restricted access 1 Defining a Framework for the Economic History of Early-Modern Egypt
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1 Defining a Framework for the Economic History of Early-Modern Egypt Framework for Economic History In studies of the economy, historians know in a general way much more about commerce and trade in medieval or early-modern societies (1500–1800) than they do about the agricultural or industrial sectors. This holds true for both Europe and the Ottoman Empire.1 In various parts of the world, merchants left archives, of variable volume or importance, that allow us to observe their movements and commercial activities. We know about the way merchants in international trade carried out their business and accumulated large fortunes. The Abu Taqiyas in the seventeenth century and the Sharaybis in the eighteenth century are but two among the many merchant families in Cairo who aimed at and succeeded in maximizing their profits. Like merchants in Italy or France, they had geographically wide networks and used a complex set of local and regional relations to carry out their business along capitalist lines (merchant capitalism).2 The wealth that these commercial activities engendered placed many of these merchants in the top strata of society. In this world of exchange, long-distance merchants were involved in large money-making ventures and developed tools and mechanisms to support their trade; they also forged local and regional networks of relationships upon which they relied for these commercial exchanges. They also depended on legal structures such as courts and transport structures to facilitate the movement of goods. But if we turn to craftsmen or production, we are presented with a picture whose contours are less known. We are left with numerous unanswered questions . Even though artisans were much more numerous than merchants and their economic weight was considerable, much less is known about their lives, 2 | Artisan Entrepreneurs in Cairo and Early-Modern Capitalism the way they carried out their work, or their role or position in the economy. As a consequence, even historians with a particular interest in the economy have tended to focus on merchants rather than on artisans. Merchants are considered to be the ones who took initiatives, made innovations, had some weight in the economy, and consequently had an impact on historical developments, whereas artisans are thought to have stood against innovation and were associated with centuries of unchanging traditions. This focus on merchants can be attributed to different factors. For one thing, it is to a certain extent the result of the availability of sources. For example, Subhi Labib’s late-1960s analysis of the economy in medieval Islam explored the activities of the Karimi merchants who were very prominent in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries within the framework of merchant capitalism. The only industries he considered were the state industries. He had little to say about artisans. The Mamluk chronicles he used, however, had limited information about the artisans ’ working conditions or work organization.3 He was therefore unable to link the Karimi merchants’ activities to production activities. That these productive activities were many and varied is evident. A recent study based on a survey of medieval sources identifies some three thousand crafts practiced in the medieval Islamic world.4 These crafts were spread out over a long period and a vast geography . Labib’s study, however, does not address the issues of the artisans’ role or of their production in the broader economy or of their relationships to other groups. The focus on merchants and trade rather than on artisans and production can also be attributed to another factor. As Fernand Braudel puts it in his monumental study on capitalism and material life from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, before the Industrial Revolution, industry did not have a great importance and was consequently not a leading factor in growth.5 By implication , neither did artisans. What Braudel misses pointing out is the link between trade and industry and consequently the impact that the one may have had on the other. Moreover, in direct or indirect ways trade might have had a social or economic impact on other sectors of the economy. James Tracy, for instance, emphasizes connections between commerce and production when he writes that in the early-modern world the lives of many ordinary people who were not directly involved in trading were nevertheless affected, for good and ill, by the increased linkages between different parts of the world that had resulted from more intensive world trade.6 Economic History of Early-Modern Egypt | 3 This study aims at filling in some of the...


Subject Headings

  • Artisans -- Egypt -- Cairo -- History.
  • Entrepreneurship -- Egypt -- Cairo -- History.
  • Capitalism -- Egypt -- Cairo -- History.
  • Egypt -- Economic conditions.
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