The Merchant Houses of Mocha: Trade & Architecture in an Indian Ocean Port

The Merchant Houses of Mocha: Trade & Architecture in an Indian Ocean Port

by Nancy Um, University of Washington Press, 2009. Pp. xiii + 270. Notes. Illus. Appendices. Glossary. Bibliog. Index. Pb. £19. 99. ISBN 978-0-295-98911-2. 

About two thirds of this book are largely based on published material on Mocha covering the period 1650-1750. The remaining third consists of theoretical excursions on the role of port cities and their hinterland, much of which is of little relevance to the subject, and, as the following passage (p. 10) will indicate, is unintelligible: 

'But even while trade is treated as a shaping force in visual culture and built environments, it must be read in terms of the reception of images and buildings, the cross-cultural production of economic and social meaning, and the ways in which objects and ideas about space circulated within the functional world of the traveling merchant'. 

The author rightly begins with the name of the town, listing some of the many alternative spellings. She decides on 'Mocha' as the most conventional form in English. This is quite acceptable, but she should have mentioned that the literary spelling is 'al-Mukha', and that the inhabitants of Tihama say 'al-Mukha'. Both forms are therefore acceptable; Dr Husayn al-'Amri also uses both. 

The author seems to be unaware of how old the city was before the advent of coffee. Its name is mentioned in several Sabaic/Himyaritic inscriptions, and also by Hamdani. A careful inspection of al-Shadhili's tomb would have revealed a Himyaritic sun/moon relief set in the outer wall. In late antiquity, the Jewish king Yusuf As'ar is said to have destroyed the church in Mocha (see Schiettecatte in Chroniques Yemenites, 2008). 

The author also glosses quite perfunctorily over the much debated question of how to identify and locate 'Mouza', that bustling port-city mentioned in the Periplus (mid-first century AD). Let me briefly review the differing schools of thought. 

Three modern places have been proposed as being identical with ancient Mouza: Mocha itself; Maushij (a coastal village slightly north of Mocha) favoured by D'Anville (1766), Serjeant (until he later admitted the probability of Mocha) and this reviewer; and Mauza', 30 km inland, favoured by Niebuhr and Sprenger (1875). The Periplus clearly speaks about a town on the shore, ('parathalassiou' - I quote from my copy, the Basel 1533 edition), which would exclude Mauza'. It describes Mouza as an 'emporion nomimon' i.e. a 'well established emporium'. This would exclude the village of Maushij and point to the considerable town attested in the inscriptions. Moreover, there is evidence that the 'Mouza' of the Periplus linguistically corresponds to modern (and ancient) Mocha, the Greeks consistently transliterating Semitic 'kh' as 's' or 'z'. 

For the next one thousand years, Mocha remained an insignificant place until coming to prominence with the establishment there of Sheikh 'Ali b.'Umar al-Shadhili (died 1418 or 1424), who became the town's patron saint. The author dedicates several pages to his tomb, his mosque, and the legend about him 'inventing' coffee. In her Chapter 4 - the most satisfying chapter in the book - she rightly contends that Mocha was not just a coffee entrepot but a major trans-shipment port connected with both the Indian Ocean and Djiddah (and thus Egypt) further north. Coffee, of course, was grown in the highlands, marketed in Beit al-Faqih, and exported through Mocha to Europe. The author draws a lively picture of several Muslim merchant families established in Mocha (none of them originating there) and their commercial relations with Surat in India; she also investigates the role of the Baniyans (Indian tradespeople) and the Jews. 

I now come to the author's main thesis that Mocha was not just a port on the shore, but a vital element of the Qasimi state, providing much of its finance, with the governors of Mocha holding one of the highest and most trusted positions in the realm. However, the history of the Qasimi state which she outlines in support of her thesis is unreliable. Instead of making use of the considerable and often excellent literature on the subject, she has limited herself to modest secondary compilations. The list of the Imams of Qasimi Yemen set out on p. 191 is not a full nominal record, and future researchers should rely on the names and titles of the Imams as printed in Tomislav Klaric's superb Political History of the Qasimi Dynasty (2007) or in Husayn al-'Amri's Tarikh al-Yaman al-hadith, 1516-1918 (200l). 

The author also lists the governors of Mocha (p. 192) but has failed to notice that several of them, beginning with the first on her list (Sa'id b. Rayhan), were slaves (mamalik), and that most others were from very humble families. This sits uncomfortably with her sweeping conclusions about 'elite administrators' ... 'from notable Zaydi families' etc. And it is regrettable that while suggesting that the Imams greatly profited from 'filtering Indian Ocean goods and their associated revenue into the land-based networks of Yemen', the author did not compare the sums transferred to the Imams by their governors, with the former's comparatively modest wealth recorded in detail in their inheritance documents. These documents have been made easily accessible in Husayn al-'Amri's masterly Musawwadat amlak khamsa a'imma (Damascus, 2005). 

On a more general level, the absence of a proper analysis of the economics of the coffee trade is possibly the gravest lacuna of the book. The Turks bought coffee in far greater quantities, for far greater amounts of Reales and Thalers than the European traders combined. The studies by Tuchscherer, Raymond and Brouwer, quoted but not really made use of by the author, contain a wealth of material on this. 

Related to her neglect of the role of Red Sea trade in channelling enormous quantities of coffee to Egypt and Europe, is the author's focus on the Indian Ocean to explain the architecture of Mocha. While Mocha was indeed linked to the Indian Ocean, its main outlook and connection was the Red Sea. Everyone familiar with the architecture of Mocha and the region would have expected detailed comparisons with the architecture of Red Sea ports such as al-Luhayya, Massawa, Suakin and old Djiddah. That was the world in which Mocha lived and thrived. The subtitle of the book: 'Trade andArchitecture in an Indian Ocean Port' is thus doubly misleading. 

The engraving reproduced on the book's cover is oddly and incorrectly credited as 'Artist's rendering of the south quarter of Mocha, 19th century'. Readers should know that this and three other engravings of Mocha in the book have been taken from Viscount Valentia's Voyages and Travels to ... the Red Sea, London, 1809.

Werner Daum

Nancy Um