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Nomadic Empires and the Rise of Europe

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Contemporary world power, and the shift from the East to the West during what historian’s term, Medieval/Renaissance Europe, shifted the roles of two vastly different empires – the Ming and Ottoman. Both empires had different types of leadership and core goals – military and social. The Ming Empire was led by brilliant philosophical scholars, concerned not only with the external world but the development of the internal consciousness; the Ottoman based on a new monotheistic religion that stratified society, but also allowed numerous mathematical, scientific, and medical advances, copied by the Europeans after the Crusades. Islam began about 700 AD in the Saudi Peninsula, which at the time, was composed mostly of nomadic tribes, a few trade cities, and a disparate population. Through religion, the Arab peoples were united, so that by the years of 900-1200 AD, the Ottoman Empire could be called a state unto itself. It quickly proved to be a military strength and threat to its neighbors, at its height growing from the Iberian Peninsula through India and into Southeast Asia. The Turks expanded their empire through brilliant military tactics, horse archery, and new technologies in battle. Coupled with this more practical sense, the idea of spreading Islam, and the uniting of cultures through culture and religion, proved to be equally as powerful (Goodwin, 2003). The Ming Empire, on the other hand, had no central religion or cultural basis, unless one considers the philosophies of Confucianism. However, the success of the Mings came from the intellectual and philosophical manner in which the ruling class brought together disparate peoples, a hierarchical class structure, and the idea that regardless of the class one is born into, education and knowledge were the tools for advancement. All aspects of society were governed by the dual purposes of doing what is right by one’s ancestors, and keeping the best possible intellectual solution to problems. Order was considered supreme, since it was more efficient. Warfare, too, was conducting in a manner befitting an organized society, in which tactics were based on intellectual goals, rather than emotional needs (Genet, 1996). At the time of the ascension of these two great Eastern Empires, Europe remained somewhat in flux; there was little national identity, certainly religion dominated all aspects of life; and while there were technological advances in architecture and social thought, remained relatively stable until the opening up of trade routes to the Middle and Far East. The Crusades, for instance, four separate campaigns that were mandated by the papacy to ostensibly control the holy city of Jerusalem, but were, in fact, a struggle to unite the feudal lords of Europe into a common cause and assert a new economic authority of Europe, opened Europe up to the Middle East. Tales of great riches, new cultures, and ideals sent explores, prominent among them the Venetian Marco Polo, into the depths of East Asia. This, combined with advances in navigation and the desire to expand European Empires, led to the Age of Discovery, roughly 1450-1650, in which European powers increased their migration, economic, political, and cultural expansion; both to the New World of South, Central, and North America, and around the Cape of Good Hope into Asia (Pomoni, 2009). Thus, it was essentially economic opportunity that moved Europe from a relatively closed, inward thinking, feudal society into the vast hunger for expansion, and the social, political, and economic inventions that were required. Once trade routes were established, the merging of cultural values and ideas, including technology, changed the very face of the global balance of power. China, for instance, remained as isolated as possible, content to manage the strife and political bureaucracy from within. In the Middle East, the continual struggle over the Holy Land, and the subsequent gains and losses changed the very face of the Ottoman Empire, finally establishing a more individualized state system, often ruled by European colonialism, up to and through World War I (“Middle Ages Trade and Commerce”). If, however, we find that it was economics and the promise of wealth, the desire for goods and services, and the curiosity about technological advances and other social improvements, that drove Europe outward, it was the lack of active colonization that kept both the Ming and Ottoman Empires from perhaps realizing their true potential. Regardless of the public personification of discovering new lands for God and man, the very basis of expansion for Europe was, indeed, the promise of wealth.


Genet, J., (1996). A History of Chinese Civilization., Cambridge University Press.

Goodwin, J. (2003). Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire. Picador Press.

“Middle Ages Trade and Commerce.” (n.d.) in Middle Ages History. Cited in:

Parry, J.H. (1982). The Age of Reconnaissance: Discovery, Exploration, and Settlement. University of California Press.

Pomoni, C. (June 27, 2009). “How the Crusades Influenced Trade During the Middle Ages.” ArticleBase. Cited in:

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