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What Was the Majapahit Empire?


The Majapahit Empire ruled much of maritime Southeast Asia in the Middle Ages.

Ruins of the city gate at Trowulan, a capital city of the Majapahit Empire in Java, Indonesia

Doni Ismanto on Flickr.com


The Majapahit Empire, based on the island of Java in what is now Indonesia, was a wealthy trading state that controlled one of the key choke-points along the Indian Ocean trade routes, the Straits of Malacca. It lasted from 1293 to 1527. At its height, the Majapahit Empire ruled most of maritime Southeast Asia, from Sumatra in the west to New Guinea in the east, and also including areas that now make up Singapore, Brunei, East Timor, the southern Philippines, Malaysia, and southern Thailand.

Sources on Majapahit are scarce and none too explicit. Raden Wijaya, who defeated Kublai Khan's 1293 invasion of Java, founded the city of Majapahit on land that he received in payment for his services. The empire slowly expanded from there, growing wealthy by levying duties on goods shipped through the area on the maritime Silk Road.

According to the epic poem Nagarakertagama, the empire's apogee came under the emperor Hayam Wuruk, who reigned from 1334 to 1389. We also have some later Chinese records of the empire, including those from the great Ming Dynasty admiral, Zheng He, who visited Mahajapit lands early in the fifteenth century. The admiral's translator, Ma Huan, recorded an incident in which the Chinese intervened in a succession fight over the Mahajapit throne.

The dispute that Zheng He settled was emblematic of problems during the last century of the Mahajapit Empire's existence. The rulers had multiple wives and concubines, and with no clear laws about who was next in line for the throne, chaos broke out when a ruler died. By the mid-15th century, Mahajapit had lost control of its major revenue source, the Malacca Straits, to the rising Sultanate of Malacca. Piece by piece, the lands under Mahajapit power broke free. This process was exacerbated by the rise of Islam on Java, which had formerly been predominantly Hindu. By 1527, the last ruler of Majapahit fell from power.

Also Known As: Karaton Mojopahit, Kerajaan Majapahit

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