Art Spots, Connected Histories

A Geniza Letter Regarding Trade and Market Prices

About This Resource

The following letter is selected from the Cairo Geniza (pronounced with a hard g), a trove of thousands of medieval documents and letters, discovered in a walled-up chamber of a synagogue in Cairo at the time when that building was being dismantled, just before 1890. S. D. Goitein explained Geniza as “a place where discarded writings on which the name of God was or might have been written were deposited in order to preserve them from desecration. This pious precaution was a general Middle Eastern custom, shared by Christians, Muslims, and Jews. But only the Jews seem to have developed the practice of burying their sacred writings no longer in use, a custom still widely observed,” (p. 3).

Once rediscovered, the collection in question presented a scholarly challenge, however, because the documents were, for the most part, written in Arabic language but Hebrew characters. Their study and translation became the lifework of Goitein from 1948 until his death in 1985. The Cairo Geniza contained a great deal of ordinary commercial correspondence, thus opening a window onto the material culture of the Mediterranean from the mid-tenth century to the mid-thirteenth century (the period to which most of the letters are dated). Much of the material is fragmentary, and often the original context in which the letter was writtenthe identities of the people, the nature of their business negotiations, and the specific types of waresis lost. Read as a genre, it is clear that textiles were the most widely traded commercial stuff in the Mediterranean (Goitein, p. 16). The letters demonstrate the interconnectedness of the Mediterranean, notwithstanding the religious difference of the various merchants and clients.

The following letter, dating to ca. 1080-1100, is from a Tunisian trader in Fustat [for many years the capital of Muslim Egypt, and now part of Cairo] to his employerprobably his unclein Alexandria. His employer’s primary business was in the marketing of textiles to India, but here the writer discusses the sale of textiles from the West, meaning the Maghreb (northern Africa). Some of Goitein’s original footnotes have been inserted in brackets.

Annotation by D. Fairchild Ruggles.

The image shows a fragment of a document from the Cairo Geniza.


I am writing to you, my lord and master—may God prolong your life and grant you permanent well-being and happiness—to inform you that I arrived on Friday, after an eight days’ journey, and unloaded my cargo on Sunday, the day I am writing this. Everything which I carried with me arrived completely intact.

Now, what you wish to know: Business here is slow and practically at a standstill. For there is much confusion in the rate of exchange and, at the present time, 50 dirhems are to be had for 1 dinar, more (or less). An epidemic is raging in the environs of the town, and because of this, the flow of good dirhems has been cut off so that everyone is having difficulties with his business.

As to the textiles: The reddish material, first class, is worth 4 ½ (dinars) at most; other qualities, less than 4. Unbleached saris 7 ½ (meaning, as the continuation shows, that ten saris cost 7 ½ dinars), but the red ones are selling poorly; Abu’l-Surur informed me that he sold for you ten red saris for 7 (dinars) and 10 qirats, on one month’s credit. The cloaks are selling very poorly. As to the small pieces of reddish material and the fine saris, I do not know the situation, for I did not sit on the market.

Oil is being sold 25 pounds for a dinar; so I am holding my oil back, in the hope that the situation will improve a little.

I met with the elder Abu Sa’d with regard to Salman and learned that Salman had gone to Palestine. He, Abu Sa’d, will write you a letter to be sent simultaneously with my letter, for I told him that you were very much upset about this matter and took a very serious view of it.

I talked to him about the textiles which I had brought with me from the West; he said that he had sent a letter with instructions to bring them here, but the letter had crossed me on my way. Therefore, my lord, if someone can be found to transport them, please do so; for he has no way of explaining to you what happened, as he does not write with his own hand, and there is someone staying in his house, in whose presence things cannot be discussed.

Al-Shayyal received what was sent for you and will inquire as to what was lost and what remained. He requested me to ask you whether this involved the partnership. As to his own merchandise--whether (textiles) from Sicily or Majorca, or oil--whatever has been sold of this, he will receive the price agreed upon. As for everything else, after it is sold, each partner will get his share in accordance with his investment. Please take notice of this, my lord.

The silk robes do not fetch a thing, one robe being worth less than 4 (dinars). Please inform Abu’l-Hasan accordingly. Likewise Joseph al-Fasi asked me about this. Please also tell Abu’l-Hasan al-Shami not to move with his oil; he will only regret it.

My master, the elder Abu Sa’d informed me that the elder Abu’l-Bishr sold his silk to the government and received its price. However, I was in no mood today to ask him how he sold it. I shall sell what I have with me, for I do not see that there is much hope (for a better price).

My lord, the elder Abu Sa’d talked to me about the textiles, namely, which of them had not been sent and had been left with him (probably textiles for which no market could be found in Fustat; perhaps cotton fabrics coming from India). I understood that he wanted me to get rid of them; so I said perhaps he could find someone to send them with and get them out of sight.

My lord, I left my cotton robe, which I used to wear above my iridescent robe; in its pocket there is the tax certificate together with a paper bag in which thee are some dirhems and a letter given to me by Salama, the agent of our master, the Nagid--(may his R(ock) p(reserve him). Please send me the tax certificate as soon as you have read this letter, for I have given a bail bond on it until it arrives. [Goitein notes that no Christian or Jew could travel without carrying a certificate proving that he had paid the poll tax.]

Whatever needs you have, please write me about them. Please write me in detail about the price of oil at your place and how things are, for I am very much worried. May God let me receive good tidings, as is his bountiful custom.

Accept my best greetings, and likewise, my best greetings to the elder Abu’l-Hasan; if he needs anything, let him write me about it. Greetings to Rachel (the writer’s wife and the addressee’s daughter) and her mother and to everyone in the house. Greetings also to Abu’l-Hasan (a member of the family) to the son of my paternal aunt, and his sons. And Peace. And may your life be prolonged! And look for the storax [resin from the sweetgum tree, used for incense] for me, for I did not find it in the package.

(Address written upside down, as usual:)

(To) my lord, the elder Abu’l-Faraj Nissim, son of Solomon, (may he) r(est in) E(den) – may God grant him permanent well-being and happiness – Ruqqi

(From) his “son” and protégé Solomon, son of Abraham, ...Ruqqi.” (Trans. Goitein, pp. 240-3)


Goitein, S. D. (ed. and trans.). Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.


Ruggles, D. Fairchild, ed. Islamic Art and Visual Culture: An Anthology of Sources. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, pp. 63-65. Image credit: Geniza fragment, Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1908.44vv.

How to Cite This Page

"Muslim Journeys | Item #208: A Geniza Letter Regarding Trade and Market Prices", July 20, 2024


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