How geography defined the great ancient civilizations (3): The maritime civilizations (The Middle East, Mediterranean and Monsoon worlds)

Table of Contents

the journey to the east

From horses and carts to ships, from land to sea

We have seen in previous posts how geography dramatically influences what we do to survive, hold together as groups, and create cultural differences. In Eurasia and Africa, geography generated three basic ways of life: settlement in fertile river valleys, pastoral nomads (hunters and farmers), and fishermen who took to the sea along many lakes and searched the waters for their resources. The latter discovered that they could survive by fishing alone, as others did by farming and herding… and later by sailing.

People settled down to fish to add long-distance trade to their skills. Boats had one great advantage over beasts of burden: they did not have to be fed.  By 2000 BCE, several overlapping maritime trade networks appeared in Eurasia, with their own distinctive cultural constellation. Three stood out (and even today stand out):

  • The Middle World ran from Asia Minor through the Iranian highlands to Afghanistan.
  • The Mediterranean world was a network of sea routes linking all the ports around the Mediterranean.
  • The Monsoon world, a vast maritime trade network linking East Africa to Arabia, India, Malaya, and Indonesia, and thence, indirectly, to China.

The Middle World

One of the most active trade networks emerged in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) region, across the Iranian plateau to the area now called Afghanistan. This area lies just between the two great river civilisations of the west (Egypt and Mesopotamia) and the two great river civilisations of the East (India and China)

The Middle World referred in the text would basically be similar to the Persian empire in 500 BCE

Much of this middle world was rugged and arid, but numerous streams ran through it. Along these streams, small settlements with a subsistence economy were established. Pastoral nomads also roamed the area. The mix of nomads and settlers in an area surrounded by highly sophisticated urban centres provided ideal conditions for long-distance trade to begin. In addition, this area had ports along its borders, as this region is surrounded by large navigable bodies of water: the Amu River (also known as the Oxus), the Aral Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea, the Sea of Aegen, the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Persia and the Indus River. An incredible rivers, lakes and sea network of interconnected navigable areas.

As trade routes increased, so did the number of centres where trade routes intersected, cities where traders could make deals with traders. 

Ancient map depicting the mouth of the Nile river, the Red Sea and part of Arabian Peninsula

The Mediterranean world

To the west of the Middle World, connecting ports developed across the Mediterranean. Getting from one Mediterranean port to another was easy, as this sea was friendly to sailors: it did not have the storms of the Atlantic, and the waters were so calm that, if the winds died down, sailors could usually row ashore.

Moreover, the Mediterranean lies entirely in the temperate zone, the most habitable environment in the world. Its coastline gives way to many different landscapes. Therefore, various products from many backgrounds (grain from Egypt, cedar in the Levantine ports, salt in North Africa, amber from southern Europe, tin from the Iberian ports, and much more) were brought to its ports.

The Mediterranean World (1500-500 BCE)

It was not the mighty Egyptians who dominated these exchanges; they were so rich that they had little incentive to trade. So the first Mediterranean civilisation arose on the island of Crete, whose essential resource (as in land trade was Petra) was the location. Soon the Phoenicians emerged as competitors, and then came the Greeks, who were favoured by geography as few others were. The Greek interior is arid and rocky, unsuitable for growing anything but olives and grapes. Still, fortunately for them, their land had innumerable rocky ravines running down to coves along the water, most of them good harbors. 

Harbors were the critical resource of early Greece, so the Greeks tended to live along their coasts and interact even with adjacent neighbours by sea rather than by land. The first Greek powers were the Mycenaeans. Initially, they acted as pirates who plundered Phoenician ships, raided Cretan ships (and destroyed their Minoan civilisation), and soon had enough goods to go into business for themselves.

A fresco showing bull leaping, Minoan Knossos (Final Palatial period 1450-1400 BCE), Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete.

According to the official Greek legend, there was a war between Greeks and an evil kingdon (in Crete) named after his king Minos who demanded that the Greeks gave up a certain number of virgins every year. Finally, the great Greek hero Theseus went and crushed Minos (From then, Minos is represented as Minotaur). I imagine that, had Minoans survived, the Cretan version would have been slightly different.

Poorer Greeks from further north – the Dorians – moved into their lands and cities, and few records survive from the period.

Around 1200 BC, a wave of violent raiders known as the Sea People swept across the Mediterranean world, plundering the entire region. The Mycenaeans essentially disappeared from history at that point. 

As for the stories or myths of civilisation, two powerful stories of comparable prestige to the scriptures of other cultures or religions (the Iliad and the Odyssey) narrated episodes of a long war between the Greeks and a city in Asia.


An early Greek representation of the fight between Theseus and the Minotaur

The Monsoon World

There was a third maritime trading civilisation clearly influenced by geography. Asia is so large that the whole continent functions as bellows, creating a weather pattern of immense scope: the monsoons. 

The centre of the continent – the steppes, the plains, the taiga – becomes extremely cold in winter. Still, most of it becomes extremely hot in summer. The cold air is heavy, so in winter, it sinks, blowing the wind across the land and over the oceans. However, in summer, the continent’s heart warms, and the warm air rises, creating a vacuum that sucks the wind around the edges. The outgoing winters are cool and dry, while the incoming summer winds are hot and humid.

The Himalayan mountain range complicates the monsoons by splitting the winds, sending some across China and over the Pacific Ocean and others across Arabia and the Indian Ocean. The Pacific and Indian Ocean monsoons overlap in Southeast Asia.

The figure shows the directions of the warm and wet currents (orange) and the cold and dry currents (blue). It reflects well how the Himalayan mountain range divides the flow into two: one in the Indian Ocean, the other in China and Southeast Asia.

Therefore, ancient peoples living anywhere along the Indian or Pacific Oceans coast could set sail in sailing ships and take advantage of the winds to reach Southeast Asia in winter. They had to wait a few months for the wind to change direction, which always did. Then the traders could return home to China, India, Arabia, and Africa.

This vast network linked East Africa to Arabia, India, Malaya, Indonesia, and indirectly to China. The monsoons turned Southeast Asia into a place where traders and sailors of diverse global origins spent months languishing, rubbing shoulders and bumping backs as they waited for the winds to change.

Trade in the East and South China Seas, 600 CE to 1800 CE (Oxford Research Encyclopedias)

The monsoons turned Southeast Asia into a place where traders and sailors of diverse global origins spent months languishing, rubbing shoulders and bumping backs as they waited for the winds to change.

Southeast Asia thus became one of the world’s great cultural melting pots. In this region, elements of India and China, East Africa, and Arabia blended together in a complicated fusion further entangled with European colonial intervention.

Sculpture from the Borobudur Temple Compounds,a Mahayana Buddhist temple located in Indonesia (c. 650-1025 CE)

As we wrote at the beginning of this post and, especially in the first in a series of three posts, geography dramatically influences what we do to survive, hold together as groups, and create cultural differences. The prominent Eurasian civilisations were influenced by geography that affected their myths and stories passed down from generation to generation. It also affected their universal and core values even today…

…so, we have reached the end of another stage of our Journey to the East…

... but, our Journey to the East continues as well.... ...If you want to know how our Journey to the East continues, be sure to read the following post carefully... If you have any questions, comments, suggestions, or contributions, please email us at We will be happy to answer them.

Daniel echeverria

Daniel Echeverría-Jadraque

If you want to know how our journey to the East continues, be sure to read the following post carefully… If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or contributions, please send us an email to Hsuan Tsang, the Monkey King, the Pig, the Sand, the Dragon Horse and myself will be happy to hear from you!

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