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International Trade in the Pre-Modern Period, Middle East

Before the discovery of the Americas at the end of the fifteenth century, the Middle East (the area between Egypt and Iran) played an important role in world trade, especially in the high-value west-east and east-west trade. Between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, the main west-east axis, the Silk Road, ran across the region from Aleppo to Baghdad, Rayy, Nishapur, Marv, and Samarkand, and through Kashgar to the T'ang capital, Chang'an (Xi'an). In the Indian Ocean, fleets traded from East Africa to the Red Sea, the Gulf, and the Indian subcontinent, and Muslim emporia in India traded with the southern Arabian Peninsula and with ports in Malaya and Indonesia, where Islam had arrived at the end of the thirteenth century. In Africa, trade routes followed the northern coasts, while there was a lively trans-Saharan trade, both north-south, from Fez and Sijilmassa to Timbuktu and Gao, and south-west and north-east, from the latter two towns and Kumbi Saleh and Walata across the desert to Alexandria and Cairo through Ghat, Zawila, Ajila, and Siwa. Mediterranean trade between the Middle East and North Africa and Europe in the twelfth through fourteenth centuries was conducted largely by the Italian maritime republics: Venice and its dependencies Zara, Ragusa (Dubrovnik), Salonika, and Crete; Pisa and Amalfi; and Genoa and its dependencies Palermo, Alméria, and Malaga.

The major components of the east to west exchanges were silk, porcelain, and spices, with dates, textiles, and horses going in the opposite direction. Slaves and gold from sub-Saharan Africa were brought across the desert in exchange for textiles and salt, and slaves were brought from East Africa to Egypt and to the Indian subcontinent in return for spices and textiles. Grain and salt were imported into Anatolia and further east from northern Europe; dates formed a major export to Europe from the Arab world, as did ivory and gold from sub-Saharan Africa. In general, therefore, there was a lively and continuous series of exchanges both around the Mediterranean and between the worlds of the Mediterranean and of the Indian Ocean. This was promoted, to an imported extent, by the continuous vibrancy of the urban life of the Islamic world, in cities such as Seville, Fez, Mahdiyya, Cairo, Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad Basra, Hamadan, Shiraz, Marv, and Samarkand.

From the fourteenth century onward, close commercial relations existed between the Ottoman Empire and many western states, even in times of war. The sultan granted guarantees for residence, travel, and trade to "nations" or individuals trading with the Levant, in return for a kind of pledge of allegiance or friendship from those involved. These capitulations or 'ahdnames were supposed to function reciprocally, and from the fifteenth century onward there were Ottoman merchant colonies in Ancona, Lvov, and Venice. To some extent, these agreements functioned as treaties of alliance, so that, for example, the terms of Ottoman-Venetian capitulatory agreements generally included clauses preventing the Venetians from hiring out their navy to the Papacy to enable it to fight against the Ottomans.

Capitulatory agreements were enacted with France in 1569—after which France took over from Venice as the leading trading nation in the Levant—and later with England and the Netherlands. Especially after the foundation of the Levant Company in 1581, which followed the capitulatory agreement of 1580, England came to dominate trade in the Eastern Mediterranean, typically sending goods overland to Turkey via Poland, Hungary, and Rumania—bringing gunpowder, tin, lead, woolen cloth, and probably most importantly, gold and silver coins. These commodities could be exchanged for raw silk (originally from Iran), which could then itself be traded for wine, currants, or olive oil from the Venetian-ruled Greek islands, or for cotton, carpets, and gallnuts (used in dyeing) from Anatolia, or for spices, drugs, and dyes from India or Indonesia. The Dutch Republic, which was favored because of its hostility to the Ottomans' enemies the Habsburgs, had long traded with the Ottomans, and formalized the relationship in 1612.

Similar arrangements existed in Iran, although Shah Ismā'īl, the founder of the Safavid dynasty, was not strong enough to resist the establishment in 1507 of a Portuguese trading post that remained on Hormuz Island for more than a century. Under Shah 'Abbās (1587–1629) the Portuguese were eclipsed both by the English East India Company (founded in 1600) and by the Dutch East India Company (founded in 1602), the latter of which established a trading counter at Bandar Abbas in 1622. Both states had capitulatory agreements with the Safavids, and both trading companies were substantially financed by the bankers of Surat.

Unfortunately, very little is known about Ottoman merchants, both Muslim and non-Muslim, before the nineteenth century, particularly whether individuals were regularly involved in large-scale trading operations in the same way as they were in India. We know that a fairly small number of Egyptian merchants controlled the coffee trade from Yemen to Europe via Egypt in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Evidently, there were also substantial entrepreneurs in the Balkans, notably the Gümüșgerdan family of Plovdiv, whose members were engaged in woolen cloth manufacture, later branching out into banking and money lending, and the Panayoti-Politi family from the Peloponnese, who were major ship-owners in the latter part of the eighteenth century.

In general terms, the capitulations continued in some form until the rise of the Turkish Republic (they were formally abolished under the Treaty of Montreux in 1936), but the position of the Ottoman Empire in international trade changed very greatly in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the first place, the British navy's defeat of the French in Egypt in 1798 began a period of virtual British monopoly of Ottoman trade, and in 1838 the first of a series of highly unequal international trade treaties was concluded between Britain and the Ottoman Empire (the Treaty of Balta Liman). This treaty and its successors with other European states initiated a commercial regime under which the Europeans paid virtually no customs dues on the goods they or their local protégés imported into the Empire, while these privileges were not reciprocated for Ottoman subjects trading with Europe, unless, of course, they had acquired European nationality or protection. Amongst other important consequences, the treaties initiated a period of constantly unfavorable trade balances for the Empire, which were a major factor in bringing about the bankruptcy of the Ottoman state in 1875.

see also Dutch United East India Company; Dutch West India Company; Empire, Ottoman.


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İnalcik, Halil, with Donald Quataert, eds. An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire, 1300–1914. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

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International Trade in the Pre-Modern Period, Middle East

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International Trade in the Pre-Modern Period, Middle East