Gaza. The route took about 62 days to traverse, according to the notable Roman author Pliny the Elder, with around 65 stops along the way where traders and their camel caravans could rest, recharge and sell their goods.
A local population called the Nabateans primarily controlled this route, operating four major cities along the way—Haluza, Mamshit, Avdat and Shivta—as well as multiple fortresses protecting the route from robbers. The overland incense route transitioned to a primarily maritime route beginning around the last century BC.
Amber Road. 1900 BC – 300 BC
These roads were the earliest in Europe, probably used between 1900 BC and 300 BC by Etruscan and Greek traders to transport amber and tin from northern Europe to points on the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas. Like frankincense and myrrh, amber was held in somewhat higher regard then than now! The breast ornament of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen (c. 1333–1324 BC) contains large Baltic amber beads. Baltic amber beads were found at Mycenae when the site was uncovered in Greece after thousands of years. The quantity of amber in the Royal Tomb of Qatna, Syria, is unrivalled in ancient BC sites in the Levant and the Ancient Near East. Amber was sent from the North Sea to the temple of Apollo at Delphi as an offering. Clearly a valued commodity. From the Black Sea, trade in amber could continue to Asia along the Silk Road.
Tea Horse Road. 6th century AD – 20th century AD
The Ancient Tea Horse Road within China was a trade route mainly through Yunnan, Sichuan, and Tibet. From the 6th century all the way to the 20th century, people in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces traveled by foot and horseback with pack horses to exchange tea for horses with people in Tibet — and thus the pathway was called the Tea Horse Road. But the broader Tea Horse Road linked Sichuan, Yunnan, and Tibet, stretched across Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal, and India, and then reached the Middle East, and even the Red Sea coast of Egypt.
The broad Ancient Tea Horse Road rivaled the Silk Road trade routes for importance, and as the longest ancient trade road in the world, at more than 10,000 kilometers in length, and including traversing the forests and rivers of the Himalayas, it was definitely the toughest to travel. It gives new meaning to the notion of going the distance for a good cup of tea!
Ancient Tin Route. Approx. 1400 BC – 1200 BC
Little is known about this Bronze Age route. There had been speculation that the Phoenicians had traveled as far as Cornwall in what’s now the UK to mine their tin, but the latest speculation seems to be that it was the Mycenaeans who sailed out of the Mediterranean and up to the coast of Britain to acquire the tin needed to mix with copper to get the bronze they craved. Tin ingots recently found in shipwrecks off the coasts of Israel and Turkey have been determined to be Cornish tin, dating from the 13th and 12th centuries BC.
Quite remarkable what people knew and what they did, way back then.