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.
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
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
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