India Traders of the Middle Ages Letters from the Cairo Geniza

By Marian Scheuer Sofaer

Trade between India, the Middle East, and Europe was “the backbone of the international medieval economy in the Middle Ages;” writes Prof. Mordechai A. Friedman in the 2006 publication of India Traders of the Middle Ages: Documents from the Cairo Geniza, a research project begun by the eminent scholar Dr. S.D. Goitein and published after his death with additional text and commentary by Prof Friedman.

India Traders of the Middle Ages Geniza is a collection of late eleventh and early twelfth century letters, court documents and other writings which were written in medieval Judeo- Arabic in Arabic script and preserved in the Cairo Geniza

One famous letter from the Geniza was written to Moses Maimonides by his brother David, who was on his way to India and was later lost at sea.  Other letters report the arrival of shipments, losses through shipwreck or piracy, and personal and social news. Jewish merchants used the Geniza to deposit letters where the name of God was written, thus fulfilling a religious duty to dispose of them properly.

Most of the India trade correspondence in the Geniza dates from 1090 to 1160; Almohad violence brought an end to the shipping trade by non-Muslims by 1247.  Yet, until then, Jewish and Christian traders could send goods across the Indian Ocean to a variety of ports, and Prof. Friedman notes that scholars observe “an astonishing degree of interdenominational cooperation, matched by almost complete absence of animosity against other communities.” Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Christians appear in the documents as partners, united in the pursuit of commerce and in the hope of avoiding death and property loss at sea.

The Geniza letters in this volume by Goitein and Friedman give a taste of the India trade in the period before Portuguese control. Over a hundred commodities appear on lists of merchants’ exports from India. Among these, the most common were spices, especially pepper, stored in large sacks, perfumes, herbs and textiles. Gold and silver was sent to India by merchants to pay for the goods. Ships from Malabar carried back to the Middle East trading centers a variety of merchandise including red silks (called lalas from the Sanskrit word for red), cottons, festive clothing, aromatic woods, furniture, lac, spices like mace, cloves and cardamom, nuts, medicinal herbs and ointments, and copper and brass vessels.

Some ships were named for ports in India, like the Kulami, a ship that set sail from Aden to Kulam (later Quilon) on the Malabar Coast, but was shipwrecked off the coast of Aden. A letter deposited in the Geniza tells the story of what passengers on a sister ship heard and observed, including the cries of the doomed sailors, the wreckage, the sharks, and the lack of survivors, recounted in a request to release a young widow so that she could remarry.

It is easy to imagine the anxiety of family members hearing of difficult sea voyages.  One man wrote his brother that their mother was in such a state that “no food or drink entered her mouth until your esteemed letter arrived.” Biblical blessings were offered: “When you pass through water, I will be with you” (Isa 43:2).

The joy of knowing that a family member survived an attack by pirates tempered the loss felt from losing merchandise in the raid, as Joseph Yiju wrote in a letter to his son Moses, who was taken captive by pirates but later released while traveling east from Sicily:

“Do not think, my son, that I was grieved by what was lost….and how happy I was that you were saved.  For us, my son Moses, your being saved is the whole of this world.”   

Another twelfth century letter in the book expressed the same sentiment this way: “Everything can be replaced except life.”

The original texts of the letters together with Hebrew translations were published by the Ben-Zvi Institute and the Rabbi David Moshe and Amalia Rosen Foundation in 2009-2010.


back to Trade with Kerala