Aden & the Indian Ocean Trade: 150 years in the Life of a Medieval Arabian Port

Aden & the Indian Ocean Trade: 150 years in the Life of a Medieval Arabian Port

by Roxani Eleni Margariti

The University of North Carolina Press, 2007. Pp. xiii + 343. Notes. Bibliog. Index. Figures. Maps. Tables. Illus. Hb. £39.50. ISBN 978-0-8078-3076-5.

This is an enjoyable book, very well produced (good paper, quality binding, fine graphics). It is very readable and provides a lively and vivid picture of trade and traders in Aden between the 11th and 13th centuries AD. It is almost exclusively based on the Cairo Geniza material. The Muslim sources, in particular the Nur al-Ma’arif (CFAS, 2003/2005) are only mentioned. 
Aden with its good and sheltered anchorage lies halfway between Egypt and India. At three moments in history, when a major imperial power was established in Egypt and set its sights on the India trade, Aden flourished as the main entrepot: in Roman times; under the Ayyubids and the Mamluks; and, in the modern period, under the British. 

Margariti’s main source are the letters and ledgers of the Jewish merchants who played an important role in the trade between Cairo and Aden, and between Aden and India (and beyond). These documents had been deposited in one of Cairo’s synagogues, according to Jewish (and Muslim) custom that texts containing the word ‘God’ should not be thrown away but ‘buried’ (which is what ‘geniza’ signifies) properly in a holy place. 

An extraordinary amount of commercial documents (written in Arabic but with Hebrew letters) has thus been preserved. The texts left Cairo in the years around 1900; most of them are now kept at Cambridge and Oxford. 
This truly invaluable material is today totally accessible through the lifelong endeavour of S. D. Goitein. The documents relating to the India trade and to Aden have been published posthumously, but most were available in other publications during Goitein’s lifetime. 

Margariti begins with the monsoon system: ships sailed from Aden to India in late summer/autumn shortly after ships from Egypt had arrived in Aden. The journey from India took place between winter and April. 

The best part of the book is the description of Aden as seen by a merchant. The main harbour was in Sira Bay, the ships resting on the shallow beach before the seafront wall of the city. Margariti skilfully reconstructs details from the description in several Geniza letters of an attack in ca. 1135 AD by a fleet of the ruler of Kish/Qays, a small merchant kingdom in the Gulf. The author then traces a lively picture of the city’s most important building: the Customs House, al-Furda, just inside the seafront wall. The reader is taken from the ship to the Customs House, learns of the tariffs, of the two covered benches where scribes of al-Furda sat, and many more illuminating details. All merchandise arriving in Aden from both India and Cairo had to be unloaded, not only for inspection and customs assessment, but also for re-export. 

Margariti then describes the networking of the merchants, their sharing of risks, their partnerships, legal disputes (to be settled through social coercion within the Jewish community), boatbuilding, and the organisation of traders (role of the ‘wakil al-tujjar’ with his co-religionists). 

The book has several shortcomings. It will not become a reference source book for the Geniza material on Aden and India because this is more completely and very conveniently at hand in the 918 page Goitein/Friedman volume. No use is made by Margariti of the Nur al-Ma’arif material referred to above (and reviewed by this writer in BYSJ 2006). This collection of primary (Muslim) source material is of an importance equal to the Cairo Geniza, and covers a much wider economic horizon. Margariti does not quote Eric Vallet’s preliminary work on Nur al-Ma’arif nor his masterly dissertation (2006); nor, incidentally, does she quote this writer’s own article, From Aden to India and Cairo – Jewish World Trade in the 11th and 12th centuries (Pinguin, Innsbruck, 1987). On substance, the gravest lacuna is the lack of a detailed discussion of the goods traded between Cairo, Yemen and India. Of course, spices readily come to mind. But other goods were much more important: textiles, indigo (produced inYemen) and other dyes such as fuwwah and wars; wood and iron; and, above all, horses, for the export of which to India Yemen had a quasi monopoly. 

Given the small cargo ships, the constant danger at sea, the enormous distances and trade journeys usually taking 2–3 years, it seems incredible to us that this medieval world trade connected brass and bronze factories in India with the trade in raw materials from the Mediterranean, that iron and steel were ordered over those enormous distances, that bronze and glass were traded between the Mediterranean and India, and Chinese porcelain brought toYemen and Egypt. 

Another omission is the variegated and diffuse influence of the Aden/Yemeni rulers (especially the early Rasulids) on the nomination of officials and qadhis in India. This was a direct consequence of the trading link. The islamisation of the sub-continent was also greatly advanced in this period. 

Every chapter of the book is introduced by an attractive graphic detail from the wonderful engraving of Aden in Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg’s city atlas, Civitates orbis terrarum. This appeared in 1574 (not 1572), and the author omits to mention that it was published in Cologne.

Werner Daum

Author: 
Roxani Eleni Margariti