How the arabs saw the world

Jamal Wakim
Professor of History and International Relations at Lebanese International University, Lebanon.

Could the Trade of the Indian Ocean Improve the Prospects of the Arabs playing a Vital Role in Global Affairs?
How losing the Indian Ocean trade led the Arabs and mainly Egypt to be marginalized in Global Affairs.
In 2013, China became the second economic power in the world after the United States with expectations to become the first power in the world by the year 2025. This has coincided with expectations that the Indian Ocean basin would become the most crucible economic spot of the world, ending five centuries of domination by the Atlantic basin countries on the global economic. It is worth mentioning that the Indian Ocean was at the center of the global economy between the tenth century and the fifteenth century AD. Arabs had primarily used Egypt and the Indian Ocean trade to rule the world. This was reflected in the work of Arab geographers and historians in the twelfth and sixteenth centuries when they mapped the world, tending to place the Indian Ocean at the top of the world map, while placing Western Europe on the sidelines of this map. Today, at a time when the center of economic gravity is once again moving to the Indian Ocean, it is likely that the way we look at the global map will change again where Europe and North America will no longer be at the top of the global map. Hence, it is necessary to review how the Arabs saw the world between the fifteenth and seventeenth at a time when the notion of leading the world was alternated between the Arabian capitals Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad.

A non Eurocentric vision of the World

When one reads the global map of the contemporary world, one finds that Europe occupies the heart of this world and beside it is the North American continent to the West and Russia to the East. One also finds that the size of the European continent on this map is equal to the size of the African continent, where the latter occupies less space than its actual size. This also applies to the South American continent and to India and China to the East of the African continent. This Euro-centric view of the world reflects the Western-European domination of international relations that have been achieved before two hundred years and that has continued into the early twenty first century. This dominant approach which originated from the western world is being used to propagate that this new situation in the international affairs has been going on for thousands of years, which contradicts the historical data reflected by the Arab and Muslim geographers to the world.
It is worth mentioning that this vision was not constant throughout the ages but rather witnessed changes and shifts between the seventh century, the history of the Arab Islamic conquests, and the sixteenth century, the history of the fall of the Mamluks in Egypt, the Levant and the Hejaz to the Ottoman domination. Despite the Arab and Muslim geographers’ interest in giving great importance to East Arabia, the Mediterranean, the Iranian plateau and Central Asia in the early centuries extending between the seventh century and the eleventh century AD, however, their view of the world has seen a shift of interest towards Africa, India and Southeast Asia were in the center of this region resides the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean formulated the region from where Islamic Arabs’ domination expanded between the twelfth century and the sixteenth century.
It is also worth mentioning that the Umayyad dynasty and later the Abbasid state had taken control of the Mediterranean trade and land trade with China and India until mid of the eleventh century, while the Indian Ocean trade was under their domination since prior to the time of Islam. However, starting from the twelfth century, the Arabs lost their monopoly on trade in the Mediterranean, and then they lost their dominance over land trade with China in the thirteenth century as a result of the rise of the Mongol dominance in the Eurasian mainland which is what made them shift their interest in terms of trade toward the Indian Ocean.

Arabs and the Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean is considered as a highly important commercial artery due to its vast stretching and the presence of a variety of peoples and civilizations along its banks for thousands of years which gave this ocean a pivotal role in the movement of history. Competition amongst the Africans, the Chinese, the Persians and the Arabs to trade in the Indian Ocean in a peaceful manner was observed throughout history without wars, until the Arabs had the upper hand after the arrival of Islam.
Egypt was the only country not bordering the Indian Ocean that participated in the trade within this ocean. The spread of Islam had a vital role in strengthening the Arab sovereignty over the Indian Ocean where the Arabs became masters of this ocean, both in navigation and commerce and transformed it into an Arab lake. This was reflected in the settlement of the Arabs along most of the coast of the ocean and the spreading of the Arabic language on its banks, and even the conversion of many Indians, Africans, Malaysians and many others to Islam as a religion. The Chinese historian Fuen Jang also recognized that the Arabs mastered International carpentry until the sixteenth century.
Jamal Hamdan, the famous Egyptian geographer, considered that “Asia is to Islam is as Europe to Christianity where Asia has three-quarters of Muslims”. Hamdan also stated that in the late eleventh century and early twelfth century, Islam lost the Mediterranean as an Islamic Lake after the penetration of the Normans and the Crusaders through the Crusades, but that Islam replaced that loss by winning “Africa as an Islamic continent”. He also stated as an outcome to the Islamic expansion in Africa and the shores of the Indian Ocean, the Islamic world has become as follows:
“A great arc-like pattern which mediates the continental triangle and sheers to it in a way similar to a hub structure or as a range convex with an uneven depth, but is great in size and approximately equals half of the Indian Ocean’s circumference and even equals it and almost exceeds it. This great arc that begins with a broad left wing in Africa in a lower tropical latitude, and then bends north towards West and Central Asia in a much higher latitude, and then comes back down with its right wing towards the south again in South and South East Asia”.
Hamdan adds that “this in a very real sense is the crescent of Islam and its heart and one can almost say that in its star settles the Indian Ocean which is logically the vicinity of Islam. And if Islam had lost the Mediterranean as an Islamic Lake or semi-Islamic lake, then it has gained the Indian Ocean which has become the new Mediterranean sea in the Muslim world. The people of Hadramout and the Omanis are its Greeks and Venetians if not its Romans”. He also acknowledges that religion is a dimension of politics, and that Islam is not an exception “in terms of the exploitation of religion in politics”. However, he sees Islam as follows:
“With the exception of proven religious unity, does the Muslim world represent a natural unity or a human one? Some have tried to link Islam with drought and deserts, but the truth is as far than that as possible…Similarly, we find Islam on the coastal areas, where a great mass of Muslims are mostly concentrated near coastal and marine sectors, despite the apparent continental formality in traditional maps for Islamic distribution. Islam also covers the low flat plains in North Africa, yet also it dominates the same power vent on the mountainous areas in Southeast Asia”.
If we wanted to study how the Arabs saw the world, we find that they shifted their view from the Eastern area and the Mediterranean Sea as the hub of the world as mentioned in the writings of Arab and Muslim geographers in the ninth century and the tenth century AD, notably Ibn Khordadbeh, towards the Indian Ocean as a pivotal point in the world map at the beginning of the twelfth century AD as mentioned in the writings of Arab geographers at that time and that of the most prominent Sharif Idrissi in his book “The Book of Pleasant Journeys into Faraway Lands”.

Ibn Khordadbeh

Remarkably, in the book of Ibn Khordadbeh “The Book of Roads and Kingdoms”, he describes the land at that time similar to the result reached by contemporary geographers who were provided with the best technology. He describes the Earth as follows:
“The description of the Earth is rounded like a ball, placed in the middle of the space like the yolk in the middle of the egg, and the breeze around the Earth attracts it from all its ends towards the outer space. As for the structure of the creation on Earth, the breeze attracts the mass of those creations from lightness, and the Earth attracts their mass of gravity, because the land is like the stone that attracts iron. The Earth is divided into two halves separated by the equator which spreads from the East to the West which in turn represents the length of the Earth. The largest latitude in the round Earth just like the zodiac is the largest line in astronomy. The latitude of the earth spreads from the South Pole, which Canopus rotates around to the North Pole, which Ursa Major rotates around.
The rotation of the Earth at the position of the equator is three hundred and sixty degrees and the degree is twenty five Leagues and each league is twelve thousand arms and each arm is twenty-four fingers and each finger equals six grains of barley lined up next to each other. All of that will be equivalent to nine thousand leagues. Between the equator and each one of the poles there are ninety degrees Astrolabes with the Earth’s width rotation being the same way. Meanwhile the architecture of the Earth after the equator is twenty-four degrees and then the rest is submerged under the great sea. We are on the northern quarter of the Earth and the southern quarter is in ruins and not inhabited due to the severity of the heat there, and in every quarter of the north and south there are seven provinces. Ptolemy wrote in his book that during his reign there were four thousand and two hundred cities on Earth”.
Ibn Khordadbeh divides the Earth into four regions as follows:
“Land of the globe (Earth) was divided to four parts, one is the Europe that includes Andalusia and the Slavs, Al-Rum, Frank land and Tangier up to the Egyptian border. Then there’s Libya, in it are Egypt, Al- Qulzum, Abyssinia and Al-Barbar and the adjoining areas and the Southern Sea. In these countries there are no boars, deer, wild asses, or goats. Then there is Ethiopia with Tihama, Yemen, Sindh, India and China, and finally there’s Scythia with Armenia, Khorasan, the Turks and Khazars.
Ibn Khordadbeh also talks about China, describing it as a vast and rich country. He also talks about India and its wealth, peoples and extraordinary boredom it inhabits. It is worth mentioning that Europe, especially western and northern Europe were not significant and did not take a lot of space in the book of Ibn Khordadbeh which was described as follows:
“Europe includes Al-Rum, Burjan and the countries of the Slavs and the Iberians north of Andalusia, and those who come from the West Sea were the Slavs maids, Al-Rum, the Franks and the Elaps, Al-Rum maids, and Andalusia maids with treasury skins, lint, perfume and mastic. And from the bottom of this sea near the Franks comes the coral. As for the sea, it is located behind the Slavs which the city of Tulia is located, no boat or ship sails in it and it does not bring about anything but tot which is also Arabian”.


However, in the middle of the twelfth century, Arab geographers shifted their interest towards the Indian Ocean. What is striking about the map drawn by Sharif Idrissi before nine centuries is the way he did it in reverse of how the map looks in modern time. It puts the South at the top of the map and the North at its bottom, the West to the right of the map and the East to the left. We see that the Arabian Peninsula is occupying the heart of this map and to the right on the top of the map lies the continent of Africa, which occupies the largest area of the globe, followed by the Indian Ocean, which occupies a pivotal position on the map, while China occupies an important position on the left of the map. And the most important site on the map is that of the Islamic Arab areas, which occupy the center of the map while Europe is located on the margin in the far right corner of the map.
When the book of Sharif Idrissi “The Book of Pleasant Journeys into Faraway Lands” which is mentioned in the West in the book of Roger II, we find that it divides the world into seven regions, each divided into ten sections. For the book printed in 1863, its divisions have been re-arranged so that the book focuses on the sections of Egypt and North Africa known as Sudan, Morocco and Andalusia unlike the arrangement made by Sharif Idrissi in the original copy of the book before nine centuries. Remarkably, Al-Sharif Al-Idrisi on that matter speaks about very rich kingdoms in Africa where trade flourished. This is reflected in his listing of a large number of booming cities in Africa, which he calls Sudan.
Also, Idrissi’s description of the Nile is also noticeable, when he speaks about how it divides in the land of the Abyssinia and also spoke about the source of the Nile which refutes the argument that the British were the ones who discovered the headwaters of the Nile in the nineteenth century.
It is also worth mentioning that he named the Mediterranean Sea as the Damascene Sea and the Atlantic Ocean as the dark sea while expanding his description of Andalusia which is his hometown. He also expands in the description of the Indian Sea, which was found in parts six, seven, eight, nine and ten of the first section of his book, with a limited mention of Western Europe, including England, France and Northern Europe to the first and second sections of the sixth region, and sections I and II of the seventh region, which is the most narrow of all the regions. While the book expands in the description of the continents of Asia and Africa and mentions its agricultural productions and booming trade.
There is no doubt that the Mongol invasion of the Islamic Oriental and Iraq, and the invasion of the mainland in Damascus repeatedly had significantly contributed in shifting the interest of the Arabs towards the Indian Ocean. This is reflected in the comparison between the journey taken by Ibn Jubair in the twelfth century, which focused in the Mediterranean and the Levant, and the journey of Ibn Battuta in the fourteenth century, which was broader and included in addition to the Mediterranean, the Levant and the state of the Byzantine and central Asia, Iran and India, before moving across the Indian Ocean to China.
As Ibn Jubair journeyed on board the ship Jnoah from Andalusia to Alexandria in Egypt, reflecting the even relatively open policy to the Mediterranean world at that point in time, Ibn Battuta chose to journey overland across North Africa to Egypt and from there to the rest of the wilderness we have described above. This reflects an alienation with the Mediterranean world at that time, and a cut off in the relations and interactions with the Italians and other trading nations. The journey of Ibn Jubair was confined to the Orient to walk overland between the Hejaz, Iraq and Syria before returning to his country, without even coming close to the shores of the Indian Ocean. Ibn Battuta gave a wide space in his book to describe the countries of the Indian Ocean and the ports along its banks, which reflects the importance of this area for him and for other geographers of that time to this ocean.

Ibn Jubayr

Ibn Jubayr launched his journey on board the ship Jnoah of Granada toward Sardinia, then Sicily, and Crete to Alexandria. His trip to Egypt took thirty days. Ibn Jubayr describes Alexandria as a thriving city with many buildings, hospitals, mosques, schools, with a flourishing trade that is evidenced by the large number of its stores. He adds that “it is surprising to describe that the underground infrastructure is similar to its architecture to the one above the ground and even stronger, because the water of the Nile runs through all their homes and alleys while underground wells are connected to each other and further extend each other”. He also describes the lighthouse of Alexandria, which was still used during his time, saying that “one of the greatest wonders of it (Alexandria) was its lighthouse.” He also paid tribute to the Salahuldin Al Ayubi (Saladin), who had ordered the granting of pilgrims a free loaf of bread per day while securing their way and providing free healthcare for them as well.
Ibn Jubayr also expanded in his description for Cairo and its archeological and religious landmarks, and riches.
From Cairo, Ibn Jubayr headed to Southern Egypt and then north and then east toward the Red sea where he crossed over to the other side heading to Mecca and Medina to perform Hajj. He also expanded in the description of the two cities and the rituals of Hajj and clans that came from different parts of the Earth for the Hajj ceremony. Notably he described the existence of many differences, religious sects and heresies in the Oriental Arab world, ruling out that the Islam of the people of Morocco is the true Islam. After performing Hajj, he went to Kufa, Halla and then the city of Baghdad. There he noticed that the city of Baghdad had recoiled from the boom it had in previous eras.
Then, Ibn Jubayr left Baghdad and went to the city of Tikrit, then to Al Mosul, then Aleppo which he describes as “a town with a dangerous destiny, and it will be mentioned in every era … it has a famous and resolute citadel, that has no similarities with other citadels, it is immune to all enemies… The city of Aleppo has outlasted most of its rulers, it has copied itself through different times and locations, its name is feminine and thus has put on the adornments of beautiful women, and it has always condemned all those of treachery and betrayal”.
Ibn Jubayr moved to Aleppo, then Hama, then Homs and then Damascus which he considered as the heaven of the East and the bride of all cities. He describes its alleys and shops and large orchards and its big mosque as follows: “It (the mosque) is the most famous Islamic mosques in its looks, its mastered architecture, its surprising uniqueness, its workmanship, and the way it is celebrated and decorated”. And from Damascus, Ibn Jubayr moved to Tiberias then to Akka which was still under the rule of the Crusaders and then he moved to Tyre (Sour) and from it he sailed back to his hometown. He also noted that despite the warfare between the Crusaders and the Muslims, yet there was a thriving trade between them.

Ibn battouta

Unlike the journey of Ibn Jubayr, which was across the Mediterranean, the journey of Ibn Battuta was overland through the countries of North Africa to Alexandria, which stunned him due to its flourish and its large seaport, he also indicated that the Alexandria lighthouse was still standing. Then he went to Cairo or Egypt, “mother of the nation and pillar of the Pharaoh, the land of wide- regions and the country of lands, it is famous with its architecture, freshness and decency, and the complex of the imports and exports.” He also described the Nile and the towns and villages on its banks and the fact that “there is no river on this Earth other than the Nile which can be referred to as the sea.”
The Mamluk Sultan at that time was, “King Nasser Abu Al Fateh Mohammed bin Mansour Sayf al-Din Qalawun Salhi. Qalawun was known as the “Alfi” (the thousand) because the Al Saleh king had bought him for a thousand gold dinars, and he was originally from Kafjak”. He then headed South and then returned back North towards Palestine. In El-Arish he noted that no one from the Levant may enter Egypt without a rescript from the Levant, and no one from Egypt may enter the Levant without a rescript from Egypt, but acquitted of Egypt “to secure the people’s money and to guard against the spies of Iraqi”. Iraq was then under the rule of the Persian Ilkhani who were at feud with the Mamluks of Egypt. Then he arrived in Jerusalem and described the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock and Church of the Resurrection.
He then moved to Akka and then Tyre and then Sidon. Then he moved to several cities up to Tripoli Sham and described it as: “It has modern buildings, the old Tripoli was on the bank of the sea and owned by Al-Rum while it was retrieved by King Zahir it was ruined and the new modern city was taken.” He then moved to the Fort of the Kurds heading to Homs, “outside this city was the tomb of Khalid bin Al Walid the sword of Allah and His Messenger and in it was a corner and a mosque and on the tomb was a black livery”, and from there to Hama. Then he moved to Aleppo and cited his describing to that of Ibn Jubayr to reflect its decline relative to its past booming condition.
This may be due to the state of hostility between the Mamluks in Syria and Egypt on the one hand and the Mongols in Iraq and Persia on the other hand, which had a negative impact on trade between northern Iraq and Syria, which Aleppo was its main station. Ibn Battuta then moved to Guensrin and then Antakya where he spoke about “a sedition raised by the Armenians against the governor of the city” who was loyal to the Mamluks and how the Sultan discovered this sedition and sustained the governor in his reign. This may be caused by the loyalty of the Armenians to the Mongols rather than the Mamluks. He then moved to Masyaf and toured in the coastal regions and noted that most of the people living in the mountains were Alawites. And then he had a major stop in Damascus, where he described the Umayyad Mosque, “it is the world’s greatest mosques to celebrate in, with mastered architecture and created with decency, joy and perfection”. It is also worth mentioning that he spoke about Imam Ibn Taymiyyah charging him with madness.
From there, Ibn Battuta moved back to Iraq then Asfahan where he noted that the urban city was partially ruined as a result of the discord “between the Shiites and the Sunnis.” He also narrated how the Mughal king of Iraq Muhammad Khaddabandh converted to Islam according to the “doctrine of the Rafida” meaning the Shiite Jaafari doctrine and how by his conversion all the Mongols converted with him except the people of some cities, the first of whom is Baghdad which refused to change their doctrine of the Sunnis to the Shiites until a judge named Majduldin got involved and influenced the Sultan to convert to Sunni doctrine. He also described Baghdad’s miserable situation that came to as a result of the devastation it experienced at the hands of the Mongols.
After that he went to Amman then to Hermez, then returned north to Anatolia where it is stated that he had met Sultan Bursa Orhan Bin Osman the second Sultans of the Ottomans. Then he moved to Constantinople, which impressed him a lot as well as its church Hagia Sophia. And from there he moved to Khiva which was “the biggest city of the Turks, the greatest, largest and most beautiful, it has good markets and spacious streets and lots of architecture and beauties”. Then he moved to the city of Bukhara, which was” located behind the Gihon River which was dreaded by Tenkiz the Tatar” meaning Genghis Khan.
Then he moved to Kabul and from there to Delhi in northern India where he remained for two years before he was sent by the Sultan of India to China as part of a delegation. So he headed to Kandahar, and from there he went to the port to sale the sea to the city of Calicut which is “one of the most important great cities in the land of Milibar which was frequently visited by the people of China and Gaoh and Ceylon, and the people of Yemen and Persia. And in it prospect traders would meet. Its port is one of the greatest on Earth”.
On his way to China he passed by the islands of the Maldives, where he described how Islam was brought to this islands by a Moroccan dealer.
This is the story I heard personally from a university professor from the Maldives during my visit to China.
From there he moved to China, which he described as follows:
“The province of China is vast with plenty of good things, fruits and crops, gold, and silver unmatched in any other regions of the Earth, in it flows a river known as the door of life which also means the water of life. And its source comes from a mountain called “Koh Boznat”, which means the mountain of monkeys…and it passes in the middle of China, flowing six months to the end of the wall of China. It is beset with villages and farms, orchards and markets just like the Nile of Egypt. Yet this one has more architecture and has many waterwheels. In the land of China sugar is found a lot, as good as the Egyptian kind and even better, with grapes and pears also. And I thought that the Ottoman pears in Damascus were unparalleled until I saw the pears of China.
He also describes some of the characteristics that have been observed in China by saying:
“The people of China are infidels, they worship statues, and burn their dead as do the Indians. The king of China is a Tatar one of Genghis Khan’s descendants. In every city of China’s cities there is one city for Muslims where they live in it alone. In those Muslim cities they have mosques to set up Friday prayers and other occasions. Most of them are respectable. The infidels of China eat pigs and dogs for meat which they sell in their markets. The people there live in luxury, but they do not celebrate with food and clothing and you can see great merchants with great fortunes wearing rough cotton. And all the people of China like to celebrate with their gold and silver utensils. And each one of them has a reliable crutch to help them walk. And they have too much silk because the presence of large number of worms that attach themselves to the fruits and eat and produce lots of silk. Silk is also the dress of the poor and needy, and if it weren’t for the traders then silk would not have been valuable. One single garment of cotton can be bought in the price of many silk robes. It is their habit that the dealer makes gold and silver into small pieces, each piece of them is a pound.
He also paid tribute to China’s security which makes it easy for the dealers to move freely without fear for their lives or money.
Ibn Iyas
If the Arabs had substituted the Mediterranean trade by dominating the Indian Ocean trade things would have been different. There is no doubt that the entry of the Portuguese into trade in the year 1498 AD and their shift to the trade routes away from the Arabian Peninsula and the Red Sea dealt a decisive blow to them which was reflected in the history of Ibn Iyas, who deals with this stage.

The Portuguese danger in the Indian Ocean

Ibn Iyas begins in this part which deals with the phase starting the year 1501 the date when Sultan Qansouh Ghouri took reign over the sultanate until 1515. He begins by mentioning the Franks, meaning the Portuguese, in the year 911AH where he says that Tghri Bardi, an interpreter at the Egyptian palace, had traveled in November of that year to “the country of the Crusaders and took with him a book of Alaptrk”, possibly in an attempt to mediate with the Crusaders “after meddling of the Franks increased along the coasts by taking the traders’ money”. Then he mentioned the campaign by the Portuguese against the port of Yanbu on the shores of Hejaz, overlooking the Red Sea, stating that the Portuguese overcame the Prince of the Yanbu Yehya Ibn Sabaa who escaped as they destroyed the city. He adds that the soldiers sent by Sultan Hussein Bash to fight the Portuguese had arrived in Jeddah and began to consolidate the coast to build towers.
By then Hussein bash had prepared the military fleet and headed to the port of Aden in Yemen, “but the damage caused by the Franks later grew as the ships of the Franks increased in the Hejaz Sea to about twenty ships, and they started tampering with the boats of the Indian dealers, cutting them off in frightening places and taking away their goods, until rice was no longer found in Egypt and other countries”.
Ibn Iyas explains the Portuguese ship incidents in the Indian Ocean as follows: “the cause of this incident is because the Franks dodged the dam which was built by Alexander Ben Phelps AlRumi. This dam was in a mountain between the China sea and the Roman Sea, the franks kept maneuvering there, tampering with the dam and drilling for years until it opened up and became a passage way for boats to the Hejaz Sea, and this was one of the biggest causes of corruption”.
Then the military of Hussein Bash achieved a great victory over the Crusaders, but he asked for more soldiers to embolden him against those who were left of the Franks. In October and November of the year 914 AH, news that Prince Tamr Bay the Indian triumphed in one of the battles against the Crusaders” and defeated them and captured some twenty-seven of them, and took over their ships”. Then he mentions the major defeat at the Battle of Diouf off the Indian coast, by saying that in the first month of Spring in the year 915 AH news came that the soldiers who went to India accompanied by Hussein the supervisor had been defeated harshly by the Franks who killed all the soldiers and looted whatever was in their boats. This news enraged the Sultan”.
Then he recalled that in Safar 916 AH “he went to King Mahmoud Shah, the ruler of Knbalah, and other kings of India with promises to the Sultan that include rapidly preparing to send military to India because of the mess the Franks had done there, where they have gone rogue and even more greedy when they defeated Hussein who was sent by the Sultan”. In the first Jumada, Al-Sharif Barakat the Emir of Mecca caught three of the Crusaders disguised in Ottoman wardrobe, who turned out to be spies for Frankish kings. He seized them and sent them to the Mamluk Sultan.

The Spanish Threat in the Mediterranean

Ibn Iyas then mentions the appointment of Sultan Tajrida to the country of the Franks led by Mohammed Beck because “they have increased their aggression against the people in the salty sea” and appointed his cousin Mohammed Beck leader of this campaign. The aim of the Sultan as in the words of Ibn Iyas was to face the Spaniards in the Mediterranean Sea, adding to the burden on the Egyptian state which was facing the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean, the Safavids in Iraq and eastern Anatolia and the Spaniards in the Mediterranean. In Rajab 915 AH Ibn Iyas said that “while Prince Mohammed Beck was on his way to the John, he encountered Frank ships meddling in the sea with traders, so he fought them and defeated them and killed a large group of them”. In Jumada the first of year 916 AH, news came that the city of Tripoli fell into the hands of the Franks who killed forty thousand of its population.
In the first Jumada on Sunday the tenth “news came from the representative of Tripoli that the Crusaders attacked the Prince Mohammed Beck the cousin of the Sultan, who had gone to John in order to fetch timber. The franks attacked him near Iyas Castle Coast, and Prince Mohammed fought them back alone as the soldiers accompanying him had fled, he was killed along with those who remained with him fighting. The Franks then stole what was with him on the ships which were loaded with weapons and war machines and they were about eighteen ships. When the news reached the Sultan he was infuriated and refrained from eating for two days. The evil of the Franks increased against the people in the Al Rum Sea and the Indian Sea which hit the Sultan hard and very much disturbed him.”
In the same month, “the Sultan ordered the arrest of the monks in the church of resurrection in Jerusalem, as well as the rest of the Crusaders who were in Alexandria, Damietta and other coasts. This was because of the Franks who killed Prince Mohammed and took the ships of the Sultan”. Which indicates the Sultan’s weakness in facing the danger of the Spanish in the Mediterranean.

The danger posed by the Safavids

The danger of the Portuguese that had a negative impact on the Egyptian trade along the Indian Sea was met with the rise of the Safavid threat. Ibn Iyas recalled that in the first Jumada year 913 AH, the Shah Ismail Al Soufi launched a campaign against Iraq which led to “disorder in Cairo”, that also coincided with the arrival of delegates from the “son of Osman” to Cairo, to discuss the developments in the region. Sultan created a campaign to confront the Safavid but reported news that the garrison stationed on the Euphrates gained victory over the Safavids.
This was followed by the arrival of delegates from Shah Ismail in Cairo confirming to the Sultan Ghouri Qansouh telling him that the events on the outskirts of the Mamluks in Syria was not according to the Shah’s will. In the first of Jumada, news came from the Prince of Bira that “he caught a group coming from Ishmael Al Soufi and bearing books from the Soufi to some of the kings of the Franks asking them to assist him against the Sultan of Egypt in order to attack Egypt from the sea where he would attack it from the mainland, but the group was caught by the representative of Bira and were sent to the Sultan”.
In Hijjah of the year 916 AH, “news from Aleppo came that Al Soufi has triumphed over Azibak Khan king of the Tatars and killed him and cut off his head, which enraged the Sultan who kept the princes beside him till noon to give him consultations, since it was Azibak Khan who kept Al Soufi busy from fighting the Ibn Osman and the Sultan of Egypt. So when rumors of the killing of Azibak Khan were out, the Sultan feared the Soufi might be creeping on to his country”.
On Monday, on the 22nd day of the first spring 917 AH, the Sultan received “Qassed Safavid who gave him gifts and a box which turned out to be the head of Azibak Khan, so the Sultan ordered to bury the head”. The Sultan and all his people were preventing anyone from seeing him and they also prevented any of the Qassed’s people to come out to the market and meet any of the people”. Ibn Iyas adds that “it was rumored in the Soufi’s land that the Sultan had been busy planting trees and seedling many kinds of flowers and herbs, in a way to make fun of the Sultan”. This made evident of the Sultan’s weakening reputation and declining prestige in the face of his opponents.

The impact of the end of Egyptian sovereignty over the Indian Ocean trade

From the above mentioned events, it is clear that the Indian Ocean trade was in the hands of warlords and merchants who were counting on Egypt to protect their trade, as evidenced by the attempt of the princes and merchants towards Egypt to help them cope with the Portuguese. As well as it clearly appears that the entry of the Portuguese to the Indian Ocean and them blocking trade in it then shifting the trade away from Egypt and the failure of the Mamluks in taking out the Portuguese from the Indian Ocean had weakened Egypt very much especially as it was also facing the Spaniards in the Mediterranean while the Safavids in Iran had begun to pose a threat from the east as well.
All these factors led to the contraction of Egypt’s power, prompting them to resort to the help of their only ally at the time, the Ottomans, at least until the year 1514 AD. Part IV of the book of Ibn Iyas is full of descriptions about the frequent visits between the Ottomans envoys to Egypt and Egyptian envoys to the Ottoman Empire, in addition to the aid received by Egypt from the Ottoman Empire, including the following incident as told by Ibn Iyas:
In October the year 916 AH, “several ships sent by Ibn Osman king of Al Rum carrying Zrdechanah to the Sultan, had its loading taken away as they while reaching the port of Bulaq to the Sultan’s castle. The ship were loaded with thirty thousand shares of crossbows, and forty quintals of gun powder, and two thousand wooden projectiles, and other brass and iron and calf and ropes and iron marinas and other things that ships need. So the Sultan thanked the king after he had sent money with Younis al-Adli to the country of Ibn Osman to buy him timber and copper and iron but when Al-Adli reached Ibn Osman, the latter returned the money and gave him with all the above mentioned equipment as a gift to the Sultan”.
The Sultan’s weakness manifested itself in the inability of the Sultan to distribute the gifts to the Mamluks and his supporters, as well as in his increasing doubts against the leaders of his state and even his private translator.
Thus, if the Crusades had succeeded in breaking the monopoly of the Arabs — Muslims’ trade in the Mediterranean in the twelfth century AD, and the Mongol’s invasion had led to taking away the wild trade from the hands of the Arab Muslims in mainland Asia to China via Central Asia, then the entry of the Portuguese to the Indian Ocean and their victory against the Arabian-Islamic domination in the sixteenth century, had led the Arabs to their last gate to the world trade and contributed to their marginalization, headed by Egypt, the leader of the the Arab-Muslim world between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries. The fall of the Mamluks in Egypt and the Levant and the Hejaz under the Ottoman domination, was only a complement to the loss of the Indian Ocean trade.

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