Overview: Exploration and Discovery 700-1449

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Overview: Exploration and Discovery 700-1449

Throughout the centuries human curiosity about the unknown has led individuals on adventures to the far reaches of the globe. Ancient exploration was largely in the context of military conquest. Perhaps the best early example is that of Alexander the Great (356-323 b.c.), whose exploration created an empire was so vast that it remained unmatched for more than a thousand years, until the Vikings set out across Europe and the Atlantic. The Roman Empire also expanded its borders—to the north as far as Britain (Albion) and to the south as far as the Atlas Mountains in northern Africa—but with a greater interest in colonization, not exploration. In addition to conquest and colonization, the search for new routes to commerce, especially for the luxury commodity of silk, and new opportunities for religious conversion prompted exploration. The Chinese ventured westward with silk, which was much desired by the Romans, and from the fourth century on Chinese monks journeyed long distances to the West to visit the birthplace of Buddha and to study Buddhist scriptures. Fa-Hsien (374?-462?) and Hsuan-tsang (602-664) were two of the most well-traveled Chinese monks, both journeying for many years throughout China and India.

In the Middle Ages, as the civilizations of the world developed and expanded, the desire to explore and conquer new lands and peoples intensified. Merchants, monks, and mariners (and combinations of all three) ventured forth on expeditions. The dominant sea power in Europe from 800 to 1150 was the Vikings, prime examples of this fundamental urge to discover and conquer. With their technologically advanced longships, skilled seamanship, and military raiding parties, the Vikings exerted their influence from Russia to Greenland, which was colonized by Vikings led by Erik the Red (950?-1001?) around 982, and established peripheral contact with the Byzantine Empire and the shores of North America. They established extensive trade routes, and their raiding hordes, which changed the political map of the medieval world, became the impetus for nation building in Europe.

Norwegian outlaws, exiles, and adventurers began colonizing Iceland around 874, after the 850 discovery of the island by Naddoddur and its circumnavigation several years later by another Swede, Gardar Svafarsson. The Vikings discovered and made landfall in North America over 500 years before Italian navigator Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) would receive credit for the same feat. In 986 Bjanri Herjolfsson was the first European to sight the eastern coast of North America. He was followed by Leif Erikson (980?-1020?), who explored the coastline from Baffin Island to Cape Cod, making several landfalls in 1001. In fact, the first European attempt to establish a permanent settlement in North America was led, in 1010, by Thorfinn Karlsefni (980?-?) in the region of Newfoundland.

Another nomadic military power during the Middle Ages was the great Mongol empire created by Genghis Khan (1162-1227), under whose leadership the ruthless and marauding Mongols expanded into northern China, Persia, and Russia. He was followed by other great khans who led the Mongols in the creation of a vast empire that stretched across Asia and signified the first extensive Asian exploration of the West, which, in turn, stimulated European exploration and trade with the Far East. From 1245-47 a Franciscan friar named Giovanni da Pian del Carpini (1180?-1252) traveled to Mongolia and Central Asia, met with Mongol leader Batu Khan (?-1255), and opened new routes to the Far East, providing important cultural and geographic descriptions of the Mongols and their territories in his History of the Mongols, the first accurate Western account of the Mongol Empire. In the 1280s Chinese ecclesiastic Rabban bar Sauma (1220?-1294) became the envoy of the Mongols, traveling from Beijing through Central Asia, Persia, and Asia Minor to Italy, where he met the newly elected pope, Nicholas IV, in Rome, and then to France, where he met King Philip IV in Paris. His diary gives an unusual outsider's view of medieval Europe. Another Franciscan friar, Odoric of Pordenone (1286?-1331) journeyed throughout Asia Minor, Persia, India, southeast Asia, and China from about 1316-31. He brought back an account of his journey, during which he is said to have baptized over 20,000 persons. Odoric's account appears to have been plagiarized in a fourteenth-century English work known as The Voyage and Travels of Sir John Mandeville.

Perhaps the best-known adventurer in Central Asia is Marco Polo (1254?-1324), whose extensive 24-year journey with his father Niccolò and uncle Maffeo included 17 years in Mongol-controlled China. Polo's account of his adventures was published in 1298 by Rusticiano as Divisament dou Monde, now generally known as The Travels of Marco Polo, and served to excite the nations of Europe about the riches in trade and culture that might be found in unfamiliar areas of the world, such as the Far East. Other explorers made significant geographical and cultural journeys through Asia, including Abu al-Hasan 'Ali al-Mas'udi (895?-957), who traveled through Persia and India and throughout other areas of the Middle East, recording his travels and observations in his book Meadows of Gold. Another was Niccolò de Conti (1395?-1469), who traveled for 30 years in southern Asia, from Persia to the eastern coast of China. French Catholic monk Jordanus of Séverac (1290-1354) traveled to India and wrote Mirabilia (translated as Book of Marvels), in which he described that region's geography and peoples. Another writer, al-Biruni (973-1048), a Persian scholar and scientist, authored Ta'rikh al-Hind, considered one of the greatest medieval works of travel and social analysis, in which he discussed and described the history, geography, and religion of India.

Before the Vikings began their raids and the Mongols began their expansion, religion was a rapidly spreading factor in unifying peoples. Christianity, which had become the official religion of the Roman Empire in the late 300s, was offset by Islam, founded by the prophet Muhammad in 610. By the eleventh century, pockets of Muslim believers extended from Spain to India and circled the Mediterranean Sea, especially concentrated in Arabic lands. The changes in the region prompted the travels of Ahmad ibn Fadlan (908?-932), sent on a diplomatic mission to Russia to explain Islamic law. His account of his journeys, the Risala, includes details of his visits and experiences among various Turkic peoples as well as the Vikings. Arab Muhammad ibn-Ahmad al-Maqdisi (945-1000) traveled throughout the Muslim world, from the Iberian peninsula to Africa, Syria, the Arabian desert, Persia, Central Asia, and Indonesia, and wrote of his travels and observations in Best Division for Knowing the Provinces (begun 985), considered among the most accurate geographic descriptions of the Islamic world during the Middle Ages.

Other important Arab explorers include geographer al-Idrisi (1100-1165?), who traveled extensively in Asia, Africa, and Europe and created a book, commonly known as the Book of Roger, which contained detailed maps and records, along with important geographic information about these regions derived from his own travel experiences and other eyewitness accounts, including information from Greek and Arabic sources. In addition, Ibn Battuta (1304-1368), a Muslim from North Africa, spent 25 years traveling to every civilized part of the known non-Western world—a journey of some 75,000 miles (120,701 km)—and wrote of his adventures in the highly informative travelogue, the Rihla.

The Crusades, which included eight expansive military expeditions from 1096 to 1270, brought Christian Europeans to the Holy Land, introduced Islamic culture (and the science of cartography, expertly refined by Islamic mapmakers) to the West, and resulted in Christian occupations of Palestine, Syria, Greece, and the Baltic. Also created was a heightened desire for adventure and an undeniable drive to visit distant places and peoples. Further encouraged by tales of wealth and culture in the East, related by Marco Polo and other adventurers, the nations of Europe were spurred into a period known as the Age of Discovery, during which the quest for new lands and trade routes by sea became a major objective.

The beginning of this period of European maritime discovery can be traced to the fifteenth-century Portuguese prince known as Henry the Navigator (1394-1460), who established a navigational school at Sagres, near Cabo de São, Portugal. Under his sponsorship in the early 1400s, expeditions explored and colonized the Madeiras, discovered by João Gonçalves Zarco in 1418. The Madeiras became an important foothold for Portuguese exploration in the following centuries. The Portuguese explorers under Prince Henry also journeyed along much of Africa's west coast, including voyages past Cape Blanc, Cape Bojador, and Cape Verde. Spain also began a period of maritime exploration, colonizing the Canary Islands in 1402 under the leadership of Frenchman Jean de Béthencourt (1360?-1422?).

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Europe's expanding horizons were flung open by the pursuit of trade, especially luxury goods such as those found in the Far East. In the 1600s national exploration was challenged by commercial organizations such as the East India Company, which made extensive ocean voyages to Asia and the South Pacific. Flourishing trade routes led to permanent trading posts and eventually resulted in colonial occupations, including those founded in the New World, which Europeans initially established while seeking ocean routes to China and the Far East. By the end of the seventeenth century exploration was no longer limited to purely nationalistic or economic pursuits, but attracted men and women with personal motives, including missionaries, religious exiles, scientists, and adventurers who traveled to proselytize, escape oppression, study the world, and for the satisfaction of new experiences.


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Overview: Exploration and Discovery 700-1449

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Overview: Exploration and Discovery 700-1449