Jewish Commerce in Muslim Lands

The learned merchant was the standard bearer of medieval Islamic civilization--and this was good for the Jews.

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Early Monopolists: the Radhanites

From a ninth century account, Kitah al-Masalik wa’l Mamalik (The Book of the Roads and Kingdoms), we learn incidentally of the remarkable commercial activities of the Radhanites, a Jewish firm whose operations may have been based in Spain or southern France. Their name may derive from the Persian “knower of the way.” Very little is known about them other than the Arabic description of their routes and merchandise, from which we learn that their trade stretched across several continents with branches in many ports and commercial outposts.

Their representatives followed four distinct land and sea routes. One went northward through Europe via Prague, Bulgaria, and the land of the Khazars. Two proceeded along the Mediterranean littoral and ended in Iraq and Iran (the trip from Cordoba to Baghdad normally took a year). The fourth went by sea and land all the way to China. Generally speaking, most of the commerce agents of the Radhanites went only part of a route, making trade with colleagues who had accumulated merchandise on an adjacent leg of the whole route.

Factors specific to medieval Jewry helped the Radhanites acquire monopolies. For example, Muslims were excluded from European markets, and Christians were virtually barred form Islamic waters; only Jews could travel as commercial agents in both realms. In addition, like all Jews, the Radhanites could be assured of hospitality among co-religionists dispersed all along their transcontinental route through North Africa and Asia as well as in the European hinterlands.

Pirates!--Fostered by Holy War

The naturalness with which the medieval Jew engaged in commerce over long distances should not obscure the fact that considerable peril was involved. Genizah letters are replete with allusions to the hazards of nature and the merchant’s sense of gratitude to God for deliverance from danger. In anticipation of the ever-present threats of piracy, banditry, and assaults by the crew, merchant ships tended to sail in convoys.

Piracy, which colored all aspects of sea commerce, was a part of the continuing holy war between Islam and Christendom and was especially active near Byzantine shore and in the eastern Mediterranean in the eleventh century. So well known and feared was the pirates’ nest off the cast of Libya that merchants would write their families in relief as soon as they passed by safely.

Jews captured by pirates could count on ransom and rescue by fellow Jews in the area when they were brought to a slave market, generally deprived of all possessions including the clothes on their back. Repeatedly, communities in Cairo and especially Alexandria were summoned to redeem men and women from the hands of pirates. One fragment indicates how the Jews in Cairo were burdened with frequent requests for ransom snad had to organize collections in other communities.

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Jane S. Gerber

Jane S. Gerber is a Professor of History at City University of New York. Her book, The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience, won the 1993 National Jewish Book Award for Sephardic Studies.