skip to content

Cambridge University Library

Q&A Wednesday: Flax, tax and trade hacks, with Lorenzo Bondioli

T-S 10J12.26
T-S 10J12.26 (recto)
Melonie Schmierer-Lee and Lorenzo Bondioli
Wed 3 Nov 2021

Lorenzo, what are you working on at the moment?

I’ve been spending some time on T-S 10J12.26, a business letter from the prominent Genizah merchant Nahray b. Nissim, writing from Fusṭāṭ to his associate Barhūn b. Mūsā ’l-Tāhartī, who was out in the Egyptian hinterland (specifically in the town of Būṣīr). This document has been edited and discussed by Genizah scholars, starting from Goitein himself, but I still could not quite wrap my mind around it. What is so interesting about it is that it describes a counterintuitive procedure by which Nahray was able to procure a shipment of flax – a commodity that was the bloodline of his business. In the letter Nahray tells Barhūn that he has paid a large amount of money to a state bureau in the capital; he adds that the cashier noted the payment in his register and gave him receipts, which however – and here comes the counterintuitive bit – are not for him, but for “the peasants of Dandīr,” a flax-growing village.

Let’s put a pin in the tax payments and receipts for a moment. What was flax used for and why would Nahray have wanted to be involved in this enterprise?

Flax was probably the main cash crop in Egypt in our period. It is the fibre from which linen is spun. Genizah scholars had noted early on how prominent it was in eleventh-century Genizah materials, but it is really Jessica Goldberg who gave us a full picture of its centrality to the “Genizah business model” of the period. Beyond the Genizah, the boom of flax cultivation and of linen production tells us something about the economic dynamism of the Egyptian economy of the time. Richard Bulliet has postulated a cotton boom on the Iranian plateau around the same period, and this is also the time when many new cash crops were being introduced across the Islamic world, as Andrew Watson argued a long time ago. So, I think that Egyptian flax and linen are just one chapter in the longer story of a commercial revolution traversing the Islamic lands, a revolution predating similar developments in Western Europe, and one in which textiles played a key role, as they later did in the industrial revolution.

Back to Nahray – what is he doing here? Why is he paying money and then collecting receipts on behalf of peasants?

My sense is that Nahray is paying taxes on behalf of the peasants. This explains why while he is the one paying, the receipts are meant for the peasants, to keep as proof in case the tax collector comes knocking. Nahray wants flax from the peasants, the state wants taxes; so, the state accepts a payment from Nahray, a payment that entitled him to get the commodities he wanted. Of course, Nahray had other ways of getting flax, but working together with state officials could mean scaling up one’s operations: here, he is paying 500 dīnārs, a very considerable sum, and surely getting a lot of flax for it. The reason why this matters is that we are dealing with the sort of active cooperation between state and merchants that historiography traditionally regarded as a uniquely European phenomenon. And yet here we have a case in which we see a Genizah merchant interfacing directly with state authorities, with both parties benefitting – a common scenario that Goitein tended to downplay.

There are a lot of documents relating to Nahray in the Genizah. Is this sort of transaction mentioned in any others, or is this a rare find?

It is a comparatively rare find: there is at least another one that I think mirrors the same type of operation, only this time for wheat. But it is here that non-Genizah sources come to the rescue.

Can you tell us about some of the non-Genizah sources that supplement our understanding of economic relationships like this?

Yes. For instance, there is a document edited by Christian Gaubert and Jean-Michel Mouton that I believe describes this same transaction – except this time from the viewpoint of the flax grower. It is dated 1023 CE and it comes from the archive of a Christian farmer, a certain Jirja b. Bifām. Crucially, it comes from the Egyptian countryside, not from the capital, so while the Genizah gives us the view from the metropole, documents such as this give us the perspective of the rural hinterland. Once combined, these two sets of evidence give you access to the whole picture in a way the Genizah alone cannot.

How was this document preserved?

This document is from a cache that came to light in 1997. The monks of the monastery of Dayr al-Malāk Jibrīl (former Naqlūn), while building a new wall in 1997, found the jar in which Jirja had preserved a number of documents. These are what you might call ‘Egyptian papyri,’ except of course by this time paper had replaced papyrus. So, in this case we know the exact provenance, but it is often the case that Egyptian ‘papyri’ were bought on the antiquities market, more or less legally, and we don’t always know where they come from, and with which other documents they belonged. Nonetheless, there is much that we can learn from these documents. It is again Goldberg who stressed the fact that a key element of the Genizah business model was direct procurement of flax from the countryside, but the Genizah does not tell us that much about life out there – while these documents do.

Is your work on these documents part of a particular project?

I used them in my doctoral dissertation, which I am now starting to revise for publication. But I am also starting to think about where to go next. My sense is that the unique documentation of Egypt, both Genizah and other, allows us to reconstruct a model for the political economy of post-Abbasid societies at large. So, while Egypt is uniquely well documented, I am not persuaded that its political economy was unique. But I need to look more closely at neighbouring regions to test this hypothesis.

What is it about Fatimid Egypt that has made it such a fertile ground for trade research?

It is really the unique source base. As I said, between the Genizah and the documents from the countryside, we really have a chance of reconstructing a full picture of the political economy. If you factor in archaeology, as Chris Wickham is starting to do, then we can draw a pretty granular picture. Elsewhere in the post-Abbasid world you have to fill in more gaps, but I think that is possible too. Researchers such as Richard Bulliet, and more recently Fanny Bessard, demonstrate it.

How hands-on were Fatimid bureaucrats in managing their economy? Did they try to influence things one way or another by adopting different policies?

I would say they were far less hands-off than Goitein thought – and this is a point that Marina Rustow’s recent work makes. Goitein consistently downplayed the role of the state in the Egyptian economy, but he had his reasons. The prevailing wisdom had the medieval Egyptian state functioning as some sort of Soviet-like planning authority, and that was definitely not the case. The reality may be found in between: we are dealing with a very sophisticated bureaucratic state, but not an omnipotent leviathan. My sense is that Fatimid bureaucrats understood more about the economy than they’re usually given credit for. ‘Policy’ might be a strong word, but they knew that decisions at the top had repercussions on the ground. Take, for instance, the later Mamluk polymath al-Maqrīzī, who was a relentless pamphleteer. He was very opinionated about what the state should or should not do, for instance in terms of monetary policy. He was also a connoisseur of all things Fatimid, possibly because he thought himself a direct descendant of the founders of Cairo. To my good fortune, in one of his works he discusses exactly the transaction I have talked about, which he must have found mentioned in a Fatimid chronicle: he says that merchants went to state bureaus, put down money as tax advances for peasants, and come harvest time went out to collect the crops – which, incidentally, they got under-price as part of the deal. He adds that this ‘policy,’ if you will, enriched merchants but immiserated cultivators – a judgement that he probably found in the Fatimid sources that he was quarrying. Were we not dealing with Egypt, it would be hard to verify the veracity of this story – especially coming from an author writing three centuries after the fact – but with Genizah letters and rural documents at hand, we can say that this is actually how things worked. We can therefore generalize more confidently, even if we only have a handful documents to go on. The bottom line is that we have only started to scratch the surface of medieval Islamic economic history – so much remains to be done!

Thanks for your time, Lorenzo!

Lorenzo Bondioli will be speaking about his research at a public webinar ‘Money, Merchants, and the State in Fatimid Egypt’ on Thursday, 4 November, 2021, at 17:30 GMT. Register for the webinar here.

Lorenzo Bondioli is a Junior Research Fellow at Peterhouse College, Cambridge.


The chronicles of the Fatimid empire write very little on the great famine that lasted for almost a decade in the tenure of Al-Mustansir Billah. Sources of this period are largely nonexistent for an event that lasted this long, I was wondering if there are documents in the Geniza which can help us reconstruct this unknown period of time. Also, I wonder what the people back then referred to this period of time? Many historians label this period as Al-Shiddah al-Uzma while the majority of them term this as al-Shiddah al-Mustansiri, is it appropriate to associate it with the caliph? Also I was wondering why the flax crop was grown so extensively during the famine while food crops were the necessity. Do the documents in the Geniza address these issues?

There are a few documents that have been related to those years; I can think of at least two, T-S 13J14.2 and CUL Or.1080 J71 - the first, translated by A. L. Udovitch in "A Tale of Two Cities," describes the anxiety of people as the Nile waters failed to rise. But no references to something as tremendous as to deserve the sobriquet of al-shidda al-ʿuẓmā. C. Wickham has recently argued that it might not have been as "calamitous" a time as described in later sources, and I am inclined to agree - but I would recommend A. Elbendary's "The Worst of Time" if you want to find out more! At least one historian has connected the expansion of flax cultivation to the seriousness of the famine, but that strikes me as a exaggeration: the documents show that wheat remained by far the most common crop. What really created problems was the full commercialization of the wheat trade (the narrative sources have Fatimid rulers repeatedly chastening merchants for hoarding wheat stocks in times of scarcity). Incidentally, it is precisely one of these moments of ecological strain that showed the dangers of the system of tax advances by merchants!

Add new comment



Share this post