The times of el Cid. The territories outside Eurasia: Oceania, Sub-Saharan Africa and America (between the 9th and the 13th century).

Except in the case of Central and South America, in respect of both Oceania and Sub-Saharan Africa we should refer to the existence of tribes that were for the most part nomads, which shows the degree of primitiveness that still existed at that time.

In the case of Oceania, perhaps due to that nomadic trait, or the innate curiosity of all human beings, the Malayo-Polynesians set out to conquer the Pacific during the 9th century, which led them to discover many islands that they gradually inhabited. In turn, the history of Africa would require an entire encyclopaedia to explain, as it is as varied as the many tribes that inhabited it, each one with its own traits, and in many cases, nomads.

This demonstrates the difference in its evolution compared to Europe or Asia. At that time, kingdoms such as Nubia, Aksum, Kanem-Bornu and Zimbabwe existed, along with states such as the Hausa, Mossi or Yoruba states. Each and every one of these had its own degree of development, but, focusing our interest on mediaeval times, there is no doubt that the most interesting aspect of Africa, particularly as regards its repercussion on the history of Asia and Europe, was Islam, which we shall refer to later.

In the case of North America, the distribution of the tribes that inhabited this country is quite obvious, as it is already existed during the time of the discoverers.  A special mention should be made of the arrival of Erik the Red (who was the first European to reach the American continent) in Greenland in 982. With respect to what would, many centuries later, be termed Latin America, this area was inhabited by different cultures with differing degrees of development, most of whom achieved a splendour that even today, still surprises us, thanks to the marvels that archaeology has revealed. The most representative of these cultures that existed during the period with which we are concerned, and to which we will refer later, are the Maya, Aztec and Inca cultures.

In the case of the Mayas, their cities had already reached an enormous degree of refinement from the 7th century to the first half of the 9th century, and following that period, their civilisation fell into decline, with the causes of this not yet having been determined. At the end of the 10th century, they were invaded by the Itzaes, who, despite being a military people, gradually adopted the Mayan culture over time. From 1200 to 1450 an empire of twelve cities was formed, and this era was followed by a period of progressive decadence.

The Aztecs reached Toltecan Mexico during the second half of the 10th century, together with other nomads –precisely during the Middle Ages, constituting clear evidence of the different evolution of intercontinental cultures–. Their chief, Xolotl, confronted the Culhuas and Toltecas and after defeating them, distributed the lands among his people.  In 1168, seven clans led by various chieftains and priests, marched towards the valley of Mexico, where they arrived during the second decade of the 13th century.

For their part, the Incas reached the valley of Cuzco at the beginning of the 12th century, from the Titicaca: their economy was mainly agrarian and they lacked the refinement of the Mochicas or culture of the Nazcas.  However, their development would eventually be one of the greatest of the all the Latin American cultures. Their first king was the legendary Manco Capac I (beginning of the 12th century).  His descendents were responsible for extending and consolidating the Inca Empire, firstly by extending it beyond the valley, thanks mainly to Inca Roca and Capac Yupanqui and later, through a military invasion, which was for the most part carried out by Viracocha Inca.


The times of El Cid. Asia (from the 9th to the 13th century)

The vicissitudes suffered by Asia from the 9th to the 13th century, with its lands beset by wars and its courts by intrigue, also remind us of the war-ridden Europe that existed from the 9th to the 13th century.  After all, the presence of humans with a thirst for conquest threatened the large Asian and European realms alike, and this led to great social and political instability.

For this reason, the similarities existing between Asia and Europe are not the fruit of chance and consequently, the Asian world is to a certain extent, similar to the European one, with which it coincides, for instance, in the emergence of feudalism. However, it is not possible to establish any precise similarity with Europe since the eastern cultures bestowed their own unique characteristics upon the eastern mediaeval period, clearly distinguishing it from the mediaeval period that existed in Europe.

The great Asian kingdom of mediaeval times and the one that Marco Polo described in such fascinating terms was China. The 9th and 13th centuries marked the end of the T’ang dynasty, the Sung period and the arrival of the Mongols.



The T’ang period was characterised by its cosmopolitan nature, for China imported customs from other Asian countries, including food and dances and this enriched its culture and arts. However, the threat of invasion along its frontiers and high taxes forced China to suffer many revolts and uprisings that ended destroying the domain of the T’ang dynasty and led to the chaotic period of the 5 dynasties and ten kingdoms, in which the de-structuring of China was more than evident.

That period ended with the enthronement of Chao K’uang-yin, a military chief who was made Emperor by his lieutenants, giving rise to the Sung dynasty (in the year 960). The new emperor started the unification of China, sometimes peacefully, and on other occasions by force, overthrowing the reigning dynasties and annexing the ten kingdoms.  This process concluded in 979, under the reign of T’ai-tsung.

During the 10th century, navigation flourished in China.  Proof of this is the basic discovery of the compass at the end of the 11th century. Likewise, farm implements and farming techniques were improved, which led to improvements in the quality of food and an increase in the population. These advances in farming give rise to the development of cities, due to the rural exodus, mainly to the south-east where the Chuang-yüan (large farming estates) had undergone considerable development and were tended by peasants who adopted a servile attitude that was not unlike that of the serfs in European feudalism.

In the 12th century, the threat posed by the Kitans led the Sung dynasty to forge an alliance with the Chins to combat the enemy (1115). The war with the Chins took seven years to hatch and was finally unleashed in 1122. After the victory of the Sung and the Chin, the latter realised the weak situation of their allies, and marched on the capital, subjugating the emperor Ch’in-tsung (1126), and thereby opening up a new period of chaos consisting of a string of wars that finally ended with the pact of 1142, through which China had to pay considerable taxes to the Chin in exchange for keeping the peace.

This peace was long-lasting (with the exception of the attack launched by the Chin on the Sung, due to the endless conflicts between the two dynasties that ended the peace in 1165 and the war waged by Han T’o-chou against the Chin) and continued well into the 13th century, until the arrival of the Mongols.



Another great empire during those times was Japan, with the Heian period (794-1185) existing in the 9th century. In the face of the decline of the Nara period, the changes suffered by the ruling class of Japan during the 9th century were evident in the gap that widened between Japan and China. In fact the influence of Chinese culture in Japan during the Nara period was considerable, but the rulers obviously preferred to shake off the influence of their powerful neighbours.

This is not the only relevant fact that led to changes at the beginning of the Heian period, and apparently, those changes were not for the good: no coins were minted, no land was redistributed, and these were clearly fundamental aspects in the Japanese economy at that time.

The Fujiwara clan began to ascend in the imperial court from the 7th century onwards, but without retaining absolute power, which still lay with the emperor.  The internal rivalries in the family divided it into different fronts, and by the middle of the 10th century and until the 11th century, in the apogee of the Heian period, the Fujiwara obtained absolute power, particularly during the reign of Michinaga. 

However, the conflicts did not end here. The landed gentry, which enjoyed tax privileges, began to flourish. These were eminently military families, and their rise to power led to the emergence of feudalism in Japan, since these families were related by pacts of arms, giving rise to lord-vassal relationships, which were of prime importance for the survival of these clans, since warring families would fight each other.

Between 1150 and 1185 an extremely agitated period ensued, with constant struggles and intrigues for power.  These ended in 1180 with the start of the famous Gempei war, which is so important in Japanese imaginary culture, due to its romantic aura, in which the Taira, the ruling family, fought the Minamoto  (originally, both families were related to the imperial family during the Nara period). Following the victory of Danno-ura (1185), the Minamoto came to power and Yoritomo, head of the clan, declared himself a shogun, thereby inaugurating the Shogun Regime, which lasted until the 19th century.

Both China and Japan suffered the revolt of the tribe that ravaged the whole of Asia during the 13th century: the Mongols,led by Ghengis Khan, set out to conquer Asia: during the 13th century, the successors of the legendary Mongol chief overthrew the ruling dynasties of China... but Japan resisted heroically, and Qublai Khan was unable to defeat the Japanese. He led two expeditions against them, the first in 1274, and managed to land near Hakata, but the Japanese resistance at that point and a timely storm obliged the Mongols to retreat to Korea; it is thought that the second (1281) might have been with 140,000 soldiers, but they were driven back by the Japanese in one of the worst defeats of the Mongol empire. While they were preparing a third expedition, Qublai Khan died (1294) and his heirs decided not to continue with this campaign that had cost so many lives. The Japanese victory was complete.


The Khmer Empire

The Khmer Empire, now Cambodia, existed in what was then known as the Angkor period. Its name is due to the fact that it was the period when the capital, Angkor was set up, founded by Yaçovarman (889-900). At the beginning of the 9th century, Jayavarman (802-850) released the Khmer realm from the yoke of Java and unified the country. Thus began the brilliant period of the Khmer Empire which lasted until the 14th century.

The Khmer society was divided into social classes, with the maximum grade being that of the king, whereas the aristocracy (the Brahmans) occupied the highest ranks of society. There was even a strong hierarchy of civil servants. All aspects of life were well organised, from religion to the road networks, with long, wide roads and transport, which ranged from carts to river boats. The most spectacular feature was without doubt their famous, colossal stone temples. 

Until the 12th century, the Khmer kings ruled over the Great Lake and lower Mekong, as far as the Menam and reaching their apogee during the reign of Jayavarman VII (1181- c. 1219), under whose rule the city of Angkor experienced its last urban development, consisting of the twelve kilometres of walls, the five monumental gates and the temple of 820,000 sq m, and most important monumental structures.


The Mongol Empire

Ghengis Khan, artifice of the Mongol Empire, was born sometime between 1155 and 1167 and died in 1227. After ascending to power (1196) he subjected the different peoples of Mongolia and once the nation had been unified (1206) he set out to conquer Asia. It would be impossible to fit a description of all his military campaigns into this section, but suffice it to say that upon his death in 1227, he controlled practically all of Asia. Before dying, he shared his kingdom between his sons, Yuci, Yagatay, Ogoday and Tuli.

Ogudai continued the conquest of China, seized Korea and took on the task of invading Persia. His lieutenants were sent to fight Georgia and Armenia, and between 1236 and 1242, they finally launched an attack on eastern Europe, including the Adriatic, and finally arrived at central Europe. On the death of Ogudai, the Mongols were driven back to the Volga, but Guyuk, his heir, continued the quest.  Apparently, Guyuk was bent on conquering the Christian realms but fortunately for Europe, his short reign (1242-1248) made this impossible and the Mongols focused their efforts on conquering Asia, which was finally terminated by Qublai Khan.

Qublai Khan was responsible for achieving the maximum expansion of the Mongol Empire, which ended with the conquest of China and the invasion of Korea.  China, the largest country under Mongol rule, became the crown jewel of the empire, where the capital was established (Dadu or Janbalik, now Beijing or Peking). He also strengthened trade with Europe, since the enormous riches of China provided it with boundless materials with which to trade, and all this had a positive effect on the development of roads –connected to both Europe and to Asia itself– and the development of paper currency. The trader Marco Polo has left us a series of vivid impressions of its sumptuous Chinese courts and the combination of barbarism and luxury.



9th-century Islam had its main focus in the Abbasid Caliphate, which succeeded the overthrown Omeya Caliphate. In fact, the Abbasid dynasty reached its maximum splendour during that century, firstly thanks to Harun al-Rasid, who forced the Byzantines to pay him tribute and set up contacts with the powerful Empire of Charlemagne, and afterwards his son, al-Ma’mun (813-833), under whom the caliphate reached its apogee. 

The enormous dimensions of the Caliphate Empire, which controlled Persia, Jurasan, Syria and Egypt, with its borders reaching as far as the Yemen, Armenia, Kashmir and Byzantium– involved two risks which the caliphate would never be rid of: firstly, it was extremely difficult to control all the frontiers and so they were often attacked by foreign tribes, and secondly, the inclusion of a great many villages and races under the sway of the Abbasid led to the emergence of nationalist movements.

These were eventually responsible for the fragmentation of the caliphate during the 9th century and from that time on, for obtaining their respective independence or semi-independence. However, the territorial division did not coincide with the religious and cultural divisions, since all the Islamic peoples felt they were a part of the whole, and consequently it is possible to speak of the existence of the caliphate and the other countries and realms in the political sense, on the one hand, and Islam as a cultural unit, on the other hand.

During the rules of al-Ma’mun and al-Mu’tasin (833-847) a Praetorian guard was set up to serve the caliph formed by soldiers-slaves from Central Asia. These soldiers gradually started to become more important and have greater and more decisive influence over the caliph. In addition to this, bureaucratic corruption resulting from the increasing power of the civil servants and the fact that succession was often resolved by killing (for instance, al-Ma’mun had ascended to power following a civil war in which the other pretender, his brother Amin, had perished) and the presence of revolts that had to be quelled by the army to restore control. This was a vicious circle as important sums of money were necessary to pay the troops, and so it was necessary to raise the taxes which in turn, led to new revolts.

At the dawn of the 10th century, all the above factors (including the nationalist movement and attacks on the frontier) had left the caliphate with only absolute power over Iraq (we should not forget that since the second half of the 8th century, the capital of the caliphate was Baghdad, installed at that time by the reigning dynasty in 762), whereas the remainder of the former caliphate had disintegrated into independent and semi-independent territories.

The fall of the Abbasid came about in the 10th century. During the first half of that century, the history of Islam was marked by several facts: firstly, the existence of the Fatimi Caliphate in the Maghreb (founded by Ubayd Alla in 910), secondly the total separation of Al-Andalus from the caliphate in 929, and the proclamation of the caliphate of Cordoba by Abd al-Rahman III. The the most important fact as regards the caliphate was the coming of Ahmad ibn Buwayh, an Irani who entered Baghdad and founded the Buyi dynasty, overthrowing the Abbasids, who ceased their rule and became mere puppets until 1258, when the Abbasid Caliphate was officially extinguished.

In 969, Yahwar, caliph of the Fatimi in Maghreb, conquered Egypt and founded El Cairo. This fact was of major relevance in the long term in the history of Islam, since the importance of Egypt in the future of the Islamic world during the mediaeval period was crucial.

The transfer of the power of the Fatimi from the Maghreb to Egypt forced the new Egyptian lords to leave their old domains unprotected, and they were eventually lost. The Fatimi implemented two main policies, trade and invasion. With respect to trade, Egypt was a privileged site due to its proximity to the Nile, the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the desert. Egypt had important river and maritime trading routes, which led to a flourishing trade with Europe via the Mediterranean and the Red Sea allowed it to establish relations with India.

On the other hand, the desert routes supplied Egypt with slaves and gold from the mines of Sudan. However, as mentioned previously, the Egyptian Fatimi applied the policy of invasion supported by their armies of Berbers from North Africa, Turks (which were incorporated into the armies from 969) and black troops from Sudan.  This mixture of ethic groups in the army gave rise to fierce rivalry among them, which ended in civil war, in 1062, following which the Nubians took possession of Upper Egypt and the Turks took El Cairo. Not long afterwards, a series of poor harvests that lasted for over a decade (1062-1074) led Egypt to a profound crisis that plunged the country into anarchy. The rift between the Drusians and the Nizarians (11th - 12th century) weakened the power of Egypt even more.

All these factors, which were largely responsible for damaging the structure of the Fatimi Caliphate, were used by its enemies: in the 11th century, the Turks outside the Islam domains launched many attacks against Islam, and the taking of Transoxiana by the Karajini was of vital importance, since it opened up a route for the Turks to eastern Europe.  As a result, the Selyucids attacked Byzantium, and inflicted a terrible defeat in the Battle of Manzikert, while in North Africa the Almoravids, who later caused so much trouble for Moors and Christians in Spain, started to mobilise their troops.

In 1169, Salah al-Din ibn Ayyub, the legendary «Saladin», came to power, and abolished the Fatimi Caliphate in 1171. He attacked Syria and inflicted great damage in the crusades, to the point of taking Jerusalem. In 1193, the death of Salah al-Din led to new problems in succession. Al-‘Adil, brother of Salah al-Din, took over the army and founded the Ayyubid dynasty.  This dynasty, divided by quarrels and rivalries which were aggravated even more by the crusades, considered Egypt to be the heart of Islam and an essential site for liberating the Holy Land, and launched various crusades in Egypt.

In the middle of the 12th century, power changed hands in North Africa: a new empire, the Almohads, confronted the Almoravids and defeated them in 1147, after taking Marrakech. The Almohads crossed over to the Iberian Peninsula and their empire lasted until the 13th century, when they were defeated in Navas de Tolosa, which sealed their fate and caused them to disappear. This occurred during the same century in which the Mamluks, who had driven out the Ayyubids, defeated the Mongols in ‘Ayn Yalut, resisting the thrust of the great empire in the 13th century. However, Baghdad was not as fortunate, and the city fell in 1258, leaving the Mongol armies to destroy what remained of the Abbasid Caliphate, in deed and name, for more than four hundred years.


Author: Alfonso Boix Jovaní

Rev. JGG 02.08.16