Trade routes after the first century enabled goods to be transported across long distances, helping cultures establish new connections with other parts of the world. Routes also allowed for the exchange of ideas between cultures, as traders facilitated the spread of different languages, religious beliefs, and artistic styles throughout Europe and Asia.Continue Reading
Despite the cultural advantages afforded by trade routes, travel over land could be dangerous and taxing. Europeans wanted a new route to Asia via the sea due to the difficulty of maintaining land routes to the continent.
Marco Polo and his brother were the first traders to travel the Silk Road, a land route to China through Armenia, Persia, and Afghanistan in the late 1200s. In the early part of their initial travels, the brothers encountered a war zone, and the two friars traveling with them immediately turned back. They persisted, however, and returned to Europe to spread news of the land route to China.
Ten years later, the brothers attempted to reach Asia again but found the trip difficult along a more northerly route. Boats in African ports were not seaworthy. Polo traversed deserts, mountains, and disease-plagued human settlements before reaching China.
The dangers of the route that Marco Polo pioneered quickly became obvious to Europeans. If Europeans wanted to travel along Polo's land route, they needed vast amounts of resources and supplies for defense. Because of this, European explorers began to search for a sea route to Asia.
Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama was the first European to sail around Africa and land in Asia (India) during his journey from 1497 to 1499. After da Gama's journey, European countries with seafaring ships became very powerful. Arabs from the Middle East already had sea routes with India, but their ships were not nearly as technologically advanced as those from Spain and Portugal. When the Arab fleet was destroyed in 1515, European trading prowess took over Indian and Chinese ports for the next 100 years.Learn more about Middle Ages