Goiten S. (1964) Mediterranean trade before the Crusades

Goiten Shelomo Dov (1964) “Le commerce méditerranéen avant les croisades. Quelques faits et problèmes”, reproduced in Micheau Françoise (ed.) Les relations des pays d’Islam avec le monde latin du milieu du Xe siècle au milieu du XIIIe siècle, Paris Vuibert, 2004, 286-303.


Have the Crusadeds followed and used or preceded and triggered the first commercial long-standing relations between the Muslim parts of the Mediterranean world and the Western Christendom (286) ? The documents from the Cairo Geniza cast a new light on this issue (287). These documents reveal “the strong influence of Europe upon he islamic trade as early as the first decades of the 11th century, and even sooner”.

The Europeans in the Islamic world

In 959, there was already a “European” (Rum) market in Cairo and in 996 there were at least one hundred Italian merchants in the city (289). Around 1030 Italian words entered the Arabic commercial vocabulary, testimony of a strong relationship across the two sides of the Mediterranean (290). Their presence in Cairo also shows that the Italian merchants were not confined to seaports and ventured inland; yet their influence is even clearer in the coastal regions such as Alexandria, Syria or Tunisia (291). Already in the 1àth century European products were widely known and appriciated by Oriental consumers (cloth, furniture, cheese, honey).

Europeans were also involved in the transportation of goods from one Islamic country to another, for instance they brought Tunisian coral to Egypt (292). Despite strong links between Jewish communities living under Christian and Muslim rule, Jews were not common intermediaries between East and West. All the merchants travelling from Europe appeared to have been Christians. The oriental merchants were not specialized, they imported a huge variety of goods and even played the role of bankers for each others (293).

Details of the trade

The most important goods traded in volum and value were flax from Egypt to Tunisia and Sicily and Sicilian and Spanish silk to the East; cotton, leather, an other artcles of clothing were also traded in both directions in significant quantities. Four types of precious goods transited from East to West: spices, gums and perfumes, pearls and precious stones and dyes and pigments. The Jews were not involved the significant importation of metals from the West but were major actors in the re-exportation of these metals towards India (294).

On the other hand Jewish traders were often specialized in the transit in all directions of pharmaceutical products. Tunisia exported olive oil, soap and wax, Syria produced honey and dry fruits and Egypt exported sugar. The Jews seem not to have been involved in the weat trade so no information is available about in the Geniza documents. Books were also widely traded (295). Interestingly bullion exported from Western Europe was treated by the Jewish traders almost as any other product (296).

The routes and the institutions

Although some major Jewish traders never moved away from Cairo, most in that community had a rather nomadic way of life. For instance, many had one house in Egypt and another in Tunisia and spent half of the year in one and the other half in the other. As maritime navigation stopped from October to March, during winter land caravans were going from Kairouan to Cairo (297). After 1050, due to the Benu Hilal invasions, the caravan traffic seem to have ended all together. Even before that the bulk of the international trade used maritime routes. Most of the ships going from Egypt to Syria before the 12th century were owned by Muslim businessmen. It is noticealbe that the Oriental merchants travelling on these ships rarelly owned a ship themselves. In the Mediterranean there were no Jewish shipowners (298) but a fair number of Jews from Aden owned ships in the Indian Ocean.

Merchants living in different places took care of eachother’s business according to the unofficial sadaya (friendship) and suhba (brotherhooop) institutions. They received and sold their “friend’s” goods, collected what was owned to them, bought new products and shipped them. Thus they behaved as eachother’s agent and principal. They were also in charge of overseeing eachother’s employees (299).

More formal associations also existed. Several partner could share the investment, losses and benefits of a given venture. Others brought the necessary capital to an operation and trusted a partner with the charge of selling it abroad (300). In the latter case, the sedentary partner enjoyed two third of the benefits. Commonly these associations were created between members of a same family (301).

A community of traders

It is important to remark that some 90% of the Geniza letters had been written by the members of a goup of Tunisian merchants installed all over the Mediterranean. It thus appear that these Maghribi traders lived together and mostly choose partners from their community. It created a supplementary level of safety.

The merchants who did not have a “friend” in a given port could always rely the local wakil al-tujjar, the merchant’s representative, very much an equivalent of the Latins’ consuls in the Levant. The wakil al-tujjar was a powerful merchant who had to accept to be the agent of whatever merchant of the community trusted him with his business (302).


People, ideas and merchandizes crossed the sea in every directions before the Crusades and even were in contact with other parts of the world (India). The establishment of this international commercial network
was greatly helped by the openess of the Muslim authorities of the 10th and 11th centuries to trade an commerce (303).

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