Civilizations in Contact

Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

Research topics - Paul Lunde

Indian Ocean and East Mediterranean Trading Networks, 1250 - 1550 CE

Photo of ships at Dubai.

Ships at Dubai.

The founding of Baghdad in the 8th century made the Persian Gulf the principal conduit for ‘Abbasid maritime trade with India and China. Basra and Siraf became major emporia, trading directly with India, the Indonesian archipelago, East Africa and the ports of South China. The establishment of commercial links with India and the Far East had profound effects on the economies and societies of the Islamic world. These are reflected in the works of some early Muslim geographers and historians, like al-Mas‘ūdī, who wrote in the mid-10th century and included much information about India and China and other non-Islamic lands in his Murūj al-Dhahab, ‘The Meadows of Gold’.

Photo of fort wall at Cochin.

Fort wall at Cochin.

During the 300 years between 1250 and 1550 CE an increasingly sophisticated international trading system linking China to Europe via the Muslim world evolved, with a tremendous impact on the economy of Eurasia. The Mongol conquests reshaped the political and economic map, opening overland routes to China along which key technologies and trade goods flowed west. The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem came to an end, and in its place Venetian, Genoese, and Catalan merchants established their fondacchi in the Levant and Black Sea trading areas. The Mamluks, having put an end to the Crusader states, united Egypt and Syria. Cairo and Damascus became the two wealthiest cities in the Arabic-speaking world. The Red Sea became the principal trading conduit between India and the Mediterranean ports, while the Kazarūnī Sufi order at the same time began to expand from its base on the Persian Gulf littoral to India and Indonesia, acting as merchants and bankers to the Ilkhans and later the Timurids. Overland routes to the gold-producing areas of sub-Saharan Africa were established in Mamluk times, and African gold henceforth fuelled the economies of the Near East. This was the heyday of the Kārimī merchants, whose agents traded by land and sea from China to Ghana. The Kārimī merchants controlled the trade in spices and other commodities from their centres in Aden, Cairo, and Alexandria. In the early decades of the 15th century, Ming China attempted to assert its political hegemony over the Indian Ocean trading network, at the same time that the Portuguese were just beginning their push down the west coast of Africa, an effort that by the end of the century led them around the Cape of Good Hope to India.

The discovery of the Americas created a true global economy. Beginning in the 16th century, American silver flooded Asian markets, greatly stimulating trade and development. New World plants transformed the diet and in some cases economies of the Old. At the same time, the Americas were transformed by the introduction of Old World cash crops such as sugar and indigo, with their attendant technologies. The Spanish ‘piece of eight’ was still the dominant silver coin in circulation in much of Asia in the late 17th century.

Photo of mosque at Calicut.

Mosque at Calicut.

It is intended to continue researching this fascinating period, attempting a coherent account of the development of the first global trading network, paying particular attention to how trade routes were used not only for the transfer of commodities but served as two-way streets for exchanges of ideas, peoples, plants, animal and diseases. The ecologies and societies of both the Old and New worlds were irrevocably changed by being brought into contact. The hinge position of the Islamic lands in these transfers makes their response to global change the key to understanding the processes involved.

Initially this research will concentrate on a number of basic topics, including the mapping of Indian Ocean maritime routes, the sailing seasons from key ports and the average transport times between emporia.

This will involve careful sifting of the various navigational works by Ahmad ibn Majid, as well as the lesser-known treatises of his follower, Sulayman ibn Ahmad ibn al-Mahrī, Minhāj al-fākhir if ‘ilm al-bahr al-zākhir and Umda al-mahrīya fi dabt al-‘ulūm al-bahrīya. It will also involve consulting Portuguese and other European sources.

There are two other related projects. The first is the translation and annotation of al-Mas‘ūdi’s Meadows of Gold, portions of which Caroline Stone and I have already published. The second is an edition of the Arabic text and translation of the travels of Ilyās ibn Hanna, a Chaldean Christian from Baghdad, who spent the years 1675-1685 in South America, where he visited and described the mines that were the major source of the precious metals which drove the Indian Ocean trading system.