Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Trade and Commercial Activity in the Byzantine and Early Islamic Middle East

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A dizzying array of goods circulated in the Byzantine and early Islamic Middle East along trade networks at the juncture of several continents and bodies of water. Although the region’s best known routes were those running between Europe and Asia at the western edge of the Silk Road, no less important were north-south overland routes across the Arabian Peninsula to eastern Africa. The convergence of these routes created a unique setting for cultural exchange, as merchants, mercenaries, nomads, and pilgrims came into constant contact along these networks.


Luxurious silks, spices, incense, and the like counted among the Byzantine and early Islamic period’s most desired goods.

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Goods, Services, and Taxes

Luxurious silks, spices, incense, and the like counted among the Byzantine and early Islamic period's most desired goods. Silk was particularly prized by both the Byzantine and Sasanian courts. Significant quantities of it outside the Middle East attest to the material's inherently high value and to the reach of its appeal. For instance, extraordinary silks survive as the linings of reliquaries in European treasuries; equally impressive are pieces wrapping the bodies of mummies found in China. Byzantine and Sasanian silks have been discovered in graves in Egypt, showing the taste for the material among local, upper-class populations (15.109). Silk's role as a valuable commodity ensured that its production continued for several centuries. Examples with classical imagery featuring crosses and Arabic inscriptions show the enduring popularity of older motifs (1987.442.5; 51.57).


Such luxury goods, however, were within the means of the relatively rarified elite. More mundane trade items formed the true foundation of the Byzantine and early Islamic economies. Late antique ostraka—pottery fragments with writing in Greek or Coptic, most of them from Egypt—are particularly valuable for historians studying trade (14.1.157). These documents include information about everyday life, such as receipts for commercial products like linen, letters between farmers about crops and livestock, and information about changing political and fiscal administration. Byzantium's wealthy southern provinces generated significant tax income for the imperial treasury based on these goods, and the loss of these territories in the seventh century dealt a major blow to the empire's finances.


Tools of the Trade
Other kinds of material evidence speak to the practical mechanisms of commerce in the Byzantine and early Islamic periods. Surviving coins are valuable because they are often dated and include rulers' names, allowing scholars to map out changing patterns in the circulation of money. Numismatists, for instance, study the purity of metal content in coins to understand changes in the overall economy. Financial crises can be partially discerned in coins' lowered precious-metal content, while differing numbers of coins in hoards reveal governmental oversight in recalling older coinages. It is also possible to trace broader cultural shifts in the transition from coins in Greek with images of the emperor in the Byzantine period, to the purely epigraphic examples popularized under the Umayyads (04.35.3356; 99.35.2386).


Surviving weights and balances give a sense of the tools used in negotiating commercial transactions. Byzantine-period balances and weights in the fanciful shapes of human and mythological figures served an important function in assuring customers of fair exchanges. (59.184). Similarly, government-issued glass weights from the early Islamic period assured consumers that the weights were balanced fairly. It was particularly important to ensure that gold and silver coins had not been shaved or otherwise modified in value, and indeed many of these glass weights include their equivalent weights in specific coin denominations (08.256.3).


Global Routes and Local Markets
Lastly, we might consider the spaces where trade occurred, both along routes and in cities. Archaeologists have drawn attention to the value of material culture in documenting Byzantine and early Islamic trade networks. The Red Sea, for instance, has emerged as an important corridor for long-distance trade between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. Study of networks like these allows us to track the cultural exchanges made possible by the movement of people and goods along prescribed routes. For example, Mecca and Medina at the time of the Prophet Muhammad were important cities at the intersection of trade networks, pilgrimage routes, and migrations of local tribes.


Similarly important are the urban settings of trade in the form of local markets. In some instances, the early Islamic period witnessed the construction of new marketplaces, as in Baysan (Beth Shean, Scythopolis) in the early Umayyad period. An impressive blue and gold wall mosaic there names the caliph Hisham as the market's patron and the date 120 A.H./737–87 A.D. In other cities, the transition was more organic, as older urban fabrics transformed to accommodate burgeoning trade. For instance, in Tadmur (Palmyra), present-day Syria, the stately columns of the city's classical decumanus (main east-west thoroughfare) filled up with the ramshackle stalls of a suq (bazaar or marketplace). Whereas such structures were once viewed as symptomatic of the decline of the pristine ancient city, they are now understood more positively to reflect the vibrancy of commerce and cultural interaction during the transitional period.

Elizabeth Williams
Jane and Morgan Whitney Fellow, Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art