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Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Trade after the Fall of the Crusader Kingdoms

The Mamluks followed a conscious policy of not only slaughtering and enslaving the inhabits of the cities they conquered, but then destroying the walls and other architectural features. The point was to make the cities uninhabitable so it would be impossible for a new wave of crusaders to arrive from the West and re-establish a Frankish presence. The impact on trade was devastating.

Once the cities were abandoned, even the buildings that the Mamluks had not torn down fell to ruin. The fountains and aqueducts got clogged with debris and then crumbled away. The untended breakwaters crumbled; the quays cracked and broke up. The roofs collapsed; the winter rains found their way between the paving stones and then the weeds. Trees took root where once the busy markets had displayed all the riches of the orient. Travelers from the early 14th-century describe passing through ghost-towns already being buried in sand-dunes where once the great coastal cities of the Levant stood.

Meanwhile, trade moved elsewhere — for roughly two centuries to Famagusta — and more generally to Damietta, Alexandria and back to Constantinople. Trade also shifted to the Black Sea, and overland routes regained traffic. 

Furthermore, the Pope imposed an embargo on all trade with the Islamic world between 1291 and 1344. Obviously, many merchants evaded or ignored the embargo, but the majority of merchants preferred not to risk excommunication and found new markets. As a result, the overall volume of trade between Europe and the Middle East was significantly reduced. 

Eventually, squatters found the cities the Mamluks had tried to extinguish. Peasants put up a few rough walls in the corner of a former palace to make it habitable. No need for the great, hooded fireplaces, though, cooking could be done as before over a fire in the middle of the room. Traders passing through turned a former church into a tavern or a stables for their horses. Fishermen tied up at the broken quays, dumping dead fish where once the great dromons of the Byzantine Empire and the galleys of the Italian maritime powers had loaded luxury cargoes. Slowly, slowly life returned to the towns, and the ruins were increasingly cannibalized to build new structures more suited to the provincial backwaters these great cities had become.

But trade? The vast exchange of products, technology and ideas that had characterized the Frankish kingdoms of the Levant? It was gone. 

Oh, some of the most precious products — ivory and opium, incense, spices and silk — still found their way to Europe, usually by more expensive routes that affected prices and so depressed demand. The most luxurious of goods could still find their way — just as slaves still moved in the other direction. 

No, what suffered most was the trade in ideas. The Frankish kingdoms at the crossroads of civilizations had been a marketplace not just for commodities and luxury goods, but for technology and ideas as well. Once, tens of thousands of pilgrims who had annually made their way from West to East, exposing themselves to new cultures, new landscapes, new ways of doing things; now they all stayed home. 

The economic impact of the crusader states is an important focus of my history The Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades: Kingdoms at the Crossroads of Civilization, which will be released next year by Pen & Sword.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The Impact of the Crusades on Trade in the Middle East

Prior to the crusades, the coastal ports of the Levant had fallen into a period of neglect and decay. Trade between the various parts of the Seljuk Empire moved primarily overland, as did trade across North Africa. The Mediterranean remained a contested area with Arab pirates from North Africa endangering European and Byzantine shipping — and vice versa. The great trading ports were Alexandria and Constantinople. All that changed with the establishment of the crusader states on the mainland of the Levant (1099–1291) and on Cyprus (1192 —1571). 

These states revived the coastal cities of the Levant, especially Acre, Tyre, and Tripoli, but to a lesser degree Jaffa, Caesarea, Haifa, Sidon, Beirut, and Latakia. Following the fall of Acre to the Mamluks in 1291, Famagusta in Cyprus became the central trading post of the Eastern Mediterranean.

From roughly 1123, when the Venetians destroyed a large Fatimid fleet, until the rise of the Ottomans, the Mediterranean was dominated by Western naval power. In the 12th century, the combination of Byzantine, Sicilian and Italian naval power protected the merchant shipping of Europe, and in the later centuries the Italians, particularly Venice, and the Hospitallers (Knights of Rhodes and Malta) provided this protection.

Meanwhile, trading concessions to the Italian maritime powers (Genoa, Venice, Pisa) had transformed the major Frankish cities into thriving ports for both the import and export of goods. Soon caravans from as far away as India and Ethiopia were making for the ports of the Levant in order to sell their wares. Indeed, even Chinese pottery of the period has been found in archaeological excavations. 

The products passing through the ports of the Middle East were highly diverse. They included such high-value products as pharmaceuticals, spices, silks, cloth-of-gold (also known as siglatin — derived from silk Latin/silk for the Latins), ivory and incense. Other important exports were sugar (mass-produced in factories for the first time under the Franks), honey, soap, glass, pottery, icons, illuminated manuscripts, and jewelry. (Below the ruins of a 13th-century sugar mill at Kolossi in Cyprus.)

Looking more closely at only one of these, textiles, some of the finest cloth known to the medieval world originated in the Near East. Egyptian cotton and linen, both renowned for their quality, were exported through the ports of the Levant as was silk from Damascus. Words familiar to us as types of cloth such as muslin, gauze, and damask derive their names from the cities that first produced them in export quantities, namely Mosul, Gaza and Damascus. 

Glass, on the other hand, was a product produced in the crusader states directly. Beirut was famous for its red glass, Tyre for its white glass. Glass was used in plates for windows, but could also be enameled to create exquisite drinking vessels. Stained glass was likewise used both as decorative windows and in the production of luxury objects such a perfume bottles and chalices. 

When speaking of jewelry, one specialty of the crusader states were mementos of the Holy Land for pilgrims to take home with them. Another product unique to this period in the Middle East were reliquaries, beautiful gold and silver containers for the protection and display of holy relics. 


Coming in through these ports were equally valuable products: fur, timber (a very valuable product in the Middle East due to scarcity), wool, iron, and — shamefully — slaves. While slavery was no longer practiced in Western Europe, the economy of the entire Islamic world was still entirely dependent upon slave labor. This created a nearly insatiable demand for fresh human beings. The Italian maritime powers eagerly developed a highly lucrative trade in humans, buying “barbarians” (non-baptized) captives largely from what is now Russia and selling these in the Arab slave markets of the Middle East — passing through the ports of the Latin East on the way.

Last but not least, there was an enormous “trade” in pilgrims. This religious tourism, which included Jews and Muslims but was predominantly Christian, was a huge boon to the economy of the region. Thousands of ships sailed twice a year bringing tens of thousands pilgrims annually from the West to the Holy Land. Like today, these tourists needed places to stay and eat. They needed tour guides, transportation, and security. They bought souvenirs and shoes, clothes suitable to the climate, and gifts to take back home. If they got sick (and thousands of them did!), they needed medical attention. If they died, they needed burial. Whatever they did, they created employment and income for those already in the Middle East.

Trade volumes and values were so great that Christians and Muslims both were loath to interrupt it — even during hostilities. A Muslim pilgrim to Mecca passing through the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem (yes, that was not only possible but common) reported in amazement that even while the military elites were engaged in skirmishing, trade continued uninhibited. (He was writing in the early 1180s.)

Indeed, the value of trade sometimes made the military elites reluctant to engage in warfare at all, since their own revenues derived in large part from taxes on trade, markets, anchorage etc. This was particularly true under the Ayyubid successors to Saladin (1193–1250). Altogether, we know of more than 100 truces between the Franks and Saracens, all designed to end hostilities and allow trade to flow. 

The economics of the crusader states will be a major focus of my forthcoming book: “The Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades: Kingdoms at the Crossroads of Civilizations,” Pen & Sword, 2021. Meanwhile, it provides atmosphere and color in my novels set in the crusader states.

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