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The Islamic Empire at the heart of commerce in the medieval world

This map is part of a series of 7 animated maps showing the history of Origins of Islam and the Arabo-Muslim Empire.


The creation of the Islamic Empire in the wake of Arab conquests during the 7th and 8th centuries led to the unification, for the first time, of territories to the west and east of the Middle East, and brought together parts of the coasts along the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.

Peace in the Empire’s territories, implementation of the same legal standards from the Iberian Peninsula to Central Asia and, most importantly, adoption of common currencies, the silver dirham and the golden dinar, encouraged economic prosperity and the development of trade.

Within the Empire, both ancient cities, such as Damascus, and new towns like Fustat benefited from spectacular growth.

This urban expansion increased demand for basic necessities and stimulated agriculture and crafts while at the same time encouraging the development of trading networks over long distances in order to satisfy the demands of urban elites for luxury goods.

Across the Indian Ocean, ships brought, from the Maluku Islands and the Malabar Coast, spices (cloves, nutmeg, pepper) and, from China, precious wood, silk and ceramics.

Along the Dnieper and Volga Rivers the boreal forests supplied skins and furs.

From Western Europe came timber for construction and metals that were not available in the Islamic Empire. The trans-Saharan routes brought ivory and ostrich feathers, and above all, gold extracted from mines in West Africa which had not been known in the Ancient World.

Finally, slaves were brought in from all regions neighbouring the Islamic Empire and placed as domestic servants or enlisted in the armies.

The presence of Islamic currencies in areas beyond the Empire’s frontiers, for example in Cluny in France and Gotland in Sweden, is evidence of trade over much longer distances than ever before.

In 762, the city of Baghdad was founded and Iraq became the centre of the Empire, while Mesopotamia emerged as the crossroads for long-distance trading routes. Maritime commerce passed through the Persian Gulf and the port of Basra while on land, roads with regular staging posts converged on the new imperial capital.

In the 10th century, however, with the creation of the Fatimid Empire based in Egypt, more trading goods travelled from the Indian Ocean towards the Red Sea and encouraged renewed trade in the Mediterranean, which had been seriously reduced during the early Middle Ages.  Letters from major Jewish merchants in Fustat illustrate Egypt’s new importance; the network of their correspondents stretched from Italy to the west coast of India and through all major urban centers in the Islamic world.