Trouble with a Dead Mule

Lawrence Rosen

  • Pashas: Traders and Travellers in the Islamic World by James Mather
    Yale, 302 pp, £25.00, October 2009, ISBN 978 0 300 12639 6

Somehow, the traders seem to get there first. Before the armies, before the missionaries or travellers or bureaucrats or busybodies, they arrive, in search of furs and spices, rare textiles and strange foods. To prehistoric groups whose burial sites contain items brought from a continent away, or woodsmen in pursuit of goods lying just beyond the frontier, the trader brought many other things: stories of the exotic, knowledge of the unknown, foreign songs and dress, religion, disease, inventions and slaves. As a kind of confraternity that straddles the ages and the globe, such merchants can be castigated as greedy or lionised as adventurers. By virtue of their cross-pollination of cultures they were commended by one early Muslim writer as ‘the couriers of the horizons, and God’s trusted servants on earth’.

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