MESA Banner
Writing Medieval Middle Eastern History through Geniza Documents II: Trade, Commodities and Unfree Labor

Panel XIII-4, sponsored byMiddle East Medievalists (MEM), 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
In the eleventh and twelfth centuries CE, Egypt was the beating heart of Afro-Eurasian commercial activity, connecting the Mediterranean, the Levant, and the Indian Ocean. Trade connected various classes of society, including enslaved people and rural laborers, long-distance traders and state officials. This panel looks at the entanglement of mercantile networks, political power, commodity fluxes, and unfree labor that underpinned Egypt’s centrality in this period and its unique commercial dynamism. Panelists draw on evidence from the Cairo Geniza, a cache of approximately 400,000 fragments dating mostly to the period between 950 and 1250 CE. The Geniza preserved thousands of letters in Judaeo-Arabic and Arabic, many if not most from merchants in the eleventh and twelfth centuries CE, as well as state and legal documents that inform our understanding of economic exchange in the Islamicate world. Paper one focuses on the trade in enslaved individuals, offering a collective biography of Nubians in medieval Cairo and how they were coercively integrated into Egyptian society. Paper two examines the triangular grain trade between Sicily and its two major trading partners, Egypt and Ifrīqiya; the paper accounts for Sicily’s enduring role as a bread-basket of the Mediterranean and draws out the implications of Sicily’s grain exports for Kalbid and Norman politics and for the facilitators of the grain-flow cycle. Paper three demonstrates the links between the Fatimid state and merchants. Together these papers demonstrate how using documentary evidence and doing history from below offers us a unique perspective into the commercial activity and societal dynamics that pervaded Medieval Mediterranean societies. They suggest that adopting such a methodology in studying history helps scholars of Medieval Middle East to overcome the silence of sources on important historical questions and fill the gap in scholarship.
  • This paper investigates the relationship between medieval Islamic empires and the large classes of merchants that provided them with tax revenue and other essential services. Looking particularly from the angle of taxation on transit trade and individual merchant-amīr relationships, the main question it asks is: were merchants using the state as an apparatus to further their interests and needs or were state officials getting involved in trade in order to keep the merchants in check and impose state interventions? In more general terms, what did it mean for the state to be involved in commercial activities and how did that inform state governance and policies directly and indirectly? Scholars of medieval Europe have shown how states were often instruments for mercantile interests and that state power was partly wielded through commercial activities. In the Islamic context, scholars have long believed that there was not enough surviving evidence to evaluate whether a similar connection existed between Islamic polities and merchant classes. Surviving narrative sources, such as chronicles, are generally silent on this topic. The documentary evidence preserved in the Cairo Geniza includes scores of merchant letters from the eleventh and twelfth centuries CE in Judaeo-Arabic and Arabic, as well as state and legal documents that shed light on this issue and inform our understanding of how commercial activities took place in Medieval Islamic Empires. Merchant letters frequently mention requisitions by Fatimid amīrs (state officials) as well as the role of state-owned ships in delivering commodities arriving on state-owned ships and the activities of merchants selling goods on behalf of amīrs. This paper uses Geniza documents to overcome the silence of the narrative sources and to debunk the idea that insufficient sources for this economic history have survived. My findings demonstrate how the merchants used the state to further their economic interests and how the state simultaneously sought to control merchant activities for their own strategic needs and by imposing taxes on every step of trade and production.
  • Can Jewish sources be used as an archive for the history of a Nubian diaspora in Islamic Egypt? This paper is a study of all the Nubian women, children, and men who are identified in a large corpus of manuscripts now called the Cairo geniza, which were preserved in a synagogue in Fustat (Old Cairo) and written primarily in a Judeo-Arabic, a variety of Arabic written in the Hebrew script. It argues that the collective biography of these individuals illustrates a process by which many Nubian people were coercively integrated into the Egyptian Jewish community in ways that ultimately erased their Nubian-ness and re-inscribed them as Jews who were recognized and protected subjects of the Fatimid caliphate and Ayyubid sultanate. In geniza sources, Nubian people almost always appear as either enslaved or freed persons in bills of sale and communal records. Their presence reflects the geography of the transregional slave trade to Cairo in this period when Nubians were the largest single group alongside Indians, Bejas, Greeks, and those born into slavery within Egypt. Manumission deeds and communal records demonstrate that some Nubians were freed by their Jewish owners. In Jewish law, a person’s manumission also affected their full religious conversion to Judaism. Freed Nubians, both women and men, sometimes became the parents of freeborn Jewish children. By the second- or third-generation, there are no traces of Nubian-ness or slave-status in the names or descriptions of Egyptian Jews despite the widespread presence of enslaved Nubians in Jewish households. I argue that this underscores how Jewish law functioned in this context to deracinate enslaved people and to reinstate them as licit members of the Jewish community and the Islamic imperium. The second part of the paper juxtaposes geniza sources with contemporaneous Arabic documents and asks to what extent the “Nubian-Jewish” history may illustrate a larger phenomenon through which African groups from outside of Islamic territories (dār al-Islām) were forcibly absorbed into Egyptian society. In Islamic law and practice, the umm walad (mother of child) was a legal category for enslaved women who gave birth to their Muslim owners’ free-born children. Muslim men also freed and married enslaved women who were or became mothers of free children. Both of these strategies, as in Jewish laws of conversion and slavery, had the effect of erasing the presence of Nubian people and culture from the written records used by historians.
  • The commercial letters of the Cairo Geniza are an underutilized documentary source base for Muslim Sicily. The letters of the Geniza merchants reveal a dense network of economic and social ties that stretched across the length and breadth of the Islamicate Mediterranean. However, working with the documentary Geniza presents paleographical, linguistic, and methodological challenges. The aims of this paper are twofold. The first is to argue for a different methodological approach towards using the documentary Geniza to shed light on Muslim Sicily, one that prioritizes working directly with original documents and placing them in the greater context of Mediterranean trade. This approach is necessary because relying on existing English-language publications of Geniza documents severely limits the existing source base. English publications on Sicily in the Geniza also take the sources out of their greater Mediterranean context, restricting researchers’ ability to go beyond illustrative examples and discuss broader social and economic trends. The second aim of this paper is to apply the proposed methodology to enhance our understanding of the flow of resources (such as taxation, agricultural products and other trade goods) with and within Muslim Sicily, illuminating its role in the triangular trade with its two major trading partners, Egypt and Ifrīqiya. Focusing primarily on the grain trade, this paper will demonstrate Sicily’s enduring role as a Mediterranean grain basket as well as the social and political implications of Sicily’s grain exports both for its trading partners, and for everyone (peasants, merchants, administrators) who facilitated the flow of grain within the island itself.