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Seth Cassel
January 2006

The Silk Road Linking Asia, the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Europe As Evident by the Spread of the Black Death

The Silk Road provided a route for the connection of cultures located throughout Asia, the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Europe. The Silk Road was not an actual road; rather it was an interconnecting group of caravan routes that ran throughout central Asia. "These routes were called the Silk Roads because traders used them to bring silk from China to western Asia and then on to Rome." The Silk Road encouraged the sharing of knowledge and the trade of items among cities and empires in Asia, the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Europe. From China came goods such as spices, silk, and cloth. The Gupta Empire traded precious stones, grains, ivory, and other goods. Even the Kingdom of Askum, located on the African coast of the Red Sea, traded goods like metal and spices. However, the connection among these continents had a negative effect. The Black Death that devastated Asia, the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Europe in the 14th century was believed to have started in Central Asia and spread over the Silk Road. "No other bacteria, perhaps organism, had so much of an effect on human history as Yersinia pestis [the bacteria that caused the Black Death.]" The spread of the destructive Black Death from Asia to the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Europe by way of the Silk Road shows the importance of this route as a link among these regions.

The Black Death has four different forms; septicemic, pneumonic, enteric, and bubonic, all caused by the bacteria, Yersinia pestis. However, each is identified by distinct symptoms. The first, septicemic, is a poisoning of the blood stream. The victims of this form die the quickest, sometimes even before symptoms are evident. Next is pneumonic, which is characterized by severe chest pain and the coughing of blood. Nearly no one survives the pneumonic form. The enteric form is not very common. It attacks the victim's digestive system and, like the septicemic form, kills its victim very quickly. Lastly, is the bubonic form, which is the most common. The victims of the bubonic form meet death in about a week, and they suffer the most pain of all the four forms. These four deadly forms were evident during the Black Death epidemic that occurred in the 14th century. The Black Death bacteria that caused the four forms, Yersinia pestis, was generally spread though the same host, the rat. The Plague was spread to humans mainly by fleas that were transported by infected rats. Rat populations tend to follow humans because of the garbage they dispose and this is why the Black Death was found in heavily populated areas, particularly along the Silk Road. The Black Death affected humans in these four deadly forms that spread in fleas and in their host, rats, and started in warmer climates in Asia, radiating west to colder climates by way of the Silk Road.

The four forms of the Black Death: septicemic, pneumonic, enteric, and bubonic, were not native to Europe because it is hard for the plague bacteria, Yersinia pestis, to subsist in the colder climate that is prevalent in Europe. "Plague bacteria normally reside in Central Asia, Yunan China, Arabia, East Africa, and limited areas of Iran." The reason why they inhabit these generally hotter areas is because they need a warm climate to multiply in. Some historians believe that the Black Death originated in Lake Issyk-Kul in Central Asia. Researchers found that in the years 1338 and 1339 there was a very high death rate reported in Lake Issyk-Kul that was attributed to plague. However, the most striking detail about Lake Issyk-Kul was that it was on the Silk Road. Therefore, the Black Death had its beginnings in Central Asia on the Silk Road, and then it proceeded to spread across the Silk Road into areas that it linked: the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Europe.

After the Black Death established itself in Central Asia at Lake Issyk-Kul, it began to spread into the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Europe by way of the Silk Road. During the 14th century, the Silk Road was controlled by the Mongols and was heavily used by both their warriors and by trading caravans. The host organisms for the Black Death, rats, were attracted to human garbage disposed by the caravans along the Silk Road. The Mongols were pastoralists who traveled in large caravans with great numbers of horses and livestock that gave off large amounts of waste, which attracted rats. Therefore, large populations of rats were found at various points along the Silk Road, making it easy for fleas to spread the bacteria from one infected rat population to another rat population. Some infected rats were able traverse the Silk Roads hidden inside of caravans, further helping the Yersinia pestis bacteria to spread. At the same time, there was "a parallel movement [of the bacteria] into underground rodent "cities" of the grasslands…[that] occurred." From the rats, the bacteria would spread to humans from a simple interaction, such as a fleabite, which had previously bitten an infected rat. In this manner, the Black Death spread to humans along the Silk Road, early on reaching cities in Palestine and Syria such as Jerusalem and Damascus. Eventually, through trade along the Silk Road, the Black Death spread to places in Northern Africa such as Tunis. This was not the first time a disease that had passed through Northern Africa had spread through the Silk Road. Another plague, Justinian's Plague, devastated the Mediterranean world and was believed to have started somewhere in East Africa, traveling to the Mediterranean world during 541 to 544. The Silk Road was instrumental, just like in the case of the Black Death, in spreading Justinian's Plague. Although the Silk Road was a key component in spreading the Black Death by land from Central Asia, sea trade from ports along the Silk Road was another major element in spreading the Black Death westward.

Where the Silk Road ended, on the shores of the Black Sea and further south towards the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Death could not spread any further by land. However, "the plague carrying fleas and rats were picked up in merchant ships." These merchant ships would dock at ports throughout Africa and Europe, spreading the plague inland. Although sailors aboard the merchant ships were usually all dead by the time the ships docked at their destinations, the rats that had infected the ships would disembark and proceed to spread the Yersinia pestis bacteria. Another way that historians think that the Yersinia pestis bacteria could have spread through sea trade was from a "load of marmot pelts…, [that were]contaminated with plague-bearing flea eggs, was brought from somewhere in Central Asia to a Middle Eastern port [via the Silk Road]. There the eggs hatched into fleas that infected some local rats; some of the [infected] rats eventually went on shipboard and were carried to port cities." The Black Death after spreading across Central Asia by the Silk Road, infected ships that were traveling to Northern Africa and Europe; however, only after this spread did the human devastation begin.

Between 1347 and 1349, the Black Death killed a large portion of the human population in Asia, the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Europe. Estimates of the death toll are scarce and varied. However, in China, the Black Death killed about 25 million, two-thirds of the population, and in Europe, it killed nearly 34 million people, one-third of the population. In 1347, early in the spread of the Black Death, the plague was affecting the Volga River, Lower Egypt, and southern Italy. By 1348, the Black Death had spread further to Palestine, Arabia, Tunisia, northern Italy, and France. Finally, in 1349, the Black Death reached England and northern Germany. The progress of the spread shows a general westward trend that had started on the Silk Road in Central Asia at Lake Issyk-Kul in 1338 and affected the Volga River in 1347.

The Black Death started in Central Asia in 1338 and spread by land on the Silk Road to the Middle East, and later by sea into Northern Africa and Europe. Thus, it can be deduced that the Black Death radiated westward. Rats were important in the spread of the Black Death as the plague infected one rat population after another on the Silk Road. The rats subsisted on the Silk Road because of the garbage left by humans. Therefore, the rats helped disseminate the Black Death by way of the Silk Roads directly from Central Asia to the Middle East. However, the Black Death spread further to Northern Africa and Europe because the infected rats hid in ships leaving from eastern ports on the Silk Road that were destined for Northern African and European ports. The Black Death's spread from Central Asia to points west illustrates how the Silk Road linked Asia, the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Europe during the 14th century.

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