In 1942, to celebrate his birthday, Adolf Hitler was presented with a cake depicting Eurasia; the führer carved himself a portion labelled ‘Baku’, representing Soviet Azerbaijan’s capital. The Germans coveted the Baku oilfields as they lacked their own source of petroleum and, more importantly, because the region accounted for up to 80% of their Soviet adversary’s fuel production. The major military setbacks of the Wehrmacht in Stalingrad, a turning point of the Eastern Front, put a halt to German plans to occupy Azerbaijan. Petroleum is a linchpin of the modern economy; it is needed to run our cars, heat our homes and, in Hitler’s case, to fuel a world war. Nonetheless, prior to 1846, when the first ever oil well was mechanically-drilled in Baku, petroleum was employed in unusual ways.
Before the advent of Islam, Azerbaijan was administered by an assortment of Iranian polities. Many professed the Zoroastrian faith, a monotheistic religion which emerged in the Eurasian steppes between 1400-1200 BCE. A key doctrine of the faith recognised fire as an emanation of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian deity. Fire represented purity and bridged the spiritual domain of Ahura Mazda with our temporal world. Mac Williams hypothesised lightning strikes would set ablaze the petroleum-rich soils of Azerbaijan, creating eternal flames, upon which Zoroastrians built their fire temples. For example, the seventeenth century Surakhani fire temple of Baku was fuelled by subterranean gas before its depletion by Soviet exploitation of reserves in 1969.
Following the Arab conquest of Azerbaijan’s Absheron Peninsula, oil had several practical functions. It was used for embalming, as an ingredient for cement, and to waterproof rooftops and ship hulls. The murky liquid was utilised in war too. It coated city walls to hamper enemy sieges and, when lit, was an inflammatory agent which smouldered the flesh of invaders. In 753 CE the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur even taxed Azerbaijan’s oilfields; where the oil would be deposited into tanks and transferred across Western Asia using caravans. The tanks were also transported onto ships at the port of Baku and ferried across to the southern Caspian ports of Jurjan and Tabaristan – allowing for the commodity’s export to the Middle East and India.
The 18th century British traveller Jonas Hanway even identified medical uses for petroleum after Russia’s conquest of the South Caucasus.
The Russians drink it both as a cordial and medicine; but it does not intoxicate. If taken internally,it is said to be good for the stone as also for disorders of the breast [….] Externally applied it is of great use in scorbutic pains, gouts, cramps […] but it must be put to the part affected only; it penetrates instantaneously into the blood, and is apt for a short time to create pain.
I would caution that such medicinal applications of petrol would not be advised by any respectable doctor of the 21st century. Nevertheless, delving into petroleum’s history reveals its alluring role in religious ritual, economic value to empires and ingenious functions prior to electricity. The 19th century chemist Thomas Edward Thorpe poetically connected this magical past with the mechanical present by remarking:
With the conquest of Persia, first by Heraclius, and twelve years later by the Arabs, the power of the Magi of the Zoroastrian sect was shattered ; and the worship of the Eternal Fire in the Surakhani temple for ever passed away, and in its place are now the symbols of a new cult in the shape of greasy derricks and dingy kerosene distilleries.
I cannot help but both admire and begrudge how presciently he described the devastation which springs from our fanatical thirst for petroleum.
Featured image: Paul Von Franken, ‘The Maiden Tower in Baku‘, 1818-1884
 Williams, Mac. “Zoroastrian and Zurvanite symbolism in” Las ruinas circulares”.” Variaciones Borges 25 (2008): 115-135.
 Asadov, Farda. “Trade Routes, Trading Centers and the Emergence of the Domestic Market in Azerbaijan in the Period of Arab-Khazar Domination on the Silk Road.” Acta Via Serica 4, no. 1 (2019): 1-24.
 Thorpe, T. E. “Baku Petroleum.” Nature 39, no. 1012 (1889): 481-482.
How do underequipped insurgents manage to fight off resourceful superpowers? Previously I examined historian Ibn Khaldūn’s arguments against repeating historical accounts without critical engagement. The process of taqlīd meant medieval historians engaged in circular reporting, assuming the logical fallacy of appealing to authority. In this post I will draft Ibn Khaldūn’s Historical Theory which seeks to explain the lifecycle of dynasties and the fortunes of war. To understand this, we will need to examine the crucial mechanism behind it, ʿaṣabiyya, or group solidarity.
What is ʿaṣabiyya?
The term ʿaṣabiyya is connected to the Arabic word ‘asbah; which refers to cohesion among agnates. According to Franz Rosenthal, Ibn Khaldūn may have had in mind ‘usbah, which pertains to a group more generally, although the foremost connection would be blood ties. ʿAṣabiyya is driven by “[the feeling that] no harm ought to befall them [members of kin] nor any destruction come upon them”. This was exemplified in the Biblical story of Joseph and his brothers, which was later transmitted into the Qur’an. When Joseph’s brothers had secretly plotted to kidnap him, they assured their father: “If a wolf were to eat him [Joseph] when there are so many of us, we would truly be losers!”. We could think of ʿaṣabiyya as group morale, mutual self-sacrifice, or in Peter Adamson’s words ‘team spirit’.
Sacrifice on behalf of one’s kin plays a crucial component in the Historical Theory. Why is the group the chief unit of analysis for Ibn Khaldūn? The answer lies in Ibn Khaldūn’s awareness of nature which is illustrated by conflict and predation. Just as a lion has been given claws, God has provided man with the ability to think and hands in order to craft tools. Ibn Khaldūn dismisses the individual’s defensive capacity by asserting that the “power of one individual human being cannot withstand the power of any one dumb animal”.Accordingly, for Ibn Khaldūn, human social organisation is a necessity derived from the requirement to protect against others.
An exposition of the Historical Theory
Just as human society represents the manifestation of nature, the lifespan of a political regime is a reflection of the aging of a human. The Historical Theory appears in Ibn Khaldūn’s Muqaddimah; where Ibn Khaldūn applies this cyclic explanation to several dynasties in order to explain regime formation and collapse. For example, a historical account sketches how the Umayyad Caliphate established power in Iberia using group solidarity, but regime senility led to the dynasty’s collapse – paving the way for reyes de taifas (local Spanish principalities) to overthrow them. Like the Umayyads before them, the weakening of ʿaṣabiyya among the reyes de taifas presented an opportunity for the Almoravids from North Africa to attain control of the peninsula. Ibn Khaldūn believes his theory has a universal application to it and the cycle is both natural and predictable.
The theory can be divided into five parts and describes two environments; the nomadic desert and the sedentary city.
The initial military victory by a nomadic tribe over a sedentary civilisation is possible because nomads possess a stronger ʿaṣabiyya than the inhabitants of the city. In the desert, the nomads need ʿaṣabiyya because of the harsh environment and intense competition between rival tribes. Threats here are only external to the tribe. As a consequence of this, ʿaṣabiyya is required not only to protect and defend the tribe, but also to press claims. The goal of group solidarity is to attain the glory of royal authority and the eventual aim for the nomad is to achieve a sedentary life.
After conquest, a consolidation process occurs where the numerous ʿaṣabiyya, including that of the victorious group and conquered realm, are subsumed under a single leader who now governs the city. Khaldūn argues that in the consolidation process, royal authority or mulk, can only be attained through group solidarity. Politics, according to Ibn Khaldūn, requires a leader who is singled out among the group; where the new leader claims “all the glory for himself and does not permit the people to share in it”. Consequently, the group can now “dispense with group solidarity” because it is customary to be obedient to the ruler who, commanding an economy and army, has little need for ʿaṣabiyya to maintain power. During this phase the royal deals with external threats associated with outsiders’ group solidarity and challengers from within his own tribe who may vie for or contest his authority. Once consolidation has occurred, a period of stable dynastic rule emerges.
We should note that Ibn Khaldūn does not view the nomadic stage as an ideal, even if it embodies the strongest group solidarity. Ibn Khaldūn argues that complex culture and science production cannot occur in a nomadic lifestyle because resources are diverted to the tribe’s survival instead of entertainment or technological efficiency. For instance, Abbasid Baghdad featured the House of Wisdom; which contained uncountable original works, translated materials and even an observatory. This would not have been possible if the Arabs had retained their nomadic ways.
Senescence of the regime occurs because the city’s inhabitants become dependent on luxuries; leading to debt and spiritual avarice. This is compounded by the waning of ʿaṣabiyya as loyalty to the king grows. “[Royal authority] requires superiority and force, which express the wrathfulness and animality of human nature” and this creates an atmosphere of disloyalty among the citizens. ʿAṣabiyya weakens because the group lacks the will and ability to share power with the sovereign. The lifespan of the regime is generally thought to be three generations, roughly amounting to one hundred and twenty years. Ibn Khaldūn had a neat trick to identify regime senility: observe for the presence of decorative orange trees because it demonstrates a society’s dependence on impractical luxuries.
The final phase of dynastic collapse sets the stage for the civilisation to be captured by nomads who personify the ʿaṣabiyya long lost by the sedentary citizens. An alternative means of dynastic collapse may involve internal dissension where an unpopular leader is replaced by a revolt from within the elite; with the newly enthroned leader closer representing the overall ʿaṣabiyya of the group.
To summarise, ʿaṣabiyya is a causal mechanic in the Historical Theory; whose strength and weakness determines the rise and fall of dynasties. The willingness to sacrifice oneself for one’s kin is much stronger within the desert than in the city. This is because, in the city, the increasing loyalty to a ruler and reliance on luxuries steadily erodes ʿaṣabiyya to a point where it ceases to exist. Hence, the tribe can no longer press their claims, nor defend themselves from external threats.
Testing the cycle
Ibn Khaldūn saw a pattern among the historical regimes he had studied; the sacking of Baghdad in 1258CE provided a very recent case to test his theory. After a failed negotiation with the Abbasid Caliphate, the Mongols sieged Baghdad. The House of Wisdom was not spared:
In one week, libraries and their treasures that had been accumulated over hundreds of years were burned or otherwise destroyed. So many books were thrown into the Tigris River, according to one writer, that they formed a bridge that would support a man on horseback
It was said the Tigris River ran black with ink and red with citizens’ blood during this calamity. Of course much of the Mongols’ ire was aimed at Caliph Al-Musta’sim who dithered during the crucial negotiations. Having taken the city, the conquerors were reluctant to spill noble blood for fear it would trigger an earthquake. Instead, in one account, the Abbasid caliph was wrapped in a rug and trampled on by elephants, whereas another claims he was locked in his palace – forced to stare at his treasures as he starved. For Ibn Khaldūn, the intricacies of the siege and its outcome did not matter. Instead, he would ask us to step back to realise it was a mere repetition of a naturalistic cycle; just another nomadic group overpowering a decadent regime.
Modern takes on group solidarity
We can argue the Historical Theory is somewhat deterministic, especially considering the relative stability of modern-day polities. However, the concept of ʿaṣabiyya is useful in explaining why nationalism tears apart multi-ethnic empires. Ibn Khaldūn would have pointed out that the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were destined to collapse as each constituent nationality had its own ʿaṣabiyya yanking away at the peripheries. Similarly, he would argue the relative stability of western Europe was because group solidarity was largely placated by national borders; which roughly coincide with the ethnic groups living within them. The separatist sentiment of Catalans and Scots may yet prove that ʿaṣabiyya is a critical factor which determines how borders are drawn and re-drawn.
Additionally, if we inspect modern conflict, the causal mechanics of nomads conquering empires would fail because of technological and economic advances. It would be unfathomable to imagine Central Asian wanderers overpowering a nuclear-armed Russia. Nonetheless, group solidarity is an important facet of morale and has assisted modern history’s underdogs many times over. We need only glance at the Viet Cong’s resistance in the face of American B-52s, Israel warding off seven Arab armies and the Afghan defiance of three superpowers.
Featured image: Conquest of Baghdad by the Mongols 1258. Dschingis Khan und seine Erben (exhibition catalogue), München 2005 via Wikimedia Commons
 Rosenthal, Franz. “The Muqaddimah.” An Introduction to History 3 (1958). “Translator’s Introduction”, lxxii
 Ibn Khaldūn, (2015). The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History-Abridged Edition; Translated by Franz Rosenthal; Abridged and Edited by NJ Dawood. Princeton University Press, chap. 2.7., 98
 Haleem, MA Abdel, ed. The Qur’an. OUP Oxford, 2005., p.146
 Adamson, Peter. Philosophy in the Islamic World: A history of philosophy without any gaps, Volume 3. Oxford University Press, 2016.
Many of us living in towns and cities are somewhat insulated from death. Our chicken comes pre-packaged, neatly presented and devoid of feathers, feet or a head. We rarely hunt for our protein and animal slaughter is outsourced to a factory worker. Consequently, reminders of death are often demoted to observing the occasional pigeon or rat carcass along our daily commute.
Even with our modern detachment from death, it is an inevitability of the human condition. At some point we will lose loved ones and find ourselves staring vacantly at the ceiling from the death bed. Arranging and attending a funeral offers a special chance to pay respect to the departed and formalise closure within its rituals; whether it is a torrent of grief, a festivity of the person’s life, or both. If a Scythian from the fifth century were to step inside a time machine to visit us, they would be much surprised by our modern takes on death. Their nomadic worldview was epitomised by life and death, by predator and prey.
Barry Cunliffe’s book ‘The Scythians: Nomad Warriors of the Steppe’ provides an illuminating insight into the funerary practices of this nomadic group. Scythians inhabited and migrated along the great steppes of Eurasia; stretching from the Danube, across the Caspian Basin, towards the Altai Mountains which punctuate the edges of western China. The book’s section on death heavily focuses on the Greek historian Herodotus’ accounts of Scythian burial practices from the fifth century CE.
We should cautiously note that Herodotus would likely have had in mind two different realms; one inhabited by Greeks and the rest by barbarians (barbaroi). Francois Hartog argues Herodotus’ writings on Scythia were placed “in order within the context of Greek knowledge, and, in so doing, constructed for the Greeks a representation of their own recent past”. Essentially, Herodotus may have embellished Scythian practices to present a barbarian ‘other’ to juxtapose against the civilised Greek ‘self’. In this respect, we should view Herodotus’ works as literary pieces marketed towards Greek audiences rather than actual historical observations.
Nevertheless, Hyun Jin Kim asserts that Herodotus’ accounts are concordant with Scythian archaeological findings as well as social customs of other Central Asian nomads, often overlooked by Eurocentric scholarship on Scythia. This is not to say Herodotus did not employ artistic license, but his works are far from the fairy tales assumed by Hartog and other neo-historicist sceptics.
A funeral to remember
For the Scythians, death was bifurcated into two features: the death of the body and the transmigration of the soul afterwards. Bodily death was simple; it was the cessation of a person’s physical activity. The soul, however, wafted around the corpse and a proper burial would be required to prevent the spirit from causing mischief in the human realm. According to Scythian tradition it takes the soul up to forty days to fully disentangle itself from its body and the surrounding environs. This viewpoint was common among Indo-European cultures and is a widely held belief of many Eastern Orthodox Christians.
Scythian funeral rites varied depending on the geographical location, era and social status of the deceased. Herodotus describes a forty day custom of Pontic Steppe Scythians from southern Ukraine and Russia. This involved placing the dead body in a wagon and trotting it out to various houses who would host feasts and offer their meals to the dead.
Before the tour, the person’s intestines and stomach were removed and some corpses had their brain matter withdrawn through punctures in the head. The skin was coated with wax which prevented flies from laying eggs and the resulting maggots which would hasten decay. The body’s empty cavity was then filled with fragrant herbs such as anise, incense and celery seed to help mask any smell. This is likely because the odour of the putrefied corpse would be unbearable, especially if you had the pleasure of sitting beside the guest of honour during mealtime. Finally, to ensure the body kept its form, horse hair was stuffed in the empty cavities, including the skull.
Comforts for the next world
When a Scythian died they would take with them some worldly comforts to the next realm. Archaeological findings from burial sites include spears, clothing, jewellery, amphorae and bronze cauldrons. Furthermore, royals and nobles would be buried with horses, demonstrating the importance of the steed in taming the vast steppes and, presumably, the afterlife. In some cases, horses in a single burial site were found to originate from different regions, suggesting they were funerary gifts from neighbouring tribes. In the South Caucasus, Scythian and Cimmerian burial mounds contained skeletons of wolves or dogs and even the teeth of two lions.
Horrifyingly, for those of higher social standing, trinkets and horses would not be sufficient to entertain the soul – they would require human company too. Herodotus claims a concubine would be strangled and buried with the king after the forty day mourning period. A year after the burial Herodotus notes:
They take the most suitable of the rest of the attendants […] they strangle fifty of them and fifty of the finest horses and, having removed their entrails, clean them and fill them with chaff and sew them up […] They mount each of the fifty strangled youths on the horses, mounting them in this way: they drive an upright stake through the body along the spine to the neck, and fix the end of this stake projecting from below the body into a hole made in the other stake that passes through the horse
It was not only equestrians who would join their ruler in the grave as some Scythian burial mounds, known as kurgans, feature the bodies of cupbearers, serfs and carvers. It is difficult to determine the agency of the king’s entourage; did they go willingly into their master’s grave and were they accorded their own funerary rites? What is clear is that the bereaved were desperate to make certain the king’s soul would have enough pleasures in the afterlife to prevent it wreaking mayhem on the living.
Monuments to the departed
The Scythians of Herodotus’ time would bury their dead in quadrangular pits. Later on, these pits would include entrances and contain various wooden and stone shafts. After digging out the pit, the body would be lowered inside, often with spears placed on either side of the body. The architects and workers would then build wooden beams above the corpse to create a roof.
The roof would be topped with vegetation from nearby grasslands and may have poetically symbolised the royal taking his pasture with him into death. Cunliffe estimates that a hundred thousand square metres of grass would have been cleared to obtain the required organic material for the Tovsta Mohlya kurgan, one of the smaller mounds. The size of these kurgans also corresponded with the social status of the dead; larger mounds indicated a more important person – where the Pontic Steppe kurgans could be between twelve to fifteen metres high.
It is likely the kurgans served the function of legitimacy because of the amount of energy expended by the living to create these mounds. Communal effort into building these structures represented commitment on the part of the tribe to their leader and community. When the Persian emperor Darius challenged the Scythian king Idanthyrsus to battle, the Scythian leader boldly announced the tombs’ significance to his people:
We Scythians have neither towns nor cultivated lands, which might induce us, through fear of their being taken or ravaged, to be in any hurry to fight with you. If, however, you must needs come to blows with us speedily, look you now, there are our fathers’ tombs – seek them out, and attempt to meddle with them – then ye shall see whether or not we will fight with you.
A painful grieving process
So far we have examined a bizarre embalming practice, the violent ritual burial of surviving community members and the pharaonic kurgans built to provide everlasting comfort. This raises a key question – what would happen to those fortunate enough not to be buried alongside their master or mistress? The survivors would demonstrate their loyalty to the tribe and the departed by partaking in acts of self-mutilation. Herodotus argues the bereaved would:
[…] cut off a part of their ears, crop their hair close, cut around their arms, slash their foreheads and noses, and pierce their left hands with arrows
This claim may sound far-fetched but Kim notes this unusual form of mourning was found among other Eurasian nomads. Following Atilla the Hun’s death, in 453CE, the mourners:
[…] plucked out the hair of their heads and made their faces hideous with deep wounds, that the renowned warrior might be mourned, not by effeminate wailings and tears, but by the blood of men
To mark the end of the grieving period the bereaved would enter a tent, place hemp seeds on hot stones and inhale the vapours – an ancient hotbox of sorts. This is surmised to be an act of purification or, more likely, a form of catharsis to ease the traumas associated with such a torturous grieving process. Returning to our Scythian time traveller, it would not be presumptuous for them to think our modern funerals are jubilant parties compared to their petrifying rituals of death.
Featured Image: Scythian Gold Comb from the Solokha Kurgan, Levan Ramishvili from Tbilisi, Georgia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
 Kim, Hyun Jin. “Herodotus’ Scythians viewed from a central Asian perspective: Its historicity and significance.” Anc West East 9 (2010): p.122
Attending a wedding or preparing for a job interview often requires a silk tie, yet little thought is given to this piece of cloth other than its colour and that it feels different to an iron-pressed cotton shirt. Silk’s simplicity conceals its historical importance, where wars have been fought in pursuit of this lustrous commodity. To illustrate, the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, hungry for silk, decided to invade the Himyarite Kingdom in Yemen in order to secure uninterrupted sea shipments between India and Byzantine-administered Egypt.
The importance of silk
Why would a war be waged over access to silk? In trade, silk was a substitute currency; east Mediterranean merchants could use silk to pay for a transaction in lieu of coinage whereas shipwreck survivors would be required to forfeit any salvaged silk as compensation for cargo losses. When dyed with the broken shells of the murex snail, silk would form a brilliant purple fit only for the emperor and imperial elite. The ones which weren’t dyed purple would be marketed towards wealthy and middle class citizens along with members of the clergy.
Silk also served diplomatic purposes. It helped deter enemies as indicated when emperor Constantine IX, in 1045, sent a thousand silk costumes to Caliph al-Mustansir to stave off a military attack. Crucially, silk helped Byzantium cement alliances, including one with Vladimir the Great of Rus’. Between the years 907 and 971 Byzantium intensified its diplomatic relations with Rus’; where a marriage between emperor Basil II’s daughter Anna and the Rus’ Grand Prince Vladimir the Great culminated in the Christianisation of Rus’. Silk played a significant role in building this alliance; Rus’ merchants were given priority access to Byzantine silk items, Rus’ citizens who lost their slaves in Byzantine territory would be compensated with silk and a delegation even insisted on silk sails for their ships. In return, Rus’ pledged its military support to the empire, most notably seen when Rus’ soldiers intervened to quell an Anatolian uprising which threatened to dethrone emperor Basil II in 988.
A tale of two heists
Let us return to the fourth century era of Justinian I, where we notice the emperor is faced with a puzzle. Without an established domestic silk industry, much of the empire’s silk was imported from China using an overland trade route via Persia. At the best of times, Persia was a fickle competitor, and consequently Byzantium was often mired by silk shortages. Shipments through the Red Sea would also face stiff competition from Persian traders or be hindered by hostile polities like the Himyarite Kingdom. Thus, there was an urgency to determine the secret behind sericulture, or the production of silk worms.
Fifth century Byzantine historians dispute the means in which sericulture was introduced to the empire. Procopius argues Christian monks from India, having learned of emperor Justinian’s dismay at Persia’s silk blockade, smuggled silkworm eggs hidden in dung into the empire. However, according to Theophanes, it was Persians from the land of Seres who presented emperor Justinian with silkworm eggs which had been impressively concealed within walking sticks. The Theophanes account raises questions as to why Persians would provide their trade secrets to their Byzantine nemesis; I can only think it was opportunism or spite.
A complicated business
Both accounts are very likely to be colourful myths due to evidence of sericulture in Byzantine Syria prior to the heist. Nonetheless, analysing domestic sericulture provides a great insight into pre-modern economies. Byzantium’s silk production entailed a strict division of labour. Sericulturists would be responsible for rearing the silkworms and the production of yarns. This gave rise to the ancillary industry of mulberry growers because silkworms which were fed on mulberry leaves yielded the highest quality commercial silk.
The sericulturists would send their yarns to private and government-run silk guilds which comprised a collection of weavers, dyers, embroiders and silk printers. The government-run guilds had evolved from the voluntary associations of the Roman Empire into compulsory public service corporations entirely controlled by the Byzantine state. As a consequence of the strict policing of sericulture by the state, the government increased its tax base and revenues, whilst regulating silk imports and exports allowed it to manipulate foreign markets. Importantly, the sale of silk made certain the empire was inundated with foreign gold, whereas financial mismanagement of silk negatively affected its balance of trade.
Private guilds, like their government counterparts, had to address the dilemma of the significant level of seasonal capital demanded by the trade along with securing steady supplies of raw material. Lacking state funding, private guilds acted as cartels, where resources were pooled among members. This allowed them to collectively purchase silk at lower prices than if each guild-member attempted to negotiate by themselves. The cartels also ensured a fair distribution of silk by allowing poorer members to buy from the affluent at a predetermined profit margin. The 10th century Book of the Prefect outlined how private guilds paid utmost attention to product quality and had measures to prevent unethical behaviour among their membership, not too dissimilar to modern quality control practices in businesses.
As we have seen, silk was a very important commodity replete with material and symbolic significance. It helped form a tapestry of alliances, augmented economies and generated resource wars. With all of this in mind, in the mad rush prior to my next job interview, I’ll be sure to better appreciate my tie.
The city of Astrakhan sits on a delta, not too far from where the Volga River empties into the Caspian Sea. In modern Russia it is an industrial city known for its fish processing and as a regional administrative centre. Yet, in the 17th century, Astrakhan had a far more glamorous role, owing to its position on a geographical crossroad between Russia and lucrative Asian markets.
A warm welcome
During the Time of Troubles (1598-1613), Russia experienced enormous socio-political upheaval characterised by the end of the 800-year old Rurikid ruling dynasty, numerous pretenders to the Tsarist throne and foreign interventions by neigbouring powers. Once the chaos subsided, Russian officials faced the predicament of building an economy depleted by famine and war. To increase customs revenues and ensure the flow of foreign silver into the empire, the Russian state encouraged foreign merchants to settle in Astrakhan, a city conquered by Ivan the Terrible nearly seven decades prior.
Non-Russians dominated the imports and exports trade in Astrakhan, among whom were merchants hailing from Mughal India. By 1725, there were 209 Indians residing in Astrakhan and engaging in local banking, mercantilism and moneylending. Additionally, the need to interact with the resident Turkic and Russian communities necessitated the hiring of interpreters.1 The Russian state cautiously allowed merchants to practice religious rites; where merchants could employ private cooks (likely to meet strict vegetarian diets) and were even allowed to cremate the dead, even if it alarmed local Christians.2
The mercantile community mainly imported Persian textiles into Russia; a 1638 Russian customs report found one merchant carried up to 28 varieties of silk and cotton. Similar to European markets, Mughal Indian consumers valued Russian furs. However, unlike their European counterparts there was a lower demand for Russian forest products in India. Instead, Mughal elites coveted luxury goods such as gyrfalcons, walrus tusks and Borzoi dogs.
The transcontinental trader’s dilemma
Between the 16th and 17th century Astrakhan’s Indian merchants formed part of a wider Persianate world, where the Persian language facilitated international trade stretching from Bengal to southern Russia’s borders. Trade routes could encompass distances as long as 3,600 kilometres, and this required enormous levels of trust between traders. To better understand how Indian merchants would have imported and exported under such uncertainty, I will introduce transaction costs; which are costs incurred to accomplish a trade.
Firstly, participants in a transaction need to address search and information costs; that is the costs of finding a trading partner and to market their goods. Subsequent bargaining and decision costs involves the ironing out of a contract which is agreeable to the respective trading parties. Finally, policing and enforcement costs ensure the contract is not broken and there is a recourse to action should a default occur.3 Trading is difficult enough for a modern-day seller who uses eBay to peddle old revision guides and, arguably, Astrakhan’s merchants faced much more manifold challenges.
Indian merchants would mainly operationalise Commenda agreements to reduce the transaction costs associated with long-distance trades. These were straightforward contracts where one or many merchants would provide capital for the business venture and traders, who lacked funds for investments, would need to fulfill the potentially life-threatening task of marketing or delivering the merchandise. If successful, the profits would be divided; where two thirds went to the investors and one third to the trader.4 On the other hand, if an attack on a caravan led to the endeavour’s failure, the investor would lose their money, whilst the trader risked losing their life. The 17th century merchant would be faced with an impasse: how could they find a trustworthy business partner who would not renege on their contract? It would be incredibly tempting for a trader to dash off with expensive merchandise they have not paid for.
The answer to this may lie in the 1747 Russian Census which revealed, out of the 51 Indian merchants residing in the Astrakhan, nearly half originated from a single city; Multan, whilst most other came from nearby areas in southern Punjab. Stephen Frederic Dale asserts that the Multani Hindu merchants would most likely have been from the Punjabi Khatri caste whereas Muslim traders would have hailed from the Pashtun ethnic group.5 Furthermore, there was a familial aspect to these firms too; five pairs of brothers conducted joint trade within Astrakhan and twelve Astrakhan Indians received goods from uncles or brothers in the Gilan province of Iran.
Membership of the same caste meant prospective firm partners were usually employed in the same profession, consequently their skills could be easily verified. In place of complicated contracts, kinship also provided a set of common cultural norms and allowed for mutual peer-monitoring. Furthermore, transaction costs associated with rule-breaking could be met with enforceable sanctions, including exclusion from the community.6 This ultimately encouraged prolonged economic interactions between Indian merchants, whilst discouraging opportunism associated with uncertainty. Similar kinship firms were also found among the Indian merchants’ Armenian contemporaries who originated from a single suburb of Isfahan in Iran, yet dominated the lucrative Indian Ocean silk trade.7
Protectionism and decline
Astrakhan’s Indian merchants kept business within the family as a response to trading in an uncertain environment. Yet, these same firms proved to be quite dynamic in the face of state pressures. Whilst Indian merchants were initially welcomed by Russian officials, Peter the Great’s introduction of the New Trade Regulations posed a serious financial challenge. The protectionist measures bestowed special trading privileges to Russians, Turks and Armenians, whilst Indians would have to pay extra custom duties, thus introducing new transaction costs. Indian firms would bypass these regulations by intermittently increasing their firm’s size, through recruiting Armenians and Russians, who would act as intermediaries for their business.
Whilst Russia’s protectionist measures discouraged Indian traders, it was external socio-political processes which ultimately debilitated Astrakhan’s mercantile activity. The sudden collapse of the Safavid empire in 1722 interrupted Multani trade networks within Iran, resulting in a rapid dwindling of Astrakhan’s Indian population. The slower disintegration of the Mughal empire had disrupted Multan itself and by 1850, Astrakhan’s Indian community had all but vanished.
Featured image: ‘Astrakhan in Russia’ in Rambaud’s Russia, volume 2 (1898), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
1 Dale, Stephen Frederic. Indian merchants and Eurasian trade, 1600-1750. Cambridge University Press, 2002.
2 Gopal, Surendra. “A Brief Note on Business Organisation of Indian Merchants in Russia in the 17th Century.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient/Journal de l’histoire economique et sociale de l’Orient (1986): 205-212.
3 Dahlman, Carl J. “The problem of externality.” The journal of law and economics 22, no. 1 (1979): 141-162.
4 Dale, Stephen Frederic. Indian merchants and Eurasian trade, 1600-1750. Cambridge University Press, 2002.
6 Gopal, Surendra. “A Brief Note on Business Organisation of Indian Merchants in Russia in the 17th Century.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient/Journal de l’histoire economique et sociale de l’Orient (1986): 205-212.
7 Aslanian, Sebouh. From the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean. University of California Press, 2011.
Take a visit to a trinket shop in India’s touristic Golden Triangle and you may be met with replicas and reimaginations of Persian miniature paintings hanging alongside the obligatory fridge magnets. Although miniatures were prevalent prior to Mughal rule, the Persian style was introduced during the sixteenth century when much of the subcontinent was part of a wider Persianate world. The miniatures were no larger than an average book cover but they packed an inordinate amount of detail. These included renderings of courtly rituals, royal forest hunts and even a Russian ambassador featured in an illustration by Muḥammadī.
So, how does one scrutinise a Persian miniature in order to make certain we are getting a quality product from the tout? Fortunately we have a 15th century Timurid prince and art critic Mirza Muhammad Haidar Dughlat to give the modern day reader some pointers.
The painting’s overall design, or ṭarḥ should embody muḥkam, interpreted by Eric Schroeder to be “tight, immovably fast and strong, like the ropes of a well-pitched tent, or a stable building”. The brush strokes must be khunuk, firm, which somehow must complement the much desired attribute of nāzukī, a balmy softness. Importantly, the painting would be judged on the merit of ṣaf, a clarity or cleanliness.
Paintings with the properties of durusht, a coarseness resulting from larger brush strokes, were much disapproved by the art critic. This criticism was lodged by Dughlat against Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād, an artist renowned for his miniatures in the Timurid and Safavid courts of Iran. Judging from Dughlat’s commentaries, we can surmise that the thick impasto techniques found in Van Gogh’s works may not have received commendation either.
Featured image: “Dancing Dervishes”, attributed to Behzād, The Metropolitan Museum of Arts
 Robinson, B. W. “Muḥammadī and the Khurāsān Style.” Iran 30, no. 1 (1992): 17-29.
 Arnold, T. W. “Mīrzā Muḥammad Ḥaydar Dughlāt on the Harāt School of Painters.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies, London Institution (1930): 671-674.
There is a cacophony of excitement as villagers gather under a banyan tree. Patua, or travelling minstrels, have called for the village’s undivided attention, hoping to both entertain and illuminate the audience with their scrolls. Carefully manipulating the bamboo handles of the scroll, the Patua progressively reveal elaborate scenes of a tale; making literal the term ‘the story unfolds’.
Often sung, this rural performance art, known as Pattachitra, is native to Bengal and Odisha. In the 19th century, the scrolls would include scenes from the Ramayana or depictions of the travails of local saints. Modern iterations have provided socio-political commentary such as Indira Gandhi’s restriction of civil liberties during The Emergency (1975-1977) and Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence movement. One traditional narration, found in the Gazi Scroll, dating from the 1800s, is now tucked away in the British Museum. The focal point of this artwork is the portrayal of the Sufi mystic Gazi pir who wields a serpent as a staff and rides a frightening tiger as his steed. Measuring thirteen metres in length, it represents the enormous historical transformation of the Bengal delta from centuries prior.
The Mughals, having conquered the Bengal Sultanate had acquired a province of which the eastern half comprised a thick, inhospitable jungle. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth century, the imperial administration sought to colonise this giant stretch of forest. Local holy men, known as pirs, provided much initiative, encouraging their followers to act as pioneers by chopping the forest and building new settlements. With it came accounts of the pirs’ supposed magical abilities, including taming the fearsome crocodiles and tigers who threatened these nascent communities. As late as 1898, a British officer noted of pirs operating in Bengal’s jungles;
As these animals seldom attack man in this district, the Pir is generally allowed by persons of both religions to have restrained the natural ferocity of the beast, or, as it is more usually said, has given the tiger no order to kill man.
Patua storytelling is fluid as is the case with many oral traditions. Depending on the performer’s mood or audience, the delivery may change ever so slightly, although a general outline would be fixed by the scroll’s illustrations. While the exact narration the scroll’s painter had imagined may not be retrievable, the Gazi Scroll serves to remind its audience of a past sprinkled with heroes and fiends. Central to this account are human agents and their capacity to transform uninhabitable maneater infested swampland into the verdant paddy fields we see in Bengal today.
Featured image: Jagannatha, Balabhadra, and Subhadra in the Jagganatha Temple (1875-1900), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
 Ghosh, Pika. “Unrolling a narrative scroll: Artistic practice and identity in late-nineteenth-century Bengal.” The Journal of Asian Studies 62, no. 3 (2003): 835-871.
 Eaton, Richard Maxwell, and Richard M. Eaton. The rise of Islam and the Bengal frontier, 1204-1760. Vol. 17. Univ of California Press, 1993.
 Ibid., 209.
Skeletons of giants, Viking long ship funerals and medieval statecraft – ‘Ibn Fadlān and the Land of Darkness’ widens the eyes in many ways. Superbly translated by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone, it recounts several Arab travellers’ experiences in Russia, Central Asia and Hungary between the 9th and 14th centuries. What particularly drew my attention was Sallām the Interpreter’s voyage which followed Caliph al-Wāthiq’s dream of Yaʾjūj and Maʾjūj escaping their prison in 831 CE.
Yaʾjūj and Maʾjūj are magical beings featured in Islamic eschatology, transmitted from early Christian sources about Gog and Magog. This tribe was imprisoned beneath mountains in the Far North and sealed behind a barrier built by the ‘two-horned one’, commonly associated with Alexander the Great. Each day the creatures tunnel from beneath the earth using their teeth, allowing them to penetrate just enough soil to glimpse the world above them. Before falling into torpor at night, Yaʾjūj and Maʾjūj promise to break through this hole once they awake. To this day they wake up to their work undone by the will of God; giving mankind reprieve from their pestilence. During the end of times, it is through God’s will that they shall finally leave their subterranean prison to consume every living creature until there is nothing but themselves.
We can see why, upon dreaming of the world’s end, the Caliph al-Wāthiq commissioned Sallām the translator and fifty companions on an eighteen month journey to determine whether it was an imminent premonition. In the ninth century, Arab and Persian geographers divided the world into seven climes, beyond which was the domain of Yaʾjūj and Maʾjūj. The region and people associated with this realm would change depending on historical realpolitik; with Mongols, Turkic tribes, and later Napoleon and the Soviets equated to Yaʾjūj and Maʾjūj .
In our ninth century travellers’ case, Sallām and his companions made their arduous expedition from Baghdad to outer China via Iran and Central Asia. Arriving at the fabled barrier, Sallām remarked of ‘a high mountain surrounded by fortifications’, a reference to the Great Wall of China. Sallām returned to the Caliph to assure him that the damage to the barrier was no wider than a thread. With his fears allayed, the consoled Caliph granted the fatigued travellers gifts and provided alms to the poor.
The interpreter’s odyssey is a vivid description of an interconnected world of caravansaries. Both overland and maritime routes linked the worlds between Andalucía and the Far East. More importantly, these travels present the reader with an imagined world tamed by physical verification. To trek beyond the pale of human settlement, prior to air travel, in order to satiate a dream, is an astonishing feat.
Featured image: Alexander the Great oversees the building of the wall to fend off Yajuj and Majuj. A miniature from a Book of Divinations (Falnama) [of Ja’far al-Sadiq] made for Tahmasp I (r. 1524–76), via Wikimedia Commons
 Schmidt, Andrea B. and van Donzel, Emeri Johannes Andrea B. Schmidt. ‘Gog and Magog in Early Eastern Christian and Islamic Sources: Sallam’s Quest’, Brill (2010) pp. 95-97
 Ibid., 98
 Ibid., 4
 Lunde Paul and Stone, Caroline E.M., ‘Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North’, Penguin Classics (2011), p. 101
 Ibid., Xviii
Presented as a gift to the Yongle Emperor of the Ming dynasty, a giraffe represented the intensive fifteenth century connections between China and the Indian subcontinent. We can safely assume giraffes are not native to South Asia and it was likely an accession gift from east African envoys of Malindi to Bengal’s sultan, Saif Al Din Hamzah. However, the sultan would not have been too impressed as the giraffe was re-gifted, finding its way to the Ming court in 1414.
The gift was presented to the emperor as a qilin, a mythical creature which represents benevolence. Qilin are said to have the body of a deer, equine hooves, fish scales and a horn. Matching their strange form was a diet which consisted of “unhusked rice, beans and flour-cakes”. How such creatures managed to cook flour-cakes escapes me.
The emperor himself was not too fussed about the creature, declaring:
If my ministers devote themselves to their work day and night, and exhaust all efforts to govern the empire and bring benefit to it, the empire will be at peace. Even without a qilin, there is nothing that hinders us from governing well. 
In spite of the apprehension, the Ming emperor reciprocated by providing velvet and silk; thus establishing cordial ties between the two polities. The ties were soon interrupted by Bengal’s internal turmoil. Raja Ganesh, a Hindu chieftain, had overthrown the Turkic Ilyas Shahi dynasty who had ruled the Bengal delta for seven decades. Incensed by Ganesh’s enthronement of his twelve year old son Jadu as the new sultan, the Sufi mystic Nur Qutub ‘Alam invited the neighbouring Jaunpur Sultanate to intervene. In an attempt to legitimise his rule, Jadu converted to Islam and took the name Jalal-Uddin. This dispelled Nur Qutub ‘Alam’s apprehensions, but did little to dissuade Jaunpur, who viewed the succession struggle as an opportunity to weaken their rival.
For six years official records remained quiet about any envoys sent between Bengal and the Ming court. It was in 1420, after Jalal-Uddin had domestically consolidated his regime, that Bengal officially requested China’s assistance against border excursions. In response, the Ming emperor sent a military expedition, leading to Jaunpur’s withdrawal from Bengal’s affairs. This may not have been possible without the qilin gift which facilitated a diplomatic relationsip six years prior.
References Duyvendak, Jan Julius Lodewijk. “The True Dates of the Chinese Maritime Expeditions in the Early Fifteenth Century.” T’oung Pao 34, no. 1 (1938): 348-354
 Church, Sally K. “The Giraffe of Bengal: a medieval encounter in Ming China.” The Medieval History Journal 7, no. 1 (2004): 22
 Ibid., 25
 Ibid., 26