Medieval ideas of Europeans about Asia beyond the borders of the Byzantine Empire were based on separate reports, often overgrown with legends dating back to the times of the conquests of Alexander the Great and his heirs. Another source was the radhonites, the Jewish merchants who traded between European and Muslim civilizations during the times of the Crusader states.
In 1154, the Arab geographer Al-Idrisi, who worked at the court of the Sicilian King Roger II, wrote comments on the world map known at the time, the Book of Roger, but Africa was only partially known. Despite the fact that in Europe they were told about large African states beyond the Sahara, in fact, knowledge of Europeans was limited to the Mediterranean coast. And after the Arabs conquered northern Africa, its land research became impossible. Knowledge about the Atlantic coast of Africa was incomplete, and their sources were mainly old. Greek and Roman maps based on the knowledge of the Carthaginians, including the time of the Roman conquests in Mauritania. The Europeans knew very little about the Red Sea , and only the trade relations of the maritime republics, mainly Venice, filled up the treasury of knowledge about the sea routes.
By the 15th century, the urban population of Europe had grown significantly, which led to the development of handicrafts and trade. Thus International trade gained momentum. As a result of the Crusades, there were strong trade relations with the countries of the East, from where luxury goods and spices were brought to Europe. By this time, the known deposits of gold and silver were almost depleted, and European states lacked precious metals for minting coins. In addition, the Mediterranean region was heavily overcrowded for that time.
The invention of typography in the 15th century led to the spread of technical and philosophical literature, more and more simple mechanisms and new sources of energy began to be used.
The appearance of guns and firearms made it possible to significantly protect long-distance travel. In the 15th century, a new type of sailing vessel, the caravel, appeared. These ships were perfectly suited for long voyages: they were small in size, had a small crew, but a spacious hold. In addition, excellent maneuverability was convenient for exploring unfamiliar coastlines.
New achievements have been made in cartography. Maps have become more accurate, the latitudes , outlines of the coast, the location of the ports began to be drawn on them. The compass and the astrolabe were used for navigation, the quality of which was significantly improved by the 16th century.
The conquest by the Ottomans of the Balkans and the territory of Asia Minor made it difficult for Europeans to use the former eastern (land and sea) trade routes. However, trade with the East brought huge profits (700–800% of income), therefore, the desire to find a sea route (east or west) to India and China increased more and more.
The epoch of the Great geographical discoveries was preceded by a number of European expeditions that crossed Eurasia by land in the late Middle Ages. Despite the fact that Europe was challenged by a Mongol invasion that threatened to ruin territories, the Mongolian states were also interested in trade links across the continent and, from 1206, Pax Mongolica provided security on trade routes from the Middle East to China. Some Europeans took advantage of this to travel east. Most of them were Italians, since trade between Europe and the Middle East was controlled mainly by the maritime republics. The close ties of the Italian city-states with the Levant contributed to an increase in commercial interest in countries in the Far East.
Christian embassies sent to Karakorum during the Mongol invasion of Syria helped the Europeans to expand their knowledge of the world. The first such traveler was Giovanni Plano Carpini, sent by Pope Innocent IV to Khagan in Mongolia in 1241 and returned back in 1247. At the same time, the Russian prince Yaroslav Vsevolodovich, and later his sons Alexander Nevsky and Andrei Yaroslavich visited the Mongolian capital. However, despite their political importance, there are no detailed records of these missions. They were followed by other travelers, including the Frenchman Andre de Longjumeau and the Flemish Guillaume de Rubruck, who reached China via Central Asia. However, the most famous of them was Marco Polo. The Venetian merchant kept records of his travels in Asia from 1271 to 1295, described a visit to the courtyard of the Yuan ruler Kubilai in the “ Book of Wonders of the World, ” which all of Europe read.
In 1291, the Vivaldi brothers-merchants made the first attempt to explore the Atlantic Ocean. They sailed from Genoa on two galleys, they disappeared off the Moroccan coast, which strengthened the fears of oceanic voyages. From 1325 to 1354, a Moroccan scholar from Tangier Ibn Battuta traveled to North Africa, Southern Europe, the Middle East and Asia, reaching China. After returning, he dictated a report about his adventures to a scientist he met in Tunisia. In the years 1357-1371 in Europe, the book of John Mandeville about his intended travels gained immense popularity. Despite the extreme unreliability and even fantastical descriptions, it was used to obtain general ideas about the East, Egypt and the Levant, confirming the old belief that Jerusalem is the center of the world.
In 1400, a Latin translation of Ptolemy’s Geography came to Italy from Constantinople. The revival of Roman geographical knowledge was a real revelation for Europeans, although it strengthened them in the idea that the Indian Ocean is surrounded by land. Then followed a period of diplomatic relations between the Timurids and Europe, in 1439, Niccolò Conti published a report on his journey as a Muslim merchant in India and Southeast Asia . Then, in 1466-1472, the Russian merchant from Tver, Afanasy Nikitin, traveled to India, which he described in his book Circulation over Three Seas.
These land journeys had only a small medium term value. The Mongol Empire collapsed as quickly as it was created, and the trade routes to the east became more difficult and dangerous. The black death in the 14th century also created obstacles for travel and commerce. The rise of the Ottoman Empire in the future limited the opportunities for Europeans to trade with the East over land.