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UNIT II: 600 - 1450 C.E.

This second era is much shorter than the previous one, but during the years between 600 and 1450 C.E. many earlier trends continued to be reinforced, while some very important new patterns emerged that shaped all subsequent times.


Change over time occurs for many reasons, but three phenomena that tend to cause it are:

  • Mass migrations - Whenever a significant number of people leave one area and migrate to another, change occurs for both the land that they left as well as their destination

  • Imperial conquests - If an empire (or later a country) deliberately conquers territory outside its borders, significant changes tend to follow for both the attackers and the attacked.

  • Cross-cultural trade and exchange - Widespread contact among various areas of the world brings not only new goods but new ideas and customs to all areas involved.

During the classical era (about 1000 BCE to 600 CE), all of these phenomena occurred, as we saw in Unit I. With the fall of the three major classical civilizations, the stage was set for new trends that defined 600-1450 CE as another period with different migrations and conquests, and more developed trade patterns than before. Some major events and developments that characterized this era were:

  • Older belief systems, such as Christianity, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, came to become more important than political organizations in defining many areas of the world. Large religions covered huge areas of land, even though localized smaller religions remained in place.

  • Two nomadic groups - the Bedouins and the Mongols - had a huge impact on the course of history during this era.

  • A new religion - Islam - began in the 7th century and spread rapidly throughout the Middle East, Northern Africa, Europe, and Southeast Asia.

  • Whereas Europe was not a major civilization area before 600 CE, by 1450 it was connected to major trade routes, and some of its kingdoms were beginning to assert world power.

  • Major empires developed in both South America (the Inca) and Mesoamerica (the Maya and Aztec.)

  • China grew to have hegemony over many other areas of Asia and became one of the largest and most prosperous empires of the time.

  • Long distance trade continued to develop along previous routes, but the amount and complexity of trade and contact increased significantly.

This unit will investigate these major shifts and continuities by addressing several broad topics:

  • The Islamic World - Islam began in the Arabian peninsula in the 7th century CE, impacting political and economic structures, and shaping the development of arts, sciences and technology.

  • Interregional networks and contacts - Shifts in and expansion of trade and cultural exchange increase the power of China, connected Europe to other areas, and helped to spread the major religions. The Mongols first disrupted, then promoted, long-distance trade throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe.

  • China's internal and external expansion - During the Tang and Song Dynasties, China experienced an economic revolution and expanded its influence on surrounding areas. This era also saw China taken over by a powerful nomadic group (the Mongols), and then returned to Han Chinese under the Ming Dynasty.

  • Developments in Europe - European kingdoms grew from nomadic tribes that invaded the Roman Empire in the 5th century C.E. During this era, feudalism developed, and Christianity divided in two - the Catholic Church in the west and the Eastern Orthodox Church in the east. In both cases, the Church grew to have a great deal of political and economic power.

  • Social, cultural, economic patterns in the Amerindian world - Major civilizations emerged, building on the base of smaller, less powerful groups from the previous era. The Maya, Aztec, and Inca all came to control large amounts of territory and many other native groups.

  • Demographic and environmental changes - Urbanization continued, and major cities emerged in many parts of the world. Nomadic migrations during the era included the Aztecs, Mongols, Turks, Vikings, and Arabs. Long distance trade promoted the spread of disease, including the plague pandemics in the early fourteenth century.


Islam - the religion with the second largest number of supporters in the world today - started in the sparsely populated Arabian Peninsula among the Bedouins, a nomadic group that controlled trade routes across the desert. In the early 7th century, a few trade towns, such as Mecca and Medina, were centers for camel caravans that were a link in the long distance trade network that stretched from the Mediterranean to eastern China. Mecca was also was the destination for religious pilgrims who traveled there to visit shrines to countless gods and spirits. In the center of the city was a simple house of worship called the Ka'aba, which contained among its many idols the Black Stone, believed to have been placed their by Abraham, the founder of Judaism. Jews and Christians inhabited the city, and they mixed with the majority who were polytheistic.


Islam was founded in Mecca by Muhammad, a trader and business manager for his wife, Khadijah, a wealthy businesswoman. Muhammad was interested in religion, and when he was about 40 he began visiting caves outside the city to find quiet places to meditate. According to Muslim belief, one night while he was meditating Muhammad heard the voice of the angel Gabriel, who told him that he was a messenger of God. Muhammad became convinced that he was the last of the prophets, and that the one true god, Allah, was speaking to him through Gabriel. He came back into the city to begin spreading the new religion, and he insisted that all other gods were false. His followers came to be called Muslims, or people who have submitted to the will of Allah.

Muhammad's ministry became controversial, partly because city leaders feared that Mecca would lose its position as a pilgrimage center of people accepted Muhammad's monotheism. In 622 C.E. he was forced to leave Mecca for fear of his life, and this famous flight to the city of Yathrib became known as the Hijrah, the official founding date for the new religion. In Yathrib he converted many to Islam, and he renamed the city "Medina," or "city of the Prophet." He called the community the umma, a term that came to refer to the entire population of Muslim believers.

As Islam spread, Muhammad continued to draw the ire of Mecca's leadership, and he became an astute military leader in the hostilities that followed. In 630, the Prophet and 10,000 of his followers captured Mecca and destroyed the idols in the Ka'aba. He proclaimed the structure as the holy structure of Allah, and the Black Stone came to symbolized the replacement of polytheism by the faith in one god.


The Five Pillars of faith are five duties at the heart of the religion. These practices represent a Muslim's submission to the will of God.

  • Faith - When a person converts to Islam, he or she recites the Declaration of Faith, "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah." This phrase is repeated over and over in Muslim daily life.

  • Prayer - Muslims must face the city of Mecca and pray five times a day. The prayer often takes place in mosques (Islamic holy houses), but Muslims may stop to pray anywhere. In cities and towns that are primarily Muslim, a muezzin calls people to prayer from a minaret tower for all to hear.

  • Alms - All Muslims are expected to give money for the poor through a special religious tax called alms. Muhammad taught the responsibility to support the less fortunate.

  • Fasting - During the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunup to sundown. Only a simple meal is eaten at the end of the day that reminds Muslims that faith is more important than food and water.

  • Pilgrimage - Muslims are expected to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime. This event, called the hajj, takes place once a year, and people arrive from all over the world in all kinds of conveyances to worship at the Ka'aba and several other holy sites nearby. All pilgrims wear an identical white garment to show their equality before Allah.

The single most important source of religious authority for Muslims is the Qur'an, the holy book believed to be the actual words of Allah. According to Islam, Allah expressed his will through the Angel Gabriel, who revealed it to Muhammad. After Muhammad's death these revelations were collected into a book, the Qur'an. Muhammad's life came to be seen as the best model for proper living, called the Sunna. Using the Qur'an and the Sunna for guidance, early followers developed a body of law known as shari'a, which regulated the family life, moral conduct, and business and community life of Muslims. Shari'a still is an important force in many Muslim countries today even if they have separate bodies of official national laws. In the early days of Islam, shari'a brought a sense of unity to all Muslims.


Muhammad died in 632 CE, only ten years after the hijrah, but by that time, Islam had spread over much of the Arabian Peninsula. Since Muhammad's life represented the "seal of the prophets" (he was the last one), anyone that followed had to be a very different sort. The government set up was called a caliphate, ruled by a caliph (a title that means "successor" or "deputy) selected by the leaders of the umma. The first caliph was Abu-Bakr, one of Muhammad's close friends. He was followed by three successive caliphs who all had known the Prophet, and were "rightly guided" by the Qur'an and the memory of Muhammad. By the middle of the 8th century Muslim armies had conquered land from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indus River, and the caliphate stretched 6000 miles east to west.

Religious zeal certainly played an important role in the rapid spread of Islam during the 7th and 8th centuries C.E. However, several other factors help to explain the phenomenon:

  • Well-disciplined armies - For the most part the Muslim commanders were able, war tactics were effective, and the armies were efficiently organized.

  • Weakness of the Byzantine and Persian Empires - As the Islamic armies spread north, they were aided by the weakness of the empires they sought to conquer. Both the Byzantine and Persian Empires were weaker than they had been in previous times, and many of their subjects were willing to convert to the new religion.

  • Treatment of conquered peoples - The Qur'an forbid forced conversions, so conquered people were allowed to retain their own religions. Muslims considered Christians and Jews to be superior to polytheistic people, not only because they were monotheistic, but also because they too adhered to a written religious code. As a result, Muslims called Christians and Jews "people of the book." Many conquered people chose to convert to Islam, not only because of its appeal, but because as Muslims they did not have to pay a poll tax.


The Arab tribes had fought with one another for centuries before the advent of Islam, and the religion failed to prevent serious splits from occurring in the caliphate. Each of the four caliphs was murdered by rivals, and the death of Muhammad's son-in-law Ali in 661 triggered a civil war. A family known as the Umayyads emerged to take control, but Ali's death sparked a fundamental division in the umma that has lasted over the centuries. The two main groups were:

  • Sunni - In the interest of peace, most Muslims accepted the Umayyads' rule, believing that the caliph should continue to be selected by the leaders of the Muslim community. This group called themselves the Sunni, meaning "the followers of Muhammad's example."

  • Shi'a - This group thought that the caliph should be a relative of the Prophet, and so they rejected the Umayyads' authority. "Shi'a" means "the party of Ali," and they sought revenge for Ali's death.

Even though the caliphate continued for many years, the split contributed to its decline as a political system. The caliphate combined political and religious authority into one huge empire, but it eventually split into many political parts. The areas that it conquered remained united by religion, but the tendency to fall apart politically has been a major feature of Muslim lands. Many other splits followed, including the formation of the Sufi, who reacted to the luxurious lives of the later caliphs by pursuing a life of poverty and devotion to a spiritual path. They shared many characteristics of other ascetics, such as Buddhist and Christian monks, with their emphasis on meditation and chanting.


The patriarchal system characterized most early civilizations, and Arabia was no exception. However, women enjoyed rights not always given in other lands, such as inheriting property, divorcing husbands, and engaging in business ventures (like Muhammad's first wife, Khadijah.) The Qur'an emphasized equality of all people before Allah, and it outlawed female infanticide, and provided that dowries go directly to brides. However, for the most part, Islam reinforced male dominance. The Qur'an and the shari'a recognized descent through the male line, and strictly controlled the social and sexual lives of women to ensure the legitimacy of heirs. The Qur'an allowed men to follow Muhammad's example to take up to four wives, and women could have only one husband.

Muslims also adopted the long-standing custom of veiling women. Upper class women in Mesopotamia wore veils as early as the 13th century BCE, and the practice had spread to Persia and the eastern Mediterranean long before Muhammad lived. When Muslims conquered these lands, the custom remained intact, as well as the practice of women venturing outside the house only in the company of servants or chaperones.


Because Islam was always a missionary religion, learned officials known as ulama ( "people with religious knowledge") and qadis ("judges") helped to bridge cultural differences and spread Islamic values throughout the dar al-Islam, as Islamic lands came to be known. Formal educational institutions were established to help in this mission. By the 10th century CE, higher education schools known as madrasas had appeared, and by the 12th century they were well established. These institutions, often supported by the wealthy, attracted scholars from all over, and so we see a flowering of arts, sciences, and new technologies in Islamic areas in the 12th through 15th centuries.

When Persia became a part of the caliphate, the conquerors adapted much of the rich cultural heritage of that land. Muslims became acquainted, then, with the literary, artistic, philosophical, and scientific traditions of others. Persians was the principle language of literature, poetry, history, and political theory, and the verse of the Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam is probably the most famous example. Although many of the stories of The Arabian Nights or The Thousand and One Nights were passed down orally from generation to generation, they were written down in Persian.

Islamic states in northern India also adapted mathematics from the people they conquered, using their Hindi numerals, which Europeans later called "Arabic numerals." The number system included a symbol for zero, a very important concept for basic calculations and multiplication. Muslims are generally credited with the development of mathematical thought, particularly algebra. Muslims also were interested in Greek philosophy, science, and medical writings. Some were especially involved in reconciling Plato's thoughts with the teachings of Islam. The greatest historian and geographer of the 14th century was Ibn Khaldum, a Moroccan who wrote a comprehensive history of the world. Another Islamic scholar, Nasir al-Din, studied and improved upon the cosmological model of Ptolemy, an ancient Greek astronomer. Nasir al-Din's model was almost certain used by Nicholas Copernicus, a Polish monk and astronomer who is usually credited with developing the heliocentric model for the solar system.


Contacts among societies in the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and Asia increased significantly between 600 and 1450 CE, and Africa and Europe became much more important links in the long-distance trade networks. Both the Indian Ocean Trade and the Silk Road were disrupted by major migrations during this period, but both recovered and eventually thrived. Europeans were first brought into the trade loop through cities like Venice and Genoa on the Mediterranean, and the Trans-Saharan trade became more vigorous as major civilizations developed south of the Saharan.

Two major sea-trading routes - those of the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean - linked the newly created Muslim Empire together, and Arabic sailors come to dominate the trade. Muslims also were active in the Silk Road trade to India and China. To encourage the flow of trade, Muslim money changers set up banks throughout the caliphate so that merchants could easily trade with those at far distances. Cities along the trade routes became cosmopolitan mixtures of many religions and customs.


Until about 600 CE, most African societies based their economies on hunting and gathering or simple agriculture and herding. They centered their social and political organization around the family, and none had a centralized government. Beginning around 640, Islam spread into the northern part of the continent, bringing with it the unifying forces of religious practices and law, the shari'a. As Islam spread, many African rulers converted to the new religion, and centralized states began to form. The primary agents of trade, the Berbers of the Sahara, became Muslims, although they retained their identities and tribal loyalties. As a result, Islam mixed with native cultures to create a synthesis that took different forms in different places in northern Africa. This gradual, nonviolent spread of Islam was very conducive to trade, especially since people south of the Sahara had gold.

Between 600 and 1450 CE, two major empires emerged in West Africa, just south of the Sahara Desert:

  • Ghana - By the 700s, a farming people called the Soninke had formed an empire that they called Ghana ("war chief") that was growing rich from taxing the goods that traders carried through their territory. Their most important asset was gold from the Niger River area that they traded for salt from the Sahara. The Arab and Berber traders also carried cloth, weapons, and manufactured goods from ports on the Mediterranean. Ghana's king had exclusive rights to the gold, and so controlled its supply to keep the price high. The king also commanded an impressive army, and so the empire thrived. Like the Africans along the Mediterranean, Ghana's rulers and elites converted to Islam, but most others retained their native religions.

  • Mali - During the 11th century, the Almoravids, a Muslim group from northern Africa, conquered Ghana. By the 13th century, a new empire, called Mali, dominated West Africa. The empire began with Mande-speaking people south of Ghana, but it grew to be larger, more powerful, and richer than Ghana had been. Mali too based its wealth on gold. New deposits were found east of the Niger River, and African gold became a basic commodity in long distance trade. Mali's first great leader was Sundiata, whose life inspired an epic poem -The Legend of Sundiata - that was passed down from one generation to the next. He defeated kingdoms around Mali, and also proved to be an affective administrator. Perhaps even more famous was Mansu Musa, a 14th century ruler. He is best known for giving away so much gold as he traveled from Mali to Mecca for the hajj that he set off a major round of inflation, seriously affecting economies all along the long-distance trade routes. Mali's capital city, Timbuktu, became a world center of trade, education and sophistication.

  • The Swahili city-states - The people who lived in trade cities along the eastern coast of Africa provided a very important link for long-distance trade. The cities were not united politically, but they were well developed, with a great deal of cultural diversity and sophisticated architecture. The people were known collectively as the Swahili, based on the language that they spoke - a combination of Bantu and Arabic. Most were Muslims, and the sailors were renown for their ability to maneuver their small boats through the Indian Ocean to India and other areas of the Middle East via the Red Sea and back again.


Pope Urban II called for the Christian Crusades in 1095 with the urgent message that knights from western Europe must defend the Christian Middle East, especially the Holy Lands of the eastern Mediterranean, from Turkish Muslim invasions. The Eastern Orthodox Byzantine emperor called on Urban for help when Muslims were right outside Constantinople. What resulted over the next two centuries was not the recovery of the Middle East for Christianity, but many other unintended outcomes. By the late 13th century, the Crusades ended, with no permanent gains made for Christians. Indeed, Constantinople eventually was destined to be taken by Muslims in 1453 and renamed Istanbul.

Instead of bringing the victory that the knights sought, the Crusades had the ultimate consequence of bringing Europeans squarely into the major world trade circuits. The societies of the Middle East were much richer than European kingdoms were, and the knights encountered much more sophisticated cultures there. They brought home all kinds of trading goods from many parts of the world and stimulated a demand in Europe for foreign products, such as silk, spices, and gold. Two Italian cities - Venice and Genoa - took advantage of their geographic location to arrange for water transportation for knights across the Mediterranean to the Holy Lands. On the return voyages, they carried goods back to European markets, and both cities became quite wealthy from the trade. This wealth eventually became the basis for great cultural change in Europe, and by 1450, European kingdoms were poised for the eventual control of long-distance trade that they eventually gained during the 1450-1750 era.


The Mongol invasions and conquests of the 13th century are arguably among the most influential set of events in world history. This nomadic group from Central Asia swept south and east, just as the Huns had done several centuries before. They conquered China, India, the Middle East, and the budding kingdom of Russia. If not for the fateful death of the Great Khan Ogadai, they might well have conquered Europe as well. As it is, the Mongols established and ruled the largest empire ever assembled in all of world history. Although their attacks at first disrupted the major trade routes, their rule eventually brought the Pax Mongolica, or a peace often compared to the Pax Romana established in ancient times across the Roman Empire.


The Mongols originated in the Central Aslian steppes, or dry grasslands. They were pastoralists, organized loosely into kinship groups called clans. Their movement almost certainly began as they sought new pastures for their herds, as had so many of their predecessors. Many historians believe that a severe drought caused the initial movement, and that the Mongol's superior ability as horsemen sustained their successes.

Around 1200 CE, a Mongol khan (clan leader) named Temujin unified the clans under his leadership. His acceptance of the title Genghis Khan, or "universal leader" tells us something of his ambitions for his empire. Over the next 21 years, he led the Mongols in conquering much of Asia. Although he didn't conquer China in his lifetime, he cleared the way for its eventual defeat by Mongol forces. His sons and grandsons continued the conquests until the empire eventually reached its impressive size. Genghis Khan is usually seen as one of the most talented military leaders in world history. He organized his warriors by the Chinese model into armies of 10,000, which were grouped into 1,000 man brigades, 100-man companies, and 10-man platoons. He ensured that all generals were either kinsmen or trusted friends, and they remained amazingly loyal to him. He used surprise tactics, like fake retreats and false leads, and developed sophisticated catapults and gunpowder charges.

The Mongols were finally stopped in Eurasia by the death of Ogodai, the son of Genghis Khan, who had become the Great Khan centered in Mongolia when his father died. At his death, all leaders from the empire went to the Mongol capital to select a replacement, and by the time this was accomplished, the invasion of Europe had lost its momentum. The Mongols were also contained in Islamic lands by the Mamluk armies of Egypt, who had been enslaved by the Abbasid Caliphate. These forces matched the Mongols in horsemanship and military skills, and defeated them in battle in 1260 before the Mongols could reach the Dardanelle strait. The Mongol leader Hulegu decided not the press for further expansion.

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