World Exploration From Ancient Times

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LEARN & EXPLORE

World Exploration
from Ancient Times

CHICAGO

Compton’s

by

LONDON

PARIS

NEW DELHI

Britannica®

SEOUL

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TAIPEI

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Learn & Explore series
World Exploration from Ancient Times
Compton’s by Britannica

Copyright© 2011 by Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
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iii

EDITOR’S PREFACE

Whether it be land, sea, or space, what lies beyond one’s physical limitations has
always piqued the interest of the human race. This book takes a look at
exploration of Earth’s land masses from early times. Although the primary
motivation for different exploratory missions may have varied throughout the
years, one recurring theme has always been curiosity. Venturing out to find what
lies beyond is a part of human nature.
The story of world exploration is often a compelling one. World Exploration from
Ancient Times organizes this material by region (Eurasia [Europe and Asia], the
Americas, Australia and the Pacific Islands, Africa, and the Polar Regions) and
employs the use of 140 maps and photos to aid in illustrating the story. In
addition, quotations from several key explorers are sprinkled throughout the
text. Sidebars and several pages of mini-biographies (World Explorers at a
Glance) round out the body of the book. The introduction, opposite the editor’s
overview, was contributed by Stephen P. Davis, geography contributor for
several articles in Compton’s Encyclopedia and graduate instructor at the
University of Illinois at Chicago. His article on Australia in Compton’s served as
the jumping off point for the section on Australia and the Pacific Islands. Begin
your journey by reading Davis’ introduction on page vi and the editor’s
overview on page 1.
As a previous editor in chief of Compton’s Encyclopedia once said of the set,
“whether the incentive to open the books came from the suggestion of parents,
from the requirements of schoolwork, or from the child’s own natural curiosity,
upon these pages would rest a responsibility greater than merely offering bare
answers to isolated questions. They must arouse interest, they must give color
and significance and due emphasis to the facts, they must relate them to other
essential facts; in short, they must give more than the young reader has the
experience to ask for.” This is true not only of Compton’s Encyclopedia today, but of
the Learn & Explore series as well.

iv

STAFF

Anthony L. Green

INFORMATION
MANAGEMENT
AND RETRIEVAL

SENIOR EDITOR
Andrea Field

Carmen-Maria Hetrea,
Director

COPY

John Higgins
Sheila Vasich

EDITOR

Sylvia Wallace,
Director
Dennis Skord,
Supervisor

PRODUCTION
CONTROL

ART AND
COMPOSITION

MEDIA ASSET
MANAGEMENT

ENCYCLOPÆDIA
BRITANNICA, INC.

Steven N. Kapusta,
Director

Jeannine Deubel,
Manager

Jacob E. Safra,
Chairman of the Board

Kurt Heintz

Jorge Aguilar-Cauz,
President

CARTOGRAPHY

Michael Ross,
Senior Vice President
Corporate Development

Illustrator
Christine McCabe

Layout
Graphic Designer

Michael Nutter,
Manager

Cate Nichols

Ken Chmielewski

PHOTOS

MANUFACTURING

Kathy Nakamura,
Manager

Kim Gerber,
Director

Marilyn L. Barton

EDITORIAL LIBRARY
Henry Bolzon,
Head Librarian
Robert M. Lewis
Lars Mahinske

Photo Editor
Kimberly L. Cleary

Dale H. Hoiberg,
Senior Vice President
and Editor
Marsha Mackenzie,
Executive Director,
Media and Production

v

N

E

W

N
W

N
E

SE

SW

TABLE OF CONTENTS
S

Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . vi
Overview . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
Eurasia . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
The Americas . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19
Australia and
the Pacific Islands . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 49
Africa . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 62
The Polar Regions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 78
World Explorers at a Glance . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 96
Further Resources . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 104
Index . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 105

vi

INTRODUCTION
This introduction was contributed by Stephen P. Davis, former Associate Editor, Encyclopædia
Britannica; Graduate Instructor in the Department of Anthropology and Geography, University of Illinois
at Chicago; and author of popular and scholarly articles on geography, history, sociology of religion, and
cultural anthropology.

Why do we seem driven to explore? Is exploration a
gift of “the human condition” that raises us above the
animals? Or does it instead link us with the biological
world and other wandering, migrating, and mobile
species to a degree that some would not care to admit?
Our common ancestors became bipedal millions of
years ago, and Homo sapiens explored within, and
beyond, Africa 150,000 to 50,000 years ago. What drove
them as far as Australia, Hawaii, and the southern tip
of South America? Instinct? The sublime? Or a matrix
that we can barely imagine? Whatever the reason, we
seem compelled to honor those sharing their spirit.
Many of our films, novels, and hearthside tales focus
on risk-takers, bringers of knowledge, and
“discoverers,” regardless of the chaos and lamentation
that can follow in their wakes—whether the diseases
carried by Columbus to the Americas in 1492, the
abuses wrought on Australia’s Aborigines in the 1800s,
or the slavery and warfare that European incursions
sparked in Africa.
We may wish to emulate explorers, to attain their
heights of ability and self-reliance. Or, just maybe, we
share a suspicion that history could not have unfolded
without their intrusions (though we hope that is not the
guiding light of our fate). We thrill to Balboa’s
“discovery” of the Pacific Ocean (which was already
known to local peoples) though it contributed to
Pizarro’s conquest of the Inca Empire. Likewise, we
marvel at the Chinese travelers who contributed to
imperial expansion, with mixed results. In our science
fiction, the beloved Star Trek character Captain James
Kirk is an echo of the explorer Captain James Cook,
who boldly went “farther than any other man has been
before” across the void-like Pacific Ocean. Yet we often
ignore the colonial, cultural, and biological abuses
unleashed after the captains’ logs reached home. Today,
we grant explorers sizable space in our popular

histories, especially in the histories of nations anxious
to solidify control over their claimed lands.
Exploration has contributed to greater scientific
knowledge, and yet misinformation has gone hand in
hand with many a voyage. Greek and Roman scholars
repeated tales of giant, gold-mining ants in the east.
Columbus recorded accounts of “one-eyed men, and
others, with snouts of dogs, who ate men.” Many
expected to encounter Patagonian giants, antipodes
(people with feet pointed backward), and Amazons.
Arctic explorers in the 1800s believed that a warm zone
encircled the North Pole. Cartographers would fill in
the blank spaces on maps with sea monsters.
As we survey the good and the bad that these
wanderings have wrought, we should acknowledge an
error of omission—namely, that most of the talented and
courageous women who have contributed to these
events, in all times and places, have been lost to history.
It is true, of course, that explorers’ roles have often been
restricted to men by the commands of nations, navies,
and the societies of their times, but we also need to read
between the lines. In a similar vein, we should not give
credence to a “big man” version of history that would
depict only the solitary, triumphant ship captain, the
general, or the king—the only person whose name was
recorded in many histories. None of these leaders could
have succeeded without supporters at home and, more
vital still, strangers on the road, gracious hosts, and
indigenous guides. The Muslim scholar Ibn Battutah
could never have covered 75,000 miles (more than
120,000 kilometers) of Asia, Africa, and the Indian Ocean
in the 1300s were it not for the unnamed fishers and
traders before him. In 1804–06 Lewis and Clark
depended heavily on Native American guides and chiefs
who sketched maps for them in the sand. The monikers
of explorers persist today because of those whose names
were never written down or have been lost to history.

1

WORLD EXPLORATION
FROM ANCIENT TIMES

The explorers who appear in this book sailed across vast
open seas and crossed mountains, deserts, jungles,
rivers, and even great sheets of polar ice. They
journeyed into the unknown, connecting cultures and
adding new places to the map. The risks were often
great. Many explorers died while investigating new
territory or while trying to return home again.
The motives for exploration were varied. Many
explorers sought wealth for themselves and their
sponsors, hoping to find new lands rich in gold, silver,
and jewels. Others searched for new and shorter trade
routes, which could lead to greater commercial profits
for trading companies. Some explorers hoped to gain
fame and glory by becoming the first to set foot on a
strange land. Others traveled for religious reasons.
Pilgrims visited the great centers of Buddhism or Islam,
and missionaries traveled to spread Christianity. Many
explorers set out in search of adventure or for the sheer
thrill of discovery.
Curiosity about the world was a major motive.
Explorers wanted to travel farther than anyone else had
before in order to find out what was there. They sought
to reveal the geography of unknown places, to chart
uncharted territories and seas. Scientists often
accompanied exploring expeditions. They journeyed to
study the plants, animals, rocks, climates, and other
aspects of new lands.
Many explorers found new territory for their people to
settle. From the ancient Phoenicians and Greeks setting up
outposts in the Mediterranean to the European powers
carving up Africa into territories in the 19th century,
exploration often went together with colonization and

conquest. Societies expanded into empires by establishing
far-flung colonies. They wanted to gain new living space,
farmland, precious metals, and other economic resources
for their people, as well as increased political power. In
some cases, the colonists settled land that was
unoccupied. Often, however, they took control of land
where other people already lived.
It is important to note that most of the new lands that
the great explorers found were already populated. To
say, then, that Christopher Columbus “discovered”
America or that Willem Jansz “discovered” Australia
should not be taken to mean that they were the first
people to set foot in these places. A great number of
people already lived there. Instead, these explorers
discovered places wholly unknown to their own
cultures—important achievements, nevertheless, that
literally broadened their cultures’ horizons. Their
explorations also led to profound and often devastating
changes in the societies they “discovered.”
This book focuses on voyages of exploration and
discovery made in the world’s great land areas.
Sections cover the exploration of Eurasia (Europe and
Asia), the Americas, Australia and the Pacific Islands,
Africa, and the polar regions. For the major explorers,
additional biographical details, including birth and
death dates, can be found at the back of the book, in
the section “World Explorers at a Glance.” Some
explorers were active in more than one continent and
so are discussed in more than one section. The index is
the best place to start if one is looking for information
on a specific explorer, expedition, or geographic
feature.

E URASIA

I

n ancient times several major civilizations arose
in Eurasia, or Europe and Asia. Western civilization
traces its roots to the peoples of Mesopotamia, in
the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers,
in what is now Iraq. Western knowledge of the
world expanded from this valley to the lands around the
Mediterranean Sea. Exploration of the Mediterranean
region went hand in hand with its colonization. The
ancient Greeks and a seafaring people known as the
Phoenicians established settlements throughout the
Mediterranean world. Ancient Egypt, in northern Africa
bordering the Mediterranean, also developed an
advanced society. Meanwhile, important civilizations
developed in the East, in the lands that are today China
and India and Pakistan. The Chinese were active
explorers of what are now China and Central Asia.

The Phoenicians were notable merchants, colonizers,
and sailors. Fearless and patient navigators, they
ventured into regions where no one else dared to go.
They are credited with the discovery and use of the
North Star for navigation. The Phoenicians sought to
dominate trade and exclude all their rivals. For this
reason, they carefully guarded the secrets of their trade
routes and discoveries and their knowledge of winds
and currents.
The homeland of the Phoenicians was located mainly
in what is now Lebanon. From there, they established
colonies along the coasts of Syria, Israel, Cyprus, Sicily,
Sardinia, southern Spain, and northern Africa. Their
great colony of Carthage (now in Tunisia), produced two
notable explorers in the 5th century BC. Hanno sailed
along the coast of western Africa (see Africa,
“Phoenicians and Greeks”). Himilco sailed to the north
EARLY EUROPEAN EXPLORATION
on a four-month journey. The purpose of his voyage was
apparently to consolidate control of the trade in tin
Shores of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic
along the Atlantic coast of Europe. From Carthage, he
The first phase in European exploration centered on the
sailed to the Phoenician colony of Gades (now Cádiz,
Mediterranean region. In the 1st millennium BC Phoenicia Spain). After visiting the coasts of Spain and Portugal,
and the Greek city-states rapidly colonized the shores of
he reached northwestern France. Some historians believe
the Mediterranean and Black seas. This widespread
that Himilco may also have visited Great Britain.
expansion must have been accompanied by exploration
In ancient Greece, as in Phoenicia, knowledge of other
of the adjacent inland areas by countless unknown
lands came with overseas settlement. Organized Greek
soldiers and traders. In the 5th century BC the ancient
colonization began in the 8th century BC. Commercial
Greek writer Herodotus prefaced his History with a
interests, greed, and sheer curiosity seem to be the forces
geographic description of what was then the known
that drove the Greek city-states to expand and explore.
world. This introduction reveals that the coastlines of the At its height, ancient Greece comprised settlements in
Mediterranean and the Black seas had already been
Asia Minor, the Greek islands, southern Italy, Sicily, and
explored by then. Much of Europe, however, remained
North Africa.
uncharted. Herodotus concludes by saying, “Whether the
The Phoenicians long controlled the Strait of Gibraltar,
sea girds Europe round on the north none can tell.”
at the western end of the Mediterranean Sea. They

EURASIA

allowed no one else to pass through this channel to the
Atlantic Ocean. In about 300 BC, however, Carthage
became embroiled in a struggle with a Greek city in
Sicily. As a result, Phoenician power at the gate of the
Mediterranean temporarily weakened. This lapse
allowed the Greek explorer Pytheas to sail right through.
Pytheas was a navigator, geographer, and astronomer
from the Greek colony of Massalia (now Marseille,
France). He became the first Greek to visit and describe
the British Isles and the Atlantic coast of Europe. Sailing
from the Mediterranean Sea into the Atlantic, Pytheas
stopped at southern Spain. He then probably followed
the European shoreline to the tip of northwestern
France. He eventually reached the southwestern tip of
England, in what is now Cornwall. There he may have
visited the tin mines, which were famous in the ancient
world. Pytheas claimed to have explored a large part of

Great Britain on foot. He may have sailed around the
island; he accurately estimated its circumference at 4,000
miles (6,400 kilometers). Pytheas visited some northern
European countries and may have reached the mouth of
the Vistula River on the Baltic Sea. He also told of Thule,
“the northernmost of the British Isles, six days sail from
Britain.” The place he visited may have been Iceland or
Norway.
Pytheas made a number of scientific observations
during his voyage of exploration. He made calculations
with a sundial at the summer solstice and noted the
lengthening days as he traveled northward. He also
observed that the North Star is not at the true North
Pole and that the Moon affects the tides.
Exploration of the North Atlantic was not carried
farther until several centuries later. This exploration was
undertaken not by Mediterranean peoples but by

A relief carving from the 1st century AD shows the kind of ship that
the Phoenicians used on the Mediterranean Sea.

Viking longships were exceptionally sturdy in heavy seas. They
carried a single square sail and were also propelled by oars. From 40
to 60 oarsmen sat on the rowers’ benches.

The Granger Collection, New York

© Photos.com/Jupiterimages

3

4

EURASIA
Vikings from Scandinavia. From the 8th to the 11th
century AD, bands of Swedish Vikings traded
southeastward across the Russian plains. At the same
time, groups of Danish Vikings raided, traded, and
settled along the coasts of the North Sea. They arrived in
the Mediterranean region, where they were known as
the Normans. However, neither the Swedes nor the
Danes traveling in these regions were exploring lands
that were unknown to civilized Europeans.
It was the Vikings of Norway who were the true
explorers. In about AD 890 the Viking Ohthere of Norway
was “desirous to try how far that country extended
north.” He sailed around Norway’s North Cape, along
the coast of Lapland to the White Sea. By contrast, most
other Vikings sailing in high latitudes explored not
eastward but westward. Sweeping down the outer edge
of Great Britain, they settled in the Orkney, Shetland, and
Hebrides islands and in Ireland. They then voyaged on
to Iceland, where in 870 they settled among Irish
colonists who had preceded them by some two centuries.
The Vikings may well have arrived piloted by Irish
sailors. Norwegian Vikings later explored farther west in
the Atlantic, reaching Greenland and Newfoundland in
North America (see The Americas).
Shores of the Indian Ocean and the China Sea

From very early times, people pursued trade across the
land bridges and through the gulfs linking the parts of
Asia, Africa, and Europe that lie between the
Mediterranean and Arabian seas. It is therefore not
surprising that exploratory voyages early revealed the
coastlines of the Indian Ocean.
The first Western observer to give an account of India
was Scylax of Caria (an ancient district of Anatolia, in
Turkey). In about 510 BC, Darius the Great, the king of
Persia (Iran), sent Scylax to explore the course of the
Indus River. Scylax traveled overland to the Kabul River,
in Afghanistan. He reached the Indus River and
followed it through India to its mouth at the Arabian
Sea, which is the northwestern part of the Indian Ocean.
He then sailed westward. Passing by the Persian Gulf
(which was already well known to the Western world),
he explored the Red Sea. Scylax finished his voyage in
northern Egypt. His journey had taken two and a half
years to complete.
The expeditions in the 4th century BC of the famous
conqueror Alexander the Great of Macedonia brought
much new geographic knowledge to the Greek world, as
well as control of vast new territory. They also carried
the influence of Mediterranean culture to the East and of
Eastern culture to the Mediterranean.
Most of Alexander’s campaigns were journeys of
military exploration. His earlier expeditions were to
regions already familiar to the Greeks—Babylonia (in
Iraq) and Persia. The later ones, however, brought the
Greeks a great deal of new information. These
campaigns took him through the enormous tract of land
from the south of the Caspian Sea to the mountains of
the Hindu Kush of Central Asia. Alexander and his
army crossed these mountains to the Indus River valley.
They then marched westward through the desolate

country along the southern edge of the Iranian plateau.
They ultimately reached Susa (now Shush, Iran), the
capital of Darius the Great, and overthrew the Persian
Empire.
The admiral in command of the expedition’s naval
forces was Nearchus. He waited for the favorable
monsoon winds and then sailed from the mouth of the
Indus to the mouth of the Euphrates. He explored the
northern coast of the Persian Gulf on his way.
The Roman Republic and later the Roman Empire
succeeded the Greek city-states as the great power of the
Western world. The empire eventually included most of
western Europe, northern Africa, and the Middle East.
As Roman power grew, increasing wealth brought
increasing demands for luxuries from the East. This led
to great commercial activity in the eastern seas. As the
coasts became well known, Roman sailors skillfully used
the seasonal character of the monsoon winds to
navigate. During the reign of the Roman emperor
Hadrian in the 1st century BC, Western traders reached
what are now Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia. A
few also seem to have reached the coast of China. In the
late 2nd century AD, according to Chinese records, an
“embassy” came from the Roman emperor Marcus
Aurelius to the Chinese emperor Huandi.
CHINESE EXPLORATION

The Chinese developed an advanced civilization in early
times and were energetic explorers. From their ancient
homeland in the basin of the Huang He (Yellow River),
they spread out widely, ultimately creating a vast
empire. Early explorations centered on the courses of the
rivers that provided the growing state with water for
agriculture as well as transportation routes. The state
built many canals and dikes. The search for land routes
through the mountains and deserts to the northwest and
west also became important. Expansion was a major
spur to exploration. Chinese farmers ventured out to
settle new lands. State-sponsored missions also sent out
parties to conquer and colonize territory, to survey and
administer the conquered lands, and to maintain state
security.
Zhang Qian and the Silk Road

During the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220), the expanding
Chinese Empire was threatened by raiders from the
north. People who led a nomadic, or wandering, life in
the northern steppe land would invade settled
agricultural communities to the south to solve periodic
food shortages. The Great Wall of China had been built
to defend Chinese territory against northern nomads,
especially the Xiongnu. The Xiongnu may have been the
same people known as the Huns in Europe. Starting in
the reign of the Han emperor Wudi, the Chinese carried
out long and costly military campaigns along the
northern and northwestern borders.
Wudi also dispatched an envoy, Zhang Qian, to try to
forge a military alliance with another nomadic people
against the Xiongnu. Zhang became a pioneering
explorer. He was the first person to bring back a reliable
account of the lands of Central Asia to the court of

EURASIA
China. He set off in 138 BC to try to establish relations
Silk Road
with a nomadic people called the Yuezhi. He traveled
through what is now the Chinese province of Gansu, but
In ancient and medieval times the Silk Road was a major
he was captured by the Xiongnu. They kept him
thoroughfare for trade and travel between Asia, the Middle East,
prisoner for 10 years in the Altai Mountains before he
and Europe. The route carried goods and ideas between the
finally managed to escape. He then proceeded on his
great civilizations of Rome and China. Caravans carried highly
mission, reaching the Yuezhi in what is now
prized Chinese silk westward and wools, gold, and silver
Afghanistan. On his return voyage via Tibet, he was
eastward. Though mainly a trade route, the Silk Road was also
again captured by the Xiongnu, but he escaped about a
used by conquering armies, Buddhist missionaries, and
Muslim clerics. Inventions, works of literature, and languages
year later. He returned to China after an absence of
likewise followed its path.
some 13 years. Seven years later Zhang was sent on
When the European explorer Marco Polo traveled from
another mission, this time to the Wusun, a people living
Venice, Italy, to China via the Silk Road in the 1270s, the road
in the Ili River valley (in what is now northwestern
was already about 1,500 years old. It came into partial
China).
existence in about 300 BC. At that time, the road was used to
Although Zhang was not able to establish an alliance
bring jade from Khotan (now Hotan, China) to China. By 200 BC
with the Yuezhi or the Wusun, he made important
the Silk Road was linked to the West, and by 100 BC it was
diplomatic contacts and collected much useful
carrying active trade between the East and the West. At its
height in AD 200, this route and its western connections over the
information. In addition to traveling himself, he sent his
Roman system constituted the longest road system on Earth.
assistant to visit parts of what are now Uzbekistan and
Few persons traveled the entire route. Instead, goods were
Afghanistan. Zhang gathered information on Parthia
handled in a staggered progression by middlemen.
(now in Iran), India, and other states in the area. His
The Silk Road stretched for some 4,000 miles (6,400
missions opened the way for exchanges of envoys
kilometers). It crossed a wide range of climates and cultures,
between these Central Asian states and China. His
from the lush, temperate region of eastern China to the deserts
voyages also brought the Chinese into contact with the
and mountains of Muslim Central Asia. It originated at Xi’an,
outposts of Greek culture established by Alexander the
China, but was linked to the Pacific Ocean on the east. From
Great. As a result of Zhang’s missions, new items were
Xi’an, the route followed the Great Wall of China to the
northwest. It then skirted the Takla Makan Desert, climbed the
introduced in China, including a superior breed of
Pamirs (mountains), crossed Afghanistan, and continued to the
horses and new plants, such as grapes and alfalfa.
eastern Mediterranean Sea. From there, merchandise was
Commerce as well as conquest inspired Chinese travel.
shipped across the sea to Europe. A southern branch of the Silk
Zhang Qian had encountered a series of trade routes that
Road led from Persia (Iran) to the Bay of Bengal in India.
skirted the great Takla Makan Desert of Central Asia.
Today, part of the route exists in the form of a paved highway
Trade began to flourish along these caravan routes. The
connecting Pakistan and northwestern China. The Silk Road has
routes are now known collectively as the Silk Road,
also been the impetus behind the building of the Asian Highway
because Chinese silk was a major and valuable product
network. In 1999 the road inspired cellist Yo Yo Ma to found the
traded along them. The Silk Road ultimately extended
Silk Road Project, which has explored cultural traditions along
from China through Central Asia to the Middle East.
its route.
From there, goods were shipped to Europe. Another
branch of the Silk Road led to India. In addition to being
a commercial thoroughfare, the Silk Road became a
major route for travel and cultural exchange between the
East and the West.
In the 1st century AD Chinese
envoys were frustrated in an
attempt to visit the western
part of the world. However, as
already mentioned, a mission
from Rome reached China by
ship in the 2nd century. The
first record of official visitors
arriving at the Han court from
Japan is for the year AD 57.
Buddhist Pilgrimages to
India

Chinese knowledge of India was
expanded by the voyages of
Chinese Buddhist monks to
study there, in the “Holy Land”
of Buddhism. The first known
Chinese monk to undertake
such a pilgrimage was Faxian.
He set out in AD 399 in order to

5

6

EURASIA
bring back Buddhist texts from India that were
unavailable in China. His trip took him across the
trackless desert wastes of Central Asia to Khotan (now
Hotan, China), an oasis center for caravans on the Silk
Road. He then crossed the mountain area known as the
Pamirs along a treacherously narrow and steep path. In
402 he arrived in India. There he visited the most
important seats of Buddhist learning and the holiest
Buddhist places. He stayed for a long time at what is
now the city of Patna, transcribing Buddhist texts.
In the desert were numerous evil spirits and scorching
“ winds,
causing death to anyone who would meet them.
Above there were no birds, while on the ground there were no animals.
One looked as far as one could in all directions for a path to cross, but
there was none to choose. Only the dried bones of the dead served as
indications.



—Faxian, a Chinese Buddhist monk,
describing his trek through Central Asia in the 5th century AD

On the way home, Faxian sailed to Ceylon (now Sri
Lanka), where he collected additional Buddhist writings.
After setting sail for China, a violent storm drove his
ship onto an island that was probably Java (now in
Indonesia). He took another boat, but it too was driven
astray before finally being blown to a Chinese port. In
all, Faxian spent more than 200 days at sea. After
returning to his homeland, Faxian translated into
Chinese the Buddhist texts he had taken so much
trouble to bring back. He also wrote a detailed account
of his pioneering journeys.

The Chinese Buddhist monk
Xuanzang returns from his
pilgrimage to India in AD 645.
© Lebrecht Music and Arts
Photo Library/Alamy

After Faxian, many other Chinese monks went on
pilgrimages to India. Among them was Xuanzang in
the 7th century. He was unable to obtain a travel
permit, so he left Chang’an, China, by stealth in 629.
He traveled north of the Takla Makan Desert and
across the mountains known as the Hindu Kush to
northwestern India. From there he sailed down the
Ganges River, arriving at its eastern reaches in 633.
After visiting many holy places and studying at a
Buddhist monastery for several years, he returned
home in 645. He had been gone 16 years. Like Faxian,
he brought back numerous religious texts. Xuanzang’s
record of his travels, with its wealth of precise data,
has been of great value to modern historians and
archaeologists.
Zheng He Sails the Indian Ocean

The greatest Chinese naval explorer was probably the
admiral and diplomat Zheng He. His seven major
expeditions in the early 15th century helped to extend
Chinese maritime and commercial influence throughout
the regions bordering the Indian Ocean. Zheng was the
son of Chinese Muslims. As a youth, he was among the
boys whom the Chinese government captured, castrated,
and sent into the army. He distinguished himself as a
junior officer, skilled in war and diplomacy. He also
made influential friends at the Chinese court. Eunuchs
(castrated men) had long functioned as political advisers
to the emperors.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), the Chinese
court sought to display its naval power to bring the
maritime states of South and Southeast Asia in line. For
300 years the Chinese had been extending their power
out to sea. An extensive seaborne commerce had
developed to meet China’s desire for spices and raw
materials for industry. Chinese travelers abroad, as well
as Indian and Muslim visitors to China, widened the
geographic horizon of the Chinese. Technological
developments in shipbuilding and in the arts of
seafaring reached new heights by the beginning of the
Ming Dynasty.
The emperor selected Zheng to be the commander in
chief of new missions to the Indian Ocean. Zheng first
set sail in 1405, commanding 62 ships and 27,800 men.
The fleet visited what are now southern Vietnam,
Thailand, Malaysia, and Java, Indonesia. It then sailed to
southwestern India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Zheng
returned to China in 1407.
On his second voyage, in 1409, he encountered
treachery from the king of Ceylon. Zheng defeated the
king’s forces and took him back to China as a captive. In
1411 Zheng set out on his third voyage. This time,
traveling beyond the seaports of India, he sailed to
Hormuz on the Persian Gulf. On his return he touched
at the northern tip of Sumatra (now in Indonesia).
Zheng left on his fourth voyage in 1413. After
stopping at the principal ports of Asia, he proceeded
westward from India to Hormuz. Part of the fleet
cruised southward down the Arabian coast and
dispatched a Chinese mission to visit Mecca (now in
Saudi Arabia) and Egypt. The fleet visited coastal towns

EURASIA

in what are now Somalia and Kenya and almost reached
the Mozambique Channel. On his return to China in
1415, Zheng brought the envoys of more than 30 states
of South and Southeast Asia to pay homage to the
Chinese emperor.
On Zheng’s fifth voyage (1417–19), the fleet revisited
the Persian Gulf and the east coast of Africa. A sixth
voyage was launched in 1421 to take the foreign
emissaries back home from China. Zheng again visited
Southeast Asia, India, Arabia, and Africa. In 1424 the
emperor died. His successor shifted policy and
suspended naval expeditions abroad. One final
expedition, which was Zheng’s seventh voyage, was
sent out. The fleet left China in the winter of 1431,
visiting the states of Southeast Asia, the coast of India,
the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the east coast of
Africa. Zheng died in India in the spring of 1433, and
the fleet returned to China that summer.
MEDIEVAL EUROPEAN TRAVELERS

The period of intense European exploration and
colonization of the Americas known as the Age of
Discovery took place in the 15th and 16th centuries. The
foundation for this period was laid in the Middle Ages,
as Europeans traveled to the Middle East and China.
Contacts with the East introduced new ideas and goods
to Europe and inspired further exploration.
The Crusades

During the military expeditions known as the Crusades,
Europeans traveled to the Middle East to wage war, not
to explore new territory. Nevertheless, the Crusades
brought Europeans in greater contact with the Muslim

world. From the late 11th century to the 16th century,
European Christians mounted a series of military
campaigns to attempt to recapture the Holy Land
(Palestine) from the Muslims. The Crusades ultimately
failed to regain the Holy Land but played an important
role in the expansion of Europe.
The Crusades opened up trade contact with the East,
and new foods and textiles began to appear in Europe.
The new products included cane sugar, buckwheat, rice,
apricots, watermelons, oranges, limes, lemons, cotton,
damask, satin, velvet, and dyestuffs. The Crusades also
introduced western Europe to the great cities and
cultures of the Islamic world. Contact with the Christian
Byzantine Empire, in southern Europe and western Asia,
provided access to ancient Greek learning.
European Travelers to China

European knowledge of China increased greatly in the
late Middle Ages, when Christian European missionaries
and merchants journeyed by land to Central and East
Asia. Goods had passed between East and West along
the Silk Road since ancient times. However, traders did
not travel the entire road. Goods usually changed hands
at many different marts along the way.
In the 13th century the political geography changed.
Under their leader Genghis Khan, the Mongols took
control of northern China. They then turned their
conquering armies westward, building up an enormous
empire. By the late 13th century, the Mongol emperor
Kublai Khan reigned supreme from the Black Sea to the
Yellow Sea. Astute Europeans saw the opportunities that
friendship with the Mongol state might bring. If
Europeans could convert the Mongols to Christianity,

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EURASIA

The Legend of Prester John
Starting in the Middle Ages, European rulers sent out many
expeditions to find Prester John, a Christian priest and king.
Explorers searched for his kingdom first in Asia, then later in
northern Africa. Prester John never existed, however; he was
merely a legend. John was purportedly a Nestorian Christian, a
member of an independent Eastern Christian church. The title
Prester is short for presbyter, which means “elder” or “priest.”
The myth of Prester John arose in the 12th century during
the Crusades, when European Christians were fighting to regain
the Holy Land from the Muslims. Prester John was said to be a
wealthy and powerful ruler who was fighting against the
Muslims. His kingdom was supposedly located somewhere “in
the Far East beyond Persia and Armenia.” European rulers
hoped to form an alliance with him against the Muslims. His
legend thus arose partly from wishful thinking.
In 1165 several Christian rulers in Europe received a letter
that claimed to be from Prester John. It is not known who
actually wrote the letter, which was a fiction. In the letter, the
realm of Prester John is described as a land of natural riches,
marvels, peace, and justice. Prester John declared in the letter
that he intended to come to Palestine with his armies to battle
the Muslims and to regain the Holy Sepulchre, the burial place
of Jesus. Pope Alexander III sent a letter to Prester John in
1177.
In the 13th and 14th centuries various missionaries and
travelers searched for Prester John’s kingdom in Asia. Among
them were Giovanni da Pian del Carpini, Giovanni da
Montecorvino, and Marco Polo. As European knowledge of Asia
increased, the search moved elsewhere.
After the mid-14th century Ethiopia was the center of the
quest, as Prester John became identified with the emperor of
that African Christian state. The Portuguese, who began
actively exploring Africa, hoped to find the king. In 1482 the
Portuguese navigator Diogo Cão encountered the mouth of the
Congo River, which he believed to be a strait providing access
to the realm of Prester John. In 1486 rumor arose of a great
ruler far to the east who was thought to be Prester John. The
Portuguese king sent the explorers Pêro da Covilhã and Afonso
Paiva overland to search for the mythical ruler and to locate
India and Ethiopia. They, of course, never found him.

the balance of power would be tipped against the
Muslims and in favor of the Christians. Forming an
alliance with the Mongols would also be beneficial to
trade. Christian merchants would be provided with
political protection along the trade routes to the
legendary sources of wealth in China. With these
opportunities in mind, Pope Innocent IV sent friars to
“diligently search out all things” concerning the Mongol
Empire and to try to convert the Mongols.
Giovanni and Willem. Among the Franciscan friars
who went forth to follow these instructions were
Giovanni da Pian del Carpini of Italy and Willem van
Ruysbroeck of France. They traveled the great caravan
routes from southern Russia, north of the Caspian and
Aral seas and north of the Tien Shan (Tien Mountains).
Both Giovanni and Willem eventually reached the court
of the Mongol emperor at Karakorum.
Giovanni set out from France in 1245, when he was
more than 60 years old. A year later, he and his
companions had reached the camp of Batu, the Mongol

conqueror of eastern Europe, on the Volga River. With
Batu’s permission, the friars proceeded to Karakorum.
They arrived just over 106 days later, after a journey on
horseback of about 3,000 miles (4,800 kilometers).
Giovanni and his companions were present to witness
the coronation of a new Mongol emperor. More than
3,000 envoys and deputies from all parts of the empire
had gathered there for the event. The friars remained at
the new emperor’s court for a few months. They were
then sent back home to deliver a letter from the emperor
to the pope. The friars suffered greatly on their long
winter journey homeward. By the time they reached
Europe in the summer of 1247, they had been taken for
dead.
Immediately upon his return, Giovanni recorded his
observations of the Mongols and the regions he had
traversed. His work discredited many of the fables
concerning the Mongols. Its account of Mongol customs
and history is one of the best treatments of the subject by
any medieval Christian writer. Only on geographic and
personal detail is it inferior to the one written a few
years later by Willem.
Willem and his companions set out by sea in 1253
from what is now Turkey. They crossed the Black Sea to
the Crimean Peninsula, in what is now Ukraine. On
land, they acquired oxen and carts for their five-week
trek across the steppes to Batu’s camp. From there, they
set off on horseback, reaching Karakoram in January
1254. They were received courteously by the emperor
and remained at his court until the summer. Upon his
return, Willem wrote about his Mongolian experiences
for the French king. His narrative is free from legend
and shows him to have been an intelligent and honest
observer.
The Polo family. The greatest of the 13th-century
European travelers in Asia were the Polos, wealthy
merchants of Venice. In 1260 the brothers Niccolò and
Maffeo Polo set out on a trading expedition to the
Crimean Peninsula. After two years they were ready to
return to Venice. Finding the way home blocked by war,
however, they traveled eastward to Bukhara (now in
Uzbekistan), where they spent another three years. The
Polos then accepted an invitation to accompany a party
of Mongol envoys returning to the court of Kublai Khan
at Dadu (now Beijing). The emperor received them well.
They eventually returned to Europe as his ambassadors,
carrying letters asking the pope to send him 100
Christian scholars. The Polos finally arrived back home
three years later.
In 1271 the Polos set off for China again, accompanied
by Niccolò’s son, Marco Polo, then a youth of 17. This
time the Polos took a different route. From Venice they
sailed to Acre (now !Akko, Israel), where they received
letters for Kublai from a representative of the pope. The
Polos crossed the deserts of Iran and Afghanistan.
Northeastern Afghanistan, in particular, pleased the
travelers. They seem to have remained there for a year.
Setting off again, the Polos mounted the heights of the
Pamirs. They descended from the mountains to the
trading city of Kashgar (Kashi), which is now in
Xinjiang, China. By then, they were traveling on the

EURASIA
Marco Polo sets sail from Venice
in 1271, in a painting from an
illuminated manuscript from about
the 15th century.
© Photos.com/Jupiterimages

main part of the Silk Road. They continued eastward,
crossing the Takla Makan Desert to what is now the
Chinese province of Gansu. Prior to this, the Polos had
traveled primarily among Muslim peoples. In Gansu an
entirely different civilization—mainly Buddhist in
religion but partly Chinese in culture—prevailed.
All these pieces of paper are issued with as much
“ solemnity
and authority as if they were of pure gold or
silver … [With them the emperor] causes all payments on his own
account to be made; and he makes them to pass current universally
over all his kingdoms and provinces and territories … And nobody,
however important he may think himself, dares to refuse them on pain
of death … And all the while they are so light …



—Marco Polo, a 13th-century Italian traveler, describing the
use in China of paper money, which was then unknown in Europe

Sometime in 1274 or 1275 the Polos arrived at Kublai’s
court at his summer capital, Shangdu (now Duolun, in
northern China). They remained in Kublai’s empire for
some 16 or 17 years. They may have moved with the
court to the emperor’s winter residence at Dadu. The
elder Polos were probably employed by the empire in
some technical capacity.
Marco quickly became a favorite of Kublai’s.
Although Marco knew little or no Chinese, he did speak
some of the many languages then used in East Asia.
Kublai took great delight in hearing of strange

countries. He repeatedly sent Marco on fact-finding
missions to far places in the empire, including
Hangzhou in the southeast, Yunnan in the southwest,
and perhaps also what is now Myanmar (Burma). From
these lands Marco brought back stories of the people
and their lives. He may also have had other official
responsibilities, such as inspecting taxes. In any event,
Marco seems to have considered himself an adoptive
son of his new country.
The Polos became wealthy in China. They began to
fear, however, that jealous men in the court would
destroy them when the elderly emperor died. In about
1290 or 1292, Kublai was preparing to send a Mongol
princess to Iran to become a consort of the ruler there.
The Polos asked to accompany her on the voyage and,
from Iran, to return to Venice. Kublai at first refused but
then reluctantly agreed.
Since there was danger from robbers and enemies of
the emperor along the overland trade routes, they went
by sea. They sailed in a fleet of 14 ships, which carried
the Polos, the princess, and 600 courtiers and sailors. The
fleet traveled southward along the coast of what is now
Vietnam and the Malay Peninsula to Sumatra (now in
Indonesia), where the voyage was delayed for several
months. The ships then turned westward and visited
Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and India before reaching their
destination in Iran. The Polos set off by land for Venice.
They were robbed along the way of most of their
earnings from China. When they arrived in Venice in
1295, they had been gone 24 years.

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1328. Another Franciscan
missionary, the Italian friar
Odoric of Pordenone,
journeyed throughout the
greater part of Asia between
1316 and 1330. He reached
Beijing by way of India and
Malaysia. He then traveled by
sea to Guangzhou, China.
Odoric returned to Europe by
way of Central Asia. His
account of his journeys had
considerable influence in his
day. It was from Odoric’s work
that the English writer Sir John
Mandeville plagiarized most of
his travel stories.
MUSLIM TRAVELERS

Starting in what were the
Middle Ages in Europe, the
study of geography was
nurtured in the Arab world,
along with other scholarly pursuits. Arab scholars
Soon after his return, Marco sailed aboard a ship in
produced a number of geographic works, including
the Mediterranean. It was captured by forces of the
encyclopedias, descriptive geographies and histories,
trading city of Genoa, a rival of Venice, during a
and maps of the world. The Arabs were great seafarers.
skirmish. Marco was thrown into a Genoese prison.
They dominated trade in the Indian Ocean from the 3rd
There he recorded observations from his travel to Asia,
to the 15th century. Interest in geography was also
with the help of another prisoner, Rustichello, who was
kindled in part by the great political and military
a writer of romances. The result was Marco’s famous
and fascinating book, which became known as Il milione expansion of the Arabs in the 7th and 8th centuries.
Islam was established by Muhammad in Arabia, the
(The Million). Its name most likely came from his
homeland of the Arabs, in the early 7th century. The new
nickname, “Il Milione,” from his tendency to describe
religion spread rapidly. Within a century, the Arabs had
the millions of things he saw in the Mongol Empire. In
conquered most of the Middle East, North Africa, and
English, the book is known as the Travels of Marco Polo.
Spain.
Polo’s book contains vivid descriptions of China and
Travel was an important part of Islamic culture.
other parts of Asia. Rather than being a collection of
Muslims were (and still are) required to undertake a
personal recollections, it was intended to provide an
pilgrimage to Mecca (now in Saudi Arabia) once in their
overview of the region. The narrative often branches off
life. It was also common for Muslims to visit great
into descriptions of places that Marco probably never
scholars and centers of learning throughout the Islamic
visited. Instead, he gathered information about these
places from his relatives or other people he knew. Typical world. Many travelers wrote accounts of their journeys,
and the travel narrative became a well-established genre
digressions are those on Mesopotamia, Samarkand,
in Arabic literature.
Siberia, India, Japan, Ethiopia, and Madagascar.
One of the earliest notable Islamic travelers was the
His most detailed descriptions and the highest praise
9th-century geographer known as al-Ya!qubi. For many
were reserved for the Mongol capital of Dadu, whose
years he lived in Armenia and Khorasan (now part of
splendors were beyond compare. To this city, he said,
“everything that is most rare and valuable in all parts of Iran), under the patronage of the Iranian dynasty of the
Tahirids. After the fall of the Tahirids, he traveled to
the world finds its way: . . . for not fewer than 1,000
India and the Maghrib (North Africa) and died in Egypt.
carriages and pack-horses loaded with raw silk make
Al-Ya!qubi wrote a world history and a geography based
their daily entry; and gold tissues and silks of various
on his travels. In the geography, he describes the larger
kinds are manufactured to an immense extent.”
cities of Iraq, Iran, Arabia, Syria, Egypt, the Maghrib,
It is no wonder that when Europe learned of these
things it became enthralled. Marco’s book was an instant India, China, and the Byzantine Empire. Much of this
success and was translated into many languages. Fellow work is now lost.
The fame of the 10th-century geographer al-Hamdani
Europeans read his accounts of the riches of Asia and
became eager to find sea routes to China, Japan, and the rests mainly on his authoritative writings on South
Arabian history and geography. He was born in Yemen
East Indies.
and spent most of his life in the Arabian Peninsula. He
A few travelers followed the Polos. Giovanni da
traveled extensively, acquiring a broad knowledge of his
Montecorvino, a Franciscan friar from Italy, became
country. He was also a poet, historian, and astronomer.
archbishop of Beijing. He lived in China from 1294 to

EURASIA
His encyclopedia Al-Iklil (The Crown) and his other
writings are a major source of information on medieval
Arabia.
The geographer al-Maqdisi also traveled widely in the
10th century. He wrote a notable work based on his
personal observations of the populations, manners, and
economic life of the various peoples of the Islamic
world.
Al-Mas!udi was the first Arab to combine history and
scientific geography in a large-scale work. This work, a
world history, was called Muruj adh-dhahab wa ma!adin aljawahir (The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems). It
appeared in the mid-10th century.
As a child, al-Mas!udi showed an extraordinary love
of learning, an excellent memory, and a boundless
curiosity. His main interests were history and geography,
but he also studied such subjects as comparative religion
and science. Al-Mas!udi was not content to learn merely
from books and teachers but traveled widely to gain
firsthand knowledge of the countries about which he
wrote. His travels extended to Syria, Iran, Armenia, the
shores of the Caspian Sea, the Indus Valley, Ceylon (now
Sri Lanka), Oman, and the east coast of Africa as far
south as Zanzibar, at least, and, possibly, Madagascar.
Al-Mas!udi is believed to have written more than 20
books, including several about Islamic beliefs and even
one about poisons. Unfortunately, most of his writings
have been lost. His book of world history became
famous. It includes chapters describing the history,
geography, social life, and religious customs of nonIslamic lands, such as India, Greece, and Rome. The
book also provides accounts of climates, the oceans, the
hazards of navigation, and the calendars of various
nations. Among the particularly interesting sections are
those on pearl diving in the Persian Gulf, amber found
in East Africa, Hindu burial customs, and the land route
to China.
Al-Mas!udi’s approach to his task was original. He
gave as much weight to social, economic, religious, and
cultural matters as to politics. He also displayed interest
in all religions. Moreover, he used information obtained
from sources not previously regarded as reliable. These
sources included merchants, local writers (including
non-Muslims), and others he met on his travels.
Another great work of medieval geography was
written by ash-Sharif al-Idrisi in the 12th century. He
spent much of his early life traveling in North Africa
and Spain, where his ancestors had lived. Apparently his
travels also took him to many other parts of western
Europe besides Spain, including Portugal, the French
Atlantic coast, and southern England. He visited Asia
Minor when he was barely 16 years old.
In about 1145 al-Idrisi entered the service of Roger II,
the king of Sicily, who was Christian. For the king, alIdrisi completed maps of the world and his great
geographic book. This book is called Kitab nuzhat almushtaq fi ikhtiraq al-afaq (The Pleasure Excursion of One
Who Is Eager to Traverse the Regions of the World). It is
also known in English as “The Book of Roger.” In
compiling it, he combined material from Arabic and
Greek geographic works with information obtained

World History Archive/Alamy

The geographer ash-Sharif al-Idrisi completed a map of the world in
the 12th century. A later copy of the map is shown. South is at top,
and north is at bottom. Africa thus appears above Eurasia. The
extent of Africa was not known. The Americas and Australia, which
were then unknown in Eurasia, are not shown.

through firsthand observation and eyewitness reports.
The king and al-Idrisi sent a number of persons,
including men skilled in drawing, to various countries to
observe and record what they saw. Al-Idrisi completed
the book in January 1154.
The greatest medieval Arab traveler was Ibn Battutah.
He visited nearly all the Muslim countries and
journeyed as far as China and Sumatra (now in
Indonesia). He was the author of one of the most famous
of all travel books, the Rihlah (Travels).
Ibn Battutah was born in Morocco. He began his travels
in 1325, at the age of 21, by undertaking the pilgrimage to
Mecca. On this voyage he also sought to study under
famous scholars in Egypt and Syria. It was during his trip
to Egypt that he became enthusiastic about traveling,
vowing to visit as many parts of the world as possible. He
established as a rule for himself “never to travel any road
a second time.” Other travelers of the time journeyed for
practical reasons, such as for trade, pilgrimage, and
education. Ibn Battutah, however, traveled for its own
sake, for the reward of learning about new countries and
new peoples. As he became increasingly famous as a
traveler and scholar, he also made a living from his
travels. Numerous rulers and other powerful people were
generous toward him, enabling him to secure an income
and to continue his wanderings.
From Egypt, Ibn Battutah traveled to Syria and
completed his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1326. He then
crossed the Arabian Desert to Iraq, southern Iran, and
Azerbaijan. From 1327 to 1330 he studied in Mecca and
Medina (now in Saudi Arabia), but such a long stay did
not suit his temperament. He set off again, sailing down
both shores of the Red Sea to Yemen. He later visited

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EURASIA

trading city-states along the eastern African coast. His
return journey took him to southern Arabia, southern
Iran, and across the Persian Gulf back to Mecca in 1332.
There he developed a new, ambitious plan. He heard
that the sultan of Delhi, the Islamic ruler of northern
India, was very generous to Muslim scholars. Ibn
Battutah decided to try his luck at the sultan’s court. He
traveled to Syria, where he boarded a ship for Asia
Minor. He crisscrossed this “land of the Turks” in many
directions and met many local rulers.
His journey continued across the Black Sea to the
Crimea, then to the northern Caucasus. He reached Saray,
on the lower Volga, which was the capital of the ruler of
the western part of the Mongol Empire. This ruler’s wife
was a Byzantine princess. Ibn Battutah accompanied the
princess and her attendants on a visit to Constantinople,
the capital of the Byzantine Empire, which was Christian.
(Today, this city is named Istanbul and is part of Turkey.)
Although Ibn Battutah shared the strong opinions of his
fellow Muslims toward non-Muslims, his vivid accounts
of the capital show him as a rather tolerant man with a
lively curiosity. Nevertheless, he always felt happier in
Muslim rather than non-Muslim lands.
After his return from Constantinople through the
Russian steppes, he traveled with a caravan to Central
Asia. He then took rather complicated routes through
Khorasan and Afghanistan. After crossing the Hindu
Kush (mountains), he arrived at the frontiers of India.
India and its sultan lived up to Ibn Battutah’s
expectations of wealth and generosity. He was received
with honors and gifts and was appointed a judge in
Delhi, a post that he held for several years. In 1342 the
sultan made Ibn Battutah his envoy to the Chinese
emperor.

After Ibn Battutah left Delhi, his party was soon
waylaid by Hindu insurgents. He barely escaped with
his life. On the southwest coast of India he became
involved in local wars and was finally shipwrecked
there. He lost all his property and the presents he was
carrying for the Chinese emperor. Fearing the wrath of
the sultan, Ibn Battutah chose to go to the Maldive
Islands south of India, where he spent nearly two years.
He then visited Ceylon. After a new shipwreck on the
southeast coast of India, he took part in a war led by his
brother-in-law. He later visited northeastern India.
Deciding to resume his mission to China, he sailed for
Sumatra. There he was given a new ship by the island’s
Muslim ruler and started for China.
Ibn Battutah landed at the great Chinese port Zaytun
(now Quanzhou) in the southeast. He then traveled on
inland waterways as far as Beijing and back. This part of
his narrative is rather brief, and problems with it lead
modern historians to wonder whether it is really true.
He returned via Sumatra and the Persian Gulf to
Baghdad, Syria, and Egypt. In Syria he witnessed the
ravages of the plague of 1348. He also performed his
final pilgrimage to Mecca. At last he returned home to
Morocco.
But there still remained two Muslim countries not yet
known to him. Shortly after his return he went to the
kingdom of Granada, the last remnant of Moorish Spain.
In 1352, he set out on a journey to the western Sudan.
This last journey, across the desert known as the Sahara
to western Africa, was taken unwillingly at the
command of the sultan of Morocco. Crossing the Sahara,
Ibn Battutah spent a year in the empire of Mali. Toward
the end of 1353, he returned back home to Morocco.
There, he dictated an account of his travels to a scholar,

EURASIA
who wrote them down. Over the course of his more than
20 years of traveling, he had journeyed some 75,000
miles (more than 120,000 kilometers). He had met at
least 60 rulers and many more dignitaries. His book is
valued for its insights on many aspects of the social,
cultural, and political history of a great part of the
Muslim world.
THE SEA ROUTE TO INDIA

Before the 16th century, little was known in Europe
about the interior and east coast of India. Europeans
had been in contact with India since ancient times.
Trade between Europe and India came to a halt,
however, with the fall of the Roman Empire in the 4th
century AD. Trade with the East then passed into Arab
hands. The only physical contact with Europe came
from occasional travelers, such as Marco Polo and, in
the 15th century, the Italian Niccolò dei Conti and the
Russian Afanasy Nikitin. In the 15th century Europeans
eagerly searched for a sea route from western Europe to
India and China. They wanted to profit from the trade
in valuable spices from the East. At the end of the
century, the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama
successfully sailed from Europe to India. He thereby
restored a link between Europe and the East that had
existed many centuries previously. A series of European
expeditions to southern Asia followed, ultimately
leading to its colonization.
The direct routes for trade between Europe and India
involved traveling via the Red Sea and Egypt or across
Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Anatolia (now in Turkey). In the
15th century these routes became increasingly blocked to

Europeans, mainly because of the activities of the
Turkish Ottoman Empire. In addition, the Venetians and
later the Ottomans held a near-monopoly on trade in the
eastern Mediterranean. For these reasons, western
Europeans began searching for another route. (The Suez
Canal, which now links the Mediterranean Sea to the
Red Sea, was not built until the late 19th century.)
The search for a sea route to the East initiated the Age
of Discovery. Christopher Columbus sought to reach
China by traveling west, and thereby accidentally
reached the Americas (see The Americas, “The Age of
Discovery”). Other explorers tried the long and
hazardous eastern route, via the Atlantic and Indian
Oceans. First, a ship had to sail south along the west
coast of Africa. It then had to round the continent’s
southern tip and head north in the Indian Ocean along
Africa’s east coast. It was not known if this was possible,
however; some Europeans thought that the Indian
Ocean might be entirely surrounded by land. Europeans
also did not know how far south the African continent
extended. In addition, sailing around the southern tip of
the continent—near the land now known as the Cape of
Good Hope—proved to be difficult. The seas are rough,
the weather is stormy, and the winds are strong.
Portugal took the lead in the search for the eastern sea
route. Throughout the 15th century, the Portuguese sent
forth expedition after expedition to explore the west coast
of Africa. The king also sent the Portuguese explorer Pêro
da Covilhã on a mission to India via a land and sea route
in 1487. Pêro traveled through Egypt and Ethiopia to the
Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. He arrived in India,
visiting the towns of Cannanore (now Kannur), Calicut
(now Kozhikode), and
Goa on the west coast.
He then journeyed in
Africa (see Africa, “The
Portuguese”).
Also in 1487, the king
sent the Portuguese
explorer Bartolomeu
Dias on a mission to
search for the eastern
sea route. Dias and his
crew became the first
Europeans to see the
stormy Cape of Good
Hope. With two light,
quick sailing ships
called caravels plus a
supply ship, Dias left
Lisbon, Portugal, in
August. He sailed
down the entire west
coast of Africa, farther
than any other
European before him.
Early in January 1488, a
gale hit his ships and
blew them southward,
past the southernmost
tip of land. After 13

13



LEARN & EXPLORE

World Exploration
from Ancient Times

CHICAGO

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by

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PARIS

NEW DELHI

Britannica®

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Learn & Explore series
World Exploration from Ancient Times
Compton’s by Britannica

Copyright© 2011 by Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
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iii

EDITOR’S PREFACE

Whether it be land, sea, or space, what lies beyond one’s physical limitations has
always piqued the interest of the human race. This book takes a look at
exploration of Earth’s land masses from early times. Although the primary
motivation for different exploratory missions may have varied throughout the
years, one recurring theme has always been curiosity. Venturing out to find what
lies beyond is a part of human nature.
The story of world exploration is often a compelling one. World Exploration from
Ancient Times organizes this material by region (Eurasia [Europe and Asia], the
Americas, Australia and the Pacific Islands, Africa, and the Polar Regions) and
employs the use of 140 maps and photos to aid in illustrating the story. In
addition, quotations from several key explorers are sprinkled throughout the
text. Sidebars and several pages of mini-biographies (World Explorers at a
Glance) round out the body of the book. The introduction, opposite the editor’s
overview, was contributed by Stephen P. Davis, geography contributor for
several articles in Compton’s Encyclopedia and graduate instructor at the
University of Illinois at Chicago. His article on Australia in Compton’s served as
the jumping off point for the section on Australia and the Pacific Islands. Begin
your journey by reading Davis’ introduction on page vi and the editor’s
overview on page 1.
As a previous editor in chief of Compton’s Encyclopedia once said of the set,
“whether the incentive to open the books came from the suggestion of parents,
from the requirements of schoolwork, or from the child’s own natural curiosity,
upon these pages would rest a responsibility greater than merely offering bare
answers to isolated questions. They must arouse interest, they must give color
and significance and due emphasis to the facts, they must relate them to other
essential facts; in short, they must give more than the young reader has the
experience to ask for.” This is true not only of Compton’s Encyclopedia today, but of
the Learn & Explore series as well.

iv

STAFF

Anthony L. Green

INFORMATION
MANAGEMENT
AND RETRIEVAL

SENIOR EDITOR
Andrea Field

Carmen-Maria Hetrea,
Director

COPY

John Higgins
Sheila Vasich

EDITOR

Sylvia Wallace,
Director
Dennis Skord,
Supervisor

PRODUCTION
CONTROL

ART AND
COMPOSITION

MEDIA ASSET
MANAGEMENT

ENCYCLOPÆDIA
BRITANNICA, INC.

Steven N. Kapusta,
Director

Jeannine Deubel,
Manager

Jacob E. Safra,
Chairman of the Board

Kurt Heintz

Jorge Aguilar-Cauz,
President

CARTOGRAPHY

Michael Ross,
Senior Vice President
Corporate Development

Illustrator
Christine McCabe

Layout
Graphic Designer

Michael Nutter,
Manager

Cate Nichols

Ken Chmielewski

PHOTOS

MANUFACTURING

Kathy Nakamura,
Manager

Kim Gerber,
Director

Marilyn L. Barton

EDITORIAL LIBRARY
Henry Bolzon,
Head Librarian
Robert M. Lewis
Lars Mahinske

Photo Editor
Kimberly L. Cleary

Dale H. Hoiberg,
Senior Vice President
and Editor
Marsha Mackenzie,
Executive Director,
Media and Production

v

N

E

W

N
W

N
E

SE

SW

TABLE OF CONTENTS
S

Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . vi
Overview . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
Eurasia . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
The Americas . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19
Australia and
the Pacific Islands . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 49
Africa . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 62
The Polar Regions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 78
World Explorers at a Glance . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 96
Further Resources . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 104
Index . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 105

vi

INTRODUCTION
This introduction was contributed by Stephen P. Davis, former Associate Editor, Encyclopædia
Britannica; Graduate Instructor in the Department of Anthropology and Geography, University of Illinois
at Chicago; and author of popular and scholarly articles on geography, history, sociology of religion, and
cultural anthropology.

Why do we seem driven to explore? Is exploration a
gift of “the human condition” that raises us above the
animals? Or does it instead link us with the biological
world and other wandering, migrating, and mobile
species to a degree that some would not care to admit?
Our common ancestors became bipedal millions of
years ago, and Homo sapiens explored within, and
beyond, Africa 150,000 to 50,000 years ago. What drove
them as far as Australia, Hawaii, and the southern tip
of South America? Instinct? The sublime? Or a matrix
that we can barely imagine? Whatever the reason, we
seem compelled to honor those sharing their spirit.
Many of our films, novels, and hearthside tales focus
on risk-takers, bringers of knowledge, and
“discoverers,” regardless of the chaos and lamentation
that can follow in their wakes—whether the diseases
carried by Columbus to the Americas in 1492, the
abuses wrought on Australia’s Aborigines in the 1800s,
or the slavery and warfare that European incursions
sparked in Africa.
We may wish to emulate explorers, to attain their
heights of ability and self-reliance. Or, just maybe, we
share a suspicion that history could not have unfolded
without their intrusions (though we hope that is not the
guiding light of our fate). We thrill to Balboa’s
“discovery” of the Pacific Ocean (which was already
known to local peoples) though it contributed to
Pizarro’s conquest of the Inca Empire. Likewise, we
marvel at the Chinese travelers who contributed to
imperial expansion, with mixed results. In our science
fiction, the beloved Star Trek character Captain James
Kirk is an echo of the explorer Captain James Cook,
who boldly went “farther than any other man has been
before” across the void-like Pacific Ocean. Yet we often
ignore the colonial, cultural, and biological abuses
unleashed after the captains’ logs reached home. Today,
we grant explorers sizable space in our popular

histories, especially in the histories of nations anxious
to solidify control over their claimed lands.
Exploration has contributed to greater scientific
knowledge, and yet misinformation has gone hand in
hand with many a voyage. Greek and Roman scholars
repeated tales of giant, gold-mining ants in the east.
Columbus recorded accounts of “one-eyed men, and
others, with snouts of dogs, who ate men.” Many
expected to encounter Patagonian giants, antipodes
(people with feet pointed backward), and Amazons.
Arctic explorers in the 1800s believed that a warm zone
encircled the North Pole. Cartographers would fill in
the blank spaces on maps with sea monsters.
As we survey the good and the bad that these
wanderings have wrought, we should acknowledge an
error of omission—namely, that most of the talented and
courageous women who have contributed to these
events, in all times and places, have been lost to history.
It is true, of course, that explorers’ roles have often been
restricted to men by the commands of nations, navies,
and the societies of their times, but we also need to read
between the lines. In a similar vein, we should not give
credence to a “big man” version of history that would
depict only the solitary, triumphant ship captain, the
general, or the king—the only person whose name was
recorded in many histories. None of these leaders could
have succeeded without supporters at home and, more
vital still, strangers on the road, gracious hosts, and
indigenous guides. The Muslim scholar Ibn Battutah
could never have covered 75,000 miles (more than
120,000 kilometers) of Asia, Africa, and the Indian Ocean
in the 1300s were it not for the unnamed fishers and
traders before him. In 1804–06 Lewis and Clark
depended heavily on Native American guides and chiefs
who sketched maps for them in the sand. The monikers
of explorers persist today because of those whose names
were never written down or have been lost to history.

1

WORLD EXPLORATION
FROM ANCIENT TIMES

The explorers who appear in this book sailed across vast
open seas and crossed mountains, deserts, jungles,
rivers, and even great sheets of polar ice. They
journeyed into the unknown, connecting cultures and
adding new places to the map. The risks were often
great. Many explorers died while investigating new
territory or while trying to return home again.
The motives for exploration were varied. Many
explorers sought wealth for themselves and their
sponsors, hoping to find new lands rich in gold, silver,
and jewels. Others searched for new and shorter trade
routes, which could lead to greater commercial profits
for trading companies. Some explorers hoped to gain
fame and glory by becoming the first to set foot on a
strange land. Others traveled for religious reasons.
Pilgrims visited the great centers of Buddhism or Islam,
and missionaries traveled to spread Christianity. Many
explorers set out in search of adventure or for the sheer
thrill of discovery.
Curiosity about the world was a major motive.
Explorers wanted to travel farther than anyone else had
before in order to find out what was there. They sought
to reveal the geography of unknown places, to chart
uncharted territories and seas. Scientists often
accompanied exploring expeditions. They journeyed to
study the plants, animals, rocks, climates, and other
aspects of new lands.
Many explorers found new territory for their people to
settle. From the ancient Phoenicians and Greeks setting up
outposts in the Mediterranean to the European powers
carving up Africa into territories in the 19th century,
exploration often went together with colonization and

conquest. Societies expanded into empires by establishing
far-flung colonies. They wanted to gain new living space,
farmland, precious metals, and other economic resources
for their people, as well as increased political power. In
some cases, the colonists settled land that was
unoccupied. Often, however, they took control of land
where other people already lived.
It is important to note that most of the new lands that
the great explorers found were already populated. To
say, then, that Christopher Columbus “discovered”
America or that Willem Jansz “discovered” Australia
should not be taken to mean that they were the first
people to set foot in these places. A great number of
people already lived there. Instead, these explorers
discovered places wholly unknown to their own
cultures—important achievements, nevertheless, that
literally broadened their cultures’ horizons. Their
explorations also led to profound and often devastating
changes in the societies they “discovered.”
This book focuses on voyages of exploration and
discovery made in the world’s great land areas.
Sections cover the exploration of Eurasia (Europe and
Asia), the Americas, Australia and the Pacific Islands,
Africa, and the polar regions. For the major explorers,
additional biographical details, including birth and
death dates, can be found at the back of the book, in
the section “World Explorers at a Glance.” Some
explorers were active in more than one continent and
so are discussed in more than one section. The index is
the best place to start if one is looking for information
on a specific explorer, expedition, or geographic
feature.

E URASIA

I

n ancient times several major civilizations arose
in Eurasia, or Europe and Asia. Western civilization
traces its roots to the peoples of Mesopotamia, in
the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers,
in what is now Iraq. Western knowledge of the
world expanded from this valley to the lands around the
Mediterranean Sea. Exploration of the Mediterranean
region went hand in hand with its colonization. The
ancient Greeks and a seafaring people known as the
Phoenicians established settlements throughout the
Mediterranean world. Ancient Egypt, in northern Africa
bordering the Mediterranean, also developed an
advanced society. Meanwhile, important civilizations
developed in the East, in the lands that are today China
and India and Pakistan. The Chinese were active
explorers of what are now China and Central Asia.

The Phoenicians were notable merchants, colonizers,
and sailors. Fearless and patient navigators, they
ventured into regions where no one else dared to go.
They are credited with the discovery and use of the
North Star for navigation. The Phoenicians sought to
dominate trade and exclude all their rivals. For this
reason, they carefully guarded the secrets of their trade
routes and discoveries and their knowledge of winds
and currents.
The homeland of the Phoenicians was located mainly
in what is now Lebanon. From there, they established
colonies along the coasts of Syria, Israel, Cyprus, Sicily,
Sardinia, southern Spain, and northern Africa. Their
great colony of Carthage (now in Tunisia), produced two
notable explorers in the 5th century BC. Hanno sailed
along the coast of western Africa (see Africa,
“Phoenicians and Greeks”). Himilco sailed to the north
EARLY EUROPEAN EXPLORATION
on a four-month journey. The purpose of his voyage was
apparently to consolidate control of the trade in tin
Shores of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic
along the Atlantic coast of Europe. From Carthage, he
The first phase in European exploration centered on the
sailed to the Phoenician colony of Gades (now Cádiz,
Mediterranean region. In the 1st millennium BC Phoenicia Spain). After visiting the coasts of Spain and Portugal,
and the Greek city-states rapidly colonized the shores of
he reached northwestern France. Some historians believe
the Mediterranean and Black seas. This widespread
that Himilco may also have visited Great Britain.
expansion must have been accompanied by exploration
In ancient Greece, as in Phoenicia, knowledge of other
of the adjacent inland areas by countless unknown
lands came with overseas settlement. Organized Greek
soldiers and traders. In the 5th century BC the ancient
colonization began in the 8th century BC. Commercial
Greek writer Herodotus prefaced his History with a
interests, greed, and sheer curiosity seem to be the forces
geographic description of what was then the known
that drove the Greek city-states to expand and explore.
world. This introduction reveals that the coastlines of the At its height, ancient Greece comprised settlements in
Mediterranean and the Black seas had already been
Asia Minor, the Greek islands, southern Italy, Sicily, and
explored by then. Much of Europe, however, remained
North Africa.
uncharted. Herodotus concludes by saying, “Whether the
The Phoenicians long controlled the Strait of Gibraltar,
sea girds Europe round on the north none can tell.”
at the western end of the Mediterranean Sea. They

EURASIA

allowed no one else to pass through this channel to the
Atlantic Ocean. In about 300 BC, however, Carthage
became embroiled in a struggle with a Greek city in
Sicily. As a result, Phoenician power at the gate of the
Mediterranean temporarily weakened. This lapse
allowed the Greek explorer Pytheas to sail right through.
Pytheas was a navigator, geographer, and astronomer
from the Greek colony of Massalia (now Marseille,
France). He became the first Greek to visit and describe
the British Isles and the Atlantic coast of Europe. Sailing
from the Mediterranean Sea into the Atlantic, Pytheas
stopped at southern Spain. He then probably followed
the European shoreline to the tip of northwestern
France. He eventually reached the southwestern tip of
England, in what is now Cornwall. There he may have
visited the tin mines, which were famous in the ancient
world. Pytheas claimed to have explored a large part of

Great Britain on foot. He may have sailed around the
island; he accurately estimated its circumference at 4,000
miles (6,400 kilometers). Pytheas visited some northern
European countries and may have reached the mouth of
the Vistula River on the Baltic Sea. He also told of Thule,
“the northernmost of the British Isles, six days sail from
Britain.” The place he visited may have been Iceland or
Norway.
Pytheas made a number of scientific observations
during his voyage of exploration. He made calculations
with a sundial at the summer solstice and noted the
lengthening days as he traveled northward. He also
observed that the North Star is not at the true North
Pole and that the Moon affects the tides.
Exploration of the North Atlantic was not carried
farther until several centuries later. This exploration was
undertaken not by Mediterranean peoples but by

A relief carving from the 1st century AD shows the kind of ship that
the Phoenicians used on the Mediterranean Sea.

Viking longships were exceptionally sturdy in heavy seas. They
carried a single square sail and were also propelled by oars. From 40
to 60 oarsmen sat on the rowers’ benches.

The Granger Collection, New York

© Photos.com/Jupiterimages

3

4

EURASIA
Vikings from Scandinavia. From the 8th to the 11th
century AD, bands of Swedish Vikings traded
southeastward across the Russian plains. At the same
time, groups of Danish Vikings raided, traded, and
settled along the coasts of the North Sea. They arrived in
the Mediterranean region, where they were known as
the Normans. However, neither the Swedes nor the
Danes traveling in these regions were exploring lands
that were unknown to civilized Europeans.
It was the Vikings of Norway who were the true
explorers. In about AD 890 the Viking Ohthere of Norway
was “desirous to try how far that country extended
north.” He sailed around Norway’s North Cape, along
the coast of Lapland to the White Sea. By contrast, most
other Vikings sailing in high latitudes explored not
eastward but westward. Sweeping down the outer edge
of Great Britain, they settled in the Orkney, Shetland, and
Hebrides islands and in Ireland. They then voyaged on
to Iceland, where in 870 they settled among Irish
colonists who had preceded them by some two centuries.
The Vikings may well have arrived piloted by Irish
sailors. Norwegian Vikings later explored farther west in
the Atlantic, reaching Greenland and Newfoundland in
North America (see The Americas).
Shores of the Indian Ocean and the China Sea

From very early times, people pursued trade across the
land bridges and through the gulfs linking the parts of
Asia, Africa, and Europe that lie between the
Mediterranean and Arabian seas. It is therefore not
surprising that exploratory voyages early revealed the
coastlines of the Indian Ocean.
The first Western observer to give an account of India
was Scylax of Caria (an ancient district of Anatolia, in
Turkey). In about 510 BC, Darius the Great, the king of
Persia (Iran), sent Scylax to explore the course of the
Indus River. Scylax traveled overland to the Kabul River,
in Afghanistan. He reached the Indus River and
followed it through India to its mouth at the Arabian
Sea, which is the northwestern part of the Indian Ocean.
He then sailed westward. Passing by the Persian Gulf
(which was already well known to the Western world),
he explored the Red Sea. Scylax finished his voyage in
northern Egypt. His journey had taken two and a half
years to complete.
The expeditions in the 4th century BC of the famous
conqueror Alexander the Great of Macedonia brought
much new geographic knowledge to the Greek world, as
well as control of vast new territory. They also carried
the influence of Mediterranean culture to the East and of
Eastern culture to the Mediterranean.
Most of Alexander’s campaigns were journeys of
military exploration. His earlier expeditions were to
regions already familiar to the Greeks—Babylonia (in
Iraq) and Persia. The later ones, however, brought the
Greeks a great deal of new information. These
campaigns took him through the enormous tract of land
from the south of the Caspian Sea to the mountains of
the Hindu Kush of Central Asia. Alexander and his
army crossed these mountains to the Indus River valley.
They then marched westward through the desolate

country along the southern edge of the Iranian plateau.
They ultimately reached Susa (now Shush, Iran), the
capital of Darius the Great, and overthrew the Persian
Empire.
The admiral in command of the expedition’s naval
forces was Nearchus. He waited for the favorable
monsoon winds and then sailed from the mouth of the
Indus to the mouth of the Euphrates. He explored the
northern coast of the Persian Gulf on his way.
The Roman Republic and later the Roman Empire
succeeded the Greek city-states as the great power of the
Western world. The empire eventually included most of
western Europe, northern Africa, and the Middle East.
As Roman power grew, increasing wealth brought
increasing demands for luxuries from the East. This led
to great commercial activity in the eastern seas. As the
coasts became well known, Roman sailors skillfully used
the seasonal character of the monsoon winds to
navigate. During the reign of the Roman emperor
Hadrian in the 1st century BC, Western traders reached
what are now Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia. A
few also seem to have reached the coast of China. In the
late 2nd century AD, according to Chinese records, an
“embassy” came from the Roman emperor Marcus
Aurelius to the Chinese emperor Huandi.
CHINESE EXPLORATION

The Chinese developed an advanced civilization in early
times and were energetic explorers. From their ancient
homeland in the basin of the Huang He (Yellow River),
they spread out widely, ultimately creating a vast
empire. Early explorations centered on the courses of the
rivers that provided the growing state with water for
agriculture as well as transportation routes. The state
built many canals and dikes. The search for land routes
through the mountains and deserts to the northwest and
west also became important. Expansion was a major
spur to exploration. Chinese farmers ventured out to
settle new lands. State-sponsored missions also sent out
parties to conquer and colonize territory, to survey and
administer the conquered lands, and to maintain state
security.
Zhang Qian and the Silk Road

During the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220), the expanding
Chinese Empire was threatened by raiders from the
north. People who led a nomadic, or wandering, life in
the northern steppe land would invade settled
agricultural communities to the south to solve periodic
food shortages. The Great Wall of China had been built
to defend Chinese territory against northern nomads,
especially the Xiongnu. The Xiongnu may have been the
same people known as the Huns in Europe. Starting in
the reign of the Han emperor Wudi, the Chinese carried
out long and costly military campaigns along the
northern and northwestern borders.
Wudi also dispatched an envoy, Zhang Qian, to try to
forge a military alliance with another nomadic people
against the Xiongnu. Zhang became a pioneering
explorer. He was the first person to bring back a reliable
account of the lands of Central Asia to the court of

EURASIA
China. He set off in 138 BC to try to establish relations
Silk Road
with a nomadic people called the Yuezhi. He traveled
through what is now the Chinese province of Gansu, but
In ancient and medieval times the Silk Road was a major
he was captured by the Xiongnu. They kept him
thoroughfare for trade and travel between Asia, the Middle East,
prisoner for 10 years in the Altai Mountains before he
and Europe. The route carried goods and ideas between the
finally managed to escape. He then proceeded on his
great civilizations of Rome and China. Caravans carried highly
mission, reaching the Yuezhi in what is now
prized Chinese silk westward and wools, gold, and silver
Afghanistan. On his return voyage via Tibet, he was
eastward. Though mainly a trade route, the Silk Road was also
again captured by the Xiongnu, but he escaped about a
used by conquering armies, Buddhist missionaries, and
Muslim clerics. Inventions, works of literature, and languages
year later. He returned to China after an absence of
likewise followed its path.
some 13 years. Seven years later Zhang was sent on
When the European explorer Marco Polo traveled from
another mission, this time to the Wusun, a people living
Venice, Italy, to China via the Silk Road in the 1270s, the road
in the Ili River valley (in what is now northwestern
was already about 1,500 years old. It came into partial
China).
existence in about 300 BC. At that time, the road was used to
Although Zhang was not able to establish an alliance
bring jade from Khotan (now Hotan, China) to China. By 200 BC
with the Yuezhi or the Wusun, he made important
the Silk Road was linked to the West, and by 100 BC it was
diplomatic contacts and collected much useful
carrying active trade between the East and the West. At its
height in AD 200, this route and its western connections over the
information. In addition to traveling himself, he sent his
Roman system constituted the longest road system on Earth.
assistant to visit parts of what are now Uzbekistan and
Few persons traveled the entire route. Instead, goods were
Afghanistan. Zhang gathered information on Parthia
handled in a staggered progression by middlemen.
(now in Iran), India, and other states in the area. His
The Silk Road stretched for some 4,000 miles (6,400
missions opened the way for exchanges of envoys
kilometers). It crossed a wide range of climates and cultures,
between these Central Asian states and China. His
from the lush, temperate region of eastern China to the deserts
voyages also brought the Chinese into contact with the
and mountains of Muslim Central Asia. It originated at Xi’an,
outposts of Greek culture established by Alexander the
China, but was linked to the Pacific Ocean on the east. From
Great. As a result of Zhang’s missions, new items were
Xi’an, the route followed the Great Wall of China to the
northwest. It then skirted the Takla Makan Desert, climbed the
introduced in China, including a superior breed of
Pamirs (mountains), crossed Afghanistan, and continued to the
horses and new plants, such as grapes and alfalfa.
eastern Mediterranean Sea. From there, merchandise was
Commerce as well as conquest inspired Chinese travel.
shipped across the sea to Europe. A southern branch of the Silk
Zhang Qian had encountered a series of trade routes that
Road led from Persia (Iran) to the Bay of Bengal in India.
skirted the great Takla Makan Desert of Central Asia.
Today, part of the route exists in the form of a paved highway
Trade began to flourish along these caravan routes. The
connecting Pakistan and northwestern China. The Silk Road has
routes are now known collectively as the Silk Road,
also been the impetus behind the building of the Asian Highway
because Chinese silk was a major and valuable product
network. In 1999 the road inspired cellist Yo Yo Ma to found the
traded along them. The Silk Road ultimately extended
Silk Road Project, which has explored cultural traditions along
from China through Central Asia to the Middle East.
its route.
From there, goods were shipped to Europe. Another
branch of the Silk Road led to India. In addition to being
a commercial thoroughfare, the Silk Road became a
major route for travel and cultural exchange between the
East and the West.
In the 1st century AD Chinese
envoys were frustrated in an
attempt to visit the western
part of the world. However, as
already mentioned, a mission
from Rome reached China by
ship in the 2nd century. The
first record of official visitors
arriving at the Han court from
Japan is for the year AD 57.
Buddhist Pilgrimages to
India

Chinese knowledge of India was
expanded by the voyages of
Chinese Buddhist monks to
study there, in the “Holy Land”
of Buddhism. The first known
Chinese monk to undertake
such a pilgrimage was Faxian.
He set out in AD 399 in order to

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bring back Buddhist texts from India that were
unavailable in China. His trip took him across the
trackless desert wastes of Central Asia to Khotan (now
Hotan, China), an oasis center for caravans on the Silk
Road. He then crossed the mountain area known as the
Pamirs along a treacherously narrow and steep path. In
402 he arrived in India. There he visited the most
important seats of Buddhist learning and the holiest
Buddhist places. He stayed for a long time at what is
now the city of Patna, transcribing Buddhist texts.
In the desert were numerous evil spirits and scorching
“ winds,
causing death to anyone who would meet them.
Above there were no birds, while on the ground there were no animals.
One looked as far as one could in all directions for a path to cross, but
there was none to choose. Only the dried bones of the dead served as
indications.



—Faxian, a Chinese Buddhist monk,
describing his trek through Central Asia in the 5th century AD

On the way home, Faxian sailed to Ceylon (now Sri
Lanka), where he collected additional Buddhist writings.
After setting sail for China, a violent storm drove his
ship onto an island that was probably Java (now in
Indonesia). He took another boat, but it too was driven
astray before finally being blown to a Chinese port. In
all, Faxian spent more than 200 days at sea. After
returning to his homeland, Faxian translated into
Chinese the Buddhist texts he had taken so much
trouble to bring back. He also wrote a detailed account
of his pioneering journeys.

The Chinese Buddhist monk
Xuanzang returns from his
pilgrimage to India in AD 645.
© Lebrecht Music and Arts
Photo Library/Alamy

After Faxian, many other Chinese monks went on
pilgrimages to India. Among them was Xuanzang in
the 7th century. He was unable to obtain a travel
permit, so he left Chang’an, China, by stealth in 629.
He traveled north of the Takla Makan Desert and
across the mountains known as the Hindu Kush to
northwestern India. From there he sailed down the
Ganges River, arriving at its eastern reaches in 633.
After visiting many holy places and studying at a
Buddhist monastery for several years, he returned
home in 645. He had been gone 16 years. Like Faxian,
he brought back numerous religious texts. Xuanzang’s
record of his travels, with its wealth of precise data,
has been of great value to modern historians and
archaeologists.
Zheng He Sails the Indian Ocean

The greatest Chinese naval explorer was probably the
admiral and diplomat Zheng He. His seven major
expeditions in the early 15th century helped to extend
Chinese maritime and commercial influence throughout
the regions bordering the Indian Ocean. Zheng was the
son of Chinese Muslims. As a youth, he was among the
boys whom the Chinese government captured, castrated,
and sent into the army. He distinguished himself as a
junior officer, skilled in war and diplomacy. He also
made influential friends at the Chinese court. Eunuchs
(castrated men) had long functioned as political advisers
to the emperors.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), the Chinese
court sought to display its naval power to bring the
maritime states of South and Southeast Asia in line. For
300 years the Chinese had been extending their power
out to sea. An extensive seaborne commerce had
developed to meet China’s desire for spices and raw
materials for industry. Chinese travelers abroad, as well
as Indian and Muslim visitors to China, widened the
geographic horizon of the Chinese. Technological
developments in shipbuilding and in the arts of
seafaring reached new heights by the beginning of the
Ming Dynasty.
The emperor selected Zheng to be the commander in
chief of new missions to the Indian Ocean. Zheng first
set sail in 1405, commanding 62 ships and 27,800 men.
The fleet visited what are now southern Vietnam,
Thailand, Malaysia, and Java, Indonesia. It then sailed to
southwestern India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Zheng
returned to China in 1407.
On his second voyage, in 1409, he encountered
treachery from the king of Ceylon. Zheng defeated the
king’s forces and took him back to China as a captive. In
1411 Zheng set out on his third voyage. This time,
traveling beyond the seaports of India, he sailed to
Hormuz on the Persian Gulf. On his return he touched
at the northern tip of Sumatra (now in Indonesia).
Zheng left on his fourth voyage in 1413. After
stopping at the principal ports of Asia, he proceeded
westward from India to Hormuz. Part of the fleet
cruised southward down the Arabian coast and
dispatched a Chinese mission to visit Mecca (now in
Saudi Arabia) and Egypt. The fleet visited coastal towns

EURASIA

in what are now Somalia and Kenya and almost reached
the Mozambique Channel. On his return to China in
1415, Zheng brought the envoys of more than 30 states
of South and Southeast Asia to pay homage to the
Chinese emperor.
On Zheng’s fifth voyage (1417–19), the fleet revisited
the Persian Gulf and the east coast of Africa. A sixth
voyage was launched in 1421 to take the foreign
emissaries back home from China. Zheng again visited
Southeast Asia, India, Arabia, and Africa. In 1424 the
emperor died. His successor shifted policy and
suspended naval expeditions abroad. One final
expedition, which was Zheng’s seventh voyage, was
sent out. The fleet left China in the winter of 1431,
visiting the states of Southeast Asia, the coast of India,
the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the east coast of
Africa. Zheng died in India in the spring of 1433, and
the fleet returned to China that summer.
MEDIEVAL EUROPEAN TRAVELERS

The period of intense European exploration and
colonization of the Americas known as the Age of
Discovery took place in the 15th and 16th centuries. The
foundation for this period was laid in the Middle Ages,
as Europeans traveled to the Middle East and China.
Contacts with the East introduced new ideas and goods
to Europe and inspired further exploration.
The Crusades

During the military expeditions known as the Crusades,
Europeans traveled to the Middle East to wage war, not
to explore new territory. Nevertheless, the Crusades
brought Europeans in greater contact with the Muslim

world. From the late 11th century to the 16th century,
European Christians mounted a series of military
campaigns to attempt to recapture the Holy Land
(Palestine) from the Muslims. The Crusades ultimately
failed to regain the Holy Land but played an important
role in the expansion of Europe.
The Crusades opened up trade contact with the East,
and new foods and textiles began to appear in Europe.
The new products included cane sugar, buckwheat, rice,
apricots, watermelons, oranges, limes, lemons, cotton,
damask, satin, velvet, and dyestuffs. The Crusades also
introduced western Europe to the great cities and
cultures of the Islamic world. Contact with the Christian
Byzantine Empire, in southern Europe and western Asia,
provided access to ancient Greek learning.
European Travelers to China

European knowledge of China increased greatly in the
late Middle Ages, when Christian European missionaries
and merchants journeyed by land to Central and East
Asia. Goods had passed between East and West along
the Silk Road since ancient times. However, traders did
not travel the entire road. Goods usually changed hands
at many different marts along the way.
In the 13th century the political geography changed.
Under their leader Genghis Khan, the Mongols took
control of northern China. They then turned their
conquering armies westward, building up an enormous
empire. By the late 13th century, the Mongol emperor
Kublai Khan reigned supreme from the Black Sea to the
Yellow Sea. Astute Europeans saw the opportunities that
friendship with the Mongol state might bring. If
Europeans could convert the Mongols to Christianity,

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The Legend of Prester John
Starting in the Middle Ages, European rulers sent out many
expeditions to find Prester John, a Christian priest and king.
Explorers searched for his kingdom first in Asia, then later in
northern Africa. Prester John never existed, however; he was
merely a legend. John was purportedly a Nestorian Christian, a
member of an independent Eastern Christian church. The title
Prester is short for presbyter, which means “elder” or “priest.”
The myth of Prester John arose in the 12th century during
the Crusades, when European Christians were fighting to regain
the Holy Land from the Muslims. Prester John was said to be a
wealthy and powerful ruler who was fighting against the
Muslims. His kingdom was supposedly located somewhere “in
the Far East beyond Persia and Armenia.” European rulers
hoped to form an alliance with him against the Muslims. His
legend thus arose partly from wishful thinking.
In 1165 several Christian rulers in Europe received a letter
that claimed to be from Prester John. It is not known who
actually wrote the letter, which was a fiction. In the letter, the
realm of Prester John is described as a land of natural riches,
marvels, peace, and justice. Prester John declared in the letter
that he intended to come to Palestine with his armies to battle
the Muslims and to regain the Holy Sepulchre, the burial place
of Jesus. Pope Alexander III sent a letter to Prester John in
1177.
In the 13th and 14th centuries various missionaries and
travelers searched for Prester John’s kingdom in Asia. Among
them were Giovanni da Pian del Carpini, Giovanni da
Montecorvino, and Marco Polo. As European knowledge of Asia
increased, the search moved elsewhere.
After the mid-14th century Ethiopia was the center of the
quest, as Prester John became identified with the emperor of
that African Christian state. The Portuguese, who began
actively exploring Africa, hoped to find the king. In 1482 the
Portuguese navigator Diogo Cão encountered the mouth of the
Congo River, which he believed to be a strait providing access
to the realm of Prester John. In 1486 rumor arose of a great
ruler far to the east who was thought to be Prester John. The
Portuguese king sent the explorers Pêro da Covilhã and Afonso
Paiva overland to search for the mythical ruler and to locate
India and Ethiopia. They, of course, never found him.

the balance of power would be tipped against the
Muslims and in favor of the Christians. Forming an
alliance with the Mongols would also be beneficial to
trade. Christian merchants would be provided with
political protection along the trade routes to the
legendary sources of wealth in China. With these
opportunities in mind, Pope Innocent IV sent friars to
“diligently search out all things” concerning the Mongol
Empire and to try to convert the Mongols.
Giovanni and Willem. Among the Franciscan friars
who went forth to follow these instructions were
Giovanni da Pian del Carpini of Italy and Willem van
Ruysbroeck of France. They traveled the great caravan
routes from southern Russia, north of the Caspian and
Aral seas and north of the Tien Shan (Tien Mountains).
Both Giovanni and Willem eventually reached the court
of the Mongol emperor at Karakorum.
Giovanni set out from France in 1245, when he was
more than 60 years old. A year later, he and his
companions had reached the camp of Batu, the Mongol

conqueror of eastern Europe, on the Volga River. With
Batu’s permission, the friars proceeded to Karakorum.
They arrived just over 106 days later, after a journey on
horseback of about 3,000 miles (4,800 kilometers).
Giovanni and his companions were present to witness
the coronation of a new Mongol emperor. More than
3,000 envoys and deputies from all parts of the empire
had gathered there for the event. The friars remained at
the new emperor’s court for a few months. They were
then sent back home to deliver a letter from the emperor
to the pope. The friars suffered greatly on their long
winter journey homeward. By the time they reached
Europe in the summer of 1247, they had been taken for
dead.
Immediately upon his return, Giovanni recorded his
observations of the Mongols and the regions he had
traversed. His work discredited many of the fables
concerning the Mongols. Its account of Mongol customs
and history is one of the best treatments of the subject by
any medieval Christian writer. Only on geographic and
personal detail is it inferior to the one written a few
years later by Willem.
Willem and his companions set out by sea in 1253
from what is now Turkey. They crossed the Black Sea to
the Crimean Peninsula, in what is now Ukraine. On
land, they acquired oxen and carts for their five-week
trek across the steppes to Batu’s camp. From there, they
set off on horseback, reaching Karakoram in January
1254. They were received courteously by the emperor
and remained at his court until the summer. Upon his
return, Willem wrote about his Mongolian experiences
for the French king. His narrative is free from legend
and shows him to have been an intelligent and honest
observer.
The Polo family. The greatest of the 13th-century
European travelers in Asia were the Polos, wealthy
merchants of Venice. In 1260 the brothers Niccolò and
Maffeo Polo set out on a trading expedition to the
Crimean Peninsula. After two years they were ready to
return to Venice. Finding the way home blocked by war,
however, they traveled eastward to Bukhara (now in
Uzbekistan), where they spent another three years. The
Polos then accepted an invitation to accompany a party
of Mongol envoys returning to the court of Kublai Khan
at Dadu (now Beijing). The emperor received them well.
They eventually returned to Europe as his ambassadors,
carrying letters asking the pope to send him 100
Christian scholars. The Polos finally arrived back home
three years later.
In 1271 the Polos set off for China again, accompanied
by Niccolò’s son, Marco Polo, then a youth of 17. This
time the Polos took a different route. From Venice they
sailed to Acre (now !Akko, Israel), where they received
letters for Kublai from a representative of the pope. The
Polos crossed the deserts of Iran and Afghanistan.
Northeastern Afghanistan, in particular, pleased the
travelers. They seem to have remained there for a year.
Setting off again, the Polos mounted the heights of the
Pamirs. They descended from the mountains to the
trading city of Kashgar (Kashi), which is now in
Xinjiang, China. By then, they were traveling on the

EURASIA
Marco Polo sets sail from Venice
in 1271, in a painting from an
illuminated manuscript from about
the 15th century.
© Photos.com/Jupiterimages

main part of the Silk Road. They continued eastward,
crossing the Takla Makan Desert to what is now the
Chinese province of Gansu. Prior to this, the Polos had
traveled primarily among Muslim peoples. In Gansu an
entirely different civilization—mainly Buddhist in
religion but partly Chinese in culture—prevailed.
All these pieces of paper are issued with as much
“ solemnity
and authority as if they were of pure gold or
silver … [With them the emperor] causes all payments on his own
account to be made; and he makes them to pass current universally
over all his kingdoms and provinces and territories … And nobody,
however important he may think himself, dares to refuse them on pain
of death … And all the while they are so light …



—Marco Polo, a 13th-century Italian traveler, describing the
use in China of paper money, which was then unknown in Europe

Sometime in 1274 or 1275 the Polos arrived at Kublai’s
court at his summer capital, Shangdu (now Duolun, in
northern China). They remained in Kublai’s empire for
some 16 or 17 years. They may have moved with the
court to the emperor’s winter residence at Dadu. The
elder Polos were probably employed by the empire in
some technical capacity.
Marco quickly became a favorite of Kublai’s.
Although Marco knew little or no Chinese, he did speak
some of the many languages then used in East Asia.
Kublai took great delight in hearing of strange

countries. He repeatedly sent Marco on fact-finding
missions to far places in the empire, including
Hangzhou in the southeast, Yunnan in the southwest,
and perhaps also what is now Myanmar (Burma). From
these lands Marco brought back stories of the people
and their lives. He may also have had other official
responsibilities, such as inspecting taxes. In any event,
Marco seems to have considered himself an adoptive
son of his new country.
The Polos became wealthy in China. They began to
fear, however, that jealous men in the court would
destroy them when the elderly emperor died. In about
1290 or 1292, Kublai was preparing to send a Mongol
princess to Iran to become a consort of the ruler there.
The Polos asked to accompany her on the voyage and,
from Iran, to return to Venice. Kublai at first refused but
then reluctantly agreed.
Since there was danger from robbers and enemies of
the emperor along the overland trade routes, they went
by sea. They sailed in a fleet of 14 ships, which carried
the Polos, the princess, and 600 courtiers and sailors. The
fleet traveled southward along the coast of what is now
Vietnam and the Malay Peninsula to Sumatra (now in
Indonesia), where the voyage was delayed for several
months. The ships then turned westward and visited
Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and India before reaching their
destination in Iran. The Polos set off by land for Venice.
They were robbed along the way of most of their
earnings from China. When they arrived in Venice in
1295, they had been gone 24 years.

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1328. Another Franciscan
missionary, the Italian friar
Odoric of Pordenone,
journeyed throughout the
greater part of Asia between
1316 and 1330. He reached
Beijing by way of India and
Malaysia. He then traveled by
sea to Guangzhou, China.
Odoric returned to Europe by
way of Central Asia. His
account of his journeys had
considerable influence in his
day. It was from Odoric’s work
that the English writer Sir John
Mandeville plagiarized most of
his travel stories.
MUSLIM TRAVELERS

Starting in what were the
Middle Ages in Europe, the
study of geography was
nurtured in the Arab world,
along with other scholarly pursuits. Arab scholars
Soon after his return, Marco sailed aboard a ship in
produced a number of geographic works, including
the Mediterranean. It was captured by forces of the
encyclopedias, descriptive geographies and histories,
trading city of Genoa, a rival of Venice, during a
and maps of the world. The Arabs were great seafarers.
skirmish. Marco was thrown into a Genoese prison.
They dominated trade in the Indian Ocean from the 3rd
There he recorded observations from his travel to Asia,
to the 15th century. Interest in geography was also
with the help of another prisoner, Rustichello, who was
kindled in part by the great political and military
a writer of romances. The result was Marco’s famous
and fascinating book, which became known as Il milione expansion of the Arabs in the 7th and 8th centuries.
Islam was established by Muhammad in Arabia, the
(The Million). Its name most likely came from his
homeland of the Arabs, in the early 7th century. The new
nickname, “Il Milione,” from his tendency to describe
religion spread rapidly. Within a century, the Arabs had
the millions of things he saw in the Mongol Empire. In
conquered most of the Middle East, North Africa, and
English, the book is known as the Travels of Marco Polo.
Spain.
Polo’s book contains vivid descriptions of China and
Travel was an important part of Islamic culture.
other parts of Asia. Rather than being a collection of
Muslims were (and still are) required to undertake a
personal recollections, it was intended to provide an
pilgrimage to Mecca (now in Saudi Arabia) once in their
overview of the region. The narrative often branches off
life. It was also common for Muslims to visit great
into descriptions of places that Marco probably never
scholars and centers of learning throughout the Islamic
visited. Instead, he gathered information about these
places from his relatives or other people he knew. Typical world. Many travelers wrote accounts of their journeys,
and the travel narrative became a well-established genre
digressions are those on Mesopotamia, Samarkand,
in Arabic literature.
Siberia, India, Japan, Ethiopia, and Madagascar.
One of the earliest notable Islamic travelers was the
His most detailed descriptions and the highest praise
9th-century geographer known as al-Ya!qubi. For many
were reserved for the Mongol capital of Dadu, whose
years he lived in Armenia and Khorasan (now part of
splendors were beyond compare. To this city, he said,
“everything that is most rare and valuable in all parts of Iran), under the patronage of the Iranian dynasty of the
Tahirids. After the fall of the Tahirids, he traveled to
the world finds its way: . . . for not fewer than 1,000
India and the Maghrib (North Africa) and died in Egypt.
carriages and pack-horses loaded with raw silk make
Al-Ya!qubi wrote a world history and a geography based
their daily entry; and gold tissues and silks of various
on his travels. In the geography, he describes the larger
kinds are manufactured to an immense extent.”
cities of Iraq, Iran, Arabia, Syria, Egypt, the Maghrib,
It is no wonder that when Europe learned of these
things it became enthralled. Marco’s book was an instant India, China, and the Byzantine Empire. Much of this
success and was translated into many languages. Fellow work is now lost.
The fame of the 10th-century geographer al-Hamdani
Europeans read his accounts of the riches of Asia and
became eager to find sea routes to China, Japan, and the rests mainly on his authoritative writings on South
Arabian history and geography. He was born in Yemen
East Indies.
and spent most of his life in the Arabian Peninsula. He
A few travelers followed the Polos. Giovanni da
traveled extensively, acquiring a broad knowledge of his
Montecorvino, a Franciscan friar from Italy, became
country. He was also a poet, historian, and astronomer.
archbishop of Beijing. He lived in China from 1294 to

EURASIA
His encyclopedia Al-Iklil (The Crown) and his other
writings are a major source of information on medieval
Arabia.
The geographer al-Maqdisi also traveled widely in the
10th century. He wrote a notable work based on his
personal observations of the populations, manners, and
economic life of the various peoples of the Islamic
world.
Al-Mas!udi was the first Arab to combine history and
scientific geography in a large-scale work. This work, a
world history, was called Muruj adh-dhahab wa ma!adin aljawahir (The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems). It
appeared in the mid-10th century.
As a child, al-Mas!udi showed an extraordinary love
of learning, an excellent memory, and a boundless
curiosity. His main interests were history and geography,
but he also studied such subjects as comparative religion
and science. Al-Mas!udi was not content to learn merely
from books and teachers but traveled widely to gain
firsthand knowledge of the countries about which he
wrote. His travels extended to Syria, Iran, Armenia, the
shores of the Caspian Sea, the Indus Valley, Ceylon (now
Sri Lanka), Oman, and the east coast of Africa as far
south as Zanzibar, at least, and, possibly, Madagascar.
Al-Mas!udi is believed to have written more than 20
books, including several about Islamic beliefs and even
one about poisons. Unfortunately, most of his writings
have been lost. His book of world history became
famous. It includes chapters describing the history,
geography, social life, and religious customs of nonIslamic lands, such as India, Greece, and Rome. The
book also provides accounts of climates, the oceans, the
hazards of navigation, and the calendars of various
nations. Among the particularly interesting sections are
those on pearl diving in the Persian Gulf, amber found
in East Africa, Hindu burial customs, and the land route
to China.
Al-Mas!udi’s approach to his task was original. He
gave as much weight to social, economic, religious, and
cultural matters as to politics. He also displayed interest
in all religions. Moreover, he used information obtained
from sources not previously regarded as reliable. These
sources included merchants, local writers (including
non-Muslims), and others he met on his travels.
Another great work of medieval geography was
written by ash-Sharif al-Idrisi in the 12th century. He
spent much of his early life traveling in North Africa
and Spain, where his ancestors had lived. Apparently his
travels also took him to many other parts of western
Europe besides Spain, including Portugal, the French
Atlantic coast, and southern England. He visited Asia
Minor when he was barely 16 years old.
In about 1145 al-Idrisi entered the service of Roger II,
the king of Sicily, who was Christian. For the king, alIdrisi completed maps of the world and his great
geographic book. This book is called Kitab nuzhat almushtaq fi ikhtiraq al-afaq (The Pleasure Excursion of One
Who Is Eager to Traverse the Regions of the World). It is
also known in English as “The Book of Roger.” In
compiling it, he combined material from Arabic and
Greek geographic works with information obtained

World History Archive/Alamy

The geographer ash-Sharif al-Idrisi completed a map of the world in
the 12th century. A later copy of the map is shown. South is at top,
and north is at bottom. Africa thus appears above Eurasia. The
extent of Africa was not known. The Americas and Australia, which
were then unknown in Eurasia, are not shown.

through firsthand observation and eyewitness reports.
The king and al-Idrisi sent a number of persons,
including men skilled in drawing, to various countries to
observe and record what they saw. Al-Idrisi completed
the book in January 1154.
The greatest medieval Arab traveler was Ibn Battutah.
He visited nearly all the Muslim countries and
journeyed as far as China and Sumatra (now in
Indonesia). He was the author of one of the most famous
of all travel books, the Rihlah (Travels).
Ibn Battutah was born in Morocco. He began his travels
in 1325, at the age of 21, by undertaking the pilgrimage to
Mecca. On this voyage he also sought to study under
famous scholars in Egypt and Syria. It was during his trip
to Egypt that he became enthusiastic about traveling,
vowing to visit as many parts of the world as possible. He
established as a rule for himself “never to travel any road
a second time.” Other travelers of the time journeyed for
practical reasons, such as for trade, pilgrimage, and
education. Ibn Battutah, however, traveled for its own
sake, for the reward of learning about new countries and
new peoples. As he became increasingly famous as a
traveler and scholar, he also made a living from his
travels. Numerous rulers and other powerful people were
generous toward him, enabling him to secure an income
and to continue his wanderings.
From Egypt, Ibn Battutah traveled to Syria and
completed his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1326. He then
crossed the Arabian Desert to Iraq, southern Iran, and
Azerbaijan. From 1327 to 1330 he studied in Mecca and
Medina (now in Saudi Arabia), but such a long stay did
not suit his temperament. He set off again, sailing down
both shores of the Red Sea to Yemen. He later visited

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trading city-states along the eastern African coast. His
return journey took him to southern Arabia, southern
Iran, and across the Persian Gulf back to Mecca in 1332.
There he developed a new, ambitious plan. He heard
that the sultan of Delhi, the Islamic ruler of northern
India, was very generous to Muslim scholars. Ibn
Battutah decided to try his luck at the sultan’s court. He
traveled to Syria, where he boarded a ship for Asia
Minor. He crisscrossed this “land of the Turks” in many
directions and met many local rulers.
His journey continued across the Black Sea to the
Crimea, then to the northern Caucasus. He reached Saray,
on the lower Volga, which was the capital of the ruler of
the western part of the Mongol Empire. This ruler’s wife
was a Byzantine princess. Ibn Battutah accompanied the
princess and her attendants on a visit to Constantinople,
the capital of the Byzantine Empire, which was Christian.
(Today, this city is named Istanbul and is part of Turkey.)
Although Ibn Battutah shared the strong opinions of his
fellow Muslims toward non-Muslims, his vivid accounts
of the capital show him as a rather tolerant man with a
lively curiosity. Nevertheless, he always felt happier in
Muslim rather than non-Muslim lands.
After his return from Constantinople through the
Russian steppes, he traveled with a caravan to Central
Asia. He then took rather complicated routes through
Khorasan and Afghanistan. After crossing the Hindu
Kush (mountains), he arrived at the frontiers of India.
India and its sultan lived up to Ibn Battutah’s
expectations of wealth and generosity. He was received
with honors and gifts and was appointed a judge in
Delhi, a post that he held for several years. In 1342 the
sultan made Ibn Battutah his envoy to the Chinese
emperor.

After Ibn Battutah left Delhi, his party was soon
waylaid by Hindu insurgents. He barely escaped with
his life. On the southwest coast of India he became
involved in local wars and was finally shipwrecked
there. He lost all his property and the presents he was
carrying for the Chinese emperor. Fearing the wrath of
the sultan, Ibn Battutah chose to go to the Maldive
Islands south of India, where he spent nearly two years.
He then visited Ceylon. After a new shipwreck on the
southeast coast of India, he took part in a war led by his
brother-in-law. He later visited northeastern India.
Deciding to resume his mission to China, he sailed for
Sumatra. There he was given a new ship by the island’s
Muslim ruler and started for China.
Ibn Battutah landed at the great Chinese port Zaytun
(now Quanzhou) in the southeast. He then traveled on
inland waterways as far as Beijing and back. This part of
his narrative is rather brief, and problems with it lead
modern historians to wonder whether it is really true.
He returned via Sumatra and the Persian Gulf to
Baghdad, Syria, and Egypt. In Syria he witnessed the
ravages of the plague of 1348. He also performed his
final pilgrimage to Mecca. At last he returned home to
Morocco.
But there still remained two Muslim countries not yet
known to him. Shortly after his return he went to the
kingdom of Granada, the last remnant of Moorish Spain.
In 1352, he set out on a journey to the western Sudan.
This last journey, across the desert known as the Sahara
to western Africa, was taken unwillingly at the
command of the sultan of Morocco. Crossing the Sahara,
Ibn Battutah spent a year in the empire of Mali. Toward
the end of 1353, he returned back home to Morocco.
There, he dictated an account of his travels to a scholar,

EURASIA
who wrote them down. Over the course of his more than
20 years of traveling, he had journeyed some 75,000
miles (more than 120,000 kilometers). He had met at
least 60 rulers and many more dignitaries. His book is
valued for its insights on many aspects of the social,
cultural, and political history of a great part of the
Muslim world.
THE SEA ROUTE TO INDIA

Before the 16th century, little was known in Europe
about the interior and east coast of India. Europeans
had been in contact with India since ancient times.
Trade between Europe and India came to a halt,
however, with the fall of the Roman Empire in the 4th
century AD. Trade with the East then passed into Arab
hands. The only physical contact with Europe came
from occasional travelers, such as Marco Polo and, in
the 15th century, the Italian Niccolò dei Conti and the
Russian Afanasy Nikitin. In the 15th century Europeans
eagerly searched for a sea route from western Europe to
India and China. They wanted to profit from the trade
in valuable spices from the East. At the end of the
century, the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama
successfully sailed from Europe to India. He thereby
restored a link between Europe and the East that had
existed many centuries previously. A series of European
expeditions to southern Asia followed, ultimately
leading to its colonization.
The direct routes for trade between Europe and India
involved traveling via the Red Sea and Egypt or across
Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Anatolia (now in Turkey). In the
15th century these routes became increasingly blocked to

Europeans, mainly because of the activities of the
Turkish Ottoman Empire. In addition, the Venetians and
later the Ottomans held a near-monopoly on trade in the
eastern Mediterranean. For these reasons, western
Europeans began searching for another route. (The Suez
Canal, which now links the Mediterranean Sea to the
Red Sea, was not built until the late 19th century.)
The search for a sea route to the East initiated the Age
of Discovery. Christopher Columbus sought to reach
China by traveling west, and thereby accidentally
reached the Americas (see The Americas, “The Age of
Discovery”). Other explorers tried the long and
hazardous eastern route, via the Atlantic and Indian
Oceans. First, a ship had to sail south along the west
coast of Africa. It then had to round the continent’s
southern tip and head north in the Indian Ocean along
Africa’s east coast. It was not known if this was possible,
however; some Europeans thought that the Indian
Ocean might be entirely surrounded by land. Europeans
also did not know how far south the African continent
extended. In addition, sailing around the southern tip of
the continent—near the land now known as the Cape of
Good Hope—proved to be difficult. The seas are rough,
the weather is stormy, and the winds are strong.
Portugal took the lead in the search for the eastern sea
route. Throughout the 15th century, the Portuguese sent
forth expedition after expedition to explore the west coast
of Africa. The king also sent the Portuguese explorer Pêro
da Covilhã on a mission to India via a land and sea route
in 1487. Pêro traveled through Egypt and Ethiopia to the
Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. He arrived in India,
visiting the towns of Cannanore (now Kannur), Calicut
(now Kozhikode), and
Goa on the west coast.
He then journeyed in
Africa (see Africa, “The
Portuguese”).
Also in 1487, the king
sent the Portuguese
explorer Bartolomeu
Dias on a mission to
search for the eastern
sea route. Dias and his
crew became the first
Europeans to see the
stormy Cape of Good
Hope. With two light,
quick sailing ships
called caravels plus a
supply ship, Dias left
Lisbon, Portugal, in
August. He sailed
down the entire west
coast of Africa, farther
than any other
European before him.
Early in January 1488, a
gale hit his ships and
blew them southward,
past the southernmost
tip of land. After 13

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