page contents

The Silk Road

Mongols: Resurrectors of Silk Road and Precursors of Modern Trade

Mongols: Resurrectors of Silk Road and Precursors of Modern Trade

The Mongol Empire is famously recognised to be the largest land empire in all of history. The fearsomeness of the Mongol warriors, the terror tactics they employed and their signature horseback archery are often the topics discussed when it comes to the aspects of the Mongol Empire. However this blog post would like to introduce a crucial impact left by the Mongol, international trade. It was the Mongols who revived the Silk Road trade and brought it to new heights thus paving way to the beginnings of global trade that we see today.

Somewhere Down The Silky Road

Do you know that there are more than 40 countries that have been radically transformed by the land and maritime Silk Roads?

The Silk Road is an amalgamation of different routes of communication intertwined with trade routes. These routes span over land and sea. When one thinks of the Silk Road, one is naturally inclined to link that with the bustling trade market of different commodities that range from daily life necessities to highly prized and exquisite goods. However, there is more than these to the Silk Road

Shades Of Trade: The Black Plague

Everyone would have thought that the world population had always been on increasing trend. True enough, the general trend was as such. However, look at the following graph.

Global Population Trend
Global Population Trend

The general trend is obviously an increasing trend – but do you see a sharp plummet in 1400s CE?

Yes, the world population dropped by around 20% - from 450 million to around 350 million. In fact the population in Europe continent decreased by nearly 60%.

Wow, such a huge ‘wipe-out’. What happened?

It wasLa mortalega grande – “the great mortality” as the Italians called it, or more familiarly, “The Black Death”.

As learnt not too long ago, The Silk Road has enabled the spread of goods, ideas, culture and intellect in the ancient world. It has, one way or another, improved the lives of many. Yet, it also had ruined and took away countless lives as well. This is because the Silk Road had the capability of spreading almost anything, including diseases. One disease that the Silk Road played a key role in was the Black Death. Let’s unravel this topic, which would be interesting and relevant to our recent themes – Silk Road (trades) and European civilizations.


The Black Plague or The Black Death (or the bubonic plague as it is known today) plagued through towns and villages, taking millions of lives in a short period of time. Then, it was called ‘the Pestilence’ or ‘the Great Disease’. It killed 1.5 million people out of an estimated of 4 million people between 1348 CE-1350 CE in Medieval England. The Black Death started in China and Asia in about 1346 CE but had spread to Europe in less than a year later. Bubonic plague, the most common form, is associated with painful, swollen lymph nodes, called buboes. After an incubation period of two to six days, symptoms appear, including severe malaise, headache, shaking chills and fever. Plague can also infect the blood or lungs. The latter form, pneumonic plague, can be transmitted person to person. They had different symptoms but the outcome was the same: almost inevitable death. Not only that, it’s a very quick death. Someone who got infected could just die overnight.


  • The plague was caused by Y. pestis bacillus, spread via rats and fleas that travelled with the livestock, food and spices on the Silk Road from Asia to Europe.
  • First contact of Black Death in Europe was in October 1347, when 12 Genoese trading ships docked at Sicilian port of Messina after a long journey through the black sea.
  • Most sailors were found dead or were gravely ill. Strangely, they were all covered in mysterious black boils that oozed blood and pus, which gave rise to the name of the illness ‘Black Death’.

For interactive maps of the spread, click here.

Crowded cities with huge populations and terrible sanitation problems those days, as well as large human-to-human interaction (mainly due to trades) had caused the disease to be spread more rapidly.


(which made matters worse)

Sadly, due to lack of knowledge, the people then actually related the outbreak to witchcrafts, superstitions, religions and other strange things; instead of searching for scientific accounts (like how we would have done it today.)

  1. They thought it’s Jews’/Muslims’ fault. Christians started accusing the Jews (and also the Muslims) for spreading the plague. They alleged that the Jews wanted to eradicate Christianity. (Although in reality both Jews and Muslims were as badly affected by the plague, so why would they do that?)

As a result, many Jews were actually tortured. They eventually ‘admitted’ that they poisoned different water sources including wells to help spreading the plague. Thousands of Jews were either killed or expelled. Also, they were forced to convert to Christianity.

2. God’s wrath 

Because they did not understand the biology of the disease, many people believed that the Black Death was a kind of divine punishment–retribution for sins against God such as greed, blasphemy, heresy, fornication and worldliness. So to them, the way to overcome the plague was to seek God’s forgiveness. Some people believed that the way to do this was to get rid of heretics and other troublemakers (such as the Jews).

  1. They thought bad smell could drive the disease out. When the plague reached its peak, the ‘doctors’ suggested treatments using urine, dung and other weird stuff, which actually catalyzed spreading of the disease!

There were several other suggested practices during those days, which they believed pretty strongly would help cure and prevent the spreading of the plague, namely:

Eating and drinking in moderation.

Maintaining a household as per a person’s status.

Refraining oneself from abusing the poor people.

Avoiding lechery.

Adding aromatic herbs in beverages.

Not eating fruits.

Drinking good wine.

Avoiding bad thoughts.

Staying happy.

The list isn’t exhaustive.

Also, things couldn’t get any worse – bathing was actively discouraged during the plague. There were two reasons for this:

First, it was believed that bathing would open up pores which would in turn allow easy entry and exit of polluted air into and from the body, which would help the spreading of the disease.

Secondly, bathing (and hence changing clothes) was deemed as a disrespect to the gods, which had invited the wrath of the gods as a punishment and that the plague was one of the weapons used by God for punishing people for such vanity.

Are you not rolling your eyes now?



A very significant population decrease. 50 million people died in Europe within 3 - 4 years.  The population was reduced from some 80 million to 30 million. It killed at least 60 per cent of the population in rural and urban areas.


The economy experienced high inflation, mainly because of shortages of manpower which led to rise in wages, and as it was so risky and hard to procure goods through trade and to produce them, the prices of both goods produced locally and those imported from afar hence hiked up drastically.

  • Animals were also affected by the Black Death. Chickens, pigs, goats, sheep and even cows. The number of sheep deaths was so high that it led to what's known as “European Wool Shortage”. 


People started losing their trust in the Church and their faith was somehow shaken, as they thought God could not help them to get out of the plague.


Medical historians today have established that there is somehow higher resistance to AIDS in populations whose ancestors were exposed to the Black Death.

So, in a way, the Black Death might help some communities fight AIDS.

- In attempt to fight the epidemic, the whole idea of quarantine came about! City of Ragusa (Italy) began the earliest ‘quarantine’ and increasingly developed measures to isolate the infected and control its borders during 14th and 15th centuries. Then, many Italian regions followed Ragusa’s lead, and after them, other regions of western and central Europe.


The black plague has taught us (or should make us ponder on) a few things:

  1. We should not be too engrossed with progress that we forget what matters most; lives
  2. History apparently repeats itself. If the black plague has taught us anything at all, it will be that diseases will spread between nations if not contained. SARS, Ebola, Mers etc are clear examples
  3. Could it be that plague’s and diseases are Mother nature’s way of healing herself? In the sense that humans are overpopulating the earth, and killing her by depleting her resources etc..

Yeah, when we look back to history, we’ll laugh. We’ll laugh at the (now we realized) past stupidity – which we used to confidently call ‘truths’ (and this false confidence could result in unnecessary chaos or fights).

This thus got me wondering: in future, would we laugh at some of today’s famous phenomenons? Will our children and grandchildren laugh at this era we’re living in?

Well, we’d never know. Only one thing is certain: now we know things may not be the way they seem and there are just zillions of new possibilities and truths that have yet to unfold. That’s why keeping an open mind is crucial. Don’t be too surprised when current good things produce bad things or, conversely, current bad things give birth to goodness. What doesn’t kill you make you stronger – what makes you stronger could also kill you.

How shall we live? The answers would vary. But for sure, we shall live better than the past. After all, (other than to clear this module) isn’t that precisely the point of studying history?


Some say, The Black Death was where nursery rhyme ‘Ring Around A Rosy’ came about. Scholars said ‘Ring Around A Rosy’ was about the plague’s symptoms. You can watch it here:


◊ The Queen of Gems ◊




Walk into the historical realm of interconnected trade networks, and you will witness the Arab merchants and camel caravans that played a significant role in it. Arab culture is known for its burning of precious incense (frankincense and myrrh), spices, date palms, even mineral riches. “The trade route known as the Incense Road, went as far as Mediterranean port city of Gaza”.

With such an abundant array of expensive trade goods, it was reasonable to talk of the riches that the desert lands held, as a result the region was called ‘Arabia Felix’ (meaning ‘Arabia the Blessed’ or ’Happy Arabia’). From these lands arose enchanting tales which symbolised this wealth; we know them as ‘The Arabian Nights’ (You may have heard this title in the opening merchant song of Disney’s ‘Aladdin’... No?...Here’s the link, you can open the video's description to read along the lyrics, ENJOY!).


One of these trade goods were the pearls of the region, after all, they were an ideal item of trade due to the amount of natural oyster beds in the Arabian (Persian) Gulf, plus they took up very little space when traveling. As you may know, unlike other gemstones pearls are not mined from the earth but are in fact produced by living organisms underwater (here’s a video to show you the process).


Being a natural piece of polished perfection, the shimmering pearl is given the entitlement of ‘queen’. Pearls have long been seen as a magnificent ancient jewel; “fragments of the oldest known pearl jewellery, now on display at the Louvre in Paris, was found in the sarcophagus of a Persian princess who died in 520 BC”, pearls were even “presented as gifts to Chinese royalty as early as 2300 BC”. It has long been foretold health and long life follow those who wear the jewel. Mystery lies in the first discovery - Arabian legends once claimed pearls to be the result of oysters swallowing dew drops that fell into the sea. Most likely, the first humans to encounter this treasure would have been trying to find food by the seashore.

Indeed, it is said the best pearls emerged from the Arab world, “from the waters of Arabian (Persian) Gulf, particularly near Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman” and thus the pearling business for these countries was important to their economies because of the trade with the other lands, which included that of the Roman Empire and Egypt. The pearl is a gem mentioned in The Holy Quran, the pearl is actually mentioned in The Bible as well. Precious stones in The Holy Quran are mentioned to signify the blessings bestowed upon us; pearls are in fact talked about as a gem of heaven that make up the hollow homes for heavenly dwellers. The structure of mosques encompass this symbolism with the architectural design of the dome. Pearls in religious scriptures are also generally mentioned with the symbolism of purity and modesty.


For centuries, pearls were regarded as valuable gems in different cultures. To this day, they are still seen as one of the most enchanting jewels of ancient times. Until modern times, pearls were an exclusive item, only available to the wealthy. Rome in particular made use of pearls in their jewelry for the elite class, “considered the ultimate status symbol. So precious were the spherical gems that in the 1st century BC, Julius Caesar passed a law limiting the wearing of pearls only to the ruling classes”. If you track ‘Pearls’ in the 'Classical Period' map section of this Interactive Map, you’ll see the picture of the necklace fragment above, this combination of pearl, gold and emerald is an example of what once would have been "a popular jewelry style during 100 - 200 CE in the Roman Empire".

This luxury item was not only valued for jewels and decoration, pearls were also used as medicine after they were ground into powder. "People once believed that pearls were directly connected with the moon, and thus possessed magical powers. Pearls have been referenced throughout ancient mythology and folklore". 

There is even a tale that tells of Cleopatra dissolving a pearl in a glass of liquid vinegar, and all to win a bet against the Roman leader ( and her lover ) Marc Antony, to prove she could host the most expensive meal in history, this really puts a natural pearl's value into perspective (how much would you pay for a 'Pearl Cocktail'?). The Egyptians valued the pearl just like the Romans; they treasured the gem so much that some leaders were buried (or more accurately mummified/embalmed) with their precious pearl collection by their side.

The Greeks also considered the pearl to be a gem of great value, but in terms of ceremonies and romantic customs such as marriage, they saw it as more of a symbol of love rather than ultimate status. The Greek word for pearl actually means unique, further giving way to the sense that no two pearls are thought to be the same, each is rare and extremely valuable (greatly recognized across cultures).

In parallel, The Bible presents the symbol of the pearl as a treasure of great price. As a representation of the Church that Yahweh seeks, the pearl is one of a kind and is worth one's everything.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it."

The symbol of the pearl is chosen over other precious adornments common in the Bible, such as gold and silver, and a variety of gemstones, because of how pearls are formed. The oyster secretes nacre around an irritant which it is unable to dispel. The consistency of the nacre gradually formed in a spherical shape enables the oyster to be more comfortable and the pearl to take shape. This is akin to Christians (pearls) who are able to develop godly character (nacre) in dealing with trials and tribulations (irritants) of life.

The rarity of pearls in this context comes from the challenge it takes for humans to choose to develop godly character over a lifetime. This is what makes the pearl so precious, the Christians so worth the sacrifice of God, who is the merchant who would sell everything for that pearl.



So you see, pearls are a valuable part of world civilizations. Of course, now we have the development of cultured oysters and pearls are available to the masses, but they are nothing compared to nature's gem which is why nobility and royalty sought after them. Natural pearls today are rather scarce, the value this places upon them is evident through the prices seen in auctions and bidding wars, especially when it comes to antique pearl jewelry. As a final note, check out this page from the 'Imperial, We Are Pearls' website, it's full of some interesting videos about this lovely queen, the natural among gems.


NOTE: Direct quotes have been hyperlinked to their respective online source via the first few words, images have been hyperlinked with their respective image URL, other words are also linked to pages relevant to what is being discussed and these single words are put in italics.