Columbus and the Islamic World

Happy Indigenous Peoples Day! As we commemorate the impact that Christopher Columbus had upon the peoples of the Americas, I thought in keeping with the focus of this blog that it would be appropriate to talk about his impact on the Middle East.

Europeans had been trading with the Far East for centuries already by the time the Muslims showed up on the scene–ancient Roman luxuries have been found in China, and vice versa. Of even more importance to Rome was its trade with India, via the Red Sea and Egypt (or, if you’re inclined to believe early Muslim historians, via that massive yet somehow largely unnoticed international trade hub at Mecca). The arrival of Islam didn’t really complicate those trade routes too much. In terms of overland trade the caliphate simply stepped in where the Persian empires had been, and while the Romans’ loss of Egypt hurt, there was too much money to be made for the new Arab/Muslim bosses to just shut the Red Sea trade down. This state of affairs continued for centuries, with the caliphate and the Romans (or the Byzantines if you prefer), and briefly the Latin Crusaders, in a state of almost perpetual war, but usually prepared to keep trade routes open in order to make some scratch. The point is that the commercial relationship between Europe and “the Orient” was already millennia old by the 15th century.

Map - Mongol Empire 1260
The Mongol Empire(s) in 1260, plus Song China (conquered, as the map says, in 1279)

Then along came the Mongols in the 13th century, eliminating the caliphate altogether and creating a network of Mongolian khanates (nominally, at least for a few decades, these were sub-khanates under the rule of a single Great Khan, but practically speaking they were separate but affiliated entities) stretching from Eastern Europe all the way to China and Korea. If you count it as one unit (problematic, but ultimately fair), it was the greatest contiguous land empire (by “contiguous land empire,” I basically mean “leave the British Empire out of this”) the world has ever seen.

These khanates (like the Ilkhanate in Persia/Iraq and the Golden Horde on the Russian steppes) rarely got along with one another. But if there was one thing the Mongols loved more than fighting and conquering it was trading and making money, so they made sure that it was smooth going for overland traders on the East-West “silk road” (or roads, since there were actually a few different routes). Having most of Eurasia under Mongol control actually made traveling far easier, since not only was security pretty tight but merchants could also deposit their hard currency at one end of the empire in exchange for paper banknotes (obviously a lot easier to lug around than coins) that were redeemable throughout the empire.

It’s in the Mongol period that we hear of European travelers–missionary-diplomats like William of Rubruck and Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, or merchants like those Polo fellows you might have heard of–making the overland trek all the way to Mongolia or China. The Mongols never conquered Egypt, which by this point was under the control of the Mamluk dynasty, but the Mamluks also were keen to keep trade routes to Europe open (with good reason; mamluk means “slave,” and this dynasty was perpetuated by the succession of slave soldiers to the throne; those slaves were usually purchased via European traders).

Map - Mamluk Egypt & Syria
Mamluk Sultanate in Egypt and Syria

As it happens, the Mongols were a lot better at conquering than they were at ruling, and their various khanates in the Middle East and on the Russian steppes were breaking apart and collapsing as soon as a century after they’d been established. That breakdown brought with it a lot of unwelcome insecurity for traders along the Silk Roads, who were frequently beset by thieves and marauders. The hope of a unified trans-Eurasian empire was briefly revived by Timur in the late 14th century, when his campaigns reunified the Ilkhanate, extended its reach into India and Central Asia, decimated the Golden Horde (taking out their competing, more northernly, Silk Road route in the process, probably by design), and quashed the nascent Ottoman Empire that had been harrying what was left of the Byzantine Empire.

Timur, like any good Mongolian conqueror, liked to make money, so he restored trade routes and promised safe travel to merchants on his territory. Unfortunately for the merchants, Timur died on his way to conquer China in 1405, and while his son and successor, Shahrukh, was a better Muslim than Timur had been, he wasn’t nearly as good a warrior. The empire Timur (re)built started collapsing and losing territory very soon after he died, and really began to fall apart when Shahrukh died in 1447.

The various Silk Road routes over the centuries; Timur tried to destroy the route north of the Caspian (via National Geographic)

The biggest beneficiary of Timur’s death was the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans were thrown into an interregnum/civil war after losing the Battle of Ankara to Timur, but once that was over they quickly rebuilt their former strength and then some. The empire grew to absorb most of Anatolia and the Balkans, and finally ended the Roman/Byzantine Empire in 1453 when its army captured Constantinople. The Ottomans, who now controlled the western terminus of the Silk Road (we’re basically down to one Silk Road at this point, since Timur put an end to the northern route), were pretty fond of money as well, so they weren’t really a threat to close down trade with Europe. However, they had also just conquered the most important city in Christendom and were a clear threat to march right into the heart of Europe (or sail into it; Mehmed the Conqueror launched a naval invasion of southern Italy after taking Constantinople, in the hopes of taking Rome as well).

The Ottomans also became a true naval power in the Eastern Mediterranean, something no Islamic entity–Arab, Mongolian, or otherwise–had ever done before, which meant that they could dictate trade terms to European merchants in ways that previous Islamic principalities hadn’t been able to do. Meanwhile, Muslim Iberia was in the process of falling to the Christians, creating new Christian kingdoms at the far edge of the Mediterranean who were very well-placed to consider, say, sailing around Africa to open trade routes to the East that didn’t cross any Muslim territory. The fact that the new Iberian kingdoms were all competing with one another only raised the stakes in that game. Their exploratory voyages started even before the Ottomans took Constantinople, but their urgency picked up afterward.

Ottoman expansion to 1683 (Wikipedia)

1492 is notable not only for Columbus’s voyage, but for being the year when the last Muslim kingdom in Iberia–Granada–fell to the armies of Ferdinand and Isabella, whose marriage had united the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon and laid the foundation for modern Spain. The Ottomans were still on the ascendance, having crushed the Aqqoyunlu confederation in 1473 (which had made diplomatic overtures to Venice about attacking the Ottomans jointly), and wouldn’t be seriously challenged until the rise of the Safavid Dynasty in Iran in 1501 (and even that challenge was one they would effectively put down by 1514).

By 1517, the Ottomans had defeated and absorbed the Mamluk Sultanate, gaining control of the Red Sea trade route in addition to the Silk Road–this only added urgency to the European search for alternatives. Having been beaten to the “around Africa” sea lanes by Portugal, which would eventually get to India that way by the end of the 15th century, the Spanish monarchs were naturally intrigued by the idea that someone could sail across the ocean to the west and wind up in China, bypassing both the Ottomans and the Portuguese. With the Muslims finally removed from the peninsula, the king and queen decided to turn their attention to besting Portugal’s commercial strength, and the rest is history.

I know this map is filled with a lot of stuff, but it’s a pretty thorough representation of both the oversea and overland trade routes of the period (via)

Well, not exactly. The Ottomans felt the effects of the discovery of the Americas, at least to some degree. For most of the 16th century and into the 17th century Europe was hit by something called the “price revolution,” which was essentially a massive (by 16th century standards) inflationary trend. Historians used to believe that it was the influx of large amounts of silver (especially) and gold from the Americas that devalued currencies all over Europe and caused this inflation, but nowadays scholars believe it was more complicated than that. It’s suggested that the bigger culprit was that Europe’s population finally started expanding again–after remaining stagnant for decades following the Black Death population collapse in the 14th century–and also rapidly began to urbanize. Some economic historians argue that this increased the velocity of money and that started the price revolution, others suggest that it increased the demand for money and that started the revolution, and you know what? I’m not an economist. At any rate, I think most of those scholars would still agree that the influx of American silver contributed to the price revolution, even if it wasn’t the main cause.

The Ottomans suffered a severe economic downturn in this period, one from which it could be argued that they never fully recovered. For example, a steady stream of imperial surpluses became a steady stream of imperial deficits around the late 16th century. Turkish historian Şevket Pamuk’s research estimates that prices in Istanbul rose around 500% between the end of the 15th century and the start of the 18th, and that inflation may have been partly driven by European inflationary trends, which in turn may have been partly driven by all that New World silver. The main Ottoman silver coin, the akçe, went through a major debasement (devaluation and reduction in silver content) in around 1585, which (according to Pamuk) was the main driver of the inflationary trend, but he notes that this debasement was itself brought on in part by the economic strain of the price revolution.

There were other causes for the Ottoman economic crisis, specifically wars with the Safavids and Habsburgs, a major slowdown in the empire’s pace of territorial expansion, and a change in land management from productive hereditary land grants (which encouraged landlords to manage their grants for long-term productivity) to destructive tax-farming (which encouraged bidders to extract as much money as they could, as quickly as they could, from a parcel of land before it was taken away from them). Pamuk’s work incorporates these other factors and shows that the impact of the new American silver on the Ottoman economy was more limited than previously believed…but there was still an impact.

Map - Trade Routes 1500
Eurasian trade routes c. 1500, just as this whole Age of Exploration thing was really kicking off

By the by, in case you’re interested, elsewhere in the Islamic world in this period things weren’t quite so difficult. The 16th-18th century period is known as the age of the “gunpowder empires” because the Islamic world was dominated by three large imperial units–the Ottomans, the Safavids in “Greater Iran” (Iran plus some of the Caucasus plus most of Afghanistan plus occasionally Iraq), and the Mughals in modern (northern) India and Pakistan–whose militaries were all organized to one extent or another around, you guessed it, gunpowder weapons.

Map - Three Empires
The “Gunpowder Empires”

The Mughal economy thrived in this period (and in general for much of that dynasty’s lifespan), owing mostly to the fact that India, along with China, was one of the two great eastern terminal points for European trade. It’s estimated that India’s economic output in this period accounted for slightly over a fifth of the world’s total economic output (by comparison, the US and China each top out at around 16% of total global GDP nowadays), and because its goods were so highly prized in foreign markets it tended to accumulate precious metals/specie rather than having to spend it, so it wasn’t affected by price shocks the way the Ottomans were. If anything, the arrival of Europeans in the Indian Ocean via the African route only increased the demand for and trade in Indian goods, and the arrival of New World silver increased Europe’s ability to pay for them, all good things for India’s economy. The Mughals also benefited in the 16th-17th century from some really phenomenal leadership, from Akbar (r. 1556-1605) to Jahangir (r. 1605-1627) to Shah Jahan (r. 1627-1658).

The Safavids were comparatively poorer than either the Mughals or the Ottomans, and had only one truly important product to offer the world market: silk, the production of which may have come to Iran from China via our friends the Mongols. The Safavids actually had a very productive run from the late 1500s through the early 1600s, partly because of European exploration and Ottoman struggles. The arrival of European traders in India via the passage around Africa meant that the Safavids no longer needed to rely on overland trade to Europe via the Ottomans, with whom they were frequently at war. Instead, they could ship their silk via the Mughals, with whom they had generally good relations until the mid-17th century, to European traders in India. At the same time, Ottoman economic weakness forced the empire to give the overland Safavid silk trade (usually conducted by Armenian merchants) fair treatment even when the Ottomans and Safavids were at war with each other. Like the Mughals, the Safavids also benefited from strong political leadership in this period, in the person of Shah Abbas I (r. 1588-1629), the dynasty’s only truly great monarch. Once he died, the drop off was precipitous, and not only did relations with the Mughals decline, but as the 17th century wore on European merchants grew tired of dealing with the Safavids and began to fill their silk needs elsewhere.

One final word, and it’s about the slave trade.

African slave trade routes (via)

It’s easy to lose sight of this when you’re talking in benign terms about “trade routes” and economics and inflation, but so much of this economic system was underpinned by slavery that it’s irresponsible not to at least point that out. The slave trade was as much a north-south trade than east-west, with Circassian and Central Asian slaves finding their way south to Mamluk and later Ottoman Egypt, while African slaves were traded across the Sahara to North African principalities and beyond, in addition to being taken to the Americas. The transatlantic slave trade is really beyond our purview here, but the trans-saharan trade, and the slave trade in the Balkans, Caucasus, and Central Asia is crucial.

The gunpowder empires depended on enslavement, with the Ottomans conscripting sons from Christian families in the Balkans to serve at court and in the army/Janissary Corps, and the Safavids taking slave soldiers from Christian kingdoms in the Caucasus (in an effort to mimic the Janissaries). The Mughals likewise enslaved non-Muslim Indians (mostly Hindus, obviously), selling some abroad, and also traded for slave soldiers from Central Asia. While slaves in some of these systems could expect eventual manumission and even a pathway to high office–and in that sense had an experience that was quite a bit different from the American slave experience–this was still slavery and still ugly.

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3 thoughts on “Columbus and the Islamic World

  1. Interesting point about tax farming and the corrosive effect on society’s long term health. I am just old enough to remember when the Harvard Business Review came out with its classic article, Managing our Way to Economic Decline, that detected the now well established change in American business culture that favored short term bonanzas over long term health. When I look at what this has done to American Science I get absolutely despondent, and now you zap me with a suggestion that maybe we never will recover fully.

    So, history is not zzzzzzzzzz but AWESOME!!!!!11!

    And as an aside, brother in law is from Valencia where they speak the local dialect (incomprehensible to my ear) in the home and they really don’t care for those @ssholes up in Castile. You’d think that after six hundred years they might get along better, a fact which does not bode well for the Treason in Defense of Slavery crowd getting with the program and joining up with the rest of the Union.

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