The Gulf region during the “Middle Period,” from around 1000 - 1500 CE, faced what seemed to be two insurmountable challenges: the fall of the ‘Abbasids in Baghdad in 1258 CE as well as increased competition from the Red Sea. Despite these two threats to the prosperity of trade in the region, however, Gulf ports remained vibrant and important centers of trade and cosmopolitanism. The Gulf, with its merchant economy and its relatively tolerant port cities, did not march in lockstep with the fate and fortunes of metropolitan cities such as Baghdad. Instead of William McNeill’s webs of history with their orbiting points, medieval Gulf ports were spiders spinning silk in the wind, attaching to whatever space along the shore was most convenient. Gulf port polities were diffuse, detached from imperial centers and, for dogmatists, sometimes dangerous, as they do not fit usual religious paradigms. Marshall Hodgson rightly identified the Middle Period as the crucial period for the Islamicate world. The centuries between 1000–1500 CE were characterized by a remarkable unity that existed across the Medieval Islamic world despite political divisions. However, there was far more to the story of medieval Gulf culture, and possibly the whole medieval Middle East, than Hodgson’s narrative of the consolidation of Islam, which focuses on trade, religious thought, and cultural influences setting out from agrarian, urban centers. The remarkable independence of Gulf ports from agrarian political power mixed with a heavy dependence on international trade fostered a distinctive cosmopolitan ethos directed beyond Hodgson’s Islamicate world.

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