Chapter 3, Part 1
Istanbul, 1453. Around two thousand years earlier Buddhism began to spread across the Indian subcontinent, and for more than one millennium Buddhist kingdoms and empires rose and fell, from Anuradhapura in modern Sri Lanka to a Buddhist dynasty in Java, and Bagan in what is today Myanmar. For most of the history of South and Southeast Asia, Buddhism was in constant rivalry with Hinduism, although at times the two great religions coexisted peacefully as they did in eighth-century Java as well as in Nepal.
Beginning in the seventh century, Islam was introduced and the new religion quickly rose to prominence not only in its birthplace in the Arabian Peninsula, but also in faraway lands, from the Iberian Peninsula to the west to the fabled Spice Islands to the far east. Its territorial gains prompted the reorganization of political powers in southern India to defend Hinduism. On the contrary its introduction in Maritime Southeast Asia was carried out through trade and cultural assimilation, creating a unique syncretic culture that is a colorful amalgamation of Islamic, Hindu and animist values and traditions.
Centuries of interaction between Chinese, Indian, Persian and Arab merchants and their Southeast Asian counterparts had enriched local cultures across the region as reflected in the architecture, cuisine, language and religious rites of the peoples. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and ancestral beliefs continued to shape Southeast Asian political landscape until a large influx of Europeans arrived and introduced Christianity to Asia. Even though contacts had been made between Europeans and Asians since antiquity, it was not until the 15th century when the first European explorers set sail and made long and treacherous voyages to discover direct sea routes to Asia and beyond, an event in history which still reverberates today.
There was one particular event in history which both directly and indirectly started this new global era. An event which unfolded at one of the most important cities in Christendom long known for its strategic location at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East, and for its thriving bazaars.
In 1453, after laying siege to the city for 53 days, the Ottomans finally breached the impenetrable walls that had been protecting Constantinople for almost a thousand years. The fall of the city to the Turks severed the main trade link between Europe and Asia, making it difficult for Europeans to purchase items which were previously accessible to them, including spices from India and the Spice Islands.
This unfortunate situation had sparked the Europeans’ interest in finding sea route to the east to allow them direct access to spice-producing lands. The Portuguese and the Spaniards were among the first to venture into the unknown seas to seek the route, including voyages led by Vasco da Gama (who discovered the sea route to India), Christopher Columbus (who re-discovered the Americas), and Ferdinand Magellan (who led the first circumnavigation of the globe). The success of both nations in establishing trade posts in faraway lands and dominating the trade routes between Europe and Asia ignited the ambition of other European nations – chiefly the English, the Dutch, the French, even the Danish – to also explore the world and bring home immense fortunes.
Money was probably of utmost importance in all of the European expeditions. But in a deeply devout Europe at that time, religious missions were also installed in the voyages, and Christianity finally found its way to reach the other side of the world. Over the centuries what started as trade and religious missions turned into an era of exploitation and colonialism. The world would never be the same again.
However the Age of Discovery is not only remembered as the beginning of centuries of European colonization in Asia when local peoples were exploited, natural and cultural riches were plundered, and lives were lost, but also that of an enlightenment to some as the gospels were preached to lands far from Europe, making countries like the Philippines and Timor-Leste as well as all of Latin America predominantly Catholic today. It created modern boundaries as we now know, not only uniting vast regions which make up modern-day big countries like India, Indonesia and Brazil, but also dividing communities in places like the Middle East and Africa.
However not all is bad. Had the Europeans not explored the world, many dishes we are today familiar with would probably have never been invented. Tomato, potato, berries, corn, peanut, chili, avocado, vanilla, pineapple and cocoa all originated in the Americas, yet they are now staples in kitchens across the globe. What would Italian dishes have been without tomato? How would the Indonesian food scene have looked like without chili and peanut? And of course, life would have been far less interesting without chocolate, don’t you think?
Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series. Photos in this post were taken in January 2013.