This chapter explores the cross-cultural networks that linked Europe and Asia between 1000 and 1500. The Mongol conquests of the thirteenth century disrupted commerce along the ancient silk route through central Asia, but eventually trade and travel were restored and even strengthened. Although travel was slow and costly, international trade grew significantly with the exchange of crops, technologies, and ideas. Ironically, that same traffic helped spread the bubonic plague, the Black Death, which ravaged much of Eurasia in the mid-fourteenth century. Common elements of these cross-cultural networks include:
Diplomacy. Different states used trade routes to send envoys abroad seeking either to form alliances or to impress potential rivals.
Religion. Islamic law and culture were common to societies from north and West Africa to Southeast Asia and the Philippines. Travel for Muslim pilgrims and scholars was common under Mongol rule. Christian missionaries also traveled to East Asia, but less frequently.
Cultural diffusion. These routes became an important source of new ideas and information throughout Eurasia. New crops, such as sugarcane, and new technologies, such as gunpowder, the magnetic compass, and the printing press, transformed western societies.
European exploration. Portugal sought to bypass Muslim-controlled trade routes by mounting expeditions to India around the Cape of Good Hope. In 1492, the Spanish attempted to beat the Portuguese at this game by sending Columbus west across the Atlantic.