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The Pashas: traders and travellers in the Islamic World by James Mather
Published by Yale University Press, isbn 978-0-300-12639-6
Review published in The Independent, January 2010

Last year I wandered into the Khan al-Gumruck, a 16th-century courtyard still used by the textile merchants of Aleppo. I had been before (earnestly clutching my copy of Ross Burn’s Monuments of Syria) but this visit was touched by casual magic. For I happened upon a blind boy, who was working his way around some of the three hundred stalls chanting melodious verses of the Koran. I noticed that he was welcomed without ostentation, given a chair here, a cup of tea there, or a wrapped parcel of food at another shop, whilst porters swayed around him, vans reversed and vast rolls of thick embroidered material were cut, measured and seal-wrapped in plastic. A small mosque in the centre of the courtyard, helped add to the animated confusion. After finishing my coffee in a local café, just off from the Khan’s arcaded gateway, I made a mental note never to come back here, lest I destroy the exquisite memories of the morning. I was wrong, for since then I have the good fortune to read James Mather’s The Pashas, and now long to return.

James Mather has written an impressively researched and imposing book, complete with preface, prologue, epilogue and thirty-three pages of textual notes, which firmly places his work within the academic dialogue that ebbs and sways by Edward Said’s Orientalism. From his opening scene, of General Allenby marching into Jerusalem in 1917, Mather seems to accept the broad thrust of Said’s argument - which is that Orientalist travellers and scholars acted as a fifth column preparing the ground for colonial conquest. However it quickly becomes clear that the animating purpose of The Pashas is to not to reinforce, but to qualify Said’s thesis, not only restricting it by date, but by examining in detail an uniquely constructive period of British Orientalism. For the subject matter of the Pashas, is not the familiar cast of stern British characters that we usually connect with such a title (that litany of viceroys, seconded-generals, consuls and governor-generals who controlled Egypt and the Gulf for the British Empire over the late 19th and early 20th centuries) but with a nearly forgotten group of 16th and 17th-century merchant-venturers assembled together under the seal of the Levant Company.

James Mather shows as how the Pasha’s of the Levant Company were the polar opposites of the arrogant colonial official. They built no forts, commanded no garrisons, but were instead expected to quickly adapt to the traditions of their host society, to learn its many languages, to assume native dress and to make themselves familiar with local laws and attitudes. To succeed as merchants they had to learn to bargain in the covered souks and caravanserais and to befriend the camel-drivers, muleteers, pilgrims and janissary guards who would allow them to better understand the shifting patterns of internal trade. Why this year, for instance, the price of Persian silks might sore (because of expected trouble on the Kurdish Eastern frontier), but spices (coming by sea to Basra) would be thought to hold level. It was also a very small society, usually no more than two hundred men, based in the three great trading cities of Constantinople (modern Istanbul), Smyrna (modern Izmir) and especially Aleppo.

In this great Syrian city, all the ‘frank’ merchants were lodged within the secure walls of the Khan al-Gumruck. Dutch, French and English all companionably muddled together, with the lower floor of this urban caravanserai reserved for the booths of the merchants whilst the upper floor was set aside as rooms, which was not so different from the arrangement back home, either in the London Exchange, the Inns of Court or an Oxbridge college. In these textile-draped rooms, music and scholarship flourished beside the trade. Enduring friendships were forged with Syrian scholars and Ottoman officials, who shared a common delight in coursing and lavish summer picnics hosted under canvas in the countryside.

The traders were placed under the authority of the Ambassador and the resident consuls, with their faith watched-over by three resident chaplains, but in a canny deal (first cut by Queen Elizabeth I) the salaries of all these officials were laid at the charge of the Levant Company. In exchange the Levant Company had a monopoly on the “turkey trade’ which was based on buying up such staple goods as currants and Persian silk and shipping them safely back to London. There was much patriotic talk of exporting English broad-clothe to the Levant, but in reality the trade was also underwritten by breaking the arms embargo of Christendom with the Turks, and shipping out tin, brass, steel ‘for their ordnance’. The Ottoman diplomats for their part were keen to strengthen England (an enemy of their enemy, Hapsburg Spain and Austria), and also weaken the rival Venetian Empire by diverting the Levant trade into new hands. A living could be earned by the factors of the Levant Company by acquiring trade goods in the souks of Aleppo and Smyrna, and dutifully forwarding them onto merchantmen set for London.

However the vast fortunes earned by such traders as Dudley North came from a quite different source; by acting as private bankers (some might say loan sharks) to Muslims forbidden by their religion from the evils of gambling and usury.

From such unlikely sources came all of England’s most distinguished Orientalists, be they Pococke (Oxfords prolific first Professor of Arabic), the historian of the Ottoman Empire (Paul Rycault) or mere travel writers such as Blount, Montagu and Maundrell, not to mention the Bodleians great collection of Arabic manuscripts. But as well as chronicling these worthy achievements, some of the most endearing passages of james Mather’s Pashas are the testaments of enduring friendships, such as the blessing sent by a Syrian sheikh to Professor Pococke from his deathbed, “that you were a right honest man, and that he did not doubt to meet you in Paradise, under the banner of Our Lord Jesus Christ”. Or how the plutocrat Dudley North, dropped everything when visited by two old Dervish friends in his office in the Royal Exchange, taking them out to dinner with his brother, smoking opium and drinking wine with them late into the night, and then translated their mystical songs into English for the benefit of the other guests.

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