The Silk Roads

The Silk Roads

This is an educator idea for teaching the significance of the Silk Roads to cultural development. The idea involves linking a map of the Silk Roads during China's Han Dynasty to Italian explorer Marco Polo’s descriptions of the area and to current-day photographs.


5 - 8


Geography, Social Studies, World History

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Ideas for Use in the Classroom

Marco Polo was an Italian explorer who traveled with his family across Asia. The family left home in 1271 C.E. and arrived at Xanadu, the summer palace of the Chinese emperor, Kublai Khan, in 1275. Marco’s father Nicolo was a merchant from Venice, Italy, and he had established a profitable trading relationship with China. To make trading with China easier, the Polos embarked on their journey from Venice to establish a home in what is now Uzbekistan. They traveled by sea to the Persian Gulf, and then they took a caravan route across the Gobi Desert. Their journey took them through cities that were centers of trade in the ancient world. Because silk was a highly coveted trade good, the route the Polos took to China became known as the Silk Road. As the map shows, however, the term “Silk Road” is not limited to the one route the Polos followed, but rather, it is a network of routes that were established during the Han Dynasty, centuries before the Polos traveled, when China opened up trade with other countries in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and East Africa.

The map shows the Silk Roads during the Han Dynasty. Use the map’s legend to discuss the goods traded and mercantilism in the ancient world. To explain the significance of the Silk Roads, show how they promoted cultural development. Explain that after the Polos arrived in China, Marco spent many years exploring Asia, and he wrote a report to Kublai Khan on the riches of the area. Read excerpts from The Travels of Marco Polo. Then show pictures of the major cities that lie along the Silk Roads today. As an extension activity, have students research the culture of one these cities. Then have them write an essay or create a presentation on the significance of the Silk Roads, using the city they selected as an example.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Roza Kavak
Last Updated

January 9, 2024

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