Tenochtitlan was the Aztec capital in Mexico, built impressively in the middle of a lake. Alhambra in Muslim Granada, Spain, was one of the finest works of architecture ever built. The chief of Mali, on pilgrimage to Mecca, took so much gold that the Cairo bullion market subsided by 20%. Medieval life went on, in marketplaces, inns, forest-clearings and villages. Then, suddenly, the Old World lost impetus, disastrously.
In the early 1300s, temperatures fell – the ‘little ice age’ struck. Crops failed, valleys and frontiers were abandoned and winter famines came. People died or migrated. Cities grew. Disaster was creeping in.
Then came worse. It hit every class and kind. No prayer or poultice would stop it. Starting in Central Asia, it spread through the Middle East and then Europe. Thirty percent of the population died, everywhere, horribly – half of the population in some localities. Some places were utterly wiped out, emptied.
The Black Death, transmitted by rat-fleas, scythed through Eurasia. According to the Muslim writer Ibn Khaldun: "Civilisation shrank with the decrease of mankind. Cities and buildings were bared, roads and signposts were abandoned, villages and palaces were deserted, tribes and dynasties were expunged." Humanity suddenly lost heart. Nothing made sense. Fate had dealt a terrible blow. Something was dreadfully wrong. Was it God?
In the Americas both the Incas of Peru and the Aztecs of Mexico developed toward a zenith in the 1400s, untouched by the Eurasian mayhem. In their heyday, the Aztecs had 100,000 administrators running their system. The Inca domain was vast, carefully set up, uniting high mountain territories with roads, cities and an efficient imperial system.
Back in Eurasia, people were so depleted from their disasters that they now were a pushover for the adventurist soldier Timurlenk, who sought to revive the Mongol empire. His dramatic and short career of wild conquest opened up the defenceless Middle East to various invading Turkic tribes who followed in his footsteps when he died – they were Seljuks, Ottomans, Mamluks and Turkomans from central Asia.
The great Islamic capital, Baghdad, was now dead. The Muslim world was atomised into sultanates, stretching from Malaya to Morocco. Yet they shared one God, one law code, one language. In the heartlands of Islam, Turks became the new rulers.
East Asia thrived. In Japan, Indonesia and even Maori New Zealand, things were advancing nicely. Ming China was achieving new heights. Westwards, Byzantium was expiring, falling to the Ottoman Turks and, even further west, something else was stirring in late-medieval Europe.
Wyclif and Hus were preaching a new heretical Christian teaching: they spoke in plain language, not Latin, about people's real religious questions, exposing the corruption and decadence of the monolithic Church - these were the first Protestants.
Merchant classes, prosperity and secular values were growing – what mattered was this life, not the next, our wellbeing, not kings’ and clerics’ coffers. A whiff of "There's more to life than this..." crept in.
Florence, Italy, in 1400, was a hot-shot place to be – the incubator of the Renaissance which, in 500 years, was to affect the whole world. Inspired people gathered under patrons such as the Medicis to jump-start a new paradigm-shift in society, in the arts, in thought, politics and business. Actually, it was a naissance, a birth – Europeans later called it ‘the Renaissance’, harking back to classical Rome to give it respectability. But this was new.
Knowledge and initiative abandoned the Church cloisters for private houses and coffee shops. New ideas welled up, nourished by newly-available Arabic thought and classical Greek knowledge coming through the writings of the Arabs. However, this breakthrough was not started by this – it was genuinely indigenous to Europe, original, sparked by sheer fascination and intellect, or perhaps despair. This was the unwitting germination of a new global civilisation of 600 years’ time.
In 1400s Ming China, business, public works and culture saw an upturn. Chinese missions visited India, Persia, Arabia and Africa. The Chinese could have become world-dominators instead of the Europeans, but they pulled back for domestic reasons. Europe, to them, was backward and remote, not worth the effort. Far superior to the Europeans were the up-coming Moghuls in India and the Ottomans, who went about gobbling up Byzantium, the Middle East and part of Europe.
Europe’s marginality protected it, allowing an embryo to grow. The Renaissance gave birth to an utterly new world-view. This was to unfold slowly, painfully, giving an eventual breech-birth to the modern global civilisation we now live in.
Either China or the Muslim sphere could conceivably have united the world – or started the process. Anciently, Alexander the Great and the Romans had aspired to it, and later the Mongols had tried it. Saladin’s Muslim-Christian alliance might have ignited it. The Ming Chinese dallied with it too. But the cannon-firing, devil-may-care Europeans did it – they wanted to get rich quick, and nothing much was stopping them.
Columbus, ‘discovering’ the Americas in 1492, was ostensibly looking for Asia, not for a ‘new world’. Most Europeans thought they might sail over the world’s edge, so oddly doctrinal were their beliefs. This was to be one hell of an adventure. It would hit other races hard – and it would hit Europe’s own people too.
The Illustrated Guide to the Millennium
© Copyright Palden Jenkins 1998, 2012.
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The Illustrated Guide to the Millennium was partially written in 1997-98 and never published.