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Oct 28, 2022

The Silk Road, or roads more appropriately, has been in use for thousands of years. Horses, jade, gold, and of course silk flowed across the trade routes. As did spices - and knowledge. The term Silk Road was coined by a German geographer named Ferdinand van Richthofen in 1870 to describe a network of routes that was somewhat formalized in the second century that some theorize date back 3000 years, given that silk has been found on Egyptian mummies from that time - or further. The use of silk itself in China in fact dates back perhaps 8,500 years.

Chinese silk has been found in Scythian graves, ancient Germanic graves, and along mountain ranges and waterways around modern India gold and silk flowed between east and west. These gave way to empires along the Carpathian Mountains or Kansu Corridor. There were Assyrian outposts in modern Iran and the Sogdia built cities around modern Samarkand in Uzbekistan, an area that has been inhabited since the 4th millennium BCE. The Sogdians developed trading networks that spanned over 1,500 miles - into ancient China. The road expanded with he Persian Royal Road from the 5th century BCE across Turkey and with the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 300s BCE, the Macedonian Empire pushed into Central Asia into modern Uzbekistan. The satrap Diodotus I claimed independence of one of those areas between the Hindu Kush, Pamirs, and Tengri Tagh mountains, which became known as the Hellenized name Bactria and called the Greco-Bactrian and then Into-Greek Kingdoms by history. Their culture also dates back thousands of years further. 

The Bactrians became powerful enough to push into the Indus Valley, west along the Caspian Sea, and north to the Syr Darya river, known as the Jaxartes at the time and to the Aral Sea. They also pushed south into modern Pakistan and Afghanistan, and east to modern Kyrgyzstan. To cross the Silk Road was to cross through Bactria, and they were considered a Greek empire in the east. The Han Chinese called them Daxia in the third century BCE. They grew so wealthy from the trade that they became the target of conquest by neighboring peoples once the thirst for silk could not be unquenched in the Roman Empire. The Romans consumed so much silk that silver reserves were worn thin and they regulated how silk could be used - something some of the Muslim’s would do over the next generations. 

Meanwhile, the Chinese hadn’t known where their silk was destined, but had been astute enough to limit who knew how silk was produced. The Chinese general Pan Chao in the first century AD and attempted to make contact with the Roman’s only to be thwarted by Parthians, who acted as the middlemen on many a trade route. It wasn’t until the Romans pushed East enough to control the Persian Gulf that an envoy was sent by Marcus Aurelius that made direct contact with China in 166 AD and from there, spread throughout the kingdom. Justinian even sent monks to bring home silkworm eggs but they were never able to reproduce silk, in part because they didn’t have mulberry trees. Yet, the west had perpetrated industrial espionage on the east, a practice that would be repeated in 1712 when a Jesuit priest found how the Chinese created porcelain. 

The Silk Road was a place where great fortunes could be found or lost. The Dread Pirate Roberts was a character from a movie called the Princess Bride, who had left home to make his fortune, so he could spend his life with his love, Buttercup. The Silk Road had made many a fortune, so Ross Ulbricht used that name on a site he created called the Silk Road, along with Frosty and Attoid. He’d gotten his Bachelors at the University of Texas and Masters at Penn State University before he got the idea to start a website he called the Silk Road in 2011. Most people connected to the site via ToR and paid for items in bitcoins. After he graduated from Penn State, he’d started a couple of companies that didn’t do that well. Given the success of Amazon, he and a friend started a site to sell used books, but Ulbricht realized it was more profitable to be the middle man, as the Parthians had thousands of years earlier. The new site would be Underground Brokers and later changed to The Silk Road. Cryptocurrencies allowed for anonymous transactions. He got some help from others, including two that went by the pseudonyms Smedley (later suspected to be Mike Wattier) and Variety Jones (later suspected to be Thomas Clark).

They started to facilitate transactions in 2011. Business was good almost from the beginning. Then Gawker published an article about the site and more and more attention was paid to what was sold through this new darknet portal. The United States Department of Justice and other law enforcement agencies got involved. When bitcoins traded at less than $80 each, the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) seized 11 bitcoins, but couldn’t take the site down for good. It was actually an IRS investigator named Gary Alford who broke the case when he found the link between the Dread Pirate Roberts and Attoid and then a post that included Ulbricht’s name and phone number. Ulbricht was picked up in San Francisco and 26,000 bitcoins were seized, along with another 144,000 from Ulbricht’s personal wallets. Two federal agents were arrested when it was found they traded information about the investigation to Ulbricht. Ulbricht was also accused of murder for hire, but those charges never led to much. Ulbricht now servers a life sentence.

The Silk Road of the darknet didn’t sell silk. 70% of the 10,000 things sold were drugs. There were also fake identities, child pornography, and through a second site, firearms. There were scammers. Tens of millions of dollars flowed over this new Silk Road. But the secrets weren’t guarded well enough and a Silk Road 2 was created in 2013, which only lasted a year. Others come and go. It’s kinda’ like playing whack-a-mole. The world is a big place and the reach of law enforcement agencies limited, thus the harsh sentence for Ulbricht.