The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2016)


The Road of Death and Destruction

Even before the fall of the cities and ports in the Levant, both Genoa and Venice had taken steps to find new routes to trade along, new points to buy and sell goods, new ways to make sure they did not lose out. With trade passing through the Holy Land increasingly strangled in the thirteenth century by the rise in military tensions, both communes established new colonies on the north coast of the Black Sea in the Crimea, in the mouth of the Sea of Azov and in Armenian Cilicia, where the town of Ayas became a new gateway for commodities and luxuries coming from the east.

There was a lot of money to be made. Differentials between the price of grain on the north and south coasts of the Black Sea provided a perfect opportunity for the city-states to exploit with their huge transport vessels that were able to transport foodstuffs in considerable volumes.1 These ships also proved useful in moving other goods – such as people. Both the Genoese and the Venetians resumed large-scale slave trading, buying captives to sell on to Mamluk Egypt, in defiance of attempts by the papacy to ban the trafficking of men, women and children to Muslim buyers.2

Old rivalries were hard to set to one side. Genoa had already shown how far it was willing to go to crush rivals, destroying the Pisan fleet almost in its entirety in 1282 and then refusing to ransom those taken prisoner. Pisa never recovered fully from the blow inflicted by its rival. Among those captured was a certain Rustichello, who spent more than a decade in prison before being joined by a fellow inmate also taken hostage during a Genoese naval victory – this time over the Venetians in the Adriatic. Striking up a friendship with him, Rustichello took to writing down his fellow prisoner’s memories of his remarkable life and journeys: we have Genoa’s brutality and relentless focus on the medieval struggle for power to thank for the recording of Marco Polo’s travels.

The ruthless duels for commercial supremacy raged wherever Venice and Genoa came into contact: there were violent clashes in Constantinople, confrontations in the Aegean and in Cyprus, and full-blooded battles in the Adriatic. By the time Pope Boniface VIII brokered a truce in 1299, the two had fought each other to a standstill. But the energy, effort and expense devoted to reaching this position in the first place showed just how much rested on trying to make connections with Asia.

Nevertheless, it had been worth it. By 1301, the Hall of the Great Council in Venice was enlarged after it had been unanimously agreed that it was no longer big enough to hold all its powerful members, whose number had grown along with the rising wealth of the city.3 In the case of Genoa, on the other hand, a poem written around the end of the thirteenth century extols the beauty of the city, which was ‘filled from head to toe with palazzi’, and whose skyline was adorned with large numbers of towers. The source of the city’s riches was the abundant supply of goods from the east – including ermine, squirrel and other furs traded on the steppes, as well as pepper, ginger, musk, spices, brocades, velvet, cloth of gold, pearls, jewels and precious stones. Genoa was rich, the author goes on, because of the network it had created, serviced by its galleys and ships: the Genoese are scattered all over the world, he boasted, creating new Genoas wherever they go. Truly, wrote the anonymous author, God had blessed the city and wanted it to flourish.4

One important reason for the boom in Venice and Genoa was the skill and foresight they showed in feeding their customers’ desires – and those of the traders who came from other cities in Europe to buy the goods that had been brought there. With Egypt and the Holy Land proving too volatile and economically risky, the Black Sea quickly became a trading zone of the greatest importance.

But behind the rise of the Italian city-states was the fiscal sophistication and restraint of the Mongols when it came to taxing commerce. A range of sources indicate that duties on exports passing through the Black Sea ports never exceeded 3–5 per cent of the total value of the goods; this was highly competitive when compared with tolls and levies extracted on products passing through Alexandria, where sources talk of taxes of 10, 20 and even 30 per cent.5As any trader knows, margins count for everything. There was a strong incentive, therefore, to ship through the Black Sea – which only served to make this an even more important route to the east.

Sensitive pricing and a deliberate policy of keeping taxes low were symptomatic of the bureaucratic nous of the Mongol Empire, which gets too easily lost beneath the images of violence and wanton destruction. In fact, the Mongols’ success lay not in indiscriminate brutality but in their willingness to compromise and co-operate, thanks to the relentless effort to sustain a system that renewed central control. Although later Persian historians were highly vocal in asserting that the Mongols were disengaged from the process of administering their empire, preferring to leave such mundane tasks to others, recent research has revealed just how involved they were in the detail of everyday life.6 The great achievement of Genghis Khan and his successors was not the ransacking of popular imagination but the meticulous checks put in place that enabled one of the greatest empires in history to flourish for centuries to come. It was no coincidence, then, that Russian came to include a broad range of loan words, drawn directly from the vocabulary relating to Mongol administration – and particularly those to do with trade and communication: words for profit (barysh), money (dengi) and the treasury (kazna) all originated from contact with the new masters from the east. So too did the postal system in Russia, based on the Mongol method of delivering messages quickly and efficiently from one side of the empire to another through a network of relay stations.7

Such was the genius of the Mongols, in fact, that the platform for long-term success was established right from the very beginning. As Genghis Khan and his successors expanded their reach, they had to incorporate new peoples within a coherent system. Tribes were deliberately broken down, with loyalties refocused on attachments to military units and above all allegiance to the Mongol leadership itself. Distinguishing tribal features, such as how different peoples wore their hair, were stamped out, with standardised fashions enforced instead. As a matter of course, those who submitted or were conquered were dispersed across Mongol-controlled territory to weaken bonds of language, kinship and identity and to aid the assimilation process. New names were introduced in place of ethnic labels to underline the new way of doing things. All this in turn was reinforced by a centralised system of rewards where booty and tribute were shared out: proximity to the ruling dynasty counted for everything, in turn encouraging a broad if brutal meritocracy, where successful generals reaped rich rewards and those who failed were quickly rooted out.8

While tribal identities were extinguished, there was consistent and remarkable broad-mindedness when it came to the question of faith. The Mongols were relaxed and tolerant on religious matters. Ever since the time of Genghis Khan, the leader’s retinue had been allowed to practise whatever beliefs they wanted. Genghis himself ‘viewed the Muslims with the eye of respect, so also did he hold the Christians and “idolaters” [that is, Buddhists] in high esteem’, according to one later Persian writer. As far as his descendants were concerned, each was left to their own devices and their own conscience in deciding which faith to follow. Some chose to adopt Islam, others Christianity, with ‘others again cleaving to the ancient canon of their fathers and forefathers and inclining to no direction’.9

There was some truth in this, as missionaries who flocked east looking for people to convert soon found.10 William of Rubruck was surprised to come across priests all over Asia on his journey to the Mongol court, but even more surprised to find them agreeing to bless white horses each spring as herds were gathered near Karakorum; moreover, such blessings were performed in a manner more in keeping with pagan rituals than with Christian doctrine.11 But taking a few short cuts was evidently seen as worthwhile – a small detail in the bigger picture of winning converts. As contacts between Europe and Central Asia increased, dioceses began to spring up once again in the east, including deep in the steppes, while monasteries were founded in northern Persia, such as in Tabriz, which became home to a flourishing community of Franciscan monks.12 That they were allowed to flourish spoke volumes about the protection they were given and the Mongols’ relaxed approach to religion.

In fact, things went considerably further. At the end of the thirteenth century, John of Montecorvino was sent to the Great Khan by the Pope with a letter ‘inviting him to receive the Catholic faith of our Lord Jesus Christ’. Although John’s mission did not meet with success, he nevertheless set about converting as many people as he could, paying ransoms to free captive children whom he then schooled in Latin and Greek, writing out psalters for them by hand. In time, even the Great Khan himself would come to hear them chanting during service, enthralled by the beautiful singing and the mystery of the Eucharist. Such was John’s success that a mission was sent by Pope Clement V in the early 1300s to appoint him, not to the rank of bishop but to a greater position to reflect his achievements and to spur the creation of a church hierarchy across the Mongol Empire: the archbishop of Beijing. The failure of the Crusades did not mean the failure of Christianity in Asia.13

Some of this religious tolerance was clever politicking. The Īlkhānids seem to have been particularly adept at telling religious figures what they wanted to hear. Hülegü, for example, told one Armenian priest that he had been baptised when a child; the church in the west was so eager to believe this that illustrations were circulated in Europe depicting Hülegü as a Christian saint. Others, however, were told a different story. The Buddhists, for example, were assured that Hülegü followed the teachings leading to enlightenment. There were many instances of high-ranking figures in the Mongol world becoming Christian and then converting to Islam or vice versa, switching their religion as convenient. The phlegmatically faithful were masters at being all things to all people.14

Winning hearts and minds was crucial to the smooth expansion of the empire. This harked directly back to the approach taken by Alexander the Great when he had defeated the Persians – and would have been approved of by commentators like Tacitus, who was deeply critical of the short-sightedness of a policy of plunder and indiscriminate devastation. Instinctively, the Mongols knew how to be great empire-builders: tolerance and careful administration had to follow up on military might.

Shrewd decisions taken when it came to dealing with important potential allies paid off handsomely. In Russia, the blanket exemption of the church from all taxes and from military service was met with jubilation, just one example showing that sensitive handling could generate goodwill even after brutal conquest.15 Likewise, devolving responsibilities was a highly effective way of reducing animosities and tensions. The case of Russia is again instructive, with one local ruler who was singled out to collect taxes and payments being given a generous cut of the proceeds. Not for nothing did Ivan I, Grand Prince of Moscow, become known as ‘Ivan Kalita’ – or Ivan the moneybags: he was in charge of gathering levies and taxes to fill the Mongol treasuries, evidently doing well for himself in the process. The concentration of wealth and power in the hands of trusted figures like Ivan resulted in the emergence of a pre-eminent dynasty which could be relied on and which prospered at the expense of rival families. The effects were deep – and long lasting: some scholars have argued that it was the Mongols’ system of government that laid the ground for Russia’s transformation into a fully fledged autocracy by empowering a small handful of individuals to lord it over the population, as well as over their peers.16

Militarily dominant, politically astute and theologically tolerant, the Mongols’ template for success was far removed from our common perceptions of them. But, for all their efficiency, they were also lucky in their timing. In China, they came across a world that had seen population growth, economic expansion and technological developments following a sharp rise in agricultural productivity.17 In Central Asia, they found fractured statelets riven by rivalries and ripe for consolidation. In the Middle East and Europe, they came into contact with societies that were both monetised and increasingly stratified – that is to say, able to pay tribute in cash, and whose populations had spending power and prodigious appetites for luxury products. Across the continents of Asia and Europe, Genghis Khan and his successors were not just stumbling into a world that offered rich pickings; they found themselves stepping into a golden age.18

Just as the Islamic conquests of the seventh century had a profound impact on the global economy as taxes, payments and cash flowed towards to the centre from all corners of the world, so too did the Mongol successes of the thirteenth century reshape the monetary systems of Eurasia. In India, new rituals and pastimes were introduced from the steppe world, such as formal processions where the ruler’s ornate saddle was carried ostentatiously before him.19 In China, meanwhile, culinary habits changed to adopt flavours, ingredients and cooking styles favoured by the new overlords from the steppes. Texts like the Yinshan zhengyao, a dietary guidebook listing ‘Proper and Essential Things for the Emperor’s Food and Drink’, include many dishes influenced by nomad cuisine and tastes, heavily emphasising the boiling of food as the preferred means of cooking.20 Using every piece of an animal carcass – second nature to those dealing with livestock for their living – became part of the mainstream. Kublai Khan was one who was devoted to the foods of his ancestors, reportedly serving fermented milk, horse meat, camel hump and mutton soup thickened with grain as delicacies to his court.21 At least these sound more palatable than sheep’s lung or a paste based on the fat of sheep’s tail or head that appear in a fourteenth-century cooking manual.22

Europe also felt the cultural impact of the Mongol conquests. Striking new fashions were imported from and influenced by the emergence of the new empire. Mongol styles became modish after the first waves of panic died down. In England, 250 bands of dark-blue ‘Tatar’ cloth were used to make the insignia for the country’s oldest and grandest order of chivalry, the Knights of the Garter. At the Cheapside Tournament in 1331, the opening ceremony saw men parade dressed in fine Tatar clothing, wearing masks to look like Mongol warriors. Influences from the east even lay behind the hennin, the most distinctive fashion accessory of the Renaissance across Europe. The conical headgear favoured by ladies and so visible in the portraiture of the fourteenth century onwards appears to have been directly inspired by the distinctive hats worn at the Mongol court in this period.23

But the Mongol conquests had other, more substantial effects, for they served to transform the economies of Europe. The never-ending stream of envoys being dispatched to the court of the khans was soon accompanied by missionaries and merchants following in their footsteps. Suddenly, not only the Mongols but Asia as a whole entered into Europe’s field of vision. Tales brought back by travellers were devoured by those eager to find out more about the exotic world that was suddenly coming into focus in the east.

The stories were greeted with wonder. There was an island beyond China, according to Marco Polo, where the ruler’s palace had golden roofs and golden walls several inches thick. In India, the same author revealed, animal flesh was thrown into steep ravines that were filled with diamonds – but also infested with snakes – in order to attract eagles who would then fly down to retrieve the meat bringing the gems that were impressed into it up with them, to be collected later and more easily. Pepper, noted another traveller from this period, came from swamps filled with crocodiles that had to be frightened away by fire. In the accounts of contemporary travellers, the wealth of the east was legendary – and stood in sharp contrast to that of Europe.24

This conclusion should have been neither surprising nor new. The themes were familiar from the classical texts that were starting to be read again as society and economy developed in continental Europe, and intellectual curiosity began to return. The reports brought back by Marco Polo and others struck an obvious chord with accounts by Herodotus, Tacitus, Pliny and even the Song of Solomon of bats using their claws to guard marshes where cassia grew, of venomous flying serpents protecting aromatic trees in Arabia, or of phoenixes building nests of cinnamon and frankincense which they then filled with other spices.25

Naturally, the mystique of the east – and tales of the dangers involved in gathering goods that were rare and highly prized – was closely linked to expectations of the prices the goods would fetch when brought back to Europe. Goods, produce and spices that were dangerous to make or harvest would naturally be very costly.26 In order to be better informed, handbooks and compendia started to appear around 1300 on how to travel and trade in Asia – and, above all, how get a fair price. ‘In the first place, you must let your beard grow long and not shave,’ wrote Francesco Pegolotti, the author of the most famous guide of this period; and be sure to take a guide along for the journey – you will more than make up in savings whatever you pay extra for a good one, he advised. But the most important information he set out was what taxes were due in what locations, what the difference in weights, measures and coinage were, and what different spices looked like – and how much they were worth. In the medieval world as in the modern, the point of these guidebooks was to avoid disappointment and to reduce the chances of being taken advantage of by unscrupulous merchants.27


That Pegolotti himself was not from Venice or Genoa, the two powerhouses of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Europe, but from Florence was itself revealing. There were new upstarts eager to get a piece of the action in the east – such as Lucca and Siena, whose traders could be found in Tabriz, Ayas and other trading points in the east – buying spices, silks and fabrics from China, India and Persia as well as elsewhere. The sense of new horizons opening up was nowhere better expressed than on the map that hung in the Great Council Hall of the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena: designed to be rotated by hand, the chart showed the world centred on the Tuscan town, setting out distances, transport networks and Siena’s very own network of agents, contacts and intermediaries stretching deep into Asia. Even obscure towns in the centre of Italy were starting to look to the east for inspiration and profits and thinking in terms of establishing their own connections to the Silk Roads.28

Fundamental to European expansion was the stability that the Mongols provided across the whole of Asia. Despite the tensions and rivalries between the different branches of the tribal leadership, the rule of law was fiercely protected when it came to commercial matters. The road system in China, for example, was the envy of visitors who marvelled at the administrative measures in place to provide security for travelling merchants. ‘China is the safest country and best country for the traveller,’ wrote the fourteenth-century explorer Ibn Baimageimageūimagea; this was a place where a reporting system that apparently accounted for each outsider on a daily basis meant that ‘a man travels for nine months alone with great wealth and has nothing to fear’.29

It was a view echoed by Pegolotti, who noted that the route from the Black Sea as far as China ‘is perfectly safe, whether by day or by night’. This was partly the result of traditional nomad beliefs about the hospitality that should be shown to strangers, but it was also a function of a wider view that commerce should be encouraged. In this sense, the competitive taxes levied on goods passing through the Black Sea found obvious echoes on the other side of Asia, where maritime trade passing through ports on China’s Pacific coast also grew thanks to deliberate efforts to increase customs revenues.30

One area where this proved highly effective was in the export of fabrics, the production of which received a major boost in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The textile industries in Nīshāpūr, Herat and Baghdad were deliberately built up, while the city of Tabriz alone expanded in size by a factor of four over the course of just over a hundred years, to accommodate traders as well as the craftsmen and artisans who were conspicuously well treated in the aftermath of the Mongol conquests. Although there was a near-insatiable demand for fine cloth and fabric in markets to the east, increasing quantities were exported to Europe from the late thirteenth century onwards.31

Horizons expanded everywhere. In China, ports like Guangzhou had long served as windows on to the world of southern Asia. Such major commercial hubs were well known to Persian traders, Arab geographers and Muslim travellers who left accounts of bustling street life in towns on the coast as well as in the interior and provided reports of a churning, cosmopolitan population. Such was the level of interaction and exchange that Persian and Arabic provided many loan words and idioms still common in modern Chinese.32

China’s knowledge of the outside world, on the other hand, had been distinctly sketchy and limited, as a text shows that was written in the early 1200s by an imperial official in charge of foreign trade in Guangzhou in southern China, a site blessed with an outstanding natural harbour in the delta of the Pearl River. The account, designed for merchants, sailors and travellers, makes a valiant attempt to explain business practices in the Arabic-speaking world and beyond, listing goods that could be bought, and describing what Chinese traders might expect. But, like many travellers’ accounts of this period, it is riddled with inaccuracies and semi-mystical beliefs. Mecca, for example, was not home to the house of the Buddha, nor a location where Buddhists came once a year on pilgrimage; there was no land where women reproduced by ‘exposing themselves naked to the full force of the south wind’. Melons in Spain did not measure six foot in diameter, and could not feed more than twenty men; nor did sheep in Europe grow to the height of a full-grown man, to be cut open each spring in order to allow a dozen pounds of fat to be taken out before being stitched up again with no after-effects.33

When much of Asia became united under the Mongols, however, there was a sharp improvement in maritime trade links, particularly in places of strategic and economic significance – such as in the Persian Gulf – that were subject to extensive oversight by the new authorities, keen to encourage long-distance commercial exchange and boost revenues.34 As a result, the cultural climate of Guangzhou during the thirteenth century became far more knowing and less provincial.

By the 1270s, the city had become the central point for China’s maritime imports and exports. For every ship that set sail for Alexandria with supplies of pepper for Christian lands, reported Marco Polo in the late thirteenth century, more than a hundred put in to the Chinese port – a comment that finds a neat echo in Ibn Baimageimageūimagea’s comments, written soon afterwards, that on his arrival in the city he saw a hundred ships sailing into the gulf of Guangzhou, as well as innumerable smaller vessels.35 Commerce in the Mediterranean was large; trade in the Pacific was huge.

We do not have to rely solely on ambiguous or unreliable written sources to establish how important the city became as a commercial centre.36 A shipwreck from the bay of Guangzhou dating to precisely this period reveals that goods were being imported from all over southern Asia and in all likelihood from the Persian Gulf and East Africa too. Pepper, frankincense, ambergris, glass and cotton made up just a part of a valuable cargo that went down off the coast of China in or soon after 1271.37 Merchants could be found crossing the South China Sea in ever greater numbers, establishing trading posts in Sumatra, on the Malay peninsula and above all on the Malabar coast of southern India, home to the world’s great supply of pepper – long established as a favoured commodity in China as well as in Europe and elsewhere in Asia.38 By the middle of the fourteenth century, so many ships were sailing to towns like Calicut that some observers commented that all maritime transport and travel in this part of the Indian subcontinent was being undertaken in Chinese boats. An example of their typical flat-bottomed design has been recently identified wrecked off the coast of Kerala.39

The lubricant in this long-distance trade was silver, which took on the form of a single currency across Eurasia. One reason for this was the innovation in financial credit in China that had been introduced before Genghis Khan’s time, including the introduction of bills of exchange and the use of paper money.40 Adopted and improved by the Mongols, the effect was the liberation of enormous amounts of silver into the monetary system as new forms of credit caught on. The availability of the precious metal suddenly soared – causing a major correction in its value against gold. In parts of Europe, the value of silver plunged, losing more than half its value between 1250 and 1338.41 In London alone, the surge in silver supply allowed the royal mint to more than quadruple output between 1278 and 1279 alone. Production rose sharply across Asia too. In the steppes as well, coin production took off as rulers of the Golden Horde began to strike coins in large quantities.42 New regions were stimulated too. Japan, which had relied heavily on barter or on payments in products such as rice as an exchange mechanism, shifted to a monetary economy and became increasingly active in long-distance trade.43

The most important effect that the Mongol conquests had on the transformation of Europe, however, did not come from trade or warfare, culture or currency. It was not just ferocious warriors, goods, precious metals, ideas and fashions that flowed through the arteries connecting the world. In fact something else entirely that entered the bloodstream had an even more radical impact: disease. An outbreak of plague surged through Asia, Europe and Africa threatening to annihilate millions. The Mongols had not destroyed the world, but it seemed quite possible that the Black Death would.

As well as being home to livestock and nomads for thousands of years, the Eurasian steppe also forms one of the world’s great plague basins, with a string of linked foci stretching from the Black Sea as far as Manchuria. The ecological conditions of arid and semi-arid landscape lend themselves perfectly to the spread of the bacterium Yersinia pestis that is transmitted from one host to another principally by fleas through blood feeding. Plague was spread most effectively and quickly by rodent hosts such as rats, although camels could also become infected and play an important role in its transmission – as research closely linked to the Soviet Union’s biological-warfare programme during the Cold War period showed.44 Although plague can be spread by consuming or handling host tissues or by inhaling infected materials, transmission to humans is most commonly effected by fleas vomiting bacilli into the bloodstream before feeding, or by bacilli in their faeces contaminating abrasions in the skin. Bacilli are then carried to the lymph nodes, such as in the armpit or the groin, multiplying rapidly to cause swellings or buboes that Boccaccio, who lived through the plague, described as growing as large as an apple, or the size of an egg ‘more or less’.45 Other organs are then infected in turn; haemorrhaging causes internal bleeding and the distinctive black bags of pus and blood that make the disease as visually terrifying as it is lethal.

Modern investigation into Yersinia pestis and plague has made clear the crucial role played by environmental factors to the enzootic cycle, where seemingly insignificant changes can transform the disease from being localized and containable to spreadable on a large scale. Small differentials in temperature and precipitation, for example, can dramatically change the reproductive cycles of fleas crucial to the development cycle of the bacterium itself, as well as the behaviour of their rodent hosts.46 A recent study that assumed an increase of just one degree in temperature suggested that this could lead to a 50 per cent increase in plague prevalence in the great gerbil, the primary host rodent of the steppe environment.47

Although it is not clear precisely where the ultimate origin of the disease of the mid-fourteenth century lay, plague spread rapidly in the 1340s as the outbreak moved out of the steppes through Europe, Iran, the Middle East, Egypt and the Arabian peninsula.48 It really took hold in 1346 when what an Italian contemporary described as ‘a mysterious illness that brought sudden death’ began to sweep through the Golden Horde by the Black Sea. A Mongol army laying siege to the Genoese trading post of Caffa following a dispute about trade terms was annihilated by illness that killed ‘thousands and thousands every day’, according to one commentator. Before withdrawing, however, ‘they ordered corpses to be placed in catapults and lobbed into the city in the hope that the intolerable stench would kill everyone inside’. Rather than being overwhelmed by the smell, it was the highly contagious disease that caught hold. Unknowingly, the Mongols had turned to biological warfare to defeat their enemy.49

The trading routes that connected Europe to the rest of the world now became lethal highways for the transmission of the Black Death. In 1347, the disease reached Constantinople and then Genoa, Venice and the Mediterranean, brought by traders and merchants fleeing home. By the time the population of Messina in Sicily realised there was something wrong with the Genoese who had put in, arriving covered with boils, vomiting incessantly and coughing up blood before dying, it was already too late: although the Genoese galleys were expelled, the disease took hold and devastated the population.50

It spread rapidly northwards, reaching the cities of northern France and Bavaria by the middle of 1348. By that time, ships putting in to ports in Britain had already brought ‘the first pestilence . . . carried by merchants and sailors’.51 So many began to die across towns and villages in England that the Pope in ‘his clemency granted a plenary indulgence for confessed sins’. According to one contemporary estimate, scarcely a tenth of the population survived; several sources report that so many perished that there were not enough people to bury the dead.52

Instead of bringing goods and valuables, ships criss-crossing the Mediterranean brought death and devastation. Infection was not only spread by contact with plague victims or by the rats which were always a feature of maritime travel; even the goods in the hold turned into lethal cargoes as fleas infested furs and food destined for mainland Europe as well as for ports in Egypt, the Levant and Cyprus, where the first victims tended to be infants and the young. Soon the disease had been transmitted along the caravan route to reach Mecca, killing scores of pilgrims and scholars and provoking serious soul searching: the Prophet Muimageammad had supposedly promised that the plague which ravaged Mesopotamia in the seventh century would never enter the holy cities of Islam.53

In Damascus, wrote Ibn al-Wardī, the plague ‘sat like a king on a throne and swayed with power, killing daily one thousand or more and decimating the population’.54 The roads between Cairo and Palestine were littered with the bodies of victims, while dogs tore at the corpses piled up against the walls of mosques in Bilbais. In the Asyut region of Upper Egypt meanwhile, the number of taxpayers fell from 6,000 before the Black Death to just 116 – a fall of 98 per cent.55

Although such population contractions may also reflect people fleeing their homes, there can be little doubt that the death toll was enormous. ‘All the wisdom and ingenuity of man’ was powerless to prevent the spread of disease, wrote Boccaccio, the Italian humanist scholar, in his introduction to the Decameron; in the space of three months, he noted, more than 100,000 lost their lives in Florence alone.56 Venice was all but depopulated: accounts agreed that no less than three-quarters of its citizens died during the outbreak.57

To many, it seemed to signal the end of the world. In Ireland, one Franciscan monk concluded his account of the ravages caused by plague by leaving blank space ‘for continuing [my] work, in case anyone should still be alive in the future’.58 There was a sense of impending apocalypse; in France chroniclers reported that it ‘rained frogs, snakes, lizards, scorpions and many other similar poisonous animals’. There were signs from the sky that made God’s displeasure clear: enormous hailstones struck the earth, killing people by the dozen, while towns and villages burnt down after being set ablaze by thunderbolts that produced ‘stinking smoke’.59

Some, like the King of England, Edward III, turned to fasting and prayer, with Edward ordering his bishops to follow suit. Arabic handbooks written around 1350 provided guides for the Muslim faithful to do much the same, advising that saying a specific prayer eleven times would help, and that chanting verses relating to the life of Muimageammad would provide protection from boils. In Rome, solemn processions were held where the penitent and fearful marched barefoot in hair-shirts, flagellating themselves to show contrition for their sins.60

These were among the least creative efforts to appease God’s wrath. Avoid sex and ‘every fleshly lust with women’, urged one priest in Sweden, and for that matter also do not bathe, and avoid the south wind – at least until lunch time. If this was a case of hoping for the best, then a counterpart in England was at least rather more direct: women should wear different clothes, urged one English priest, for their own sake, as well as that of everyone else. The outlandish and revealing outfits they had got used to sporting were simply asking for divine punishment. The trouble had started when ‘they began to wear useless little hoods, laced and buttoned so tightly at the throat that they only covered the shoulders’. That was not all, for ‘in addition, they wore paltoks, extremely short garments . . . which failed to conceal their arses or their private parts’. Apart from anything else, ‘these misshapen and tight clothes did not allow them to kneel to God or to the other saints’.61

Wild rumours circulated in Germany that the disease was not natural, but the result of Jews poisoning wells and rivers. Vicious pogroms were carried out, with one account reporting how ‘all the Jews between Cologne and Austria’ were rounded up and burnt alive. So bad were the outbreaks of anti-Semitism that the Pope intervened, issuing proclamations forbidding any violent action against the Jewish populations in any Christian country, and demanding that their goods and assets be left unmolested.62 Whether this was effective or not was another matter. It was not the first time, after all, that fear of disaster, hardship and excessive religious outpourings resulted in the widespread slaughter of the Jewish minority in Germany: there had been terrible suffering in the Rhinelands at the time of the First Crusade when circumstances were not dissimilar. It was dangerous to have different beliefs at times of crisis.

Europe lost at least one-third of its population to the plague, and perhaps much more, with conservative estimates of the number of dead placed somewhere around the 25 million mark in an assumed total population of 75 million.63 Work on more recent epidemics of plague has also demonstrated that during large outbreaks small villages and rural areas report much higher levels of death than cities. It seems that the key determinant of spreading plague is not the density of the human population (as had usually been thought) but that of rat colonies. The disease does not spread any more quickly in a packed urban environment where there are more households per infected rodent colony than in the countryside. Escaping from cities and towns for the countryside did not in fact increase one’s chances of cheating death.64 From field to farm and city to village, the Black Death created hell on earth: putrid, rotting bodies, oozing with pus, set against a background of fear, anxiety and disbelief at the scale of suffering.

The effects were crushing. ‘Our hopes for the future have been buried alongside our friends,’ wrote the Italian poet Petrarch. Plans and ambitions for further discovery of the east and for fortunes to be made were overshadowed by darker thoughts. The only consolation, Petrarch went on, was the knowledge ‘that we shall follow those who went before. I do not know how long we will have to wait, but I know it cannot be very long.’ All the riches of the Indian Ocean, the Caspian or the Black Sea, he wrote, could not make up for what had been swept away.65

And yet, despite the horror it caused, the plague turned out to be the catalyst for social and economic change that was so profound that far from marking the death of Europe, it served as its making. The transformation provided an important pillar in the rise – and the triumph – of the west. It did so in several phases. First was the top-to-bottom reconfiguration of how social structures functioned. Chronic depopulation in the wake of the Black Death had the effect of sharply increasing wages because of the accentuated value of labour. So many died before the plague finally began to peter out in the early 1350s that one source noted a ‘shortage of servants, craftsmen, and workmen, and agricultural workers and labourers’. This gave considerable negotiating powers to those who had previously been at the lower end of the social and economic spectrum. Some simply ‘turned their noses up at employment, and could scarcely be persuaded to serve the eminent unless for triple wages’.66 This was hardly an exaggeration: empirical data shows that urban wages rose dramatically in the decades after the Black Death.67

The empowerment of the peasantry, of labourers and of women was matched by a weakening of the propertied classes, as landlords were forced into accepting lower rents for their holdings – deciding it was better to receive some revenue than nothing at all. Lower rents, fewer obligations and longer leases all had the effect of tilting power and benefits towards the peasantry and urban tenants. This was further enhanced by a fall in interest rates, which declined noticeably across Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.68

The results were remarkable. With wealth now more evenly distributed through society, demand for luxury goods – imported or otherwise – soared as a result of more consumers being able to purchase items that had previously been unaffordable.69 Spending patterns were affected by other demographic changes that the plague had produced, notably the shift in favour of the working young, who were best placed to take advantage of new opportunities opening up before them. Already less disposed to saving because of their close shave with death, the new up-and-coming generation, better paid than their parents and with better prospects for the future, set about spending their wealth on things they were interested in – not least of which was fashion.70 This in turn stimulated investment in and the rapid development of a European textile industry that began to turn out fabrics in such volume that they had a major impact on the trade in Alexandria as imports fell sharply. Europe even began to export in the opposite direction too, flooding the market in the Middle East and causing a painful contraction that stood in direct contrast to the invigorated economy to the west.71

As recent research based on skeletal remains in graveyards in London demonstrates, the rise in wealth led to better diets and to better general health. Indeed, statistical modelling based on these results even suggests that one of the effects of the plague was a substantial improvement in life expectancy. London’s post-plague population was considerably healthier than it had been before the Black Death struck – raising life expectancy sharply.72

Economic and social development did not occur evenly across Europe. Change took place most rapidly in the north and the north-west of the continent, partly because this region was starting from a lower economic point than the more developed south. This meant that the interests of landlord and tenant were more closely aligned and therefore more likely to end in collaboration and in solutions that suited both parties.73 It was also significant, however, that the cities in the north did not carry the same ideological and political baggage as many of those in the Mediterranean. Centuries of regional and long-term commerce had created institutions such as guilds that controlled competition and were designed to hand monopolistic positions to defined groups of individuals. Northern Europe, by contrast, began to boom precisely because competition was not restricted – causing urbanisation and economic growth to happen at a markedly faster rate than in the south.74

Different behavioural profiles also emerged across different parts of Europe. In Italy, for example, women were either less tempted or were less able to enter the labour markets, and continued to marry at the same age and to have as many children as before the outbreak of plague. This contrasted sharply with the situation in the northern countries, where the demographic contraction gave women the chance to become wage-earners. One effect of this was to raise the age at which women tended to get married – which in turn had longer-term implications for family sizes. ‘Don’t hurtle into marriage too soon,’ advised Anna Bijns in a poem written in the Low Countries, for ‘one who earns her board and clothes shouldn’t scurry to suffer a man’s rod . . . Though wedlock I do not decry; unyoked is best! Happy the woman without a man!’75

The transformations triggered by the Black Death laid foundations that were to prove crucial for the long-term rise of north-western Europe. Although the effects of the divergence between parts of Europe would take time to evolve, the systemic flexibility, the openness to competition and, perhaps most importantly of all, the sense of awareness in the north that geography counted against them and that a strong work ethic was required in order to turn a profit, all laid the basis for the later transformation of the European economies in the early modern period. As modern research is increasingly making clear, the roots of the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century lay in the industrious revolution of the post-plague world: as productivity rose, aspirations were cast upwards and levels of disposable wealth increased along with opportunities to spend it.76

As the bodies were finally buried and the Black Death faded to become a horrific memory (periodically brought to life by cyclical secondary outbreaks), southern Europe underwent change too. In the 1370s, the Genoese tried to take advantage of the terrible effect that plague had had on Venice, where suffering had been particularly acute, and attempted to wrest control of the Adriatic. The gamble backfired spectacularly: unable to deliver a decisive blow, Genoa found itself suddenly overstretched and vulnerable. One by one, the appendages that the city-state had added over generations linking the city to the Middle East, the Black Sea and North Africa were picked off by rivals. Genoa’s loss was Venice’s gain.

Freed from the attentions of its long-term competitor, Venice now soared as life returned to normal, exerting a vice-like grip over the spice trade. Pepper, ginger, nutmeg and cloves were imported in increasing quantities, above all via Alexandria. On average, Venetian ships were bringing back over 400 tons of pepper per year from Egypt, as well as shipping considerable volumes from the Levant. By the late fifteenth century, nearly 5 million pounds of spices were passing through Venice each year to be sold on at handsome profits elsewhere, where they were used in food, medicine and cosmetics.77

It also seems to have been the main point of entry for pigments used in paintings. Often referred to collectively as ‘oltremare de venecia’ (Venetian goods from overseas), these included verdigris (literally, green from Greece), vermilion, fenugreek, lead-tin yellow, bone black and a gold substitute known as purpurinus or mosaic gold. The most famous and distinctive, however, was the rich blue that came from lapis lazuli, mined in Central Asia. The golden age of European art – of Fra Angelico and Piero della Francesca in the fifteenth century, and then of artists like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Titian – owed much to their ability to use colours drawn from pigments that were part of the extension of contacts with Asia on the one hand and rising levels of disposable wealth to pay for them on the other.78

Trade missions to the east were so lucrative that the republic auctioned them off in advance, guaranteeing payments while devolving market, transport and political risks to the successful bidder. As one Venetian put it proudly, galleys set off from the city in all directions – to the coast of Africa, to Beirut and Alexandria, to the Greek lands, to the south of France and to Flanders. Such wealth flowed into the city that palazzi shot up in value, especially in the best locations near the Rialto and St Mark’s cathedral. With land rare and expensive, new techniques were used in the construction of buildings, such as replacing spectacular but indulgent double courtyard staircases with smaller stairwells that required less space. Nevertheless, said one proud Venetian, even normal merchants’ houses were lavishly appointed with gilded ceilings, marble staircases, balconies and windows fitted with the finest glass from nearby Murano. Venice was the distribution point for European, African and Asian trade par excellence – and had the trappings to show it.79

It was not just Venice that flourished. So too did the towns dotted along the Dalmatian coast which served as stopping points on the outbound and inbound journeys. Ragusa, modern Dubrovnik, saw extraordinary levels of prosperity in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Disposable wealth quadrupled between 1300 and 1450, spiralling up so quickly that a cap on dowries was enforced to stop payments that were rising rapidly; the city was so awash with cash that steps were taken partially to abolish slavery: in times of such plenty, it seemed wrong to hold fellow humans in bondage and not to pay them for their work.80 Like Venice, Ragusa was busy building its own trading network, developing extensive contacts with Spain, Italy, Bulgaria and even India, where a colony was established in Goa, centred on the church of St Blaise, Ragusa’s patron saint.81

Many parts of Asia saw a similar surge in growth and ambition. Business boomed in southern India as trade with China built up alongside that from the Persian Gulf and further afield. Guilds sprang up to ensure security and quality controls, but also to create a monopoly that obstructed the rise of local competition. These guilds concentrated money and influence in the hands of a self-selecting group who maintained a dominant position on the Malabar coast and in Sri Lanka.82 Under this system, commercial relations were formalised to ensure transactions were done efficiently and fairly. According to an account written by the Chinese traveller Ma Huan in the early fifteenth century, prices between buyer and seller were set by a broker; all taxes and duties were calculated and had to be paid in advance before goods were released and shipped. This made for good long-term trading prospects: ‘the people there are very honest and trustworthy’, Ma Huan added.83

That was the theory, at any rate. In fact, the towns on the southern coast of India did not operate in a vacuum, and competed with each other fiercely. Cochin emerged as a rival to Calicut in the fifteenth century after an aggressively competitive tax regime succeeded in attracting considerable trade. This became something of a virtuous circle, as it caught the eye of the Chinese. A series of major expeditions led by the great admiral Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch, to demonstrate China’s naval power, assert its influence and gain access to long-distance trade routes deep into the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, paid special attention to building up ties with the ruler of Cochin.84

These missions were part of an increasingly ambitious set of measures taken by the Ming dynasty that replaced the Mongol Yuan rulers in the middle of the fourteenth century. Lavish funds were spent on Beijing, building an infrastructure to supply and defend the city. Considerable resources were devoted to trying to secure the steppe frontier to the north and on competing with a resurgent Korea in Manchuria, while the military presence to the south was built up with the result that regular tribute missions began to arrive from Cambodia and Siam bringing local specialities and luxury items in considerable quantities in return for the promise of peace. In 1387, for example, the kingdom of Siam sent 15,000 pounds of both pepper and sandalwood, and then two years later ten times that amount of pepper, sandalwood and incense.85

Widening horizons in this way, however, had its costs. Zheng He’s first expedition involved some sixty large ships, several hundred smaller vessels and nearly 30,000 sailors, representing a very substantial outlay in terms of pay, equipment and the extensive gifts sent along with the admiral for use as tools of diplomacy. This and other initiatives were paid for by a sharp rise in the production of paper money, but also by increasing mining quotas – which led to a trebling of revenues from this sector in just over a decade after 1390.86 Improvements in the agricultural economy and tax collection also produced a sharp uplift in proceeds for the central government and stimulated what one modern commentator has described as the creation of a command economy.87

China’s fortunes were helped by developments in Central Asia, where a warlord of obscure origins rose to become the single most famous figure of the late Middle Ages: Timur’s – or Tamurlaine’s – achievements became celebrated in plays written in England, his savage aggression a part of modern Indian consciousness. Forging a great empire across the Mongol lands stretching from Asia Minor to the Himalayas from the 1360s onwards, Timur embarked on an ambitious programme to construct mosques and royal buildings across his realm, in cities such as Samarkand, Herat and Mashad. Carpenters, painters, weavers, tailors, gem cutters, ‘in short craftsmen of any kind’ according to one contemporary, were deported from Damascus, when it was ransacked, to embellish cities to the east. An account by an envoy from the King of Spain to the Timurid court provides a vivid portrait of the scale of the construction, and of the level of ornamentation lavished on these new buildings. At the Aq Saray palace, near Samarkand, the gateway was ‘beautifully adorned with very fine work in gold and blue tiles’, while the principal reception room was ‘panelled with gold and blue tiles, and the ceiling is entirely of gold work’. Even the famed craftsmen of Paris would not have been able to produce such fine workmanship.88 This was nothing in comparison to Samarkand itself and Timur’s court, which was decorated with golden trees ‘with trunks as thick as might be a man’s leg’. Among the golden leaves were ‘fruits’ which on closer inspection turned out to be rubies, emeralds, turquoise stones and sapphires, along with large, perfectly round pearls.89

Timur was not afraid to spend the money he extracted from the peoples he subjugated. He bought silks from China that were ‘the finest in the whole world’, as well as musk, rubies, diamonds, rhubarb and other spices. Caravans of 800 camels at a time brought merchandise to Samarkand. Unlike some people – such as the inhabitants of Delhi, 100,000 of whom were executed when the city was taken – the Chinese did well from Timur.90

It seemed, though, that they would be the next to suffer. According to one account, Timur spent time reflecting on his early life, and concluded that he needed to atone for ‘acts like pillage, the taking of captives, and massacre’. He decided that the best way to do so was by ‘mounting a holy war against the infidels, so that, in accordance with the dictum “Good deeds wipe out bad deeds”, those sins and crimes might be forgiven’. Timur suspended relations with the Ming court, and was on his way to attack China when he died in 1405.91

The problems did not take long to materialise. Fragmentation and rebellion broke out in the Persian provinces as Timur’s heirs jostled to take control of his empire. But more structural difficulties were unleashed by a global financial crisis in the fifteenth century that affected Europe and Asia. The crisis was caused by a series of factors that resonate 600 years later: over-saturated markets, currency devaluations and a lopsided balance of payments that went awry. Even with the growing demand for silks and other luxury products, there was only so much that could be absorbed. It was not that appetites were sated or that tastes had changed, it was that the exchange mechanism went wrong: Europe in particular had little to give in return for the fabrics, ceramics and spices that were so highly prized. With China effectively producing more than it could sell abroad, there were predictable consequences when the ability to keep buying goods dried up. The result has often been described as a ‘bullion famine’.92 Today, we would call it a credit crunch.

In China, state officials were not well paid, which led to regular corruption scandals and extensive inefficiencies. Worse, even when correctly and fairly assessed, taxpayers could not keep up with the irrational exuberance of a government that was keen to spend on grandiose schemes on the assumption that revenues would only ever rise. They didn’t. By the 1420s, some of the richest parts of China were struggling to meet their obligations.93 The bubble had to burst, and in the first quarter of the fifteenth century, it did. The Ming emperors raced to cut costs, calling time on improvements to Beijing, suspending expensive naval expeditions and projects like the Grand Canal scheme that at its height employed tens if not hundreds of thousands, constructing a water network to connect the capital with Hangzhou.94 In Europe, where data is more plentiful, deliberate efforts were made to deal with the contraction by debasing the coinage – although the relationship between the shortage of precious metal, hoarding and fiscal policy is a complex one.95

What is clear, however, is that global money supplies ran short from Korea to Japan, from Vietnam to Java, from India to the Ottoman Empire, from North Africa to continental Europe. Merchants in the Malay peninsula took matters into their own hands and struck a crude new currency out of tin, of which there was a plentiful local supply. But, put simply, the precious-metal supply that had provided a common currency linking one side of the known world with the other – albeit not always in standard unit, weight or fineness – broke down and failed: there was not enough money to go round.96

It is possible that these difficulties were made worse by a period of climatic change. Famine, unusual periods of drought coupled with cases of destructive flooding in China tell a powerful story of the impact that environmental factors had on economic growth. Evidence from sulphate spikes in ice-cores from the northern and southern hemispheres suggest that the fifteenth century was a period of widespread volcanic activity. This triggered global cooling, with knock-on effects across the steppe world, where intensifying competition for food and water supplies heralded a period of dislocation, especially in the 1440s. All in all, the story of this period was one of stagnation, hard times and a brute struggle for survival.97

The effects and ramifications were felt from the Mediterranean to the Pacific, fuelling a growing sense of unease about what was going on in the world. Although the rise of Timur’s empire had not provoked widespread fear in Europe, the rise of the Ottomans certainly made many increasingly anxious. The Ottomans had swarmed across the Bosporus in the late fourteenth century, delivering crushing defeats on the Byzantines, the Bulgarians and the Serbs and establishing themselves in Thrace and the Balkans. Constantinople was left hanging by a thread, a Christian island surrounded by a sea of Muslims. Passionate pleas for military support from the royal courts of Europe went unanswered, leaving the city dangerously exposed. Finally, in 1453, the imperial capital fell, the capture of one of the greatest cities of Christendom a triumph for Islam, which was once again in the ascendant. In Rome, there were accounts of men crying and beating their chests when news came through that Constantinople had fallen, and of prayers being offered by the Pope for those trapped in the city. But Europe had done too little when it mattered; now it was too late.

The fate of Constantinople was the source of acute concern in Russia, where it was seen not so much as heralding a Muslim resurgence as marking the imminent end of the world. There were long-standing Orthodox prophecies that Jesus would come at the start of the Eighth Millennium and sit at the Last Judgement, and these seemed to be on the point of being fulfilled. The forces of evil had been unleashed and had delivered a devastating blow to the Christian world. So convinced were senior clergy that the apocalypse was at hand that a priest was sent to western Europe to find more specific information about precisely what time of day it would take place. Some decided that there was no point in calculating the dates when Easter and other moveable holy-feast days would fall in the future, on the basis that the end of time was about to arrive. Based on the Byzantine calendar that was used in Russia, the timing seemed to be crystal clear. Using the date of the Creation as 5,508 years before Christ, the world was going to end on 1 September 1492.98

On the other side of Europe, there were others who shared the conviction that Armageddon was fast approaching. In Spain, attention focused on Muslims and Jews, at a time of growing religious and cultural intolerance. The former found themselves expelled from Andalusia by force of arms, the latter issued with an uncompromising order to convert to Christianity, leave Spain or be executed. Desperate to liquidate their assets, a fire-sale ensued, with property scooped up by investors who picked up vineyards in exchange for pieces of cloth, as estates and fine houses were sold for a pittance.99 What made it worse was that within a decade these bargains were to soar in value.

Many Jews chose to head for Constantinople. They were welcomed by the city’s new Muslim rulers. ‘You call Ferdinand a wise ruler,’ Bāyezīd II purportedly exclaimed, greeting the arrival of Jews in the city in 1492, even though ‘he impoverishes his own country to enrich mine’.100 This was not simple point-scoring: in scenes which would bemuse many today but which evoke the early days of Islam, Jews were not just treated with respect but welcomed. The new settlers were given legal protection and rights, and in many cases were given assistance to start new lives in a strange country. Tolerance was a staple feature of a society that was self-assured and confident of its own identity – which was more than could be said for the Christian world where bigotry and religious fundamentalism were rapidly becoming defining features.

One example of a man who fretted over the future of the faith was Christopher Colón. Although by his own calculations there were still 155 years to go before the Second Coming, Colón was outraged that little more than lip-service was being paid to matters of religion by the ‘faithful’, and was particularly appalled by Europe’s lack of concern for Jerusalem. With a fervour bordering on obsession, he drew up plans to launch a new campaign to liberate the Holy City, while at the same time developing a second fixation about the precious metals, spices and gems that were so abundant and cheap in Asia.101 If only it were possible to get better access to them, he concluded, they could in turn easily fund a major expedition to liberate Jerusalem.102 The problem was that being based in the Iberian peninsula placed him at the wrong end of the Mediterranean and made his grand idea little more than a pipe dream.103

Maybe, just maybe, there was hope. There were, after all, the voices of astrologers and cartographers like Paolo Toscanelli in Florence, who had argued that a route to Asia could be found by sailing west from the edge of Europe. After a titanic struggle to convince others to share a vision which bordered on the reckless and foolhardy, Christopher Colón’s scheme finally started to become concrete. Letters of greeting were prepared for the Great Khan – with a blank space to be filled in once his exact name was ascertained; he was to be an ally in the recovery of Jerusalem. Interpreters were recruited so that it would be possible to converse with the Mongol leader and his representatives. Specialists were hired who knew Hebrew, Chaldean (related to the Aramaic spoken by Jesus and the disciples) and Arabic, the language that was thought likely to be most useful for dealing with the Khan and his court. As one scholar notes, rising anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe meant that just as Arabic was being frowned on and prohibited by law in the Old World, it was also considered the best way to communicate when western Europe finally connected with the Far East.104

Three ships set sail from Palos de Frontera in southern Spain on 3 August 1492, less than a month before the end of the world was being anticipated in Russia. As he unfurled his sails and set off into the unknown, little did Colón – more familiar as Christopher Columbus – realise that he was about to do something remarkable: he was about to shift Europe’s centre of gravity from east to west.

When another small fleet under the command of Vasco da Gama set out from Lisbon five years later on another long voyage of discovery, rounding the southern tip of Africa to reach the Indian Ocean, the final pieces necessary for Europe’s transformation fell into place. Suddenly, the continent was no longer the terminus, the end point of a series of Silk Roads; it was about to become the centre of the world.