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Indus Valley: Early Commercial Connections with Central and Western Asia  

Dennys Frenez

The study of commercial and cultural connections between the Greater Indus Valley and other regions of Central and Western Asia occupies a central role in the scholarly research about the Indus Tradition. Interregional trade was already established in the Indus River basin during the Neolithic period in the 6th millennium bce. However, from the early 3rd millennium bce, the Indus (Harappan) merchants and craftspeople contributed to defining, promoting, and regulating long-distance, cross-cultural trade exchanges throughout this entire region. Indus-type and Indus-related artifacts were found over a large and differentiated ecumene, encompassing Central Asia, the Iranian Plateau, Mesopotamia and the northern Levant, the Persian Gulf, and the Oman Peninsula. The discovery of Indus trade tools (seals, weights, and containers) across the entire Middle Asia, complemented by information from Mesopotamian cuneiform texts, shows that entrepreneurs from the Indus Valley regularly ventured into these regions to transact with the local socioeconomic and political entities. However, Indus artifacts were also exchanged beyond this core region, eventually reaching as far the Nile River valley, Anatolia, and the Caucasus. On the contrary, only a handful of exotic trade tools and commodities have been found at sites in the Greater Indus Valley. The success of Indus trade in Central and Western Asia did not only rely on the dynamic entrepreneurialism of Indus merchants and the exotic commodities they offered. Specific products were proactively designed and manufactured in the Indus Valley to fulfill the particular needs of foreign markets, and Indus craftspeople moved beyond their native cultural sphere adapting their distinctive productions to the taste of foreign elites or reworking indigenous models. The adoption of specific seals and iconographies to regulate external trade activities suggests a conscious attempt at implementing a coordinated supraregional marketing strategy adopting shared rules and procedures, with observable globalizing impacts in various contexts of Central and Western Asia.

Article

Capitalism, Growth, and Social Relations in the Middle East: 1869–1945  

Kaleb Herman Adney and Michael O'Sullivan

This contribution has three goals: one empirical, another historiographical, and still another methodological. The first is to provide a brief empirical survey of commercial developments across the modern Middle East in the period in question, with passing reference to their temporal and spatial parameters. The second is to reflect on historiographical trends and suggest avenues for further research related to these themes. The third is to stress the potential synchronicity between social history and macroeconomic frameworks in the study of commerce, time, and space in the Middle East. Both approaches tend to talk past each other, yet when integrated, they have the potential to breathe new life into scholarship on the political economy of the Middle East and, more broadly, the global South as a whole. More specifically, the present approach advocated here serves the purpose of revising dependency-theory narratives that present the 19th- and early 20th-century Middle East as irreversibly subordinated to a single world economy as a supplier of raw materials. Yet a more variegated picture emerges when the region is broken up into smaller geographic units, the temporal scale is compressed, and endogenous institutions are analyzed in tandem with global trends. Above all, when social relations are foregrounded as the touchstone of analysis, then a textured, context-specific narrative begins to emerge that both complements and unsettles the accepted wisdom of economic powerlessness. Furthermore, a diachronic account of economic transformation relates that commercial institutions, fiscal policies and capacity, and political reforms in the region frequently modulated and frustrated the logics of economic dependency. A diachronic account likewise draws attention to the demonstrable continuities in Ottoman and Qajar finance, trade, and labor practices from earlier centuries. Some of these continuities persisted into the interwar period. If market dynamics and the social relations inherent within a capitalist global economy are often framed as an imposition by Europe on the Middle East, when local and regional instantiations of capitalist processes are taken seriously, then the caricatures of an earlier historiography begin to give way. This article strikes a middle ground between narratives of subordination and dynamism, contending that the constraints upon economic growth in the Middle East need to be carefully considered, without losing sight of the social realities on the ground that shaped the Middle East’s integration into the global economy and the international state system.

Article

Turkey: A Historical Overview  

Gavin Brockett

That history reflects the moment in which it is written is no more apparent than in the case of Turkey. To write the history of Turkey at a time when the Middle East is roiling in the complex set of expectations and events associated with the Arab uprisings is to attempt to explain a country profoundly impacted by regional turmoil yet also engulfed in its own strife, the outcomes of which are far from clear. At first, Turkey appeared to escape the tumult that began in 2011, and its prime minister—now president—Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—even trumpeted Turkey as the paragon of political stability among countries seeking to integrate a Muslim population and democratic political order. However, in 2013 the alliance of forces that had brought about Erdoğan’s decade-long dominance and apparent Turkish economic prosperity began to unravel. The government became enmeshed not only in its own internal struggle, but also in an intensifying civil war with Kurdish groups in the southeast and in the catastrophic war in Syria. Then, on July 15, 2016, the country—and the world—was startled by a failed, but nonetheless violent, military coup. Shocked by such drastic action, Turks across the country flocked to Erdoğan’s defense. Then, once he had secured his position as president, he declared a state of emergency and embarked on a countrywide purge, arresting and/or firing from public employment tens of thousands of suspected opponents, not the least of whom were academics, some of whom had publicly challenged his growing authoritarianism and erratic rule. Erdoğan is accused by his critics variously of either attempting to establish his own revived Ottoman “sultanate” or seeking to replicate the power and prestige once claimed by Turkey’s founding president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. He is president of a Turkey undergoing only the latest in successive waves of dramatic change and transformation that have been ongoing for more than a century. Formally established in 1923, Turkey’s history is that of a country whose ties with its immediate past are debated and defined according to competing ideologies and agendas of the moment. Turkey came into a paradoxical world, one defined according to the ideal of independent nation-states, while in fact the pressure to integrate and conform to transnational systems leading to increasing interdependence, lately as a result of globalization, has been enormous. While capitalist economics and democratic, representative politics indeed emerged dominant in the world in the late 20th century, their force no longer seems unassailable or certain. For almost a century, Turkey has had a conflicted relationship with the countries of “the West” that tirelessly promoted this system. Now that the authenticity of this system itself faces increasingly intense scrutiny in Europe and North America, Turkey seeks to redefine itself politically and to assert its role both regionally and globally, even as it deals with deepening crises at home.

Article

Power, Capital, and Classes in the Middle East since 1945  

Ahmad Shokr

The history of postwar development in the Middle East began with a commitment by states to achieving national economic growth, industrialization, and the provision of social welfare. After some early experiments, state-led development began to gather pace across the region in the mid-1950s. Although conservative and revolutionary states stood on opposing sides of the Cold War, many of them pursued remarkably similar paths of agrarian reform, industrial development, and state bureaucratization. By the 1970s, republics facing political and economic pressures began to abandon their “socialist experiments,” while the oil revolution empowered Gulf states on the regional stage, hastened the adoption of neoliberal policies, and helped transform the global financial system. Since the late 1980s, war, debt and austerity, and the expansion of Gulf capital and influence again transformed the Middle East by exacerbating regional conflicts, reshaping local economies, and fostering new forms of social, economic, and geographic inequality.

Article

Ottoman Commercial History  

Kate Fleet

The Ottoman empire, which at its height stretched around the Mediterranean from Albania to Morocco, from Egypt in the south to Crimea in the north, and from Iran in the east to Hungary in the west, represented an enormous trading bloc. Its internal trade, which was always much greater than its external trade, consisted largely of agricultural products with some manufactures, in particular textiles, which were traded both locally and to distant parts of the empire. External trade was dominated by agricultural products, which were exported to the West, and manufactured goods such as textiles, carpets and ceramics, and the import of textiles from the West, silk from Iran, spices from the East, and coffee from Yemen. Many of these commodities transited through the empire. There was also a significant trade in slaves into the empire from the Black Sea region and from sub-Saharan Africa. Commerce, which influenced Ottoman conquest policy, brought considerable revenues to the state, and Ottoman rulers invested heavily in infrastructure to support trade and to protect traders. They also attempted to control commodity exchange, imposing trade embargoes, fixing prices, and establishing a system of provisioning. The expansion of the world market in the 19th century affected the nature of Ottoman commerce. The empire became an exporter of raw materials and importer of manufactured products. Controls on internal trade were removed, allowing foreign merchants to operate freely, and its markets were opened up to an influx of goods from Europe, in particular from Britain.

Article

Oil Industrialization in the Middle East  

Katayoun Shafiee

The building of the global oil industry in the Middle East served as the occasion for one of the largest political projects of technical and economic development in the modern world. Scholarship has long associated an abundance of natural resources such as oil with autocracy in the Middle East while overlooking the sociotechnical ways in which oil operations were built with political consequences for the shape of the state and the international oil corporations. The early period of oil development was marked by oil abundance up to World War I, when demand for oil started to increase rapidly with the invention of the internal combustion engine. The cheapest source of production was in the Middle East. From the perspective of the largest transnational oil corporations to emerge in this period, the energy system needed to be built in a way that demand and overabundance were managed. Oil industrialization enabled the production and large-scale consumption of this new and abundant source of energy but was also connected with striking oil workers and controlling or blocking processes of industrialization in rival sectors such as the coal and the chemicals industries. In the first three decades of the 20th century, the process was made possible through the building of an international oil economy that took the form of production quotas and consortium agreements to restrict new oil discoveries in the Middle East. Oil industrialization projects intensified after World War II due to a flood of petrodollars into OPEC countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. Rising oil revenues and sovereign control achieved through oil nationalization triggered the execution of five-year development plans of industrial and infrastructural expansion. The birth of environmental activism in the 1960s–1970s coincided with the end of oil abundance and the fear of the planet’s destruction, spurring the passage of legislation to place limits on the hydrocarbon economy in which the machinery of oil industrialization had thrived.

Article

The Ismaili Tradition in Iran: 13th Century to the Present  

Daniel Beben

The Ismailis are a minority community of Shiʿi Muslims that first emerged in the 8th century. Iran has hosted one of the largest Ismaili communities since the earliest years of the movement and from 1095 to 1841 it served as the home of the Nizārī Ismaili imams. In 1256 the Ismaili headquarters at the fortress of Alamūt in northern Iran was captured by the Mongols and the Imam Rukn al-Dīn Khūrshāh was arrested and executed, opening a perilous new chapter in the history of the Ismailis in Iran. Generations of observers believed that the Ismailis had perished entirely in the course of the Mongol conquests. Beginning in the 19th century, research on the Ismailis began to slowly reveal the myriad ways in which they survived and even flourished in Iran and elsewhere into the post-Mongol era. However, scholarship on the Iranian Ismailis down to the early 20th century remained almost entirely dependent on non-Ismaili sources that were generally quite hostile toward their subject. The discovery of many previously unknown Ismaili texts beginning in the early 20th century offered prospects for a richer and more complete understanding of the tradition’s historical development. Yet despite this, the Ismaili tradition in the post-Mongol era continues to receive only a fraction of the scholarly attention given to earlier periods, and a number of sources produced by Ismaili communities in this period remain unexplored, offering valuable opportunities for future research.

Article

Modern Iraq  

John F. Robertson

The roots of the history of modern Iraq extend into the late Ottoman period, when the central government in Istanbul embarked upon administrative and educational reform in an attempt both to modernize and to reassert and centralize its authority there. The history of modern Iraq is also closely linked to ethnic (principally Arab and Kurd) and sectarian (principally Sunni and Shi’ite, but also Jewish and Christian) components of Iraqi society, and their interrelations and tensions. This history is also marked by distinct episodes of foreign intervention (specifically, by Great Britain and the United States), by internal political struggle often resolved by political violence, and by sectarian tensions exacerbated by the domination of political governance by a Sunni minority (1921–2003) and subsequently, beginning in 2004, by the Shi’i majority.

Article

The Persian Cosmopolis  

Richard Eaton

The Persian cosmopolis refers to the vast territory between the Balkans and Bengal in which, for 1000 years, an integrated sense of moral, social, political, and aesthetic order was informed by the circulation of normative Persian texts. Several centuries after the Arab conquest of the Iranian plateau, a spoken form of a hybridized Middle Persian and Arabic emerged in written form, using a modified Arabic script. What had begun as a regional vernacular swiftly became a transregional, literary medium as regional courts in Khurasan and Central Asia patronized Persian literature and used that language in their bureaucracies, building on a tradition of professional writers that had served Persian empires for centuries. The technology of paper-making, recently introduced from China, facilitated the rapid movement of Persian texts across space, while Firdausi’s epic poem the Shah-nama (1010) celebrated Iranian mythology and pre-Islamic history in ways that connected widely scattered peoples of different ethnicities. Territorial conquests by Persianized Turks, followed by Mongol invasions that drove peoples of Central Asia and Khurasan into new lands, also served to expand the geographical extent of the Persian cosmopolis. By the 14th and 15th centuries, the political, aesthetic, and moral order elaborated in a growing Persian canon—for example, the principle of justice—had become associated with a prestigious, cosmopolitan style that was emulated and absorbed by widely scattered peoples of diverse ethnicities and religions. Persianate architecture, attire, urban design, music, cuisine, and numismatic traditions were also assimilated by such peoples. With the translation of a rich store of romance literature into vernacular tongues, the Persian cosmopolis became as much a subjective phenomenon, inhabiting people’s collective imagination, as it was an objective, mappable zone in which popular, discursive, and normative texts circulated along networks that connected royal courts, provincial notables, Sufi lodges, merchant communities, and schools.

Article

Safavid Commercial History  

Rudi Matthee

Safavid, Iran, was a modest economic player in West and South Asia in terms of population numbers, productivity, and resources. Yet its strategic location at the crossroads of Asia’s commercial arteries allowed it to punch well above its weight in terms of trade—especially trade in transit. The reign of Shah ‘Abbas I (r. 1587–1629) represents the high-water mark in this development. His forward-looking policies, beginning with his choice of Isfahan as Iran’s new capital and the subsequent resettlement of a large number of Armenians, expanded the ambit of the country’s commerce. Most importantly, he established a viable maritime alternative to the overland trade route by facilitating the maritime connection via the Persian Gulf, with the aim of depriving the Ottomans of revenue. In the process, Iran became more firmly connected to the wider Eurasian market, with commodities like silk and porcelain moving into the center of a hemispheric commercial network. In this, South Asia was clearly the regional “world economy,” manufacturing goods that were coveted by people all over West Asia and beyond, while the inhabitants of Europe, and to a lesser extent of the Ottoman Empire, Central Asia, and Russia, functioned as consumers who were generally forced to pay for their tastes and desires with hard cash.