The Russian Tsars

The Russian Tsars
Arists: Viktor M. Vasnetsov (1848–1926) Title: Tsar Ivan The Terrible Date: 1897 Medium: oil on canvas Dimensions: 247 x 132 cm Current location: Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Artist: Viktor M. Vasnetsov (1848–1926)
Title: Tsar Ivan The Terrible
Date: 1897
Medium: oil on canvas
Dimensions: 247 x 132 cm
Current location: Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

IVAN THE TERRIBLE was one of the most significant and controversial figures in Russian history, Ivan IV, or Ivan the Terrible as he is more commonly known, changed the face of Eastern Europe forever. In power for over 50 years, Ivan left behind a complicated legacy; on one hand as an unparalleled military leader and on the other, the military successes the achieved were marred by mental instability.

Ivan IV was responsible for turning Russia from a Medieval state into a vast empire and world power spanning over a million square miles and all the while his mental state grew increasingly volatile throughout his life as he carried out the ruthless oppression of his people. Amongst Ivan’s most significant contributions to history was his creation of the Tsardom, the autocratic and centralised form of rule, which would dominate the Russian Empire for centuries to come. Prior to his accession to the throne, the title of Russia’s ruler was the Grand Prince. Ivan however, changed everything. Proclaiming himself the Tsar of all the Russia’s, he added a religious dimension to his power. Not only was he his subjects’ political leader but also their religious leader, answering only to God. This new religious component to Ivan’s power enabled him a sense of authority afford to none of his predecessors, surrounding him with an aura of invincibility, ensuring that any threats to his power could remain suppressed.

As successful as this element of his rule was, it was however, not the only way Ivan kept his subjects in check. Ivan earned his terrifying reputation through relentless oppression he inflicted upon his people, particularly the Boyar Elite-the noble families, whom he perceived as a threat to his power. In the 1560’s, Ivan established the Oprichnina, essentially a state within a state, which was the head quarters to the brutal secret police known as the Oprichniki who carried out several arrests and executions of those Ivan believed to be conspiring against him. As Ivan’s mental state deteriorated, these acts of barbarism became increasingly common. His oppression reached a crescendo with the Massacre of Novgorod in 1570, a brutal purge, with 60,000 people murdered under Ivan’s command another major factor in the city’s decline from its position of prominence. Ivan’s worsening mental state had taken its toll and would impact his personal life as much as it would his political one.

One of the defining incidents of Ivan’s life was delivering a fatal blow to his own son and heir, Ivan Ivanovich. A competent military operative, Ivan Ivanovich was present at the Massacre of Novgorod amongst other conflicts. Their relationship became increasingly strained during the Livonian War, a conflict marred by Ivan’s string of failures. In the midst of the conflict, Ivan IV physically assaulted his son’s pregnant wife, causing her to miscarry. His son angrily confronted him, with the conversation eventually shifting to Ivan’s military failures. Furious over what he perceived as insubordination, he struck his son in the head with his sceptre, a wound he would never recover from. Ivan died three years later from a stroke during a chess match in 1584. The murder of his son left his other son Feodor as his heir who was less physically and mentally abled than Ivan, proving incapable of ruling, and thus Russia entered the ‘Time of Troubles’, a catastrophic phase during which a third of the population died from famine while the region descended into civil conflict.

Despite his incredible military accomplishments, Ivan’s reign had a severely detrimental effect on Russian society. His creation of the autocracy set the precedent for centuries of oppression under future Tsars. Furthermore, his mental instability hampered any virtues he may have held as a leader, giving way instead to his increasingly paranoid state, undoing any good he brought about through acts of sheer barbarism.

Portrait of Peter the Great by Godfrey Kneller (1698). Given as a gift to the British monarchy

Portrait of Peter the Great by Godfrey Kneller (1698). Given as a gift to the British monarchy


Nearly a century after Ivan the Terrible’s death, another highly influential leader rose to power under the title of Tsar, Peter the Great, also known as Peter Alexeyevich. His contributions to Russian society were amongst the most significant of any ruler. As a brilliant military leader, he expanded Russia’s territory, establishing his Empire into a world power. Furthermore, he spearheaded a cultural revolution, enabling the Russian Empire to keep pace with the Enlightenment, an evolution of intellectual thought, prevalent in Western Europe during the 18th century.

Peter’s early life was unconventional. He became joint sovereign of Russia at the age of 10 with his older brother Ivan V, who died ten years later. Due to his young age, the actual ruling of the Empire was managed by members of the elite during which a turbulent time ensued with many forces vying for power, resulting in the death of those close to Peter who were killed during conflicts. When Peter eventually assumed full control of his Empire, it was in a shambolic state, years behind the rapidly developing Western European powers. In what would prove to be the defining achievement of his reign, Peter set about implementing a series of modernising measures to allow the Russian Empire to catch up with its rivals to become a world power in its own right. These changes were broad in scope, covering a variety of different areas which included an update of the Russian alphabet and the adoption of the Julian calendar. Having cultivated a variety of Western European advisors, he also sought to turn the Russia Empire into an economic power by stimulating industry, allowing a bourgeoisie social class to emerge. These changes would prove to be vital in the Empire’s transition from an archaic sprawling mass into a world power.

Peter was also renowned for his capabilities as a military leader. Under his rule, the Russian Empire’s territory expanded significantly by the acquisition of key regions including Estonia, Latvia and Finland, as well as registering victories over Sweden. Most important, however, after a series of major conflicts, was his defeat of the Ottoman Empire. This allowed the Russian Empire access to the Black Sea, a vital territorial victory. Furthermore, he founded the city of St Petersburg, a significant milestone which acted as a buffer zone of sorts between West and East.

Despite Peter the Great’s numerous personal shortcomings, known for his ruthlessness and often oppressive behaviour towards his subjects, his legacy is regarded as highly impressive, turning the Russian Empire into a force to be reckoned with through rapid and effective modernisation. Few Russian rulers have left a legacy considered as great as his.

Catherine II by Fedor Rokotov

Catherine II by Fedor Rokotov


Also known as Yekaterina Alexeyevna or Catherine II,  Catherine the Great was the Russian Empire’s longest-serving and best known ruler, her reign lasting 34 years highly influenced by Peter the Great’s drive for modernity. Catherine came to power during a troubled time in Russian history following a coup d’etat during which her husband Peter III was killed.

Her reign coincided with a period of prosperity in the Russian Empire, whilst she oversaw its significant territorial expansion. Under Catherine’s rule, Russia annexed several territories along the Black Sea and the Azov Sea. Furthermore, following the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Russian Empire gained the most significant stake in land. Furthermore, following a war against the Ottoman Empire, she gained significant territorial gains which further consolidated her power and reinforced sentiments of patriotism throughout the Empire.

Notably, she began the Russian annexation of Alaska, forming Russian America. Her victories rested on a combination of strong interpersonal diplomatic capabilities alongside military prowess, the latter in part due to the strategic placement of a number of highly successful military leaders such as Grigory Potemkin.

In terms of domestic affairs, Catherine oversaw the establishment of several new towns and cities whilst simultaneously reforming the Russian governorate system. She also attempted to integrate several Western European ideas into the fabric of Russian society. As a renowned patron of artistic and cultural endeavours, she counted such significant figures as Voltaire amongst her acquaintances and was an accomplished writer in her own right, composing literary works across many genres. This reconciliation of Western European ideology within Russian society gave birth to the Russian Enlightenment. The period also saw the significant secularisation of the Russian bureaucracy a result of which detracted power from the Church which allowed the State a number of additional resources in terms of land, resources and manpower (the peasantry.)

Catherine showed a sense of patronage towards education. Although she failed in her bid to implement a national school system, she nonetheless heavily revitalised Russia’s antiquated education system and transformed the curriculum of military schools to encompass a wide range of fields such as science and the arts. Furthermore, she established the Smolny Institute, both Russia and Europe’s very first state higher educational institution for women. Whilst falling short of her all her ambitions at educational reform, her accomplishments were substantial.

Building on the foundations of Peter the Great’s implementation of reform, Catherine the Great left behind a highly impressive legacy in the pantheon of Russian rulers, playing a pivotal role in Russia’s transition into a global power while overseeing significant reforms domestically, consequently, many historians consider her reign as Russia’s Golden Age.



Commonly referred to as the Tsar Reformer, Alexander II left behind a polarising legacy. While some consider him, along with Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, as the Russian Empire’s most important reformers, others doubt the substantiality of this claim.

Coming to power in 1855 following the international humiliation of the Crimean War, during which his reactionary father, Nicholas I plunged the Empire into domestic and international turmoil; those issues which were deep seated within the fabric of Russian society became glaringly apparent and reform was essential. Alexander II, aware of these failings, acknowledged the urgent necessity for reform and set about overseeing its implementation across a variety of different fields.

First and foremost was the issue of Russia’s serfdom. Despite comprising an estimated 40% of the Russian population, the serfs had very few rights; bonded to the land-owning gentry, forced to make regular payments in labor and goods. The poor status of serfs across the the Russian Empire caused mounting resentment amongst their communities thereby resulting in turmoil in a number of other spheres in which they were engaged, most notable the ineffective operation of the Empire’s economy and military. Thus the first major piece of reform legislation Alexander II passed was the Emancipation Decree of 1861, which was finally forced through after years of protracted negotiation and compromise. While the Emancipation Decree was, contextually at least, a major political undertaking, its limitations have come under criticism. The Decree freed 20 million serfs and allowed them the rights of citizens, that is the right to freely marry, right to vote etc. However, most were left with little means to survive on with land allotments highly insufficient and worse still they were saddled with heavy redemption payments to their former landlords. This meant the bulk of the profit they would reap from their meagre supplies would be taken, leaving them little means to survive on let alone prosper.

Arguable, Alexander II’s other reforms were more successful. The military reforms, considered a priority after the Crimean War, saw the Russian Empire’s army completely revitalised. Rather than limited to the the peasantry, compulsory conscription was introduced to people of all social classes. Military education was significantly improved and corporal punishment amongst the military was banned.

Judicial reforms were also implemented in 1864, influenced by the French Justice system. A model was put into place allowing open trials as well as a jury system deemed as more just. Other important reforms included economic and local government reforms, which were generally successful.Despite these reforms, revolutionary sentiments grew considerably during Alexander II’s reign, with many seeing his reforms as half-measures. In the later years of his reign he survived several attempts on his life by revolutionaries, the severity of which prompted him to back-track on a number of his reforms. In 1881, he was finally assassinated in a bombing carried out by a member of People’s Will, a revolutionary populist group attempting to encourage mass-revolution. Ironically, on the day of his assassination, he was on his way to sign a piece of legislation establishing a parliamentary body.

Alexander II’s death proved to be a devastating blow for reform in Russia. Following his death, civil liberties were hugely oppressed and police brutality became increasingly prevalent. His son Alexander III, traumatised by his father’s death and encouraged by his autocratic mentors, reversed several reforms, hampering Russia’s development. Indeed, it was not until after the 1905 Revolution when a parliamentary body would come into being. While Alexander II introduced several significant reforms, his commitment to the autocracy hampered their effectiveness, leading ultimately to their failure.

Tsar Nicholas II, in the uniform of a Royal Navy Admiral of the Fleet, c. 1909

Tsar Nicholas II, in the uniform of a Royal Navy Admiral of the Fleet, c. 1909


As the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II witnessed centuries of oppressive autocracy collapse under his rule. There is much debate as to whether he was personally responsible for his own downfall or he fell victim to the multitude of external factors, at the time unfolding across the Russian Empire.

Nicholas II acceded the throne in 1894 and for the majority of his reign struggled to escape the imposing shadow of his father and predecessor in power, Alexander III. An intimidating and fiercely reactionary autocrat, Nicholas II struggled to live up to his father’s reputation. Many of the poor decisions he made were influenced by this misplaced ambition, lacking the personal character to reign in the way his father had.

During Nicholas II’s reign, several long-simmering political tensions boiled over. The oppressive Tsarist regime was reaching the end of its rope as opposition became more wide-spread and organised, capable of dismantling the regime. This was further intensified by several political events, which served to damage Nichols II’s reputation. The first of these was the disastrous Russo-Japanese War of 1904 during which the Russian military was completely outmanoeuvred by the Japanese and despite several costly defeats, Nicholas II insisted on dragging the conflict on for longer, believing that Russia could still win. This misguided approach worsened the defeat and leaving 50,000 dead.

The costs of the war coupled with a variety of other factors lead to a sharp increase of protest in the following years, reaching its apex with the 1905 Revolution. The catalysing event of this nation-wide wave of protest was the Bloody Sunday Massacre. A peaceful protest on the Winter Palace that ended in bloodshed, with thousands estimated to have been killed. While the revolution
was not entirely successful, it saw Nicholas II forced to make several concessions as outlined in the October Manifesto. These included the establishment of a parliamentary representation in the form of the State Duma, Russia’s first elected parliament, whilst an indication of significant social progress, proved to be short-lived.

Nicholas II was unable to reconcile his firm commitment to the Tsarist autocracy and backtracked on several of his promises, issuing the Fundamental Laws not long afterwards to uphold his absolute power as Russia’s ruler leaving the State Duma virtually powerless – unable to pass through any effective legislation without the Tsar’s approval. This contributed significantly to anti-Tsarist sentiments amongst the general public, which continued to intensify over the following years.

Even though revolution was inevitable long-before the First World War, many see this as the event that finally caused the Tsarist regime to collapse. The War had a devastating effect on Russia with nearly 1.5 million dying in the conflict. The Russian Army were caught in several devastating theatres of conflict, the Battle of Tanenburg being its most costly. Completely unprepared, the logistics of transporting soldiers and supplies across thousands of miles of terrain to the battlefields were grossly underestimated. Perhaps most disastrously, Nicholas II assumed leadership of the military.

His lack of experience and competence hampered the Russian war effort significantly. Meanwhile, in Russia the court was in complete disarray under the control of Rasputin, a mysterious confidante of the Tsar left in charge during his absence. Food supplies were running short and public outcry was stronger than ever – revolution was imminent.

The Revolution of 1917 was a long, drawn-out affair, split into two distinct rebellions. The first of which was the February Revolution, catalysed by protests on International Women’s Day. The Tsar returned from the battlefields of the war when the revolution was in full-swing, previously detached from public opinion. Initially dismissive of the severity of the situation, eventually he relented, and towards the end of the Revolution agreed to abdicate ending centuries of Russia’s Tsarist autocracy.

Held in captivity alongside his family for months, Nicholas II and his family were eventually assassinated in July 1917 by the Bolsheviks in part due to his crimes as well as to prevent the autocracy from resurfacing in the future.

While Nicholas II doubtlessly bears a significant share of responsibility for the Russian Empire’s decline and eventual collapse, the Revolution had been inevitable for decades. It is arguable a more imposing and competent leader could have prevented this from happening for a longer period of time, but it would have certainly unfolded regardless. Through incompetence and ineffectual rule, the end of the autocracy accelerated under Nicholas II’s rule.

The Chinese Revolution

The Chinese Revolution

Their activity, aimed at curtailing the power of local warlords was hampered by a brutal purge by the Nationalists, who purged them during the ‘White Terror’ of 1927.

Despite this, the CCP remained active. During the Japanese invasion of Manchuria of 1931, the Nationalists wasted valuable resources on stamping out Communism rather than devoting their attention to the more immediate and far graver threat of Japanese takeover. While the Nationalists were distracted, the CCP built a strong foundation of support in the more remote, rural areas of China. This support steadily increased as the Second World War progressed. The combination of disillusionment towards the rampant corruption within the government, the relative successes of the CCP in their resistance to the Japanese and implementation of land reform policies, all helped consolidate their growing support.

Despite this, Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the waning nationalist Government of the Republic, remained in power after the Japanese surrender in the dying days of the Second World War. His administration was supported by the foreign aid of the United States who did not want China to fall under a Communist regime. China was still bitterly divided however, with the Soviet Union occupying Manchuria which eventually enabled the CCP to move in, and the Civil War and subsequent Communist Revolution was set into motion.

Although a shaky truce was settled between the CCP and Nationalist leadership in 1945, peace didn’t last long. Only a year later civil war broke out between the two forces, and would continue for an additional three years. The CCP’s efforts gained traction as the conflict progressed due to a number of key advantages they held over the Nationalists. Their military was far better organised and equipped, in no small part due to the immense stockpiles of weaponry they inherited from the defeated Japanese forces. Furthermore, their base of support amongst the people was stronger and their commitment to their cause deeper.

By contrast, the Nationalists’ power and influence was waning. While they held strongholds in a number of key cities, in due course they were easily overrun and eventually forced to retreat to the island of Taiwan. Furthermore, they gradually lost pivotal financial support from the US, who no longer saw them as a strong ally. In 1949, Communist leader and eventual dictator Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China (PRC), forcing the Nationalists into retreat, all but defeated.

Mao’s seizure of power was followed by increased tensions with the US. The two states were unable to forge an effective alliance. Although the PRC had effectively seized control of China and won the conflict, the revolution itself was left somewhat incomplete. The government remained in exile under American protection, which intensified hostilities between the two countries. Despite this, China was now under Communist rule, the Nationalists still active yet almost entirely powerless.

There were several important implications of the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War. On an international level, relations between China and the US remained tense for decades to come. Not long after the Communist victory, the Korean War erupted, which saw the two nations pitted against each other. Furthermore, political and economic ties were cut with for over twenty years, with the US viewing the exiled Nationalist government in Taiwan as the legitimate Chinese government. It was not until Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1972 when relations between the two countries eased.

More importantly however were the domestic implications. Mao Zedong’s reign of power was a key turning point in Chinese history. While he is credited for his role in the modernisation of China through industrialisation as well as bringing imperialism to an end, he also unleashed a wave of terror upon his people comparable to the heinous acts of Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler earlier on in the twentieth century. Mao Zedong is believed to be responsible for over 70 million deaths through direct execution or via indirect means such as starvation caused by mass famine and furthermore was responsible for the relentless manual labor enforced upon his people during ‘The Great Leap Forward’ from 1957.

Regardless of his polarising reception in the world, it can be claimed without a doubt that Mao significantly altered the course of Chinese history. His pivotal role in the Revolution reshaped a nation from an Imperialist state into one of the world’s most powerful countries in the world, but at a heavy and deeply inhumane cost.

Please note this article has been researched using a number of sources, it is always best to refer back to academic sources when citing for study.

The Chinese Empire

The Chinese Empire

The Chinese Empire

China has a long and rich history stretching back several millennia, as far back as the 20th Century BC. The Chinese Empire does not refer to a singular dynastic power but rather several different ones, each of which held power over its many millennia of history.


Xia Dynasty

The earliest known dynasty was the Xia Dynasty, which was in power from as early as 2070 BC before falling into obscurity around 1600 BC. Little is known about the Xia Dynasty and it was believed to be a mythical story for many years. It serves an important role in Chinese history due to its prevalence in a number of major texts such as the Bamboo Annals and the Records of the Grand Historian. Despite this, little archaeological evidence exists from this period, rendering much written information about the period unreliable.

Shang Dynasty

The first Emperor of the Shang dynasty

The first Emperor of the Shang dynasty

Encompassing the period otherwise known as the Chinese Bronze Age was the Shang Dynasty. While the exact date of its ascendancy is somewhat ambiguous, it is estimated that the Shang arose around 1600 BC. Unlike the preceding Xia Dynasty, the Shang Dynasty is supported by a wealth of archaeological evidence. The dynasty was centred around the Henan Province along the Yellow River. The dynasty was known for making a number of major advancements in the fields of astronomy, mathematics and military technology. Major urban centres included Zhengzhou and Anyang, the latter serving as the capital. The dynasty collapsed during the rule of Di Xin, a cruel leader who lost the support of his subordinates. During the Battle of Muye, the advancing forces of the ascendant Zhou Army secured victory as Xin’s followers defected and refused to fight. The King killed himself by burning his palace to the ground, leaving a power vacuum to be filled by the invading Zhou Dynasty

Zhou Dynasty

The longest-living dynasty in Chinese history, the Zhou Dynasty remained in power for over 8 centuries. It is generally divided into two separate periods-the Western Zhou (1046-771 BC) and the Eastern Zhou (771-256 BC). It is considered to be amongst the most influential periods in Chinese history, establishing political systems which would be put in place for millennia and creating a distinct cultural identity. The Zhou Dynasty coexisted with the Shang Dynasty for several hundred years and eventually consolidated rule over its rival and exerted control over the entirety of China. The Western Zhou was the less important of the two, peaking for about a century and declining thereafter. Little is known about the period beyond the names of its Kings and a general outline of events. The Zhou’s movements Eastwards represented the coming of the Eastern Zhou and a more illustrious period of history.

Spring and Autumn Period

The Eastern Zhou marked the beginning of the Iron Age in China, a major turning point in the country’s history. The first period of this, spanning 771-476 BC, is known as the Spring and Autumn Period, its name stemming from the ‘Spring and Autumn Annals’. The centralised Imperial family lost its power over this period as regional duchies emerged and consolidated power. As divisions began to emerge, a number of important developments occurred in the fields of education and academia. Confucius and several other intellectual figures were active at this time. It was also a period which saw significant infrastructural improvements in the forms of canals and roads.

Warring States

King Wen of Zhou

King Wen of Zhou

As divisions formed, conflict became increasingly prevalent. The final years of the Zhou Dynasty are better known as the Warring States Period. The duchies had declared themselves Kings and had begun more openly feuding with one another. Eventually, two states emerged from the conflict-the Qin and Chu dynasties, with Qin ultimately overcoming its closest rival and becoming the head of the first unified Chinese Empire. Despite the period being dominated by conflict, the Warring States Period also saw a number of major developments in the government systems.

Qin Dynasty

The first of dynasty of Imperial China, the Qin Dynasty only lasted for 15 years but was immensely important in its foundational legacies. Overseen by its founder Qin She Huang, the dynasty introduced a number of laws and systems which remained in place until the early 20th Century. The dynasty achieved its goal of establishing a unified centralised state of political power. It removed power from feudal lords and established strict control over the peasantry. The authoritarian government introduced standardised writing and measurement systems, a single currency and large-scale construction projects, including the initial Great Wall. It was also known for its anti-intellectualism, with book burning becoming common. The harshness of this regime caught up with it. After the first Emperor’s death, a brief power struggle emerged, which caused a rebellion to oust the dynasty from power. A brief transitional period followed, with the power vacuum being filled by the Han Dynasty.

Han Dynasty

Following the collapse of the Qin Dynasty, the Han Dynasty emerged as the next great period, exerting control over China for 400 years. It is considered to be one of the most illustrious periods in Chinese history, often labelled a golden age. The ethnic Chinese term ‘Han Chinese’ stems from this period, giving a sense of its importance. Established by rebel leader Liu Bang, the dynasty is divided into two periods-the Western Han (206 BC-9 AD) and the Eastern Han (25-220 AD), separated by the brief Xin Dynasty. The period was known for its vast cultural achievements, restoring the artistic and intellectual rigour the preceding Qin Dynasty repressed. Literature and music flourished while historical documentation improved significantly. Importantly, Buddhism was introduced from India during this period, a major cultural moment in Chinese history.

Western Han Dynasty

Paintings from the Han Dynasty

Paintings from the Han Dynasty

The Western Han Dynasty, under the rule of Liu Bang or Emperor Gaozu as he was retroactively known, made Chang’an its capital. Gaozu restored authority to some members of the nobility to quell an uprising following their contributions to the overthrowing of the Qin dynasty. This division of power was not long-lasting as these feudal lords were replaced by members of the Liu family due to questions surrounding their loyalty. This resulted in a number of uprisings, the most notable of which being the Rebellion of the Seven States in 154 BC. In the aftermath, the Han Kings’ powers were reduced significantly and the Imperial court played a more significant role in the oversight of their kingdoms. The lesser kings were rulers in the nominal sense but lacked major powers. The Western Han Dynasty was ended following the accession of Wang Mang, who established the Xin Dynasty.

Xin Dynasty

Wang Mang’s grip on power proved to be short-lived. He passed a number of sweeping reforms such as the abolition of slavery and the nationalisation of land in a bid of creating a harmonious society inspired by the works of Confucius and other scholars. These reforms, however well-intentioned, backfired and drew considerable opposition. This opposition intensified significantly following a series of major floods, which left vast swathes of the peasantry homeless and destitute. Rebel groups began to emerge and they eventually stormed Wang Mang’s palace and killed him. Another brief power struggle emerged but eventually the Han Dynasty was restored.

Eastern Han Dynasty

The second Han Dynasty, better known as the Eastern Han or the Later Han, was restored under the leadership of Emperor Guangwudi in 25 AD. This marked a return to the Western Han’s government institutions. The Eastern Han pursued a more aggressive foreign policy while trade and cultural exchange increased considerably. Contact was made with the Roman Empire, the Parthian Empire and many other foreign powers. The dynasty reached its zenith under Emperor Zhang in 75-88 AD, with Han society and culture reaching its apex. Thereafter, the dynasty began a slow decline. The eunuchs began to exert more and more political power and imposed authoritarian restrictions. Conflict intensified considerably as rival powers vied for control. The eunuchs were massacred by the military following the death of Emperor Ling in 189 AD and a power struggle emerged between military and nobility figures, dividing the Empire once more.

Three Kingdoms

Flag of the Shang Dynasty

Flag of the Shang Dynasty

With the Han Dynasty all but vanquished, a period of major political discord dominated China. Daoist and Yellow Turban rebellions were quashed and China entered one of the bloodiest periods in its history. The period is known as ‘the Three Kingdoms’, with three figures claiming control of the entirety of China. The states were Wei, Shu and Wu. This relatively short period is deeply ingrained within Chinese history with numerous figures entering the canon in an age of chivalry and heroism. Eventually, in 263 She was conquered by Wei, only to be overcome itself by the ascendant Jin Dynasty. The Three Kingdoms Period was a time of major technological advancement and the exploits of its major figures have been lionised in Chinese culture.

Western Jin Dynasty

In the aftermath of the turbulent and bloody Three Kingdoms Period came the Western Jin Dynasty, a period known for its relative stability. Attempts were made to enact political and economic reform in a bid to repress the rebellion of the nobility and restore the glory years of the Han dynasty. However, these attempts were in vain as in-fighting between rival clans caused thew Jin’s grip on power to disintegrate and foreign powers to emerge.

The Barbarian Invasions and the Sixteen Kingdoms

With the Jin dynasty in disarray, China was vulnerable to outside conquest, which came in the form of Liu Yu, a Xiognu warlord who began to conquer China’s North with the aid of Chinese bandits. Northern China subsequently fell under the rule of a number of warring barbarian factions for many centuries, which were referred to as the Sixteen Kingdoms.

Eastern Jin Dynasty

While the Western Jin Dynasty was displaced by invading foreign tribes, the East functioned as a refuge for exiled members of the royal family and the nobility. The royal family found themselves subjected to the domimion of the nobility, who functioned as oligarchies, often coming to blows with one another. This persistent conflict ensured that the Eastern Jin did not survive for long and was overthrown by the Liu Song Dynasty’s founder Liu Yu in 420, ushering in a new period now known as the Northern and Southern Dynasties.

Northern and Southern Dynasties

Another major period of conflict and disorder, the period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties lasted from the collapse of the Eastern Jin in 589 until the reunification of China under the Sui Dynasty’s Emperor Wen. It is considered to be a major transitional period in the country’s history, seeing Buddhism and Daoism become increasingly widespread while the Han Chinese diaspora spread southwards. The dominant philosophy of Confucianism began to wane and gave way to a diversification of intellectual thought while literature and the arts flourished.

Sui Dynasty

Emperor Wen of Sui by Yan Li-pen

Emperor Wen of Sui by Yan Li-pen

Following nearly 400 years of infighting and fragmentation, the Sui Dynasty reunified China. However, its authority would prove to be short-lived. The leadership of the Sui Dynasty attempted to enact sweeping political reform but ultimately overextended itself and collapsed. Its founder Wendi, a former member of the Northern Zhou aristocracy emerged as a major military power and established a new capital-Daxing and prioritised defence whilst engaging in foreign affairs. His military supremacy saw him easily overcome the Southern dynasties. He strengthened his standing with institutional reforms, establishing a more lenient penal code and expanding the central government. He conducted a major census and reformed the taxation system. Its most enduring physical legacy was the Grand Canal, the oldest and longest of its kind in the world and a major trading artery. Despite the dynasty’s early promise, it was brought to an abrupt and ignominious end during the Goguryeo-Sui War, a conflict with one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. Civil unrest grew to such an extent that the dynasty was overthrown and the emperor assassinated.

Tang Dynasty

The Sui Dynasty’s successor-the Tang Dynasty is considered to be one of the cultural peaks of Chinese history. The power vacuum was quickly filled by the Li family, which oversaw a period of peace and prosperity. Expanding upon the reforms established by the Sui dynasty, the Tang Dynasty saw civil order form while culture reached new heights, the mediums of poetry and fine art flourishing particularly well. The Tang Dynasty ultimately reached its end as the central government eased control over the economy, which coupled with natural disasters to cause civil unrest amongst the agrarian population. Uprisings such as the Guangzhou massacre toppled the dynasty and led to yet another period of political unrest.

Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms

Civil disorder gripped China for nearly 50 years, marking the arrival of a multi-state system. Northern China’s Imperial stronghold was dominated by five short-lived, successive regimes (Hou Liang, Hou Jin, Hou Han and You Zhou). Meanwhile, the South was divided into ten separate, stable regimes of varying size. This period was plagued by conflict and moral degradation.

Song Dynasty

Divided into two distinct periods-the Northern Song (960-1127) and the Southern Song (1127-1279), this was a major turning point in Chinese history. A time of considerable economic growth and expansion as foreign trade, commerce, urban growth and technological development all occurred. It was also a time of considerable population growth while Confucianism underwent a cultural revival. It was a time noted for the conflict with the Mongol Empire, which conquered the Song Dynasty in 1279.

Yuan Dynasty

Marking a dramatic change was the Yuan Dynasty, an empire established by Mongol leader Kublai Khan. An outlier of the Mongol Empire, Khan ruled over China in isolation from the rest of the Khanate. The Khanate ruled over China for nearly 100 years, synthesising Chinese traditions with Mongol military identity. Mongol rule brought initial economic and cultural success but eventually descended into feudalism and was ruled like a colony, a fatal error given China’s immense size. It was conquered by the emerging Ming Dynasty

Ming Dynasty

The Xuande Emperor

The Xuande Emperor

The initial Ming Emperor Hongwu established an austere, authoritarian political system which placed strong emphasis on the agricultural sector of the economy. As the dynasty developed, major economic change was implemented as foreign trade expanded significantly. The Great Wall of China was significantly developed into its current form. The dynasty collapsed following a series of natural disasters and crop failures, usurped by rebel leader Li Zicheng, who was shortly afterwards ousted himself by the Eight Banner army-the founders of the Qing Dynasty.

Qing Dynasty

China’s final dynasty was established in 1636 and ruled the country until the early 20th Century, its power extinguished in 1912. One of the largest empires in the history of the world, the Qing Dynasty created the territorial basis for modern-day China. This period saw a dramatic increase in population and an intensification of foreign policy as it acquired new territories, most notable Taiwan. Its aggression drew the ire of Western powers and conflict broke out. Despite late attempts at modernisation, the empire collapsed due to the divisions between the reformers and the hardliners.


Illustration of the construction of the Great Wall of China during the Han Dynasty

Illustration of the construction of the Great Wall of China during the Han Dynasty

Without a doubt China’s most iconic and enduring landmark, the Great Wall of China is one of the most impressive physical accomplishments in human history. Straddling China’s historical northern border, the wall was built incrementally over several centuries as a means of fortification against invading forces, particularly the nomadic forces of the Eurasian Steppe, who regularly tried to invade and conquer China. The earliest walls date back to the 7th Century BC, and were added to in the years since. Major developments were made during the reign of China’s first Emperor Qin Shi Huang in the 3rd Century BC. The majority of the modern-day Great Wall date s back to the time of the Ming Dynasty in the 14th Century. Traversing an immense distance of over 13,000 miles, the Great Wall remains one of the most iconic and historically significant landmarks in the world.

RELIGION AND BELIEFS: From Buddhism to Confucianism

Religion in China has been an ever-changing and complex issue over several millennia. Historically, the country was dominated by Chinese folk religions, which have a strong emphasis on nature and ancestors and include the worship of a plethora of different deities. The concept of Yin and Yang is a central principle to Chinese folk religions. In modern times, adherents to Chinese Folk Religion still accounts for nearly 75% of the country’s population, although this also includes worshippers of Taoism and Confucianism, two officially recognised religions. Taoism is heavily rooted in the philosophical concept of ‘The Way’, the natural order of the universe. It first emerged in the 2nd Century and remains a focal point of Chinese religious and cultural identity. Equally important is Confucianism, which first emerged in the 6th Century BC. A major influence on Taoism, Confucianism is named after the philosopher Confucius and places strong emphasis on the importance of family. It is more humanistic than spiritual. Confucianism has gone through cycles of significance, particularly important during the Shang, Han and Tang dynasties. It remains immensely important in modern times. Buddhism accounts for 15% of the country’s population. Having arrived in China due to the increase of cultural and physical exchange associated with the Silk Road, Buddhism emerged during the end of the Han dynasty during the 1st Century. During the period of political discord and civil conflict which followed the collapse of the Han dynasty, Buddhism became increasingly widespread amongst the population, reaching a point of religious supremacy as it competed with the country’s native religions. Overall, there are five recognised religions in China-Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam-however, it is the first three which are of major cultural significance, forming the ‘three teachings’ of Chinese culture. While these views were repelled during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960’s due to their perceived regressiveness, they have since been formally embraced as a major part of the country’s national identity.

TRADE SECRETS: Tea, Porcelain, Silk

The Silk Road, a series of networks, which connected the Eastern and Western worlds, opened Europe to a number of important commodities from China.


Tea is amongst the most significant of these. Consumption and production of tea in China dates back nearly 5000 years. Tea has a major cultural and spiritual significance in China, having been believed to relieve a number of sicknesses and ailments. It emerged as a recreational beverage during the Tang Dynasty and spread throughout East Asia. Tea was imported to Europe first by the Portuguese in the 16th Century, becoming popular in Britain around 100 years later and eventually becoming a cultural institution. Due to the Chinese monopoly on production, the British Empire established major manufacturing hubs in India in a bid to overcome this domination of the market. In modern times, nearly two thirds of the world’s tea production comes from China and India.


Ming dynasty Xuande mark and period (1426–35) imperial blue and white vase

Ming dynasty Xuande mark and period (1426–35) imperial blue and white vase

China’s importance in the development of porcelain is so significant that the ceramic is commonly known as ‘china’ in Europe. A resilient material known for its toughness and distinct white colour, porcelain took many years to perfect, with its progenitors dating back to as early as the 17th Century BC. The manufacturing process was perfected during the Han Dynasty and a major industry surrounding it soon emerged. Exportation to Europe began during the Ming Dynasty as its popularity grew immensely, proving to be a lucrative source of trade for the country as Portuguese and Dutch merchants instigated direct trade.


Giving the Silk Road its name, the eponymous product has been an immensely popular and important export of China. As the birthplace of the product, China has been a major development for silk for over 8000 years. The heart of the Chinese textiles industry, silk production played a major role in China’s trading relationships with Western countries. It proved so lucrative that the Chinese went to great lengths to ensure that the manufacturing process remained a secret so as to preserve their monopoly. In modern times, Chinese silk production accounts for nearly three quarters of the world’s total and exports accounting for nearly 90%.


The Forbidden City as depicted in a Ming dynasty painting

The Forbidden City as depicted in a Ming dynasty painting

Now one of China’s most iconic landmarks and tourism attractions, the Forbidden City is located in the heart of the country’s capital city Beijing and is a site of major cultural and historical significance. A vast palace complex built during the Ming Dynasty, it functioned as the home of the Emperor and the government’s political centre for nearly 500 years. Consisting of an astounding 980 buildings, the Forbidden City spans an area of 180 acres. It is considered to be perhaps the definitive example of Chinese palatial architecture. Since the collapse of the Chinese monarchy in 1912, the Forbidden City has changed purposes repeatedly. In modern times, it is a major tourism attraction, administered by the Palace Museum.


One of the most notable series of conflicts in Chinese military history, the Opium Wars were two separate wars between China and the British Empire during the 19th Century.

The First Opium War lasted nearly three years, from 1839 to 1842. It stemmed from trade disputes between Great Britain and China. Trade between the two countries was strong, with demand for Chinese goods such as tea, porcelain and silk very high in Britain. Chinese demand for British goods was less high and overwhelmingly focused on silver, which saw a shortage in Britain. In order to force the Chinese hand, British merchants with the assistance of the East India Company, began to smuggle opium into the country through illegal channels, demanding payment in silver, for which they would purchase Chinese goods such as tea. Indeed, by the outbreak of the war, opium sales paid for the tea trade. This outraged China due to the massive addiction problems it caused as well as the upset of the balance of trade. They forced British trade figurehead Charles Elliot to hand over and destroy opium supplies, which caused strained relations to reach breaking point and conflict to emerge. The war was dominated by naval battles, which the British won with ease. Despite being drastically outmatched, they secured victory after nearly 3 years. Victory was sealed with the Treaty of Nanking, which saw the British resume free trade and seize control of Hong Kong from the Chinese. The defeat significantly affected the dynasty’s international prestige and remains a dark period during Chinese history. It marked the beginning of modern Chinese history and what some nationalist historians describe as the ‘Century of Humiliation’.

The Second Opium War began over a decade later following European frustrations over the Chinese government’s failure to comply with the terms of the Treaty of Nanking. European powers wanted the country to be more open to their merchants as well as the legalisation of the lucrative opium trade. China, still frustrated by the previous conflict, refused to negotiate with any European countries. Tensions reached boiling point in 1856 when the Chinese boarded a British ship-the Arrow which was owned and manned by Chinese traders. The British demanded their release and upon Chinese refusal, conflict between the two escalated significantly. The British asked other Western powers for military assistance, with the French eagerly agreeing. Although peace was agreed in 1858, conflict continued as China refused to adhere to certain terms of the treaty. Peace was finally ratified with the Convention of Peking and the Chinese ceded even more territory to the British. Other terms included the freedom of religion in China, the legalisation of the opium trade and reparations to the British and the French.

These conflicts were a major period of humiliation for China and informed a lingering sense of hostility towards the West which remained intact for many years.


Puyi as the Kangde Emperor, circa March 1934

Puyi as the Kangde Emperor, circa March 1934

Centuries of monarchy in China finally culminated with the reign of Emperor Puyi, whose forced abdication in 1912 marked a major turning point in the country’s history. Reigning from the age of 2 until the age of 6, his brief stint in power was ended during the Xinhai Revolution of 1911. This was mainly prompted by the deep decline of the Qing State as a part of the ‘Century of Humiliation’, which saw Chinese international prestige wane considerably. Major disgraces included the defeats of the opium wars amongst others. This caused unrest and eventually rebellion to develop, causing 2000 years of imperial rule to come to an end. Puyi was still permitted to live in the Forbidden City and went by the new anglicised name of Henry Puyi. He was briefly restored to power for less than two weeks in 1917 by royalist warlord Zhang Xun. He fled Beijing in 1924 to live in the Japanese concession, installed as president and eventually Emperor of Manchukuo, the Japanese puppet state in Manchuria. In the aftermath of the Second World War, he was captured by Russian forces and returned to stand trial in China as a war criminal. Imprisoned for nearly a decade, he was freed in 1959 and lived in Beijing as a civilian, eventually pursuing a career in academia.


The second half of the 20th Century has been a major period of transition in China. In the aftermath of the Second World War and the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Chinese Communist Revolution broke out following the Chinese Communist party’s ascent into power. Eventually, after four years of conflict and millions of death, Communist leader Mao Zedong declared victory in 1949, proclaiming the beginning of the People’s Republic of China. Communist rule was effectively consolidated and embedded into the public consciousness during a period known as the Cultural Revolution, lasting from 1966 to 1976 under Mao’s oversight. This period saw a purge of lingering elements of capitalist and traditional Chinese culture from society. Mao Zegong Thought, or Maoism became the dominant ideological thought of the country. Making up for the failure of Mao’s earlier attempt to transform the country from an agrarian economy into a socialist state, the Cultural Revolution removed bourgeoisie elements through increasingly violent and inhumane means. It is believed that 1.5 million people were executed during the Cultural Revolution with millions of others suffering imprisonment, torture or public humiliation. Following Mao’s death, these policies were mostly dismantled and the Revolution deemed a major setback to Chinese modernisation.

The History of the Silk Road

The History of the Silk Road


Perhaps the most essential development in the cultural exchange between the Eastern and Western worlds, the Silk Road was a network of critical trade routes linking Europe and Asia. These routes stretched from the the Mediterranean region to as far as Japan and included a plethora of land and sea trails. The increasing prevalence of the Silk Road had not only a profound material effect on the world but was also critical in the cultural development of several civilisations around the world.


The foundations of the Silk Road were laid and built upon thousands of years ago. Trade between China and Middle Eastern countries can be dated back as far as 2000 BC, while traces of Chinese silk can be dated back to 1000 BC in Ancient Egypt, which indicates trade between the two areas. Little is known about these early links, and they were certainly not as substantial as they would later become. The Persian Empire maintained a complex trade route through the entirety of its territory to Ancient Greece, which could be seen as a progenitor to the more well-known Silk Road routes. Arguably the first significant development in the establishment of the Silk Road came during the reign of Alexander the Great, whose conquest of Central Asia brought his Greek Empire within spitting distance of China. The Greek presence in Central Asia, which would last for 300 years, saw the commencement of the cultural exchange between the West and the East, which would flourish for millennia. It is believed that during this period, in around 200 BCE, that the first Chinese contact with the West was established.

China was the principal instigator of the Silk Road’s transition into the vast network it became. During the Han Dynasty, China became increasingly interested in Western trade as its empire expanded deeper into Central Asia. The Hans were motivated by both diplomatic and materialistic interests as more and more routes connecting East and West opened up. The Hans established routes on land and sea, which saw trade begin to increase significantly, although they were not as complex as they would eventually become.

The Roman Empire were also an important force in the Silk Road becoming a global phenomenon. The Roman takeover of Egypt in 30 BCE saw its trade with Eastern countries increase significantly. Having essentially displaced the Hellenic Empire, the Romans inherited many of its prototypical trade routes with Eastern territories. The dominant force that it was, the Roman Empire galvanised trade links between East and West, its significant wealth causing demand for artisanal products such as silk (hence the Silk Road) to skyrocket. The Empire’s collapse in the 5th Century caused trade between East and West to cool, due to the absence of such substantial demand. However, this initial contact set the foundations for the Silk Road.

Marco Polo

One of history’s most iconic explorers of all time, Marco Polo was a figure whose exploits were critical in opening up a dialogue of trade and communication between the East and the West. An Italian merchant born into a family of explorers, Marco Polo can be credited with reigniting the interest of Europeans in visiting the Far East. Inspired by the travels of his father and uncle Niccolo and Maffeo, who had met Kublai Khan, a powerful Mongol leader, on their Asian travels, he joined them on their next journey in 1271, not to return home for nearly 25 years. It is difficult to present an entirely factually accurate account of Polo’s journeys, with some questioning the accuracy of his claims.

During his travels, Polo traversed the routes which now fall under the Silk Road, reaching modern-day China. He became associated with Kublai Khan, and purportedly travelled throughout his domain whilst under his employ, returning to Venice shortly after Khan’s death, which triggered the downfall of the Mongol Empire

Upon his return to Venice, he bore substantial newfound wealth, converted into gemstones. He wound up in Genovese captivity shortly after his return in a conflict with Venice. During this impriisonment, he dictated the stories of his travels, which eventually became The Travels of Marco Polo manuscript, which circulated widely throughout Europe and played a critical role in inspiring a new generation of travellers, most notably Christopher Columbus.

Polo’s travels, despite the ambiguity over their truthfulness, nonetheless left an enduring legacy, inspiring interest in the Far East and its potential riches. They left an important contribution to cartography and left a template upon which figures of the Age of Exploration would build upon.

What Was Traded

As its name suggests, the Silk Road’s origins lay in the trade of valuable Chinese silk with Western commodities. Originally, during the Hellenic Period, the main Western item traded were horses. The Chinese were taken aback by the Ionian horses, which were unlike any they had previously seen. This is often considered to be the initial main exchange between East and West, giving the Silk Road its name.

However, as the routes developed and grew increasingly complex along with the cultural exchanges they enabled, a plethora of commodities were traded. Other commodities included ivory, gold, silver and wool. Spices and foods were also an important item of trade, opening up territories to new novelties they had never experienced before.

Most important however is the cultural exchanges, which trade along the Silk Road allowed. The very fabrics of cultures were altered and grew increasingly linked as commodities, languages and ideas found new exposure elsewhere. The Silk Road played a fundamental role in the establishment of cosmopolitanism, which is so prominent around the world today.


Northern Route: A critical route in the Silk Road reaching from Xian, Northern China, through the Taklaman Desert through the Persian and Parthian Kingdoms and eventually to Rome. This is considered to be the first major route of the Silk Road, defined in the 1st Century BCE, and was used during the Han Dynasty. This route had a number of branches.

Southern Route: A more cohesive, singular route, which connects China and Pakistan through the Karakoram mountains. This route remains intact today as the Karakoram Highway. This Southern Route was essentially a straight, lateral line bisecting the Eurasian continent through Afghanistan, Iran and towards the Mediterranean.

Tea Horse Road: A critical route of the Silk Road, this opened up access to India from China. This route travelled through Tibet, Burma and finally Bengal. It was, as its name suggests, important in transporting tea as well as other commodities such as salt. It was indirectly pivotal in opening up the riches of India, mainly spices, to the West, providing an accessible route for later travellers.

Maritime Silk Road: Although the Silk Road is most often considered to be a land-based route, people often neglect the importance of sea travel to the emergence of trade. The Maritime Silk Road was a vast network encompassing several of bodies of water, particularly the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. It allowed travellers to bypass the sometimes dangerous land routes, providing another important outlet for trade.

Caravanserai: These were structures which emerged as travelling became increasingly common along the Silk Road routes. Caravanserai were essentially roadside inns where travellers could rest whilst journeying across the Silk Road. Varying in levels of opulence, they were typically rectangular buildings and provided water and other supplies to travellers as well as lodgings. Their construction reflected the increasing importance of the Silk Road and the need for infrastructure along it to accommodate the significant increase of travellers. Several Caravanserai ruins remain
intact today, most notably in Iran and Armenia where they were highly common.

Silk Road Cities

Samarkand: One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Central Asia, Samarkand is located in what is now known as Uzbekistan. Samarkand rose to prominence due to its positioning along the Silk Road and became a major centre for trade as travel became increasingly common. Samarkand became one of Central Asia’s most prosperous cities, its positioning at the mid-point between China and the Mediterranean made it a critical location for travellers along the Silk Road. Marco Polo wrote about it in his travels, which arguably popularised it amongst Western travellers. Samarkand’s importance as a trade hub saw it become an important cultural centre, eventually becoming the intellectual epicentre of Central Asia.

Merv: Although it is no longer an inhabited city, the ruins of Merv marked the location of a significant Oasis-City along the Silk Road. A number of different cities were located on the ruins of Merv during Hellenistic, Arab, Turkish, Mongol and Uzbeki periods of dominance of the territory. As a result, the site has seen several different cultures and civilisations leave their mark on the city, a process which intensified as West/East contact became more commonplace.

Xi’An: One of China’s most important modern-day cities, Xi’an emerged as an important urban centre as the capital of the Tang Dynasty, which coincided with the rise of the Silk Road. Xi’an is considered to be the starting point of the Silk Road and China’s window into the Middle East. Indeed, a substantial Muslim population remains prevalent in the city today.

Aleppo: A pivotal trade centre of the Silk Road, Aleppo’s close proximity to the Mediterranean Sea and the Euphrates Valley ensured its importance as trade between East and West opened up. Aleppo was famous for its vast 13 KM bazaar, which served as an important trading centre for commodities and cultures.

Mosul: Located in modern-day Iraq, Mosul arose as a key Silk Road city at some point prior to the 10th Century and evolved into one of the Middle East’s most diverse urban centres. Mosul was known for its economic prosperity, resulting from its artistic and industrial production. It became known particularly for being one of the Middle East’s most important textile centres as well as a key producer of crude oil.


The Silk Road’s importance in history cannot be overstated. On a material level, populations were exposed to goods they had never previously encountered, which by extension reshaped various areas of culture. More importantly, the cultural impact is immeasurable, allowing both Eastern and Western ideas, philosophies and practices to be exposed and embraced by new audiences. Furthermore, the Silk Road caused travel to regain popularity in an significant way, instigating a new Age of Exploration. The Silk Road’s explosion in popularity caused the barriers between the Eastern and Western worlds to collapse and begin to merge, leaving the foundation to the cosmopolitan world we live in today.

A Brief Introduction to the Industrial Revolution

A Brief Introduction to the Industrial Revolution



This guide is split into three sections:

1. Causes
2. Events
3. Effects


Although bears little in common with any other revolution due to its lack of political context, the Industrial Revolution was nonetheless one of the most significant periods of upheaval in recorded history. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the manufacturing of goods was done on a very small scale with very basic tools. Furthermore, the majority of people lived in rural regions, far from the cities. Industrialisation was a period of significant technological innovation, which lay the blueprint for several key industries in the modern world, which we now take for granted.

The Industrial Revolution had its roots in Britain in the late 18th century. There were several key reasons for Britain’s prominence regarding industrialisation. Firstly were the country’s vast resources of fossil fuels such as coal and iron, pivotal materials in the emerging industries. Secondly was its status as the world’s most powerful colonial empire, allowing it access to other raw materials as well as a strong network of markets. Leading the charge, Britain’s contributions to Industrialisation would eventually change society.


The only surviving example of a Spinning Mule built by the inventor Samuel Crompton

The only surviving example of a Spinning Mule built by the inventor Samuel Crompton

There were several innovations, which were products of the Industrial Revolution. Arguably the first significant innovation was in textiles. In the 1760s, James Hargreaves invented the spinning engine, or “jenny”, which enabled multiple items of clothing to be produced at the same time by spooling thread. This enabled the mass production of clothing, which prior to this point was hand and custom-made. Further innovations in textiles included the power loom, invented by Edmund Cartwright in the 1780s. These, amongst others, would prove to be incredibly historically significant.

The iron industry was arguably the most important facet of the Industrial Revolution. Several discoveries were made regarding cheaper, more efficient ways of mass-producing iron and steel. These materials were instrumental in industrialisation as the foundations of innovative new methods of construction. This allowed developments in architecture, engineering and technology to unfold at a rapid rate.These innovations in the iron industry would prove to be instrumental in the development of communication, transport and infrastructure. Indeed, the steam engine in many ways is considered the defining achievement of the industrial revolution. The steam engine not only powered machines, which significantly improved productivity in factories, but also trains and ships, which would prove to be hugely important. As more complex ships were built, it became far easier, quicker and more efficient to travel between continents. In the case of Britain, the bastion of the industrial revolution, this proved to be important in the establishment of infrastructure and communication between its various colonies. The steam train was of huge importance as well in a more localised sense. It allowed travel between far-apart areas on the same landmass to be far more easily facilitated. This allowed people to traverse distances at a speed previously thought impossible and also allowed goods and materials to be more easily distributed over a wide range of areas.

example of Steam Engine Locomotives developed during the time of Industrialization

Example of Steam Engine Locomotives developed during the time of Industrialization

As a result, communication links became far more sophisticated. This was further improved by the invention of the electric telegraph by Charles Wheatstone and William Cooke. This innovation allowed communication to become even more direct. The cable laid across the Atlantic in 1866 allowed communication links between the Western and Eastern Hemispheres to be strengthened significantly. The world was rapidly changing and becoming increasingly linked through these innovations. Resources could be spread all across the globe and the ability to communicate far more quickly and easily helped the industrial drive in Britain spread across the globe.

Map of the 1858 trans-Atlantic cable route

Map of the 1858 trans-Atlantic cable route


The Industrial Revolution laid the foundations for a more globalised world. In modern times, all countries across the globe are linked through developments, which began during industrialisation. The drive to industrialise Britain expanded soon after its beginnings, the world catching up with its developments at a fast rate. The society we live in today owes much of its contributions and failings in a broad spectrum of fields to the incredible period of innovation that was the Industrial Revolution.


main image: c/o creative commons: A Roberts loom in a weaving shed in 1835. Note the wrought iron shafting, fixed to the cast iron columns Illustrator T. Allom – History of the cotton manufacture in Great Britain by Sir Edward Baines,

The Maya

The Maya

Mayan Pyramid, Coba, Mexico

Often considered to be the most sophisticated of the pre-Colombian American cultures, the Maya were well-known for innovative developments in written linguistics, architecture, mathematics and astronomy. Based in Central America, specifically in modern-day Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, The Maya Civilization lasted from the Pre-Classic Period around 1800 BC up until the conquest of the Americas by the Spanish reaching its peak in what is known as the Classic period from around 250-900 AD.

In contrast to other Mesoamerican civilizations, Mayan civilization survived the immediate colonization of the Spanish in what is known as the Classical period collapse, but it began to irreparably decline and ultimately withered away. In contrast to archaic Western civilizations, the Mayan race was spread over several Kingdoms, each ruled over by a leader called an ajaw. These kingdoms usually only consisted of a central city and the immediate surroundings. It was uncommon but not unheard of for certain kingdoms to be more powerful than others but no one dynasty ever exerted significant control over the wider populace.

Among the Maya’s most endearing accomplishments are their architectural structures. Most famous of which were their stepped pyramids such as El Castillo in Yucatan, Mexico. Other structures included palaces, religious temples and observatories, the latter of which reflecting the Maya’s keen interest in astronomy. Indeed, the Mayans were highly regarded for their skills in astronomy, making several accurate observations. A common trait of Mesoamerican societies, the Mayans were capable of keeping track of time through measuring the solar year, far more so than European cultures.

Like other Mesoamerican cultures, the Mayans’ religious beliefs were steeped in their belief of the cyclical nature of time. Similar to many ancient religions, they believed that the cosmos was comprised of three spiritual planes, the heavens, the earth and the underworld, the latter of which was known as Xibalba. They believed in a number of deities, including Itzamna, the god of the sky. Like other Mesoamerican cultures, the Maya did engage in human sacrifice in accordance to their religious beliefs, but not nearly to the same extent as other races such as the Aztecs. Although many aspects of their civilization remains shrouded in mystery, the Maya were nonetheless one of the most unique and innovative ancient cultures of the Americas.

More information:

Destination Guide: Mexico

Watch: Empire Builders: The Maya

Read: Lasting Impressions: Frederick Catherwood’s drawings of Maya Ruins

Read: The Looting of Mayan Ruins in Uaxactun

Read: The Magnificence of Mayan Structures

Main Image: Mayan Pyramid, Coba, Mexico. Pilot Productions ©

By Louis Cross

The Ancient Egyptians

The Ancient Egyptians

One of the most spectacular and accomplished ancient civilizations the world has ever seen, the Ancient Egyptians were renowned for innovations in diverse fields such as architecture, mathematics, medicine, infrastructure and literature. As one of only six civilizations to rise autonomously, its starting point is commonly cited at around 3150 BC when Lower and Upper Egypt were united under the first Pharaoh.  Ancient Egypt subsequently progressed as a succession of stable Empires, which were the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom. These were separated by shorter periods of comparative instability.

The Empire peaked during the Ramesside period of the New Kingdom, during which it was considered one of the most feared and powerful Empires on the planet. Following this however, the Ancient Egyptians found themselves an Empire in decline, conquered by a succession of more powerful civilizations including the Libyans and the Greeks. Egypt fell under the rule of Alexander the Great’s General Ptolemy Soter, which resulted in the Greek Ptolemaic Dynasty ruling over the civilization until 30 BC when it became annexed by the immensely powerful Roman Empire during the rule of Cleopatra.

Perhaps the Ancient Egyptians’ most endearing accomplishments are their architecture, much of which remains intact today. The Pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx are doubtlessly the most symbolic structures of Ancient Egypt, both of which are widely recognizable images across the world. Aside from architecture, the Ancient Egyptians were also famous for their complex infrastructure.

Due to the heart of the Empire’s close proximity to the Nile River, the Egyptians’ innovation with irrigation methods allowed them to exploit the region’s agricultural resources in order to sustain the population. The social development which progressed as a result lead to the Egyptian Empire’s establishment of trade with foreign nations, a strong military and an organized series of construction projects.

The Egyptian population, many of whom were slaves, were kept under the Pharaoh’s thumb through a complex bureaucratic system, which involved the implementation of a complex religious belief system. This ensured the growing Egyptian population would be kept in order.

The Egyptian Empire left an enduring and rich legacy not only through its revolutionary arts and architecture, but also through its innovative spirit, which played a pivotal role in the development and sophistication of the human race.

Main Image: Giza pyramids, Khalid Almasoud, Flickr Creative Commons

By Louis Cross

A Short History of The Inca Empire

A Short History of The Inca Empire

Machu pichu

The most widespread empire in the Americas prior to European conquest; although the Inca civilization was long-lived, the Empire itself thrived for a relatively short period of time of just under a century. Centered around what is now modern-day Cusco in Peru, the Empire encompassed the majority of the continent’s Western coast, encompassing contemporary territories such as Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador.

A sophisticated Empire in contrast to the more spread-out Mayan civilization, the Incas built up territory through both violent annexation and more diplomatic assimilation. The Empire was ruled as a Federalist system, with the Sapa Inca as the divine, all-powerful leader of the state. In addition to being the de facto leader, his duties also entailed being the head of the state’s religion. The only other official with a comparatively high status was the Willaq-Umu or Chief Priest. In addition to the centralized government in Cusco, the Empire was divided into four suyus (districts): Chinchay Suyu, Anti Suyu, Kunti Suyu and Qulla Suyu. Culturally, the Incas are best remembered for their stunning architecture, which even Spanish conqueror Pizarro noted as spectacular. Indeed, architecture was by a considerable margin the most important of the arts within the Incan Empire.

Similar to other Mesoamerican cultures, the Incas believed in the concept of reincarnation, with death being a trying phase of life in which spirits had to undergo several trials to reach heaven, which bore several similarities to the Abrahamic notion of the afterlife. There were several bizarre and violent religious customs associated with the Incas, including cranial deformation and human sacrifice, both of which often included infant children.

Despite the glorious highs the Incan Empire achieved, it ended in bloody tragedy. Already vulnerable following a civil war and a smallpox outbreak, the arrival of Spanish Conquistadors proved to be the final nail in the coffin. Lead by the devious conqueror Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish, despite possessing a small army of 168 men, were far more technically advanced than the Incas. Furthermore, they enlisted the aid of tens of thousands of disgruntled natives of territory annexed by the Incas. Following the Battle of Puna in modern day Ecuador, Pizarro attempted to force the Incas into non-violent submission, but due to a language barrier, this did not work. Eventually, the Spaniards captured the Incan leader Atahualpa, and despite his offer to exchange a fortune in gold in silver, which the Incas fulfilled, they were cruelly deceived. Pizarro refused to release him, eventually having him and his brother Huascar executed, allowing the Spaniards to conquer the country. Indeed, it proved to be a cruel end to the Americas’ most formidable empire.

 By Louis Cross

The Crusades

The Crusades

The Crusades were military campaigns endorsed by the Latin Roman Catholic Church during the High Middle Ages and Late Middle Ages. Pope Urban II declared the First Crusades with the intended goal of restoring Christian access to holy places in and around Jerusalem.By the end of the 11th century, Western Europe had emerged as a significant power in its own right, though it still lagged far other Mediterranean civilization such as that of the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic empire of the Middle East and North Africa.

In November 1095, Alexius sent representatives to Pope Urban II asking for mercenary troops from the West to help confront the Turkish threat. at the Council of Clermont in southern France, the pope called on Western Christians to take up arms in order to aid the Byzantines and recapture the Holy Land from Muslim control. Pope Urban’s plea met with a remarkable response, both among lower levels of the military elite as well as ordinary citizens. They decided that those who joined the armed pilgrimage would wear a cross as a symbol of the Church.

Several hundred thousand Roman Catholic Christians became crusaders by taking a public vow and receiving complete remission of temporal punishment. The makeup of these crusaders were Christians from all over Western Europe under feudal instead of unified command and the politics were often difficult to the point of intra-faith competition. There were also additional opportunities to take up the cross, such as economic or political gain, a craving for adventure, and the feudal obligations to follow one’s lord into combat. A soldier for Christ was a symbol of complete devotion to God.

 Crusade painting, artist and date unknown

Crusade painting, artist and date unknown.

The First Crusades

Additionally, there were six more major crusades and several minor ones. The First Crusade began in 1096 and four separate armies of crusaders were created from troops of a mixture of Western European regions, led by Raymond of Saint-Gilles, Godfrey of Bouillon, Hugh of Vermandois and Bohemond of Taranto. There was also a group known as the “People’s Crusade,” made up of a less organized crew of knights and commoners. The group set out before the others and a popular preacher known as Peter the Hermit was their leader.In the first significant quarrel between the Crusaders and the Muslims, Turkish forces squashed the invading Europeans at Cibotus.

Another group of Crusaders, led by the notorious Count Emicho, carried out a string of massacres of Jews in various towns in the Rhineland in 1096, drawing widespread outrage and causing a major crisis in Jewish-Christian relations. In 1099, 20,000 Crusaders captured Jerusalem, massacring many of its inhabitants in the process. They were to hold the city for almost 100 years.After the First Crusade there was an alternating 200-year struggle for control of the Holy Land, with six more major crusades and multiple insignificant ones. 1291 brought about the failure of the last Christian domination in the Holy Land at Acre.

The Second Crusades

Due to the fact that the crusaders completed their goal before they anticipated, many left for home, while others stayed to govern the territory. The ones who stayed created four large western settlements, otherwise known as Crusader states, in Jerusalem, Edessa, Antioch and Tripoli. The Crusader states maintained the upper hand in the region until approximately 1130, when Muslim forces began gaining ground in their own holy war, often known as jihad, against the Christians. In 1144, the Seljuk general Zangi, governor of Mosul, captured Edessa, leading to the  loss of the northernmost Crusader state.

The fall of the County of Edessa the previous year marked the need for more military  reinforcements so the Pope, along with many of the Christian rulers, felt a crusade  was necessary. Various preachers, such as, Bernard of Clairvaux and South German  armies, under the Kings Louis VII and Conrad III, marched to Jerusalem in 1147 but  didn’t have any major victories, launching a failed pre-emptive siege on Damascus.

Upon arriving in Constantinople, they planned the impending invasion. They would cross to Anatolia and destroy the Turkish armies that had been recognized the previous year. Their objectives were also to secure the pilgrim pass, recover the County of Edessa and provide reinforcements to Jerusalem, which was in massive danger as most knights had passed away since the First Crusades.There were two big armies led by kings and a few smaller independent armies that were scattered throughout the Mediterranean. Upon reaching Anatolia, both kings were soundly defeated separately giving the Turks a victory they badly needed. The Second Crusade was a failure, despite some success in the Mediterranean namely the acquisition of Lisbon and other small settlements.

The Second Crusade was a failure due to many reasons. First, there was hardly any communication between the two kings. While Conrad marched first to attack Iconium, the Seljuk Turks capital, the French remained behind and attacked another target. This allowed the Turks to quickly march from one place to another without being weighed down. Conrad was defeated and almost killed. The French, on the other hand, lasted longer but they were ultimately routed and their army was almost destroyed.

Furthermore, The Second Crusades had a devastating effect in Europe and was the first real sign of the decay of the Crusaders States in the Middle East. After their defeat, Jerusalem was weakly protected, but this only resulted in the need for the Third Crusade. However, such a humiliating defeat had a negative effect in Europe, which was visible in its economy, lack of recruits and internal chaos. An additional consequence was that Saladin now ruled the Egyptians. He successfully united Syria and Egypt completely surrounding the Crusaders; the main reason of their union was their common enemy, the Christians.

 Petra, Jordan Photo Credit: Jose Javier Martin

Petra, Jordan. Photo Credit: Jose Javier Martin.

The Third Crusades

In the years between the failure of the Second Crusades and 1170, when the Muslim Prince Saladin came to power in Egypt, the Latin States were on the defensive but were able to sustain themselves. After numerous attempts by the Crusaders of Jerusalem to capture Egypt, Nur al-Din’s forces, led by the general Shirkuh and his nephew, Saladin, seized Cairo in 1169 and forced the Crusader army to evacuate. Shirkuh died shortly after and Saladin took over control and started a series of conquests that accelerated after Nur al-Din’s death in 1174.

Then, in 1187, Saladin began a major operation against the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. His troops nearly destroyed the Christian army at the battle of Hattin, and he took back Jerusalem along with a vast majority of territory. In response to the Church’s call for a new, major Crusade, three Western rulers took on the task to lead their forces in person. These were Richard I, the Lion-Hearted of England, Phillip II of France and Frederick I, called Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor. These three leaders banded together. In 1189, on their trek to the Holy Land, Frederick Barbarossa died and most of his armies returned to Germany following his death. Phillip II had been urged into taking up the Crusade by a need to match his rivals, but returned home in 1191. On the other hand, Richard, known as a great soldier was very comfortable in his position and saw an opportunity to campaign in the field, establish ties with the local nobility and to be the voice of the Crusader states.
Although Richard gained a lot of glory through the capture of the island of Cyprus from the Byzantines in 1191 and then recaptured the city of Acre after a long siege, the Crusaders were unable to recapture Jerusalem or much of the territory of the Latin Kingdom. Richard left the following year after negotiating a treaty with Saladin. The terms allowed for trade for merchants and unarmed pilgrims to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem, while it remained under Muslim control. After the disappointments of the Third Crusade, Western forces would never be able to threaten the real bases of Muslim power. Subsequently, they were only able to gain access to Jerusalem through diplomacy, not arms.

The Fourth Crusades

The Fourth Crusades never reached the Holy Land. Instead, it became a  vehicle for the political ambitions of Doge Enrico Dandolo and the  German King Philip of Swabia. Dandolo saw an opportunity to expand  Venice’s possessions in the near east, while Philip saw the crusade as a  chance to restore his exiled nephew, Alexios IV Angelos, to the throne of  Byzantium.Pope Innocent III initiated recruitment for the crusade in 1200 with lecturing taking place in France, England and Germany. However, the majority of the efforts were in France. In preparation for this Crusade, the ruler of Venice agreed to transport French and Flemish Crusaders to the Holy Land, but the Crusaders never fought the Muslims. They were unable to pay the Venetians the amount agreed upon so they were forced to bargain with the Venetians.They crusaders agreed to divert the crusade to Constantinople and share what could be looted as payment. As collateral the crusaders seized the Christian city of Zara on November 24, 1202. When Innocent III learned of the expedition, he excommunicated the participants. The crusaders met with minimal resistance in their initial siege of Constantinople, sailing down the Dardanelles and breaching the sea walls. However, Alexios was strangled after a palace coup, robbing them of their success. They had to repeat the siege in April 1204. This time the city was pillaged, churches were destroyed and immense numbers of the citizens were slayed. The crusaders took their rewards, dividing the empire into Latin fiefs and Venetian colonies. The Venetians then persuaded the Crusaders to attack the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, which fell on April 13, 1204. For three days the Crusaders sacked the city. Subsequently the Venetians gained a monopoly on Byzantine trade. The Latin Empire of Constantinople was established, which lasted until the recapture of Constantinople by the Byzantine emperor in 1261. In addition, several new Crusader states sprang up in Greece and along the Black Sea. The Fourth Crusade did not even threaten the Muslim powers. Trade and commerce had triumphed, like Venice hoped, but at the cost of irretrievably widening the rift between the Eastern and Western churches. In addition, several new Crusader states popped up in Greece and along the Black Sea. The Fourth Crusade did not even intimidate the Muslim powers. Trade and commerce had prevailed, as Venice had hoped, but at the cost of irreparably expanding the rift between the Eastern and Western churches.

knights templar crusades

Espartosa Jacques de Molay Last (23rd), painting by Marius Granet (1777-1849).

The Knights Templar

Around 1118, a French knight named Hugues de Payens created a military order along with  eight relatives and acquaintances. He called it the Poor Knights of the Temple of King  Solomon, which was later known as the Knights Templar. With the support of Baldwin II,  the king of Jerusalem, they set up headquarters on the sacred Temple Mount and pledged to  protect Christian visitors to the city.

After facing initial criticism by religious leaders, in 1129 the knights received the formal  endorsement of the Catholic Church and support from Bernard of Clairvaux, a prominent  abbot. New recruits and lavish donations began pouring in from across Europe.
The Knights Templar were referred to as many different names, including: The Poor Fellow-  Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, frequently the Order of Solomon’s Temple  or simply Templars.  They were among the most wealthy and powerful of the Western  Christian military orders and were among the most important actors of the Christian  finance.  There were three main ranks of the Templars: The noble knights, the non-noble sergeants and the chaplains.

The Roman Catholic Church officially endorsed them in 1129 and the Order became a superior charity through Christendom and grew swiftly in membership and power. The standard uniform for these knights consisted of distinctive white shrouds with a red cross. They were also among the most skilled fighting units of the Crusades. Those members that were non-combatant of the Order, supervised a large economic infrastructure throughout Christendom, creating financial techniques that were an early form of banking and building defenses across Europe and the Holy Land.

In the late 12th century, Muslim soldiers retook Jerusalem and turned the tables of the Crusades, forcing the Knights Templar to relocate multiple times. In the decades that followed, Europeans’ support of military campaigns in the Holy Land began to decline; the Templars’ popularity met the same fate as they clashed with other Christian military orders and participated in a series of fruitless battles. By 1303, the knights had lost their traction in the Muslim world and established a base of operations in Paris. However, the French king Philip IV determined to bring down the order, possibly because the Templars had denied the obliged ruler added loans and expressed interest in forming their own state in southeastern France.

On October 13, 1307, a massive amount of French Templars were arrested along with the order’s grand master, Jacques de Molay. They were charged with a series of offenses ranging from heresy, devil worship and spitting on the cross to homosexuality, fraud and financial corruption,.  These men were brutally  tortured.  Then, In 1310, dozens of Templars were burned at the stake in  Paris for retracting their earlier confessions during their trials.  Finally,  under pressure from Philip, Pope Clement reluctantly dissolved the  Knights Templar in 1312. The organization existed for almost two  centuries during the Middle Ages.


Saladin was born Salah al-Din Yusuf and was known as a great Muslim leader. He was born into a prominent Kurdish family and his father worked for the Turkish governor ‘Imad ad-Din Zangi ibn Aq Sonqur in northern Syria. He spent his youth in Ba’lbek and Damascus, where his main interest was the study of religion instead of military training.

When Saladin was old enough to begin working, he worked with his uncle, Asad ad-Din Shirkuh, who was a key military commander under Nur al-din, the son and heir of Zengi. After Zengi’s death, three military expeditions into Egypt began, all led by Shirkuh, in an attempt to stop the country falling to the Latin Christian rulers of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The King of Jerusalem, Amalric I, Shirkuh and Shawar, the leader of the Egyptian Fatimid caliph, began a three-way struggle as they fought for control.
in 1163, Saladin climbed the ranks of the Fatimid government by virtue of his military successes against Crusader assaults on its territory and his personal closeness to the caliph al-Adid. When Saladin’s uncle Shirkuh died in 1169, al-Adid appointed Saladin vizier, a rare nomination of a Sunni Muslim to such an important position in the Shia Muslim-led caliphate.

During his term as vizier Saladin began to weaken the Fatimid establishment, and following al-Adid’s death in 1171 he took over the government and realigned the country’s allegiance with the Baghdad-based Abbasid Caliphate. In the following years, he led attacks against the Crusaders in Palestine, ordered the successful conquest of Yemen and avoided pro-Fatimid rebellions in Upper Egypt.

Saladin was now known as the Sultan.  He then became the Sole Master of Cairo and the first Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt in 1174.  Although he occupied Damascus and other Syrian towns, Egypt continued to be the main base of his operations.  Saladin managed to unite and lead the Muslim world and the Christians of western Europe were astounded at his success.


Ancient view of the Citadel

One of the things that Saladin is best known for is the creation of the Cairo military fortress, the Citadel, which he built between 1176-1177, as well the college-mosque, the madrassa, where religion and Islamic law were once again taught to residents. Saladin also ordered up a wall to be built, which enclosed the entire city. His goal was to increase the city’s defenses. Saladin sold off the Fatmids’ treasure to pay his Turkish troops and therefore went from strength to strength in his military efforts.

In 1182 Saladin left Cairo. He went to Syria to fight the crusaders and  liberated the immense majority of Palestine from the English, French and  other armies as well as from the control of the Pope. Saladin died in  Damascus in 1193 and was succeeded by his brother, al Adil.


Saladin Castle. Photo credit: Georges Dahdouh.

Richard The Lionheart

King Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionheart was prompted by Saladin’s capture of Jerusalem in 1187 to join the Third Crusade to regain the Holy Land for the Christians. Richard was born to King Henry II of England on September 8th in 1157 and showed excellence in military skills at an early age. In 1174, Richard and two of his siblings, Henry and Geoffrey, rebelled against their father’s rule over Aquitaine.

After conflicts with his father, Richard formed an alliance with King Philip II of France in 1187 to help in his quest against his brothers and father. Richard released the rights to Normandy and Anjou as part of this alliance and went on to win against his father in July 1189 as a unified front. His father agreed to name Richard as his heir, and he was crowned in September 1189 at Westminster Abbey, after Henry’s death.

The pope, Gregory VII, ordered the Third Crusade after Saladin’s defeat of the King of Jerusalem at the Battle of Hattin, and Richard, who was later given the ‘Coeur de Lion’, the “Lion-hearted,’ title for his heroism, was eager to lead the Crusade. He raised money for the mission by imposing a tax upon all classes and selling off royal lands.

Richard I “Cœur de Lion”, London, April 2008. Photo credit: Jan Kunst.

Richard I “Cœur de Lion”, London, April 2008. Photo credit: Jan Kunst.

There was great respect between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin. Saladin made an agreement to send fruit and water to Richard’s men when they requested it in their time of need. Saladin discovered that Richard only had a small army and would have little chance of taking the Holy Land. The two men agreed to a truce, although neither was particularly happy about the outcome, but they were exhausted. This agreement allowed pilgrims from the west to visit Jerusalem without being hassled by the Muslims. Richard sailed for western Europe in October 1192, and never returned to the Holy Land. Unfortunately, Duke Leopold of Austria captured him, who Richard had criticized before. Leopold held Richard captive for two years before a sizeable ransom was paid for him. Richard was finally able to travel home in 1194.

The Death Of Richard The Lionheart

By March of 1199, Richard was involved in a siege of the castle at Chalus-Chabrol. There was a rumor that a treasure had been found on his lands,  and Richard was said to have demanded the treasure be given over to him. However, this didn’t happen and instead Richard attacked.
He was killed in 1199 in battle in Northern France’ while trying to expand territory in France on behalf of the English Crown. On the evening of March 26, Richard was shot in the arm by a crossbow bolt while watching the progress of the siege. Although the bolt was removed and the wound was treated, infection could not be prevented and Richard became sick. He kept to his tent and limited visitors to keep the news from getting out, but he knew what was happening. Richard the Lionheart died on April 6, 1199.


The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire occupies a special place in the collective consciousness of the West, at once a dark star on the eastern horizon, threatening the very existence of Western civilisation, and at the same time a source of endless fascination and enchantment, the physical realisation of the wildest Orientalist fantasy. Often identified in the popular imagination of the West as only one step removed from the realm of the Anti-Christ, the Ottoman Empire was at the same time admired for its enlightened attitude towards peoples of other faiths, a place where Jews and Christians, both Catholic and Orthodox, could live side by side with Muslim Turks — they may not have liked each other especially, but at least under Ottoman rule, they weren’t slitting each other’s throats.

The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire at its greatest extent in 1683.

The Ottoman military, the principal instrument of their success, was also admired as much as it was feared. The first standing army since the Roman empire, with an institutionalized system of conscription, salaried professionals, elite infantry and cavalry divisions, and cutting-edge artillery and sappers, its organisation and tactics were studied and copied by rival powers and laid down the foundations for the modern armies of today.

The Ottomans were also celebrated for their achievements in the arts and sciences, particularly architecture and engineering — the latter were more readily accessible to Western observers, whereas other areas of outstanding Ottoman creative achievement, such as poetry and calligraphy, could only be properly appreciated by those who had made a serious study of Islamic culture.

The Early Ottomans

By and large, though, for much of their 600-year rule, the Ottomans were viewed by the West more in negative terms than positive, a kind of repository for the moral failings of the world and its collective sins and vices, if not the fons et origo of all evil. Thus, in spite of their acknowledged religious tolerance and other enlightened attitudes regarding the governance of the peoples they had subdued, the Ottomans were seen as a cruel and vengeful people, who revelled in blood letting and atrocity.

A famous instance of the alleged barbarity of the Turk was the mass execution of Hungarian prisoners of war following the Battle of Mohács in 1526, when 2,000 captive Hungarian soldiers, including many notable noblemen and leaders, were decapitated on the expressed orders of the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. Suleiman, for his part, seems to have been as laconic as he was magnificent, simply noting in his personal diary for that day:  “The Sultan, seated on a golden throne, receives the homage of the viziers and the beys, massacre of 2,000 prisoners, the rain falls in torrents.”

Terrace of the Seraglio

The Terrace of the Seraglio, Jean-Leon Gerome (1824–1904).

Suleiman was not exceptional when it came to barbarous deeds. The Venetian ambassador to the seventeenth-century court of Murad IV, describes the sultan as turning “all his thoughts to revenge, so completely that, overcome by its seductions, stirred by indignation, and moved by anger, he proved unrivalled in savagery and cruelty. On those days that he did not take a human life, he did not feel that he was happy and gave no sign of gladness.”

And it wasn’t just cruelty and violence that the Ottomans were famous for, but other vices too: avarice, duplicitousness and moral degeneracies of every kind. Most especially they were associated with wantonness and sexual excess  — Sultan Murat III was said to have fathered 112 children, while the haremof the Topkapi Palace was famous for being home to some 400 concubines, procured solely for the pleasure of the Sultan!

East and West: Clash Of Civilisations

This demonisation of the Ottoman, was no more than one might expect given the threat posed to the Christian West by the seemingly unstoppable westward expansion of their empire during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Europe had been there once before with the Mongol invasion of Poland, Hungary and Croatia in the thirteenth century.

With the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and subsequent Ottoman advances into Europe in the course of the following century it must have seemed that the dreaded Gog and Magog were once more on the march and hammering at the gates of Christendom — Gog and Magog were peoples or lands mentioned in the Old Testament, who by the medieval era had come to be identified as the ultimate embodiment of the forces of darkness and evil: When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the Earth—Gog and Magog—and to gather them for battle. In number they are like the sand on the seashore (Revelation 20: 7-10).

It is tempting to view this confrontation between of the Muslim Ottoman and the Christian West in medieval Europe as a “clash of civilisations,” an idea that has a popular resonance in today’s post 9/11 world. And in a way it was, at least as seen from a European perspective.

Thus, Edward Said writes that in the eyes of the West, Islam came “to symbolise terror, devastation, the demonic, hordes of hated barbarians … a lasting trauma.” “Until the seventeenth century,” he continues, “the ‘Ottoman peril’ lurked alongside Europe to represent for the whole of Christian civilization a constant danger, and in time European civilization incorporated that peril and its lore, its great events, figures, virtues, and vices, as something woven into the fabric of life” (Orientalism, 1978: 59-60).

Where the Ottomans were concerned, however, their engagement with the West was rather more accommodating, based first and foremost on pragmatic considerations rather than an ideological rejection of all things European. Though intent on conquering as much of Eastern Europe as they could by force of arms, the Ottomans had no particular interest in converting the peoples they had subjugated to Islam. On the contrary, they were perfectly content to let those whom they had over run to continue to practice their own religions, be administered by their own laws and, except where Muslims were involved, be tried by their own legal systems.

The term “clash of civilisations” was first used by Bernard Lewis in an article in the September 1990 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, entitled ‘The Roots of Muslim Rage’, but subsequently became more closely identified with Samuel P. Huntington’s prophesy — now some twenty-years old — that henceforth “The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural … and the fault lines between civilisations will be the battle lines of the future” (Huntingdon ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’, Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993).

When the Jews, for example, were expelled from Andalusia following the reconquest of Spain in 1492, many of them moved to Istanbul, where they were welcomed for their business connections and commercial expertise; the Ottoman Empire was nothing if not cosmopolitan.

Not that the Ottomans were especially benevolent or well-disposed towards non-Muslims. On the contrary, non-Muslims were treated as second-class citizens, and looked down upon as generally inferior beings, if not “beasts” (rayah), whose religion and other traditional practices would always have to defer to those of True Believers.  Not only that, but non-Muslims also had to pay extra taxes and they were often treated in humiliating ways — for example in Damascus, Christians were forbidden to ride animals of any kind, not the humble donkey.

And then, of course, they were subject to the devşirme levy, a literal “harvest of children”, where young boys (and the occasional girl if the Sultan’s harem needing topping up) from non-Muslim families — mainly Christians communities in the Balkans — were forcibly removed from their homes at around the age of seven or eight, and brought to Constantinople, where they were made to convert to Islam and then enrolled one of the four imperial institutions — Palace, Scribes, Religious or the Military — whereupon they would receive an education that would prepare them for a career in the service of the Ottoman state.

But if the Ottomans considered themselves to be morally and materially superior to the West in most things — at least during the first half of their 600-year rule — they were quite happy to cherry-pick the best of European science and the arts as and when it pleased them.

The Ottomans, Western Culture & Art

Mehmed the Conqueror of Constantinople,  was steeped in Classical culture and liked to think of himself as a latter-day Alexander the Great and heir to the Roman Caesar!

Sultan Mehmed II,

Sultan Mehmed II, 1480; oil on canvas; National Gallery, London.

Though a firm believer in Islam and the efficacy of Sharia law, in later life he worshiped Christian relics and commissioned the Venetian artist Gentile Bellini to paint his portrait in a flagrant transgression of the Islamic proscription forbidding representational art.

This Europhilia was not a particular quirk of Mehmed. Ottoman scholars translated the works of ancient Greek philosophers and scientists into Arabic and Turkish, while European geographical discoveries made during the great Age of Exploration, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, soon found their way onto Ottoman maps, most famously Admiral Piri Reis’ World Map of 1513.

Similarly, Ottoman intelligence was well-informed about the latest European technical advances, especially in matters relating to the military sciences and engineering, while Leonardo da Vinci was invited by Sultan Bayezid, Mehmed’s successor, to submit a proposal to for a floating pontoon bridge across the Golden Horn.

If Christian Europe viewed the Ottomans on their doorstep with horror and alarm — an existential menace that threatened to penetrate the very heart of Christendom — the Ottomans looked to the West with a more sanguine eye and were happy to take the best that Europe had to offer and adapt it to their own ends.  Even on the Christian side of the equation, it was never a simply a case of black or white, good or evil, where the Ottomans were concerned.

The first appearance of Ottoman Turkish troops on European soil in 1345 was as Byzantine mercenaries, while Venice was ever in cahoots with Istanbul, even when the rest of Europe was waging war on the Infidel.  And come the Reformation and the emergence of a Protestant constituency in northern Europe, for some Christians, at least, the Ottomans no longer looked like the bad guys when they shared a common enemy — the Catholic-based Holy Roman Empire.

In the latter instance, the Ottomans were quite happy to enter into a rapprochement with the Protestant north, whose dominions lay at one remove from their borders. Thus we find Sultan Murad III exchanging letters with Queen Elizabeth I and arguing for an alliance between England and the Ottoman Empire, for as he points out Islam and Protestantism had “much more in common than either did with Roman Catholicism, as both rejected the worship of idols.”

Madame de Pompadour at embroidery

Carle Charles-André van Loo (French Painter, 1705-1765) Madame de Pompadour at embroidery 1747.

Indeed, the closer one looks for a clash of civilisations, the more the notion seems to recede over the horizon. If ever there was such a thing outside of the rhetoric of popes and kings, then perhaps it can only be really applied to the period of the early crusades and the battle for the Holy Land.

Less than a hundred years after the fall of Constantinople, we find the Ottomans fighting alongside the French in the Italian Wars of 1536–1538 and 1542–1546. Needless to say, this was hardly conceived as a pact with the Devil were the two protagonists were concerned, though their common enemy on both occasions, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, might have seen it that way.

No Longer The Turkish Menace

By the end of seventeenth century, following the failure of the Ottomans to take Vienna in the 1683 — this was their second attempt on the city — and their subsequent defeat at the hands of the Holy League in the Great Turkish War of 1683–1699, the Ottomans were a spent force where further expansion into Europe was concerned.

At this point we see something of a sea change in European perceptions and representations of Ottoman society and culture. No longer the “Turkish menace”, Turks, Mussulmen, Moors and indeed anything that had an Oriental provenance began to be seen in a more favourable, even admirable, light, at least by the educated classes.

In the court society of Louis XIV, “turqueries” were all the rage, while gallant Moors and Muslim heroes began to appear in French theatre and literature. Muslim Spain (Al-Andalus) similarly acquired a positive connotation, while illustrated translations of One Thousand and One Nights provided an encyclopedia of exotic, not to say erotic, images and situations for a newly romanticised East. And yet despite this Orientalist revolution, which occurred in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the idea of an evil empire led by the Terrible Turk, hell-bent on the destruction of Western civilisation never disappeared entirely.

Indeed, it still persists in the collective consciousness of the West to this day, lurking in the shadows but ever ready to be summoned up, when required, in the rhetoric of modern-day leaders and politicians, not least George W. Bush who in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, famously equated his “war on terror” with a “crusade”.

the Terrible Turk

Painting the Terrible Turk – Macey’s Day Parade NYC, 1930

Interestingly, Osama bin Laden, for his part, was equally happy to play along with the crusader imagery, confirming in an Al Jezeera interview that same year, that he did indeed see al-Qaeda’s struggle very much in terms of a clash of civilisations; no doubt, there are many on both sides of the East-West divide who would agree. This kind of political posturing can only succeed against a background of ignorance and prejudice and therefore any attempt to look beyond the stereotype can only be a good thing.

At its greatest extent of the empire in the late seventeenth century, Ottoman conquests in Europe extended westwards to the borders of modern-day Croatia, Austria, and the Slovak Republic, and eastwards as far the Crimea, taking in Moldova, Odessa and southern Ukraine along the way. In addition to the European half of modern-day Turkey (Eastern Thrace), other European countries within the Ottoman fold, at one time or another, included Greece, Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina, parts of Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary, that is to say the region collectively known as The Balkans.

The Balkans

The Balkans has long been one of the great crossroads of the world. Migrating tribes and barbarian invaders, merchants and missionaries, crusaders and ghazi (jihadi), colonisers and empire builders — ever since the Neolithic era, the Balkans have been a place where people from elsewhere came together.

Some were just passing through, others stayed and made the Balkans their home. Illyrians and Greeks, Romans and Slavs, Roma and Magyars, Bulgars and Turks, layer upon layer of ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity, laid down over centuries.

Geography has played its role in accentuating this diversity — the Balkan Peninsula is a land of mountains and rivers, narrow coastal plains and highland pastures, with contrasting patterns of settlement and associated economies. And religion too, with pagan animism and local folkloric traditions being overlaid by Greek and Roman Gods; Roman Catholicism competing with the Eastern Orthodox Church; and both Christian Churches confronting Ottoman Sufism against a shifting background of religious tolerance, compromise, persecution and zealotry.

Since ancient times this has been contested ground. At different periods in the region’s long history, clan chiefs and feudal lords, medieval kings and their vassal princes, brigands and warlords have all fought with one another for territory and resources, and the control of trade routes. Ethnic and religious differences have only served to further complicate things, the history of the Balkans at a local level being one of bitter enmities, duplicitous allies and dodgy alliances, but one that has always been overlaid by the mantle of empire — Roman, Byzantine, and lastly Ottoman. And although the lasting influence of both Roman and Byzantine empires plays an important part in our story, ultimately it is the Ottomans who take centre stage — a dynastic succession of sultans stretching over six centuries that began with a dream and ended with ‘The Speech’.

The Collapse Of The Ottoman Empire Following The First World War

Not that the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire was the last word in the Ottoman story, for while the Empire may have officially ceased to exist with the abolition of the Sultanate by the Turkish Grand National Assembly on 1 November 1922, the repercussions of that momentous event are still being felt in Eastern Europe and the Middle East today.  In the case of the Middle East, many of the problems that currently beset the region can be directly attributed to the fallout from the break up of the Ottoman Empire following the end of the First World War.

By the time all the postwar peace conferences had been concluded in 1922, Britain and France had received “mandates” from the newly formed League of Nations to administer huge chunks of the former Ottoman Empire to the east and south of Turkey and there can be no doubt that many of the decisions taken then not only shaped the territorial boundaries of the modern nation-states that now occupy the region, but also predicated the multiple conflicts that afflict them today, both internally and in relation to one another.

British Mandate in Palestine

British Mandate in Palestine: “Searching for arms after the trouble of Nov. 2nd, 1921.”

A large part of the problem was that in creating the territorial boundaries of what would eventually become today’s Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Syria, and Lebanon, too little attention was paid to the ancient tribal, ethnic, and religious differences that for centuries had been suppressed or at least contained by Ottoman rule.

As US President Woodrow Wilson’s close political advisor, Colonel Edward House, who also sat on the League of Nations Commission on Mandates, presciently remarked at the time, the lines being drawn in the desert sand by European mandarins and diplomats in 1922 were “making a breeding place for future war”.

Many of the same circumstances also prevailed in the Balkans, where ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious divisions that had previously been held together by an Ottoman imperial glue several centuries in the making, also finally came unstuck. In this instance it was the hundred years or so that preceded and precipitated the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire that was the critical period. During this time, one sees the gradual emergence of several nationalist movements seeking to create their own independent nation state from Ottoman-held territories.

Early attempts at rebellion were typically led by small groups of Western-educated, romantically inclined intellectuals, who were not much good at organising an armed struggle; they were usually put down with ease and their leaders captured and executed.

Since, however, these local uprisings tended to provoke reprisals by Ottoman soldiers and irregulars against the civilian populations thought to be aiding and abetting the rebels, they helped to bring about a more widespread resentment against Ottoman rule.

Reported massacres of “innocent Christians” — the spectre of the “barbarous Turk” once more raising his ugly head — were exploited by rebel leaders to elicit support from Western Europe, while the neighbouring superpowers of Austria-Hungary and Russia, were only too happy to wade in and lend a hand in dismembering the “sick man of Europe” as Tsar Nicolas I described the ailing Ottoman Empire in 1853.Unable to contain these separatist movements on several fronts, the Ottoman Empire in Europe gradually started to come apart at the seams.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the majority of Balkan peoples were living in national states created along European lines — Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, Romania and Serbia — but whereas the nation states of Western Europe had been several centuries in their formation, these new Balkan states were rather makeshift, overnight affairs, with invented monarchies and haphazard national boundaries.

Riven by ancient ethnic and religious divisions which straddled national boundaries, these newly-created polities were inherently unstable and prone to violent clashes as they competed with one another for territory and resources as the Ottoman Empire in Europe fell apart.

Since the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War was accompanied by the simultaneous disappearance of Austria-Hungary and Tsarist Russia this created a huge power vacuum in the region. Influenced, in part, by political developments in Italy and Germany, the Balkans drifted to the right in a move that saw fledgling democratic institutions swept away by authoritarian governments of various political hues, ranging from oligarchies and unconstitutional monarchs, to military regimes and fascist dictatorships.

German occupation of much of the Balkans during World War II, which was accompanied by the setting up of puppet states allied to the Axis powers, created a second postwar power vacuum following the capitulation of the Nazi regime in 1945.

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan

This time around it was the communists who took advantage of the situation and once again the Balkans states found themselves on the front-line of a new divide between East and West, only now the “evil empire” was Soviet Russia, and it was Marxist-Leninism, rather than Islam, that constituted the moral and ideological threat.

“I urge you to beware the temptation of pride, the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all … to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil,” Ronald Reagan, address to the National Association of Evangelicals, Orlando, Florida, 8 March 1983.

The Final Chapter

The final chapter in the post-Ottoman story of the Balkans begins with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, when the region was again plunged into to a period of political instability, economic crisis and war. Enmities stretching back centuries once again erupted in a further round of blood-letting and ethnic cleansing that pitted Croat and Serb against Bosniak, Christian against Turk.

Sarajevo's partially destroyed National Library

Vedran Smajlović performs in Sarajevo’s partially destroyed National Library in 1992.

This was an ancient conflict dating back to the fourteenth century when Serbian Prince, Lazar Hrebeljanović, confronted the invading army of the Sultan Murad I at Kossovo Polje in 1389.  This was a battle in which both Lazar and Murad lost their lives, with heavy casualties on both sides, but it was an important Ottoman victory nonetheless for it laid the foundation for further Ottoman conquests into Europe in the following century.

Six hundred years later, the Battle of Kosovo was being fought all over again in the Bosnian conflict of the early 1990s and it was only with the final, violent disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1995, and the resurrection of its dismembered parts as separate independent nations — Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia — that the ghosts of the Ottoman sultans could finally be laid to rest.