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Reviewed by:
  • India Traders of the Middle Ages: Documents from the Cairo Geniza ("India Book")
  • Michael H. Fisher
India Traders of the Middle Ages: Documents from the Cairo Geniza ("India Book") S. D. Goitein and Mordechai A. Friedman Leiden: Brill, 2008xxxii + 918 pp., $336.00 (cloth)

Geniza documents provide unique access to the lived world of Jewish merchants based in Cairo but trading across the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea during much of the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries. Scholars of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East have long awaited the publication of this sourcebook, containing nearly two hundred documents (out of more than three hundred relating to India), each meticulously translated and annotated. This was a book more than fifty years in the making. While some scholars have already drawn on these incomparable primary materials, either through their own or earlier translations, the volume under review will likely remain a definitive source for these documents hereafter.

The Geniza papers, written in Judeo-Arabic language in the Hebrew alphabet, survived as a result of piety and our good fortune. Jewish merchants often included the name of God in their letters, account books, complaints, pleas, and reports; therefore, rather than simply disposed of, these miscellaneous papers were deposited in a back room (a geniza) of a synagogue to await proper destruction without desecration. In Cairo's Synagogue of the Palestinians, nearly a thousand years of such miscellaneous materials was inadvertently preserved rather than ritually destroyed. After the rediscovery of this collection of papers in the mid-nineteenth century, the sheets and scraps were scattered among archives across Europe, America, and Israel. Since paper was valuable, often a single piece contains separate items on its front and back. Sheets from the same document were frequently separated or fragmented. For three decades, S. D. Goitein scrupulously traced out, reassembled, translated, and annotated all known Geniza documents. Since Goitein's death in 1985, Mordechai A. Friedman, his student, has extended and completed this project. The volume under review provides translations and extensive annotations of those Geniza documents relating to India produced between 1080 and 1240 CE. The editors have also included fifteen color plates, three maps, several genealogical charts, and many indexes to assist readers in navigating among these documents.

Three extended families generated these papers as they engaged in commerce; conducted lawsuits; exchanged family news; reported shipwrecks, weddings, births, and deaths; and generally recorded what they had been doing and seeing. Their correspondents and the peoples, places, and topics mentioned in these documents varied widely, revealing the cosmopolitan worlds they participated in. This book's long introduction surveys these diverse documents collectively and extracts evidence about the commodities traded or consumed, maritime and commercial practices, and interactions between and among these merchants and the Muslim, Hindu, and other rulers, partners, and rivals they encountered. For evidence about the details of everyday life during this period, these sources are unmatched.

While Goitein himself wrote numerous articles based on these sources, other scholars have also drawn on them. As a particularly fascinating example, Amitav Ghosh used them to write his brilliant novel In an Antique Land, about a slave, purchased in India and owned by Abraham Ben Yiju, one of the merchants.1 The slave's name was written B-H-M (perhaps Bama, Bamah, or Bomma, the short vowels and doubled letters being elided). This slave is mentioned in nine of these Geniza documents as he traveled back and forth between Mangalore (today in Karnataka) and Aden. In a more historiographical vein, Ghosh has also insightfully analyzed this source and the context for the life of this slave in an article titled "The Slave of MS. H.6."2 Friedman devotes eleven footnotes to correcting Ghosh's mistranslations and occasional misunderstanding of these sources about this slave-servant (occasionally referred to as Sheikh Bama), adding yet another layer of interpretation to this one case study. [End Page 582]

The detailed and fragmentary nature of these Geniza documents, as well as the precision and extent of the scholarly apparatus provided by Goitein and Friedman, make this book both invaluable and also highly specialized. Scholars of the Indian Ocean region during this period will...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-226X
Print ISSN
1089-201X
Pages
pp. 582-583
Launched on MUSE
2009-12-06
Open Access
No
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