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E - 174 : How the Merchants of Genoa, Pisa and Amalfi became the Normans' Shippers

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

Medieval Illustration of Greek Warriors Sailing to Troy - in Contemporary Ships though!

Even though we sail along Genovese trading routes, I have not talked about Genoa or the Genovese for a few weeks. But my epiphany two days ago about the connection between the Medieval Warm Period and the Fatimid Empire made me think about 2 other questions. The Norman strategy to take Sicily in 1071 looks remarkably similar to the one used by the Crusaders to conquer the Holy Land in 1099. Were the Crusaders primarily Normans? My second question was how the tiny towns of Pisa, Genoa and Amalfi could gain control over the Western Mediterranean and become the Crusaders’ shippers.

I will save the first question for another blog and focus on the second. Until the 11th century, Palermo was the marketplace where Genovese, Pisan and Amalfi Merchants bought their spices and other oriental goods. With the island under Fatimid control, they benefited from the Empire’s trading infrastructure. Arab and Jewish traders came to Palermo and brought the wares they had imported from India and China. For the Italian merchants, there was no need to sail all the way to Egypt or the Levant. A trip to Palermo took only a few days and could be repeated several times a year. The shorter distance with the quicker turnaround eliminated the need for big fleets. By the end of the 11th century however, these towns were able to charter hundreds of ships to the Crusaders. Where did all the ships come from?

The picturesque town of Amalfi was once as important as Genoa, Pisa and Venice

Looking up the timeline of the Fatimids, the Normans and the Genovese & Pisan Merchants gives us a few clues

970 The Shia Fatimids conquer Egypt, Palestine and Jerusalem

973 The Fatimids move their capital from Mahdia in Tunisia to Cairo in Egypt

980 Fatimid forces take Damascus & aim for Bagdad where Sunnis rulers still govern but fail

1051 After decades of neglect by the Fatimids, Tunisia splits away from the Empire

1061 Roger of Sicily, Guiscard’s younger brother, invades Sicily

1071 Palermo falls to the Normans who keep most of the Muslim Administration

1087 Pisa & Genoa defeat an Arab Fleet in Mahdia

1095 Pope Urban II calls for a Crusade to liberate the Holy Land and support Byzantium

1099 Jerusalem is taken by the Crusaders

Today, we are used to look at the Shia – Sunni conflict as an issue between Persians and Arabs/Turks. It was not always like this. The Fatimid Empire saw itself as the only legitimate successor to Prophet Mohammed. For the Fatimid, the Sunni were usurpers. The Fatimids aim was to re-establish the old caliphate and control Bagdad, Damascus, the Holy Sites of Mecca, Medina & Jerusalem and Egypt. The Mediterranean was a side issue. As we have seen, they almost got there. Only Bagdad and Mesopotamia eluded the Fatimid's control.

The Shia Fatimid Empire focused on remaking the old Caliphate with Bagdad, Damascus and the Holy Sites at the Center - the Western Mediterranean was of secondary importance

The separation of their western province of Tunisia did not bother the Fatimid rulers too much. They thought they would get it back once Bagdad and Mesopotamia was theirs. When the Normans invaded Sicily 10 years later, the Fatimids thus left their former subjects in the rain and provided not an ounce of support. The local Muslim forces were no match for the aggressive and professional Norman Warriors. Sicily became Norman. The same must have happened when the combined Pisan-Genovese navy sank an Arab fleet in Mahdia, the Fatimid’s former capital. Could it be that the Fatimids were even grateful that the Italians made short shrift of one of their rivals? Who knows but sounds plausible.

There is one further important thought in this context. With Tunisia and Sicily drifting out of the Fatimid’s zone of control, they probably reduced their support for commercial trading. Why making a rival successful? Gives them only tax revenues to build a stronger army! Dealing directly with the Italians in Egypt’s ports promised a greater level of control. We know from Fatimid government records that Amalfi’s Merchants started to come to Egypt around that time. Why would they accept a journey time twice as long if they could avoid it? The same must have applied to Genovese and Pisan traders.

Sailing to Egypt is a different undertaking than sailing to Palermo though. With the dominant west winds Egypt can be reached from Italy in two weeks’ time – the return journey however takes two months. The sailing season was limited from May to September, just five months. Travelling twice per year to Egypt was theoretically possible but a bad spell of weather or lack of merchandise would scuttle the tight schedule. One trip per year was more realistic – which meant that a fleet at least twice as large had to be built. With no middlemen in Palermo though, the additional profit would make it worth. Would love to read a related research paper but logistics seems to interest only the fewest of historians.

The Crusader States in the Middle East in 1099 after the First Crusade

By coincidence and with none of their own contribution, such larger fleets were available by the time the Normans decided to participate in the Crusades. For them it was just a repeat of their conquest of Sicily. Whilst the troops would have to fight their way over land to the Middle East (4’500 km from France to Jerusalem), replacement troops, horses and equipment was to be shipped. 15 days of sailing compares favourably with 225 days of marching. It is thus no surprise that the Normans accepted the Italian Merchants with open arms. Not only did they give them considerable trading privileges in the just conquered Crusader States. They also got very favorable treatments in all the Norman ports of Apulia, Calabria & Sicily.

Trading with “Brothers in Arms” turned out to be a highly profitable business! No middlemen to pay from Egypt to Italy plus plenty of cargo contracts to ferry replacement troops, support staff, pilgrims and wives to the Holy Land. We only have to look at the splendour of the churches in Genoa, Pisa and Amalfi to understand how lucrative the trade was.

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