|A History of the Transportation Revolution|
The history of the road stretches back at least 5000 years and probably more. Satellite images have revealed depressions in the land that indicate ancient roadbeds in the lands in which the ancient civilizations of the Near East developed. The first ancient roads were undoubtedly just paths between settlements beaten hard by travelers over a long period of time. The sunken paths remain, visible by advanced satellite imagery.
The First Roads
The first roads developed from well used places like stream and river fords, mountain passes and other high traffic area. From there these early roads most likely followed game trails and natural features of the land. These early roads sometimes developed into extensive networks which connected settlements for trade and travel, though they were little more than dirt paths in most cases. The predominant traffic on these early roads would have been foot traffic. Later on horses with travois and then wagons would have traveled on them.
Early roads tended to follow hill ridges, as these natural features were already well drained and usually have less dense vegetation. The soil is normally already exposed from wind action and densely packed. These roads have come to be called ridge ways. They developed above flood plains, marshes and swamps and were important in human history as conduits of trade and communication. Wind, rain and other environmental factors tend to erode away the topsoil on hills, exposing harder, rocky subsoil, rocks and boulders. The roads mostly stayed on the southern side of hills, probably because the increased exposure to sunlight made them warmer and dryer than less exposed locations. Ridge ways only descended into valleys when it was necessary to cross a stream or river. Inclines tended to be steep because little, if any, excavating was done. The road's route could vary considerably on large, rounded hills as the ridgeline was wider there and people tended to follow the easiest route, which could change with weather conditions. Loads on the two wheeled carts in use at the time tended to shift during ascents and descents, necessitating constant adjustment of the cargo.
Archaeologists have discovered the first known paved streets in the Middle Eastern region of Mesopotamia. The Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians dominated the region at different times. The oldest roads found to date are at the Tell Arpachiyah in Northern Mesopotamia which dates from 6100 to 5400 BC. The earliest paved streets were in cities where heavy traffic soon churned the streets into clouds of dust or rivers of mud, depending upon the weather. It was up to Darius of Persia to build the first long, paved roads.
Darius, or Darius the Great as he is sometimes called, lived from about 550–486 BCE. Darius built a huge empire that included West Asia, the Caucasus, Thrace-Macedonia, Paeonia as well as portions of the Black Sea region, Central Asia and the Indus Valley. His empire also included parts of Egypt, Sudan and eastern Libya. The Royal Road stretched nearly 1,500 miles across this vast empire. The Greek Historian Herodotus, who lived from about 484 - c.430, wrote that “neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night,” stopped Darius' royal messengers. By utilizing 111 relay stations, these royal messengers could travel the entire road in seven days. At the relay station, the messenger would find a fresh horse, food and water. This journey would normally take three months or more for ordinary travelers. Darius probably used several previous roads to build the Royal Road, improving and connecting them. He paved this road with stone. In addition to its use as the Emperor's post road, Darius could also move his army along it to stem off rebellion or invasion threats quickly. Trade also developed along the Royal Road, as merchants could carry goods over long distances. Eventually, the Royal Road would become part of the longer Silk Road.
The Silk Road was actually a network of roads developed by the Chinese Han Dynasty sometime around 130 BCE. The Silk Road connected with Darius' Royal Road, providing a trade route between Africa, Europe and the Middle East. In 1453 the Ottoman Turks closed access to the road during their period of conquest. The closure of the Silk Road provided impetus to a search for a sea route to China. Christopher Columbus embarked on his voyages, beginning in 1492, in response to this need in his search for a sea route to China.