Documents written by men who lived, worked and traveled to Asia between 500 and 1500 CE portray thriving trading centers from Arabia to China.
Gordon (Center for South Asian Studies/Univ. of Michigan) synthesizes elaborate detail from these eight memoirs to convey their historical pertinence to the lay reader. Each of the travelers came into contact with diverse people and made startling cultural discoveries. The Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang roamed from the Yellow River to Tashkent and eventually into India, writing about his marvelous adventures during the years 618–632 as he connected with religious groups practicing Taoism and Zoroastrianism. Ibn Fadlan was sent from Baghdad to the Bulgar kingdom near the Volga River in 921; his text enables the author to explain the early dissemination of Islam. Through the autobiography of Neoplatonic philosopher Ibn Sina, we glimpse the intellectual network teeming in Baghdad during the period 1020–1036, when the Abbasid dynasty fostered a range of inventions (the zero, algorithm, astrolabe), translations from Greek and Latin, philosophical inquiry and the use of paper. The travels of Jewish spice trader Abraham bin Yiju between Mangalore, India and Cairo from 1120 to 1160 reveal the period’s trust-based business model and the extensive range of trade routes. Imperial Muslim diplomat Ibn Battuta’s 14th-century memoir demonstrates that rich questing travelers were the vital mechanism keeping cities like Delhi, Damascus and Mecca in touch. Chinese Muslim Ma Huan’s account of expeditions he joined in 1413 and 1421 provides a rare portrait of the Ming imperial fleets. Babur, head of a Mongol army of the steppe, records the movement of marauding horse-driven tribes from 1494 to 1526. Portuguese apothecary Tomé Pires headed the first diplomatic mission to China in 1517, precipitating the clash between white and Asian civilization. All of the narratives reveal the highly connected interplay of commodities and ideas that enriched Asia.
Pared-down, brief vignettes provide an intimate complement to David Levering Lewis’s God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570–1215 (2008).