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Travel and Interchange: 1000-1450

by A. J. Andrea
World History Center, Northeastern University
Boston, Massachusetts

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Note: Please be advised that these teaching units were created prior to the course revisions implemented in the 2011-12 academic year. However, the units still address topics central to the revised course.


The links among regions through travel are the emphasis of this unit, which illustrates interregional connections in the period from 1000 to 1450 through examples centering on West Africa, the Eurasian heartland, and the oceanic routes of the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. 

The five lessons address the influx of Islam into sub-Saharan West Africa; the fortunes of Christian missions to Mongolia and China; land travel across Inner Asia; the geographic lore and knowledge of Europeans, Arabs, and Chinese before 1450; and the Ming oceanic expeditions under Zheng He.

Student activities include discussion of text documents in inner and outer circles, analysis of maps, comparison of two accounts of transcontinental travel, critical assessment of geographic knowledge, and creation of imagined primary sources.

The lesson includes an appendix with essays analyzing several documents presented in the handouts.

Main Points of the Unit

Big Questions
Best Practices
Lesson Summary
Assessment Overview
AP World History Course Description Connections

Big Questions
  • How did the expansion of Islam to sub-Saharan West Africa change local and global patterns of trade and society?
  • How did the Pax Mongolica, or Mongol Peace, expedite travel and interchange across the regions of Inner Asia?
  • What was the balance of security and danger for travelers along commercial routes in the period from 1000 to 1450?
  • What did Chinese, Arab, and European knowledge, ignorance, and myths in the years up to 1450 imply about Afro-Eurasian travel?
Best Practices
Best Practices are teaching strategies that are interactive and involve high-level thinking skills (see AP World History Best Practices Guide, eds. P. Manning and D.S. Johnston). The appropriate Best Practices vary widely with teacher strengths, school environment, student population, and experience. But all student populations will benefit from experience with strategies showing that world history is much more than lectures, and more than a survey of facts and dates. This unit, within its individual lessons, includes the following examples of Best Practice teaching strategies:
  • Analyze primary text documents
  • Analyze maps
  • Compose an imagined document
Lesson Summary
Lesson 1. The Coming of Islam to Sub-Saharan West Africa
Students participate in a group discussion of primary accounts of Islamic travelers and maps of trans-Saharan trade routes, using an inner-outer circle technique.

Lesson 2. Missions from the West in the Age of the Pax Mongolica
Students read primary accounts of the Mongol empire by visitors from the West, and link them in class discussion to transparency maps of the empire and of travel routes within it.

Lesson 3. The Mongols and the Third Golden Age of the Silk Road
The lesson focuses on the Silk Road at its height under the Pax Mongolica, relying on reports from Marco Polo and Francesco Pegolotti. Students discuss the readings and debate the relative safety of travel along the route. They may also view a video of key points along the route.

Lesson 4. Geographic Lore and Knowledge
Students read primary sources drawn from different regions, and assess their factual strengths and weaknesses, including geographical and other distortions.

Lesson 5. The Voyages of Zheng He
In preparation for class, each student is to create an imaginative, or faux, primary source, inspired by the reports of Ma Huan from the voyages of the Chinese admiral Zheng He. After an in-class review of the elements of these voyages, students read their faux sources to the class and discuss them.

Assessment Overview
The inner-outer circle seminars in Lessons 1 and 2 can be graded exercises. Students will assess their own and their peers' skills in analyzing the factual strength of sources in Lesson 4. In Lesson 5, teachers can assess the imaginative sources created by students, as well as their responses to essay and multiple-choice questions.

AP World History Course Description Connections
  • Interactions in economy and politics
  • Technology, demography, and environment
  • Cultural and intellectual developments
Habits of Mind
  • Using texts and other primary documents
  • Assessing diversity of interpretations
  • Comparing within and among societies
Major Developments, Comparisons, and Snapshots
AP World History Course Description, Major Developments, 600-1450: 2 -- The Islamic world; 3 -- Interregional networks and contacts; 4 -- China's internal and external expansion; 8 -- Diverse interpretations

Content Objectives
  • Learn the basic geographic outlines of: the kingdoms of Ghana and Mali; the Mongol empire at its height; the major routes across Inner Asia in the era of the Mongol Peace; the major sea lanes of the Indian Ocean and the waters of Southeast and East Asia; the approximate routes of Zheng He's fleets.
  • Study the syncretic process at work as the sub-Saharan cultures of West Africa encountered and adopted Islam.
  • Learn how the "Third Golden Age of the Silk Road" came about and its consequences.
  • Understand the impact of Arab, Persian, East African, Indian, Southeast Asian, and Song Chinese maritime merchants in the economic vitality of the Indian Ocean -- the "meeting place of the Afro-Eurasian World."
  • Understand the range and limits of geographic knowledge prior to 1500.
  • Learn about the great Ming expeditions of the fifteenth century.
Skill Objectives
  • Analyze primary and secondary text documents
  • Note-taking in inner-outer circle seminar
1. A. J. Andrea and J. H. Overfield, The Human Record, 4th. ed. (2000), Vol. I.

2. Any good historical atlas. HINT: If you cannot secure one readily, consult the excellent maps in any leading world history textbook. Two of the best sources that spotlight the sites and regions listed above are Jerry H. Bentley and Herbert F. Ziegler, Traditions and Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past, vol. I (McGraw-Hill) and Richard W. Bulliet et al., The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History, 2nd. ed., vol. I (Houghton Mifflin).

3. Recommended but not required: video program 1:5 ("In Search of the Kingdom of Loulan") of the twelve-part series The Silk Road (see the annotated bibliography).

General Editors: Patrick Manning and Deborah Smith Johnston World History Center, Northeastern University

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