Instructor's Background Essay: 12th-Century Eurasia Logo

The Nature of this Essay: Brief Background Introduction to How Things Were in Eurasia On the Eve of Mongol Invasion & Conquest

In this course, we jump right into the middle of things, starting our study of world history as of 1200, a date which came at least 4500 years after civilization first emerged. So before we can get down to the specifics of what happened after 1200, you need a very brief introduction to the "cast of characters" already assembled on the world stage by then. Unfortunately, your text doesn't provide any such introduction, because it is volume B of a 3-volume text, and assumes that you've already read volume A. Since you haven't, instead you've got the following Instructor's Background Essay. Note that it doesn't try to give you the background context for all areas of the 12th-century world, rather focusing on only those areas of the world that will be covered in the first section of the course. These areas are what are known as East and West Eurasia - basically the lands of China, Japan and Korea (Eastern Eurasia) and those of what is today called the Middle East (West Eurasia). Similar background information will then be provided for other areas of the world when we come to them in later course sections. (These later-covered areas will include subsaharan Africa, India and Southeast Asia, Christian Europe and Byzantium, and the Americas). .

Chapter Study Guide Questions

As you read both the following essay and the text chapter it is designed to accompany, be sure to pay special attention to the following ID and Larger Study topics. They are your best guide to what topics, from this Chapter,  will be covered on the 2nd Section's objective exam. These study terms and topics will be highlighted and/or repeated as they appear below. Your Section objective exam will be on how well you understand the below topics covered both in this essay and the accompanying text chapter.

ID Study Terms

China's Tribute System
The Five Pillars of Islam
The Byzantine Empire
The Crusades
Kievan Russia
The Silk Road
Heian Japan
Kamakura Shogunate

Larger Study Topics

Understand the basic elements of Song-era Chinese Confucian ideas and rule. Core ideas of Confucianism? Just who were likely to become Confucian scholar-officials, how would they be chosen, what power and responsibilities would they have, and what checks on them?

Understand the basics of later Abbasid-era Islamic religious belief, law and practice. Basically, what did Muhammad teach? Basic practices expected of all good Muslims? Divisions within (Shi'ism & Sufism)? Status of women?

Chapter Map Locations:

Make note of all of the following map locations; they will be included on the Section 1 Map Exercise. Most are included on maps within this essay, but for a few (ex: areas of Cartheginian Empire), consult also maps

       Gobi Desert
           Yellow River
           Yangze River
           Grand Canal
           Himalaya Mountains
           Dnieper River
           Baltic Sea
           Black Sea
           Caucasus Mountains
           Caspian Sea
           Volga River
           Mediterranean Sea
           Danube River
Overall Context

Cultural & Political Context

By the 12th century eve of Mongol invasion, the lands at both ends of Eurasia were 1) politically and militarily fragmented but at the same time were also 2) the home of very deeply rooted and strong civilizations. The 3 major culture areas soon to be conquered by the Mongols were Confucian China, the Islamic Middle East, and Christian Russia. Hindu India and the Orthodox Christian Byzantine Empire would also suffer major border skirmishes with the Mongols, as would Christian Central Europe, but all escaped Mongol conquest and rule. (These areas will be studied in later sections of the course.)

Of those areas conquered, while Russia was to be increasingly important in the future, at the time very clearly  the 2 most important cultures were those of the Islamic Middle East and Confucian East Asia.  To understand just what Mongold nomad conquest meant in the 1200s to both Confucian East Asia and the Islamic Near East, we need to look at the legacy of centralized imperial glory that had begun for both about 500 years before, in about the 7th and 8th centuries CE.

Eurasian Empires c. 800 CE

In the above map, you see the great Islamic Abbasid and Tang Chinese Empires at their political/military height. Note also the Byzantine Empire on either side of the entrance to the Black Sea - that rather small area was all that was left, in 1200, of the once-great Orthodox Christian Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, which itself was a reduced version of the truly great Roman Empire which had ruled the entire Mediterranean world from about 200 BCE to 200 CE. .

Date Note: You may be wondering what BCE  and CE mean. They are the current forms of what used to be BC and AD. CE stands for "Common Era," which began with the traditional turning point of the birth of Christ. This era used to be referred to as AD, anno domini, meaning "year of our lord." Since all who are asked to use the date are not Christian, it is now seen as more inclusive to call the era CE. Similarly BC (before Christ) is now BCE (Before Common Era).
Geographic Context:

States, peoples and cultures were shaped in good part by the geography in which they existed.  Below see a map of many of the big physical landmarks within Eurasia - its major rivers, mountains, deserts and neighboring bodies of water.  As of 1200 river valleys were still at the core of many great Eurasian centers of civilization. (They had been the original centers of almost all earliest Eurasian civilization, since they provided the irrigation water on which earliest intensive agriculture depended.) Mountains and deserts served, from earliest times as greater or lesser barriers separating settled lands and cultures from each other and from less farmable lands.

Eurasia Physical Features Map

Thus China centered around the Yellow (Huang He) and Yangtze Rivers, and in the Middle East civilization, even in fairly recent Islamic times, flourished especially around the valleys of the Nile (core area of Egypt) and the Tigris and Euphrates (core area of Mesopotamia) Rivers. Although we won't be looking at India much, note the Indus and Ganges Rivers around which earliest Indian civilizations developed, as well as the great barrier of the Himalaya mountains, which (together with other Central Asian mountains) was responsible for keeping India fairly separate from neighboring east and west Asian civilizations. Similarly the Caucasus Mountains were high enough to fill in what might otherwise have been a corridor between the Caspian and Black Seas, thus making the Islamic Middle East and Christian Russia quite separate.  While not as great a barrier, the Taurus Mountains did make Anatolia (home of modern-day Turkey) fairly separate from the lands at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea.

Navigable rivers have always served as highways for trade as well as sources for life-giving irrigation water. By serving as a trade highway between the Baltic and the Black Seas, the Dnieper River actually was the spark that created the first Russian state as of about the 9th century CE.

The northern entire strip of Central Asian lands (from the Gobi Desert in the east to the Caspian Sea in the west) was non-farmable mixed grassland and desert inhabited mostly by nomadic herders and long-distance traders. This great expanse kept the great Confucian East and Islamic West Asian civilizations generally quite separate from each other. The Arabian and Sahara Deserts also separated the settled areas along the shores of the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia from the populated lands to the south. But deserts, although barriers to the spread of any culture based on the settled, farming way of life, also contained caravan routes along which camel-mounted traders regularly traveled between core civilized areas. (Although we won't be looking at it in the first section, seas also were increasingly highways for all sorts of trade contacts. This was especially true for the Indian Ocean, whose reliable monsoon winds drove trading ships carrying trade items, knowledge, and ideas between the lands of Confucian East Asia, Southeast Asia, India, Arabia and east Africa.)

So now let us look, briefly, at each of the great traditions that as of 1200 would soon face devastating Mongol attack, conquest and rule.

12th-Century Eastern Eurasia: S. Song China, Confucian Civilization & Political Fragmentation

While China no longer ruled most of East Asia by 1200, the whole area at that time was still greatly influenced by the Confucian patterns spread by Song China's predecessors, the great Han (206 BCE - 220 CE) and Tang (618 - 906 CE) Chinese Empires.  At the height of Chinese political and cultural dominance, China's Confucian philosophy dominated all East Asian culture, and was at least theoretically the basis of most government rule. Tang China directly ruled the whole area of ethnic China (often referred to as China Proper), plus Annam (northern Vietnam) to the south and the Tarim Basin in central Asia (see below map). In addition, neighboring Japan and Korea were also deeply influenced by the patterns and technologies of Chinese Confucian civilization, as was Tibet to a somewhat lesser degree.Look at the below map to see just how large an area of East Asia this involved.

Song China

When we meet East Asia about 1200 state power was much more fragmented, among many states continuing to a greater or lesser extent the legacies of Confucianism and other traditional Chinese state structures. The Southern Song state traditionally is seen as the most direct descendent of previous great Confucian Chinese states, but after 1127 it not only could not dominate any non-Chinese East Asia areas, it also could only control the southern half of China Proper.

Song era East Asia (inset shows area under 13th century Mongol rule)
Source: Perry-Castaneda Map Site (fairuse)

By far the most dangerous of these neighbors were the nomad peoples living north and west of China. Until recent times, all Chinese states have always had to be on their guard against bordering nomad peoples. This was because horseback-mounted nomads were very good at what was the dominant military technology of the day - first chariot and, by 1200, cavalry warfare. While nomad populations were much smaller than those of settled peoples, most of the adult male nomad populations were, by definition, cavalry "soldiers." The nomads grazed their horses on free grasslands, road most of the time to do most of their normal working tasks, and so naturally kept their horseback riding and hunting skills sharp. Sometimes, such as in one of the periods of its greatest imperial power, the 7th & 8th century Tang era, China empires reached deep into the grasslands and deserts bordering its northern and westernmost settled farming regions. But most of the time (including the Song rulers of 960-1279 CE) China tried not to have to maintain such huge military endeavors, with all their associated costs (which meant oppressive taxes) and dangerous military elites (who might prove disloyal).

China's Tribute System.  One way most established Chinese empires kept balance with the more developed peoples around them was through what was called the tribute system. This system took as its official line the idea that neighboring (or peripheral) peoples would wish to pay "tribute" to advanced Chinese civilization. They would therefore send delegations bearing gifts for the Chinese emperor, who would graciously receive them as part of his duty to spread civilization to all able to appreciate it. Unlike the tribute desired by nomads, this tribute very often ended up costing the Chinese more than it brought them. That is because they bore much of the cost of housing such tribute missions, plus sent them back with impressive return gifts. Tribute relations from the traditional Chinese point of view were an excellent way to keep an eye on neighbors (know which seemed willing to "play the game"), introduce them to the fruits of civilization, and thus make them part of - rather than a threat to - the status quo of settled civilization. On the bordering peoples' side, tribute did indeed give them access to the fruits of civilization, which often were of great use to both ruling and merchant elites. Ruling elites could borrow and use the ideas and mechanisms of more sophisticated Chinese imperial central rule (eventually Annamese [northern Vietnamese], Korean and Japanese elites all did this. Merchants often could make large profits or otherwise improve their position within their home lands, all thanks to the benefits they got for sometimes holding a monopoly on one kind or another of Chinese trade goods.

As long as China was strong, and its borders well guarded, most nomad neighbors found it more rewarding to trade with, rather than attack, them, but by the time we meet Chinese realities in the very late Song era (960-1279 CE) China was less powerful and instead focused on buying off her near nomad neighbors.

Confucian Philosophy & Rule.

Understand the basic elements of Tang-Song era Chinese Confucian ideas and rule. Core ideas of Confucianism? Just who were likely to become Confucian scholar-officials, how would they be chosen, what power and responsibilities would they have, and what checks on them?
By 1200 in the settled lands of China, Confucianism had been the basis for rule - much more often than not -  for more than a thousand years.  Confucianism had at its core the ideas of the man known in history as Confucius. Confucius had lived in China during the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, a period of increasing upheval, which caused him to think long and hard about the nature of order, good government, and human nature.  Confucianism is not a religion; rather it is a philosophy concerned with how best to organize and run a stable, fair, successful society. Confucius didn't attack religious beliefs; he simply wasn't very interested in them - his focus was on the life of this world. Confucius believed that the best society and government was one in which each person knew his or her own role, and fulfilled it completely.  He thought governing was best done by educated, dedicated gentlemen (not women).

Most of these Confucian gentlemen would be well-born, among other things because in Confucius's day only the elites had much of any chance at a good education. But good birth was not enough, or even an absolute requirement to hold high government office, or even to count as a gentleman. The key requirement was to study the nature of good society and government and then to apply it honorably both in one's individual life (example) and in one's position in government (exercise of power). Confucianists believed good government had to serve all the people, although it expected people of different status to fulfill different roles and responsibilities.

While of course this ideal was not always perfectly fulfilled, by Song times (960-1200s) day-to-day Chinese domestic rule was  the responsibility of well-educated, dedicated professional bureaucrats, not conquering warriors or privileged aristocrats with no interests beyond their own privilege. All officials were appointed and paid by the central, imperial government, thus (as long as the system actually worked) keeping central control over the representatives sent out to govern all regions. Starting with the Tang, Confucian governments  followed what came to be known as the "rule of avoidance." By this policy no official could ever be appointed to rule within his own home province - another device to keep central power strong for as long as possible. Simply put, it is easier for centrally-appointed officials to do their duty to restrain local privilege when the local elites are not members of their own families.

By Tang-Song times all candidates for government office were expected to be well educated in the Confucian classics, and thus to have expert understanding of how best to rule. Confucian government began at the district level, where one appointed district magistrate served both as judge and general government representative in all civilian matters. This was of course a great thing for China's ruling dynasties (including both the Tang and the Song), which themselves gained power by conquest. Such military conquerors were delighted to take over a system in which their state was ruled well by skilled elites whose highest values required them to serve their state's rulers loyally and well.  Of course the governments also built increasingly good systems of internal communication and maintained widespread military garrisons, in part to be able to keep an eye on all their subordinate areas just in case of any revolts.

Another great aspect of Confucian rule in China was the way Confucian officials were chosen. Most of the time by the Song era  they were chosen on the basis of their performance in China's great Confucian Exam system. These exams were held regularly (the entry level almost every year, the top level every 3 years usually) by the government, and they were open to almost all men. Of course the only ones with any chance of doing well (think of Olympic try-outs) were men who had devoted their entire youth to Confucian study. It didn't hurt to have the advantages of special tutors, plentiful reference books, and freedom from all chores while one was studying (again think of Olympic training). But it is also true that in every generation there were a few "Abe Lincoln" stories - the earnest, talented young man that perhaps overheard the village tutor through the school window as he sat tending a herd of goats, and had to scratch characters into the dust with a stick. Or at least something fairly close to that. And there were also many stories of stuck up young men with all of the advantages, who didn't work, and who disgraced themselves by not being able to place well on the great exams.

Thus Confucian China developed a system of recruiting its ruling elites that was at least somewhat open to talent, and thus much less likely to fall completely into the hands of privileged idiots, or to drive the best and the brightest poor men into rebellion against a system tightly closed against them. This made Confucianism a very stable basic philosophy of rule. A particular dynasty might be seen to fail to live up to its Confucian obligations, but Confucian method of rule itself remained China's great ruling belief system.

Confucian rule also worked because it matched, and was believed really to represent, the basic structure of Chinese culture and society. Confucianism began with Confucius's idealized description of early traditional Chinese society and how it fit in with (again idealized) rule. Basically Confucianism saw the extended family as the core basis of society, with the senior male as head of the family. Women obeyed men, younger people obeyed their elders, and ordinary people (mostly peasants) willingly accepted the leadership of the educated elites. Domestic government thus could be a very thin layer atop Chinese society because it had only a few major jobs to do. It was there to defend the peace, collect taxes, and settle those (ideally few) disputes that couldn't be settled at the family and local level. The result was a good deal of stability, at least until the end of dynastic eras, when good government and strong borders broke down catastrophically.

Song Chinese Economics and Society. This stability was also both the cause and the result of growing internal Song era Chinese prosperity. Social and political stability plus increased communications all helped build conditions favorable to economic growth, especially by increasing technological invention. Over the many centuries of Tang-Song Chinese history, the overall Chinese economy blossomed to previously-unknown heights. Many farmers grew specialized crops for sale (many the result of improved seed and agricultural techniques); many crafts specialists produced very valuable goods of all sorts, with silk continuing to be the most valuable. The invention of techniques for producing large amounts of paper and ink plus the development of block printing meant books could be created in relatively large quantities and relatively inexpensively. This greatly increased the percentage of the population which was literate. By the Song era, 960-1279,  paper money was being used which greatly increased internal trade exchanges. Coastal sailors used the maritime compass to find their way, and sailed great ships made much safer by watertight interior compartments. The great internal Grand Canal (see above map) carried huge amounts of goods north and south across China, as did the navigable parts of China's great east-west flowing rivers. Dozens of cities flourished, with the greatest ones having populations in the millions.

Unfortunately this Song era prosperity did not improve Chinese women's status and lives. Confucianism had always seen women as subordinate to men, and believed that no woman belonged in the public spheres of warfare and government rule.  Women were never allowed to hold any Confucian government office and the few women who held visible power within royal courts usually ended up being criticized by later Confucian historians. But through the Tang era (thus, to 906), both ordinary and elite women had moved about some in the public areas of their world, with Tang ladies (for example) playing polo while mounted astride their horses. In the Song this began to change significantly, with the appearance of the custom of footbinding. Practiced by increasing numbers of prosperous elites during the Song era (960-1279), footbinding permanently crippled those females undergoing it. At about age 6, a girl's feet would begin to be wrapped tightly in long strips of cloth. Her big toe would be left out for balance, but her small toes would be turned under and bent back towards her heel. Such wrappings literally stunted her feet's natural growth, producing a dainty-sized maimed stump. The resulting "golden lily" ideally would be only 3 inches. and was usually regarded as a failure if the part of the bound foot touching the floor was more than 6 inches. (Footbinding would continue to spread in China from the Song era on, only beginning to decline in the later 19th century, and finally ending completely after 1949 when all of China came under Communist rule.)
Side view of unwrapped bound foot
Unwrapped bound foot
Bound foot shoe
Bound foot shoe
Front view of unwrapped bound feet
Unwrapped bound feet

Scholars often try to figure out why such a (to today's eyes) horrible custom developed. Such women were definitely seen as more physically desirable to men. Writings of the time describe the resulting halting boundfoot walk as lilting and especially feminine in its hesitency and delicacy. Some scholars have reported a belief that the peculiar bound foot gait strengthened women's thigh muscles, thus making them more desirable sexual partners. Others report writings that saw a girl's ability to withstand the rigors of footbinding (it was very painful while the feet were growing) as a kind of female character-building exercise - girls withstood this pain just as boys studied or learned warfare. The girls with the smallest feet thus might have the strongest characters. Finally, many scholars note that while most societies didn't develop footbinding, many (although not all) traditional cultures became more restrictive of their women as the culture aged.

Although Confucianism dominated official life and its expectations of society, it should be noted that many religions existed in China, and were accepted as long as they did not threaten the dominance of Confucian power over society and government. By far the two most important of these were native Chinese Daoism (based in good part on a oneness of understanding with nature) and Mahayana Buddhism, which came into China from India mostly during the period of Chinese disunity during the 3rd-6th centuries CE. Both Daoists and Buddhists had monks, nuns, monasteries and temples, both had emotionally-appealing teachings offering alternatives to tough, this-worldly Confucian expectations. But neither played anything like the core cultural role played by Islam in the Near East (or Chistianity in Medieval Europe or Hinduism in much of India).

Kamakura Japan Emerges

By the later 1100s, more and more of East Asia was coming out from under Chinese domination. While Chinese certainly saw Song China as the successor to the great Tang Empire, in fact Song China was only one of a number of East Asia states.  After the 1120s, when it lost control of northern China, the Song dynasty ruled only south China. To the north were several states ruled by non-Chinese dynasties, descended from nomad warriors who had invaded and conquered the old northern Tang lands. Generally these states continued at least parts of the old Tang-era Confucian administration systems as the best way to rule their Chinese subjects, but Confucianism and settle Chinese ways of life were no longer the single, dominant pattern. The new states welcomed and used other systems of ideas - especially Buddhism, and related to their own non-Chinese peoples in ways that recognized the importance of nomad, herding, clan based ways of life. The Vietnamese of Annam broke free from direct Chinese rule at the end of the Han, and kept their independence following Song reunification of China proper. We will not deal with them in any detail in this survey.

The Japanese had always been independent, but their ruling government and society had from the earliest years of the Tang maintained the appearance of following Tang Confucian, bureaucratic, centralized imperial rule. A good deal of this was learned as part of the traditional Chinese tribute system, but from early times Japanese borrowing was supported by Japan's dominant Yamato clan. Early on the Yamato had decided to "ride the tiger" by borrowing advanced Chinese technologies of rule, betting that they could control and use these borrowings. In this they succeeded, building by the 7th century a Japanese copy of Tang Chinese Confucian Imperial rule. They did so, however, with a very distinct Japanese twist.   In fact real power in Japan remained in the hands of an aristocracy which offered no chance for non-aristocrats to rise. In other words Japan's imperial and aristocratic elites formed a partnership by which they copied Confucian institutions, but did not borrow Tang-Song Confucian policies of making high office open to all having talent and education.

At the height of the imperial era (c. 8th-12th centuries) these aristocrats led immensely cultured lives at the imperial court city of Heian Japan. This very elegant, very privileged court life was supported by taxes paid from their regional landholdings, which were worked by peasants and run by regional subordinates expected to also keep the peace as warriors.  Slowly but surely the center grew more dependent on the strength of the countryside, where regional warriors were gradually growing more separate from the elite center they were supposed to serve, but whose greatest beauties the lesser warriors had no chance of sharing.

Eventually the almost inevitable happened, and regional warriors began to act on their own, and begin to try to dominate the capital. For a while the capital still maintained much of its importance, as warriors who came to dominate it remained to be captivated by the elite city lifestyle.  In 1185 the strongest of these regional warriors - the Minamoto - finally rose up and took over real ruling power in Japan, which they wisely decided to exercise far from the temptations of the old imperial capital. Instead Japan was in reality ruled from the Minamotos' new capital, Kamakura. However they did so while maintaining a myth of simply serving the ultimate imperial authority, which remained at Heian. Thus they called themselves Shoguns (Military rulers) and their era is called the Kamakura Shogunate (1185-1333). By moving themselves, and real governing power away from Heian, they kept their ruling military authority separate from the temptation of civilian court life; this does not mean, however, that they turned their back on the basics of Japanese elite culture, first developed at the imperial court. This culture continued, but now served both the remaining old Heian and the newer Kamakura elites.
Japan Map: Outline with Kamakura & Heian
1st Kamakura Shogun 
Minamoto no Yoritomo

The Kamakura era began Japan's long era of feudal rule. The Minamoto made no attempt to rule all of Japan directly. Instead they recognized the limited ruling power of a whole hierarchy of regional military families, but through their own forces and those of their strongest supporters, were able to tie all of those lesser forces together in one larger hierarchy of warrior rule. As of 1200 then, Japanese rule was firmly established under a new feudal form, led by warriors who valued military preparedness and achievement very highly.

In contrast, the Song Chinese (called Southern Song after they lost north China) continued to focus mostly on doing whatever it took to continue their prosperity and civilian Confucian rule right up to the eve of Mongol conquest, usually preferring to try to avoid war (while also maintaining a large and expensive military) by making often huge tribute payments to their formerly-nomad northern and western neighbors.

Western Eurasia: Abbasid Islamic Empire and Culture

At almost the other end of the Eurasian landmass, Islam dominated Western Eurasia just as Confucianism dominated East Asia. Since 750 CE the Abbasid dynasty had formally ruled a huge Islamic empire. By the 9th century the Abassids, like the Song Chinese emperors, in fact did not really control all of the part of Eurasia, but rather presided as the rulers of the senior state in an area united mostly by a shared culture and prosperity. Compared to Confucianism, Islam was a fairly new faith, having only emerged at the beginning of the 600s CE. The below map shows the rapid spread of Islam during its first century plus of existence.

map showing Islam's expansion

By 750, from its capital at Baghdad,  the Abbasid Caliphate ruled all of North Africa, Arabia and the Eastern end of the Mediterranean, plus Persia and the western edge of India. One prince of the former Islamic rulers, the Umayyads, managed to establish independent power in Spain, which was thus Islamic but not under Abbasid rule.

The Nature of Islam

A Study Topic asks you to

Understand the basics of Abbasid-era Islamic religious belief, law and practice. Basically, what did Muhammad teach? What was expected of a good Muslim by the time of well-established Islam? Who could be Islamic? Status of women?
By the time of the Abbasids, Islam was many things: a religion, and empire, and a whole, complex civilization. From its beginnings Islam was a dynamic mixture of things nomadic and things very urban. It began with the teachings of Muhammad, an almost illiterate caravan trader living in Mecca, a desert-edge Arabian caravan town. Muhammad taught that he had received the one all-powerful God's final revelations, which perfected earlier revelations given to earlier Prophets such as Moses, all of which had grown corrupted over time. In this sense Islam's roots lay partly in the teachings and practices of the region's two earlier monotheisms (Judaism and Christianity), themselves by then saturated by the customs and interests of Western Eurasian city life. These were of course very "city" customs and practices, since these lands had been the heart of urban, trading civilization since it first emerged in Sumer, c. 3500 BCE (the earliest know human civilization).

The desert-trader camel armies of early Islamic believers soon captured the core lands of what we today call the Middle East. All of Persia fell, and the Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) Empire lost its rich Egyptian and Syrian provinces. Islam in all its early fervor and power was eagerly adopted by increasingly large percentages of the population in those areas, and soon Islam became the new organizing belief system unifying and stabilizing the long-fragmented lands of the Western Eurasia.

The core of Islam practice and belief was and is very simple - believers accept that there is only one God, who revealed to Muhammad both his own nature and his expectations for humankind. Again, Muslims (those who submit to the teachings of Islam) believe that Muhammad's teachings are God's final message; that it is the perfect version of earlier revelations. Both Judaism and Christianity are seen as slightly corrupted earlier versions of God's revelations. As such Islam has usually tolerated, and even shown some respect for their believers as "People of the Book" (the Old and New Testiments). Generally Christians and Jews have been allowed to live unmolested within Islamic lands, although expected to pay an extra tax (in part to make up for not being allowed to participate in the military) and usually not allowed to hold certain high offices reserved only for believers.

Muslims were and are expected to worship God and live moral and ethical lives. The core of expected Islamic religious behavior is very simple, often being summed up in what are called the Five Pillars of Islam. They are

From the time of Muhammad, anyone wanting to become Islamic really only had to decide to follow these five requirements (and as the Islamic lands grew larger, all understood that the last might not be possible). Note that all of these are public behaviors, working to make each believer a part of a larger community of believers. Each connects individuals to their religious community, whether in the repeated daily rhythm of prayers, or the one-month-a-year shared experience of fasting and greater attention to things religious. Giving alms to the needy also helped create a community in which shared religious identity was greater than continuing great differences of status. Soon 5% became an established amount of alms tax, by which the wealthiest helped the lives of Islam's worthy poor widows, orphans, maimed, etc.  At first, avowing belief in Muhammad's prophecies of One God was often quite dangerous, but soon at least within the Islamic lands, it served to make each person part of the culture's dominant belief system.  The Five Pillars probably also helped the spread of Islam. They are quite easily understood, and require no very difficult cultural changes (as compared to Judaism's many very specific requirements),

Also note that Islam had no formal priesthood, and no special sacrements requiring the presence of a priesthood. All of the Pillars could be carried out by any Believer after only a very limited amount of introduction to the basic practices of the faith. Of course men especially were encouraged to attend mosque (holy centers) once a week, but all prayer and all religious study could be done on ones own. On the other hand learned men did indeed soon emerge, clustering around the mosques, establishing schools and administering the charitable foundations funded by alms. They also soon became official judges, administering Islamic law, which from the beginning was the law of all Islamic-ruled lands. The Abbasids won the right to rule Islam on the battlefield, but they called themselves Caliphs (successors to Muhammad) and justified their power by calling themselves protectors of Islam. Islam gave the Middle East's increasingly Islamic lands a very powerful cultural core, embodied by its mosques, and unifying its Believers within a very impressive system of both beliefs and behaviors

Photo of Damascus Great Mosque courtyard
Courtyard of the Damascus Great Mosque

Islamic law was based first on the Qur'an (Koran), the collection of all of God's revelations to Muhammad. This became the "unamendable" core of Islamic belief and law. Added to that then are layers formed by the Hadiths (all of the sayings and examples provided by Muhammad's own life) and then the commentaries and analogies of the many Islamic scholars that followed him. Although different traditions within Islam vary some over exactly which of these later layers to include (even as different schools of Christianity differ on some texts), all of traditional Islam shared a very strong core of both belief and law. This created an enduring, strong culture that easily survived the political fragmentation that began as early as the late 800s,  under the surface of a continuing large Abbasid caliphate.

Shi'ism: Islam did quickly break into two branches, creating a serious split although (again) the larger shared identity of common Islamic identity continued. Throughout the Abbasid era (750-1258 CE) most Muslims followed what is called Sunni Islam. The term "Sunni" essentially designates what was seen as mainstream or "regular" Islam, much as the term "Catholic" designated those within western Roman or Latin Christianity that didn't become Protestants. Sunni Muslims accepted the Abbasid line as Caliphs. Arrayed against them were those Muslims known as Shi'ites. Shi'ite Muslims believe that Islam is legitimately ruled only by the male descendants of Muhammad, specifically that through his daughter Fatima and her husband Ali (who was also Muhammad's cousin).  Ali had been one of Muhammad's earliest converts, and had risked his life (pretending to be Muhammad) to help Muhammad flee Mecca in 622, when many forces opposed his prophecies and might have been conspiring to kill him. Ali's followers believed that Ali should have been chosen Muhammad's successor (or Caliph), and deeply resented 3 other Caliphs being appointed between 632 (Muhammad's death) and 656 (Ali's appointment as the 4th Caliph).

By then (656) early Islam was in fact fatally divided. The Shi'ites lost out to the Umayyads (who ruled Islam 661 to 750 CE) and failed to take power when the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyads in 750. Shi'ites fought battles with Sunnis between 656 and 661, when their leader Ali was assassinated by one of his own fanatic followers.  One of Ali's sons (Hassan) accepted the family defeat, while the other (Hussein) died in 680, leading another rising.  But Hussein's sons survived, and so did the Shi'ite cause as a minority sect within Islam. At that time Islamic teaching was very definitely against Muslims spilling each others blood, and especially against hunting down followers and descendants of the Prophet, so the Shi'ites' opponents simply couldn't hunt them all down as long as they no longer actively rose against those in power.  Shi'ite law differs from Sunni law concerning exactly which personal sayings of Muhammad are valid; it also gives greater power to its top holy men (imams).

Mainstream Islam also tolerated the appearance of Sufism. In essence Sufism is a style of religious practice (as opposed to a different brand of doctrine, such as Shi'ism). Sufis seek personal emotional contact with God, whereas mainstream Islam emphasizes a relatively calm study and following of Islamic teachings. Many Sufis formed brotherhoods dedicated to breaking free from the limits of ordinary life. Most followers belonged to brotherhoods only in their spare time, since they continued to have all the duties that went with earning a living and belonging to families. But some believers eventually gave up all ordinary possessions and obligations, and took to the road as holy beggers testifying to their faith. Among the most famous of these were the people known as "whirling dervishes," for the spinning dance that was part of their religious ritual.

While definitely not fully equal, Muslim women generally gained a good deal of status and significant rights under Islam. All infanticide was banned, whereas before Islam the exposure of girl babies especially had sometimes been openly practiced. Women as well as men had to consent to marriage in order for it to be valid (of course this doesn't mean all women really consented, but at least Islamic law saw a woman as a responsible adult with rights). Customarily women inherited 1/2 as much as their brothers, but were expected to be able to inherit some property. This was seen as fair because sons supported their wives, whereas daughters got support from their husbands. Still, Islamic women could and did inherit, own, will and control property in their own names. Dowries belong to women, not to their fathers or husbands, and were often controlled by the women themselves. Ideally, women were to be educated, since education was the best way to understand Muhammad's revelations and other religious teachings. Men could have up to four wives and women could have only one husband, but women could seek divorce, and men could not accuse their wives of misbehavior without four believable witnesses. Children belonged to the father, but if there was a divorce, young children stayed with the mother until older.  Women could testify in court - but their testimony was formally held to be worth half as much as a man's.

At the same time, Islam also almost always tolerated non-Muslims living within Muslim lands. This was especially true of  "Peoples of the Book," that is Christians and Jews, who were seen as followers of the less correct but still sacred Old and New Testiments (God's earlier revelations). As Islam expanded east Hindus, Buddhists and others soon came to be treated also as acceptable faiths. Each religious people were grouped within their own faith, and governed by the top leader of that faith living in Islamic lands. Such non-Islamic believers paid an additional tax to make up for not supporting the Islamic military (in which they were not qualified to serve).

The Fragmented Middle East of the Later Abbasid Era

As early as the 900s real ruling power in the Abbasid lands increasingly was exercised by a number of different local rulers. The below map of Islam in 1000 CE shows the many different political regions into which Islam was actually divided. (Note that the map uses the older AD designation, plus the Islamic calendar date of 390 AH). Do not worry about the specifics, but rather simply notice just how fragmented the area has become, under a surface of one great Abbasid religious unity.

Islam c. 1000 CE Map

By this time (c. 1000 CE) even the Abbasid core area around Baghdad (and the Abbasids themselves) were dominated by central Asian mercenaries, the Buyids. Eventually many of the lands of Islam came in some way to be under the military control of once-nomad groups brought in to be the military muscle of rulers no longer able to do their own fighting. But since all rulers were Islamic, and almost all came to benefit from, not destroy, Islamic prosperity, the breakup of real central Abbasid power had little effect on Islamic belief, culture, society or prosperity. During the Mongol period, much of the area would not be so fortunate.

The Christian Periphery

Since the Mongols only invaded or directly threatened the lands of Eastern and Central Europe, those are the only ones we'll be concerned with here. As of the 12th century, this meant the lands of the Byzantine Empire, Kievan Russia, the Crusader states at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, and - very briefly - the lands in Central Europe. There were other increasingly Christian lands in Eastern Europe, but we won't be spotlighting them.

Before the 4th century CE, the great Roman Empire (which until then ruled all of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean) worshipped many traditional gods, and thus sometimes persecuted the smallish minority of its subjects that were Christian. This was because Christian insistence on there being only one true God was seen as offensive to Rome's many gods who they were therefore rejecting. But by the time Rome weakened and divided into separate eastern and western parts, the various rulers of its fragmenting lands increasingly tryed to use Christianity as a new basis for unity and obedience to a Christian ruler. The result was two separate kinds of Christianity, headed in the west by the Bishop of Rome (soon known as the Pope) and in the east by the Patriarch of Constantinople (appointed there by the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Emperor, who ruled the eastern lands from that city). Naturally the kings of western Europe didn't want their Christian subjects obeying a Patriarch appointed to the Eastern Roman emperor who still claimed ultimate authority over western lands. And equally naturally, the Eastern Roman emperor, ruler over Rome's successor state at Constantinople, wasn't going to accept the importance of the bishop of Rome's old, now abandoned capital city. The below map gives a good sense of the politically-fragmenting Mediterranean world once Roman rule was reduced down to just its eastern end.

The Byzantine Empire: The Eastern Roman - usually now known as the Byzantine - Empire had started out, in the 4th century CE, still ruling the entire eastern end of the Mediterranean. It soon lost many of those lands to rising Islam, and by the end of the 12th century was a much shrunken state, controlling only the lands on both sides of the Turkish Straits (which controlled the passage between the Black and Mediterranean Seas).  The below map shows the much shrunken Byzantine lands (here called "Romania"), with the area of soon-to-be-lost Bulgaria included but colored a deeper pink shade.

Map of Byzantine Empire, 910 CE

Byzantine Christians were what is usually known as Orthodox Christians, as vs Roman or Latin Christians who were obedient to the Pope in Rome. The Russian peoples north of the Black Sea (above labelled "Kiev Rus") were were fairly recent converts to Christianity (c. 980s CE); they were Orthodox Christians, since they had learned their Christianity from the Byzantines. The lands of Central Europe increasingly had populations whose Christianity followed the authority of Rome.  Roman and Orthodox Christianity had really been divided since the 4th century, but their split only became final in 1054.

Although the Byzantine Empire of the 12th century was much smaller than it had been in its earlier years, it still retained many strengths in its core areas - strengths that would let it hold out against nomad-background warrior attacks over the next several centuries. It was an empire carrying out great amounts of sea-based trade, and so less vulnerable to mostly land-based cavalry warrior attack. Its great capital city, Constantinople, was relatively safe with its back to the Turkish Straits into the Black Sea, and on its land side behind a nest of walls. Real military power over its Emperor's government was often in the hands of some once-nomad military force, but each such force came into Constantinople to share, not destroy, its wealth.

The Crusades. Given this split it was in some ways strange that Roman-style Christian western Europe sent its crusaders to the Holy Lands at the request of an Orthodox Byzantine emperor, who called on his Christian "brothers" to help win the eastern Mediterranean "Holy Lands" of Jerusalem and Bethlehem back from Islam. Remember that these lands had been in Islamic hands for many centuries - since the 7th century, in fact.  And Christian pilgrims had travelled to Islamic-controlled Christian religious sites for centuries, usually unmolested.

But by the last years of the 11th century a number of things had changed. The Roman popes of that time were often desperate, in a time og growing secular royal power,  for a cause that emphasized the overriding importance of religious causes.  At the same time many European knights and ordinary men were also eager for adventure - and wealth. Therefore issued a call in 1096 for a Crusade to the Holy Lands, and it was answered by a great mass of eager Crusaders who arrived in the Holy Lands and there soon conquered a number of small kingdoms just at the eastern end of the Mediterranean.

Crusader States 11th-13th centuries

The western Crusaders (or invaders, depending on one's point of view) did not win their temporary kingdoms because of any real military superiority. Rather they took by surprise some fragmented lands undefended by any of the Middle East's larger powers, and held them only until a serious force opposed and then expelled them. The first Crusader states were established in 1099, were most powerful in the earlier part of the 1100s, and the last Crusader stronghold Acre fell in 1291. (See the closeup inset of the Crusader States in the above map of 12th-Century Europe. This shows the major Crusader states of Jerusalem, Edessa, Antioch, and Tripoli.) Thus some declining Crusader state were still present at the eastern end of the Mediterranean in the 1200s, when the Mongols entered the area. They were in essence conquest states ruled by foreign invaders in the name of a foreign religion.

The men occupying them came from central and western Europe (France, England, and the German lands, for example), which had a less advanced civilization in terms of learning and technology. So while the westerners learned a good deal from their eastern subjects, the Middle Easterners tended to learn nothing new from their occupiers. By 1200 Crusaders regularly carried home from the east tastes for such things as spices, Damascus steel and cloth, the game of chess, etc. Some of them also carried home new acquaintance with great Classical era Greek thinkers such as Aristotle, who had been almost ignored by early European Christians worried about the paganism of Classical times. When the Mongol conquests spread other ideas and technology across their newly-acquired lands, the Crusader lands would again be one window through which they were then passed on to the far western Mediterranean lands.

Kievan Russia The Russian state and culture, on the other hand, learned a good deal from the Byzantines. The core of the Russian state lay along the Dnieper River, which ran south into the Black Sea. As of the 800s, the Dnieper was the central part of an overland trade route from the Baltic to the Black Sea (essecially seagoing traders in the Baltic Sea could take ships up the Dvina River, carry  ships over to the Dnieper, take the Dnieper all the way to where it empties into the Black Sea, and cross the Black Sea to the great port of Constantinople).  Russia seems to have first been unified in the 800s under the leadership of Baltic Vikings, who came together with top local elites, to form a trading state centered all along the various towns of the Dnieper River. The capital was at Kiev, and thus the first Russian Russian state was called Kievan Russia.

Russia 1054 Map

In about 988 or 990 the Russian ruler (the Grand Prince Vladimir) led his whole people in adopting the Orthodox Christian religion of Russia's major trading partner, the Byzantine Empire. Byzantine missionaries also brought the Russians a writing system (Cyrillic, developed to write down the sounds of slavic languages) and the basic style of Orthodox church architecture and icon painting.   The below photograph of a (very well preserved and restored) 11th century Kiev church gives a clear sense of just what impressive church buildings were soon being constructed, at least in Russia's greatest cities.

11th century St Sophia Church in Kiev

The result by the 12th century was an emerging distinctive Russian style of civilization and national identity, increasingly tied up in their Russian Orthodox Church and faith. But at the same time the Russian state itself was also fragmenting politically, with various top princes each concentrating their interests in their own region of the larger state. Also by that time overland trade along the Dnieper was growing much less important, as shipping in the Mediterranean made overland routes less important. This seriously undercut the chief economic motive for continued Kievan state unity.


Briefly, we should note that the two core Eurasian cultures were somewhat in contact with each other, although only in a limited way almost completely carried out by both overland and seaborne travellers, most of whom were traders although missionaries and a few other emissaries also traveled the trade routes. Over the Abbasid and Tang-Song era, the most important trade route was that known as the Silk Road, a caravan route stretching all the way from China's capital at Chang'an and, including a final sea leg, reaching Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. Much of its length crossed the great desert lands of Central Asia, the realm of the mounted nomad.  Almost no traders travelled the entire route, but eventually goods - and some knowledge - was carried the entire length of the route, usually having been transshipped several times, in the great caravan towns (such as Samarkand) that marked the route. Only relatively light, small luxury items were worth the costs of such travel, which took many months to cover the entire route. Thus contacts between the two distant Eurasian Confucian and Islamic civilizations were both limited and filtered by distance. Nevertheless thanks to the Silk Road and other  connecting corridors the eastern and western Eurasian civilizations knew something of each other - and the connecting nomadic peoples knew a good deal about both civilizations desires, strengths, and weaknesses.

Decorated Map of the Silk Road
Route of the Silk Road, beginning at Chang'an and ending at Constantinople

By the 12th century, both civilizations were increasingly weak, at least in terms of united central rule and border-defending military abilities. The next  two maps show you how badly both the Chinese and the Islamic lands were fragmented, beginning as early as the 10th century.