Trading cities played an important role in the spread of goods on the Silk Road and Indian Ocean trade routes.
- Trading cities played an important role in the spread of goods on the Silk Road and Indian Ocean trade routes.
- With their large populations, access to major resources like food and goods, and complex networks of roads and trade, big cities were natural centers of urbanization and development that contributed to the growth of trade.
- A few examples of major trading cities are Hangzhou, Timbuktu, and Malacca. All are strategically located along major waterways and some were also located along overland trade routes.
Poetically called “The Paradise on the Earth,” the Chinese port city of Hangzhou is surrounded by rolling hills and mountains. When Marco Polo, an Italian explorer, visited the city in the late thirteenth century when he was middle-aged, it would have been bustling with exchange and people—over one million of them! Residents of Hangzhou enjoyed surpluses of fish and rice, goods the city also exported from within China. Foreign merchants enjoyed their own quarter, or section, within the city. By Marco Polo’s time, Hangzhou’s impressive Grand Canal—the world’s largest artificial river—was already over 600 years old. Stretching almost 800 miles, the Grand Canal’s main purpose was to ship grain to Beijing. The canal helped China stay well connected and well fed, which in turn allowed the country to be an active player in international trade.
In addition to being the southernmost stop on the Grand Canal, Hangzhou was strategically located on the East China Sea, making it a natural center of trade. With access to the ocean and maritime trading routes, Hangzhou was adopted by the Song dynasty as its capital city in the thirteenth century.
The Song dynasty’s strong economy and the success of Hangzhou went hand in hand. A surplus of food and goods allowed the Song dynasty and its capital to thrive by exporting goods such as rice, porcelain, silk, iron, steel, gunpowder, and paper. Hangzhou sent goods from the city and surrounding area to points on the Silk Road and to other, farther trade partners via maritime trading networks across the Indian Ocean. For example, Hangzhou was able to bring spices from South Asia to China.
Map of the Grand Canal, running from Beijing south to Hangzhou, approximately 1012 miles.
How did the Song dynasty affect Hangzhou’s success as a trading city?
A map of Timbuktu, also known as Tombouctou, and the trade routes to Morocco and Europe, to Egypt, and to Ethiopia and Arabia.
Another city that benefitted from its strategic location along trade routes was Timbuktu, or Tomboctou. Located in modern-day Mali in West Africa, Timbuktu is situated on the Niger River and links North Africa with tropical regions farther south.
Timbuktu was part of the Mali empire from the thirteenth century until the end of the fifteenth century. Malian rulers taxed the trade that passed through their realm, increasing the wealth of their empire. Scholars from North Africa were drawn to the economically stable city as a peaceful center where they could concentrate on learning. Malian rulers valued learning; they welcomed Muslim scholars and offered them places to eat and sleep.
Especially valuable trade items that passed through Timbuktu included rock salt from the Saharan salt pans and gold brought by land from the south, in what is today Ghana. Enslaved people were also exchanged along the trade routes that passed through the city. These people were most likely non-Muslims who were brought from southern parts of Africa. They were traded mostly into North Africa but some of them ended up in the Saharan salt mines.
Goods flowed from north to south as well. North African horses, weapons, books, and brass bowls changed hands in Timbuktu before heading south. All this trade was made possible through massive camel caravans—up to 25,000 camels connected Mali and North Africa!
As with Hangzhou, Timbuktu thrived because it had a mutually beneficial relationship with its empire. When Timbuktu prospered, the Mali empire was able to tax trade goods, supporting economic stability. Economic stability in turn created a peaceful environment conducive to trade. Additionally, Malian rulers encouraged scholars to settle in the city. As a center for both learning and trade, Timbuktu was an influential part of the African trade system and a booming city.
Why were scholars, especially Muslim scholars, drawn to Timbuktu?
How did trade in Timbuktu help the Mali empire, and how did the stability of the Mali empire help the city of Timbuktu?
Map of the Niger River and surrounding modern-day republics, including Guinea, Mali, Niger, Benin, and Nigeria; Timbuktu is located in Mali on the Niger River.
A map of the Strait of Malacca, connecting China to India through trade routes.
Another city that benefited from its location was Malacca—also known as Melaka—in modern-day Malaysia. Established as a port city in the 1390s, Malacca lay at one end of a strait, a narrow passage of water connecting two bigger bodies of water. The city’s location is what is known as a maritime choke point—a segment of an important transportation route that is easily controlled. The Strait of Malacca was the shortest path between China and India, and thus was a frequently used trade route.
In order to keep the waterway safe, local authorities under the Malacca sultanate, an independent Muslim state, oversaw and controlled traffic through the strait. Malacca rulers paid native residents of the areas around the Strait of Malacca—called the Orang Laut, or Sea People—to oversee the waterways around the strait and to chase off pirates. The Orang Laut also helped guide merchants to the city of Malacca. Thanks to the relationship Malacca maintained with the Orang Laut, Malacca was a safe travel and trade destination.
Like the rulers of Hangzhou and Timbuktu, Malay rulers taxed the goods that passed through the strait—but not so heavily that people avoided the area. Local authorities kept a good balance of safety and a steady income for their dynasty, allowing the city to flourish and trade goods to pass freely from China to India.
Impacts of urbanization
Access to wealth, knowledge, and goods from far and wide drove urbanization in places like Hangzhou, Timbuktu and Malacca. Although urban areas were usually less healthy places to live, trading cities pulled people to them with their thriving economies and job opportunities. These bustling cities became the places where cultures, ideas, and technological innovations were exchanged and spread.
Want to join the conversation?
- What made those cities mentioned different from Constantinople? Or Rome? Or Mecca?
All of them were trading cities.(11 votes)
- Hangzhou’s location made it a trading city because(6 votes)
- Because it was in an ideal position for access to the ocean and maritime trading routes, it became so important the Song dynasty made it its capital in the 13th century.(8 votes)
- what are some negative aspects of each city(5 votes)
- Bad sewage, animal manure pollution on the streets, easy transmission of diseases, noise, banditry. All could be possible in any city.(7 votes)
- Did Hangzhou serve as a rest stop for ships involved in long-distance trade, or did it not due to it being one of the last stops in the Indian Ocean Trade Basin? What was a major import of Hangzhou?(4 votes)
- What made those cities mentioned different from Constantinople? Or Rome? Or Mecca(1 vote)