Physical geography has challenged and shaped connectivity within and across Eurasia since its first civilizations emerged around 60,000 BCE. High snow-capped mountain ranges, vast deserts, and other obstacles influenced movement and settlement patterns. The steppe’s vast grasslands and the domestication of the horse facilitated a variety of mobile groups. Around 10,000 BCE, early irrigation methods expanded large tracts of arable land and helped sedentary civilizations flourish.
Further technological innovations, from the domestication of the camel to the invention of the compass, facilitated greater mobility and fueled the rise of trading outposts around 200 BC. Separated by 4,000 miles, the Han and Hellenic empires leveraged these trading networks for commercial and strategic purposes. The peaceful interaction between these two civilizations gave rise to patterns of trans-Eurasian connectivity commonly referred to as the “Silk Road.”
Between the 4th and 6th Centuries, nomadic incursions weakened the Roman and Han empires and truncated the Silk Road. While the circular trade routes in Eurasia’s center remained active, the eastern and western imperial destinations of trans-Eurasian trade fractured into smaller states and less expansive empires. Transitions between smaller and larger political entities in Europe, parts of the Middle East, and China gave the Persian Empire a more central role in the Silk Road.
The Abbasid caliphate and Tang Dynasty facilitated networks of connectivity that stretched from North Africa to East Asia. During this Islamic Golden Age, Central Asia became the epicenter for cultural exchange and witnessed the flourishing of cosmopolitan centers of both culture and science. Both Islam and Buddhism expanded into new territories and facilitated a wide-ranging exchange of people and ideas.
The Mongol conquests created history’s largest land empire. Multiple ethnic groups and religions existed under the Mongols, whose modus operandi was to borrow and transform technology, culture, and political ideals from those they conquered. Under Mongol rule, the “Silk Road” was extremely active, as new communication networks, paper currency, and other innovations facilitated exchange. Of course, this imperial expansion was not benign. Conquests destroyed irrigation systems, urban centers, and scientific knowledge.
The Mongol empire’s fragmentation, Russian expansion, and the Ming Dynasty’s isolationist policies reoriented and truncated trade linkages across Eurasia. Concurrently, the sacking of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks created a “bridge” between Asia and Europe with greater connections south to the Middle East and across North Africa than to Europe. Following the reign of Tamerlane, the last of the great nomadic rulers, Central Asia shifts from a central, fluid, transit space to a more marginal realm.
With land routes slow, dangerous, and often blocked, Europe expanded its water routes to Asia and other parts of the world. Maritime trade was always a significant component of the “Silk Road,” but the advent of large ocean-going vessels and other navigational and military technologies catalyzed new mercantile systems. As Europe’s colonial powers competed for control of trading posts and territory, commercial activity was pulled to the coastlines.
Innovations facilitated the expansion of imperial empires and solidified colonial structures during the 19th century. The British Empire used railways to extend its political influence across Indian territory, bringing inland goods to the coast and shipping them to Britain. Similarly, the Siberian and the trans-Caspian railways were key elements in keeping Central Asian territories under Russian control. As these two empires solidified their influence, they also set their sights on the territory between them.
The guns of August heralded not only the start of World War I, but also the end of the first age of globalization. During the previous four decades, the movement of goods, people, and capital across borders increased to historical highs. Global trade began rising after World War I, but the Great Depression and rising protectionism paralyzed, and in many cases reversed, this progress. Rather than deepening economic integration, this period witnessed a severing of connections. After World War II, global exports would not fully recover until the 1980s.
During the Cold War, the Eurasian supercontinent was divided between capitalist and communist systems. With communist trade routes dictated by Moscow, a new pattern of trans-Eurasian connection emerged. This trade system increased and modernized infrastructure throughout the region, often leading to development but also exploiting particular regions for their natural resources. While facilitating trade between communist economies, the Soviet Union remained largely isolated from the rest of the global economy.
Asia’s economic rise has reshaped the global landscape. At the center of this story is China, which began opening up under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership in 1978. Those policies and subsequent economic reforms have propelled China forward, with its economy growing over seven percent annually, on average, during 1990 to 2015. Market-opening policies have spurred growth across the wider region as well, from India to Indonesia, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty. As a result, the world’s economic center of gravity has shifted from West to East.
The Internet and wireless technologies have made the world more interconnected than ever before. People on different continents now communicate and exchange multimedia in real time. Through e-commerce platforms, sellers and buyers can exchange products and payments without ever meeting in person. Of course, like previous innovations, new technologies can be harnessed for political ends. Moreover, significant disparities in access remain, as this map of internet-connected devices illustrates. Even in today’s increasingly connected world, geography still casts a shadow.