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In ancient times several major civilizations arose in Eurasia, or Europe and Asia. Western civilization traces its roots to the peoples of Mesopotamia, in the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in what is now Iraq. Western knowledge of the world expanded from this valley to the lands around the Mediterranean Sea. Exploration of the Mediterranean region went hand in hand with its colonization. The ancient Greeks and a seafaring people known as the Phoenicians established settlements throughout the Mediterranean world. Ancient Egypt, in northern Africa bordering the Mediterranean, also developed an advanced society. Meanwhile, important civilizations developed in the East, in the lands that are today China and India and Pakistan. The Chinese were active explorers of what are now China and Central Asia.

Early European Exploration

Shores of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic

The first phase in European exploration centered on the Mediterranean region. In the 1st millennium bc Phoenicia and the Greek city-states rapidly colonized the shores of the Mediterranean and Black seas. This widespread expansion must have been accompanied by exploration of the adjacent inland areas by countless unknown soldiers and traders. In the 5th century bc the ancient Greek writer Herodotus prefaced his History with a geographic description of what was then the known world. This introduction reveals that the coastlines of the Mediterranean and the Black seas had already been explored by then. Much of Europe, however, remained uncharted. Herodotus concludes by saying, “Whether the sea girds Europe round on the north none can tell.”

The Phoenicians were notable merchants, colonizers, and sailors. Fearless and patient navigators, they ventured into regions where no one else dared to go. They are credited with the discovery and use of the North Star for navigation. The Phoenicians sought to dominate trade and exclude all their rivals. For this reason, they carefully guarded the secrets of their trade routes and discoveries and their knowledge of winds and currents.


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The homeland of the Phoenicians was located mainly in what is now Lebanon. From there, they established colonies along the coasts of Syria, Israel, Cyprus, Sicily, Sardinia, southern Spain, and northern Africa. Their great colony of Carthage (now in Tunisia), produced two notable explorers in the 5th century bc. Hanno sailed along the coast of western Africa. Himilco sailed to the north on a four-month journey. The purpose of his voyage was apparently to consolidate control of the trade in tin along the Atlantic coast of Europe. From Carthage, he sailed to the Phoenician colony of Gades (now Cádiz, Spain). After visiting the coasts of Spain and Portugal, he reached northwestern France. Some historians believe that Himilco may also have visited Great Britain.

In ancient Greece, as in Phoenicia, knowledge of other lands came with overseas settlement. Organized Greek colonization began in the 8th century bc. Commercial interests, greed, and sheer curiosity seem to be the forces that drove the Greek city-states to expand and explore. At its height, ancient Greece comprised settlements in Asia Minor, the Greek islands, southern Italy, Sicily, and North Africa.

The Phoenicians long controlled the Strait of Gibraltar, at the western end of the Mediterranean Sea. They allowed no one else to pass through this channel to the Atlantic Ocean. In about 300 bc, however, Carthage became embroiled in a struggle with a Greek city in Sicily. As a result, Phoenician power at the gate of the Mediterranean temporarily weakened. This lapse allowed the Greek explorer Pytheas to sail right through.



Pytheas was a navigator, geographer, and astronomer from the Greek colony of Massalia (now Marseille, France). He became the first Greek to visit and describe the British Isles and the Atlantic coast of Europe. Sailing from the Mediterranean Sea into the Atlantic, Pytheas stopped at southern Spain. He then probably followed the European shoreline to the tip of northwestern France. He eventually reached the southwestern tip of England, in what is now Cornwall. There he may have visited the tin mines, which were famous in the ancient world. Pytheas claimed to have explored a large part of Great Britain on foot. He may have sailed around the island; he accurately estimated its circumference at 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers). Pytheas visited some northern European countries and may have reached the mouth of the Vistula River on the Baltic Sea. He also told of Thule, “the northernmost of the British Isles, six days sail from Britain.” The place he visited may have been Iceland or Norway.

Pytheas made a number of scientific observations during his voyage of exploration. He made calculations with a sundial at the summer solstice and noted the lengthening days as he traveled northward. He also observed that the North Star is not at the true North Pole and that the Moon affects the tides.


Exploration of the North Atlantic was not carried farther until several centuries later. This exploration was undertaken not by Mediterranean peoples but by Vikings from Scandinavia. From the 8th to the 11th century ad, bands of Swedish Vikings traded southeastward across the Russian plains. At the same time, groups of Danish Vikings raided, traded, and settled along the coasts of the North Sea. They arrived in the Mediterranean region, where they were known as the Normans. However, neither the Swedes nor the Danes traveling in these regions were exploring lands that were unknown to civilized Europeans.

It was the Vikings of Norway who were the true explorers. In about ad 890 the Viking Ohthere of Norway was “desirous to try how far that country extended north.” He sailed around Norway’s North Cape, along the coast of Lapland to the White Sea. By contrast, most other Vikings sailing in high latitudes explored not eastward but westward. Sweeping down the outer edge of Great Britain, they settled in the Orkney, Shetland, and Hebrides islands and in Ireland. They then voyaged on to Iceland, where in 870 they settled among Irish colonists who had preceded them by some two centuries. The Vikings may well have arrived piloted by Irish sailors. Norwegian Vikings later explored farther west in the Atlantic, reaching Greenland and Newfoundland in North America.

Shores of the Indian Ocean and the China Sea

From very early times, people pursued trade across the land bridges and through the gulfs linking the parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe that lie between the Mediterranean and Arabian seas. It is therefore not surprising that exploratory voyages early revealed the coastlines of the Indian Ocean.

The first Western observer to give an account of India was Scylax of Caria (an ancient district of Anatolia, in Turkey). In about 510 bc, Darius the Great, the king of Persia (Iran), sent Scylax to explore the course of the Indus River. Scylax traveled overland to the Kabul River, in Afghanistan. He reached the Indus River and followed it through India to its mouth at the Arabian Sea, which is the northwestern part of the Indian Ocean. He then sailed westward. Passing by the Persian Gulf (which was already well known to the Western world), he explored the Red Sea. Scylax finished his voyage in northern Egypt. His journey had taken two and a half years to complete.


The expeditions in the 4th century bc of the famous conqueror Alexander the Great of Macedonia brought much new geographic knowledge to the Greek world, as well as control of vast new territory. They also carried the influence of Mediterranean culture to the East and of Eastern culture to the Mediterranean.

Most of Alexander’s campaigns were journeys of military exploration. His earlier expeditions were to regions already familiar to the Greeks—Babylonia (in Iraq) and Persia. The later ones, however, brought the Greeks a great deal of new information. These campaigns took him through the enormous tract of land from the south of the Caspian Sea to the mountains of the Hindu Kush of Central Asia. Alexander and his army crossed these mountains to the Indus River valley. They then marched westward through the desolate country along the southern edge of the Iranian plateau. They ultimately reached Susa (now Shush, Iran), the capital of Darius the Great, and overthrew the Persian Empire.

The admiral in command of the expedition’s naval forces was Nearchus. He waited for the favorable monsoon winds and then sailed from the mouth of the Indus to the mouth of the Euphrates. He explored the northern coast of the Persian Gulf on his way.

The Roman Republic and later the Roman Empire succeeded the Greek city-states as the great power of the Western world. The empire eventually included most of western Europe, northern Africa, and the Middle East. As Roman power grew, increasing wealth brought increasing demands for luxuries from the East. This led to great commercial activity in the eastern seas. As the coasts became well known, Roman sailors skillfully used the seasonal character of the monsoon winds to navigate. During the reign of the Roman emperor Hadrian in the 1st century bc, Western traders reached what are now Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia. A few also seem to have reached the coast of China. In the late 2nd century ad, according to Chinese records, an “embassy” came from the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius to the Chinese emperor Huandi.

Chinese Exploration

The Chinese developed an advanced civilization in early times and were energetic explorers. From their ancient homeland in the basin of the Huang He (Yellow River), they spread out widely, ultimately creating a vast empire. Early explorations centered on the courses of the rivers that provided the growing state with water for agriculture as well as transportation routes. The state built many canals and dikes. The search for land routes through the mountains and deserts to the northwest and west also became important. Expansion was a major spur to exploration. Chinese farmers ventured out to settle new lands. State-sponsored missions also sent out parties to conquer and colonize territory, to survey and administer the conquered lands, and to maintain state security.

Zhang Qian and the Silk Road


During the Han Dynasty (206 bc–ad 220), the expanding Chinese Empire was threatened by raiders from the north. People who led a nomadic, or wandering, life in the northern steppe land would invade settled agricultural communities to the south to solve periodic food shortages. The Great Wall of China had been built to defend Chinese territory against northern nomads, especially the Xiongnu. The Xiongnu may have been the same people known as the Huns in Europe. Starting in the reign of the Han emperor Wudi, the Chinese carried out long and costly military campaigns along the northern and northwestern borders.

Wudi also dispatched an envoy, Zhang Qian, to try to forge a military alliance with another nomadic people against the Xiongnu. Zhang became a pioneering explorer. He was the first person to bring back a reliable account of the lands of Central Asia to the court of China. He set off in 138 bc to try to establish relations with a nomadic people called the Yuezhi. He traveled through what is now the Chinese province of Gansu, but he was captured by the Xiongnu. They kept him prisoner for 10 years in the Altai Mountains before he finally managed to escape. He then proceeded on his mission, reaching the Yuezhi in what is now Afghanistan. On his return voyage via Tibet, he was again captured by the Xiongnu, but he escaped about a year later. He returned to China after an absence of some 13 years. Seven years later Zhang was sent on another mission, this time to the Wusun, a people living in the Ili River valley (in what is now northwestern China).

Although Zhang was not able to establish an alliance with the Yuezhi or the Wusun, he made important diplomatic contacts and collected much useful information. In addition to traveling himself, he sent his assistant to visit parts of what are now Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. Zhang gathered information on Parthia (now in Iran), India, and other states in the area. His missions opened the way for exchanges of envoys between these Central Asian states and China. His voyages also brought the Chinese into contact with the outposts of Greek culture established by Alexander the Great. As a result of Zhang’s missions, new items were introduced in China, including a superior breed of horses and new plants, such as grapes and alfalfa.

Commerce as well as conquest inspired Chinese travel. Zhang Qian had encountered a series of trade routes that skirted the great Takla Makan Desert of Central Asia. Trade began to flourish along these caravan routes. The routes are now known collectively as the Silk Road, because Chinese silk was a major and valuable product traded along them. The Silk Road ultimately extended from China through Central Asia to the Middle East. From there, goods were shipped to Europe. Another branch of the Silk Road led to India. In addition to being a commercial thoroughfare, the Silk Road became a major route for travel and cultural exchange between the East and the West.

In the 1st century ad Chinese envoys were frustrated in an attempt to visit the western part of the world. However, as already mentioned, a mission from Rome reached China by ship in the 2nd century. The first record of official visitors arriving at the Han court from Japan is for the year ad 57.

Buddhist Pilgrimages to India

Chinese knowledge of India was expanded by the voyages of Chinese Buddhist monks to study there, in the “Holy Land” of Buddhism. The first known Chinese monk to undertake such a pilgrimage was Faxian. He set out in ad 399 in order to bring back Buddhist texts from India that were unavailable in China. His trip took him across the trackless desert wastes of Central Asia to Khotan (now Hotan, China), an oasis center for caravans on the Silk Road. He then crossed the mountain area known as the Pamirs along a treacherously narrow and steep path. In 402 he arrived in India. There he visited the most important seats of Buddhist learning and the holiest Buddhist places. He stayed for a long time at what is now the city of Patna, transcribing Buddhist texts.

On the way home, Faxian sailed to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where he collected additional Buddhist writings. After setting sail for China, a violent storm drove his ship onto an island that was probably Java (now in Indonesia). He took another boat, but it too was driven astray before finally being blown to a Chinese port. In all, Faxian spent more than 200 days at sea. After returning to his homeland, Faxian translated into Chinese the Buddhist texts he had taken so much trouble to bring back. He also wrote a detailed account of his pioneering journeys.

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After Faxian, many other Chinese monks went on pilgrimages to India. Among them was Xuanzang in the 7th century. He was unable to obtain a travel permit, so he left Chang’an, China, by stealth in 629. He traveled north of the Takla Makan Desert and across the mountains known as the Hindu Kush to northwestern India. From there he sailed down the Ganges River, arriving at its eastern reaches in 633. After visiting many holy places and studying at a Buddhist monastery for several years, he returned home in 645. He had been gone 16 years. Like Faxian, he brought back numerous religious texts. Xuanzang’s record of his travels, with its wealth of precise data, has been of great value to modern historians and archaeologists.