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Money, Land and Trade: An Economic History of the Muslim Mediterranean

Author(s):Hanna, Nelly
Reviewer(s):Cosgel, Metin

Published by EH.NET (August 2003)


Nelly Hanna, editor, Money, Land and Trade: An Economic History of the Muslim Mediterranean. London: I.B. Tauris, 2002. vii + 294 pp. ?39.50 (hardcover), ISBN: 1-86064-699-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Metin Cosgel, Department of Economics, University of Connecticut.

Economic historians of the Middle East have recently made significant progress in studying the region’s history. Only a generation ago scholarship in the field was fraught with such obstacles as restricted access to sources, misguided methodologies and approaches, and misconceived notions about the peoples, institutions, and economic processes of the region. Thanks to the increasing availability of sources and the efforts of dedicated scholars, the influence of these obstacles has been gradually diminished. Although there is still much room for improvement, the field has reached a healthy stage of debating established ideas, revising misconceptions, and being open to new types of sources, methods, and approaches.

The collection of essays edited by Nelly Hanna (Professor of Arabic Studies at the American University in Cairo) in Money, Land and Trade: An Economic History of the Muslim Mediterranean attempts to contribute to this process. The book consists of thirteen essays presented in seminars at American University in Cairo under the research program called “Individual and Society in the Mediterranean Muslim World,” sponsored by the European Science Foundation.

The collection has three parts. The first part is titled “Land,” consisting of five chapters. In the first chapter Nicolas Michel examines the relationship between the individual and the collectivity in pre-colonial Morocco, showing that individual economic decisions were only partly influenced by social customs and obligations. In the next chapter Abbas Hamid emphasizes the importance of studying individual ownership and identifies the specificities of Egypt’s experience that must be considered in analyzing its historical development. Studying the multiplicity of rights on land, Muhammad Hakim examines in the third chapter agricultural land relations and social conflicts in Egypt in the nineteenth century. In chapter four Amina Elbendary examines state-peasant relations by analyzing Nile floods during years of crises. In the last chapter of Part 1, Peter Gran notes weaknesses in the study of nineteenth century Egypt and proposes an alternative approach based on a model of Italian history in order to articulate the internal dynamic of struggle.

The four chapters in the second part of the book are devoted to “Crafts and Trades.” Focusing on the guild system in Damascus, Abdul-Karim Rafeq investigates in chapter six the sources of vastly different incomes among craftsmen. In the next chapter Pascale Ghazaleh documents the transition from the guild system to the factory system, based on a case study of a firm called Al-Khurunfish in Egypt in the nineteenth century. In another case study of an Armenian merchant family in the Ottoman Empire, Armin Kredian examines in chapter 8 the business correspondence of this family to shed light on the historical development of the textile industry. Abbas Hamdani uses literary sources as evidence in chapter 9 to contribute to the debate about the origin of craft guilds in the early Islamic societies, finding strong support for the presence of professional urban organizations.

The final part of the book is titled “Money,” consisting of four chapters. Sevket Pamuk leads off by examining the interaction among the monetary regimes of Istanbul, Cairo, and Tunis during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Monetary causes of the financial crises and bankruptcy of Egypt during 1875-8 are the subject of chapter 11 by Ghislaine Alleaume. In the next chapter Magdi Girgis studies the financial resources of Coptic priests in the nineteenth century Egypt. In the final chapter of the book, Sayyid Ashmavi uses literary sources to understand the role of Greek money-lenders in the deteriorating status of the peasants and the image formed in the collective memory of Egyptians about Greek money-lenders at the turn of the twentieth century.

Most papers in the collection attempt to challenge a prevailing perception, methodological approach, or some other trend in the literature. One of the primary topics of emphasis is the individual, whose decisions have traditionally been viewed as dominated by other concerns such as the family, state, guild, and religion. Several of the papers refuse the traditional view and attempt to show the prominence of individualism even in earlier Islamic societies. Some papers challenge the “impact of the West” model of economic change, showing the way the internal dynamics of the region also contributed to change and development. Other departures from previous approaches include emphasizing not only urban centers but traditionally neglected rural and peripheral areas, and going beyond traditional sources such as government documents and introducing new sources like business correspondence, family papers, and literary sources.

Some of the book’s shortcomings may have been inevitable consequences of bringing together a collection of essays by different scholars. The book lacks a coherent framework or a consistent approach, even within each of its three parts. Papers also differ significantly in their use of economic theory and quantitative analysis and in their reference to broader economic or historical debates. Although some of these differences may also be viewed as reflecting the diversity of approaches in the field, there does not seem to be a systematic attempt for comprehensive coverage. For example, despite the wide geographic coverage suggested by the book’s title, a majority of the papers (eight of the thirteen) deal exclusively with the Egyptian experience. Page limitations may also have limited detailed, comprehensive, or in-depth analysis of issues or potentially useful comparisons with relevant phenomena in other parts of the world.

Despite these shortcomings, the collection nevertheless points toward a fascinating array of new areas of research. For example, rather than view the behavior and institutions observed in the Islamic world as being distinct, irrational, and beyond the boundaries of economic analysis, we may more appropriately use the available sources, economic theory, and tools of quantitative analysis to better understand these phenomena. Similarly, rather than let the content or availability of sources dictate our research agenda, we may search for new sources or use old sources in novel, creative ways.

The collection is probably a required reading for those interested in the questions of land, trade or money in this region and a supplementary source for those interested in the same issues in other parts of the world. The collection can also be a useful guide to the general historian interested in learning about some of the controversial issues in the history of the Muslim Mediterranean, received views about the peoples and institutions of the region, and current attempts at revising these views. Each chapter typically has a good discussion of the relevant literature and bibliographic notes and references, which are useful guides for further research. Although the collection may not be representative of the type or quality of current research in the field, it can still serve as a supplementary book of readings for undergraduate or graduate courses on the economic history of this region or for the Middle East or North Africa sections of courses on world history.

Metin Cosgel is Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Connecticut. His current research interests include the tax system of the Ottoman Empire. Links to his publications and recent working papers can be found in

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Middle East
Time Period(s):General or Comparative