Civilizations in Contact

Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

Research topics

Current Research


From the earliest times, communities have maintained exchange networks through which they have not only obtained materials from afar but also sustained and reinforced social bonds that have enriched their cultural lives, spread ideas and innovations, and provided them with support in times of need. Through these networks, individuals and communities have exchanged not only goods, plants, animals and raw materials but also religious, economic, cultural, scientific and technological knowledge and ideas.

The Civilizations in Contact Project is devoted to studying communications networks of the premodern era and investigating their operation across cultural and political boundaries, using archaeological, historical and linguistic evidence and the fascinating accounts of travellers along these routes. Mapping these networks and locating the cities and emporia they served can identify the corridors along which these tangible and intangible items flowed and the places where they were exchanged at different times. These investigations can also provide a window into the underlying currents of development and change, and may reveal unsuspected contacts and interactions that shed light on previously inexplicable phenomena.

The Civilizations in Contact Project brings together a team whose fields of research range widely through space and time but who share a strong commitment to understanding and elucidating the role of communications and exchange in the development of human society.

Research Focus

A complex system of exchange began with the first voyages between India and Mesopotamia in the 3rd millennium BCE and culminated in the emergence of the global exchange network in the 16th century CE.

A key area in the system is the Indian Ocean and its littorals – Indian, Iranian, Indonesian, Arabian and African. As early as the later 3rd millennium BCE a regular maritime route through the Gulf, linking Mesopotamia with Oman, the Indus and Gujarat, was established. This may well be the oldest of all commercial maritime routes, and there is evidence that it may have extended to that other corridor leading to Egypt and the Mediterranean world: the Red Sea.

In classical times, the Red Sea was the principal maritime route to the incense lands of Southern Arabia and the Horn of Africa, and soon merchants from Egypt and even Rome began to voyage beyond the Bāb al-Mandab with the monsoon to India and Sri Lanka, almost certainly following in the wake of South Arabian predecessors. In addition to much recent archaeological evidence, we have a precious written source for the India trade at this time, the 1st century BCE Greek merchants’ manual, the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. In India itself, archaeological work and the accounts of Chinese Buddhist pilgrims allow major land and sea routes to be traced and cities located during the first seven centuries CE.

Although Chinese exploration along the Silk Road linked Han China to the Roman Empire through trade, China itself was not known to the classical world. Nestorian monks and merchants followed the overland route to East Asia, and very early in Islamic times a direct sea route from Basra to China developed, with Muslim merchants establishing colonies in several southern Chinese ports. Arabic accounts dating from the 9th and 10th centuries CE provide the earliest descriptions of the Celestial Empire to reach western lands. The Chinese dynastic annals contain records of diplomatic missions to the countries of the West beginning in Han times, some by land and others by sea, and we possess a number of Chinese travel accounts and geographical works which throw light on the lands to the west during the early Middle Ages.

Sources are much more abundant for the period 1250-1550 CE. Merchants, pilgrims, soldiers, diplomats, travellers, ships’ captains, monks, and captives have left records of their journeys, by land and sea, and these can be used to map routes, study the rise and fall of emporia, the sources and distribution of trade goods and the major sites where commercial and cultural exchanges took place. Asian and European sources reveal a relatively detailed picture of what had become, by 1550, a global system of exchange. The linking of the New World to the Old radically transformed the societies and economies of both.