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The Silk Road – the First Global Supply Chain

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Silk Road extending from Europe through Egypt, Somalia, the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, Central Asia, India, Java-Indonesia, and Vietnam until it reaches China. The land routes are red, and the water routes are blue.

By Rosemary Coates, President of Blue Silk Consulting
February 04, 2012

I am honored to be asked to join the esteemed bloggers at Supply Chain Management Review.  Each month, I will be blogging about China logistics and Chinese imports.

I intend to offer my opinions and pragmatic advice on topics that will hopefully help you.  But first, to get started, I thought I’d peak your imagination about the first global supply chain: The Silk Road.

I spent the holidays on vacation in Venice and Istanbul on a mission to understand more about these two important end points on the Silk Road. Starting around 200 BC and extending 4,000 miles, the Silk Road got its name from the lucrative Chinese silk trade and tea trade in exchange for spices, nuts and jewels from Europe and the Middle East.  In addition, various science and technology innovations were traded along with religious ideas and the bubonic plague.  The Silk Road was a significant factor in the development of the great modern civilizations. 

Very few people actually traversed the entire Silk Road.  Mostly it was made up of agents and merchants who bought and sold goods along the way.  At major points, great bazaars opened to facilitate a meeting place for traders, such as the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, which still thrives today.

Istanbul is a city that spans the continents of Asia and Europe and was a termination point for traders of the overland Silk Road.  Merchants took their goods to the Grand Bazaar where they also traded ideas that drove innovation and the transition from the Middle Ages to the awakening of the Renaissance.  Walking through the Istanbul Spice Market and Grand Bazaar you can just imagine what it must have been like centuries ago packed with merchants bargaining with one another.  The influences of both Asia and Europe are evident here in the architecture of places like the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia representing Islam and Christianity.  And of course in the history of its name: Constantinople and Istanbul.

Venice became a major trade port in the Middle Ages when the Chinese Treasure Fleet (at least 100 years ahead of Europe in the mathematics needed for navigation) sailed in, loaded with goods and books on all kinds of topics.  In Venice you can see the influence of Asian architecture and the mosaics installed in the Basilica of San Marco.  In the Doge’s Palace the famous maps show the Americas and Australia long before Columbus “discovered” the new world.  This is because the Chinese had already discovered North and South America and Australia.  Plenty of evidence indicates that the Chinese heavily influenced Venetian map making in the 1300s and early 1400s with their knowledge of the world.  Imagine what the Europeans and Chinese thought of one another.
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I tried to imagine what it was like in these two cities in the Middle Ages.  With a little site seeing at the Spice Market and a walk through San Marco, it wasn’t hard to do.


About the Author

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Rosemary Coates
President of Blue Silk Consulting
Ms. Coates is the President of Blue Silk Consulting, a Global Supply Chain consulting firm and the author of: 42 Rules for Sourcing and Manufacturing in China. (an amazon.com Top Seller) and 42 Rules for Superior Field Service. Ms. Coates lives in Silicon Valley and has worked with over 80 clients worldwide. She is also an Expert Witness for legal cases involving global supply chain matters.

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