Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

Ashmolean − Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

Indian Block-Printed Textiles in Egypt: The Newberry Collection in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

A catalogue of Newberry's block-printed textiles by Ruth Barnes (published Oxford, 1997).

Indian Block-Printed Textiles in Egypt: The Newberry Collection in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Indian Ocean textile trade: India to Egypt

Early evidence for textile trade from India

International trade in the Indian Ocean goes back to at least the beginning of the second millennium BCE. There is ample evidence for trade links between Mesopotamia and the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley, in the form of seals, inscriptions, and pottery finds. The sea trade through the Persian Gulf was active in both directions, with Indian ships visiting Mesopotamia, while Mesopotamian boats travelled the coast of Persia to the mouth of the Indus. The myrrh and frankincense used in Old Kingdom Egypt may mainly have come via the land route through the deserts of Arabia; a major source for these tree resins was in eastern Arabia, east of Wadi Hadramaut and in present-day Zafar (Dhofar). However, there are records for expeditions in search of myrrh and frankincense, to 'the land of Punt’ from Egypt as early as 2400 BCE; Punt is usually identified with Somalia, although it could be closer to Egypt, on the Ethiopian shore of the Red Sea (Kitchen 1971). As the major source of frankincense was southern Arabia, the connection with East Africa (from Ancient Egypt’s point of view) may actually imply that, in addition to the caravan routes across Arabia, a certain amount of the aromatic resins went from the ports of south-eastern Arabia to East Africa, and then travelled on to Egypt.

In general, though, Egyptian direct involvement with Indian Ocean trade contacts remained limited until Roman times, and the early navigation was apparently dominated by Arabs and Indians, with a certain degree of participation by Phoenician sailors. The Arab and Indian boats eventually recognized the advantages of the regular monsoon shifts in the Indian Ocean, which meant predictable wind and current directions for the annual seasons, and hence opportunities for easier and faster journeys across open water. But this happened after the decline of Roman trade with the Indian Ocean communities, at some time around the middle of the first millennium CE [1].

When Egypt became part of the Roman empire under Augustus, the economic expansion of the time led to the development of direct trade links between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, with much of the commerce now going through the Red Sea. It was as part of this increase in sea trade that Quseir al-Qadim experienced its first period of importance as the port called Leucos Limen. Goods coming from or going to Lower Egypt (and, ultimately, also the Mediterranean) were transported along the Nile river. The major entrepôt for ultimate transfer to the Red Sea was Coptos, just north of the modern Qus. From here the trade moved across the desert to two ports: Leucos Limen (also called Myos Hormos) and Berenice.

For the trade at this time we find references in contemporary writing, of which the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea is the most comprehensive document. As the text survives only in a single document in the University Library of Heidelberg and in a literal copy of that manuscript in the British Museum, the date of its original composition and the identity of its writer has been subject to some discussion [2]. The most recent edition of the text seems to settle some of these questions once and for all (Casson 1989). The Periplus was certainly written in the middle of the first century CE, and was compiled by an Egyptian Greek. As Casson points out, it is unlike the other periploi of antiquity, which were navigational guides written by seamen [3]. This text does not supply navigational details, although it comments on the duration of a journey between two points, as well as on the general direction. There also are references to the best time of departure, taking advantage of the prevailing winds. But its foremost interest is in what trade items can be picked up in specific ports. In this respect it provides often detailed information on economic transactions between the Red Sea and the western Indian Ocean. It is very likely that the author was himself a merchant, and it is clear from the descriptions given that he knew the route from Egypt to east Africa, along the southern Arabian peninsula to the Persian Gulf, and the west coast of India. He also includes a short report on the ports and trade items of the eastern Indian coast, but there is some debate over whether this part of the Periplus is actually based on personal experience [4].

For our purposes the Periplus is of particular interest for two reasons. First, it reports on a journey that had an itinerary still familiar to the medieval Arab and Indian merchants, as well as to the early European trade ships, although by then cross-ocean rather than coastal port-to-port navigation was the more common form of international trade. While navigational skills had certainly improved between the Roman period and the sixteenth century, it is nevertheless remarkable to read the Periplus side by side with the accounts of the Portuguese traveller Duarte Barbosa, who was in the service of the Portuguese government in India from about 1500 to before 1516, and wrote his descriptions of the ports and trading emporia of the Indian Ocean just after his return to Portugal (Barbosa 1918-21) [5]. Allowing for the difference in volume and geographic distance covered, there are sufficient similarities to recognize a certain historical and economic continuity [6]. Considering that there is a gap of close to 1,500 years between the two books, this is remarkable.

Secondly, the author’s account of trade goods and import or export articles from different places is of some relevance for the study of the later period as well. This is especially revealing when we compare the list of trade items given in the Periplus to the eleventh- and twelfth-century India Book documents analysed by Goitein (1963). Casson (1989: 16) gives the following summary:

East Africa

Ethiopian shore of the Red Sea: ivory, tortoiseshell, rhinoceros horn

Ethiopian shore of Bab el Mandeb (the strait between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean): a little ivory, tortoiseshell, aromatics, a very little myrrh

northern Somalia: myrrh, frankincense, cassia (a variety of cinnamon), aromatics, drugs, slaves, ivory, tortoiseshell

east coast of Africa: ivory, tortoiseshell, rhinoceros horn, nautilus shell


Straits of Bab el Mandeb: myrrh, white marble

southern shore: aloe, frankincense (Kane was the major port at the time, and by government policy it was the sole exporter for frankincense)


northwest: bdellium (a tree resin resembling myrrh), nard [7], indigo, turquoise, lapis lazuli, onyx, ivory, cotton cloth, fine cotton garments, silk cloth and yarn, Chinese furs, and long (as distinct from black) pepper [8]

southwest and southern: nard, malabathron (the leaf of certain cinnamon trees Cinnamomum tamala Nees and Cinnamomum obtusifolium Nees), black pepper, pearls, ivory, tortoiseshell, transparent gems, diamonds, sapphires, silk cloth, fine cotton garments

northeast: nard, malabathron, pearls, ivory, fine cotton garments (these goods were probably picked up at one or the other of the two south-western Indian ports)

The African trade, from the Red Sea to Rhapta, concentrated on the export of ivory, tortoiseshell, slaves, some frankincense, and myrrh [9]. Cassia also was picked up in east Africa, although much of it actually originated in South-East Asia. From southern Arabia, specifically from Kane (now known as Qana), came frankincense, myrrh, and aloe. In return, imported from Egypt, were wheat (in limited quantity), wine, Arab clothing, ‘either with common adornment or no adornment or of printed fabric’ (Casson 1989: 67).

There is no indication of what technique of adornment may be referred to.

The frankincense trade, which supported the ancient empires of southern Arabia and brought them great wealth, was clearly government-controlled in this case. As the Periplus says:

Kane [belongs] to the kingdom of Eleazos [the Hadramaut], the frankincense-bearing land... Above it inland lies the metropolis of Saubatha, which is also the residence of the king. All the frankincense grown in the land is brought into Kane, as if to a warehouse, by camel as well as by rafts of a local type made of leathern bags, and by boats. It also carries on trade with the ports across the water—Barygaza, Skythia, Omana—and with its neighbor, Persis. (1989: 67)

The port of Kane lost its importance a few hundred years later, and the main trade shifted back to Aden. At the site, remains can still be seen; it has recently been excavated by a Russian team of archaeologists (Sedov 1994). Saubatha is the ancient capital of the Hadhramaut, Shabwa. It is actually a long journey inland, at the north-western entry into Wadi Hadhramaut. This inland location emphasizes the importance the overland trade route clearly had at one time for the frankincense and myrrh coming from southern Arabia. Omana was on the Persian coast of the Gulf, while Skythia corresponds to present-day Sindh. Barygaza is the modern Broach in Gujarat.

The goods that were exported from India to Rome were of the greatest variety: spices and aro- matics, textiles, gems, ivory, pearls, and tortoiseshell. The textiles were of cotton, both fine and ‘ordinary’: reporting about Barygaza, the author mentions ‘Indian garments of cotton... and a considerable amount of cloth of ordinary quality’ (1989: 81). Silk was also traded, which, as far as the Periplus mentions it, came ultimately from China, although India had its own silk industry (Gopal 1961). Tortoiseshell was much in demand and could be picked up at virtually all ports, while other goods were more specific to particular production centres. The best quality in tortoiseshell came apparently from Malaya [10].

From the lists of goods one gleans from the Periplus it is clear that the Indian Ocean trade with Rome specialized in luxury goods, at least as far as the import into Egyptian Rome was concerned, rather than in bulk and staple. Coming from Egypt in return was a wider economic range of items, such as metals, and some staples (wheat) as well as wine. Also exported to India were glass, silver, and both common and fine textiles. Although the particular angle of this study focuses on the importance of Indian textiles in the trade exchange, this is a reminder that linen from Egypt was also an export article desirable in the markets of Asia. For the courts of rulers these items were all of luxury quality. Among the commodities sent to India were also slave girls and boys.

The reverse slave trade into the Roman empire was at least as important. It included not only slaves to be used as domestic servants, but eunuchs and prostitutes as well. In the import tariff of Coptos, where duty was raised on the imports coming from the Red Sea ports, a document from 90 CE gives the duty on prostitutes as 27 denarii (Jones 1970: 4). That this was an expected duty item can perhaps also be deduced from the experience of Apollonius of Tyana. When he arrived at Zeugma after travels in the East, he was asked what he had to declare, and his answer was: ‘Temperance, Virtue, Justice, Chastity, Fortitude and Industry’, upon which the customs officer replied: ‘Where are the girls? [11]

We saw earlier that for the trade with the Indian Ocean, two ports were of importance along the Egyptian Red Sea Coast: Berenice and Leucos Limen (Myos Hormos). It was believed until now that Leucos Limen and Myos Hormos were two separate ports. However, a recent publication identifies Leucos Limen definitely with Myos Hormos (Bülow-Jacobsen et al. 1994). The Periplus does not mention Leucos Limen, but refers to Myos Hormos. The site is identical with Quseir al-Qadim. It is interesting that this relatively minor port, which flourished during two quite separate periods at the height of the Egyptian Red Sea trade with the Indian Ocean, has evidence of trade with India for both periods.

There certainly is no evidence from this early Roman period of intense trade contacts that anything resembling our textiles was available. Cotton textiles were mentioned, though, in the Periplus as major export items from India, especially from Barygaza (Broach) at the Gulf of Cambay, and as luxury items from Bengal. The latter was the fine muslin referred to as Gangetic cotton garments (1989: 91). It is obvious from the report that regions that specialized in entrepôt-type trade, with warehouses for safe keeping and large communities of merchants, were still (or again) fulfilling similar roles in medieval times as they had done in the Roman period. Barygaza, for example, was described as a community that brought together many industries and traded in their products. Not only did it concentrate on import and export of finished goods, but it traded to supply local workshops with raw goods, such as metals. A similar picture of activities in crafts and trade is painted by Barbosa for the Gujarati ports he saw just after 1500 CE, such as Diu or Cambay (1918: i. 128-34, 139-42). I cannot establish any significant shifts of local industry between the two periods, which is remarkable, as the time span is enormous. One can recognize, though, that the later trade between India and Egypt was far less exclusively concerned with luxury goods. As the exchange of goods between Asia, the Islamic world, and Europe increased, certain items which were originally in the luxury category, such as spices and aromatics, had become bulk items by the medieval period.

Indian medieval trade to Arabia and Egypt

For the late Roman and Byzantine occupation of Egypt there is very little evidence for direct contact with India via the Red Sea. The demise of the western Roman empire brought a definite shift of economic activities to the east of the Mediterranean. While the Abbasid capital at Baghdad and the merchant centres of Iraq and the Persian Gulf had intense international contacts and were the recipients of Chinese and Indian goods, including textiles, the western Islamic world remained only indirectly in contact with the maritime trade of Asia. As finds at Fustat have shown, Egypt certainly received goods from South and East Asia; it had access to ceramics from China, precious stones from India, and spices from South-East Asia, but these came via the Persian Gulf trade centres. A major shift in contacts came about with the rise of the Fatimid dynasty in the tenth century. The continuing western movements of Indian merchants can be testified, though, by their presence in Yemeni communities since the earliest Islamic period (Serjeant and Lewcock 1983: 432). As the Periplus shows, it is very likely that the close connection between India and southern Arabia goes back to pre-Islamic times; certainly this is the opinion expressed by Serjeant. In a reference to a Muslim will involving property, dated to 1384 CE, he finds the Hindu quarter of Aden spoken about as a long-established settlement.

The close trade relationship between north-western India and Arabia in the Fatimid, Ayyubid, and Mamluk periods is historical fact rather than speculation. The truly international nature of these contacts, though, needs to be emphasized. Ultimately, they linked up to a network that stretched from the Mediterranean to East Asia. There was a reasonably good knowledge about who produced what, and where. The Chinese Chau Ju-kua, who reported on the Arab trade with China in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, said of Gujarat:

The native products comprise great quantities of indigo, myrobolan [used in mordant-dyeing], and foreign cotton stuffs of every colour. Every year these goods are transported to the Ta-Shi [Arab or Persian] countries for sale. (Chau Ju-kua 1911: i. 92)

Marco Polo, who was of course one of the early European informants on the customs and activities of Asia, reported on the ‘cotton trees’ of Gujarat, its indigo production, and fine embroidery (1993: 393) [12]. Speaking about the great trading harbour of Cambay, he mentions its merchandise in indigo and a quantity of cotton goods. Many of these goods were taken west towards southern Arabia; in his brief descriptions of Zafar (Dhofar) and Shehr on the coast of Arabia he mentions the frequent contact these harbours had with India. Ibn Battuta supports this with a report on the growing of betel in Zafar, and on the consumption of this mild narcotic (Battuta 1984: 114). He rightly associates the custom with India, as it is not common in Arabia [13].

Venetia Porter has discussed three tombstones in the Victoria and Albert Museum that came from Zafar and were once set up to commemorate the Rasulid governor of Zafar and a local sheikh (Porter 1988). Although the tombstones were found in southern Arabia, Porter shows that they originated in Gujarat and had been carried from there to be set up in Zafar, almost certainly by order of the governor. They are dated to 1311 CE and 1314 CE. The export of such heavy stones makes navigational sense, as they serve as ballast. Elsewhere Porter reports another instance of such a transmission (1992): three columns used in a later Tahirid mosque, the Mansuriyyah in Juban (1482 CE), were also of Gujarati origin.

Islamic geographical and commercial documents concerned with trade in the Middle East, the Arab peninsula, and Egypt continue to mention the trade with Indian textiles, or at least to imply it. In his compilation of textile references for the Yemen, Serjeant quotes in particular Aden’s participation in the international exchange of textiles, both for export and import. He says:

Aden’s participation in the textile trade probably goes even further back into antiquity than the writing of the Periplus...

but continues as follows:

There does, however, seem to be some doubt as to whether the cloth known as ‘Adani’ was manufactured in Aden, or, as some authorities incline to think, was imported there from the Far East (India and China). (1972: 129)

It seems most likely that the ‘Adani’ cloth was indeed fabric traded through Aden, rather than primarily being an Aden product. The port city gained its wealth and importance from the trade that passed through it rather than, in the first instance, from its local workshops. While Serjeant has given his opinion on the antiquity of Aden’s involvement with the textile trade, it has to be stressed that there is at the moment no firm evidence to support this view [14].

Although the textile industry of the Yemen was famous for its own products, and the export of textiles was long established, there was also great demand for imports from elsewhere [15]. As is often the case, an active local industry can also stimulate the desire for additional foreign products; an excellent example for this desire to add foreign goods to local products can be found in numerous South-East Asian societies, where Indian textiles were absorbed at a phenomenal rate into cultures that had a very vital textile production of their own (Andaya 1989; Barnes 1989: 82-7). The demand for Indian cloth in Islamic societies may perhaps be seen in similar terms.

For the period that is immediately relevant to the Newberry Collection, i.e. the eleventh century onwards, there are references from Aden to the Indian textile trade in a tax tariff record from the Zurai'id dynasty (1080-1173 CE), where it says:

On a dozen lengths of unbleached Indian cloth (al-thiyab al-kham), two dinars,... (Serjeant 1972: 130)

At the time 2.35 Aden dinars were worth 1 Egyptian dinar. The same record also has a reference to mahabis, a type of cloth that was discussed in Chapter 9. According to Goitein, in Fustat the word probably refers to Indian cotton textiles, and I think it is possible that it may specifically mean our printed fabrics. Serjeant, however, relates al-Mahabis with a reference to the weaving of girths in prisons in Bokhara, written by the tenth-century author Narshakhi (Serjeant 1972: 100). If Serjeant’s interpretation is correct, I find this reference to girths or reins rather obscure in the context of the Aden tax tariff, where otherwise woven cloth is referred to. Also mentioned are ‘Arab cloths made in Malabar’, which seems to mean fabrics produced for the Arab market. If the reading is correct, this may refer to the precursor of the export cloth made in India (and now also in Indonesia) for the Yemeni market.

Marco Polo’s most elaborate description from Arabia comes from Aden:

This Aden is the port to which many of the ships of India come with their cargoes; and from this haven the merchants carry the goods a distance of seven days further in small vessels. At the end of those seven days they land the goods and load them on camels, and so carry them a land journey of 30 days. This brings them to the river of Alexandria, and by it they descend to the latter city. It is by this way through Aden that the Saracens of Alexandria receive all their stores of pepper and other spicery; and there is no other route equally good and convenient by which these goods could reach that place. (Polo 1993: 438)

As we know, this refers to the transfer of goods from the large Indian vessels to smaller boats, which then navigated the Red Sea up to Suakin, Aydhab, and Quseir. Yule thinks it likely that Marco Polo’s information refers to Suakin, but he also cites Polo’s contemporary Marino Sanudo (Book I, pt. 1, ch. 1), who omits the Red Sea journey altogether, but nevertheless has the goods transferred through Qus, supposedly via Quseir al-Qadim:

The fourth haven is called Ahaden, and stands on a certain little island joining, as it were, to the main, in the land of the Saracens. The spices and other goods from India are landed there, loaded on camels, and so carried by a journey of nine days to a place on the River Nile, called Chus, where they are put into boats and conveyed in 15 days to Babylon [16].

Babylon, of course, here is Cairo or more specifically Fustat. Yule also refers to al-Maqrizi, writing in the fourteenth century, who related that until AH 725 (1325 CE) from ‘time immemorial’ the Indian ships had discharged at Aden, but in that year the exactions of the Sultan induced a shipmaster to pass on into the Red Sea, and eventually the trade came to Jiddah. Regarding the tax duties set in Aden, Marco Polo gives a lively account of these:

And you must know that the Soldan of Aden receives a large amount in duties from the ships that traffic between India and his country, importing different kinds of goods; and from the exports also he gets a revenue, for there are despatched from the port of Aden to India a very large number of Arab chargers... which are a source of great profit to those who export them. (1993: 438)

Exports from Yemen via Aden included textiles, leather work, indigo, as well as madder and the mordant substance myrobolan, which Chau Ju-kua had also mentioned as an export item from Gujarat (Chau Ju-kua 1911: i. 92; Serjeant 1972: 131).

Ibn Battuta travelled to Aden about forty years later, after he had been to Mecca on pilgrimage in 1330 CE. He reported:

It is an exceedingly hot place. It is the port of the Indians, and to it come large vessels from Kinbayat [Cambay], Kawlam [Quilon], Calicut, and many other Malabar ports. There are Indian merchants living there, as well as Egyptian merchants. Its inhabitants are all either merchants, porters, or fishermen. Some of the merchants are immensely rich, so rich that sometimes a single merchant is sole owner of a large ship with all it contains, and this is a subject of ostentation and rivalry amongst them. (Battuta 1984: 110)

The ‘immensely rich’ merchants were the Karimi, powerful families of traders who dominated the economic relationship between Egypt and India in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Goitein (1968: 351) compared their prominence and financial power to the German Hanse operating at the same time, although the Karimi did not have any formal organization. The name was applied to merchant families who monopolized the trade with Asia and East Africa, all of them Muslim, although they may have been converts from Judaism or Christianity (Wiet 1955: 105-29). The title of ‘Karimi’ was often passed from one generation to the next; Goitein suggests that the name may come from the Tamil karyam, meaning ‘business’ (1968: 360). Karimi families could extend their financial influence to the government, by providing loans or giving monetary backing to military excursions (Fischel 1937: 77-8; Wiet 1955: 103-4). They were centred on Egypt, but travelled widely to Yemen, Syria, Central Asia, and above all to India. Their ships moved in convoys of four or more vessels, each carrying cargo of up to 400 tons, with 300 tons the most likely range.

Their prosperity and influence lasted into the early fifteenth century. The early decades of the century were economically and socially unstable times for Egypt in general, but one major specific step towards the Karimi decline was in 1429, when the sultan decreed that the pepper trade would henceforward come under government monopoly (Fischel 1937: 82). This removed one of the most lucrative trade items from their control.

Returning to the Arabian trade, we have seen above that in the early fourteenth century an Indian ship bypassed Aden and went into the Red Sea. During the Mamluk period of influence over the Yemen, several harbour settlements on the Arabian side of the Red Sea became involved with the international trade, among them Mocha, Hodeida, and Luhayyah. The trade of Mecca at the time moved through Jiddah, which distinguished the Mamluk period from early Islamic trade patterns that had depended primarily on the overland caravan route through Arabia. Two routes had been in use before the navigation of the Red Sea became important; the first went from Aden via Zabid and the Tihama plain north to Mecca, the second took the inland route through Sana'ā and Sa'dah (Serjeant 1987: 161).

As Mortel has recently discussed, during the Mamluk period the maritime trade became much more important, and Jiddah as the port for Mecca increased its link with both Egypt and the west coast of India (Mortel 1994: 15). Two aspects of this trade are emphasized by Mortel. While the thirteenth century had seen the rise and eventual dominance of the Karimi merchants, whose control of the international trade between Egypt, Arabia, and India made it difficult for individual merchants to operate, for the Meccan trade the Karimi gradually disappear from the records and are replaced by Khawaja, trading merchants who were not part of a close network. Apparently they were a more loosely affiliated group of traders. Of course no form of long-distance trade can do without an advanced development of commercial techniques: a necessity where international contacts are involved, as transactions are not one for one, but are part of an economic chain of exchanges [17].

The international composition of the merchant community of Mecca was remarkable; this is the second point stressed by Mortel: 201 merchants are recorded, of whom 80 per cent can be identified by their name with a place of origin. Only 14.3 per cent came from Mecca, while 23.6 per cent were Iranian, 22.3 per cent Syrian, and 17.4 per cent from Egypt. One merchant had been born in India. Of these merchants 65 were themselves involved in travelling abroad, 24 of them with journeys to India, in particular to Gujarat and Calicut (Kerala). So far, however, none of our textile material has been shown to have survived from anywhere in the Arabian peninsula.

The Genizah documents: the India book

The major single source for the trade between India, southern Arabia, and Egypt comes from a slightly earlier date. In the Genizah documents of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, we have descriptions of the scale of the trade into the Yemen and on to Egypt (Goitein 1963; 1967-83). The actual participation of the Jewish merchants in the trade was quite modest, and they also traded in particular with the south-western coast of India (Calicut in Kerala), which does not concern us here in the first instance. However, the papers are the major ones surviving for the international contacts of a specific social group, and the information one can gain from them is by no means confined to the Jewish communities alone. The documents that relate to the India trade mainly cover the years 1080-1160 CE [18]. After the middle of the twelfth century well-to-do Jewish families had generally moved from Fustat to Cairo, and they were no longer in touch with the Fustat synagogue where the Genizah chamber was located. The international contacts with Asia no longer played a role in the papers discarded there (Goitein 1967: 148-9).

It is evident from the surviving material that in the eleventh and twelfth centuries Cairo was the hub in the wheel of the maritime trade between India, Arabia, and eastern Africa on the one hand, and the Mediterranean on the other. No orders for goods were sent directly, for example, from Sicily to Aden or vice versa; the orders always terminated in Cairo. This was the case even where the same merchants were involved with travel in both directions. The India trade, as defined by Goitein, involved the entire span of the Indian Ocean as far as Indonesia, although the majority of papers relate to the passage between Egypt, Aden, and India. Although Chinese ceramics are mentioned as items, there is no correspondence that suggests direct contact with China from this group of merchants.

In his initial survey of 311 papers relevant to the India trade, Goitein found the following 77 items transferred to Cairo from Arabia, East Africa, and India, some of them obviously with their source further east (Goitein 1963: 196):

Spices, aromatics, dyeing and varnishing plants and medical herbs - 36 items

Iron and steel - 6 items

Brass and bronze vessels - 12 items

Indian silk and other textiles, made mainly from cotton - 8 items

Pearls, beads, cowrie shells and ambergris - 4 items

Shoes, other leatheworks - 2 items

Chinese porcelain, Yemenite stone pots and African ivory - 3 items

Tropical fruits, such as coconuts - 5 items

Timber - 1 item

Total - 77 items

Goitein explains the make-up of this list, in particular the overwhelming presence of the first group, of spices, dye stuffs, and medical herbs, which he thinks may be so prominent because they were directly relevant to the professions Jews were especially involved in, i.e. as pharmacists, dyers, and perfumers. This may be the case, but also very relevant to this issue of distribution of goods is the geographic location of the source. This is brought up when he discusses the importance of brass and bronze, which was a speciality of south-west India. Many if not all of the idiosyncrasies of his list are perfectly explainable in terms of the goods that were exported through a harbour like Calicut. This explains the strong presence of spices, in particular black pepper, but also the spices traded from further east in the Indian Ocean. The relative unimportance of textiles, which surprised Goitein, is in my opinion due to the type of textile trade coming through this Indian coast. For export to the West it would primarily be a few items of the luxury trade from eastern India, rather than the bulk trade that was produced in north-western India. The textiles frequently referred to in the letters are usually muslins, i.e. a very fine cloth that was sent back to Fustat as presents for the traders’ family or friends (Goitein 1963: 197). It is revealing to compare the list published by Goitein with the records of the Periplus. Virtually all the goods mentioned in the eleventh and twelfth centuries also appear in the document from the Roman period, with the exception of metal and stone vessels, the latter made from a type of steatite found in the Yemen. Listed in the Periplus, on the other hand, but not in the Genizah documents, are slaves. The Jewish merchants apparently were not directly involved with the slave trade, although they certainly had slaves for their own use.

As far as goods moving from Egypt or Aden to India are concerned, textiles, glass, and household goods are mentioned, but Goitein believes these to have been primarily for the use of the Middle Eastern merchants’ households, rather than for export to the local population. Metal was often imported in raw form, to be worked by the Indian craftsman. Gold, rather than a direct exchange of goods, was apparently the more common form of payment (Goitein 1963: 199). Usually it was in the form of Egyptian dinars or, if the order went between India and Aden, in the local Yemeni Maliki dinar, which had a value of 2.35 to 1 Egyptian dinar. Of courses it was not in the interest of the recipients of the India trade to be paying with gold rather than goods, and it was clear that merchants preferred to send products. However, this was done as an exception rather than as a rule: for a few years (1137-40 CE) silk that may have been traded from Spain was well accepted on the Malabar coast 'in the place of gold' (Goitein 1963: 199). How the Middle Eastern merchants dealt with the imbalance of gold trade with India, is still a question.

Finally one particular problem has to be highlighted. We have come across numerous references to the textile trade from Gujarat to Aden and beond, and we may actually have heard of the block-printed textiles in two historical sources. It seems to have been a substantial amount, but just how large we cannot yet determine.

After Europrean contact

To conclude this chapter, I want to add just a few words on the textile trade after the arrival of Europeans as active participants in the markets of Asia. The Indian trade in particular has been well documente, and there are voluminous sources in English, Dutch, and French archives which are available for further interpretation. The writings of John Irwin have helped to produce a picture of market directions for Indian textiles generally, and for printed and painted cloths (the chintzes) in particular (Irwin and Schwartz 1966; Irwin and Brett 1970; Irwin and Hall 1971). For documentation he depended in particular on the East India Company papers in the India Office Library in London. The next chapter will survey the trade with South-East Asia, and more will be said about early European sources on that area. What is impossible to discover from any of these sources, however, is the continuing degree of involvement of Indian or local merchants in the trade. European trading companies and later colonial governments gained control over the import and export tariffs, but clandestine movement of goods continued independently, and does so to this day.

The commonly held view is that Indian textile trade was virtually eclipsed under British rule in the nineteenth century. It is a historical act that the increased European access to cotton-growing regions, in particular to the southern United States, but also to Egypt, and the European and American development of cotton industries had a devastating effect on Indian productions. However, the Indian industry was by no means destroyed. Not only did it continue to produce for a local market, but it continued to export on a considerable scale. In the middle of the nineteenth century J. Forbes Watson published his monumental survey of textile manufacturing in all of India (Forbes Watson 1867). He gatheref samples from all production areas of the country, which provide unique evidence of types of weave and quality (or lack of it) at a particular time, and he summarized his findings [19]. In his summary he produced a table of the value in £ Sterling of cotton goods, including yarn, exported from India to all parts of the world between 1850 and 1865 (reproduced here in Table 4). The results are surprising for two reasons. First of allm as Forbes Watson himself points out, rather than presenting a continuous decline, the table shows the opposite. In 1850-1 the total value of cotton items exported came to £637,651; in 1864-5 it had risen to £1,043,592. This is despite the fact that the export to India's major market in Europe, the United Kingdom, decreased dramatically after 1853-4 [20]. Secondly, and I think this is even more interesting, the table shows a definite market orientation and continuous link between specific export areas and their recipients. For us the most astonishing results are in the column reporting the value of exports to the Arabian and Persian Gulfs, which effectively means the Middle Eastern trade. Throughout the years recorded here, it is the single largest entry. The table reports the export from the three Presidencies of Bengal, Madras, and Bombay, and does not go into further details. But as fits into the picture of our earlier trade reports, the major source for export to the Middle East is western India, recorded under Bombay. The other two areas are almost negligible by comparison. The goods recorded under the rubric 'other parts' would include South-East Asia and Africa, both regions that continued to import Indian textiles throughout the nineteenth century, both as prestige textiles and for daily wear [21]. The quality of cloth exported at the time may not have been consistently of high quality; certainly many of the samples Forbes Watson collected, in particular those from Madras, are poor in weave quality and dye technique. But as an ongoing economic factor, the Indian textile trade continued to thrive.


[1] It has been suggested in the past (Hornell 1934, 1946) that the Indonesian settlers of Madagascar already utilized the wind and current shifts that are caused by the regular monsoon change, and that they arrived by cross-ocean navigation between South-East Asia, southern India, and Madagascar. However, it is now the accepted view that their settling on the island was from the coast of East Africa. The date of their arrival is uncertain, but should be placed at some time during the first millennium CE, probably earlier rather than later. It is possible that Indonesian navigators were directly involved in the early spice trade. Often quoted is a sentence in Pliny's Natural History; he dismissed the fanciful stories of the origin of Asian spices, supposedly found 'in dangerous swamps, guarded by bats' and offered instead a description of traders who carried their goods. 'Over the wide seas in ships that are neither steered by rudders nor propelled by oars nor drawn by sails nor assisted by any device of art: in those regions only man and man's boldness stands in place of all these things' (Book XII, 87). The boats described here have been interpreted by Hornell (1934) as Indonesian outrigger vessels.

[2] The Heidelberg manuscript is Codex Palatinus Graeccus 398, fos. 40'-54', dating from the 10th centuury. The British Museum copy is BM Add. 19391, fos. 9'-12', and is dated to the 14th/15th centuries. It does not depart from the Heidelberg version and repeats its mistakes, so it must be a straightforward copy and does not add further information.

[3] Periplus, as defined by the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, means 'cicumnavigation, voyage along a coastal line'.

[4] Casson (1989: 8) does not believe there to be sufficient proof either way; he thinks that the summary manner in which the author deals with eastern India may have been ue to the fact that part of the trade was outside his range of interest.

[5] Duarte Barbosa aftwerwards joined Magalhae's expedition to circumnavigate the globe, and like, Magalhaes himself, he did not survive it. Apparently he was killed on 1 May 1521 on the island of Sebu in the Philippines; see Dames's introduction to his edition of Duarte Barboas (1918: pp. xlviii-xlix).

[6] The complete publication of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, including the Greek original with a full translation, takes up 43 pages of Casson's edition (Casson 1989: 50-93), while the Book of Duarte Barbosa's descriptions were also more extensive, as they included South-East Asia and China. It is doubtful that he had ever been further east than India at the time of writing his book. The eastern reports are likely to be based on hearsay.

[7] An aromatic substance used in the preparation of luxury ointments; it comes from the northern Indian plant Nardostachys Jatamansi.

[8] Casson has some additional items on the list that he has not been able to identify definitely as trade items.

[9] Citing Pliny and Dioscorides, Casson says that the ancients considered myrrh from Somalia to be the best (1989: 120).

[10] Chryse (golden) Island, usually identified with the Malay Peninsula, produced the finest tortoiseshell (Casson 1989: 223). The contact between South-East Asia and the Roman empire was indirect, but it certainly existed. Malleret published a coin of Antonius Pius and some Mediterranean seals from Oc-eo in Vietnam (1960-2). More recent finds are reported by Ian Glover, such as a copper coin of the Western Roman emperor Victorinus (268-70 CE), minted in Cologne and discovered at U-Thong in western Thailand, Indo-Roman pottery ware of a 1st century CE date found in Java and Bali, Roman carnelian intaglios from Khlong Thom in Thailand (Glover 1989:4-9). Beads found on the eastern Indonesian islands of Flores have been identified as Roman Egyptian by Raats (1958).

[11] This tale is quoted in Jones (1970: 4).

[12] As Yule's n.1 (1993: 394) points out, though, there is some topographical confusion about the location of Gujarat. Marco Polo also treats the entry separately from Tana, Cambay, and Somnath, which are of course part of Gujarat.

[13] The consumption of betel apparently had its origin in South-East Asia and moved from there to India, rather than vice versa. The earliest evidence for the cultivated plant goes back to remains at Spirit Cave in Thailand, dated to around 10,000 BCE (Gorman 1970). Skeletons with evidence of betel chewing, which permanently stains the teeth, have been found at Duyong Cave in the Philippines (Bellwood 1979). The earliest Indian evidence at the moment is from the beginning of the first millennium CE.

[14] At the time of the Periplus, in particular, Aden was not flourishing as a port. As the author stated: 'Eudaimon Arabia ["prosperous Arabia"], a full-fledged city in earlier days, was called Eudaimon when, since vessels from India did not go to Egypt and those from Egypt did not dare sail to the places further on but came only this far, it used to receive the cargoes of both, just as Alexandria receives cargoes from overseas as well as from Egypt. And now, not long before our time, Caesar sacked it' (Casson 1989: 65).

[15] See Baldry (1982) for a detailed account of references to Yemeni textiles in historical sources.

[16] The reference is cited by Yule in his edition of Marco Polo (Polo 1993: 439 n.1).

[17] For a summary of the commercial techniques employed in early Islamic trade, see Udovitch (1970).

[18] Goitein's own publication on the Indian trade remained preliminary. He left the material to his student Professor Mordechai Friedman at Tel Aviv University, who is in charge of editing and publishing it.

[19] A complete set of the Forbes Watson samples is in the Indian Department at the Victora and Albert Museum.

[20] An increase in export to the United Kingdom occurred again between 1861 and 1863, probably because of the American Civil War, which disrupted the cotton trade from the southern States to Brtain.

[21] One of the most curious transitions undergone by Indian textiles in another culture occurs among the Kalanari of Nigeria, who have imported Madras plaids since their early contacts with European traders, possibly going back to Portuguese transfers of cloth from India to the Kalabari. They transform the cloth by subtracting warp and weft threads, and thereby produce a lace-like fabric through reduction (Eicher and Erekosima 1982; Evenson 1990). These textiles have a high prestige value,


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