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7-08-2015, 20:33

Economic life in arabia

It is difficult to generalise on the notion of an Arabian ‘economy’, since the internal economic situation in the peninsula varied from place to place and depended on whether a community was settled or nomadic. As noted above, the south had a lively village economy based on terraced farming and irrigation; but even here, production was primarily limited to foodstuffs and use-value goods. South Arabian spices and incense were much soughtafter items for centuries, and undoubtedly fortunes were made from trade in them,57 but overland trade in such goods appears to have collapsed by the first or second century ad.58 In the rest of the peninsula the economy was far more rudimentary. The interior of the peninsula consists of various types of steppe lands where lack of water makes major cultivation unsustainable in most years. Reliable water supplies come from wells and oasis springs, and it was around these that Arabia’s towns developed. The date palm dominated agriculture in many places, and this and other crops were often cultivated in large walled gardens (h. aw¯a’i.t) scattered over whatever patches of arable land there were in or around a settlement. Goats and sheep were kept, and items produced for sale included hides and leather, wool, cloth, dairy products, raisins, dates, wine, and utensils and weapons of various kinds. Gold and silver were mined, but often figured as a replacement for currency rather than as an export item; perfume was produced, especially in Aden and Najran, but beyond the Arabian and Syrian markets it could not compete with the cheaper products of Byzantine centres such as Alexandria.59 Arabian traders in late antiquity were thus known to their neighbours – in Palestine, for example – as bearers not of costly luxury items, but rather of animals, wool, hides, oil and grains.60 Bedouins, on the other hand, were largely herders and pastoralists, though members of many tribes settled for varying periods of time and others engaged in opportunistic agriculture – for example by sowing on a fertile watered plot on their way somewhere else, and then reaping when they returned. Tenting groups travelled in recognised tribal territories, their schedules and movements (and willingness to encroach on the lands of other tribes) largely dictated by the needs of their animals. Those who lived along the desert fringes tended sheep and goats, as well as the singlehumped dromedary camel; groups venturing into the depths of the Arabian steppe lands did best with camels, but on occasion are known to have taken goats and sheep as well. For barter or sale, nomads could offer such animal products as hides, leather, wool and dairy products. The symbiosis between village-dwellers and nomads was important to the whole economic structure of Arabia. Leather, for example, was an extremely important product and was the plastic of its day; everything was made from it, from buckets to items of clothing, and agriculture could not have been maintained without huge supplies of leather for ropes, irrigation equipment, harness and so forth. Apart from often quite complex exchanges of goods and services, bedouins played a major role in economic development. There is evidence, for example, that parts of different tribes concluded share-cropping agreements and worked together to promote and protect agriculture.61 Certain villages also specialised in serving the needs of nomads, and oases and springs where herds could be watered attracted settlements that thrived on trade with the nomads. Relations were further dictated by the need of settled merchants to move their goods through lands controlled by nomads, and hence to remain on good terms with the tribes.62 Arabian domestic trade thus consisted of caravans of camels organised by settled merchants and protected and guided by bedouins who controlled the lands through which the caravans passed. Seasonal fairs were often held, especially around religious shrines, and security at such important times was guaranteed by the declaration of sacred periods during which no raiding or fighting was to occur.63 The goods being traded were for the most part not costly items, but rather the basic goods and commodities that people needed to live. This in turn limited the distance and duration that the caravans could travel, since the longer the journey, the more expensive the goods would be at their destination;64 that is, the longer the contemplated journey was in both distance and time, the more precious the goods being carried would have to be in order to generate sufficient income to make the journey economically feasible. The internal trade of Arabia thus seems to have involved the transport of goods on short or medium-length journeys, and it is probably this factor that accounts for the proliferation of market centres. The sources present a picture of lively markets dotting the steppe landscape of the peninsula; wells, springs and small villages were all attractive sites for established market activities, though the scale of such operations was probably small.65 In some cases, commerce was encouraged by banning private land ownership within the market precinct, thus preventing dominance by a few successful merchants, and suspending taxes and fees on traders and visitors.

 

 

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