When Asia Was the World

by Stewart Gordon

We Westerners have such short memories. We think that the West -- you know, Europe, America, Australia, those countries -- is Number One. We’re at the top of the heap, the most advanced, richest, and most powerful countries in the world. If we feel anything for the rest of the world, it’s usually pity.

That’s going to be changing in the next few decades. Asia is enjoying fabulous growth, much greater than what the Western countries achieve. It won’t be long before China’s is the largest economy in the world. India is further behind, but they’ll probably surpass even the USA eventually. America in the 21st Century will experience what Britain experienced in the 20th Century: a decline in power, influence, relative wealth, and importance.

This process will merely put an end to what was, historically, a large-scale fluke, in the sense of “fluctuation”. The shift in power from Asia to the West was a dramatic deviation from historical norms: right up until about 1500 CE, Asia was the dominant economic force on the planet, the site of the largest economies, the most advanced technologies, the bulk of human population, and the most erudite scholars. This book shows how far Asia was ahead of the West by presenting epitomes of the tales of eight travelers during this period. The author rightly omits Marco Polo -- after all, everybody knows his story. All of these stories are true; they are based on the memoirs of the travelers themselves, as well as information from other sources.

His first tale is of Xuanzang, a Buddhist monk in China who determined to trek to India to learn from the great centers of Buddhist learning there. He began his trek in 618 CE, but Chinese authorities have always been rather xenophobic and they attempted to prevent Xuanzang from leaving China, but he eluded them and traveled west into Central Asia. This fellow traveled almost 5,000 miles westward to Bukhara and Samarkand before rounding the Himalayas and turn east towards India. He traversed Afghanistan and Kashmir before reaching the Indian subcontinent, which he also traversed. Ironically, his starting point was only about 1500 miles from his destination, but he had to travel some 8,000 miles to go around the Himalayas. He stopped at many monasteries along the way and learned a great deal from the Buddhist masters there. Then he returned by the same path he took earlier, arriving back in China 14 years later, laden with books and knowledge. He was welcomed back by the new Chinese king, and founded a monastery to dispense the wisdom he had gained in India.

Next is Ibn Fadlan, who in 921 CE was sent on a diplomatic mission from Baghdad to the camp of a steppe king located near what is now Volgograd, on the Volga River. Along the way he had to cross the lands of a number of hostile sovereigns, and the riches he brought with him were just barely adequate to bribe his way out of trouble. His mission was a failure; the distant king, Almish, was expecting a gift of a large amount of money, which Ibn Fadlan had not brought. Narrowly avoiding execution at Almish’s hands, he somehow made it back to Baghdad to tell the Caliph that the mission was a failure. As with Xuanzang, the circuitous route he had to take made his entire journey some 10,000 miles long. And he did the whole thing in just two years!

Our third wayfarer didn’t travel as far as the others: he went from Isfahan in Persia to Balkh in what is now Kazakstan. His name was Ibn Sina, and he wandered around the Islamic east for twenty years, gaining much knowledge, writing prolifically, and always staying one step ahead of the political intrigues that eventually killed almost every distinguished Moslem in those turbulent times. Indeed, Ibn Sina’s travels would be better described as a series of narrow escapes from city to city. What’s striking about Ibn Sina is that he read most of the Greek philosophers and attempted to reconcile Islamic philosophy with Greek thought. This is what got him in hot water so often: the conservatives in every city were always after his head. He always escaped them and died in his bed, an old man. But his real impact was just starting. His writings on pharmacology became the standard text all over Islam and Christendom for several hundred years, and his philosophical writings were so thoughtful that Christian thinkers read them -- in Europe, his name was distorted to “Avicenna”. Inspired by his attempt, a Jewish scholar, Maimonides, attempted to reconcile Jewish theology with Greek rationalism. He too failed, his work being rejected by other Jewish scholars -- but they didn’t try to get him killed. Two hundred years after Ibn Sena, a Christian thinker by the name of Thomas Aquinas tried the same thing: reconciling Christian thought with Greek rationalism. He triggered a revolution in Christian thinking; rationalism and logic became quite the rage and set Europe on the path to science and technology.

Our fourth actor is Abraham bin Yiju, a Jewish merchant in the period from about 1100 CE to 1160 CE. He was born in Tunisia, and at the age of 20 set off for Cairo to learn to become a merchant. Jewish merchants in those days had an apprenticing system, and after doing some years of drudgery, bin Yiju was sent off on his first merchant trip. For the next 40 years, he traveled back and forth between Mangalore near the southern tip of India and Aden at the entrance to the Red Sea, mixing in a few trips to Cairo along the way. Most of his trade was in spices, which were in great demand not just in the Islamic world but also in Europe.

Next comes the famous Ibn Battuta, probably the most widely traveled man in the world before Europeans set off on their age of discovery. I had already read a book devoted the Ibn Battuta’s wanderings in the period 1325 - 1356 CE, but Mr. Gordon’s chapter-long synopsis is excellent. He was born in Morocco, the son of a Muslim judge, and so learnt basic Islamic law at home. He set off for Mecca at a tender age but stopped in Cairo for some time, learning at the great seat of Islamic learning there. He also traveled southward on the Nile, attempting to reach Aden, but his path was obstructed by lawless robbers and he had to return to Cairo. From there he traveled on to Mecca, and stayed a year there, learning more and more. At this point, he decided to become a “traveling Muslim judge and scholar” -- an expert of such magnitude that he would be welcomed wherever he went. His journeys after that are a dizzying list of places all over Asia: Damascus, Constantinople, Baghdad, into the Caucasus and north of the Caspian Sea, then on to Samarkand, Balkh, and Bukhara before proceeding to Delhi. From there he traveled to Kalikut in the southwest of India, then on to the Maldive Islands and then north to Bengal. He claims to have then gone all the way to Beijing, but this claim is doubtful. In any event, he rounded off his travels with a long trip down the eastern coast of Africa all the way to Mombasa and Kilwa. Eventually, Ibn Battuta returned home to Morocco, but apparently he made a quick trip to Grenada in southern Spain and another trip to Timbuktu.

The next traveler is Ma Huan, who accompanied the Chinese fleets of exploration between 1413 and 1431 CE. These fleets penetrated the Indian ocean and visited all the major ports on that ocean, including many African ports. Ma Huan carefully documented everything he saw during those trips, providing us with a glimpse of everyday life in those areas. Although there were plenty of interesting anecdotes, the most interesting tale is how his memoirs survived. After the last trip in 1431 CE, the Chinese government reversed course, closed its ports, and destroyed both the fleet and all records of its travels. Somehow Ma Huan’s memoir escaped the flames.

I won’t say much about Babur, the next traveler, who was also a king who eventually conquered India. Instead, I’ll close with the sad tale of Tome Pires, a Portuguese official who operated in various Portuguese outposts on the Indian Ocean. Just after he had decided to go home a moderately wealthy man, the big kahuna of Portuguese operations in the Indian Ocean asked him to lead a diplomatic mission to the Emperor of China. Pires accepted the offer. The small Portuguese fleet traveled to one of the southern Chinese ports and attempted to enter a port there. The Chinese authorities were still in their xenophobic period (this was 1515 CE) and would not permit him to set foot on Chinese soil until they got permission from the Emperor. This took a long time, and when they were finally allowed to debark, they were not allowed to proceed to Beijing. They waited more years. Eventually they made it to Beijing, but never got to see the Emperor. Their behavior was insulting to the Chinese, who still considered China to be the center of the world and their Emperor to be the ruler of the world. Ambassadors from distant lands brought lavish gifts to demonstrate their subservience. These Portuguese acted like they were the equals of the Emperor. So they were imprisoned and eventually executed. There is, however, some uncertainty as to Tome Pires’ fate; there is evidence that he was spared and permitted to live out his life in a small Chinese town.

Asia was a huge and complicated place a thousand years ago, far advanced compared to Europe. We Westerners got a big head start on them, but now they’re closing the gap and will eventually catch up, then surpass us.