Exam preparation materials


Really Old Stuff: Around 600 C. E. to Around 1450


This chapter picks up where the last one left off—kind of. You’ll notice that a few things discussed in this chapter actually occurred before 600 C.E. We included them because they fit in better with the topics covered here.

Remember: Read through this chapter once, then go back and focus on the things that you’re not entirely clear about. Here’s the chapter outline.

   I.  Chapter Overview
You’re reading it.

  II.  Stay Focused on the Big Picture
Organize the many events that occurred during the 800 or 900 years covered in this chapter into some big-picture concepts.

 III.  Review of History Within Civilizations from 600 C.E.–1450.
This is the largest section of the chapter. In it, we’ll delve into developments in each region or major civilization. If you’re totally clueless on any part of this section, consider also reviewing the corresponding topic in your textbook. After all, we’re talking about 850 years of history, and this section is intended as a review, not as a primary source. Here’s how we’ve organized the information.

  A.  The Rise of Islam

  B.  Developments in Europe and the Byzantine Empire

  C.  Developments in Asia

  D.  The Rise and Fall of the Mongols

  E.  Developments in Africa

  F.  Developments in the Americas

  IV.  Review of Interactions Among Cultures from 600 C.E.–1450
To do well on the AP World History Exam, you need to understand more than just the events that occurred within each region or civilization. You need to understand how they interacted with and affected each other. This gets very complicated, so we’ve given the topic its own section. Make sure you review the material in Section III first. Once you have a firm understanding of the developments within each region of the world, this section will make a lot more sense. Here’s how we’ve organized it:

  A.  Trade Networks and Cultural Diffusion

  B.  Expansion of Religion and Empire: Culture Clash

  C.  Other Reasons People Were on the Move

   V.  Technology and Innovations 600 C.E.–1450
Major advances in navigation, warfare, and ship-building as trade expands and interaction increases.

  VI.  Changes and Continuities in the Role of Women
The wealthier a society is, the less public presence and freedom women have.

 VII.  Pulling It All Together
A review of the review.

 VIII.  Timeline of Major Developments 600 C.E.–1450
Major developments organized by time and place.


As you review the details of the civilizations in this chapter, stay focused on the big-picture concepts and ask yourself some questions, including the following:

1. Do cultural areas, as opposed to states or empires, better represent history? Cultural areas are those that share a common culture, and don’t necessarily respect geographical limitations. States, like city-states and nation-states (countries), and empires, have political boundaries, even if those boundaries aren’t entirely agreed upon.

2. How does change occur within societies? As you review all the information in this chapter, you’ll notice a lot of talk about trading, migrations, and invasions. Pay attention to why people move around so much in the first place, and the impact of these moves. And, don’t forget, sometimes change occurs within a society because of internal developments, not because of external influences. Pay attention to that too.

3. How similar were the economic and trading practices that developed across cultures? Pay attention to monetary systems, trade routes, and trade practices. How did they link up?

4. How does the environment impact human decision making? Pay attention to the way states respond to environmental changes. Do they move or send out raiding parties? Are they able to respond quickly and successfully to environmental changes?


This period is defined by what rises out of the collapse of the Classical civilizations and by the interactions—both positive and negative—that develop between these new states. This period is one of tremendous growth in long-distance trade: the caravans of the various Silk Routes, the multi-ethnic Indian Ocean sailors, the trips across the Sahara to West Africa, and continued trade in the Mediterranean all occur from 600 to 1450 C.E. These 850 years were also defined by a long period of decentralization in Western Europe, and expansion on the trading empires of the Middle East and China. Remember interaction!


In the seventh century, a new faith took hold in the Middle East. This faith, called Islam, was monotheistic, like Judaism and Christianity. The followers of Islam, called Muslims, believe that Allah (God) transmitted his words to the faithful through Mohammad,whose followers began to record those words in what came to be called the Qu’ran (recitation; also spelled Koran). Muslims believe that salvation is won through submission to the will of God, and that this can be accomplished by following the Five Pillars of IslamThese five pillars include

· confession of faith

· prayer five times per day

· charity to the needy

· fasting during the month-long Ramadan

· pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during one’s lifetime

Islam is also guided by the concept of jihad, which means “to struggle.” This refers to both the struggle to be a better Muslim and the struggle against non-believers.

Islam shares a common history with Judaism and Christianity. It accepts Abraham, Moses, and Jesus as prophets (although it does not accept Jesus as the son of God), and holds that Mohammad was the last great prophet. Like Christians, Muslims believe that all people are equal before God and that everyone should be converted to the faith. Early on, Islam split into two groups: Shia and Sunni. The split occurred over a disagreement about who should succeed Mohammad as the leader of the faith.

Allah Be Praised: Islam Takes Hold

Growing up in the city of Mecca in the Arabian desert (present-day Saudi Arabia), Mohammad was exposed to many different beliefs, in part because Mecca lay on the trade routes between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. He was exposed to both Judaism and Christianity as a child, as well as the many polytheistic faiths that had traditionally influenced the region. Once he began preaching the monotheistic religion of Islam, which, as stated above, shares a foundation with Judaism and Christianity, he came into conflict with the leaders of Mecca, who had both a religious and economic interest in maintaining the status quo. In other words, the leadership in Mecca wanted to maintain the polytheistic shrines that attracted pilgrimages and brought wealth to the community. Persecuted, and threatened with death, Mohammad and his followers fled to Medina in 622 C.E. in what is known as the hijra (which also marks year 1 on the Muslim calendar). Mohammad and his followers found support in Medina and, in 630, he returned to Mecca and destroyed the pagan shrines—except for the Ka’ba, which became the focal point of Muslim pilgrimage.

From there, Islam spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula and beyond. The tenets of Islam came to be officially practiced in Muslim culture, similar to the way the tenets of Christianity were practiced in the Roman and Byzantine Empires. Lands where Islam was practiced were known as “Dar al Islam,” or House of Islam. As Islam spread rapidly through the Middle East and Africa and toward Europe, Christian leaders became increasingly alarmed. More on that later.

The Empire Grows as the Religion Splits

When Mohammad died unexpectedly in 632, Abu Bakr, one of his first followers in Mecca, became caliph, the head of state, military commander, chief judge, and religious leader. You can think of the caliph as a sort of emperor and religious leader wrapped up in one person. He ruled an empire, but he also made pronouncements on religious doctrine. In other words, the Islamic empire was what’s known as a theocracy, a government ruled by immediate divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as being divinely guided. But because it was ruled by a caliph, the theocratic Islamic Empire was referred to as a caliphate. Islam would eventually branch out beyond the boundaries of the Islamic Empire, and therefore exist independently as a religion, but in these early years, the growth of Islam was inextricably linked to the growth of this empire.

As time went on, the caliphs began to behave more like hereditary rulers, like those in a monarchy, except that there was no clear line of succession. The lack of clear succession caused a great deal of trouble down the road. The first four caliphs were Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali. The last of the four, Ali, was assassinated and was succeeded by his son, Hasan. But under pressure from a prominent family in Mecca, Hasan relinquished his title, making way for the establishment of the Umayyad Dynasty. This dynasty would enlarge the Islamic Empire dramatically, but it would also intensify conflict with the Byzantine and Persian Empires for almost a century.

During the Umayyad Dynasty, the capital was moved to Damascus, Syria, although Mecca remained the spiritual center. Also during the Umayyad reign, Arabic became the official language of the government; gold and silver coins became the standard monetary unit; and conquered subjects were “encouraged” to convert to Islam in order to establish a common faith throughout the empire. Those who chose not to convert were forced to pay a tax.

As noted above, the Islamic Empire grew enormously under the Umayyads, expanding as far as northern Africa and into Spain, where they ruled the southern Iberian peninsula from the city of Córdoba. Numerous times during the early eighth century, the Umayyads attacked the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, but failed to overthrow that regime. That didn’t stop them from going elsewhere, and in 732 C.E., the Islamic Empire began to make a move on Europe, by way of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain). At the time, Muslims held parts of southern Iberia and southern parts of Italy, while Christians dominated all the regions to the north. Charles Martel (686–741 C.E.), a Frankish leader, stopped the Muslim advance in its tracks as it tried to advance toward Paris, and so the Islamic Empire never flourished in Europe beyond parts of Spain and southern Italy. (More on the Franks and their activities a little later in the chapter.)

Despite the success of the Umayyad Dynasty (the Dome of the Rock was built on Temple Mount in Jerusalem during this time, and Córdoba was one of the richest and most sophisticated cities in Europe), problems with succession started to emerge. Eventually, the Muslims split into two camps, Shiite and Sunni. Shiite (Shia) Islam holds that Mohammad’s son-in-law, Ali, was the rightful heir to the empire, based on Mohammad’s comments to Ali. Sunnis, in contrast, though they hold Ali in high esteem, do not believe that he and his hereditary line are the chosen successors; rather, they contend that the leaders of the empire should be drawn from a broad base of the people. This split in Islam remains to this day.

As the Shia began to assert themselves more dramatically, the Umayyad Dynasty went into decline, and ultimate demise. In a battle for control of the empire against the forces of Abu al-Abbas (a descendent of Mohammad’s uncle who was supported by the descendents of Ali, the Shia, and the Mawali—non-Arab Muslims), the Umayyad Empire was defeated (punctuated by the slaughter of some members of the family). It was replaced by the Abbasid Dynasty around 750 in all areas except Spain.

The Abbasid Dynasty: Another Golden Age to Remember

The Abbasid Dynasty reigned from 750 to 1258, that is, until the Islamic Empire was defeated by the Mongols (more on them later). Throughout this time, like all major empires, the Abbasids had many ups and downs, but they oversaw a golden age, from the early to mid ninth century, during which the arts and sciences flourished. The Abbasids built a magnificent capital at Baghdad, which became one of the great cultural centers of the world.

Like most of the other ancient civilizations we’ve discussed so far, the Islamic Empire was built around trade. The merchants introduced the unique idea of credit to the empire’s trade mechanisms to free them of the burden—and the danger—of carrying coins. Necessarily, they also developed a system of itemized receipts and bills, innovations that were later used in Europe and elsewhere.

In addition to the importance of trade, manufacturing played an important role in the expansion of the Islamic Empire. Steel, for example, was produced for use in swords. Islamic advancements were also seen in the medical and mathematics fields.Mohammad al-Razi, for example, published a massive medical encyclopedia, which was unlike anything compiled before it. And Islamic mathematicians expanded the knowledge they had learned from India; their contributions are especially noteworthy in algebra.

An Abbasid army had the good fortune to defeat a T’ang Chinese army (more on them in a few pages) during the Battle of the Talus River in 751 C.E. This fight for control of Silk Road trading posts in central Asia is relatively unimportant (the Muslims won) except for the fact that the Chinese POWs were carrying paper money. Once the Abbasids figured out how to make paper, they could continue one of their most important activities, building libraries and universities and stocking them with scholarship from all over the known world. The location of the Muslims at the cross-roads of Europe and Asia allowed them to monopolize trade routes. The cosmopolitan cities of the Islamic caliphs thrived on trade, international scholars, and expansion, both military and cultural.

So despite the hostility between the European and Islamic worlds, the Islamic Empire is credited with playing a significant role in preserving Western culture. (Recall that the Byzantines did this too.) In contrast to European civilizations during the Middle Ages, which were highly decentralized and dismissive of their ancient past (more on that later in this chapter), the Arabs kept the Western heritage of the region alive. For example, when the Muslims encountered the classic writings of ancient Athens and Rome, including those of Plato and Aristotle, they translated them into Arabic. Later, when Muslims and Christians battled for control of the Levant (present-day Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and points north and south) during the European Crusades, Europe found its own history among the other treasures preserved in Arabic libraries and museums. This again demonstrates how the interaction between two peoples (even when violent) can lead to trade and cultural exchange.

The Muslims, similar to the Romans, were often tolerant of the local customs of the areas they conquered—although Christians and Jews were often persecuted in the Levant. That’s not to say that the Islamic Empire didn’t make every effort to convert the people it conquered (remember the tax we mentioned)? The point is, though it was a theocracy, its more flexible approach contributed to its rapid growth. The Sufis, Islamic mystics, were its most effective missionaries. They stressed a personal relationship with Allah, in contrast to other religions that emphasize a particular form of ritual. As you might guess, this made Islam highly adaptable to many different circumstances. By allowing, and even encouraging, followers to practice their own ways to revere Allah, and by tolerating others who placed Allah in the framework of other beliefs, the Sufis succeeded in converting large numbers of people to Islam.

Women and Islam: For Better, for Worse

In Arabia, women traditionally did not have property rights or inheritance rights; rather, women were essentially viewed as property themselves—of men. If a man divorced a woman, for example, he would keep her dowry (the money and property from her father that she brought with her into the marriage). This widespread—really, institutionalized—low status for women eventually led to a culture in which baby girls were seen as less valuable than baby boys. Tragically this often translated into female infanticide, the killing of an unwanted baby girl. (This gender bias was, by the way, common in many patriarchal societies.)

The Qu’ran, the sacred book of Islam, established between 651 and 652, changed much of this. Although women remained subservient to men and under their direction and control, they began to be treated with more dignity, had some legal rights, and were considered equal before Allah. If a man divorced his wife, he would have to return her dowry to her. More important, infanticide was strictly forbidden. Women gained considerable influence within the home—and in early Islamic society, women sometimes had influence outside it. Khadija, Mohammad’s first wife, had been a successful businesswoman, for example.

Islamic society was still a man’s world, however. Men were permitted to have as many as four wives, as long as they were able to support them and treated them equally. Women, on the other hand, had to be faithful to one man—in part because in this society land was passed through the males, and the identity of a boy’s father couldn’t be questionable. And, legally, women were treated unequally; a woman’s testimony in court, for example, was given only half the weight of a man’s. Restrictions for women even included what they wore: They had to be veiled in public—although this custom began in Mesopotamia and Persia, Islamic society adopted and adapted it.

Over time, Islamic society became more structured and more patriarchal. A woman’s primary duty was singular: to be loyal to and care for her husband and family. Within that structure, however, women were highly protected, and in some ways more respected, under the Qu’ran than they previously had been.

Decline of the Islamic Caliphates: Internal Rivalries and Mongol Invasions

The Islamic empire regularly endured internal struggles and civil war, often arising from differences between the Sunni and Shia sects, and from ethnic differences between diverse groups in the rapidly expanding Muslim world. Numerous rival factions and powers developed, and although none of these threatened Islam, they did destabilize the central authority at Baghdad and cut tax revenues. The final blows came when Turkish slaves or mamluks revolted and established a new capital at Samarra in central Iraq, while other groups carved out pieces of the empire. There was a new Shia dynasty in northern Iran and constant threats from the Seljuk Turks, a nomadic Sunni group. And like the Romans before them, weakened by internal problems, the Abbasids also had external foes: the Persians, Europeans, and Byzantine.

It would be their most distant enemy, however, the Mongols, who would defeat them. During the crusades, in 1258, the Mongols overran the Islamic Empire and destroyed Baghdad, thereby signaling the end of the Abbasid Dynasty. Its people would flee to Egypt, where they remained intact but powerless. Eventually, the Ottoman Turks would reunite Egypt, Syria, and Arabia in a new Islamic state, which would last until 1918.

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