Friday, September 18, 2009

Merchants, Mongols and Historical Perspective

In chapter four of Before European Hegemony Janet Abu-Lughod expands on her theory of the pre-hegemonic trade system by discussing the two most powerful Italian cities, Genoa and Venice. Both cities were major maritime trading powers in the early fourteenth century, until Venice came to dominate the Mediterranean market in the first years of the fifteenth century. Abu-Lughod focuses on how these two cities came to control Mediterranean trade, specifically discussing their economic and political policies. Particularly important were the advances in “risk distribution” through the Genoese loca system and the Venetian state backed economy and “public debt” system. Also critical to the cities’ success was the highly advanced sailing technology developed for the merchant convoys. Abu-Lughod also details the role the Crusades played in their expansion into the markets of Middle Eastern trade, especially those of the Holy Land. In addition to Christian conquest, Abu-Lughod mentions the Turkish and Mongol invasions of the “Mideast Heartland” and the eventual fall of their empire. The Mongol invasions may have spread Eastern culture to the Europeans, as Italian traders, and papal convoys were sent to the Far East but the their empire’s fall was felt across the Pax Mongolica system, and eventually dissolved the Eastern trade routes.
I found the Muslim’s view of their “Frank” conquerors fascinating. I am used to the European superiority complex, and the “white man’s guilt” of modern society, so seeing the Crusaders from a Muslim perspective was as enlightening as it was disturbing. Hearing the account of Crusaders who had “boiled pagan adults in cooking pots… impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled” was an uncomfortable moment for me. Hearing of such horrors in the conquest of the Holy Land helped me understand the complex and often conflicted relationship between Christians and Muslims today. All of these moments in history have brought society to where we are today. It is difficult for any culture to forget the horrors of the past, especially hundreds of years of violence and conquest. Yesterday’s wars contribute greatly to today’s conflicts in the Middle East.
They say those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it so I raise the question, what can we learn from the Crusades, and the Mongol invasions? Perhaps we can learn to understand perspectives not our own, and create a more peaceful global society, instead of continuing in the vicious cycle of violence that began so many centuries ago.

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