Transformations in Asia and Africa on the Eve of European Overseas Expansion


The collapse of the Mongol Empire in the 14th century C.E. marked a major turning point in the history of Eurasia and the rest of the world. Even before the rise of the Mongols, the appearance of the Turks in western Eurasia had marked the beginning of an important new phase of Islamic history and civilization. Turkish military power, combined with Persian culture, a revived Sunni Islam, and Sufism had reversed the ascendancy of Ismai’ili Shi’ism, expanded the boundaries of the Muslim world, and redefined the nature of Muslim society. The chaos and destruction of the Crusader and Mongol era, coupled with the advent of technological changes, particularly the use of gunpowder, further set the stage for a major transformation of the political map of the Islamic world and the full blossoming of Turko-Persian civilization. 

    By the late 15th century, much of the western part of the Islamic world had been reunited under the Sunni Ottoman Empire, one of the most powerful, advanced, and important Muslim states ever created. By the late 16th century, the Safavids, a shorter lived Shi'ite rival of the Ottomans, had reunited most of the Persian speaking lands, gave them their Twelver Shi’ite character, and presided over an economically prosperous and artistically brilliant society out of which the modern nation-state of Iran would develop. The same period saw the establishment of the Mughal Empire in India, the largest, most powerful, and most creative of the Muslim states of South Asia. Both gunpowder technology and the spread of Islam would also have transformative effects in much of Africa.

    With the advantages of gunpowder weapons, new religious ideologies, and creative approaches to institutional structures, these empires were able to centralize their governments and enhance the authority of their rulers to a degree unknown for centuries. They brought still more areas under Islamic rule and grappled with the challenges of governing and unifying large, multi-cultural states. They tended to incorporate Persian and Turko-Mongol concepts of the ruler as an agent of the divine who had absolute authority and the right to create his own laws. This was always a potential source of tension and conflict with the traditional Muslim ulama, who accepted the ruler as a ghazi, or warrior for the faith, but also felt he was obliged to uphold the existing religious law.

    At the same time, the end of Mongol expansion and the establishment of the Pax Mongolica had temporarily halted the advance of Islam and given Christian Europe a breathing space. As the Mongols favored trade, and provided the safest and most secure routes ever known (either before or since), European merchants for the first time had found free and direct access to the luxury goods of eastern Asia, especially China, at increasingly affordable prices. In addition, the dissemination of gunpowder technology (among others) as well as the devastation of the plague, also helped to transform power relationships within and between European states. With the collapse of the Mongol Empire, on the other hand, and the resurgence of Islamic power, western Christendom increasingly felt itself under siege. As the new Muslim empires emerged across Southwest and Central Asia, trade once again became restrictive and relatively unsafe for Europeans – and above all, expensive. As security plummeted and prices rose, European merchants and their customers became increasingly desperate to find some alternate route to re-establish direct contact with the markets of East and Southeast Asia. Not least, the revival of an expansionist Muslim world also made them anxious to find potential converts to Christianity or at the very least military allies against the ominously advancing power of Islam.

     Meanwhile, in East Asia itself, the collapse of Mongol power paved the way for a resurgence of traditionalist Chinese civilization. At the same time, it also left eastern Asia relatively isolated from the rest of the world. Although China would use this isolation to establish new, stable forms of political, social and cultural organization, in the long run the Chinese would also pay a high price for having temporarily lost touch with the rest of the world.


977-1186         Ghaznavid Dynasty

1038-1194       Seljuk Dynasty

1258                Destruction of Baghdad and the Abbasid Caliphate

1281                Foundation of Ottoman Empire

1453                Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks

1683                Failure of Ottoman seige of Vienna

1501-1732       Safavid Dynasty

1526-1707       Period of Mughal Dominance in India