- Cotton, Climate, and Camels in Early Islamic Iran: A Moment in World History by Richard W. Bulliet
A brilliant social historian has taken on a highly interesting issue from medieval times and produced a fascinating study with complex theoretical frameworks, carefully appraised datasets, and majestic sweeps of insights relevant to both the past and the present. Add to that mix Richard Bulliet’s elegant prose and the result is a feast for the minds and senses of readers. Cotton, Climate, and Camels in Early Islamic Iran serves as a model of how history can be approached and how historiography should be crafted.
Bulliet’s study focuses on the rise of cotton production and export during the ninth and tenth centuries, a period when Islam was consolidating its following in urban centers and beginning to expand its presence in rural areas at the expense mainly of Iran’s indigenous and hitherto demographically, politically, and economically dominant Zoroastrians.1 He traces the links between specialized agrarian production, wealth, urbanization, and confessional change—and how and why those events shaped not only the trajectory of medieval Muslim society but impacted the rest of the world as well. Bulliet then goes on to examine consequences of the decline in cotton production, the spread of camel-breeding as an alternative industry, and the concomitant political ascendance of Turkish nomads on the Iranian plateau. As Bulliet aptly comments (p. x), the events were a nexus of “individual human agency” and “complexities and cross-cutting pressures.”
Cotton was utilized in Iran probably from the Achaemenid period (550–330 b.c.e.), when its seeds are attested archeologically, and was [End Page 961] woven into carpets and cloth during Sasanian times (224–651). It also may have been woven into fabric used for the white undershirt or shabīg (later called the sudre)—and certainly would have been cooler than wool fabric—and the holy cord or kustīg worn by Zoroastrians. Authors of the Nērangestān, or Ritual Code of the magi, discussed materials for the holy cord, traditionally made of wool, extensively (chapters 67.1–69.8), including ruling that “cotton (Middle Persian: pambag) is also permissible . . . if it is entirely of complete strands” (67.6, 67.9). Likewise, they declared the holy undershirt could be made from cloth “of vegetable fibers” (69.4)—presumably cotton and linen. However, the Nērangestān, while containing an ancient Avestan textual core, appears to have been substantially compiled after the Arab conquest of Iran in the seventh century (and more likely during the ninth century). Moreover, Zoroastrian records suggest that cotton’s use was not widespread until after the ninth century, with wool, animal skins, and even silk discussed far more often before that time. So documentation about the limited use of vegetable fibers for cloth from the confessional community that once dominated Iran fits well with Bulliet’s suggestions about the spread of cotton’s cultivation and use in the early Islamic period. Indeed, as Bulliet demonstrates (particularly pp. 4–5), involvement in cotton-related occupations increased exponentially after the year 900. Other nuggets of support for that burgeoning in cotton cultivation and trade is found in the Iranian national epic, the Shāhnāme or Book of Kings, where cotton is mentioned several times—not surprising since the poet Ferdowsi composed between the tenth and eleventh centuries.
Bulliet makes a most plausible case for new converts to Islam transmitting irrigation technology essential for cotton cultivation into the nascent Muslim communities of Iran (pp. 30–34). After all, having been cut off from traditional trades by their former coreligionists in the Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian communities, those new Muslims needed alternate livelihoods and would have put their skills to use by growing the new crop. However, why “traditional Zoroastrian landowners” (p. 16)—the Dehghans who controlled much of rural Iran—did not follow the lead of Muslims, especially since cotton was by no means commercially unknown or religiously prohibited, when...