Related Books About the Book This six-volume "portrait of a Mediterranean personality" is a composite portrait of the individuals who wrote the personal letters, contracts, and all other manuscript fragments that found their way into the Cairo Geniza. Most of the fragments from the Geniza, a storeroom for discarded writings that could not be thrown away because they might contain the name of God, had been removed to Cambridge University Library and other libraries around the world. Professor Goitein devoted the last thirty years of his long and productive life to their study, deciphering the language of the documents and organizing what he called a "marvelous treasure trove of manuscripts" into a coherent, fascinating picture of the society that created them. It is a rich, panoramic view of how people lived, traveled, worshiped, and conducted their economic and social affairs. The first and second volumes describe the economic foundations of the society and the institutions and social and political structures that characterized the community. The remaining material, intended for a single volume describing the particulars of the way people lived, blossomed into three volumes, devoted respectively to the family, daily life, and the individual.
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A Mediterranean Society. Volume I: Economic Foundations. University of California Press. Islamic studies were sired by Theology out of Classics, and for long were kept in leading strings. No wonder they have seldom strayed outside such pastures as philology and literature, theology and law, and military and dynastic history, neglecting the diet provided by economic and social history, the history of science and technology, anthropology, and comparative sociology and politics.
Or that our knowledge of Islamic civilization is so rudimentary, compared not only with Europe and Classical Antiquity but also with China and Japan.
One of the main reasons for these shortcomings has been the paucity of Muslim archival material, that is, with the conspicuous exception of the Ottoman Empire. The same applies to most fields of economic and social activity. The Geniza was the storehouse attached to the synagogue of Old Cairo into which Jews threw discarded documents bearing the name of God or written in Hebrew script, since to destroy them would have been impious. The existence of the Geniza has been known since , and its contents have been scattered over four continents, but it remained for Professor Goitein to realize its potential value for economic history.
In addition there will be a collection of documents on the India trade. When complete, the series will constitute an incomparable mine of information and a rich storehouse of historical interpretation. They originate from, or are addressed to, most of the countries bordering the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean in which Jews lived during the period covered by this book, the High Middle Ages, i. Skillfully used by Goitein, they throw a flood of light on the daily life of the medieval Jewish communities in Islamic lands.
And since, as Goitein repeatedly stresses, the Jews lived in close proximity to and mingled freely with Muslims and Christian, worked in much the same occupations, including farming, ate the same kinds of food, and wore the same kinds of clothing, the picture he draws is also largely true for the wider world of Mediterranean Islam.
What were the characteristics of this world—more particularly of 11th-century Fatimid Egypt—as revealed in the Geniza? First of all, one is struck by the great degree of laissez-faire, laissez-passer prevailing.
In many respects, the area resembled a free trade community. The treatment of foreigners, as a rule, was remarkably liberal.
The warriors are engaged in their wars, while the people are at ease. Many male and female slaves must have been baptized to Judaism. Of course the government made its presence felt as the main buyer and seller in the market, often to the detriment of merchants. For every 50 dinars in number they asked from me one dinar.
The book is, of course, replete with detailed information on business organization and practice. Division of labor between the crafts seems to have been carried farther than in Rome, or than it was to be in the Middle East in subsequent centuries. In trade a wide variety of forms may be distinguished, including family firms and several types of partnership, in which the parties contributed different shares of capital or work.
During the entire Middle Ages numerals were used only by mathematicians in their scientific works, but not by Middle Eastern merchants until they learned the great technical merits of these numerals from the Europeans.
The general shortage of currency, the existence of many different coins in circulation, and the desire to avoid the risks and expense of transferring cash, led to the widespread use of paper, including checks the word is of Persian origin , bills of exchange, orders of payment, and promissory notes.
In this way large sums could be transferred over great distances, along the main trade routes of Islam. It may be added that the period under study seems to have been one of general price and wage stability.
Land transportation was slow, risky, and expensive. Moreover, Sabbath restrictions made it very difficult for Jews to travel in caravans. Hence the bulk of passenger and goods traffic went by sea—perhaps eight thousand merchants a year on the Tunis-Sicily-Egypt route—and generally for long distances, notwithstanding the dangers of shipwreck and piracy. But it should be remembered that in the Muslim, as in the classical, period no ships set sail on the Mediterranean from November through March.
The 10thth centuries marked the peak of medieval Islam. By the 12th, seapower in the Mediterranean had passed to the Europeans. The response of the Jews was to shift to the Indian trade.
But the continuation of the Crusades exacerbated Muslim feelings. Under the Ayyubids, who succeeded the Fatimids in , an orthodox reaction set in, and government support was given to the Karimi merchants, to the detriment of Jewish trade. Under the Mamluks there was both economic deterioration and an increase in bigotry, and the Karimis were in turn to be wiped out by government extortion in the 15th century.
The Middle East had entered its long decline.
A Mediterranean Society, by S. D. Goitein
Eduard Goitein, was born in Hungary to a long line of rabbis. He was brought up with both secular and Talmudic education. In his father died and the family moved to Frankfurt am Main , where he finished high school and university. During —23 he studied Arabic and Islam at the University of Frankfurt under the guidance of the famous scholar Josef Horovitz , while continuing his Talmudic study with a private teacher. He left the university with a dissertation on prayer in Islam.
Shelomo Dov Goitein
A Mediterranean Society