Cross Cultural Connections between East and West

Between 1000 and 1500, travel, trade and communication within the Eastern hemisphere took place on a scale hitherto unknown. Long distance travel became much more common than had previously been noted. Some of this travel involved merchants and explorers from the West, such as the legendary Marco Polo. (Opinion has previously been expressed as to whether he was a real person or ever made the voyages of which his journal spoke. For purposes of this exercise, it is assumed that he did exist and that his journals are true.)

Two primary methods of travel were employed for long distance trade. Luxury items with high value relative to their weight (silk, textiles, gems, etc.) traveled on the traditional silk roads. Steel, coral, building materials, etc; all heavy compared to their value, traveled on Sea lanes on the Indian Ocean. Travel on the silk roads covered the entire Eurasian landmass. Also, caravan routes crossing the Sahara brought western Africa into the larger trade system. Land and sea routes touched every corner of the eastern hemisphere.

As trade increased, major trading cities and ports grew rapidly, which attracted buyers and sellers as well as brokers and bankers. Cities such as Baghdad, Alexandria, Constantinople, Vince and Timbuktu had large foreign quarters occupied by merchants. The keys to success of a merchant city was that it be located strategically in an area advantageous for trade; maintained order, and did not charge excessive fees for merchants trading there. An example is the city of Melaka (sometimes spelled Malacca) in modern Malaysia. It was founded in the 1390’s but became an important trading center. City authorities patrolled the Straits of Malacca and maintained a safe market, and fees levied on trade were reasonable. By the end of the 1500’s, it had a population of over 40,000 people. Later, a Portuguese merchant reported that more than eighty languages could be heard in its streets.

Mongol campaigns in the thirteenth century caused considerable disruption to trade, particularly in China and South Asia where they toppled the Song and Abbasid dynasties. They also destroyed cities and irrigation systems or allowed them to fall into disrepair. However, the Mongols did lay the groundwork for a surge in long distance trade, as merchants along the silk roads had less risk of banditry or political turmoil than before. Eventually, strong economies in China and Western Europe caused an increase in demand for foreign goods. Merchants from Europe began traveling directly to China in pursuit of profit; an example being the Viennese merchant, Marco Polo.

Marco’s father and uncle, Niccolo and Maffeo Polo, were some of the first European merchants to visit China. They traveled and traded throughout the area from 1260-1269, and met Kublai Khan, the Mongol ruler of China. They returned to China in 1271 with Marco, who was then seventeen years old. To believe his journals, Kublai Khan took an interest in him because of his talents as a conversationist and story teller. (Must have went to Waccamaw) Marco not only was allowed to trade in China but also was sent on a number of diplomatic missions by the Khan. The Polo’s remained in China for seventeen years before returning to Venice by way of Sumatra, Ceylon, India and Arabia. They arrived in Venice in 1295. Presumably, Marco was captured as a prisoner of war in a dispute between Venice and Genoa, its commercial rival. While in prison, he told the tale of his travels to a fellow prisoner who was also a writer of romances. This latter writer compiled the story into a large book which became extremely popular in Europe. Christopher Columbus possessed a copy with notations in Latin in the margins.

Not everyone believed the stories told in the book, even at the time of its publication. Many referred to it as Il Millione ("the million lies.") Regardless of its authenticity, it made millions for the writer.

The book, A Map of the World, or the Travels of Marco Polo, mentioned textiles, spices, gems, and other items of interest he observed in his travels. These comments caught the attention of European merchants who were eager to participate in trade in the area, as it would obviously be lucrative. Hundreds of Europeans, primarily Italians, were soon traveling to Asia to trade. Other Europeans followed in their wake.

Political and diplomatic contact between cultures also arose at the same time as interest by merchants. The Mongol rulers of China had not trusted their Chinese subjects and had appointed foreigners to administrative posts within the empire. Marco Polo claimed that Kublai Khan had appointed him as governor of the trading city of Yangzhou. There is no way to independently verify his claim, even Chinese records do not reflect it, but his status as a foreigner may have been enough to secure appointment to some diplomatic office.

Political and Diplomatic Travel: Elaborate trading networks and the establishment of large imperial states created a demand for political and diplomatic representation. In the thirteenth century, both Mongols and western Europeans considered a military alliance with each other against their common enemies, the Muslims. The Mongols were attacking the Abbasid empire from the east at the same time Europeans were attempting to revive the failed crusading movement in order to attack them from the west. In the mid thirteenth century, Pope Innocent IV sent envoys to the Mongol khans with an invitation to convert to Christianity and join the Europeans in a war against the Muslims. The Khans declined the invitation, and proposed instead that the pope and western Europe submit to Mongol rule or face destruction.

Their claim was not that far fetched. Had it not been for the death of Genghis Khan, Mongol armies may have continued their westward march.

Still later, the Mongols proposed an alliance. In 1287, the Mongol ilkhan of Persia planned to invade Muslim lands in Southwest Asia and capture Jerusalem. He dispatched Rabban Sauma, a Nestorian Christian priest born in Khanbaliq, the Mongol capital, but of Turkish ancestry, as an envoy to the Pope and European political leaders. He met with the kings of France and England, the Pope, and other high church officials. Although he was received graciously, he did not succeed in attracting support for the mission. In 1295, Ghazan, the new ilkhan of Persia, converted to Islam, and any possibility of a European/Mongol alliance was ended.

As Islamic influence spread in the East, the demand for Muslims educated in the sharia (which prescribed religious observances and social relationships based on the Qur’an) increased. Educated Muslims from southwest Asia and north Africa regularly traveled to newly converted lands to instill Islamic values. The best known of the Muslim travelers was Ibn Battuta, (1304-1369) who visited lands primarily ruled by Muslim rulers but which had few Muslims educated in Islamic law. Ibn Battuta had significant legal credentials, and had little trouble finding government positions. At one point, he was qadi and advisor to the sultan of Delhi where he heard cases at law and strictly enforced Islamic standards of justice. He was not lenient: in one instance, he sentenced a man to eighty lashes because the man had drunk wine eight years earlier. He later acquired a similar post in the Maldive Islands and zealously promoted proper Islamic observance. He ordered lashings for men who did not attend Friday prayers, and sentenced a thief to lose his right hand, all as prescribed by the sharia. He attempted to persuade island women to cover their breasts, in accordance with Islamic standards of modesty, but there he failed. Next he traveled to east and west Africa where he worked as a consultant on Islamic affairs. Details of his life and experiences have not been preserved; but it is evident that he offered guidance in Islam to those recently converted.

Missionary Efforts: Sufi mystics also worked to spread Islamic values throughout the East. They did not insist on strict observance of Islam, but rather emphasized piety and devotion to Allah. They tolerated reverence to traditional deities whom they treated as manifestations of Allah and his powers. Their flexible approach allowed them to spread Islamic values without facing the resistance that would have been provoked by an unyielding, doctrinaire approach.

Roman Catholic missionaries also made long distance trips in hopes of spreading Christianity. Many missionaries accompanied the Crusaders; and in lands where Europeans maintained a long term presence, such as the Balkans, Sicily and Spain, they attracted large numbers of converts to Roman Catholicism. The result was the firm establishment of Roman Christianity. In areas which the Crusaders could not hold permanently, Christianity remained a minority faith.

Some Roman Catholic missionaries attempted to convert the Chinese and Mongols. Prior to the advent of trade with China and the far East, only Nestorian Christians had a significant presence in that region. However, as merchants traveled to China and set up trading communities, they created a demand for Roman Catholic services. Most of the priests who traveled to the area probably only intended to serve the merchants there; but some also attempted to attract converts among the locals.

The most active of the Roman Catholic missionaries was John of Montecorvino, an Italian Franciscan who went to China in 1291 and became the first archbishop of Khanbaliq in 1307. He translated the New Testament and book of Psalms into Turkish, a language which the Mongols commonly used and built several churches in China. He baptized young boys from Chinese and Mongol families and taught them Latin and Roman Catholic rituals. He claimed to have baptized six thousand people at one point. He was extremely popular, but attracted little interest among the Chinese. Christianity simply did not appeal to them. Other efforts to convert the Chinese also had little success. The people of east Asia already had sophisticated religious and cultural traditions, such that Christianity had little appeal. Even so, missionaries continued their efforts until the mid fourteenth century when the last Mongol dynasty collapsed and epidemic diseases disrupted long distance travel across Eurasia.

Cross Cultural Exchanges: Songs, stories, religious ideas, and philosophical views all passed readily among travelers across Eurasia. The troubadours of western Europe drew on Muslim poetry, music and love songs, and European scientists relied on Muslim learning about the natural world. Additionally, technological and agricultural practices were diffused throughout Eurasia. The compass, invented in China, spread to European mariners. Its use allowed mariners to sail over long stretches of water and navigate safely. Citrus fruits and Asian strains of rice were introduced to Africa in the eleventh century. Cotton was also introduced, and became popular among the ruling classes of west African kingdoms. Cotton grew well in African savannahs, and soon became the principal textile produced in sub-Saharan Africa.

The most significant agricultural diffusion was that of sugarcane. Muslim merchants had begun large scale production of sugarcane during the Abbasid caliphate. They had attempted to grow it in west Africa but because of adverse climate had limited success. By the twelfth century, European crusaders had been introduced to crystallized sugar refined from cane. (Europeans had previously sweetened their food with fruit and honey.) The benefits of refined sugar were obvious, and Italian merchants began organizing sugarcane plantations in the Mediterranean Islands of Sicily, Cyprus, Crete, and Rhodes. The demand for sugar was insatiable, and other areas were sought out for its cultivation. Sadly, the need for labor for sugarcane plantations augmented the use of slavery. Europeans, like the Muslims before them, used slaves to work the plantations, and as the number of sugar plantations grew, so did the demand for slaves. Sugar is largely responsible for the diffusion of slavery into the West.

Mongols also were prominent agents of diffusion; primarily by spreading the technology of gunpowder production. They had learned its production from Chinese military engineers and incorporated gunpowder based weapons into their arsenals. Genghis Khan had used an artillery unit as early as 1214. The Mongols used catapults and trebuchets to lob gunpowder bombs into cities under siege. Muslim armies soon developed similar technology in response.

Gunpowder had reached Europe by 1258, possibly by way of Russia which was under Mongol rule. By the mid fourteenth century, armies in China and Europe possessed primitive cannon which were not accurate; but could blow holes in defensive walls of cities. There is some speculation that cannon were discovered accidentally, as gunpowder was first used as a form of firework. By placing it in bells, it created a larger sound and also had the ability to hurl projectiles. The cannon is thus first cousin to the bell. (It was the advent of cannon that marked the death knell of walled cities. Walls were no defense.) The introduction of gunpowder changed forever the nature of war.

Cannon were first used effectively in Europe during the Hundred Years War between France and England (1337-1453.) The war was fought entirely on French soil, and resulted from a disputed claim to the French throne. The cannon at the time created more havoc than destruction, due to the noise and smoke which frightened and confused horses. Far more effective was the English longbow, which allowed archers to fire at targets several hundred feet distant with deadly accuracy. It was after the English victory at the battle of Agincourt in the Hundred Years War that Joan of Arc answered the call to rescue the French. She led the successful siege of the English held city of Orleans, but was betrayed by traitors, captured by the English and burned as a witch.