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12.1 The Indian Ocean World in the Early Middle Ages

The new religion of Islam came into India with waves of invaders, from Turkic speakers of central Asia to Arabs from the distant west. In the process, northeastern India became increasingly Muslim and influenced by Islamic culture owing to the arrival of these Turkic peoples. An Islamic state was established at Delhi—the Delhi Sultanate—which lasted more than three hundred years and became the center of Islamic India. However, because the minority Muslim rulers did not enforce cultural homogeneity, the invasions strengthened the cultural diversity that was already a hallmark of Indian social order. Despite Muslims beginning to engage in the Indian Ocean trade soon after their arrival in northern India, carrying goods and ideas with them throughout the subcontinent, the south remained Hindu in its cultural beliefs and ideas.

East Asia, particularly China, was affected by all this trade. Buddhism also began to take hold along the overland routes of the Silk Roads, particularly those linking India with China. The Sui dynasty not only adopted Buddhism but also expanded and strengthened trade across central Asia. Overextending themselves, however, the Sui were replaced by the Tang, who strengthened trade routes and ties with Buddhism even further. The An Lushan rebellion weakened the Tang, however, and eventually the Tang fell.

12.2 East-West Interactions in the Early Middle Ages

The Silk Roads originated in the Han dynasty’s trade with nomadic peoples from the Inner Asian Steppe and grew into a vast network that crisscrossed much of central Asia, linking China with the West. Beyond the obvious economic benefits, trade along the Silk Roads also facilitated cultural exchange, such as Buddhism’s spread from India to China and onward. Beginning in the seventh century, Arab expansion led to the conquest of Sasanid-controlled portions of the route, and much of southwest Asia was unified by an Islamic caliphate, putting large portions of the network in the hands of a single empire. In the east, the powerful Tang dynasty ensured protection of trade on the Silk Roads. But in 751, the Tang and Abbasid empires clashed at the Talas River, marking the end of expansion in central Asia for both. However, both Hinduism and Islam grew in Southeast Asia during the later Middle Ages, playing a large role in the Indian Ocean trade.

East Africa connected the Indian Ocean trade network of the Middle East to China, India, and Southeast Asia. From the seventh century onward, Islamized Arab traders were vital in bringing the regional trade that characterized the East African Aksumite economy into the wider maritime trade of the Indian Ocean basin, a feat accomplished through linkages between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden and beyond. In the seventh century, the Swahili culture blossomed along the East African coast. Arab traders from North Africa and Iran intermingled with local Bantu populations and built a thriving trade-based civilization along the coastline between Mogadishu in modern Somalia and Sofala in Mozambique. The city-states there deepened trade connections with the Middle East and East and Southeast Asia, bringing cultures and goods from as far away as China to the African interior and sending gold, ivory, and rare animals from southern Africa to China.

12.3 Border States: Sogdiana, Korea, and Japan

Sogdiana was vital to the operation of the Silk Roads beginning in the fourth century CE. Over the course of some four hundred years, Sogdian city-states like Samarkand and Panjikent grew into key markets, and Sogdian trading communities were established in China. At its height, Sogdiana was the wealthiest region in central Asia.

Like many other states in East Asia, Korea was greatly influenced by Chinese civilization. Korean students were educated in Confucian schools, and Korean culture took on the patriarchal character and traditions favored by Confucianism. China’s meritocratic civil service system was incorporated into Korea’s bureaucratic state system, and the Korean capital built by the Silla dynasty at Geumseong was modeled on the Tang capital at Chang’an.

China likewise influesnced ancient Japan, though less directly. In the sixth and seventh centuries, countless Korean artisans and craftspeople emigrated to Japan, where their knowledge was put to use. Foreign relations with Korea introduced Buddhism to Japan in the sixth century, and Japanese contact with China brought Confucianism to the island chain, as well as Chinese-influenced written language. Still, unique cultural traditions emerged in Japan, from Shintoism and the development of obscure forms of Buddhism to the institutions of insei, the samurai, and the shogun.

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