Among the four kinds of textiles that were known in the Muslim and Mediterranean worlds, only two—wool and linen—were ubiquitous in the ancient world prior to the Islamic conquests. The other two—cotton and silk—were introduced in the seventh and eighth centuries thanks to the Islamic conquests, which by uniting the Arabian and central African deserts with the fertile areas of the eastern Mediterranean, brought technologies that had been rooted only in ancient Persia, central Asia, and India, among others, to Mediterranean societies. Silk, which earlier had been introduced in the sixth century from central Asia to the north of Syria, had been unable to expand prior to the Islamic conquests due to the strong economic and technical advantages enjoyed by the Sassanian and Byzantine empires.
One of the many benefits of the Islamic conquests was its unification of the economic and technical domains over vast areas of the Mediterranean. That unification engendered significant expansion in the silk industry, from the increase in production of raw silk, to the advance in techniques for manufacturing finished silk goods, to the expansion of silk and cotton luxuries that became the trademark of ruling dynasties and their courts. Cotton became such a success that it was gradually replaced for the linen of the ancient world. Syria became the biggest producer of cotton in the Middle Ages, and exported its products to Egypt and lower Mesopotamia. With the Crusades, Syrian cotton exports reached the Italian city-states, though most of silk exports were almost exclusively oriented to the Nile Delta. By the Middle Ages the bulk of Syrian textiles consisted of silk fabricated over cotton cloth.
Though Egypt imported much of Syria’s silk, it remained a producer of linen, particularly in the Delta, and of wool in upper Egypt. Cotton was an alien product to Egypt, and remained so until its introduction by Muhammad ‘Ali in the first half of the nineteenth century. The Islamic conquests also made of Spain a producer of wool and silk. The overall picture of the medieval Islamic world was therefore one of “a civilization of textiles,” where the fabrication of such commodities became the primary manufacturing activity of the populations and guilds across the eastern Mediterranean, and where each region was associated with the production of a particular textile.
That situation seems to have been maintained into the Ottoman conquests. As with the late medieval period, cotton and cereals were the two main products of agricultural production. Under the Ottomans, Egypt increased its imports of Syrian cotton to meet demand from its textile industry. Only in the 1860s did the great cotton boom occur, and since then cotton has maintained its leading place in Egyptian agriculture.
Meanwhile the Fertile Crescent, up until 1800, maintained its preeminence in cotton and silk production and manufacturing. Second in cotton manufacturing and export capacity was Anatolia. Besides local and European demand, the empire also needed such products for the army and navy.
Production of cotton goods was fairly rural-based. Farmers brought their cleaned raw cotton to nearby town markets. There it was purchased in small quantities by spinners who were poor townsfolk, mostly women. At the same time, foreign merchants had their own local agents to purchase raw cotton and silk for export to Europe. Local Ottoman élites, typically Christians, Jews, and Armenians, also competed in the purchase of raw cotton and silk. Both the foreign merchants and the local Ottoman élites typically purchased these raw textiles through the practice of salam, a type of futures contract endorsed in the Hanafi fiqh.
The urban production of textiles, from the recruiting of labor, setting of prices, quality control, supply and demand, and taxation, was regulated through the guild system. Up to the early nineteenth century, conflicts among guild members and between guilds, whenever customary practices failed, were regulated through the sharia court system and local qadis, without much governmental interference.
It is generally accepted that the cultivation and manufacturing of cotton and silk goods began to suffer towards the end of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In particular, in the era of the industrial revolution in Europe, Europeans became more interested in exporting their own textiles to Egypt, the Levant, and Anatolia, and imposed exorbitant tariffs on imports. The number of Middle Eastern handlooms and their total output thus declined sharply. For example, in Bursa, output of cloth fell substantially from 20,000 pieces in 1843 to 3,000 in 1863. In Aleppo and Damascus combined, the number of looms dropped from about 12,000 in the 1820s to some 2,500 in the 1840s. Middle Eastern weavers were able to recover by using improved looms, importing cheaper and better European yarns, concentrating on inexpensive products, and drastically reducing wages.
In the colonial interwar period following the demise of the Ottomans, the guild system suddenly declined and the production of textiles improved greatly thanks to the introduction of new western techniques in agriculture and manufacturing. A new middle class, sometimes unrelated to the old guild families, took control of production, but with the military coups of the 1950s and 1960s (particularly in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq) it saw many of its assets nationalized and under state control. Textile production since the 1960s to the present, therefore, consists of a slow moving uncompetitive public sector, which is protected by high tariffs on imports, with an underlying dynamic (but marginal and fragmented) private sector which is too small to make an impact. Turkey, Israel, Egypt, and Lebanon now generally share most of the textile exports to world markets. Of the four, only Egypt has managed to maintain a strong public sector, albeit with great difficulty.
The problems facing Egypt’s textile industry represent a microcosm of the eastern Mediterranean’s stalled liberalization policies (infitah) adopted since the late 1970s in the aftermath of the Camp David agreements. Such polices, besides giving greater freedom to the private sector, have allowed more foreign capital investments. The main problems, however, facing Egyptian textiles are more internal and structural than external. Earlier, Nasir’s implementation of “socialist” statist policies, made Egyptian firms uncompetitive: overstaffed, and with poorly skilled workers, state industries have been slow in adapting to technological changes, including the implementation of computers and software. The result of these structural weaknesses is that, despite Egypt’s low wages, the state industries output prices have remained relatively high. The private firms that do exist are too marginal to make up for the weaknesses of the public sector, and have not done a better job than the public sector industries in implementing and updating technologies, which suggests that privatization (khaskhasa) might not always be the magic solution, at least when not accompanied by more radical political reforms.
Henry, Clement M., and Robert Springborg, Globalization and the Politics of Development in the Middle East, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Issawi, Charles, An Economic History of the Middle East and North Africa, New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
Lombard, Maurice, Les textiles dans le Monde Musulman du VIIe au XIIe siècle, Paris : Mouton, 1978.
“Harir,” Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd ed.
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Loyola University Chicago