During the Middle Ages, the trips of the Viking and Arab peoples favored cultural expansion and especially improved the knowledge of the existing routes. In the Far East, India and China sought the religious spread of Buddhism and the commercial connection to Europe.
As a consequence of so many trips, these comings and goings had their impact on geographical knowledge from the 9th century. The intellectual caliph Al-Mamun promoted the transfer of scientific culture between Asia and Europe, establishing his House of Wisdom in Baghdad. The astronomical observations of its geodesists deduced the sphericity of the Earth and calculated its radius with a result very close to the real one that was measured in cubits, a unit of measurement with a variable value in each culture.
Al-Juarismi, Persian geographer, mathematician and astronomer, determined the true size of the Mediterranean Sea and corrected various errors of the Ptolemaic work Geography, in the African and Eastern regions. It also includes maps with more precise locations of rivers, mountains, seas, islands and cities.
Various systems were used for the representation of the Earth, and at first they imitated the Persian maps of the recently conquered regions, which showed the ecumene in the form of a disc with a differentiation of seven circular zones called «climates».
During the 10th century, what is known as the Atlas of Islam predominated: a world map, three charts dedicated to the Mediterranean and Caspian seas, and the Persian Gulf, and seventeen maps representing different provinces. Its authors were Abu Zayd al-Balkhi, a Persian geographer who founded his own mapping school in Baghdad; Al-Istajri, a Persian geographer who had contact on his travels with the Viking or Varangian peoples of Kiev; and Ibn Hawqal, Turkish geographer who created the face of the Earth.
Al-Idrisi, a geographer and cartographer born in Ceuta under the Almoravid Empire, spent much of his life and work at the Norman court of Roger II of Sicily. By order of the count, Al-Idrisi sent numerous travelers to different parts of the world to map it, and to assemble all of them into a series of local maps that would form a world map. A rough figure of the seas and land to which was added the division of seven climates, a tropical zone, and an arctic zone. You can see the result of his work preserved in the Bibliotheque nationale de France: the Tabula Rogeriana (1154).
The Arabs in the Atlantic
However, these western developments in the 13th century were far from having the scientific significance of those used in the Indian Ocean. For this reason, navigation along the Atlantic coasts had to continue in the same way as in ancient times: leaving the port of Cadiz to Senegal and the Gulf of Guinea. Although it is possible that a voyage of discovery was attempted, such as the one by the King of Mali, Mohammed ibn Gao, to explore the western Atlantic in the year 1300. It was never known of his return, in the same way that we have no evidence that the Arab Atlantic voyages will bear fruit.
Umayyad Admiral Jashjash ibn Said ibn Asuad was another experienced pilot from the 9th century. He led a fleet from Almeria to the Cantabrian Sea to slow the advance of the Normans in 857, but failed and could not prevent incursions into the south of the Iberian Peninsula. Luckily for his memory, he is also known for arriving in the Canary Islands, and it is said that his extensive experience sailing in the Atlantic helped him face terrible inter-tropical storms off the coast of the Philippines. Again, it is difficult to know whether his trip to the was real or not.
Traces of America
This part of History is more complex to interpret, since the vast majority of Native Americans during the Middle Ages did not have writing with which to reflect their geographical knowledge. However, we have European testimonies that speak of objects transported by ocean currents to the coasts of Europe.
In 62 B.C., a ship manned by people of unknown race landed on the German coast. They were captured and handed over to Metellus Celer, proconsul in Roman Gaul, by the King of the Suebi. By identifying their physical features as Indians, the deduction in that time was that they were people from Asian India who would have reached the European coasts through the river-ocean that surrounded the known world, that is, circumnavigating Africa.
Historians of the 16th century, such as López de Gomara and Wytfliet, thought that they came from the Labrador Sea, and reinforced their idea with the fact that other American navigators had arrived on the German coasts in 1160, during the reign of Federico Barbarroja. Similarly, in 1508, a French ship off the Norman coast found a canoe with six dead Eskimos and one dying, which was presented to the monarch Louis XII.
Travel in Asia
The first Asian pilot of great relevance to the geographical knowledge of China was Zhang Qian. In 126 B.C. Emperor Wu-Ti sent him to the Middle East to establish relations with tribes using Indo-European language. Almost 1400 years before Marco Polo’s travels, Zhang Qian traveled to Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Bactria and Sogdiana, while collecting information on Syria, Parthia, Chaldea and India, eventually introducing plants and animals from those countries to China.
Buddhism as a transport of geographical knowledge
But China’s great openness to other cultures takes place with the penetration of Buddhism from India. One of his missionaries was the monk Buddhabhadra, who arrived in the Celestial Empire by sea in 398 and dedicated the rest of his life to the translation of the holy books of Buddhism. He was helped by Fa Xian, who made several trips around India between 399 and 414 in order to discover the lands visited by Buddha. On his way he crossed the Karakorum mountain range, reached the Ganges river delta, and embarked to go to Ceylon, Sumatra and return to his Chinese homeland.
These regions were also visited by Xuanzang, a Chinese Buddhist monk, between 629 and 645. He visited the holy places of Buddhism, but before he had to make a hard journey through the Gobi desert, passing through Turkestan, Samarkand, Bukhara and Kabul. before entering India. There he crossed the Indus valley, Kashmir, reached the Ganges, and then Nepal. Finally he returned to China following the same route that took him to India, through Kabul and the valley of the Tarim River. Like Buddhabhadra, Xuanzang translated into Chinese all the Buddhist books that fell into his hands, until the day of his death.
Other Buddhist monks like Yi Ching (634-713) followed the sea route offered by the Persian Canton-Siraf trade line. This monk embarked in 671, crossed the Strait of Malacca and arrived in India, where he spent ten years studying.
The fight for Central Asia
But there is no doubt that the greatest feat performed by Chinese travelers was that of Gao Xianzhi, who led an entire army of ten thousand soldiers through the Pamir mountain range to Kashmir, to block contact between Arabs and Tibetans who threatened to occupy Central Asia. A Korean descendant of the Tang dynasty, Gao Xianzhi was governor of the Tarim, the western interior region of China. The victory over the Tibetans in the year 747, forged by the best acclimatization of his army at high altitudes (between 3,500 – 4,500 m) was a first-rate strategic objective, pushing back the Tibetan troops and avoiding the expansionist claims of the Abbasid caliphate .
As for the collected documents, the most famous cartographer of the time was Chia Tan (730 – 805). In his work Geography, the main trips from Asia to Baghdad are described, and he even drew a three-square-meter map of the Asian continent, of which only a fragment is preserved in a stone slab reproduced in the 12th century.
Contact with Europe
Chinese relations with Europe were almost non-existent or very punctual. Knowledge of the European and Mediterranean peoples was possible thanks to the expansion of the Mongol Empire, and medieval commercial ports such as Zayton -name given by Marco Polo to the port of Quanzhou, in the province of Fujian-, where sailors provided information on the products of places as far away as Spain, Sicily and North Africa.
Other notable trips were made by the ambassadors of the Persian Ilkanato, who had contact with some European kingdoms such as France or England. Nestorian Uyghur Rabban Bar Sauma was officially the first Chinese diplomat to arrive to Europe. His trip as a representative of the Chinese khanate allowed him to meet rulers from different places such as Constantinople, Naples, Rome, Genoa or Paris, until he died in Baghdad in 1293.
However, the most interesting explorations were oriented towards the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, where new nautical tools such as the compass and the navigation charts facilitated these journeys.
The navigation of the Pacific and the Indian Ocean
A Buddhist missionary named Hui Shen sailed from China in 409 to enter the Pacific. 20,000 li east of Sakhalin, according to his chronicles, he found in the Kingdom of Fusang, which has been misidentified with the west coast of North America -given that the unit of measurement used by Hui Shen has been highly variable throughout the centuries. The descriptions of his trip, however, make it possible for the Kingdom of Fusang to be interpreted as one of the islands of the Japanese archipelago, such as Ryukyu or Kyushu.
Another missionary, a forerunner of Zen Buddhism and martial arts, was Bodhidharma. In 527 he set out from South India to Canton, Nanjing and Japan, a journey where he discovered the island of Formosa (now Taiwan) and got to know the Philippines.
In the 10th century, a series of Malay trips took place that colonized Madagascar, where they discovered the «elephant birds» –Aepyornis maximus– that for centuries were mistaken for the mythical roc bird of Persian culture. This species, which was 3 meters long and became extinct in the 17th century, appears in the diaries of many travelers who frequented the island. Malayan sailors encountered Arab merchants and travelers on the coasts of Mozambique, as Al-Biruni collects well in his writings, in which a legend is mentioned that narrates how the ships that rounded Cape Diab (Good Hope) disappeared forever.
This superstition is nothing other than the Agulhas marine current, which flows from the Mozambique Channel to the Cape of Good Hope in a south and west direction. The disappearances of the ships that sailed in these waters could have been caused by the abundant eddies that form, or by the difficulty of advancing against the current to the north.
China’s maritime splendor
The last and most important Chinese trip took place in the early 15th century. The Ming dynasty ruled in China, and Emperor Yongle wanted to resume trade with Europe, despite the fact that the ports of the Persian Gulf were inaccessible under the control of the Turkish-Mongol conqueror Tamerlan. But the search for new routes was easier than during the first centuries of the Middle Ages, since travelers and merchants had created a high quality descriptive legacy of lands and seas. That is why they decided to access European and Mediterranean trade from the city of Aden, in present-day Yemen. The idea was to create new franchises aimed at expanding the policy of maritime expansion, begun in 1405 with the fleet under the command of Zheng He, the Chinese Muslim admiral who carried out seven naval expeditions through Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.
Commanding the Treasure Fleet, Zheng He grew to have a large army with which he led diplomatic, scientific, commercial, and exploratory missions. In his seven voyages, he traveled the seas of South China first, reaching Malacca, Java, Sumatra, Celebes and Borneo, in Southeast Asia. In the Indian Ocean, he established contacts with the ports of the Gulf of Bengal, Calcutta, Ceylon, reaching Hormuz, Aden and Jeda, so that his Muslim sailors could visit Medina and Mecca. He traveled the eastern coast of Africa to Cape Diab and returned to India circumnavigating the island of Madagascar to circumvent the Agulhas current, and finally complete his seventh journey.
With the death of Emperor Yongle, the policy of Chinese maritime expansionism came to an end and laws were even enacted that prevented navigation not approved by the new emperor.
These great voyages across the Indian Ocean show that the technical knowledge of its sailors was remarkable and that they had good instruments and excellent nautical charts, as Al-Idrisi pointed out in the 12th century. And this was possible because from the mid-thirteenth century one of the secular damages that had weighed down the development of navigation was abandoned: keeping the sea routes secret. A secret kept generation after generation in order to retain a monopoly on raw materials, as peoples such as the Phoenician or the Carthaginian already did during the Ancient Age.
- Vernet, Juan (1970), La Conquista de la Tierra, La Edad Antigua, Salvat Editores S.A. y Alianza Editorial S.A. Depósito Legal M. 22.903 – 1970
- Donoso Isaac. Viajeros y aventureros andalusíes en Asia oriental. Universidad de Alicante. ISSN 1540 5877 eHumanista/IVITRA 4 (2013): 257-265
- Erik Ringmar, History of International Relations: A Non-European Perspective. Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers, 2019
- Historias de la Historia, YouTube channel