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I94

Int. J. Middle East Stud. 5 (1974),

194-20I

Printed in Great Britain

Norman A. Stillman
A CASE

OF LABOR

PROBLEMS

IN MEDIEVAL

EGYPT

Labor problems were no less a reality to big business in the medieval Islamic
world than they are today. Where competition was keen and skilled laborers in
limited supply, workmen could demand to receive their pay on schedule or,
indeed, even demand higher wages from their employer on a par or above those
paid by his competitors.
The harvesting, preliminary processing, and exporting of flax was a primary
commerical concern in medieval Egypt. As has been the case with cotton in more
recent times,' flax dominated the Egyptian economy. In Fatimid times (96917I) the flax was shipped to Ifriqiya (modern Tunisia) and Sicily, which were
both under nominal Fatimid suzerainty and were the leading textile-producing
centers of the period, just as in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Egyptian
cotton was shipped abroad to feed the great British textile industry.2
Flax was cultivated throughout Europe during the Middle Ages; but, as in
the days of classical antiquity, the finest flax was imported from Egypt. The
high-grade Egyptian flax remained the most sought after until the fourteenth
century.3
It is clear from the wealth of information provided by the documents of the
Cairo Geniza that the Jews of medieval Egypt were particularly active in the
bustling flax trade. In fact, no other single commodity is represented in such
detail in the commercial texts.
The great merchants dealing in flax purchased the raw product at the time of
the harvest in Middle and Upper Egypt and oversaw - or had their representatives oversee - its processing and packing for shipment to Fustat and thence
Alexandria. (Sometimes it was shipped directly to Alexandria.) After being
retted or soaked for some time, the flax plants were hatcheled or beaten in order
to remove the fibers.4 The processing involved many people, and at the height
Long staple cotton was introduced into Egypt in I820.
On the medieval Egyptian flax trade, cf. S. D. Goitein, A Mlediterranean Society,
vol. I (Berkeley and Los Angeles, I967).
3 Charles
Singer et al., A History of Technology, vol. II (London, I956), p. I95.
Egypt was already a great flax-producing nation long before classical times. It is revealing
that the biblical Hebrew word for byssos or fine linen, shesh, was apparently an Egyptian
loanword. Cf. F. Brown, S. R. Driver, and C. A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon
of the Old Testament (Oxford, I962), p. io58b.
4 The eleventh-century
writer Abu 'l-Fadl al-Dimashqi in his mercantile handbook
gives the various steps in flax processing all the way to the finished product. Cf. alI

Labor problems in medieval Egypt

195

of the season skilled workers were scarce. The two Geniza letters presented here
in translation afford us a glimpse of the labor problems that could arise.
Both letters are part of the Taylor-Schechter collection of the University Library, Cambridge, and are shelf-marked TS 12.227 and TS NS 308,
f. 19, respectively. The Judaeo-Arabic text of Letter A has been edited by
Goitein in Tarbiz, 37 (October 1967). The text of Letter B has not yet been
published.
The letters are addressed to the merchant prince Abu 'l-Faraj Yusuf b.
'Awkal. In addition to being a great import-export magnate, Ibn 'Awkal was
also a prominent Jewish community leader who acted as the intermediary
between the Jewish communities of the Maghreb and the Babylonian Yeshiv6t.'
Ibn 'Awkal himself never went to the rural flax centers, but he had a whole army
of Jewish and Muslim agents, as well as assistants (slaves and freedmen) who
represented his interests there.
The two letters discussed here were written in short succession, one after the
other, by Musa b. Hisda, one of Ibn 'Awkal's agents who is known to us from
other letters.2 Ibn Hisda is writing from the central Egyptian countryside somewhere between Busir and Ashmunayn at the height of the flax season. No date is
indicated. The letters are probably from the Io2os or I030s.3
Ibn Hisda indicates that he is experiencing a serious labor problem which has
been caused by an inflation of wages due to the competition of a certain alGhazaliyya and a shortage of ready cash. The tone of both letters is rather
desperate. The foreman has threatened that if all the workers were not paid and
given their daily food they would not work. Ibn Hisda requests cash in order to
meet the workers' demands and save the situation. He even suggests in Letter A
that if no one else is available - and if Ibn 'Awkal deems it proper - that the
latter should send his eldest son Abu 'l-Fadl, who was at this time already a
partner in the Ibn 'Awkal family business.
The two letters also indicate a serious managerial problem. Ibn 'Awkal apparDimashql, Ishdra ild Mahcsin al-Tijdra (Cairo, 1318 A.H.), p. 4. Cf. also Singer et al.
History of Technology, vol. ii, p. 195.
I For a detailed
survey of the commercial operations of Ibn 'Awkal, cf. my article
'The Eleventh Century Merchant House of Ibn 'Awkal,' JESHO i6, part i (i973),
pp. 15-I8. An article on Ibn 'Awkal's role in the Jewish community is near completion.
2 For example, he is the writer of Bodl. MS Heb. c 27, f. 82 (Cat. 2835, no. 44). His
name also occurs in an account statement for Ibn 'Awkal - Bodl. MS Heb. d 65 (Cat.
2877), 1. 23. The text of the latter is edited by Goitein, Tarbiz, 37 (January I968),
pp. I80-I.
3 Ibn 'Awkal does not seem to have been involved in the flax business before this time.
The flax industry seems to have had a sudden efflorescence in the third decade of the
eleventh century. It is not until at least this time that flax appears in the correspondence
of another great business house of the period, that of the Tahertis of Qayrawan. This may
reflect a rise in the consumption and demand in the Muslim West due to increased trade
relations with the Italians.

I96

Norman A. Stillman

ently had chided Ibn Hisda in a previous letter for a failure to follow instructions.
In addition to the flax, Ibn Hisda had purchased several bundles of madder
(rubia tinctorum),an important red dyestuff which was harvested at the same time
as the flax and also underwent a hatcheling process.' Ibn Hisda's protestations
(A, 11.13-20) seem to reflect some accusation that he was making an unwarranted
profit on the item. The affair is somewhat reminiscent of one that took place
years earlier involving Ibn 'Awkal and a Maghrebi merchant named Samhun b.
Dawud.2 Another possibility is that suggested by Goitein - namely, that Ibn
'Awkal had purchased large amounts of madder and did not want Ibn Hisda
to lower the market price by buying still more.3 This, however, is difficult to
assume since madder is mentioned in only these two letters and nowhere else in
the Ibn 'Awkal correspondence, which comprises 6I documents and covers a
period of four generations.4
In the interval between Letters A and B the relations between Ibn 'Awkal and
Ibn Hisda had worsened. Someone by the name of Yfisuf al-Sabuini had brought
a bad report about Ibn Hisda, with whom Ibn 'Awkal was already displeased.
The writer denies the allegation as slander in no uncertain terms with language
that is quite extraordinary for the usually overly polite epistolary style of the
times (B, 11.2-7). He assures Ibn 'Awkal that the Elder Abfu Haruinwill set the
matter straight and vindicate him (Bv, 11.4 f). Returning to financial matters,
Ibn 'Awkal apparently wrote Ibn Hisda after receiving Letter A that if he
wanted any more money he would have to submit a full account of his expenditures (B, 11. I3-I8). Thus, Ibn Hisda says that he is forwarding it with the
'youth' Jacob,5 an assistant mentioned in Letter A as well. A number of Muslim
and Jewish names, mostly of underlings, are mentioned in the two letters. Two,
however, are prominent merchants known from other Geniza letters, namely
Abu Sa'id Khalliuf b. Zakariyya' al-Ashqar (A, 1. 9)6 and Abu 'l-Khayr Musa
b. Barhun al-Taherti (Av, 1. i).7 The elder AbCuHarun is obviously also someone
of stature.
I Not only was the madderharvestedand hatcheledtogetherwith the flax, but it was
even packedin the same bales (cf. the two letters below).
2 DK I3
(David Kaufmann Collection, Budapest), ed. S. D. Goiten, Tarbiz, 37

(October 1967), pp. 64-70; translated in N. A. Stillman, East-West Relations in the

IslamicMediterranean
in the Early EleventhCentury(unpublisheddoctoraldissertation
at the Universityof Pennsylvania,Philadelphia,1970), pp. 267-75.
3

Goitein, Tarbiz, 37 (October 1967), p. 57, notes.

More than fifty items from the first four decadesof the eleventh century.
5 'Youth' or 'youngman' (Ar.Sabi)does not denoteage but rathersocialstanding,and
indicatesthat a personis in the service of another.Concerningthis and other terms for
employees, cf. Goitein, Med. Soc. vol. I, p. 93.
6 Ibn
Zakariyya'is the authorof TS i3J I7, f. I , and is mentionedin Bodl. MS Heb.
d 47, f. 62 (Cat. 2699, no. 25). Both are edited by Goitein, Tarbiz, 36 (July 1967),
pp. 387-8 and 381-2, respectively. Both are translated in Stillman, East-West Relations,
pp. 316-18 and 323-6, respectively.
7 This son of the powerful Taherti family (cf. p. 195 n. 3) is mentioned in two letters as
being involved in a rather unpleasant dispute with Ibn 'Awkal. TSI3J36, f. i, ed.

Labor problems in medieval Egypt

197

In both letters there is a variety of minor details. For example, in Letter A


Ibn Hisda requests a garment-sized piece (shiqqa) of muthallath fabric.I He also
requests a woolen garment for a man called Abraham, who is an ordinary worker
since Ibn Hisda refers to him rather disparagingly (Av, 1. I2: 'these people')
and since wool was for the garments of the lower classes. Both letters mention the
arrival of pots sent to the writer by Ibn 'Awkal. Perhaps this had something to do
with the observance of Jewish dietary laws. Nonetheless, it is rather a cryptic
note.
Letter B ends with some requests for Ibn 'Awkal to purchase certain commodities and to sell some leather hides (B, 1. 32 and v, 1. i).
The two letters are presented here in full translation followed by brief notes.
Brackets indicate reconstructions, whereas parentheses contain clarifications of
the text. These letters are given with the view in mind that 'there is no better key
to the psychology of the merchant than his correspondence'.2
Letter A. TS 12.227

(no. 13)

O my ve[nerab]le Elder and Superior.. .[may God prolong your lif]e, grant you
lasting happiness,care for (2) and protect you. May you not be denied His grantingof
success. I am writingto you in a state of good health - may you not be deprivedof such
a state nor lack God's blessing and 'thanks be (3) to God, Lord of all the worlds' in
abundance.Your letter arrived... The pot arrived,(4) may I never be deprivedof your
favor, and may God rewardyou in my stead. Amen.
This is to inform you, my Elder, that I have packednine bales, (5) in each one three
qintdrsand a third, withoutpackingmaterialandwithout any madder,as you instructed.
(6) Zuhayr and his brother, and Hiba Ibn al-Khatib were present at the time of the
evaluationof the flax. We were not able to weigh (7) the flax that same day. I estimated
its weight as being about ten (i.e. about the weight of ten bales), and I evaluatedthe
worth of the load as being twenty-fivedinars,and I saw to it (8) that it was packed.I sent
the canvasfor wrappingto Busir, and I had written on it the markas you instructedin
your letter. (9) [Ab]ucSa'id Khalluffoversawthe writing.Al-Shirajipacked eight bales
and stated that he would weigh (Io) the ten bales. Salamawent to Ashmunayn,but he
did not find a ship. He will go the day after my writing this to (ii) Busir in search
of one - may God make this matter easy and bring us together with you. Zuhayr's
letter (I2) and Ibn al-Khatib's will reach you along with the bales -God willing apprisingyou of what has happened. (13) Please be so advised.
In your letters - may God strengthen you - you discuss the matter of the madder
plants which (.4)... the flax.. .the flax is of mixed (quality). So if you wish (I5)
Goitein, Tarbiz, 34 (January I964), pp. 175-I78, and Bodl. MS Heb. d 65, f. 9, ed.
S. Assaf, J. N. Epstein Jubilee Volume (Jerusalem, 1950), pp. I79-8I. Both are translated
in Stillman, East-West Relations, pp. I98-204
and 20o8-I 3, respectively.
I Muthallath: literally 'triangle cloth', or perhaps 'cloth with three threads of a
different type'. According to al-Muqaddasl, Ahsdn al-Taqdsim fi Ma'rifat al-Aqdilm,
ed. De Goeje (Leiden, I9o6), p. 203, 1. 8, it is one of the special products of Egypt. The
word also appears in zajal 103 of the Spanish poet Ibn Quzman, where, as in this case,
it was for a pair of trousers. (I owe this last piece of information to the late S. M. Stern.)
2 R. S.
Lopez and I. W. Raymond, Medieval Trade in the Mediterranean World (New
York, n.d.), p. 378.

X98

Norman A. Stillman

[to sen]d [me.. .] against that which I have, so that I shall buy more madder, then do it.
I have with me twenty-two dinars. (i6) If you wish to send a sum to cover it and that
I should collect the madder, then please do so. And if you do not (I7) wish me to
buy it for you in partnership nor for myself personally at my own expense, then I shall
satisfy your wish in this matter. I have (i8) five bundles of madder plants, they being
seventy-five in number and no more. By God, from the day that your letter arrived in
which you mentioned (I9) this matter, I have not bought even one batch, as it is my
desire in this to satisfy your wish. It is not within me that (20) I would make any
profit which would come to me from this if /you/ yourself would not be pleased. I would
not wish such a thing. (21) Please be so advised.
I am progressing with the hatcheling (of the flax) this week which is ending. With
me (22) there is a group (of workers) and every day they increase. We hatchel six or
seven bundles a day, and more. Every day the (23) work increases. May God in His
omnipotence make the work easy and help us to complete it.
Already (24) this week Ibn al-Ghazaliyya has begun pounding the (madder?) and
he has ruined the wages (of the workers) for us. But I regained honor with the hired
help (25) by showing them the dinars [I had with me....] And the government financial
administrator has also taken some of (26) Ibn al-[...]'s help,...
I have not had any trouble with Yahya at all this week. (27) Every week he... and
now is the time we have been anticipating. (28) By God, the small money I had with
me is not.. .and by God, I had to borrow more than fifteen dinars. (29) I now have
with me only fifty [dir]hems and no more. He (the work foreman) will not hatchel or
turn the madder until (30) he received the workers's wages. And if I keep from paying
one individual, he will not hatchel even one madder plant until he received (3I) daily
food, and until the wages are settled for the workers. I wish I had the dinars with me
(32) so I could give them to anyone
(margin)
who demanded something. I must pay. I cannot put them off without their going
over to someone else. I wanted to send you the 'young man' Ibn ... from Bab al-. . . (2)
he will find pretext...the matter of the ship is incumbent upon us, and the arrival
of the...
(verso)
If Abu 'l-Khayr is coming here anyhow, send the necessary money to me with him
so I shall not be left penniless - my state being ruined. The workers are melting way
from me. (2) And if Abu 'l-Khayr is not coming, either. . . with someone else or send
me someone special. Do not fail me. (3) I do not have to enjoin upon you more than
this ... the 'young man' Jacob the flax to you, but he is (4) late in going to Fusta[t. .].
And Iqbal is now completely well, but al-Hasri (or the 'young man'?) is not (5) fit for
anything and cannot do [anything...] I sent him to someone else (6) who would
come and arrange his affairs... if I want him to do anything for me and say to him one
word, he answers (7) with ten. Iqbal will tell you about him, may God protect him;
if God is willing, he will reach you and tell some of his miserable doings. He (Iqbal)
(8) will be coming down with Salama. and I shall stay as I am unless God should help
me. If you do not find anyone to send, (9) and you think it proper to send the money
with Hilal, then do so. The matter is for you to decide. Please be so advised.
I extend to you (io) my best greetings and to my master Abu 'l-Fadl - may God
protect him. And my best greetings to my Masters, Abeu Sahl and Abfu Sa'id- (ii)
may God watch over them. God is my portion and He is my hope.
As to the cloak that you sent to Abraham, he did not (I2) take it, and it is with me.

Labor problems in medieval Egypt

99

It is not worth a dinar, and it is light. These people like whatever has wool in it. Buy
him (13) a heavy cloak and send it to me because he is ill. And I ask that my Master,
the Elder, if he would be so kind as to buy (14) for me a piece and a half of muthallath
cloth produced in Fustat. I will make from it a robe and trousers. The robe which I was
wearing (I5) is torn to shreds, and I am wearing just the jubba against my body /for
I have not what to wear./ And if it is not convenient to get the cloth, buy for me a
garment (i6) and used trousers for a suit from the Siuq al-Hammam (Bazaar of the
Bath). Do not neglect this. Please be so advised.
(17) In accordance with your request, I have prepared an accounting which will
reach you [God willing] either in Hebrew letters in my own handwriting (i8) [or in
Arabic] in the handwriting of I[bn a] l-[Khatib(?)] [... and p]e[ac]e be with you.
(address)
To my venerable Elder and Superior...
Abu 'l-Faraj Y6sef b. Ya'aqov
Ibn 'Awkal (may his soul find rest)
May God grant him continual health and happiness,
and may He preserve him.
From Musa b. Ishaq b. Hisda (may his soul find rest)
and his admirer
his friend

Notes to Letter A
recto
a. (5)
b. (I3)
c. (24)
d. (25)

Three qintars and a third: a qintdr or cwt. was composed of oo00 ratls, cf.
letter B, note a, below.
'please be so advised'- 'arraftuka dhalik (in some letters a'lamtuka dhdlik),
literally: 'I have informed you of this.' This is merely a way of indicating the
end of a section.
'pounding' - madaqq. I do not know if there is any difference between this and
'hatcheling' (nafd) which occurs everywhere else in the two letters.
'The government financial administrator'- al-'dmil.
verso

e. (5)
f. (Ix )

g. (I4)

h. (I4)

The words fi' hada which come before the words ward' insdn are missing in
printed text, Goitein, Tarbiz, 37 (October I967), p. 53.
'cloak' - kisd'. An all-purpose garment which served as a mantle by day and
covering by night. Cf. R. Dozy, Dictionnaire detaille des noms de vetements chez
les arabes (Amsterdam, 1845), p. 386.
'a piece and a half' - shiqqa wa-nisf. The shiqqa was the standard piece or bolt
of cloth for making a garment. The word appears frequently in the Geniza
and in literary sources. Cf. R. B. Serjeant, 'Material for a History of Islamic
Textiles', Ars Islamica, I5-i6, index 3, p. 301, s.v. 'shikka'.
'a robe and trousers' -thawb wa-saradwl. The thawb was a long, flowing
outer garment which covered the entire body. It was worn by both sexes.
Cf. Dozy, Vetements, pp. I05-6. Cf. also Yedida K. Stillman, Female Attire of
Medieval Egypt; According to the Trousseau Lists and Cognate Material from
the Cairo Geniza (unpublished doctoral dissertation at the University of
Pennsylvania,

Philadelphia,

I972), pp. 104-15

et passim.

200

i. (15)
j. (i6)

Norman A. Stillman
jubba: A long, outer garment, open in the front with wide sleeves. Cf. Dozy
Vetements, pp. 107-I7.
Suq al-Hammam. Perhaps this is the same as the SuiqHIammam Qir'a, a street
in the Suiq Khawkhat al-Qattanin. Cf. Paul Casanova, Essai de reconstruction

de la ville d'al-Foustdtou Misr. Memoires de l'Institut Fran;ais


topographique
d'Archeologie Orientale du Caire, tome 35 (Cairo, I913-19), pp. 123 ff.
(map on p. I24).

Letter B. TS NS 308, f.

O my venerable Elder and Superior - may God give you long life and lasting prosperity, (2) may He be unto you a patron and shepherd and not deprive you of success.
I am writing in a state of good health, but with a heart laden with anxiety which (3)
descended upon me when I read your letter. I would have thought that I was (4) held
in higher esteem by you than to have you address me so. That you should listen to such
unjust words from a man like (5) Yusuf and others from whom come base things, and
that you should become upset by it! I would not have thought that you would accept
the words of (6) others against me when you know the kind of person I have been and
still am. Furthermore, you know my lineage. I am not such a one from whom would
come (7) such things as to warrant your letter.
Now with regard to the purchase of the madder: I have bought during the first part of
(8) this period some thirty madder plants. It is too small a thing that you should mix
it with your flax. You have (9) received madder in several bales. But had I known (Io)
that you would take this matter to heart, I would never have bought it nor put into it
even a penny (ii) of my own money. I had said I shall buy madder with it - and
madder is of good quality only at the time of its maturity. If (I2) you had not so
wished, I would have stopped buying it entirely, as you well know.
( 3) With regard to what you said about my calculating the account statement and
forwarding it to you, you certainly know how I spent (I4) the money. When I had read
your letter I prepared a statement and sent you (I 5) a copy which you will see is correct
- God willing. It is enclosed with this letter which I have given to (I6) the 'youth'
Jacob. You stated that you would not send any money until you received the statement.
(I7) However, I now have only about seven dinars in quarters left, some of which are
not even full weight. I laid out (i8) of my own money eight gold dinars as payment of
wages. Please be so advised.
I would not permit (19) myself to write to you without a messenger because of the
delay in the arrival of the money from you to me which that would entail. (20) Thus
I deemed it best to send the 'youth' Jacob to you to urge you to forward the balance so
that (2I) all that I have done will not be spoiled for me. If a workman should come and
ask money from me and not find me having any, (22) he will go to someone else, and
the whole affair will be ruined for me. This year is not like every other year. (23)
Workmen are scarce. We have been informed that beating in Busir costs two dinars per
hundred madder plants. But even if you have the money you cannot get it. (24) Not a
day.. .the money he has, but it is very bad. No one is safe from (25) the other spoiling
it for him. Please be so advised.
By God, my Elder, the letter is in my hand, (26) and I am writing in it. However, I am
still too confused, so much so did your unjustified letter upset me. (27) But God
knows my good intentions and how I have acted towards you, as well as my prudence
and caution with your money. (28) This is not something for which I seek thanks.
This is an obligation and something for which religion dictates. When a man puts (29)

Labor problems in medieval Egypt

20o

his affairsin the hands of a friend, the latteracts on his behalf as religionrequires.And
He (30) knows what I have done on your behalf, and He sees me...But I shall not
go into (31) this matter any further.
The two locks and the [sec]ond pot have arrived... I ask that my Master (32) send
me a ratl of tamarindand two rails of jujube. (33) The qadahof sibistan which I had
with me (34) was spoiled
(margin)
in largepart by Yusuf, and I have only a very little left. So if my Master,the Elder has
gotten the thirty dinars from Hayyim, would he please add it for me to the balance
which still remains.
(verso)
The price of woven stuff is I4 dinars or less. When you sell the leather cloth and
receive its price, (2) if I still owe anything,then debit me with it. Please be so advised.
I extend (3) to your noble person my best greetings, and to my Master Abu 'l-Fadl
greetings.(4) The ElderAbf Harunwill appriseyou of Yfsuf al-Sabuniand his evil (5)
doings. I have no doubt that the news has reachedyou.
I have sent a messengerto Yahya, and he has not (6) yet arrived.I hope that he does
arrive and that his task will be easy - God willing. Please extend to the Elder (7)
Abu Harun greetings and inform him that Abu'l-Fadl Hakim is in the best of health
and that he should not be (8) concernedabouthim. I havesent with Yasminthe rejected
money from the dirhems. It totals (9) eight dirhems. You will receive it from him.
(address)
To my venerable Elder and Superior, Abu 'l-Faraj Y6sef b. Ya'aq6v b. 'Awkal
(may his soul find rest) - may God make his well-being and happinesslasting.
From Musa b. Ishaq b. H.isda(may his soul find rest)
and his admirer
His friend
Notes to Letter B
recto
a. (32) rail. In eleventh-century Fatimid Egypt the rail equalled 437-5 grams. Cf.
W. Hinz, Islamische Masse und Gewichte (Leiden, I955), pp. 28-32.

b. (33) qadah.A small qadah:ca. o094liters; a large qadah:ca. I88 liters. Cf. Hinz,
Masse und Gewichte, p. 42.

c. (33) sibistan.Cordiamyxa. The Arabic word is derived from Persian sag-pistdn


(dog's teat). According to Ibn Baytar, Traite des simples(Kitdb al-Jdmi' liMufriddt al-Adwiya wa 'l-Aghdhiya), transl. N. L. Leclerc. Notices et
Extraitsdes Manuscritsde la BibiliothequeNationaleXXV (Paris, 1877-83),
p. 236, no. 1157, it is 'a bush about the height of a man, with large round
leaves, and a sweet-tastingfruit the size of a hazelnut. It is used against the
cough caused by warmth and dryness.' In the Geniza, sibistanis used as a
type of fodder. Cf. also E. Low, Die Flora der Juden, vol. I (Hildesheim,
967), pp- 267-70.
New York University

14

MES 5 2