- Pashas: Traders and Travellers in the Islamic World
With the signature of a 1581 charter establishing the Levant Company, a joint-stock company granted exclusive trading rights with the Ottoman Empire, Queen Elizabeth I effectively cut out the Catholic middle men controlling the primary trade routes between the Near East and the British Isles. Thus began a notable period of British-Middle East history when sustained contact between a Christian European nation and the mightiest Muslim empire of the day resulted in a mutually beneficial, if not always amicable, relationship. Such collaboration often seems unattainable in today’s context of strained post-9/11 relations.
In his first book, Pashas: Traders and Travellers in the Islamic World, Cambridge and Harvard educated James Mather focuses on the notable yet little studied 250-year period of interaction between the English traders, or “pashas,” of the Levant Company and their Ottoman patrons. Mostly devoid of the sense of cultural superiority and armed aggression accompanying the mercantile ventures of its better-known contemporary, the East India Company, Mather claims the “trading milieu which [the pashas] inhabited represented the most numerically significant of Britons’ encounters with any Islamic [End Page 500] civilization” (p. 9) prior to the establishment of the Raj in India. The entire experience of the Levant Company lies in sharp contrast to the era of colonial England’s ascendancy over lands once decidedly within the domain of Dar al-Islam.
Divided into three sections named for the most important Levantine trading ports — Aleppo, Constantinople, and Alexandria — the book draws heavily upon the traders’ firsthand accounts and original records to chronicle their adventures and the company’s rise to a position of prominence both abroad and in England. Much of the book describes the functioning of the company, a description of expatriate life in the Orient, and the traders’ attempts to assimilate to Ottoman culture through appearance, behavior, language, and, occasionally, religion. Mather uses one trader’s exhortations to an apprentice that upon arrival his “‘chiefest business is to get the language’” (p. 98) and become familiar with the religion as an illustration of the merchants’ shrewd understanding that commercial success relied as much upon cultural knowledge as economics. Such examples serve to underscore his point that the English traders accepted the reality of their ambiguous place in Ottoman society. As neither tithe-paying dhimmis nor Muslim citizens afforded full rights by law, the pashas occupied a grey area shared with other “franks” residing in the Levant by the Sultan’s official sanction.
Of the book’s many subjects, the most intriguing are those that concern the direct impact of Levant Company operations upon English society. Mather argues that the company was an engine of social mobility and ties it directly to the birth of early-modern British consumerism. He further qualifies its lifespan as an era of “proto-globalization” brought about by increased traffic in knowledge as much as goods.
It is his research into this last subject, the commerce of ideas, namely those found within costly Arabic and Persian language texts, which comprises the most compelling chapter of Pashas. These books, purchased by Levant traders for private collections and the libraries of England’s most esteemed universities, were the foundation for the development of Middle East studies as an academic pursuit in Britain. This is arguably the most enduring legacy of this exchange between England and the Ottoman Empire. Mather demonstrates that the relationship of trade to the acquisition of texts for academia was substantial enough that in the 1630s the Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of Oxford University, William Laud, nearly succeeded in establishing a mandate that each ship returning from the Levant “be required to carry with it an Arabic or Persian manuscript” (p. 164). Though ultimately unsuccessful, the belief that there was much to learn of religion and science from the Muslims’ texts endured. Mather claims the acquisition of Oriental books and wider availability of better translations fueled a positive shift...