Pirenne, Henri: The Expansion of Islam in the Mediterranean Basin [2]

From H.Pirenne’s «Mohammed & Charlemagne», Dover Publications, INC. Mineola, New York.

CMartel12. The Closing of the Western Mediterranean

So long as the Mediterranean remained Christian, it was the Oriental navigation that maintained commercial intercourse with the Occident. Syria and Egypt were its two principal centres; and these two wealthy provinces were the very first to fall under the domination of Islam. It would obviously be an error to believe that this domination put an end to all economic activity. Although there was great confusion and disorder, and although many Syrians migrated to the Occident, we must not suppose that the economic machinery collapsed. Damascus had become the first capital of the Caliphate. Spices were still imported, papyrus was still manufactured, the seaports were still active. Once they paid taxes to the conquerors, the Christians were not molested. Commerce, therefore, continued, but its direction was changed.(41)

It goes without saying that when an actual war was in progress the conqueror did not allow his subjects to trade with the conquered. And when peace had restored the commercial activity of the conquered provinces, Islam directed it into new trade routes, which were opened up by the immensity of its conquests.

These new trade routes connected the Caspian Sea with the Baltic, by way of the Volga, and the Scandinavians, whose merchants frequented the shores of the Black Sea, were suddenly compelled to follow the new route. Of this we need no further proof than the many Oriental coins found in Gothland.

We may be certain that the disturbances inseparable from the conquest of Syria (634-636) and then of Egypt (640-642) must have hindered navigation.(42)

The ships must have been requisitioned for the fleet which Islam suddenly organized in the Aegean Sea. Moreover, one can hardly imagine that merchants would have sailed through the midst of the hostile fleet, unless to take advantage of the situation, as many of them must have done, by turning pirate.

We may certainly conclude that from the middle of the 7th century navigation between the Musulman ports of the Aegean Sea and those ports which had remained Christian had become impossible; or if there was any, it must have been almost negligible.

It may have been possible to maintain navigation, under the protection of the fleet, between Byzantium and the adjacent coast, still defended by the capital, and the other Greek regions of Greece, the Adriatic, Southern Italy, and Sicily, but we can hardly suppose that the Byzantine vessels could have sailed any farther, since Islam was attacking Sicily as early as 650.

As for the commercial activities of Africa, the continual ravaging of the country from 643 to 708 undoubtedly put an end to them. The few rare vestiges of commerce that may have survived disappeared after the taking of Carthage and the foundation of Tunis in 698.

The conquest of Spain in 711, and the conditions of insecurity obtaining on the coast of Provence immediately after this conquest, absolutely put an end to any possibility of sea-borne trade in the Western Mediterranean. The remaining Christian ports could not have maintained communications by sea, since they had no fleet, or practically none.

Thus, it may be asserted that navigation with the Orient ceased about 650 as regards the regions situated eastward of Sicily, while in the second half of the 7th century it came to an end in the whole of the Western Mediterranean.

By the beginning of the 8th century it had completely disappeared. There was no longer any traffic in the Mediterranean, except along the Byzantine coast. As Ibn-Khaldoun says (with the necessary reservation as regards Byzantium):”the Christians could no longer float a plank upon the sea.” The Mediterranean was henceforth at the mercy of the Saracen pirates. In the 9th century they seized the islands, destroyed the ports, and made their razzias everywhere. The great port of Marseilles, which had formerly been the principal emporium of Western trade with the Levant, was empty. The old economic unity of the Mediterranean was shattered, and so it remained until the epoch of the Crusades. It had resisted the Germanic invasions; but it gave way before the irresistible advance of Islam.

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