World 1215 CE

China has become the great powerhouse of economic and technological development. Chinese inventions will be key to humanity’s progress in the coming centuries.

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World history in 1215 - the high medieval world

East Asia

East Asia has seen great economic and technological progress over the past two centuries or so. Chinese inventions such as the compass, gunpowder and printing are of key significance to global history. Song Dynasty China is, by a stretch, the wealthiest and most technologically advanced society on earth. The Koreans are also a dynamic and innovative culture, whilst the Japanese experience centuries of on-off civil war, in which Samurai warriors will come to prominence in Japanese society.

Islamic expansion

Islamic civilization has continued to make great strides, with discoveries in mathematics, physics, astronomy, medicine and other branches of knowledge. This knowledge has been spreading west into Europe, where it will soon bear fruit in extraordinary ways.

As a religion, Islam has continued to expand – down into sub-Saharan Africa, where West African kingdoms are proliferating; into East Africa, where a string of small Muslim states have sprung up along the Indian Ocean coast, and now even to South East Asia. It has also established itself in northern India, where the first great Muslim-ruled sultanate has appeared.


Europe is recovering from the turmoil of the Dark Ages, with the emergence of the feudal system. This is a political-social system based on the sharing of power between rulers and nobles. It has brought a higher level of order to European society. Population is increasing, as is wealth and trade.

This is the age when many of the great cathedrals of Europe are being built. This testifies to the power of the Church, and this period sees a fierce struggle between the Church and secular rulers. This struggle will lead to different outcomes in different countries, with the rise of strong monarchies in some and the undermining of central royal power in others.

Another manifestation of the power of the Church has been the launching a series of great military campaigns, called “crusades”, against the Muslim world to reclaim the pilgrimage center of Jerusalem and surrounding lands from Islamic control. These have been a woeful failure. However, one result has been a great upswing in Mediterranean trade. This is dominated by north Italian merchants, and the wealth this trade brings will, in following centuries, help bring about the great cultural movement known as the Italian Renaissance, and all that flows from it.

The Byzantine empire, that last remnant of the great Roman empire of old, has fared badly during the crusades; it is now temporarily divided amongst a group of Crusader rulers.


To the north, the Russians have come into the Christian fold, looking to Constantinople for religious leadership. They are developing a unique culture of their own, drawing largely on Byzantine models.

The Steppes

On the steppes of central Asia, these centuries have seen large-scale movements of peoples westward. A branch of the Turks migrated west and then, converting to Islam, conquered a huge empire in the Middle East. They are known to history as the Seljuqs.

These movements of steppe peoples have therefore contributed to the continued politically fragmentation in the Middle East, and to the rise of Turkish peoples from central Asia as the dominant political group. Most Middle Eastern rulers, however, still owe a vague allegiance to the Caliph in Baghdad.

Some of the Uygurs also migrated west to the Transoxus region, to form the Uzbek kingdoms; and a group of Khitans have founded the powerful Karakhitai khanate.

On the eastern steppes, a power-vacuum in Mongolia has now been filled by the vigorous activities of one of the greatest conquerors in all world history, Genghis Khan.

South Asia, South East Asia, and Oceania

In South Asia, Buddhism has been extinguished as a major faith in the region.

In South East Asia, the Khmer kingdom of Cambodia has reached its height, its power and wealth expressed dramatically in the huge temple mountain of Angkor Wat.

In the Pacific, a small group of Polynesians discover and settle New Zealand about now.

The Americas and Greenland

In North America, the towns of the Mississippi valley have continued to prosper and grow; whilst to the south, the ancestors of the Aztec are establishing themselves in central Mexico.

In South America, the Chimor empire is at the height of its power, but a new people, the Inca, are expanding their realm in the high Andes. Further east, the cultures of the Amazon basin have continued to advance.

One development which is of interest to us today, but which in fact led to no long-term outcomes, was the establishment of small Viking colonies in Greenland. It is also very likely that these Vikings visited the mainland of North America. In any event, these were the first people to bridge the divide between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. Sometime in the following centuries, however, this far outpost of European civilization was abandoned, and so this first bridge in world history between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres bore no lasting fruit.

Next map: the world in 1453

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World history

The Steppe peoples of Central Asia

For details of the different civilizations, click on the relevant timeline above. 

More ‘Dig Deeper’ links may be found in the regional maps. To access, click on the markers in the world map.

Premium Units

Song Dynasty China

Europe at the time of the Crusades

Medieval kingdoms in India

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