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Sunday, April 4, 2010


During our recent trip to Paris, Susie and I visited l'Institut du Monde Arabe [The Institute of the Arab World], located in the 5th arrondissement, on the Seine, just where Quai de la Tournelle and Quai Saint Bernard meet. The Institute, which is one of our favorite spots on the Left Bank, consists of an eight or nine story building on the quai and a large one story exposition hall, flanking a large courtyard. The main building has a rooftop cafe with spectacular views of Notre Dame and old Paris. If you get to Paris, I recommend it.

We were there to see an exhibition of the exquisite products of the world famous Hermes firm, with a particular focus on the designs of Leila Menchari. [Susie has a silk Hermes scarf given to her by another Hermes designer, Julia Abadie, with whom we had dinner later in the week, but that is another story]. After looking at the exhibit, we spent some time in the bookstore, which contains an extraordinary array of books in Arabic, French, English, and many other languages, all devoted to the rich cultural, political, literary, economic, and religious life of the entire Middle Eastern Muslim world. I splurged a bit [books in France, what with the Euro and all, are very expensive] and bought a new work by an English scholar, David Waines, on the famous fourteenth century traveler and explorer Ibn Battuta. I had heard of Battuta, but had never actually read his account of his travels, nor did I know much more than that he was one of the small but important handful of travelers to the Far East who had left accounts of their experiences in the Middle Kingdom.

Ibn Battuta was born in Tangiers [and is referred to by the author -- I just love this -- as "the Tangerine."] Starting from the Western end of the Maghrib, he traveled for thirty years, going East along the Mediterranean coast, throughout what is now known as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and the fertile crescent, down the east coast of Africa as far as Mombasa, farther east to India, where he spent ten years, eventually to Sumatra and China, and, on a separate trip, through the Sahara south as far as Mali.

The book itself, despite its exotic subject matter, is rather slow going [one enormously long chapter is devoted entirely to the food Battuta ate, hospitality being a centerpiece of Arab culture.] Although we regularly refer to the fourteenth century as the Middle Ages, communicating thereby our sense that it lies between the glories of the Graeco-Roman period and their revival during the Renaissance, it was, of course, a high point of Arab culture. Art, philosophy, architecture, poetry, and design flourished during that time in the Muslim world. The eleventh to thirteenth centuries in the Arab speaking world occupy a special place in the hearts of philosophers because it was from Averroes, Avicenna, Al-Farabi, and the other Arabic language philosophers that the works of Plato and Aristotle, lost to the benighted regions north of the Mediterranean, were reintroduced into Europe and became the foundation of all subsequent European philosophical thought.

But it was something else about Ibn Battuta's travels that fascinated me, and it is this that today's blog post is really about. I apologize to those of you who look to this site for a bit of radical snarking at the passing political scene. From time to time, my mind does turn to other things.

Ibn Battuta was not plunging intrepidly into regions hitherto unfrequented by Arab or European explorers. He was simply attaching himself to groups of merchants who were following well established trade routes. What distinguishes him, in our eyes, is that whereas the merchants were concerned with trade and commerce, Ibn Battuta and a relatively small number of travelers in the tenth to fifteenth centuries were interested in recording what they saw, whom they met, and even what they ate. As Janet Abu-Lughod documents in her wonderful book, BEFORE EUROPEAN HEGEMONY: The World System of A. D. 1250-1350, there existed in what we call The Middle Ages an elaborate network of trade encompassing virtually the entire Eastern Hemisphere, save for Australia and New Zealand.

European historians have paid an enormous amount of attention to the fairs and markets that were held periodically outside the walls of cities in Burgundy, Normandy, Provence, Lombardy, and elsewhere in Northern Europe. It was from the seeds planted by these fairs in the faubourgs [which is to say, the areas outside the walls of the cities] that modern capitalism took root. But viewed from the larger perspective provided by Arab, Persian, Chinese, and other texts, these markets were merely the rather modest periphery of a rich, bustling, sophisticated trade network uniting China with Arabia, India with the Mediterranean, Northern England with West Africa.

These claims are not hyperbole. It is estimated that during the high Middle Ages, half of the gold circulating in Europe came from the mines in West Africa. Indeed, at one moment in time, the taste of West African rulers for a particularly fine woolen cloth sparked a mini-boom in Lancashire, England, where the sheep were tended that provided the wool. The wool was traded to English ports, carried to the fairs of Burgundy, thence via Genoa or Venice to North Africa, and finally by Arab merchants across the Sahara to West Africa.

Skilled Arab ship captains kept detailed charts of the trade winds that blew east for half the year across the Indian Ocean before reversing direction to carry them home again. Voyages were carefully planned to catch those winds, in order to avoid the danger of becoming becalmed in the Indian Ocean or farther east in the Bay of Bengal or the Straits of Malacca or the South China Sea.

The trade network, as one would expect, linked coastal settlements, for the most part. Goods from the interior were then brought or traded to the coast, where they were inserted into the international commercial routes. The most striking feature of the entire system, to a modern Euro-American eye, was its multi-polarity. No single city, or nation, or empire dominated the system. What is more, the rigors of travel and the length of time required for each leg made it more or less impossible for a single merchant or group of merchants, in any regular way, to traverse the entire network from Burgundy to Cathay, from Bombay to Mombasa. This is what distinguished travelers like Ibn Battuta, who tells us that it was his goal to meet all seven of those whom he considered the great rulers of the known world [he actually managed to meet five of the men he identified in this way.]

In the fifteenth century, Spain and Portugal began the voyages of imperial conquest that destroyed this system and inititated five centuries of what Abu-Lughod calls European Hegemony. What we are seeing today is the reinstatement of a multi-polar world economy, in which at least four great centers of influence and power [Europe, The United States, Japan, and China], and potentially more are taking the place of the Euro-American hegemony of the twentieth century. The United States, by spending perhaps forty trillion dollars [in constant dollars] over the past fifty years on war and military preparations, has postponed the time when it must give up its pretensions to imperial hegemony, though in doing so, it has quite possibly beggared itself in such a manner as to weaken its ability to maintain its current position in the new multi-polar world. The Arab world, despite the accident of its vast oil reserves, seems bent upon guaranteeing its subordinate status by its obsession with fundamentalist religiosity.

I found reading about Ibn Battuta's fourteenth century travels a useful corrective to the blinkered view of the world that dominates our public discourse. I hope you found it useful as well.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

This is a very useful corrective to our typical Eurocentric perspective.

The 19th-20th century UK/US hegemony may have due to raw military power more than innovation or skill.... Will the succeeding multi-polar world be similarly militaristic, drawing from our example, or pacific, based on open trade routes and multi-cultural diversity....given that we have now perfected and multiplied the technologies for "weapons of mass destruction"

That is my question.