the economically important silk road
(red) and spice trade routes
(blue) were blocked by the seljuk empire
c. 1090, triggering the crusades
, and by the ottoman empire
c. 1453, which spurred the age of discovery
the spice trade refers to the trade between historical civilizations in asia, northeast africa and europe. spices such as cinnamon, cassia, cardamom, ginger, pepper, and turmeric were known and used in antiquity for commerce in the eastern world. these spices found their way into the middle east before the beginning of the christian era, where the true sources of these spices were withheld by the traders and associated with fantastic tales.
the maritime aspect of the trade was dominated by the austronesian peoples in island southeast asia who established the precursor trade routes from southeast asia (and later china) to sri lanka and india by at least 1500 bc. these goods were then transported by land further on towards the mediterranean and the greco-roman world via the incense route and the roman-india routes by indian and persian traders. the austronesian maritime trade lanes later expanded into the middle east and eastern africa by the 1st millennium ad, resulting in the austronesian colonization of madagascar.
within specific regions, kingdom of axum (c. 5th-century bc–ad 11th century) had pioneered the red sea route before the 1st century ad. during the first millennium, ethiopians became the maritime trading power of the red sea. by this period, trade routes from sri lanka (the roman taprobane) and india were also largely controlled by tamils who had acquired maritime technology from early austronesian contact. by mid-7th century ad after the rise of islam, arab traders started plying these maritime routes and dominated the western indian ocean maritime routes.
arab traders eventually took over conveying goods via the levant and venetian merchants to europe until the rise of the seljuk turks and later the ottoman turks cut the route again by 1090 and 1453 respectively. overland routes helped the spice trade initially, but maritime trade routes led to tremendous growth in commercial activities. during the high and late medieval periods muslim traders dominated maritime spice trading routes throughout the indian ocean, tapping source regions in east asia and shipping spices from trading emporiums in india westward to the persian gulf and the red sea, from which overland routes led to europe.
the trade was changed by the crusades and later the european age of discovery, during which the spice trade, particularly in black pepper, became an influential activity for european traders. the cape route from europe to the indian ocean via the cape of good hope was pioneered by the portuguese explorer navigator vasco da gama in 1498, resulting in new maritime routes for trade.
this trade, which drove the world economy from the end of the middle ages well into the renaissance, ushered in an age of european domination in the east. channels, such as the bay of bengal, served as bridges for cultural and commercial exchanges between diverse cultures as nations struggled to gain control of the trade along the many spice routes. european dominance was slow to develop. the portuguese trade routes were mainly restricted and limited by the use of ancient routes, ports, and nations that were difficult to dominate. the dutch were later able to bypass many of these problems by pioneering a direct ocean route from the cape of good hope to the sunda strait in indonesia.