In this week’s readings, Abu-Lughod covers a large portion of the history of trade from the Mongols, Baghdad and the Persian Gulf region, Cairo, the Indian Ocean system, and to China. Yet again, throughout these chapters, Abu-Lughod stresses the interconnection of the world system during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Furthermore, she stresses there was no one dominant force—no world hegemony. However, she does describe the potential that both India and China had to become the dominating world force. The location of India was perfect for hegemony it was considered the connection between the Eastern and Western parts of the Indian Ocean—most traders had to move through here. But India did not have the desire or the military power to fend off intruders; they were happy with their position and did not desire much expansion. With the coming of the Black Death and other economic problems, India lost its chance to become the leader in world trade. China also had the opportunity to become a hegemony and just as India, also had a crucial position in the world trade system. For a number of reasons China did not rise to this position—they actually withdrew from the seas, faced economic hardships, and finally really had no innate desire for world domination. Although India and China are both very interesting cases, I would like to focus on the area most interesting to me, Chapter 6: Sinbad’s Way—Baghdad and the Persian Gulf.
Of all the routes that linked Europe and the Far East, the Persian Gulf was the “easiest, cheapest….and the most ancient and enduring” (185). Compared to the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf was easier to navigate through because of its lack of rocks and bad conditions. Additionally, the Red Sea required being in the open sea; whereas, through the Persian Gulf traders could hug the shoreline, which was much safer. In this chapter, Abu-Lughod also stresses the importance of Baghdad as a great cultural trader center. She provides many passages noting the greatness of Baghdad, for example, “There is no city in the world equal to Baghdad in the abundance of its riches, the importance of its business, the number of scholars…” (191). Unfortunately, every great power must come to an end; the fall of Baghdad was inevitable. Although the sources are inconclusive of how and when Baghdad precisely fell, the fact that Islamic scholars no longer mention the city and famous travelers never mention it, suggests that the trade there diminished and eventually stopped. There is also evidence that the Mongols conquest of Persian and Iraq sped up already looming local changes. In the end, the clear winner in terms of trade in the Middle East region was Egypt and the rule of the Mamluks.
What I found extremely interesting in Chapter 6 was Abu-Lughod’s focus on the accounts of the growth and eventually collapse of Baghdad. She cites many passages from famous travelers writings and even includes a description of the fall of Bagdad from the Persian writer, Wassaf. Even more interesting, she stresses the tragic poetic aspect of these accounts. One of the questions I have about this chapter is why mention Basra? Was this outlet to Baghdad really that important in the larger scheme? What was the significance of Basra declining in relation to Baghdad, and more importantly, the entire world system?