- Red Sea Citizens: Cosmopolitan Society and Cultural Change in Massawa
As Indian Ocean studies has developed as a discipline, there has been a shift away from work on the ocean as an economic and cultural system and toward studies of subregions and ports. While focusing on smaller bits of time and territory they still situate their subjects in the larger context of the ocean. An excellent example of the genre is Roxani Eleni Margariti's Aden and the Indian Ocean Trade (2007), which is an incredibly detailed look at the port of Aden in the Middle Ages. Miran's book, which is a similarly detailed study of the port of Massawa in the modern nation of Eritrea, has interesting parallels with Margariti's. Both begin with thorough examinations of their ports' geographies and the cultural and economic connections between the city and its hinterland. Both focus on the merchant classes that emerged in their ports, and both authors have done staggering amounts [End Page 635] of original research to bring their topics to light. Between them, and no doubt independently, they have developed a sort of template for writing the history of a port city in the Indian Ocean.
Massawa as described by Miran is a port city that sat at the intersection between the cultural and economic systems of the Ethiopian highlands, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean. The date of the city's origins is still debated, but it was clearly a functioning port by the sixteenth century and at different times was under the sovereignty of the Ottomans, the Italians, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. Miran focuses mostly on the nineteenth century and the reshaping of the port's economy and culture in the age of high imperialism. Using a mixture of Italian colonial records, a large number of interviews, and Arabic documents both published and unpublished, he is able to piece together a rich picture of Massawa and Massawans. We learn about struggles over social status, the role of Islam in Massawan identity, the social networks that linked Masswa's elite both to communities in the hinterland and to places as far away as the opposite coast of the Red Sea and even the western coast of India.
Perhaps the aspect of this book that will most interest world historians is the cosmopolitan nature of the city and its inhabitants. Massawa's elites almost universally claimed external origins. Family names (nisbahs) often referred to a family's origins in Persia or the Arab Middle East. Status accrued to those who could claim external origins in the Islamic world, while people of the lowest social status—water carriers, for example—were often from the interior, which did not carry the social weight that links to the other side of the Red Sea did. Even families that were deeply rooted in Massawa seem to have seen themselves as embedded in networks that reached outside the confines of their city. These networks were sometimes commercial and sometimes religious. Sufi brotherhoods were often a point of connection between Massawans and the larger Islamic world, and no doubt these also had commercial connections that worked in parallel with them.
Massawa's history, as Miran points out on several occasions, parallels patterns that are found in the port cities of the Swahili coast. Swahili patricians all claimed origins in the Middle East, while lower-status people were associated with the interior. Port cities on the Swahili portions of the East Africa coast also had links to places as far off as the Persian Gulf and India, links that were commercial, cultural, and religious. As was the case in Massawa, the ports of the Swahili coast were deeply conscious of their connections to the larger Islamic and Indic world but used languages, Tigre and Swahili, that were rooted in the interior. Curiously, despite the proximity of Massawa to the Swahili [End Page 636] coast, and the historical parallels between the two regions, there does not seem to have been much commercial or cultural interaction...