Gold dinar of the Rasulid sultan al-Malik al-Mansur ‘Umar b. ‘Ali

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. For Part 1, click here; for Part 2, click here; for Part 3, click here.]

Monday, 19 Sha‘ban, 691 (August 5, 1292)

Most travelers that I know complain of the lack of fresh water here in Aden, but I think the more serious omission is basic intelligence. Perhaps the unbearable heat drains their brains as well as their bowels. Instead of unloading our ship on the third day, we were kept waiting a full extra day before finally being allowed into customs. One would think their interest in picking our pockets would speed up rather than prolong this unpleasant process. I was under orders to take the gift directly to the sultan, and I am half tempted to write a letter immediately to the master of this land and apprise him of the inattention that seems to plague his servants in the port. After all, I represent the Karimi, not some cheap junk from Serendib!

Ours is a large ship with a rich load of wares bound for Gujerat. When I arrived soon after the dawn prayer at the furda or customs house, I found everything unpacked and ready to be weighed or sorted. Only a small portion of our wares is bound for Aden itself. What a filth hole is the customs house. Have they no brooms in this accursed town, or were they all blown out to sea with the wind that destroyed the tribe of ‘Ad for their callousness? Surely when they measure the flax seed bound for Aden’s market, it will weigh twice the amount just from the flies and gnats crawling over piles of wind-blown sand on the scales. And when my bundles of Dabiqi robes are undone, what manner of vermin will take up residence for the next leg of the voyage to Dhofar! Such clever thieves they are here. For Dibiqi robe of average quality the custom duty per mann bundle is 1/3 + 1/4 + 1/8 dinar + 2 fils plus 6 fils to the broker; if mediocre the duty is 1/3 + 1/8 dinar + 2 fils and only a qirat to the broker. Then there is the galley tax, allegedly for the few galleys which occasionally put out to sea to put the fear of the sultan into would-be pirates.

At the customs house I met a merchant from Qalhat, a port at the entrance to the Persian Gulf; he knew much about the trade to Serendib (Ceylon), a land of such mystery that even Sinbad would be hard put to exaggerate its marvels. His ship was scheduled to leave Aden during the Last of the Season in another month’s time. He explained to me that ships sailing east stopped there for coconut palms, both the fibre for rope and the wood for planks. There were large pearls in Ceylon, precious stones of every color and cinnamon as plentiful as the sand. And, he swears, that it was this island to which Adam and Eve fell when kicked out of Eden. Imagine, if God had so punished his first creation to start up the human family is this hell hole.

As we were talking, I noticed a man with long black hair and an indigo-stained shirt staring intently at us. “You almost seem like a Yemeni, he said as he neared our spot in the shade of the customs’ house.

“I am originally from Zabid,” I said.

“Ah, a scholar in our midst,” he responded, showing the gaps in his front teeth as he laughed.

“No, a cloth merchant,” said I.

“But you can read and write,” he asked?

“Of course, for it is necessary for my trade and for pleasure. But I know little of my native land.”

“Then you need a teacher, someone who knows the trader’s craft in Yemen. I myself am a merchant from Hays, specializing in pottery. Have you come back to settle?” he asked.

“Not yet, although I can think of nowhere else I would want to be buried,” I assured him.

“Then bury yourself in what I can teach you,” he insisted.

I laughed at his arrogance. “And what knowledge would you mete out for me, master of broken shards?”

“We can start with weights, if you like,” he said with a sudden serious tone. “I assume you know the amount of an Egyptian ratl (let us assume this is equal to a 16 ounce “pound” here).”

“I could measure even the sand to the nearest grain,” I asserted in a mocking tone.

“OK, so how many qafla units are in an Egyptian ratl?” he quizzed.

“That would be 144 qafla or 12 wiqiya, or 100 mithqal according to the muhtasib of Cairo,” I took no time in responding.

“And how many qafla in a Baghdad ratl?” There was a glint of expectation that I must know such a simple question.

“125 qafla, as any decent merchant knows. And a Damascus ratl is equal to 576 Egyptian qafla. And the Laythi ratl of Upper Egypt is 200 qafla; that is the measure we Karimi prefer. Do I pass?” I managed a wry smile.

“So you carry weight outside Yemen, that I can readily see, but what is the equivalent weight in Egypt for the zabadi weight?”

He had me here. I had heard of these Yemeni terms, but had no idea how they were measured. Sensing my ignorance, he proceeded to lecture me, at the same time making a case for the necessity of his expertise if I was ever to set up shop in my native land.

“In al-Dumluwa, where our sultan counts his dinars, 1 zabadi weighs 10 Egyptian ratl. This is equal to 1 + 1/8 Ta‘izz zabadi. Now the zabadi of Jibla increases to 1 +1/4 + 1/3 +1/16 Ta‘izz zabadi but the zabadi of Janad is only 1 + 1/31 Ta‘izz zabadi. And, for good measure, the zabadi of Aden is only 1/2 the Janad zabadi. Then there is zabadi of Dhamar, only slightly less than 1/2 of a San‘ani zabadi. And in al-Mahjam…”

“Peace, peace,” I cried, interrupting his accursed accountant’s monologue. “Enough, I get your point. This is a land where nothing matches and each one is out to take advantage. Why do you not count the crop grain by grain?”

“An interesting idea, have you been waiting that long in customs?” We both laughed at the absurdity. I could only think that it was far easier to read and write than keep track of the shifting scales from one Yemeni market to another. What fools we are, turning what God created into an incessant game of greedy exploitation for the sake of silver coins and silk underwear. Surely after another seven centuries all of mankind will have submitted to the will of our Maker, so that even this Aden will seem an Eden. But, Allahu A’lama, God alone knows.