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Following the disaggregation of the Gupta Empire during the sixth century, political confusion prevailed in part of the Indian subcontinent. Declining trade with Central Asia and the West, along with a decrease in the volume of internal as well as external trade, led to an impoverishment of northern India. The situation in South Asia has often been inappropriately compared to that of western Europe at the time, marked by social changes, diminishing resources, de-urbanization, decreasing monetization, and disrupted communications (Digby 1982a: 45). Invasions from Central Asia and the closing of the Silk Roads to northwestern India were partially responsible for this downturn, whose significance, however, has been greatly overestimated. The theses proposed by Sharma and other authors concerning India’s de-urbanization, demonetization, and general decline in trade have been challenged, particularly for the eighth century and the ensuing period (Subrahmanyam 1994a: 12ff.; Chakravarti 2001a; Stein 2002). The downturn in trade affected mostly inland regions, especially in northern India.
Alexandria was founded in Egypt in 331 bce. In the region of Baṣra, Alexander built an Alexandria that would become Antiocheia and ultimately Spasinou Charax. At the other end of the empire, another Alexandria was also founded in the Indus valley. In Central Asia, four Alexandrias appeared, pointing to Bactria’s importance as a hub of exchanges.
The phase of recession of the Swahili coast during the fourteenth century lasted less than sixty years. The revival of the Indian Ocean trade at the end of the fourteenth century was felt in East Africa, the Comoros, and Madagascar.
This economic revival allowed Kilwa to rebuild the Great Mosque during Sultan Muḥammad ibn Sulaymān’s reign (1421–1442). This was not done on the sultan’s initiative, but thanks to the generosity of a rich merchant. Smaller mosques were also constructed, as well as various buildings (the “House of the Mosque,” the “palace” of Makatuni, the “palace” of Songo Mnara, located on an island south of Kilwa, and others).
Trans-Asian routes were used as early as the third and second millennia bce (see above), and ships also sailed along the Chinese coasts. Exchange networks grew significantly during the first millennium. Internal development went along with the formation of a state succeeding the Shang state and centered on the Yellow River valley. China became interconnected with Central Asia and India on the one hand, and Southeast Asia, on the other. These changes made China a major pole in the system that was taking shape.
Like the Mediterranean Sea, as described by the historian F. Braudel (1949), the Indian Ocean was traversed from the earliest times by men in quest of goods, new lands, or simply the great unknown. These journeys yielded wealth, knowledge, and power. At the same time, terrestrial routes linked far-flung regions of the Ancient World: these included the famed Silk Roads, but also routes between China and India via Burma, routes over the steppes, north–south routes, and more. Over the centuries, exchanges transformed the Ancient World into a unified and hierarchized area, in which the Indian Ocean occupied a central position.
The birth of the state in regions benefiting from particular geographical and demographic assets (such as Mesopotamia, Susiana, Egypt, and later the Indus and China) was a period during which a partial break occurred from the mode of accumulation inscribed in kinship relationships. Public and private accumulation of capital appeared, along with a new ideology, techniques of power (Mann 1986) – with writing, and the blossoming of institutions linked to the religious sphere – and new forms of labor mobilization, implying tributes and taxes, and servile or hired labor.
The break-up of Funan during the seventh century and the turmoil affecting China during the eighth century left the field clear for political entities located in southeastern Sumatra, where Srīwijaya took the upper hand over Melayu (Jambi) between 671 and 685. As late as 644–645, Melayu dispatched an embassy to China. During his second visit to the east coast of Sumatra, the Chinese pilgrim Yijing noted that “Moluoyou is now Shilifoshi [Srīwijaya].” The 683 inscription of Kedukan Bukit (Palembang, capital of the state) mentions the departure of the army of Srīwijaya, probably toward Melayu (Mahdi 2008: 118). In addition, the king of Srīwijaya may have launched a naval expedition toward Java (Kulke 2001: 302), a testimony to politico-economic and perhaps religious rivalry (western Java being Vishnuite and Srīwijaya Buddhist).
After the collapse of the centralized states of the Late Bronze Age, Cyprus came to preeminence in new exchange networks during the twelfth century, followed by a similar ascent on the part of the Phoenician city-states. The papyrus entitled “The Story of Wenamun” tells us how Wenamun, a dignitary of the temple of Amun, visited Byblos, where he had been sent to buy wood in exchange for gold, silver, flax, oxen hides, papyri, ropes, and lentils, and found twenty seagoing ships in the port of Byblos in “commercial association” with Egypt.
The tenth century had been a century of violence in western Asia. The picture during the first half of the eleventh century was no brighter. A series of riots and revolts affected Baghdad. Iran suffered from famines, which had both social and climatic causes. The Muslim world was then experiencing a labor crisis due to the short supply of slaves: the Slavs, who were Christians, “were no longer sold to the Muslims, and the Turks, who had converted to Islam, could no longer be forced into servitude” (Lombard 1971: 221). In 1055, the Buyids (Shiites who ruled western Asia) were overthrown by the Seljuk Turks (Oghuz Turks), Muslims of the Sunni faith who were former officers serving the Ghaznavids. The Seljukids constituted a dynasty, supported by the Abbasid caliphs, and formed various branches. The offering of power by the caliphs to the Seljuks was the result of the disintegration of the Muslim Empire at that time.