Nelly Hanna

American University in Cairo

Court Records of Cairo as a Source for the Activity of European Merchants in Seventeenth-Century Egypt

The three court cases presented here (docs 4 to 6) are taken from the court records of Cairo and date roughly from the early decades of the seventeenth century. This is a period of important changes in commercial patterns worldwide. Empires were being formed and expanding. The Ottoman Empire had, in the course of the sixteenth century, conquered most of the Arab lands. The Safavid Empire was established in Persia. The French, English and Dutch European empires were spreading their control in America and Asia. With this came an expansion in trade and a high level of competition between the different players. It was at times armed competition, as for instance between the Ottomans and the Portuguese who on many occasions raided Red Sea ports, or the pirates active in the Mediterranean ports, ready to loot ships carrying merchandise.

The competition was also evident among the merchants passing through or residing permanently in important commercial towns. For centuries, Egypt maintained an important place in the trade between East and West, long after the discovery of the Cape of Good Hope. As Hermann Kellenbenz shows, in 1600 the Fuggers of Ausburg, one of the richest merchant families in Europe, were purchasing pepper from Alexandria.Hermann Kellenbenz, ‘Autour de 1600: le commerce du poivre des Fugger et le marché international du poivre,’ Annales. Economies, sociétés, civilisations 11, no. 1 (1956): 1–28. The pepper and other spices from the East, and later the coffee bought in Egypt, were diffused to many destinations. 

During the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Venetians were the principal actors in the spice trade. Many court cases attest to the volume of their activity.Some examples in the court registers of Cairo: Bab Ali register 28, case 264 dated 975/1567 p. 84; Bab Ali register 37 case 292 dated 983/1575 p. 77. Their relationship with the authorities was regulated by treatises, at first with the Mamluk sultans (1250–1517) and subsequently, as many of the regions they dealt with fell under Ottoman rule, with the Ottoman sultans. By signing such treatises they obtained privileges that protected their trade and their merchants. Venice had about 20 such treatises with Mamluk sultans. John Wansbrough, ‘A Mamluk Ambassador to Venice in 913/1507,’ Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 26, no. 3 (1963): 503–30. See also Frédéric Bauden and Malika Dekkiche (eds), Mamluk Cairo, A Crossroads for Embassies: Studies on Diplomacy and Diplomatics (Leiden: Brill, 2019). Maria Pia Pedani, ‘The Mamluk Documents of the Venetian State Archives: Historical Survey,’ Quaderni di Studi Arabi 20–21 (2002–03): 133–46.

In fact, it was able to obtain special privileges that merchants from other places often aspired to. Immediately after the Ottomans conquered Egypt and Syria in 1516–17, the Venetians made another treaty with the new Ottoman rulers. By the early seventeenth century, more competitors were appearing on the commercial scene and slowly ousting the Venetians from their dominant position in East-West trade, with other nations, especially the French, gradually gaining a larger portion. 

In addition to these treatises undertaken at a state level between the Venetian authorities and the Ottoman Sultan, there were also some documents written by locally based Venetian consuls or merchants located in Egypt, which Alessio Sopracasa calls ‘tariff deeds.’ These elaborate procedures and formalities of the Mamluk system were put in writing in order to help merchants undertake their trade.Alessio Sopracasa, ‘Venetian Merchants and Alexandrian Officials (End of the Fifteenth–Beginning of the Sixteenth Century),’ MSR 19 (2016): 91–100. Francisco Apellániz, ‘Venetian Trading Networks in the Medieval Mediterranean,’ Journal of Interdisciplinary History 44, no. 2 (Autumn 2013): 157–79 deals with lower-ranking traders in Alexandria in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

In other words, at the top level of this hierarchy of trade were the treatises between official authorities. Then there were the local deeds or the ‘tariff deeds’ elaborated locally by Venetian merchants. Court records, which contain the daily dealings that took place under the supervision of a judge (qadi), contain much information on the commercial dealings of the merchant community, both that of local merchants, and to a lesser extent that of European merchants: to a lesser extent because many of them undertook their dealings either in an informal fashion or within the confines of their consuls. Many of these consular deals are either lost or are scattered in various European archives.

As far as the court archives in Cairo or in other commercial towns and cities of the Ottoman Empire are concerned, these remain a major source of information regarding merchants and trade. The litigations merchants had among themselves or with others can tell us a lot about the way that business was carried on, who the business partners were that they dealt with, and the kind and volume of their merchandise. Their partnerships, their debts and the merchandise they dealt with were often recorded in the presence of a qadi so the court records provide a lot of information on trade.Nelly Hanna, Making Big Money in 1600, the Life and Times of Ismail Abu Taqiyya, Egyptian Merchant (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998).

The court cases presented here show another dimension, which goes beyond these formal or official arrangements to deal with some aspects of the lives of these merchants, some of them permanent residents in Cairo, familiar with the social set-up, possibly familiar with the language, in the course of their daily lives, dealing with those around them. Some of the court cases refer to business dealings (doc. 4); others refer to more private matters (see doc. 6). Together they shed light on various aspects of the daily lives of some of the European merchants in Cairo; the persons that they dealt with, their relationships with other merchants or their consuls and so on. 

One can point to some of the salient points in these three cases. First is the fact that although European merchants had their own institutions that they resorted to, namely their consuls, here we are dealing with persons who had to, or chose to, take their cases to a Muslim qadi, in which case the law applied was Islamic law, according to the school of law of the qadi in question. 

Another relevant point in these cases is the strong presence of Venetians in the sixteenth and early part of the seventeenth century. It was frequently stated that after the fifteenth century, their role in eastern trade was disappearing.Benjamin Arbel, ‘The Last Decades of Venice’s Trade with the Mamluks: Importations into Egypt and Syria,’ Mamluk Studies Review 8, no. 2 (2004): 37–86. In reality, the court cases show that in the sixteenth century, the presence of Venetian merchants was strong, and their activities were varied. They evidently maintained good relationships with the Ottoman authorities, as can be seen by the fact that, whereas their consuls had been operating from Alexandria in 1552, the Ottoman Pasha allowed them to open a new consulate in Cairo, thus giving them wider opportunities to deal with their trading partners. 

This is understandable in view of the fact that in the sixteenth century their competitors had not yet formulated strong ties with the Ottoman rulers, nor had the trading companies been formed as yet. It was only in the early seventeenth century that French merchants appeared as major competitors to the Venetians. Other merchants, Flemish as in the case presented here and Portuguese merchants in some cases, emerge as competitors but are unable to replace the Venetians, who were involved in the most important and most lucrative commercial activities of the time, namely the spice trade. They were also involved in trading numerous other goods. These often consisted of highly luxurious commodities like the carpets made in Cairo, called ‘mamluk carpets,’ which they shipped to Venice and from there to other destinations.Giovanni Curatola, ‘A Sixteenth-Century Quarrel about Carpets,’ Muqarnas 21 (2004): 129–37.

A further relevant point is the presence of consuls in court. Their role was varied, and they could perform multiple acts for the merchants of their community. In one of the cases, the consul had guaranteed the loan of a merchant and when the loan was unpaid, he had to answer to the court (doc. 4). In the second case, the consul was representing a merchant in a divorce case. We note in this case (doc. 6) the fact that the two partners, husband and wife, were non-Muslim. There was no apparent obligation for this case to be taken to a Muslim qadi. It was a matter of choice, possibly because by virtue of taking their case to the qadi, Islamic divorce law was applied and consequently divorcing was easier. 

The intermarriage of European merchants with Cairenes brings up another point. European merchants might be passing through the city on an occasional or transitory basis; some merchants resided there for extended periods, possibly years, to keep their business going. Their relationship with their social surroundings would be formed accordingly. The ones who married local wives were probably long-term residents; possibly some of them spoke the language. In other words, they had a level of familiarity with local conditions and could make alliances and relationships of various kinds with members of the community. Particularly relevant to the present project is case no. 2 dated 1023/1614 because it deals with a case of litigation about the sale of Venetian paper (doc. 5). The case involves the Venetian consul who was also the seller of this paper to two Jewish individuals and the head of the guild of paper sellers. It also involves two economic modes: that of the guild, as expressed by the head of the guild, which aimed to protect its members and therefore opted for a fair division of raw material to the paper sellers; and that of the two Jewish traders who purchased the paper from the Venetian merchant, who opted for a free market sale. The qadi was expected to make a difficult decision since both sides had valid reasons to support their case. He opted for the free market. This case also shows the variety of activities that Venetian merchants were involved in.

These cases and the many others in the Cairo court records of this period shed light on the daily life and dealings of European traders and merchants and the economic climate that pervaded Cairo during the period in question.