Pashas, By James Mather

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The Independent Culture

Last year I wandered into the Khan al-Gumruk, a 16th-century courtyard in Aleppo, Syria, where I happened upon a blind boy melodiously chanting verses from the Qur'an. He was welcomed by the traders without ostentation, given a chair here, a cup of tea there, while porters swayed around him, vans reversed and vast rolls of thick embroidered material were cut, measured and seal-wrapped in plastic. I made a mental note never to come back, lest I destroy the exquisite memories of that morning. But I was quite wrong.

Since then I have read James Mather's Pashas, and long to return. Mather has written an impressively researched, imposing yet affectionate history of the traders of the Levant Company, which firmly places his work within the academic dialogue that ebbs and flows around Edward Said's Orientalism. From his choice of opening scene - General Allenby marching into Jerusalem in 1917 - Mather seems to accept the broad thrust of Said's argument, that Orientalist travellers and scholars acted as a fifth column preparing the way for colonial conquest.

However, he also wishes to qualify Said's thesis, not only by placing it within a defined period but also by witnessing an uniquely constructive group of British Orientalists. For the subject of Pashas is not the familiar litany of stern imperial officials who controlled Egypt and the Gulf for the British Empire but a nearly forgotten cast of 16th- and 17th-century merchant-venturers. Mather shows in detail how his Pashas of the Levant Company were the polar opposites of the stereotypical colonial administrator. They built no forts, commanded no garrisons, but adapted themselves to the traditions of their host society, learning new languages, assuming native dress. To succeed as merchants, they had to befriend the camel-drivers, muleteers and pilgrims who might allow them a better understanding of internal trade.

This small body of men, never much more than 200, lived either in Constantinople (Istanbul), Smyrna (Izmir) or Aleppo, the walled trading city of northern Syria. There all the "Frank" merchants of western Europe were lodged within the secure walls of the Khan, together with consuls and chaplains.

The lower floor of this spacious urban caravanserai was reserved for their booths while the upper floor was set aside for lodgings. In these textile-draped rooms, music and scholarship flourished beside the endless trade deals. Friendships were slowly made with Syrian scholars, Levantine merchants and Ottoman officials. The traders were under the distant authority of their ambassador in Constantinople. In a canny deal, first cut by Queen Elizabeth I, official salaries were laid at the charge of the Levant Company. In exchange the Company had a monopoly on the "turkey trade", based on the profitable export of silk, spices and currants to London.

There was much talk of the patriotic duty of exporting English cloth to pay for luxuries from the East. In reality, the trade was underwritten by breaking the arms embargo of Christendom with the Turks. Ottoman diplomats were keen to strengthen England, the enemy of their enemy, Habsburg Spain and Austria, and also to weaken the rival Venetian Empire. But the vast fortunes earned by such English traders as Dudley North were supplemented by an additional private activity: acting as bankers (some might say loan sharks) to Muslims forbidden the evils of usury by their religion.

This mercantile brotherhood was also the source for all England's first distinguished generation of Orientalists. My favourite stories are Mather's testaments to the enduring friendships forged across the religious divide. In honoured retirement, Dudley North dropped everything when two old Dervish friends came to his London office, taking them out to dine with his brother, smoking opium and drinking wine with them late into the night, while translating their mystical songs into English for the benefit of the other guests.