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B - 8 : Mare Nostrum No More

Updated: Apr 6, 2021

With the fall of Egypt, the Mediterranean - for almost one thousand years a unified, cultural space - became a frontier. Commercial ties which had existed forever were severed and the cultural unity broken. There was no aspect of European life which was not affected. Along the Anatolian coast we will visit this summer there are dozens of towns and ports which were abandoned once their business - long-distance trade - disappeared. With the division of labour shattered and long-distance trade gone, Europe had to return to producing locally. Without wheat from Egypt - the fuel of antiquity - field armies could not be maintained and defence became a purely local matter - that is how we got the local castles with their knights. Most damaging to western culture was the disappearance of urban civilisation. Within a few generation, most of the Greco-Raman achievements in science and engineering were lost. A few books survived in monasteries but Christianity had no tolerance for what was not written in the bible. The dark middle-ages had arrived.

Byzantine - Muslim Naval Antagonism 7th - 11th Century But how was life further east - in the new centers of power? Very very different though. Literature labels it the “Golden Age of Islam” which lasted from the 7th century to the Mongol invasion in the 13th century. We all somehow know about Bagdad’s glittering status as a global metropolis of wealth, civilisation, commerce and learning. How did this happen? Arabs were tribesmen from the desert with an impecable military track record. But tribal societies did not develop urban civilisation. So what was it?

Bagdad in the 17th century - could not find the name of the European painter Well - trade! Whilst everybody knows that Muhammad was a prophet, most don’t know that he was a merchant before. Actually, no town in the desert could survive without trade. The local economy is never sufficiently diversified. Islam is thus a very trading friendly culture which almost no restrictios on trade (except some usury related restrictions on finance). The Muslim Khalifs actively supported the development of trade from their very early days and built the necessary infrastructures such as inns, trade depots, exchanges, a standard currency with the dinar (name derives from the Roman denarius) and a legal framework which protected merchants.

Muslim land and sea based trade network in the 7th centuryAD Thanks to these efforts and its geographical position, the Khalifs achieved what no other empire could. They combined trading over land with trading over sea. At the center of all of this was Bagdad which tremendously benefitted from this global division of labour. Shipping a Chinese silk roll from Guangzhou to Marocco within half a year was thus not only feasible but happened all the time. So why producing local silk? One of the best testimonies to this vast trading network are Ibn Battita’s (1304 - 1369) stories of his travels. A contemporary to Marco Polo, he travelled 120’000 km or three times around the globe. His book makes fascinating reading. The Indean ocean became the new ocean of trading and the dhow with its latin sails took the place of Roman boats

Textbook on surgery

Low taxation (only non-muslim paid taxes), global trade, stable finances, religious freedom and the rule of law were the ingredients for a booming economy. I could not find good estimates for GDP numbers but other indicators support the narrative. The Arab society had a much larger middle class than Rome, the literate rate was three times as high and the Muslim society was able to afford a large, well paid academic elite. Systematically, all Greek, Roman and Persian books were translated and the first universities with disciplines such as theology, law, philisophy, science, mathematics, astrology, engineering and medicine opened. Sounds familiar? Europe had to wait to the Renaissance until this level of knowledge was accrsible again.

Indian Muslims mapping the sky for making calendars and drawing maps

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