Everyone knows that in 1492 an Italian sailor named Cristoforo Colombo sailed the ocean blue, stumbling across what we would eventually come to call the Americas. But while his voyage may have been the first of its kind, he was by no means the first explorer. With the exception of the Americas, the late medieval world from which Columbus emerged was one of long-established contact, as trade and curiosity sent out earlier explorers, seeking across both land and sea.
The information superhighway of the medieval world were undoubtedly the ones sailed and trod upon through trade. From the Sahel to across the Sahara, through the Mediterranean to Central Asia, from East Africa to the Arabian peninsula to India, China and beyond, trade linked far-flung people who had never had face-to-face contact. Not only goods traveled these routes, but languages, customs, religions and various aspects of culture. Some of these routes had existed since antiquity, and would only expand through the medieval era. The Trans-Saharan trade routes linked the medieval Sudanic kingdoms of Ghana, Mali and Songhai with North Africa and the larger Muslim world, sending gold, ivory and slaves across the desert through caravans to the East. Kingdoms like Kanem-Bornu carved out an empire from this trade, situating themselves at a midpoint near Lake Chad, establishing trade routes to Cairo, Axum and as far as the seaport of Aden. What came back was much-needed salt, horses for cavalry-based armies, silk and ceramics from China and India, and Islam. It was a trade that predated Columbus voyage by centuries, altering the physical and cultural demographics of the Middle East with an influx of West African slaves as soldiers, laborers and concubines.
In the late medieval era, the powerful Italian city-states of Genoa and Venice plowed the ancient trade routes of the Mediterranean, linking the wealth of Constantinople with cities in the Near East like Antioch and Tyre, and those in North Africa like Alexandria, Tripoli, Tunis and Algiers, continuing along Iberia into Northern Europe, and making connections with the Germanic Hanseatic League. From Constantinople and the Near East came slaves (Slavic peoples from Black Sea markets) as well as silk, spices, gold, sugar and more, all of which they supplied to eager European markets. Their ideal location made them the gateway to the East for Western Europe, allowing them to reap enormous wealth. From Antioch and Tyre, stretching through Central Asia, through India and to China, was the famed Silk Road, which not only brought the precious cloth, but numerous other goods as well as customs and cultural practices as diverse as Islam and Buddhism. The Indian Ocean trade linked East African ports like Mombasa and as far south as Sofala (a city in the medieval Shona kingdom of Mutapa in modern-day Mozambique) with Arabia and India, creating a vibrant exchange of people (both forced and voluntary) as well as cultures, seen for instance in the flourishing cosmopolitan medieval Swahili city-states, and the Swahili language itself. The average person of the medieval world may not have been able to travel far beyond their village or city, but through the routes of trade, they were more than aware that various people who looked different, who practiced different customs and who held different beliefs, shared this world with them.
Traveling these routes were merchants and traders, intrepid explorers of their day; though none would probably equal the Chinese explorer Zheng He. If the Silk Road was China’s most well-known overland route of trade, Zheng He would help establish a maritime route and achieve naval dominance for China during the early 15th century. Born to Muslim Hui, Zheng He eventually became a court eunuch for the reestablished Han dynasty of the Ming, who had pushed out the former Mongol conquerors. Becoming a trusted adviser to the prince and later emperor, Zheng He would lead a vast Chinese armada on seven naval expeditions between 1405 and 1433 on behalf of the Ming.
The purpose of these voyages was to assert Chinese power within the Indian Ocean trade, show off Chinese might and culture to the varied diverse people in the region, and establish new tributary states under Chinese authority. The Ming Armada Zheng He led was certainly built for the task, towering vessels said to be 400 ft long, the most massive wooden ships ever built. For comparison the largest of Columbus’s ships on his first voyage, the Santa Maria, was a mere 60 ft (see below). Zheng He’s fleet was said to number over 300 in total.
Zheng He’s voyages took him to what would become modern-day Thailand, Malaysia, Java, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, ports in India, Arabia and all along East Africa. Everywhere the armada went, it brought goods from China and other lands visited, filling the ships’ massive hulls with as much as they could carry–with everything from spices to giraffes. Zheng He himself was said to visit both Muslim and Buddhist shrines along the way, bringing aspects of Chinese culture to far off lands. The impression Zheng He’s armada made on the places he visited became legendary; and in parts of Southeast Asia, his memory was revered and is celebrated to this day in local ceremony.
In 1271, the 17-year old Venetian explorer Marco Polo left with his father and uncle to see the lands of the East, and in particular to visit the legendary wealthy court of the Muslim Mongol ruler Kublai Khan. The odyssey would carry on for 24-years, over 15,000 miles, stretching across Kublai Khan’s vast empire that included parts of modern-day Russia, India, China and even Indonesia (then, Sumatra). While not as impressive in size or breadth as the later Zheng He, the voyages of the 13th century Venetian left an indelible impression on medieval Mediterranean Europe, introducing them to a world with places and people of which they had before known little. It took Polo and his uncle some three years to reach China alone, traveling through Turkey, Iraq and Afghanistan, along the Silk Road, and writing about the people, customs, land, animals and goods he found there. On his way back he came across jewels in Indonesia and Hinduism in India, not arriving back home until 1305. In prison, following his capture during one of the many wars that plagued the Italian city-states, he met a man who was willing to create a book based on his travels.
While some of his claims have come under doubt (such as his ever reaching China), other observations in parts of Asia appear to have been corroborated. Though tales of Marco Polo’s introducing items such as “pasta” to Italy are unfounded (Italians had been eating pasta for centuries prior), his writings and the other treasures he brought back fascinated Europeans for centuries–including, nearly two hundred years later, a young Christopher Columbus, who kept a copy of Polo’s book.
In 1325, a 21-year-old legal scholar named Muhammad Ibn Battua left his home in Tangier, set on making a pilgrimage to Mecca. The journey would take him some 30 years, during which time he would not only visit the holy city, but travel the full breadth of the then Muslim world. If trade stimulated Zheng He and Marco Polo, for Ibn Battua the impetus was spiritual and intellectual, a desire to see all of Dar-al-Islam, those various places in the world that were now the “abode of Islam.” Battua set out to seek connection with the umma, the larger community of the Muslim world, which he believed would be unified by one culture and faith.
What he found however surprised him–a world where Muslim communities were as deeply influenced by traditions of local culture, as they were by the faith. In Turkey he was shocked by Muslim women who asserted power over their husbands, and in China he barely recognized the Islam practiced by the Mongols. Ibn Battua found Muslims who barely spoke Arabic, wore clothing that scandalized his moral sensibilities and did not share his particular worldview. In other words, the young Muslim traveler had discovered difference, and how vast and divergent it could be from his expectations.
Battua wrote all this down eventually in a book called the Rihla, or Journey. His claims, like Marco Polo’s, have come under dispute. And it is speculated that rather than visiting all of these places, he may have relied on the words of traders he encountered along his journey. Battua also gives us some insight into how humans deal with difference, as he repeatedly makes some stark judgments–and at times seemingly biased exaggerations. Yet as an explorer, his writings would travel not only through Muslim lands but become known to Christian scholars as well, giving insight that if not wholly factual, did depict a large and diverse world.
These varied tales of travel would have a profound effect in parts of Western Europe, and in the late 14th century, Charles the V of France commissioned a Jewish manuscript illuminator, Cresques Abraham, to create a map of the then known world–the result being the famed Catalan Atlas. By the late 15th century, such cartography along with the trade goods, writings and cultures of these earlier explorers and traders, would inspire a new generation of Portuguese sailors, eager to reach the places of which they had heard so much but knew so little. Oh, and did I mention they were also preparing for the Apocalypse?
In the next installment, how the fall of Constantinople, the search for a mythical Christian King and expectations of an imminent Armageddon helped inaugurate the Iberian-led Age of Exploration- Hunting Prestor John in the End Times.