Dr. Kiril Petkov

title.none: Margariti, Aden (Dr. Kiril Petkov)

identifier.other: baj9928.0802.012 08.02.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Dr. Kiril Petkov, University of Wisconsin -River Falls,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Margariti, Roxani Eleni. Aden 8 the Indian Ocean Trade: 150 Years in the Life of a Medieval Arabian Port. Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks, vol. 6. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. Pp. xiii, 343. $55.00 978-0-8078-3076-5. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.02.12

Margariti, Roxani Eleni. Aden 8 the Indian Ocean Trade: 150 Years in the Life of a Medieval Arabian Port. Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks, vol. 6. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. Pp. xiii, 343. $55.00 978-0-8078-3076-5. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Dr. Kiril Petkov
University of Wisconsin -River Falls

Margariti's Aden 8 the Indian Ocean Trade is the sixth volume in the new series edited by Carl W. Ernst and Bruce Lawrence, Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks. The author's goal is to examine the functioning of Aden, the major Yemeni port, as the virtual hinge of the segments of the global trade system that linked the Indian Ocean trade to the Mediterranean, from the 1080s to the first quarter of the thirteenth century, the period of Zurayid and Ayyubid rule in southern Yemen. As Margariti put it in the Introduction, "This is the first comprehensive source-based study of a formative period in the medieval history of Aden and the first to fully reveal the unique combination of geographical and ecological advantages, built infrastructure, and urban institutions that made Aden a great entrepôt throughout the medieval period." The volume meticulously and painstakingly delivers on this promise.

To reconstruct the workings of a bustling medieval port city for a long stretch of time is a daunting task; to do it largely in the absence of documentation traditionally employed by historians of the Mediterranean commercial communities, such as private accounting collections, notary records, and public legal provisions, exacerbates the inquirer's undertaking. The main actors in Aden's international markets were well-integrated Jewish traders and their Muslim partners: neither Jewish nor Islamic law required written contracts. Moreover, the vicissitudes of time and political change have left a precious little for the historian to build on. As Margariti points out time and again, most of the commercial interaction in the city was based on informally conducted transactions. The sources she most deftly employs thus come from a rather unexpected treasure grove, the Judeo-Arabic documents of the Cairo geniza. Some four hundred or so of its thousands of holdings are fragments and letters written by Jewish traders corresponding with their agents and partners in Aden and India. This, of course, premises the inquiry into a Muslim port's functioning on evidence about a tight-knit religious community within it. Nonetheless, the "embeddedness" of the Jewish traders in Muslim societies in ports on both ends of the commerce chain lends credibility to Margariti's claim that the geniza documentation is representative of the entire commercial community. Other than that, there are two major literary sources, the travel writer Ibn al-Mujawir (fl. ca. 626/1228) and the Adeni historian Abu Makhrama (870/1465-947/1540), complemented with selected administrative and fiscal documentation from the much better documented era of Rasulid rule in Aden (1228-1454). The rest comes from archeology and, often, informed conjectures that the author had to make to fill significant lacunae in the source coverage.

Margariti approaches her subject-matter in a Braudelian fashion, dwelling first on the physical and environmental characteristics of the port of Aden and its environs and the climatic conditions that determined the rhythm of the Indian Ocean trade, then moving onto the social institutions and man-made infrastructure and hardware of the trade, and concluding with the organization and personages of the day-to-day realities of the commercial exchange that flowed through Aden and provided its wealth.

"Part I: The Physical Entrepôt" focuses on highlighting the site of Aden, a city built on a barren rock peninsula, as a crucial intersection between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. Margariti discusses in detail the impact of the seasonal monsoons, the Indian Ocean and Red Sea currents, and the few natural resources, such as water supply, glass making, jackfruit trees, fish, salt, and ambergris that made it possible for this painfully arid volcanic crater to rise as the destination par excellence of the merchants connecting the Mediterranean and Western Europe to India and the Far East. Archeological finds are brought in to add to a description of Aden's importance as a great hub of overland caravan routes linking the city with the rest of Yemen, Arabia, and the Persian Gulf, as well as to pinpoint nearby smaller settlements fulfilling important manufacturing and service functions and pulled into the city's maritime economy. The analysis of the geomorphology and topography of the harbor in the pre-modern period, with its anchorages, bays, berths, and breakwaters fleshes out the picture of Aden as a relatively small port, not over-supplied with facilities, but a site that was extremely attractive by virtue of its defensive position and orientation that fitted the seasonal changes in the monsoons and the Red Sea winds' directions. Natural conditions and the logistics of pre-modern sailing made it imperative for India Ocean traders to stop before they entered the Red Sea; Red Sea-borne merchants did not dare or preferred not to sail on to India on their local craft. The accounts of the successful repulsion, in 1134-35, of a naval blockade attempted by several ships and a 700-strong fighting force from the island predatory polity of Kish/Qays in the Persian Gulf, Aden's would-be-competitor for the position of principal entrepôt of the Indian Ocean trade, reinforce the observations on Aden's natural attractiveness as a port in the long distance intercontinental trade. The reconstruction of the city's fortification--its two forts and sea-side wall as well as some Ayyubid protective edifices--underscore the facts that, despite that episode of the blockade, Aden was naturally blessed with a highly protected site and whatever men made was mostly to increase the efficiency of control over and taxation of the lucrative commercial traffic. The buildings on Aden's waterfront behind the wall--the customs house, markets and storerooms, as well as adjacent smaller shopping facilities further illustrate the city's urbanization as predominantly seaward-oriented. Despite broad similarities with ports in the Mediterranean, Margariti's benchmark for comparison, a distinctive feature of Aden's was the conflation of public and private space, the lack of a khan, caravansary, or funduq to lodge foreign merchants. Margariti feasibly interprets this as an indicator for a different organization of transient residence and trade organization in Aden. Incoming merchants must have resided and conducted their business in the houses of their Adeni partners: the city's economy functioned on much more informal and personal-bonds premises than contemporary Mediterranean commerce.

"Part II: The Commercial Entrepôt" shifts the inquiry onto the mid- and short-range social and economic factors that conditioned Aden's commercial fortunes. Information about taxes levied at Aden's customs house indicates that taxation was heavy but uniform across denominational lines, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus paying at the same rate. This appears to support Margariti's major claim that Aden and by the same token other Muslim commercial hubs do not easily conform to the moniker of "Islamic city" and the standard understanding of Muslim discrimination against non-Muslims. However, this central conclusion is undermined on three counts. First, the very premise of the entire inquiry, the "embeddedness" of the Jewish traders, begs the question of how "alien" were they seen by the Muslim authorities--who appear to have formed partnerships with them to boot. It is difficult to tax yourself as a non-believer to begin with, but it would be highly desirable to see explanations, unfortunately missing, of how and why vested interest overrode religiously-based dogma. Second, the other members of the international trading community were or might have been Muslim. The Persians were certainly so and the men with Indian names did not necessarily have to be Hindus. Third, even though Margariti refers several times to Aden as a port open to all denominations, "to Muslim, Jew, and Christian," she does not bring a single piece of evidence testifying to the presence--and treatment--of Christians either during the period under investigation or in Rasulid times. The author's central claim is thus still a conjecture.

Be that as it may, Zurayid and Ayyubid taxation was heavy compared to the Mediterranean, especially the import dues. Furthermore, there was no uniform rate: different rates applied to different types of goods. However, the export dues were much lighter, and all taxes were collected after the completion of all business transactions, thus making the life of the merchant much easier, given the conditions of cash transportation and the insecurity of information about foreign markets at time of departure. The authorities, furthermore, more than made up for the burden of taxation by sticking to a stable and predictable tariff as well as taking care to ensure the safety and security of the merchandise in harbor, on the open seas near it (the Ayyubids added a galley tax, but launched sea patrols), and on dry ground in storage facilities. In addition, there were exemptions on food staples and taxes were levied in kind on strategic commodities used in Aden itself: metals, wood, and fixative dyes. In sum, tax policies appear flexible and attuned to both making the most for the rulers of the city and allowing the merchants to minimize risk and keep their profit margins high as well. Co-opting leading Adeni merchants as chief officials, many of them from the Jewish community, the authorities further contributed to the sense of security which Aden offered to the international trading community that put up in its harbor. Finally, there were the provisions for dealing with policing the high seas, shipwrecks, rescue, salvage, and availability of crucial information about the natural, commercial, and political conditions in corresponding ports.

That security allowed the members of the Jewish community and other non-Muslims known to have traded from or in Aden to invest heavily in highly expensive merchandise and that hazardous and not easily liquidated hardware of commerce: the Indian Ocean-going ships. Margariti's evidence suggests that even India-based merchants sometime ordered ships constructed in Aden, and Jewish participation in maritime services was substantial--a radically different situation from the Mediterranean conditions where Jews kept their assets mostly in liquid cash or merchandise. Along the same line, another difference in comparison with the Middle Sea is that captains and even ship owners routinely carried other people's merchandise and correspondence. Like in the Mediterranean, however, the family unit was the principal way of organizing business. Then again, unlike the Middle Sea, there is no other type of collective enterprise testified to in Aden. Tracing down family business and partnerships, including those between leading Jewish merchants and members of the city's governing Muslim elite, also confirms the observation that shipping lines were segmented between merchants operating exclusively in the Mediterranean/Red Sea highway and those plying only the waters of the Indian Ocean.

The final chapter of Margariti's work reconstructs the day-to-day functioning of trade by investigating the activities of the Adeni sedentary merchants who provided mercantile and legal services to the Indian Ocean trading community. A good deal of the information comes from documents highlighting the role of the city's chief trader, the "merchant representative." Deriving his authority from his wealth, connection with the authorities, and informal partnerships with men of similar means as the history of the Bundar clan testifies, the wakil al-tujjar was a community notable, a successful businessmen, and a industry liaison at the same time; men of such status could sway court decisions as they wished and still retain their reputation and credibility. The wakil would oversee and take part in the loading and unloading of goods, taxation, unpacking, airing, repacking, storing, and sale of the goods of their absent partners, strike deals or validate transactions in their fortress-like houses, pay dues and court fees on their confidants' behalf, defend their interest in court, settle estates, and pursue the highest rate of return on the assets entrusted to them. That everyday intervention of reputable Adeni merchants in the Indian Ocean/Red Sea/Mediterranean trade enabled the global trade system to meander into its course smoothly and with minimal interruption against all the odds of nature, economy, and politics. That service-oriented nature of the activities of the Adeni trading heavyweights, Margariti makes clear, was the final component of Aden's attractiveness as a port of call to traders of all walks of life.

In high medieval Aden, to judge from the Cairo geniza documents, the reports of locals, the attitudes of the authorities, and the preferences of the international trading community, reconstructed by Margariti in as minute detail as the existing documentation allows, business was business and the bottom line trumped other considerations. In light of her well-researched, skillfully interpreted, and vividly narrated endeavor, it is slightly disappointing that the author did not carry out her investigation into the much better documented Rasulid period when Aden reached the peak of its glory and commercial wealth. Still, the portrait of Aden as painted by Margariti is rich and insightful; the book is certainly a benchmark study of an "island" in the "archipelago of world cities," in Abu-Lughod's apt phrase.