The Byzantine silk heist

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.[1]

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’.[2] Between the years 907 and 971 Byzantium intensified its diplomatic relations with Rus’, with a marriage between emperor Basil II’s daughter Anna with Vladimir the Great, culminating 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.[3] 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.

Rus’-Byzantine Treaty of 911, Radziwiłł Letopis, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Byzantine silk heist

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 Byzantine was often mired by silk shortages. Shipments through the Red Sea would also face stiff competition from Persian traders or have 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.[4] 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, as silkworms which 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.[5] 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 businesses.[6]

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.


References

Featured image: Emperor Justinian and his retinue, Basilica of San Vitale. Courtesy of Roger Culos, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


[1] Liu, Xinru. The Silk Road in world history. Oxford University Press, 2010. pp. 62-86.

[2] Muthesius, Anna Maria. “Silk, power and diplomacy in Byzantium.” (1992).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Muthesius, Anna Maria. “The Byzantine silk industry: Lopez and beyond.” Journal of Medieval History 19, no. 1-2 (1993): 1-67.

[5] Ibid.

Beauty in the eyes of a medieval beholder

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.  

Muḥammadī, ‘Portrait of a Russian Ambassador’, Topkapi Palace Museum

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”.[1] 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.[2] 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.   


References

Featured image: “Dancing Dervishes”, attributed to Behzād, The Metropolitan Museum of Arts


[1] Robinson, B. W. “Muḥammadī and the Khurāsān Style.” Iran 30, no. 1 (1992): 17-29.

[2] 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.

Scroll Readers and Tiger Tamers

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 are also content with providing socio-political commentary such as Indira Gandhi’s restriction of civil liberties during The Emergency and Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence movement.[1] 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.

A scene from the Gazi Scroll, British Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.[2] 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.”[3]

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.  

References

[1] 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.

[2] Eaton, Richard Maxwell, and Richard M. Eaton. The rise of Islam and the Bengal frontier, 1204-1760. Vol. 17. Univ of California Press, 1993.

[3] Ibid., 209.

The Caliph’s Dream

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 modern day 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 beings featured in Islamic eschatology, transmitted from early Christian sources about Gog and Magog. This tribe were imprisoned in the far North underneath mountains and sealed behind a barrier built by the ‘two-horned one’, commonly associated with Alexander the Great. Every day this tribe tunnels 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 would 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 will finally leave their subterranean prison to consume every living creature until there is nothing but themselves.[1]

One can see why, upon dreaming of the world’s end, the Caliph al-Wāthiq decided to commission 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.[2] The region and people associated with this realm would change depending on historical realpolitik, with Mongols, Turkic tribes, and later Napoleon and the Soviets were equated to Yaʾjūj and Maʾjūj .[3] 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.[4] Sallām returned to the Caliph to assure him that that the only damage to the barrier is the size of a thread. The consoled Caliph granted the fatigued travellers  gifts and provided alms as his fears were now allayed.  

Noted by Lunde and Stone, the interpreter’s odyssey is a vivid description of an interconnected world of caravansaries.[5] 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 itself an astonishing feat.


References

[1] 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

[2] Ibid., 98

[3] Ibid., 4

[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

[5] Ibid., Xviii

The Giraffe of Bengal

Presented as a gift to the Yongle Emperor of the Ming dynasty, a giraffe represented the intensive fifteenth century connections between China and South Asia. 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[1]

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”.[2] 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.” [3]

Qilin tomb guardian, 4th century, Walters Art Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In spite of the apprehension, the Ming emperor reciprocated by providing velvet and silk; thus establishing cordial ties between the two polities.[4] 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.[5] 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

[1] 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

[2] Church, Sally K. “The Giraffe of Bengal: a medieval encounter in Ming China.” The Medieval History Journal 7, no. 1 (2004): 22

[3] Ibid., 25

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 26