13th century illustration of an Arab ship in the Indian Ocean

Sailing Seasons in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean:
The View from Rasulid (13th-14th Centuries) Aden

by Daniel Martin Varisco

[This is a lecture presented at the Red Sea Trade and Travel Study Day of the Society for Arabian Studies at the British Museum, October 5, 2002, and subsequently published in Yemen Update.]

The province of Aden is governed by a king, who bears the title of soldan… The soldan of Aden possesses immense treasures, arising from the imposts he lays, as well upon the merchandise that comes from India, as upon that which is shipped in his port as the returning cargo; this being the most considerable mart in all that quarter for the exchange of commodities, and the place to which all trading vessels resort… Marco Polo, reflecting in a prison cell on information he obtained at the close of the 13th century.

The subject of my talk today is the view from a vital hub of the vibrant Red Sea and Indian Ocean trading network, the view from the Rasulid port of Aden; more specifically, a fresh re-view of what it might have been like to be an Arab merchant sailing to and from Aden at the same time as Marco Polo set out to return from his epic sojourn under the immense Oriental pleasure dome of Kublai Khan. I invite you to return with me to the year 1292 of the Christian Era – as it is commonly known – for a fleeting Arab businessman’s eyeview from the deck of a trading dhow bound from Aydhab on the Egyptian Coast to Aden, the best natural harbor on the South Arabian coast. Let us call this tajjir (merchant) Muhammad Ibn Mujabbir, a Yemeni by birth and at the time a successful merchant employed by the Karimi syndicate out of Egypt. He is about 35 years old, young enough to marvel at the outrageous tales told by sailors and fellow travelers, old enough to know better than to believe any of them. We will join him aboard ship sailing south of Aydhab and follow his diaried notes until he lands with his entrusted consignment of wares in Aden customs. We shall, in effect, sail through a narrow stretch of commercial maritime history with a seasoned traveler at the helm.

A historian may hopefully be forgiven for lamenting the burden of piecing together a narrative understanding of the past from the fragments and scraps dealt by the whims of serendipitous survival and the wiles of powermongers who have the last word. All the more charity should be extended to the scholar who attempts to reconstruct, as credibly as possible, events that happened some seven centuries ago. Rather than assume the privileged role of third-person expert, I prefer today to take leave of my historiographic senses, transforming documentable data from the time period in re-creating an itinerary and a slice of one man’s life. To the best of my knowledge, all of the following material is credible for the year 1292, based on two decades of studying relevant Yemeni texts and manuscripts and inspired by my own ethnographic presence, first in the late 1970s, in a Yemeni community.

In terms of pure history, there was, in fact, no Ibn al-Mujabbir, but there might have been. And, as Professor Rex Smith would be the first to recognize, he looks a lot like the early 13th century traveling businessman, Ibn al-Mujawir, whose remarkable travel account has now been translated by Rex Smith into English. My approach to the egregiously eponymous Ibn al-Mujabbir has a distinct advantage over the problems faced by Rex in his truly admirable project, since I have no obscure colloquial terms, apart from my own impertinent prose, to decipher.

Before beginning our journey, it is useful to set the stage. The port of Aden on the southern coast of Yemen was a major stopping point and safe haven for ships sailing from the Red Sea and along the African coast to the Arabian Gulf, India and beyond. Formed from the crater of a volcano, here was a harbor without treacherous shoals and menacing reefs, with light winds and gentle currents, a boat owner’s delight. From the first century Periplus Maris Erythyraei to the modern day, nascent free-trade zone Aden has flourished as an important entrepôt. The Rasulid dynasty, initiated by transplanted Turkic mercenaries, came to power in southern and coastal Yemen around the middle of the 13th century, a short time before the Mongols ravaged Baghdad, the last figurative seat of the struggling Islamic caliphate. For the latter half of this century, the preeminent Rasulid sultan, Polo’s “soldan”, was al-Malik al-Muzaffar Yusuf. Muzaffar was indeed a wealthy man, fortunately a patron of the arts and sciences as well, and his reign may arguably have been the zenith of Yemen’s political power in the premodern, Islamic era.

Most fortunately, for those of us who study Rasulid Yemen, an archival goldmine is now available in print for detailing the administrative and commercial operations of Muzaffar’s Yemen. This daftar or ledger, discovered almost two decades ago by the Yemeni historian Muhammad Abd al-Rahim Jazm, is a virtual ”Doomsday Book” for Yemen at the close of the 13th century. It is almost easier to list the economic activities not mentioned in this extraordinarily significant text of some 223 folios. Here you will find customs and tax data, production figures, transport costs and scribal “intelligence” for insider and outsider trading, silk, cotton and flax clothing, leather goods, shoes and headgear, exotic woods and rope, carpets, pottery, glass and brass, weapons, soap, candles, foods and oils, medicinal herbs, perfumes, dyes and spices, precious stones, musical instruments and, sad to say, human slaves. At the exact time Marco Polo was returning from China, Venetian robes were passing through, heavily taxed of course, Aden’s customs’ houses.

In the following contrived diary entries I draw heavily on the daftar, as well as the travelogue of Ibn al-Mujawir, several Yemeni histories and a range of secondary sources, most notably the writings on Ibn al-Mujawir of Rex Smith, G. R. Tibbetts’ indispensible analysis of the nautical work of Ibn Majid and a recent Princeton Ph.D. thesis by Roxani Margariti on the trade organization of Aden for two centuries before the Rasulids. Let the journey begin…

to be continued