The Silk Road
Throughout the Middle Ages, European society began to have a substantially reduced relationship with Asian cultures. This occured because powerful militaristic nomadic states began to form across ancient trade routes, making the journey perilous and thereby drastically reducing contact between peoples.
This began to change, paradoxically, with the conquests of the Mongols in the 13th and 14th Centuries. Despite the well-deserved reputation earned by the Mongols for violence and destruction, they brought relative safety and stability to a series of trade routes that had not seen it in centuries. As a result, luxury goods from places such as India, China and Indonesia began to appear at the docks of the Northern Italian trading ports.
Wealthy Europeans became desirous of some of these items, particularly spices, silks and porcelain. Commerce generated from the acquisition of these materials helped create a vibrant merchant class in places such as Venice and Genoa.
Contact with Asia
In the year 1095, Pope Urban II called upon the armies of Christendom to march forth into the Holy Land in order to recover it from Muslim forces. Led by Godfrey of Boullion (left), among many others, multitudes of Christian soldiers from knights to peasants took upon themselves the cross and set out to the Middle East. By 1099, crusaders reached Jerusalem sacking the city and slaughtering hundreds of men, women and children.
"The Crusades brought about results of which the popes had never dreamed, and which were perhaps the most, important of all. They re-established traffic between the East and West, which, after having been suspended for several centuries, was then resumed with even greater energy; they were the means of bringing from the depths of their respective provinces and introducing into the most civilized Asiatic countries Western knights, to whom a new world was thus revealed, and who returned to their native land filled with novel ideas... If, indeed, the Christian civilization of Europe has become universal culture, in the highest sense, the glory redounds, in no small measure, to the Crusades." - fulksworldhistory.weebly.com
The Travels of Marco Polo
In the late 13th Century, Marco Polo spent 24 years travelling Asia with his father and uncle. The Venetian Polo journeyed through Mesopotamia, Mongolia and China, even going so far as to visit the court of Mongol leader Kublai Khan. Polo returned with a great deal of exotic treasure which he had converted into gemstones as currency.
Although Marco Polo was not the first European to experience life in the Far East, he became the most well known, as his stories of the cultures of Asia were written down while a prisoner in Genoa and became well circulated. Among those inspired by Polo's journey was Christopher Columbus, who kept a copy of Polo's Travels among his personal effects.