Friday, 8 April 2016

The History of the Center of the World

The changing geographical midpoints of the world's most powerful cities, and how they influence 'history'.
1AD - All Roads Lead to Balkh

1AD - All Roads Lead to Balkh
(Click on the title above for interactive map.)
Calculated by center of minimum distance: Balkh, Afghanistan
Calculated by average latitude/longtitude:  Persia
The center of human civilisation is still in the Middle East. The Silk Road is operating, and glorious Rome is merely a terminus.
It's no surprise that these geographical centers are also centers for trade. It's no large leap to imagine them also focal points for ideas. What happens when they move? (Spoiler alert: they do, drastically.)

500AD - Local Blackout
Center of minimum distance: Shanxi
Average latitude/longtitude: Qinghai
Dark Ages? Only in Europe. Civilisation's center moves East, with the center of minimum distance close to infant Xi'an, but the average latitude-longtitude remains in Central Asia.

1000AD - Rock the Casbah
Center of minimum distance: Baghdad
Average latitude/longtitude: Persia
Civilisation centers on the strengthening Islamic world.
1500AD - Ming the Gap
After six dynasties, Ming China wrests the center of minimum distance back to Beijing. However, the average of latitude and longtitude remains in the cradle of civilisation, Persia.
Hey! It's all been Oriental to this point. What about the Italian Renaissance and the rise of the West?
The Renaissance is a blip. Yes, scholasticism thrived, but much focused on restoring knowledge from Greece, (to the EAST).
Wealth also flourished, but it was periphery to China and the Silk Road, in which the West partook with ... slaves. Their own kin. You know, what they blame African chieftains a few centuries later for. Before you jump in about how much more civilised slavery was back then, let's just ... wow. Just. Wow.
Given that the Romans practised sophisticated maritime insurance, its possible that Western wealth was merely restored after the dark ages than created through new enterprise. It was a RE-naissance, after all.
1750AD - And when I get excited
Center of minimum distance: Mongolia
Average latitude/longtitude: modern-day Uzbekistan
New world discovered! Colonies established! Advances in maritime navigation! But ... China is still a heavy hitter, needing nothing from the West, nor bearing anything they can afford.
As Emperor Qianlong writes to King George III, "Oh baby just you shut your mouth." (paraphrased.)
Though in hindsight ...
1850AD - Amazing Grace
The industrial revolution and the burgeoning colony of New York City shifts the latitude-longtitude average west to Cyprus, and the center of minimum distance to Berlin. Coincidentally, Protestantism is evolving through Calvinism to the Methodism that we characterise as 'Christianity' today.
Perhaps this north-west shift, which we are still in, is whey we equate luxury with the aesthetics of 19th century Western Europe, as opposed to those of, say, 19th century Istanbul.
In the chat with zacalstin which started this post, I postulated that discovering the new world shifted the center of civilisation - both perceived and physical - from the Silk Road to western Europe as the gateway for trade. I am surprised how long that seems to have taken.
1975AD - The New Colossus
Center of minimum distance: Canada
Average latitude/longtitude: Off the coast of Mexico, North America
In two hundred years, the midpoints of civilisation moved more than it had in the previous one-and-a-half millenia.
Was it a triumph of the Protestant work ethic? Manifest destiny? Perhaps. Also an industrial revolution. And slavery, and indigenous dispossession.
2015AD - East Inflection
Center of minimum distance: Yukon, Canada
Average latitude/longtitude: North Pacific Ocean
The center points drift west with the renaissance of east Asia, but inequality in economic fortunes - which are arguably greater than in antiquity - lend much inertia, keeping them close to the U.S..


China has always been MVP, but America is the game changer.

Apart from being a fun visualisation of history, I think it also shows our cultural axis gravitating towards these midpoints. Think about the moral framework that surrounds you. I bet it won't be laid-back tropical assurance or Catholic/Orthodox fatalism. Those are so yesterday. Not fealty, or good citizenship, but self-determinism. Our idols have shifted from the god-king representing heaven's mandate, to the holy man, to the tech prodigy espousing kaizen.

Dominance also realigns history towards the dominant. The America-centered present leads us to view ancient Rome, the Renaissance, and the development of 'Western' ethics, as far more important than they were in their own time. Perhaps our values do not advance so much as change with the fortunes of cities.


There are several ways to calculate geographic midpoints. 'Center of minimum distance' and 'Average latitude/longtitude' are used.
Weightings of cities to 1975 are by population. The largest ten cities are used, but they capture so much of the urban population that further cities don't make much difference.
Weightings of cities in 2015 is population times by GDP per capita (USD nominal).
City Name Changes:
  • 0AD - Salona = Solin, Croatia; Seleucia = Babil, Iraq; El Mirador = El Peten, Guatemala; Wanxian = WanZhou.
  • 500AD - Constantinople = Istanbul; Ctesiphon = Bahdad; Ye = Linjang; Antioch = Antakya, Turkey; Teotihuacan = San Juan Teotihuacan.
  • 1000AD - Ani = Kars, Turkey; Angkor = Siem Reap; Shangjing = Chifeng.
  • 1500AD - Tenochtitlan = Mexico City; Gaur = Malda, West Bengal.

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