When Asia Was the World
Stewart Gordon
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Buy *When Asia Was the World: Traveling Merchants, Scholars, Warriors, and Monks Who Created the 'Riches of the East'* by Stewart Gordon online

When Asia Was the World: Traveling Merchants, Scholars, Warriors, and Monks Who Created the 'Riches of the East'
Stewart Gordon
Da Capo Press
228 pages
December 2007
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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When the world as we Westerners know it was shut down in that mysterious period known as the Dark Ages, the world as known to the Islamic people of that period was thriving, bathed in the light of learning, trade, and progress. Asia “was the world” stretching from Japan to Arabia, with tentacles into northern Africa and Southern Spain. Stewart Gordon illuminates this era and its meaning by means of vignettes of people who traveled through that world. Travel is always enriching and educating, and Stewart, Senior Research Scholar at the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan, adds to our knowledge base in this captivating collection of travelogues, carefully providing the backdrop for each scene that is set.

“By the twelfth century there existed—for the first time—a world largely without borders for educated men…who felt at home everywhere within the vast region stretching from Spain to the port cities of China.” Ibn Battuta was one such man, who made the sacred hajj over the course of 16 months, beginning in his native Morocco and writing as he journeyed. He had to turn back once and got married twice. After the hajj was completed, he borrowed money to go to India, assaying a loan for sumptuous gifts to give to Sultan Muhammed Tughluq in Delhi. He had learned that if the Sultan was pleased with his gifts, he would offer their bearer employment. It was a major financial risk to bring offerings purchased with a loan which Ibn Battuta could not have repaid without the employment he hoped for, but the practice was not unknown. Through travel a man could become, like Batutta, a “management consultant” who told one king the doings of another. At one such encounter, deep in Central Asia, Battuta recorded:

“After I had saluted him he sat down and asked me about myself and my journey, and whom I had met of sultans; I answered all his questions and after a short stay he went away and sent a horse with a saddle and a robe.”
Once he made it to Delhi, traveling with an entourage of forty people and a thousand horses, Battuta’s gamble paid off. The Sultan made him a city judge, a job he could fulfill “though he knew no local language, because Sharia law across the whole of the Muslim world was essentially the same.”

From China, translator Ma Huan, also a Muslim, sailed east, recording the quaint customs and folkways of the people he observed along the way, including storytellers and street magicians. His writings are an attempt at intercultural understanding, aimed at drawing parallels, explaining the bizarre ways of foreigners, some of whom, as in Java, slept without beds, sat without stools, and ate without spoons or chopsticks.

Well illustrated, each chapter of this book is revealing, rich in discovery and as enjoyable as a trans-national trek. In fact, this would be a marvelous book to take on a trip, especially if you’re going east.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Barbara Bamberger Scott, 2007

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