Thursday Seminar: Drang nach Osten, Italian Style: Remarks on the Genoese, Venetian and Florentine Merchants in the Late Medieval Levant


Thursday, October 31, 2019, 6:00pm to 7:30pm


Gould Hall, I Tatti
piri reis map of europe and the mediterranean sea

Speaker: Reuven Amitai (I Tatti / Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

There has been significant research on the activities of the Italian – and other European – merchants in Syria and Egypt in the post-Crusader period, i.e. from the conquest of Acre in 1291 onward, until the coming of Ottoman rule in 1516-7. In Egypt and Syria, this was the time of the Mamluk Sultanate (1250-1517), whose ruling elite – the Mamluks – began their career as military slaves brought from the steppes of Russia and the Caucasus; some of these Mamluks eventually climbed the ladder of command to become senior officers and even sultans. While this relatively centralized regime was mainly based on revenues generated by agriculture, it also enjoyed significant income from taxes and duties placed on international trade, be it emanating from its own territories or the transient trade from further east (India and beyond) to Europe. Important imports also arrived in the Sultanate from the West and North (and other directions as well). In the Mediterranean trade, crucial roles were played by the Italian merchant cities (primarily Genoa and Venice, and to a lesser degree Pisa and then Florence), as well as Barcelona and Marseilles. As noted, these activities are fairly well-known, but they have usually not been well integrated into the history of the Levant itself (and vice versa: historians of this trade often do not fully take into account the history of the Muslim controlled East) In this presentation, Dr. Amitai will provide some background on the Sultanate and its economy, review briefly the overall role of the Italian merchants, and then give three short case studies: 1) the Genoese as traders of young Mamluks (early 14th century); 2) Venetians trading in cotton in north Palestine (mid-14th century); and 3) Florentines trying to maximize profits vis-à-vis the Sultanate not long before the Ottoman conquest (beginning of 16thcentury). He will put these case studies into the larger picture of the economic development of the Mamluk-controlled Levant, suggesting that an integration of the Italian merchants into the history of the region contributes to a more auspicious picture of the economy of late Mamluk Syria. Here he continues along the lines suggested by the recent research of E. Vallet and F. Apellániz Ruiz, hoping to further contribute to the study of the economic and commercial history of the eastern Mediterranean on the eve of the enormous changes wrought in the 16th century.


Reuven Amitai (Robert Lehman Visiting Professor at I Tatti) 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.