In the 14th century, during the age of ibn Battuta, the Dar Al Islam created a hemispheric system of trade and commerce. In a modern archeological dig of the Levant, pieces of indigo were found, which came from places as far as India and Sri Lanka. During this time, a hemispheric currency was also created. Where did the gold for the currency come from? How did it get from place to place to be used throughout trading networks? Ivory was also being shipped from the eastern ports of Africa to places around the known world. These commodities undoubtedly contributed to the shaping of each of these region’s cultures. Most importantly, there was one commodity that tied these things together: the religion of Islam. Islam was adopted and practiced differently in many different places by people as agents of the religion, due to aspects and properties of commodities and culture in lands throughout the Dar Al Islam in the 14th century medieval Afro-Eurasian world. By examining primary and secondary sources, such as ibn Battuta’s Rihla and a number of scholarly books and journal articles, we can begin to piece together how these commodities function as agents of culture, trade, and the spread of Islam throughout the 14th century.
Although ibn Battuta never mentions the color indigo or indigo colored cloth throughout the Rihla, it does not necessarily mean he had never seen it. In 1330, during his journey into Anatolia, or modern day Turkey and Syria, ibn Battuta states that during this visit at the feast of fast breaking, or Eid Al-Fitr, he observed that the Sultan Ladhiq and the young Ahkis were fully armed, and carried flags, trumpets, drums, and fifes. Modern research tells us that more than likely, these flags were made of indigo. What ibn Battuta was witnessing was the presentation of the guilds during the celebration. One of the largest guild in the area was of the dyers, the people responsible for making the fine cloths that were used in processions and in the gifts that ibn Battuta treasured so much throughout his journey.
The guilds presented in this festival were an integral part of Islamic society. Representing the merchant class, guilds were created to facilitate positive divisions of labor in Islamic lands. Guilds were separated into several categories, with each responsible for aspect of production. This can especially be seen in the textile industry. They are all linked to one another through their productions, with one level at the beginning responsible for those that work with raw materials, and the last level being responsible for maintenance and repair of a finished product. The dyers fell somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.
Another traveler from a later time who has also left a written record, De Thevenot, recounts specific parts of this procession from the same festival, albeit in the year 1686. In his description, he describes a piece of cloth that he calls “blew-stuffs,” which has been interpreted by this author to mean something that has been dyed with indigo.
Specifically in the case of ibn Battuta, we see that Islamic culture has been adopted by the people of the region, from the clothes they wear to the feasts that they practice. Most visitors traveling through this area were more than likely on their way to Mecca as a part of their pilgrimage, or Hajj, to visit the birthplace of Islam. It is a right of passage for all Muslim believers, as it is one of the five pillars of Islam. In fact, one of the specifications for male hajj-goers is to wear a specific type of cloth during the final stages of the journey. Because of the length of the journey, which was usually fifteen to eighteen months for a traveler, they undoubtedly had to stop in certain areas to pray or rest. It was here that the travelers experienced and observed common practices. Pilgrims stopped in areas to convert their merchandise or slaves into cash and to purchase different things that they needed for their journey, like food or animals for their caravan. Business and pilgrimage were so inextricably intertwined that it is hard to determine which was the impetus for travel, or which one was the inspiration for the other.
In more modern times, an archaeological dig of the levant also lends evidence to the theory that indigo was widely used in the region. Taking place starting in 1978, the excavation of Al-Fustat in the Levant led to the discovery of treasure troves of information regarding this area. This land was very important during the 14th century, as the Levant was and still remains a crossroads between Europe, Africa, and Asia. It also held important trading spots in places such as Cairo, as well as many shipping ports in the Mediterranean and throughout the Red Sea.
Al-Fustat was occupied for about seven hundred years and ultimately was abandoned right around the time ibn Battuta was traveling through the area. Many artifacts were found during the dig, including water jugs, Chinese ceramics, Turkish tiles, and different glassware and pipes. The Levant has been a sacred site for centuries for the three main world religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. A study of Raya, a few miles from Al-Fustat, included a monastery that had always been contributed to Christianity. Upon digging, the archaeologists found a mihrab with Islamic confession prayers tiled onto it, lending to the fact that this was an area that observed somewhat of a peaceful coexistence of Muslims and Christians.
Although Raya was also abandoned right before ibn Battuta traveled through the area, it has barely been disturbed. Some things found from the dig include Islamic ceramics of high quality, glassware, steatite objects, copperware, gold coins, papyrus manuscripts and other artifacts. During the age of ibn Battuta, cultural syncretism, sharing and trading of ideas and commodities, was at an all time high between people of many different religions.
The next site that was excavated was al-Kilani. There were three levels to this excavation, the third being the remnants of the 14th century. Many written trade transcripts were found, showing evidence that al-Tur’s port was very busy with international commerce. One specific transcript that is described is a business document from 1557, showing a transaction including indigo as one of the commodities. This is absolute proof that indigo was in this area around ibn Battuta’s time.
Another text tells us of indigo trade throughout this area in the 14th century. Studying the sugar, spice, and perfume trade throughout the time period, Karimis are described as being merchants in the Egyptian area during the Mamluk Dynasty. While trading with India, they offered copper, tin, and ironware among other things. They received back things like ivory, silk, gold, pepper, clove, and indigo.
One important item that was found was a gold coin from Cairo, during the Mamluk period. Along with the other artifacts uncovered, this lends to the idea that there was active maritime trade from east to west and vice versa. During the fourteenth century, a widely accepted currency was established throughout the Dar Al Islam. Many of their coins were made with either silver or gold. ibn Battuta has a specific experience during his travels to Mali in how gold was excavated from the ground and eventually traveled to major cities. The gold was used to make dirhams. The work was mainly done by African muslims who were slaves to the sultan. Gold was so prominent in the South Sudan that when it’s leader, Mansa Musa, began to excavate it, he flooded the market in Cairo so heavily that it’s value was depressed throughout the Muslim world for an extended period of time.
The gold came from three major deposits in West Africa. Although the world had known about the deposit for a long period of time, the introduction of single humped camels in the second century common era was what set this trade into motion. These camels could go without water for over ten days and carry heavy weight, allowing cross desert trips to become possible. The Berbers of North Africa also contributed to this trans-Saharan trade by leading the caravans.
The kingdom of Mali was established in the thirteenth century, being strategically placed between two of these desert gold deposits. They flourished exponentially over the coming century due to this proximity, as they demanded a piece of the profit. They carried the gold to certain drop points to be shipped to other areas of the Eurasian continent. At the time, Europeans had been switching over from silver to gold currency, so Italian merchants would pay high prices for the smallest amounts of gold. By the middle of the 14th century, the Malinke kingdom extended to large portions of Africa, including the Atlantic coast as well as areas in present day Niger. It amassed an area covering about 1200 miles of terrain. The caravans also carried many other materials from this part of Africa that were not found in other parts of the world, including ostrich feathers, kola nuts, ambergris, hides, and slaves. In exchange, they received textiles, copper, silver, paper, books, swords, iron ware, perfumes, jewelry, spices, wheat, and dried fruit.
Berber speaking merchants from Islamic lands were an integral part of these trade routes. They organized the caravans that transported materials from one entrepot to another. Muslim neighborhoods began to rise up in these highly African areas. These were not the people responsible for the harvesting of the gold. That was reserved for the Malinke people. As a result, they were the first group of people in West Africa to convert to Islam. This linked the Malinke people to the Muslim traders, and created feelings of trust between the two groups, as they all followed the same laws and customs to a certain extent.
It is clear that the abundance of gold was heavily shown throughout the kingdom of Mali. Upon his audience with the sultan, ibn Battuta observed a payment of gold from the sultan, along with the other jurists and qadis. During this meeting, he also observed the placement of gold around the audience room. On one side of the hall there were arches covered in gold. The dragoman, who stood at the door, held one spear of silver tipped with iron and one spear of gold. There was gold bird placed upon the parasol of the sultan, and he was also dressed in a headpiece and skullcap made of gold. As he entered, the singers who accompanied him had gold and silver qanbaras.
Copper is also abundant in the area as well, and the locals use it for their currency. Outside of Takadda, a town located in present day Niger, the locals mine the copper and smelt it in their homes by male and female slaves. They shape the copper into rods of varying sizes, and sell them for a hefty price. The smaller rods are used as currency, to buy things such as meat and firewood. The larger rods could purchase male and female slaves, millet, butter, and wheat. They also ship the copper to various lands, one being Barnu of the Kanem, an empire of the middle ages, in present day Chad, Nigeria, and Libya, taking an almost forty day journey to travel there.
The kingdom of Ghana, to the south of Mali, has also been heavily influenced by the gold trade in this time period. They made most of their wealth from their salt mines, using slaves to mine the salt and trade it for other items throughout Islamic lands, the most important being gold. Their king was a source of visualization of the wealth of the kingdom. The king wore jewelry and a golden head-dress, surrounded by ten horses covered in gold. The doors were guarded by dogs wearing collars made out of silver and gold.
The differences in the adaptation of Islamic law are specifically seen in ibn Battuta’s Rihla. Setting out in 1351, Mali was one of the only Muslim lands ibn Battuta had not yet seen. Mansa Musa’s brother, Sulayman, had now risen to power. Ibn Battuta expected a warm reception from him. As a traveling qadi, he expected to be sheltered and given gifts when he arrived in the kingdom of Mali. Upon visiting with the sultan, ibn Battuta was upset to be addressed through a spokesperson rather than the sultan himself. When he went to received his gift, he was astonished to be given a bowl of millet with a little honey and yogurt. He immediately wish to leave once the Malinke man told him that he was receiving a great feast.
What really sent ibn Battuta over the edge was how the Malinke people practiced segregation of the sexes, or lack thereof. According to his interpretation of Islam, such actions were forbidden. He visited the house of another qadi and observed him conversing with a young woman in an enclosed room who was not his wife. Although the qadi explained to him that the situation was not suspicious as the two were friends, ibn Battuta was still taken aback by this behavior.
Another commodity that was widely circulated was ivory, which was found on the east coast of Africa as well as across the Indian Ocean and into Southeast Asia, in places such as Ceylon, or modern day Sri Lanka, and the Indian sub-continent. It was also found in Africa, in places such as Ethiopia. Because of a need for the exotic, and because ivory had many purposeful uses, Muslim merchants and pilgrims went to the area of origin to get it. Although items were exchanged for the ivory, such as Arabian horses and ponies, eventually Islam made its way to India around the age of ibn Battuta. This in turn made trade easier, generated greater wealth, and spared the public from a clash between different religions.
The rulers of the Indian subcontinent welcomed this religious change. When Muhammad Tughluq took over the subcontinent in 1325, he united the whole empire over his domain, eliminating many Hindu villages and replacing them with Islamic states. He appointed Afghan and Turkish governors to rule these specific states, making most of the Islamic empire compare his civilization to the Mamluk state of Egypt, which was highly regarded and respected. The rulers opened up their court to all Muslims of talent, skill, or judiciary skills. It was here where ibn Battuta fit into the picture, as he had previously worked in other places as a qadi and was well versed in Islamic law.
Muhammad Tughluq was known for being extremely generous and naive, which likely appealed to ibn Battuta. In order to advance his political schemes, he entrusted them to foreign political servants whom he could rely on for their loyalty in return for gifts. The more respectable men did what they were told even though they did not agree with the methodology imposed. The less respectable men got rich on his naive generosity and snuck out of the country at the first opportunity. Once Muhammad Tughluq was informed of this betrayal, he reacted swiftly and harshly. He humiliated them in a public forum and killed them, “tossed about by elephants with swords attached to their tusks.” This lends to the credibility of elephants being in the area during this time period.
Ibn Battuta had the pleasure of having a public audience with sultan before he took his position as a qadi. A section of the Rihla describes the event in great detail. After all the important people such as the sultan, with one hundred guards to his left and his right, the qadis, chief preacher and justice, the shaikhs, the sultan’s family, the amirs, and finally the ‘aziz. They also brought in sixty horses covered in black and white silk. After the horses followed the elephants, of which there were about fifty. They were covered in gold colored silk, with their tusks covered in iron to be used in the killing of criminals. The neck of the elephant is adorned with a tool called a mahout, which is somewhat like an axe that the elephant used when charging to maim and kill. They hold boxes on their backs that are capable of holding many men, and these boxes are also covered in silk. The elephants and their ivory are an important part of the ceremony, as they are trained to bow to the sultan in his presence.
Somewhat modern sources also tell us of the presence of ivory in Islamic lands. Many pieces of intricately carved ivory with religious symbols have been found in many European countries. Although many depict Christian scenes of worship, there are surviving pieces with Islamic influence. Oliphant, as it is known in western languages, are pieces of ivory hunting horn that are shaped and carved with pictures displaying religious scenes. Originally designed for secular use, they were repurposed to include these religious pictures. A study conducted in the 1930s in Great Britain and France yielded thirty pieces of Islamic ivory from a lot that totaled 100 pieces, further proving how far the material spread.
Most ivory that circulated throughout Islamic lands and the Mediterranean was imported from east Africa, specifically Ethiopia. From this area it was usually transferred to Egypt or Arabia into the hands of Islamic craftsmen. It could also be shipped further north and west to places like Spain and England. Ivory was not just a commodity that was traded and then fashioned into specific goods, it is different from other commodities in that it was usually used as tribute. The tusks themselves as raw materials were given to imperial courts.
Unlike the dyers and production units described in detail earlier, the process for harvesting and fashioning ivory into different objects was a process that was conducted by one person or one specific team. There were no merchant guilds involved in it’s production. They were responsible for taking raw ivory, using tools to remove the pulp from the bone cavity, stripping it, sawing it, and eventually carving it. There are not very many surviving records of this process, although it is generally known that every piece of the tusk was used for a specific purpose. The skill that required the most amount of work was the carving. The design was first drawn or engraved on the piece of ivory and any remaining pieces were scraped away. Designs varied, but they usually contained religious scenes as well as decorative flowers and animals. Instruments were also fashioned from ivory tusks, with a 15th century sources speaking of two trumpets made of ivory, as well as drums and horns on the east African coast. The horns were used in official ceremonies as well as for the Islamic the call to prayer.
As far back as the late 10th Century, although a bit before ibn Battuta’s time, further illuminates ivory as a trading material in Islamic controlled lands. There are few records surviving currently, but a lot found in a Sicilian princess’ court contained almost thirty thousand pieces. The carved pieces were attributed to Egypt, but the smaller pieces were attributed to the handiwork of an Arabic carver. Some specialties of the Arabic and Islamic ivory craftsmen included jewelry boxes as well as caskets and funeral materials.
Funeral caskets were, during this time period, a very important part of Islamic worship when a Muslim died. Surahs, or chapters of the Qur’an, were inscribed in ivory inlaid with ebony wood on caskets. Surahs were also written on thin strips of ivory either lining the caskets or on top of them as they prepared them for burial. Ivory could also be used in weaponry, specifically ones that were used to cuut and stab, such as knives and swords. The caskets also contained images of animals, palm trees, or scenes of displays of Muhammad. Even the joints of the caskets were made with ivory. The caskets could be seen all over Islamic lands, as well as some non-islamic ones such as Italy and the Far East.
Ivory is also specifically mentioned in ibn Battuta’s Rihla, alluding to it’s presence in Southern Africa, when he visits Mali. Upon his previously mentioned audience with the sultan, when describing the gold adornments of the rooms of the palace and the people in it, he makes a point to mention that the fararis, or “brave men,” had their slaves parade in front of them with spears, bows, drums, and trumpets made of elephant tusks.
There were also instances where ivory was mentioned in the Rihla in a much earlier period of ibn Battuta’s journey. As he is visiting Aleppo, in modern day Syria, he enters the court of a mosque with an intricate pool of water inlaid with ebony and ivory. He also comments on the exquisite workmanship of the craftsman, which seems to be the general consensus regarding Islamic craftsman who worked with ivory. This is a demonstration of how ivory was used in religious ways, further defining its place in Muslim society. The congregation in Aleppo modified the use of a commodity for another reason than what it was originally intended for.
Ivory was also an important commodity when it came to gifts and generosity. When ibn Battuta visited Kilwa on the eastern coast of Africa, he noted the generosity of the sultan when he visited with him. He followed him out of the mosque one day after Friday prayer, and witnessed the sultan giving a man his clothing after he simply just asked for it. People were overwhelmed by this generosity. When the sultan heard word of how his people felt about him, he returned to the man he gave the clothes to. Not only did he give him ten slaves, he also gave him two loads of ivory as a gift. In contrast to the opposite side of Africa, most of their gifts and exchanges included ivory, probably because of their close proximity to the source. They hardly traded or gifted gold as they did in Mali. In Islamic lands, ivory was praised for it’s natural radiance and luster at least as much as gold. It was also associated with the beauty of feminine skin.
Ibn Battuta’s Rihla provides a tremendous insight to the hemispheric known world of the 14th century. By examining it as well as other sources, we can see that the time period had a lot to offer in terms of commerce, commodity, and religious tradition. Although indigo came from distant lands, it was used in Islamic ceremonies, like the fast breaking with the sultan in Anatolia. It was also seen as being an integral part of the social order in cities far away from it’s place of origin, in the case of the guild workers. An archaeological dig in the Levant, after centuries have passed, still yielded individual pieces of indigo. It was written about by prominent scholars from the time period, noing it’s availability in Islamic lands.
Gold was another important commodity to trade as well as the spread of Islam. Berber merchants from northern Africa, who were already Muslim, were responsible for the transport of gold from the southern regions of Mali and the Sudan. Through this caravan trade, they were able to convert most, if not all, of the people to Islam. Gold became an integral part of their religious ceremonies. Eventually the rulers of these kingdoms were Islamic themselves, although their interpretation was different from classically trained scholars such as ibn Battuta, as seen in the exchange between ibn Battuta and the man who conversed with another woman who was not his wife. The exchange of gold led to other forms of currency, such as copper, to be used among the local people to support their lifestyle. Gold was even seen as far west as Delhi, as it was used to adorn the palace in which Muhammad Tughluq had his audience with ibn Battuta.
Ivory was also heavily found in Delhi as well, although there were deposits in Africa. Ivory had a variety of uses in Islamic cultures throughout the hemisphere. It was used to decorate weaponry in places as far north as Spain. Princesses in Italy were entrusted with it’s care. Ivory caskets were adorned with Islamic prayers that were intricately carved and treated with great care. It seems as though ivory was the go-to gift for those receiving or giving tribute. Elephants were an important part of the culture itself, as they were used in processions of the Sultan and adorned with gold silk. They were even used during war time.
These three commodities were undoubtedly important to the people living in the Eastern Hemisphere during the 14th century. They heavily influenced aspects of culture, trade, and the spread of religion to distant lands. Marketplaces were buzzing with indigo silk, specially reserved for the wealthy. Gold was mined in one specific place, and as it was transferred the ideas of the people surrounding it went along with it. Ivory was worth a huge amount of money and was reserved for the finest quality goods and wealthy people. These commodities essentially infiltrated many different aspects of not only Muslim people and their culture, but of the people of the world in general.