Post-classical history

Economy of the Levant

Research on the economy of the Frankish Levant from 1100 to 1291 is still largely dominated by a Eurocentric approach. This approach is rooted in and has been enhanced by the biased nature of the available documentation, which overwhelmingly illustrates Western commercial expansion, east- west long-distance exchanges across the Mediterranean, and the activity of Western merchants and carriers. Certainly these subjects are of great importance. Yet a more balanced perspective requires due attention to the agrarian and industrial sectors in the economy of the Frankish Levant, local and regional trade, and the economic function of Frankish settlers, all of which are often underrated or largely overlooked. The same holds true of the interaction between the Frankish states and the economies of other regions of the eastern Mediterranean and those of the Near and Middle East.

The establishment of the Frankish states created new geopolitical conditions, which were of paramount importance for the economic evolution of the Levant in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Frankish rule had an impact on all sectors of that economy, whether direct or indirect, or short or long term. It ensured Latin Christians more stable and secure conditions in the region than in the precrusading era, and it prompted a fairly large number of them to settle in the Frankish states, whether for a number of years or permanently. Except for Jerusalem before 1187, the largest concentrations of Latin settlers occurred along the Levantine seaboard in Antioch (mod. Antakya, Turkey), Tripoli (mod. Trâblous, Lebanon), Tyre (mod. Soûr, Lebanon), and Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel), the major cities and markets of the Frankish Levant. Frankish rule also ensured safe maritime havens, relay stations, and logistical support for Latins engaging in trade and transportation. It stimulated thereby the activity of merchants and carriers, both settlers and those based in Western cities. The citizens and subjects of Genoa, Venice, Pisa, and, to a lesser degree, Marseilles and other Provençal cities enjoyed particularly favorable conditions in that respect. The extensive privileges obtained by their respective governments in various Levantine ports enabled the creation of “national” quarters, which in some cases became virtual free-trade outposts and political enclaves.

The function of the Latin settlers, who are clearly underrepresented in the extant documentation, was crucial for the operation of the economy of the Frankish Levant. They had direct and permanent access to rural producers and to manufacturing workshops in the region and could monitor the movement of commodities, means of transportation, moneys, and people all the year through. On their own or in conjunction with indigenous or traveling merchants and carriers, they engaged in short-haul and medium-range trade and transportation along the Levantine seaboard, between the cities under Frankish rule and, especially in the thirteenth century, between these cities and neighboring Muslim territories. Their function as middlemen, agents, moneychangers, and carriers was indispensable for traveling merchants and transporters arriving with the seasonal maritime convoys from the West or with caravans from the large inland centers of Aleppo and Damascus.

The Evolution of the Local Economy

The establishment of Frankish rule and the changes in the lordship and tenure of land that followed did not alter the basic structure and operation of the rural economy of the Frankish Levant, which displayed a high degree of continuity. To a large extent the well-developed agrarian sector enabled self-supply in foodstuffs until the Frankish defeat at the battle of Hattin in 1187. In the following period, the territories under Frankish rule were largely reduced to the coastal fringe. As a result their provisioning with foodstuffs, especially in grain, depended heavily on imports from neighboring Muslim territories and especially from countries overseas. The reliance on Western imports further increased in the last three decades of Frankish rule, when the Mamlûk rulers of Egypt inflicted heavy damage upon the Frankish countryside. The Frankish Levant also produced industrial crops. Sugarcane was cultivated in large areas extending from Antioch in the north to Caesarea (mod. Har Qesari, Israel) in the south, as well as inland along the shores of Lake Tiberias (Sea of Galilee) and in the Jordan Valley. Cotton cultivation and the production of raw silk were practiced in extensive areas of the Frankish states. Some dyestuffs utilized in the textile industries were indigenous. Indigo was cultivated in the Jordan Valley, yet was presumably also imported from Iraq and Egypt. Woad was grown in the area of Damascus and the Orontes Valley and also grew wild in the kingdom of Jerusalem.

The rural sector provided the bulk of revenues of the military orders and of the Frankish lords and enabled the latter to sustain their lifestyle. Not surprisingly, therefore, landlords sought ways to increase their income. In the thirteenth century, the growing Western demand for sugar and textile fibers stimulated investments of money and labor in the expansion of sugarcane and cotton cultivation, as well as in sericulture. Written and archaeological evidence points to the maintenance, repair, and building of water reservoirs and distribution channels for irrigation and for the operation of presses and sugar mills. Indigenous artisans continued to ensure the activity of high-quality manufacture in the Frankish period. Tripoli and Antioch were famous for their luxury silks. Wool was used for the production of textiles, and mixed with camel hair to produce camlets, for which Tripoli was renowned. Syrian weavers in Tyre produced excellent cotton fabrics. High-grade soda ashes obtained from plants growing in coastal or arid areas, fine-grained sand with a high silica content, and recycled broken glass provided the basic ingredients for glassmaking. Antioch, Beirut, Tyre, and Acre (the latter two enjoying abundant raw materials in their vicinity) produced high-grade glassware. Soda ashes were also utilized in the manufacturing of soap, attested in Acre in the thirteenth century.

Both written sources and archaeological finds reveal that the Latins resident in the Levant were receptive to various material aspects of the Eastern lifestyle, such as ceramics, glassware, textiles, carpets, and other artefacts produced by local artisans or imported from Muslim countries situated further east. Large numbers of Western pilgrims, crusaders, warriors, merchants, and sailors visiting the Frankish Levant became acquainted with these artifacts and promoted their diffusion upon their return to the West. In turn, that diffusion enhanced further demand and stimulated production in the Frankish Levant. The same holds true of icons and other devotional objects, which both settlers and especially visitors to the Holy Land were eager to acquire.

Interaction with the Mediterranean and Asia

The creation of the Frankish states along the seaboard of the Levant generated an important evolution in the commercial function of that region. By the second decade of the twelfth century, Acre had definitively replaced Tyre as the major port and market of the Frankish Levant, largely thanks to the fact that it was the main destination of Western crusaders, supplies, pilgrims, and merchants, and had better access to Damascus, the major city of the Syrian interior. As a result it assumed a major role in the Levantine economy of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Changes of a more general nature affected the entire Levantine seaboard. In the precrusading era, its ports fulfilled a rather modest function as markets and transit stations in maritime and land trade, largely within a regional framework. After the First Crusade (1096-1099), the growing activity of Italian merchants and carriers, mainly those operating from their respective home cities, firmly integrated the Frankish Levant within two large, closely interlocked, and partly overlapping interregional systems of trade and transportation. One of these systems linked the West, Byzantium, and Egypt within a triangular Mediterranean network, while the other extended from the West to the Levant and further east into inner Asia. The simultaneous insertion of the major Frankish ports within the Levantine, Mediterranean, and continental Asian networks, together with their position at the crossroads of the latter, generated a substantial increase in the volume of their commercial and maritime operations and of the services they offered to passing merchants, visitors, caravans, and ships.

The expansion of the service sector in the economy of the Frankish Levant was particularly pronounced in Acre, the only port benefiting from the large, continuous, and lucrative pilgrim and crusader traffic. There was a continuous interaction between the economies of the Frankish Levant, Byzantium, and Egypt. The major Italian maritime powers, Venice, Pisa, and Genoa, gradually consolidated their position and expanded their commercial activity in these three regions in the twelfth century, despite short interruptions due to adverse political circumstances. Significantly, some of their citizens and subjects did not restrict their activity to one region and combined visits to two or more of the major emporia of the eastern Mediterranean, such as Constantinople, Acre, and Alexandria. They took advantage of their privileged status, especially in the Frankish states, to acquire a dominant role along the waterway linking Constantinople to Alexandria, at the expense of Byzantine and Muslim traders and carriers, who became increasingly dependent upon Italian middlemen and transporters. Timber for naval construction and silk textiles were the main commodities exported from Byzantium to Egypt, while spices originating in the region bordering the Indian Ocean and in the Arabian Peninsula followed the reverse route along the Levantine coast as far as Constantinople. The Frankish Levant became part of the trade network linking the West to inner Asia.

After the Frankish conquest, both traveling and settled Latin merchants largely replaced the local merchants active along the Levantine coast in the precrusading period. However, until the Third Crusade (1189-1192), only few of them operated between the Frankish ports and the major inland cities under Muslim rule. This traffic was almost entirely handled by merchants based in these cities. After 1192, however, Latins in larger numbers extended the range of their activity to the Muslim hinterland, mainly to Damascus and Aleppo. They sold woolens as well as saffron, the only precious spice and colorant produced in the West. They bought mainly cotton, silk, luxury textiles, and high-quality artifacts produced in Muslim industrial centers, for which there was a large demand both in the Frankish Levant and in the West. In addition, they acquired pearls as well as precious and semiprecious stones. In the late thirteenth century, Venetian merchants also bought cotton directly from growers in the region extending from Acre to Tiberias, which was partly under Muslim rule.

The Mongol expansion over Asia, which reached its peak around 1250, generated a northward shift of the overland trade route linking the Mediterranean to inner Asia. Baghdad was sacked by the Mongols, and the large commercial centers of inner Syria, Aleppo, and Damascus were severely affected by destruction and the warfare between Mongols and Mamlûks from around 1260. As a result, in the following decades they lost their function as main suppliers of oriental commodities to the Frankish ports located along the Levantine coast. Ayas (mod. Yumurtalik, Turkey), called Lajazzo by the Latins, the major port of the Christian kingdom of Cilician Armenia, became the main Mediterranean outlet for goods arriving via Tabriz in Persia, from a region extending as far as China. The establishment of Mongol rule over large parts of Asia also allowed the penetration of Western merchants deep into the continent, again via Ayas. The link of this trade route with the Frankish seaboard is well illustrated. Significantly, when the father and uncle of the famous Marco Polo returned in 1269 from their first overland Asian voyage, they traveled via Tabriz to Ayas and proceeded from there via Acre to Venice. In 1271, this time together with Marco, they sailed from Venice via Acre to Ayas, from where they began their second overland Asian journey.

Despite the opening of the alternative Asian route of supply, Alexandria remained one of the main emporia of the Mediterranean, as well as its major spice market. An unpublished trade manual compiled in Acre about 1270 and another composed in Pisa in 1278, as well as notarial charters, illustrate exchanges between Alexandria and Acre in a broad range of commodities and demonstrate the continuing dependence of the entire Levantine seaboard upon the Egyptian port with respect to spices. In turn Acre served as a major distribution center for these commodities, supplying them to ports along the Levantine seaboard as far as Cilician Armenia, to its own Muslim hinterland, and particularly to the West.

The focus of research on long-distance navigation in the crusader period has deflected attention from cabotage and tramping along the Levantine coast, that is, short-distance coastal navigation from port to port to load and unload goods. These types of activity, which ensured the exchange, concentration, and distribution of goods within the framework of the regional economy of the Frankish Levant, were closely linked to the larger trans-Mediterranean networks. In the thirteenth century, the shipping of ever larger quantities of bulky goods to Italy, such as cotton (grown in several areas of the Levant), soda ashes, and broken glass, prompted a rationalization of transport services and a lowering of freight rates. Both these goals were achieved by the concentration of goods carried by small and medium-sized Levantine crafts in the major ports, where they were reloaded on larger ships sailing across the Mediterranean.

The connection between Levantine and other regional systems is also reflected by the handling of some specific commodities. Time and again popes, princes, and city governments prohibited the shipping of war materials to Egypt, namely, arms and iron used in arms manufacturing, as well as timber and pitch for naval construction. The large-scale trade in these materials, which originated both in the West and in the eastern Mediterranean region, was often conducted through the Levantine ports with the help of local intermediaries and carriers. A similar pattern was followed

by the slave trade, which expanded substantially after the consolidation of Mongol rule north of the Black Sea around 1240. Slaves from that region and the Balkans were shipped to the Frankish Levant by Genoese, Venetian, and Pisan merchants, yet their final destination was Egypt, in constant need of male slaves for the military contingents of the Mamlûk sultanate. However, in the last decades of the thirteenth century Genoese and Egyptian traders took over the direct transportation of slaves from the Black Sea to Egypt and bypassed Frankish middlemen and carriers.

Compared with the precrusading era, the economy of the Frankish Levant experienced a substantial growth, especially in the thirteenth century. A constant increase in local and Western demand for indigenous raw materials, as well as semifinished and finished products (especially textiles), provided a powerful stimulus to investments in the expansion of agriculture and manufacture. The economy of the Frankish Levant was boosted by its insertion within interregional networks of trade and transportation, its function as intermediary in their midst, and growing exports to the West. Revenues generated by the large service sector were partly reinvested in the Levantine economy, largely to the benefit of Frankish settlers. These ensured Western traders a sizable local clientele for foodstuffs, arms, and especially Western woolens, which constituted the main commodity financing Western commercial exchanges with the Frankish Levant and its Muslim hinterland. However, Western imports of bullion and coins suggest that the West faced a negative balance of trade in its commercial exchanges with these regions. Especially from the 1240s onward, the growing demand for resources to finance military operations and the defense of the Latin territories was met by noncommercial imports of foodstuffs and arms, in addition to transfers of capital, the latter handled mainly by Italian trade and banking companies.

Developments after 1291

The fall of the Frankish states of the Levant in 1291 brought to an abrupt end the particularly favorable conditions which for two centuries had enabled the growth of the regional economy and the major functions of the Frankish Levant in trade and shipping. Acre in particular never recovered from the blow it suffered. The altered geopolitical balance in the eastern Mediterranean required a restructuring of both regional and long-distance trade and navigation. Ayas and Cyprus became to some extent substitutes for the privileged positions along the Levantine coast of which the Latins had been deprived. The events of 1291 thus signaled the beginning of a new era in Mediterranean exchanges and shipping. Despite its close political links with the kingdom of Jerusalem, the kingdom of Cyprus under the Lusignan dynasty fulfilled only a marginal role in Mediterranean trade and shipping from 1192 until 1291. The island, and the port of Famagusta (mod. Ammochostos, Cyprus) in particular, then became a major entrepôt and transit station for Western commercial exchanges with Egypt and Syria, which continued despite the papal embargo on trade with the Mamlûk territories decreed in 1291.

Many goods exchanged between the West and Ayas also passed through Famagusta. The cultivation of sugarcane and cotton on the island was continuously expanded from the thirteenth century onward, and they became major export items, in addition to salt, camlets, and gold threads used in the weaving of gold brocade and embroidery. The fall of Ayas to the Mamlûks in 1337 enhanced Famagusta’s function as transit and transshipment station. This function, however, was affected by the resumption of direct Western trade with the Mamlûk territories in 1345, as a result of which many Western traders and ships bypassed Cyprus. The island nevertheless reached the peak of its prosperity before 1374. Political developments, especially Genoese rule over Famagusta, which lasted from that year until 1464, accelerated the economic decline of that city and of Cyprus in general. The Venetians secured a major share in the production of sugar in the territories remaining under Lusignan rule and dominated the export of that commodity, as well as that of cotton and salt. The establishment of direct Venetian rule over Cyprus in 1489 turned the island into the main entrepôt of Venice’s trading system in the eastern Mediterranean and brought some improvement in the condition of its economy.

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