B. Abbasid Ceramics:
Changes in International Trade


Baghdad was at the centre of a network of roads and rivers, but was also directly linked to trade in the Persian Gulf because small river craft, transporting the cargoes from ships docking at the large ports of Ubullah and Siraf, could reach the city along canals and rivers direct from the flourishing port of Basra; this helped the city to grow rapidly into a vast centre of population, wealth and luxury, which consequently stimulated traffic in the Persian Gulf. Arab writers suggest that al-Mansur was well aware of the economic advantages of his chosen site: these words are put into his mouth by al-Ya’qubi,

“[Baghdad] is an island between the Tigris and the Euphrates… and a waterfront for the world,”

and by al-Tabari,

“This is the Tigris. There is no obstacle between us and China. Everything on the sea can come to us from it.”


B.1. Trade in the pre-Abbasid period

The Sasanians had first established control of the Persian Gulf for the purposes of stimulating trade, and Ardashir I is credited with founding or refounding 11 cities including 8 ports in the Gulf, Mesopotamia and Khuzistan. At that time, ships from both the Persian Gulf and the Far East met at Ceylon which was the terminus for sailings and thus the entrepôt for trade: the early six-century Egyptian writer, Cosmas Indicopleustos, tells us that Ceylon had a church of Nestorian Christians; that ships came in from India, Persia and Ethiopia, and Ceylon sent out many of its own; and that ships came in from China, importing silks, aloes, cloves, sandlewood etc.

Though it does not refer to trade-based contacts, it is interesting to note here the Chinese account of the Battle of Atlakh, a clash between the Chinese and Muslims that occurred circa 751 in North Eastern Khurasan. The Chinese army was defeated, and the account specifically mentions that papermakers and potters were brought back to Merv, as prisoners of war. Eleven years later, one Tu-Huan – the author of the account – was released and returned to China, where he told of how he had taught to the Muslims the techniques of textile manufacture, gold-engraving, papermaking and pottery. Though this seems like rather an idealised account – the culturally sophisticated Chinese civilising the Muslim upstarts – it has interesting implications.

There is no evidence of any direct trade between the Persian Gulf and China except for references in Chinese documents which date from the fourth-twelfth centuries, mentioning an elusive people called the Po-sse and giving eye-witness accounts of ships, merchandise and immigrants in Chinese ports circa seventh- and eighth-centuries. These people have been identified with the Persians, and the Ta-shih – who sometimes appear alongside them – with the Arabs. Thus one document relates how in 758 “the Ta-shih and Po-sse together sacked and burned the city of Kwang-chou [Canton] and went back by sea”. This led to a prohibition of foreign merchants from this port until 792.

The whiteware-producing kilns in Henan province of China were damaged during the An Lu-shan rebellion in 756, and only recommenced production in late C8th. This coincided with the reopening of Canton for trade, and suggests that Northern Chinese export wares could have begun arriving in the Abbasid world by sea at the very end of C8th/beginning C9th. Al-Biruni cites the port of Yangzhou in Jiangsu province as the point of embarkation for Chinese wares to Middle East.

top of the page   top of the page


B.2. Trade Developments under the Abbasids

The sacking of Canton coincides with the rise of the Abbasid caliphate and the subsequent establishment of their power base and capital in the eastern Islamic empire. It is from this period that the Arab sources start to reflect more adventurous long-haul sailings from the Persian Gulf to China. For example, the mid-tenth-century sea captain Buzurg relates a collection of stories from the sea, including that of the notorious captain ‘Abharah who won a high reputation for sailing to China and back safely no less than 7 times. He seems to represent the first regular sailings along this route. Hourani calculated that it would have taken about a year and a half for the round trip, and it was the first time sailors used the technique of letting the monsoon winds carry them easily from zone to zone at different points of the year. Hourani believes it was the simultaneous existence of large empires at either end of the route that made the occurrence of sea-trade between the Persian Gulf and China possible – the T’ang dynasty flourished 618-907 and probably invested in sea-trade as much as the Abbasids seem to have done.

top of the page   top of the page


B.3. Sailing to China

Thus from the midC9th this trade route was firmly established, and books such as the Akhbar al-Sin wa al-Hind (circa 851) and Ibn Kurdadhbih’s Book of Roads and Provinces (846-885) were written. These allow us to reconstruct the route taken by the long-haul ships and bearing in mind the seasonality of the monsoon winds we can also calculate the length of time it would take, as Hourani has done. Ships would sail down the Persian Gulf from the main ports of Ubullah and Siraf in the summer and cross to Musqat or Sohar which were ports on the east coast of Oman; they would sail from here in September or October with the North East monsoon and cross the Indian Ocean to Kulam Mali in Malabar; this crossing took a month. Hourani suggests that ships would stop at each place for a few weeks of trading or repairs before moving on again, and so in November or December they would make for the next port of call at Kalah Bar in Indochina, which also took a month to reach; after that the ships headed for Sanf Fulaw at the Gates of China, another month’s voyage, and finally another month to reach Canton in the spring.

The traders would spend upto 6 months here, subject to the strict regulations of the Chinese Inspector of Maritime Trade who would seize their goods and guard them in a customs shed until all the sailors had come in. They would then take 3/10ths of every consignment and deliver the remainder back to the merchants. Hourani suggests that this was designed to ensure a free market for all. Then at the end of the summer, between October and December, the merchant would pay his export duties and freight taxes, and set off for home along the same route, trading along the way and returning home about a year and a half after setting out, having sailed a round trip of 16,000km.

Some ships would sail further up the Chinese coast from Canton, or on to the ports of South East Asia at Sumatra and Java. Ports in the Red Sea also sent ships along this route, and another destination for trading ships of this period was the coast of East Africa, as far south as Madagascar. There were also coasting routes that were favoured by shorter-haul trips as far as India and Ceylon. However, the route as described above seems from the literary accounts to represent the long and often hazardous voyage between the markets of the Persian Gulf and China, and shows why it was not attempted until the “gaining of confidence in long-haul sailing in the C9th” which Tampoe describes.

top of the page   top of the page


B.4. Changing Patterns of Trade

Though the risks of this journey were considerable, the rewards were high, and this resulted in the enormous wealth of sites like Siraf and Banbhore (on the North coast of India). These are situated in rather barren, waterless regions, yet the archaeological evidence shows they supported large and wealthy populations; they could not have done so without the rich economy generated by the booming trade in this region. It seems unlikely that there were regular reciprocal voyages by the Chinese as there is no reference to this or description of Chinese sailors at Gulf ports in the literature, and mentions in al-Mas’udi (writing 947), Baladhuri and Tabari of “sufun min al-Sin” or “al-sufun al-Siniyyah” are likely to be general references to ships bringing in goods from China, to be compared with the usage of phrases like “China clipper” or “East Indiaman” in the European colonial period.

Thus we have a change taking place in international trade in the early C9th which results in direct contact with the people, customs and products of the Far East. The change is likely to have been stimulated by the creation of new markets in Persia, which were themselves brought about by the presence of “rich consumers in Baghdad” (Whitehouse & Williamson). Investment in international shipping produced a greed for profit and the consequent new confidence and adventurism that caused merchants to venture further afield; this ultimately led them to the Gates of China and the Far East, where there had been some contact under the Sasanians, though irregular due to the hazards of the voyage. This new interraction was bound to have had a dramatic effect on all concerned, and as ceramics are one of the best and most abundantly preserved indicators of changes in taste and influence, we should look next to the ceramic assemblage of this period.

top of the page   top of the page


Back || Contents || Next