Looking Again at Economic Developments in Late Medieval Syria, in Light of New Research on the Activities of Italian Merchants in the Mamluk Sultanate
Reuven Amitai is Eliyahu Elath Professor for Muslim History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, specializing in the pre-modern Middle East, particularly: the coming of the Turks and Mongols, the Mamluk Sultanate, the Mongol Ilkhanate, medieval Palestine, military history and conversion to Islam. Among his publications: The Mongols in the Islamic Lands (Aldershot, 2007); Holy War and Rapprochement: Studies in the Relations between the Mamluk Sultanate and the Mongol Ilkhanate (Turnhout, 2013); Nomads as Agents of Cultural Change: The Mongols and Their Eurasian Predecessors (Honolulu, 2015), edited with M. Biran; Slavery and the Slave Trade in the Eastern Mediterranean, 11th to 15th Centuries (Turnhout, 2017), edited with C. Cluse.
The Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt and Syria was the major power in the eastern Mediterranean during the later Middle Ages, gaining fame first for its successes against the Mongols and Franks, and later for its rich material and intellectual cultural activity. Military might and a vibrant cultural life were based on a strong economy, revenues coming from agriculture, urban economic activity and international commerce. The last mentioned was derived both from the transient trade between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, and the export and import of local goods along the land and sea borders. The trade in the Mediterranean was mainly in the hands of European Christian merchants, especially those from Genoa and Venice, with the latter increasingly dominant. Traditional scholarship saw the later Mamluk Sultanate as a time of sharp economic decline, with adverse implications in several areas (demography, culture, politics and the army). Recent research, however, has shown that at least in the realm of international trade, in both the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, this negative assessment is far from justified. The present study seeks to integrate the new work on commercial history – particularly regarding the activity of the Italians in Mediterranean – into the more general political, social and economic history of Syria, particularly Palestine. The result might show that the economic situation of this part of the Mamluk Empire was more auspicious than long thought.