The World in 1500 — Or the West as a Backwater

How did Western civilization accumulate enough political, military and economic power to dominate the world?

October 16, 2002

How did Western civilization accumulate enough political, military and economic power to dominate the world?

For most of human history, other civilizations have proven far more advanced than the West. They were more advanced in learning, in wealth, in exploration, in inventions — and in cultural sophistication and works of the mind.

We can see this clearly by taking an imaginative leap back in time to the year 1500, when "the West" as we know it now was just starting to emerge.

In 1500, there were several civilizations dotting the globe. However, two of them stood out in resplendence: the civilization of China — and the civilization of the Arab-Islamic world.

During the Ming dynasty, the wealth, knowledge and power of China astonished all those who came into contact with it.
Chinese astronomers knew more about eclipses and heavenly orbits than anyone else at the time. The Chinese were responsible for inventions of surpassing importance — printing, gunpowder and the compass.

In the 15th century, the Chinese sent a fleet of ships — the largest and most sophisticated of their kind — to explore the shores of Africa, India and other countries.

At home, the Chinese ruling class presided over an empire distinguished by its size and cohesion. Confucian philosophy gave a kind of moral and intellectual unity to Chinese civilization.

The Chinese had a merit system of government appointments. This was all the more impressive as most of the world operated on traditional systems of nepotism and patronage.

Chinese society showed a refinement in porcelain work, in silk embroidery — and in social refinement — that no other society could match. No wonder the Chinese emperors regarded themselves as the "sons of Heaven" — and their part of the world as the center of the universe.

Equally impressive in the year 1500 were the achievements of Islamic civilization. Starting in the 7th century, the Islamic empire spread rapidly until it sprawled across three continents: Europe, Asia — and Africa.

The Muslims unified their enormous empire around a single faith, Islam — and a single language, Arabic. The Islamic world enjoyed a flourishing economy, enriched by trade with India and the Far East, and a largely uniform system of laws.

The Muslims built spectacular cities — Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, Istanbul, Seville, Granada —distinguished by architectural and literary splendor.

Islamic literature and thought exhibited a richness, variety — and complexity — that far surpassed that of Europe at the time. Islam produced great men of learning, such as Ibn Sinha (Avicenna), lhn Rushd (Averroes), Ibn Khaldun, al-Ghazali, al-Farabi and al-Kindi.

Indeed, much of Greco-Roman knowledge — including the works of Aristotle — that had been lost in Europe during the Dark Ages was preserved in the Islamic world. It is no exaggeration to write, in the words of historian David Landes, that during this period "Islam was Europe's teacher."

Nothing could compare to China and the Islamic empire, but there were other civilizations in the world in the year 1500.

There was the civilization of India, renowned for its spiritual depth as the original home of two of the world's great religions: Hinduism and Buddhism. India was also famous for its wealth and mathematical learning.

In Africa, there were the kingdoms of Ghana, Mali and Songhay — which were large, orderly and rich in gold. Finally, in the Americas, there were the Aztec and Inca civilizations. Despite their reputation for brutality and human sacrifice, these were impressive for their architecture, social organization — and city planning.

Meanwhile, Western civilization — then called Christendom — was a relative backwater. Mired in the Dark Ages, Christendom was characterized by widespread ignorance, poverty and incessant clashes between warring tribes — and between kings and the Church.

Indeed, Islamic writers who encountered the West in the late Middle Ages described it as remote, uninteresting — and primitive.

A Muslim traveler described Europeans as "more like beasts than like men. They lack keenness of understanding and clarity of intelligence — and are overcome by ignorance and apathy, lack of discernment and stupidity."

Another Muslim writer gives an account of the state of European medicine. He tells of a knight who came to a European physician complaining of an abscess on his leg. The physician seized an ax and chopped off the leg with one blow — "and the man died at once."

Bernard Lewis, the Princeton historian, finds in such Muslim writings "the same note of amused disdain as we sometimes find among European travelers in Africa and Asia many centuries later."

How then did this relatively impoverished, backward civilization accumulate so much economic, political and military power that it was able to conquer and subdue all the other cultures of the world put together?

The truth is that, throughout history, Western civilization has gained immensely from its absorption of the ideas and inventions of other cultures. From the Muslims, the West recovered parts of its own Greco-Roman heritage. From Hindus, the West learned its numeral system.

Civilizational development does not always go to the group that invents things. It frequently goes to the people who are able to take the inventions — and run with them.