Born on the Golden Horn and raised in the Sultan’s palace in Istanbul, Çelebi traveled throughout Ottoman domains between 1640 and 1680. He published an account of his travels and experiences as the Seyahatname, or Book of Travels. In the first of his ten books in the document, Çelebi provides a lengthy description of Istanbul around the year 1638, including a panoramic view of 1,100 artisan and craft guilds. The numbers and diversity of trades represented underscore the extent of Ottoman commerce—as well as the pride of place each of the city’s working people claimed as their due.
Robert Dankoff, An Ottoman Mentality: The World of Evliya Çelebi, 2nd ed. (Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2006), 86–89.
The Papyrus Lansing is a letter of instruction from the royal scribe (and “chief overseer of the cattle of Amun-Re, King of Gods”) Nebmare-nakht to his apprentice Wenemdiamun. It seems to date from the reign of the pharaoh Senusret III (Sesostris III). The letter conveys a great deal of practical advice to an up-and-coming scribe—as well as warnings about what temptations he must avoid to be successful. While Nebmare-nakht is clearly proud of the status his work has earned him, he also illuminates the specific duties and responsibilities of a royal official in this period.
Translated by A. M. Blackman and T. E. Peet, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 11 (1925): 284–298, as quoted by Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. 2, 171–172.
Ibn Wahab was an Arab merchant from Basra (Iraq) who sailed to China via the Indian Ocean around 872 CE. His travel account includes a description of his interview with the Chinese emperor. Wahab's visit at the height of the T'ang dynasty (618-907 CE), with its flourishing trade and efficient civil service, provides a first-hand account of China when its influence extended throughout all of Eurasia.
Fitzgerald, C.P. China: A Short Cultural History (London: Cresse Press, 1930), pp. 339-340.
This remarkable account of a merchant’s travels throughout Eastern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and India resulted from the singular obsession of a monk in retirement. Determined to prove that a proper understanding of earth’s geography would confirm God’s creation—and that the earth was a flat, oblong table surrounded by the ocean—the monk Cosmas reflected back on his extensive voyages, which had probably been undertaken to further a spice-import business. Cosmas commented on the trading practices of the Aksumites and on their wealthy culture, providing one of the few outsider glimpses of Aksum that are now available.
Cosmas Indicopleustes, Christianike Topographia, Book 3, trans. and ed. Christopher Haas, Villanova University; available online: http://www29.homepage.villanova.edu/christopher.haas/cosmas_indicopleustes.htm<
Agatharcides of Cnidus
The societies and trade networks that flourished along the Red Sea (or “Erythraean Sea” as the Greeks called it) in antiquity were well documented by writers of many different cultures. Gold was one of the most sought after trade items. In the second century BCE, a Greek historian named Agatharchides of Cnidus vividly described the dangerous circumstances under which gold was mined in Nubia.
Agatharchides of Cnidus, “The Gold Mines of Lower Nubia,” from Ancient African Civilizations: Kush and Axum, Stanley Burstein, ed. (New Jersey: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1997); pp. 49-52.
With the possible exception of the Qur’an itself, no other work of Arab–Muslim culture is as widely known in the west as is the Arabian Nights. The story presented here, “The Story of Ali Cogia, a Merchant of Bagdad,” is included to represent the culture of the Arab Muslim world before 1000 CE. This era is one of the golden ages of the Arab Islamic zone, a time when a sophisticated, vibrant, and cohesive culture permeated much of the Muslim world, the dar al-Islam. Within a hundred years of the death of Muhammad in 632 CE, the region from Persia across North Africa to Spain was under the control of Muslim rulers. Most of the former Persian and Byzantine empires were Islamic in faith and governance, and Islamic thinkers absorbed the Persian and Greek intellectual and cultural legacies. Its dynamic economy included some of the richest and most productive portions of the Persian and Mediterranean worlds, and the Islamic world enjoyed high levels of both urbanization and literacy. The region was far in advance of Western Europe. Caliph Harun al-Rashid, who figures prominently in many of the stories in the Arabian Nights and who is famous for a magnificent and enlightened reign in the late 700s and early 800s, is emblematic of the brilliant, culturally synthetic intellectual life of medieval Islam.
The history of the text of the Arabian Nights is a long, complex story in itself. By 1000 CE a version of the Arabian Nights existed, though we do not know what its exact contents were. The current version consists of stories that were versions of older, pre-Islamic tales and some that were added after the year 1000 and even from other collections. As a result, it has been called a “book without authors,” and we cannot assert with any certainty either the individual author or in many cases even the origin of many stories in the Arabian Nights.
Arabian Nights’ Entertainment, ed. Robert L. Mack. Oxford University Press (1995): 787–96. Copyright © 1995 Oxford University Press, Inc.