Jewish Traders of the Diaspora Part I: The Persian Period

Fact Paper 41-I

© Samuel Kurinsky, all rights reserved

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Jewish Dispersion, a Bane and a Boon

The dispersions of the Jews from their homelands proved to be both a bane and a boon. Again and again Jews were ripped from their roots. Again and again Jews were obliged to make a new life in strange surroundings. Nonetheless, some factors worked in their favor. Most importantly, the Jews were a literate people who shared a common language with their relatives and compatriots in other lands. The Jews have not only been the "People of the Book" but the people who, in the main, could read a book. Literacy leads not only to learning but to the transfer of information from persons unknown, even from persons long dead. Importantly, it leads to the ability to communicate over time and space.

The Jews enjoyed a commercial advantage by virtue of familial ties and ability to communicate. Having a common interest, they established commercial liaisons of mutual benefit, and were, often uniquely, able to issue letters of credit that were certain to be honored months later from distant lands.

Throughout the ages the participation of the Jews in the evolution of commerce was far out of proportion to their numbers. Jewish communities were rarely deployed into primitive hinterlands, but in ports that gave them access to their peers abroad, or along trade routes, or in centers at the forefront of the technological revolution. Subsequent displacements widened the web of their commercial contacts. Jews became integral to the international trade of the countries into which they settled or were hurled. Inter-national intercourse became part and parcel of Jewish life.

Erudite Jewish traveler-traders maintained an interchange of Judaic law and cultural precepts between the dispersed communities. Jewish identity was preserved through the links provided by world-girdling sages.

The Canaanites and the Jews

Judaic maritime history begins with the association of the Judahites with the Kinanu, as the so-dubbed "Phoenicians" called themselves. One of many evidences of Judahite exports with the sea-faring Canaanites of Tyre and Sidon, is the appearance of the Judahite royal stamp lmlk ("of the king") on the handles of wine jars in Canaanite cargos and in stock in Carthage. The Carthaginians likewise identified themselves not as a "Punic" people, but as Kinanu.

The lmlk stamp is unquestionably Judahite, It is an abbreviated form of l'melekh, Hebrew for "of the King, " i.e., "a product of the King of Judah." They first appeared in the eighth century B.C.E.

The Canaanites disappeared from maritime activity after the Romans defeated the Carthaginians and conquered the Levant. But the Jews continued as a significant factor in Mediterranean trade. Philo records that one of the four main occupations of the Jews of Alexandria was maritime activity in all its forms. The church father Origen (185-254 C.E.)born in Alexandria, bore witness to the fact that not only did Jewish carpenters, masons, and other workers of Alexandria cease work in observance of the Sabbath, but Jewish sailors likewise would heave to their vessels on that Holy Day.

The Jewish sailors of Alexandria (navicularii) were organized into a corporation, one of the few Jewish guilds organized according to Roman law, When the church began to impose its heavy hand upon artisans associations, the maritime workers and the glassmakers were among the few exempted from conversion to Christianity.

Jews were not only sailors, longshoremen, and captains of vessels, but also shipowners and the financiers of commercial voyages This is confirmed by Synesius (c. 375-413 C.E.), Bishop of Ptolemais, who reported that on his voyage out of Alexandria, the captain and more than half of the crew were Jews.

During the Roman occupation of Egypt Alexandrian Jewish entrepreneurs became deeply involved in the burgeon-ing sea trade with India. Ships carried merchandise up the Nile to be off loaded at and transported across the desert to Egyptian Red Sea ports, then laded onto ships sailing down the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and across the Indian Ocean.

The Romans were not the traders traveling the routes but the overlords who derived a healthy income from the activity of the adventurous entrepreneurs. The Romans collected customs duties at military camps established to "protect" caravans along the African route sometimes amounting to as much as 25% of the value of the goods. An inscription of 90 C.E. at Coptos, Egypt, for example, reveals that " Passes had to be purchased by travelers for themselves, their pack animals and vehicles. Rates varied. Prostitutes using the roads to ply their trade at the ports or in the hydreumata, mines, and quarries in the Eastern Desert paid exceptionally high rates."

"Rich Jews from Alexandria... participated in this Egyptian commerce."1

The trail of Jewish sea-faring traders of the Roman period leads us as far as the southwest coast of India where Jews are said to have disembarked in the year 72 C.E. at Cranganore, an ancient seaport north of Cochin. The Jews adopted the local tongue, Malayalam, except for services, which continued to be conducted in Hebrew and Aramaic.

The Cochin Jews were mainly spice traders, and the few Jewish families who are left still carry on a trade in cardamon, pepper, ginger, turmeric and other spices, just as they did in the early days of the Common Era.

The Jews of India never experienced ant-Semitism. On the contrary, they were treated with respect. Rabbi Joseph Rabban, a Jewish elder of the Cochin community, was appointed Prince of the Indian village of Anjuvannam by King Sri Parkaran Iravi Vanmar. Facsimiles of copper plates listing the honors and privileges granted the rabbi are now sold in the synagogue of Mattancherry, a suburb of Cochin.

The First Diaspora: Persia

The Cochin Jews were carrying on an already ancient Jewish activity. Jewish traders had long since penetrated into India by land routes radiating out from their enclaves in Babylonia.

From the eighth century B.C.E., when the Assyrian ruler Tiglath-Pileser deported 13,150 Israelites to Persia (according to the conqueror himself), to modern times, Jews have been at the forefront of international trade. The subsequent Babylonian exile added many thousands of Judahite families to the Persian/Babylonian milieu. Persia became the pivotal point from which trade between the eastern and the western worlds evolved. The Jews were the common denominator between those worlds.

Jewish bankers made finance capital a factor of Persian industrial development and initiated a system of credit that Jewish traders wove into the world economy. The surviving records of two Jewish banking families are among the most revealing documents of the Persian period. They supplied the credit and capital for the expanding economy of the region. Albert Olmstead, author of the authoritative History of the Persian Empire, took special note that: "Without any doubt, the most important economic phenomenon was the emergence of the private banker and the consequent expansion of credit."1A Previously, until the seventh century B.C.E., credit was available in Persia mainly on a local basis as temple loans to dependents, to be repaid in kind or equivalent, or as advances of grains or other food-stuffs from landlords to their peasant tenants in off season, to be repaid at harvest time. Such loans were generally interest-free, albeit a penalty amounting to as much as twenty-five per cent was imposed if payment was not made when due.

By the mid-seventh century B.C.E., soon after the deportation of the Israelites to the area, financiers appeared who instituted a reformed system of credit whereby interest-bearing capital was offered for private enterprise and for governmental purposes. Most important among the new institutions engaged in such enterprise were the Jewish banking houses of "Murashu and Sons," and of "Egibi and Sons." They expanded the scope of credit from agrarian assistance to the energizing of industry and commerce.

The records of both powerful banking houses reveal astoundingly sophisticated functions. They document credits issued, loans granted, bills of exchange, the founding and financing of commercial enterprises, the purchase of goods, and the acquisition, management, and sale of tracts of land.

The Murashu family stemmed from Judahite deportees. After rooting in Nippur, a commercially important city southeast of Babylon, they became a leading banking family of Mesopotamia. The family was central to the region's economy for at least a century and a half. 730 tablets of the banking house of Murashu and Sons were recovered from the ruins of Nippur. The documents survived because the clay jars in which they were stored had been carefully sealed with asphalt. An ancient map indicates that the Murashu home lay on an important irrigation canal of the Euphrates, the Chebar, that ran through the city of Nippur. The Jewish settlement of Tel-Abib (a precursor of the present Tel Aviv), was located on the same "Grand Canal" of the region. The prophet Ezekiel resided in Tel Abib (Ez. 3:15).

Nippur was excavated from1888 through 1900 by the American archaeologist John Henry Haynes under difficult circumstances. The Americans were forced to build a fortress atop the mound to protect against warring Shiite Moslem tribesmen that threatened their excavations throughout the expedition.

The surviving records of the Murashu business houses are mostly of three sons and three grandsons of the founder, covering a half century between 455 and 403 B.C.E. They make clear that the firm had long been a vital factor in the economy of the region, and continued to be so thereafter. The records provide a piercing view into the Persian/Babylonian economy of the times, as well as of the vital role of Jewish artisans and entrepreneurs active within it.

The regional satrap of Egypt, Arsames, made his headquarters in Nippur at the end of the fifth century. His mail-pouch, containing letters in Aramaic to his Egyptian bailiffs, was also unearthed. They reflect the political and economic importance of the town.2 Arsames is also referred to in Aramaic papyri written by Jews of a contemporary Jewish colony on Elephantine island in the Nile in Upper Egypt.

Tel Abib was one of twenty-eight such Jewish settlements in the immediate Nippur area alone that are featured in the Murashu records. The documents attest to the wide spread of activities of the erstwhile exiles. Included are deeds for land acquisitions, contracts and conveyances of all kinds, insurance, the provision of capital for specific projects. Even securities for imprisoned debtors were dealt with by the prestigious Murashu house. The Murashus managed estates for absentee landlords, hiring labor, paying taxes to the exchequer, and remitting the profits to the landlords. They provided small farm collectives eking out a living along the irrigation canals with equipment for raising water to their farms. They supplied farmers with animals, seed, and implements.

The Murashu documents make evident that many forms of producer's collectives existed. In addition to agrarian cooperatives, the system encompassed "various groups of artisans, for example, carpenters, tanners, ferrymen and shepherds, as well as merchants, scribes, and so on."3 Jews are prominently featured as recipients of this assistance. Some owned land. Others were employed by high-placed Persians and Babylonians or were servants of the crown. There was, for example, a certain Hannani, son of Minahhim, who held the post of "one who is over the birds of the king [Darius II]," that is, one who attended the flocks of fowl belonging to the crown.4 .

Many Jews assumed Babylonian names, as is inevitably the case in a Diaspora. Nonetheless, eight per cent of the clients of the banking families can be identified as Jews from their names alone. This percentage corres-ponds roughly to the proportion of Jews among the official population, which, before the influx of the deportees from Jerusalem and Judah, amounted to over six per cent of the total. The Aramaic form of many other names and sugges-tive facts indicate that the actual percentage was far higher.

For example, a certain Jedaiah mortgaged his land to the Murashu banking house at an annual fee of thirty thousand liters of barley. Three years later, Jedaiah in association with other partners expanded his holdings, paying three times the amount in rent. In 419 B.C.E., Jedaiah's son, Eliada, formed a partnership with a person with a Persian name to become the agents of the steward of the royal domains in the Nippur area.5

Most of the Jews referred to in the Murashu documents were of the lower classes. Some were slaves. They come to our attention because slaves of those times were not treated as mere property without rights, but as persons who retained private privileges as well as responsibilities to their owner. They could independently enter into legal agreements that did not compromise the responsibilities to their lord. Two such slaves, one bearing a clearly Judaic name, were contracted by the head of the house of Murashu to repair the dam of the irrigation canal passing through Murashu property. The contract stipulated that damages would be assessed if the commitment was not fulfilled, a condition that infers that the "slaves" had independent property of their own to be assessed!

Other credits were extended to persons of meager resources. An impoverished woman who made her living by spinning at home was assisted in her endeavors. A Jewish guide was hired for a journey and was promised, in addition to wages and expenses, a bonus upon the successful completion of the trip. A certain Zebadiah was one of five fishermen who, too poor to own their own nets, were enabled to lease nets for a period of twenty days.6

The family name of the other banking house vital to the economy of the area, Egibi, is an Akkadian translitera-tion of Jacob. A trove of the records of the family was fortuitously recovered because its inscriptions were incised upon clay tablets that were baked in a conflagration. The family's misfortune served to enrich the historical record.

The ethnicity of this prestigious Jewish family was brought into question because of the name of the head of the firm, Ittl-Marduk-balatu, who also employed the first name of Istn.7 The theophoric inclusion of the god Marduk in the name was shown to be a fashionable acceptance of Babylonian norms without religious overtones. As noted above, many other confirmed Jews were known to have likewise pragmatically assumed such names. An example of the use of such names is that assumed by a governor of Judah, Sheshbazzar.8

The origins of the family are not doubtful. The Babylonian name of this member of the Egibi family was, in fact, a secondary name. The original and true name of the family was Shirik, an Aramaic name. What appears to have been his first name was Iddina, rendered in Hebrew as Nathan. The ancestor of another member of the family was Bel-iau, a name that obviously invokes the God of Israel.

It is clear that although the Egibi and Murashu families were wealthy Jews, and while other Jews did well at court and in the service of the hierarchy, most Jews were busy at agriculture, crafts, and various enterprises.

There are a number of references to Jewish engineers who earned their living as irrigation experts. All fourteen canal managers known to us by name through these documents were Jews. They were responsible administrators who exercised a technical trade central to the economy of the region.9 Some Jews participated in the military establishment. Thus, the son of a feudatory, Gadalyaw Gedaliah, "volun-teered to serve as a mounted and cuirassed archer in place of a son of Murashu. This Gedaliah is the earliest known predecessor of medieval mailclad and mounted knights."10

The Glassware Route

The activity of the Egibi entrepreneurs in Susa, gateway to India, presages the expansion of trade along the land and sea routes to India and China. The Jews were concentrated in the fertile canal-laced heart of Babylonia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This region, and in particular the Jewish enclaves within the region, formed the hub of a network of trade routes that fanned out across Asia to the East and West. Jewish merchants and artisans established colonies at strategic points along those routes.

Trade between the two extremities of the Eurasian continent had been hitherto circumscribed by two factors. First, there was the barrier of the formidable Pamirs, a north-south mountain range that abutted the even more intimidating Hindu Kush and Himalaya mountains. Beyond the massive mountains a vast desert stretched into the heart of China. The snow-capped mountain chains and the stretches of scorching sands effectively segmented the immense Eurasian land mass.

The most stringent limitation of East-West trade was, however, control over sectors of the east-west passage by fierce tribes such as the Hsuing Nu, the so-called Huns. The Huns were one of a number of Turkic-speaking peoples through whom the caravans had to be cleared for passage. Trade could not be conducted without the intervention of such peoples until Emperor Wu (141-87 B.C.E.) sent his general, Zhang Qien, to secure a passage to the West.

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Despite these obstacles, Jewish/Persian entrepreneurs penetrated the massive Chinese market and tapped its resources from the fifth century B.C.E. forward. Glass trade beads appear to be among the earliest trade goods employed for the purpose. Such beads were recovered from Chinese tombs at Lo-Yang, the capital of China in late Zhou times.

Reverend William Charles White was the driving force behind the excavation of the Lo Yang tombs.11 He uncovered a vast collection of grave goods from the royal tombs at Chin-ts-un. They were dated between 550 and 380 B.C.E.12 The beads were the earliest glass objects ever found in China and the first important indication of a burgeoning contact between the Near and Far East.

A great variety of glass beads was recovered. Among them were the ubiquitous eye-beads of the same technique, design, and composition that had been produced in Judah and exported through Tyre and Sidon throughout the Mediterran-ean. These unique beads were composed of concentric circles of differently colored glass, producing a startling impression of staring eyes. Six such "eyes" were usually clustered round a center "eye." Composite eye-beads of this type," wrote Takashi Tanichi of the Okayama Orient Museum, "was fam-iliar to the Eurasian continent and have a wide distribution." He lists numerous sites across southern Russia, the Mediter-ranean and Europe from which examples were recovered "similar to the Iranian or Eastern Mediterranean type."13

Similar eye-beads recovered from a tomb in the Dailaman district of Iran were accompanied by core-formed kohl-tubes similar to those found in Nimrud and Vani (Georgia). All these items were related to those produced in the Land of Israel or Persia and dated "at the earliest" to the sixth century B.C.E.,14 antedating the Lo-Yang beads. These finds, and others that have recently come to light, mark the beginning of what has become known as the "Silk Route."

A favorite Chinese tale appearing in numerous Chinese literary works concerns the boast of traders who arrived from the west at the court of Emperor Tai Wu that they could imitate precious colored stones by melting together certain secret minerals. They offered to manufacture these stones for the emperor if he would grant them mining privileges. They showed the emperor samples of imitation jade and crystals, and intriguing eye-beads that had already been brought to his kingdom. Delighted with the prospect of an infinite supply of precious materials, the emperor accepted the trader's offer and granted them permission to obtain whatever minerals they needed from the near-by hills. According to an oft-quoted version of the story given in the Pai-Shih, a historical work of the fifth century C.E., the glass gems produced by the enterprising traders were of exceptional beauty and brilliance, even superior to the imported variety.

Glass beads and amulets continued to serve as prime trade goods throughout the ages. Amphorae full of glass beads were recovered from a Canaanite vessel that foundered off the coast of Turkey at the end of the 14th century B.C.E.15 The colonization of the world was accomplished largely by means of barrels of beads brought to appreciative primitive peoples. Just as the Near Eastern avidity for lapis lazuli spurred the production of glass imitations at the dawn of history, so imitations of jade spurred trade to the East after the fifth century B.C.E.

The provenance of the beads in the Chinese tombs could only have been the Near East, for glass production was then confined to that area. Glassmaking was as yet unknown west of Asia. "To the Greeks glass was something new; to the Romans, something unknown." noted Thorpe, the glass historian.16 The first mention of glassware in Greek literature relates to the experience of Greek ambassadors to the Persian court. Aristophanes reported in 425 B.C.E. on the amazement of the Greek dignitaries when they were served drinks in bowls made of a brilliant, crystal-like material, for which no word yet existed in their language.17

The first time a Latin word for glassware appeared was almost four centuries later in a speech by Cicero in 54 B.C.E.. He referred to it as an import.

The art of glassmaking did not leave Asia until the Greeks founded the city of Alexandria. Judahite artisans formed the industrial heart of that Ptolemaic city. Hadrian, the Roman Emperor, in a letter to his Consul, identified the glassmakers of Alexandria as Jews:

Some are blowers of glass, others makers of paper, all are at least weavers of linen or seem to belong to one craft or another.

In 296 C.E. The Roman emperor Diocletian decreed fixed ceilings on prices throughout the Empire. Two types of glassware are listed: vitri Ijudaica (Judaic glass), and vitri Alessandrini (glass made in Alexandria).

Thus two Roman emperors testified that glassware then made throughout the Roman Empire were the products of Jewish artisans.

The Linen Route

Linen fabrics (Byssus), produced in the Holy Land by Jews, were likewise vital trade goods along the route to the East. The Chinese fancied linens as much as westerners fancied silks. Linens were therefore as marketable in China as silks were in the West.

It will be noted in the Hadrian missile above that weaving linen textiles and glassmaking were both prime Judaic occupation in Alexandria. This was also true in the Holy Land, where Jewish artisans dominated the inter-related trades of weaving and dyeing. As merchants they prevailed over the market for fibers and fabrics. The Jewish weavers of Beth Shean achieved world-wide fame as a producer of fine fabrics. The Jerusalem Talmud refers to the "fine linen vestments which come from Beth Shean."18

Beth Shean was one of the first Jewish communities overrun by Alexander, and was dubbed "Scythopolis" by the Greeks. Its workshops, and that of weavers in other Judaic communities, supplied the Greeks and subsequently the Romans with products that enabled them to redress the balance of payments for merchandise from the East.

The exemplary quality of textiles and clothes produced by the Beth Shean Jews was noted by Diocletian in his "Edict of Maximum Prices," quoted above in identifying the glassmakers of the era as Jews. The edict paid particular notice to the woven produce of Beth Shean: "Textile goods are divided into three qualities: First, second and third," the statutes provide. "In each group the produce of Scythopolis appears in the first class."19

In a Latin work of the fourth century, Descriptotus Orbis, Beth Shean is described as one of the cities that supplied textiles to the whole world.20

China was part of that world.

The Spice Route

The Chinese, in turn, had unique products of great trade value in the Near East and West. Silk, cinnamon, cassia (the bark from which a form of cinnamon is produced), jade, camphor, and a variety of other Chinese products were valuable products taken in exchange for exotic beads, imitation precious stones, and linen fabrics.

Both India and China were sources of exotic spices, products valued for disguising the taste of rancid food and for preserving food in an era when refrigeration was as yet two millennia away. Spices were also valued for their medicinal properties. Cinnamon, and the bark from which it was ground, cassia, were the most important among the spices traded to the West. Sri Lanka (Ceylon), India, and southern China were the provenances of the varieties of certain evergreen trees whose bark is stripped for the purpose. The twin products were in high demand for use in condiments, employed to enhance the flavor of wine and as a flavoring for food. The aromatic spice was also an ingredient of valuable perfumes for overpowering body odor at a time when plumbing was a rarity, and of unguents for scenting corpses.

The intimate association of the Jews with Far Eastern spices predates the birth of western classical civilization. It is written that Moses was instructed by God himself (Ex. 30:23-25) to compound an olive oil ointment in precise proportions "after the art of the apothecary" with the inclusion of "three principal spices, of pure myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet cinnamon half so much, and of sweet calamus two hundred and fifty shekels."

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The etymology of the names of spices reveals the identity of their distributors. For example:

The word kesih (Psalms 45:9 et al) is clearly the model for the Greek Kasia.

The Biblical Kiddh as clearly becomes the Greek kitt, a cheap grade of cassia.

"The word kinnemon (kinnamon in Provs. 7:17 and Cant 4.14) entered Greek as Kinnamomon. A form whose ending possibly arose by the association with the spice amomon."21

We have the testimony of Herodotus, who informs us (3:11) that the words were taken from the "Phoenicians." The etymology of the transcription of spice names from Aramaic and Hebrew into Canaanite ("Phoenician"), and from Canaanite into Greek follows the same route as did the spices themselves. Aramaic-speaking Jewish traders transported the exotic spices from southern Asia to the Canaanite coast from whence they were distributed around the Mediterranean.

The etymological evidence is reinforced by the fact that the Greeks remained ignorant of the source of these spices until a late date. It is not surprising, therefore that the well-traveled Herodotus (485-425 B.C.E.) and later Theophastrus (372-286 B.C.E.) both believed that cinnamon and cassia came from trees that grew in Arabia! It is all the more convincing to learn that Strabo (60 B.C.E.-21 C.E.) and other Greeks of a period in which the Seleucids were already solidly installed in Persia, still cited Arabia as a source of these spices! They also labored under the illusion that the spices also came from East Africa. Strabo considered that the region of Somalia and Ethiopia was the southernmost inhabited part of the world and referred to it as "Cinnamon Country!"

Furthermore, western ignorance about the provenance of spices applied not merely to cinnamon and cassia but to other such biblical standbys as myrrh and frankincense. Herodotus held that winged serpents were charged with protecting frankincense trees (3:107) and that they were assisted by winged bat-like creatures which stood guard over the cassia trees (3:110).

Western ignorance about the source of spices continued into the late Roman period. Two other Greek writers, erudite physicians who discoursed at length over the merits of the exotic substances, Dioscorides (1st century C.E.) and Galen (c. 130-210 C.E) still believed in separate sources for cassia and cinnamon, ignorant of the fact that cinnamon was no more than ground up cassia.

Pliny, Ptolemy, and subsequent Greek scholars eventually became aware that Arabia was not where the tree that provided cinnamon and cassia grew, but they were still under the impression that both India and East Africa were sources for the spices. They were likewise ignorant of the source of another substance derived from leaves plucked from the cassia tree, malabathron. The leaves had pharmaceutical application and the physician Dioscorides presumed that they came from the spikenard plant grown in Mesopotamia.

The spikenard plant figures importantly in the Bible. Its ash was also used for glass production, then exclusively a Judaic art, and its other uses were well known to the Jewish sages of the period. The numerous references to it in the Bible and in other early Judaic literature attest to the familiarity of the Jewish sages with the spikenard plant, its products and its provenance.

It is evident from these strange circumstances that the Jewish traders were adept at keeping secrets!

Judaic Dyers and the Royal Purple

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The production and the use of dyes was another set of indus-trial secrets that were of trade value to Jewish traders and artisans. The royal purple (argaman in Hebrew) and the ritual blue (tekhelet in Hebrew) were two particularly important colors in the culture of ancient Israel.22

The science of producing colorants and dyes is a significant factor in the technological evolution of civilization. The use of substances that mark, stain or color are central to the textile, paper, printing and other basic industries. The Jews were integral to these disciplines from the most ancient times.

Dye-manufacture is related to the art of fulling. Before wool can be dyed, the oils have to be removed, a process called "fulling." A number of bleaching and detergent substances ("soaps") were used in ancient Akkadia. The bleacher or "fuller" took his name from the azalog (soapwort plant). He also obtained the necessary caustic alkalis from wood ashes (potash) or plant ashes (soda). The root of the word "alkali" stems from an Akkadian adjective for the ashes of the glasswort plant, kalati, meaning "burnt."

Soap was used only by Mesopotamians in antiquity! Soap was unknown to the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans. Lack of this knowledge led the Egyptian priests to condemn clothing made of greasy wool as unclean. Textiles made from flax were, in contrast, declared to be the first things that the gods created before moving in to live in the secular world. The value of perfumes to the Egyptian and subsequent European rulers can well be understood.

In Jeremiah we learn that the Judahites had a full knowledge of both the production and use of soap: "For though thou wash thee with nitre, and take thee much soap, yet thine iniquity is marked before me, saith the Lord God." 2

Before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, certain districts, markets and streets were inhabited by artisans of the same trade and they had their own synagogue and burial grounds. The fullers, dyers, and weavers occupied prominent and extensive districts, for they were a large portion of the proletariat. Josephus draws attention to the synagogue of the Tarsim, belonging to the weavers of "tarsian" cloth, and to a synagogue of the weavers in Lydda.

The advanced state of the Judaic art and technology of producing textile colorants was revealed by an extraordin-ary find in a cave near the ancient settlement of en-Gedi on the Dead Sea. The Israeli archaeologist, Professor Yigael Yadin, identified the fabrics as clothing or shrouds used by the Bar Kochba rebels who retreated into the cave in the Judahite desert in 135 CE.. Professor Yadin requested Dr. Sidney Edelstein of Dexter Chemical to study the colors of the fabrics. "Never before," stated the astonished Dr. Edelstein, "had such a large varied, old and precisely dated collection of dyed materials been available for analysis."23

The Silk Route

Silk textiles, as is well known, was anciently a major part of trade with China. Silk was not altogether unknown in the Near East before the route to the heart of China was secured. Silk produced from wild Asia Minor silkworms was used among Near Eastern civilizations of the Hellenic period. Sericulture, however, was uniquely a Chinese industry. The process of raising silkworms, reeling off filaments hundreds of meters long from their cocoons, and weaving them into beautiful, remarkably strong and stable fabrics dates back to the beginning of Chinese civilization. A silk fabric found in Zhejiang Province dates back to the astoundingly early date of 2700 B.C.E.

The quality of Chinese silk was far superior to that of locally produced silk. The invention of the drawloom revolutionized Chinese silk industry and it attained exceptional sophistication by the Han period. Marvelous faunal and floral designs and stylized versions of mythical creatures like the feng-huang bird and the dragon adorned the garments of the upper-class Chinese. They clad themselves in silken masterpieces while living and adorned themselves luxuriously for burial after death.24

The Jews learned the secrets of sericulture from the Chinese The production of silk textiles burgeoned in Persia through the first centuries of the Common Era (the Sassanian period), to a point in which silk fabrics were exported not only westward but also to the East! "Once silk became common, fabrics bearing typical Sassanian designs were exported eastward [!] in considerable bulk," wrote C.G. Seligman. The demand for this genre of goods was so great in China. Japan, and in Europe that the Chinese proceeded to produce silks with typical Persian patterns. "The most striking evidence of this is the celebrated 'hunter' silk of the seventh-eighth century from the treasury of the Horiuji Monastery at Nara in Japan."25 The renowned Oriental silks thus contain Jewish iconography!

Jewish sericulturists went from Persia to Alexandria. The Byzantines decided to capture the industry and imported Jewish sericulturists who founded the industry in Thessalonika, and other Greek towns. The Norman Crusader Roger II invaded Greece, and brought the Jewish artisans to Sicily. Later the Spaniards conquered Sicily, and nationalized the industry. During the Inquisition, Jewish sericulturists fled Sicily and brought their expertise to Tuscany, Bologna, Genoa, Venice and Piedmont.

The road into the town of Casale Montferrato in the Piedmont Province of Italy was known into the modern period alternately as "Jew's Alley," and as "Mulberry Lane!"

But that is a subsequent story!

Traders in the Mishnah

Many Mishnah narratives bear on the trade activities of the Jewish sages. While that vast repository of Jewish tradition and law does not address economic matters as such, the anecdotes cited to point up ethical or legal questions incorporate information that cast light on such matters.

For example, we read about the refusal of Beth Shean Jews to leave for Sidon on Saturday to conduct business. Sidon was a port through which eastern imports and locally-produced products were exported.

Other Mishnaic narratives bear directly on the involvement of Jews in international trade. The great halachic sage, Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba, is among those mentioned in the Mishnah who are involved in shipping merchandise to and from the East. R'Chiyya is stated to have dealt specifically with products made of glass, silk, and flax, the three basic goods of East-West trade. It is related that he traveled widely in trading in these indicative products.

R'Chiyya had followed his mentor, the great Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi ("the Prince," 135-219 C.E.) into Palestine from Babylonia. It was a traumatic time. The suppression of the Jews after the crushing of the second Jewish revolt and the destruction of the center of Judaic national culture in Jerusalem created a hiatus that Rabbi Ha-Nasi filled. He became the principal architect of the Mishnah. Judah Ha-Nasi first resided in Beth Shearim, the glassmaking heart of the Galilee, and then to Beth Shean, the center of linen manufacture. R'Chiyya's business also took him to Beth Shean, and to Laodicea (another Jewish weaving center), and into Nabatea. There are references with his dealings in spikenard [mentioned above], a spice from the Himalayas whose import was controlled by the Nabatean Arabs.

Thus the Mishnah reflects the involvement of Jews like Rabbi H-Nasi in the major elements that compose the East-West trade.

Jewish Intercontinental Traders

Augustus, the first Roman emperor is said to have commissioned "the original travel guide from Isadore of Charax, who obliged by writing The Parthian Stations.

The Jewish traders of the Persian period were finally exemplified by the Rhadanites, whose name probably stemmed from the district of Radhan near Baghdad. The Rhadanites were not mere adventurers. They were Talmudic students and the religious, cultural and social liaison between the world-wide-spread Jewish communities. They were entrusted with the collection of communal donations for delivery to the Geonim of Palestine and Babylonia, halachic scholars who headed great centers of learning to which all Jews aspired to send their sons. The Rhadanites brought she'ltot, queries to the sages on law, ritual, and textual exegesis. They returned with teshuvot, the responsa.

These mercantile messengers created the first world-wide credit system. They became the conduits of credit through which many nations conducted business through time and space. "Letters of Credit" issued on one continent would be surely and securely honored months later They were worldly-wise couriers who had entree into royal courts and were commissioned by kings to carry out royal diplomatic missions. The Rhadanites set the standard for Jewish international traders everywhere.

When Charlemagne sent an embassy in 797 to the Caliph Harun el-Rashid, the Muslim Caliph of Baghdad, a Jew named Isaac served as interpreter; of all the principals among the envoys, Isaac alone survived the trip home, bringing with him to Charlemagne's court a present from the Caliph- an elephant, until then unseen in Europe.

And when Charlemagne wanted exotic foods from the Holy Land, he named a Jew as his imperial purveyor... During the reign of Charlemagne the word 'Jew' had taken on a new meaning. Not only did it signify 'merchant' to many, but it also meant one who was trustworthy and knowledgeable.26

Jewish traders left for China laden with western wares and returned with a variety of exotic eastern products. A geographic treatise, The Book of Roads and Kingdoms written by Ibn Khurdadhbih, manager of the postal and information service in the province of Media, describes some itineraries taken and products carried by the Rhadanites:

They speak Arabic, Persian, Frankish, Andalusian, and Slavonic. They travel from East to West and from West to East by both land and sea. From the West they bring adult slaves, boys and girls, brocade, beaver, pelts, assorted furs, sables and swords. They sail from the land of the Franks on the Western Sea [Mediterranean] and set out for a-Faruma [a port on the easternmost branch of the Nile]. There they transport their merchandise by pack-animal to al-Qulzum [on the Red Sea], 25 parasangs away. From al-Qulzum they set sail for al-Jar [Medina] and Jidda [the present port for Mecca], after which they proceed to Sind [The Indus River valley], India and China. From China they bring musk, aloeswood, camphor, cinnamon, and other products as they make their way back to al-Qulzum.27

Age-old communities of Jews were ensconced along these routes. In the Red Sea, for example, lies the island of Yotabe [now Jijban]. In the fifth century Arabia owned half the island, which was occupied by an Arab prince and his tribe. The other half was a Jewish Free State that had been there from time immemorial.28

Thousands of Jews migrated into Persia and Arabia. Part of these continued north into Afghanistan, Balkh, Samarkand, and Bukhara, in Central Asia, all on the old Silk Route. Some, probably in the 7th century, moved overland from there into northwest China, also known as Chinese Turkestan, where they settled, though not in large number. A few advanced further into North China.29

Both Judaic legends and local lore relating to the Jews devolve upon central Asia, materializing substance out of the dimly apparent mists of the past. Many Jews spread out along the silk route from the Crimea. The ancient Jewish community on that peninsula had split into two rival factions, the fundamentalist Karaites, and those who followed rabbinnic expansions on the Oral Law. Many of the rabbinate Jews moved to Khiva, where 8000 families formed a congregation, and similar sizable groups gathered in Bukhara, Samarkand, and Tashkent, central along the Silk Trade Route.

Bukhara is reputed by local legend to be the Biblical Habor to which the ten tribes of Israel were exiled. Until the recent Aliyah to Israel, Uzbekistan harbored a population of 103,000 Jews whose records document their ancestry back to before the fifth century. Fabulous Samarkand was the hub of this ancient community. By the twelfth century a Jewish population of 50,000 headed by Obadiah carried on a flourishing existence in Samarkand alone.

Three more routes plied by the Rhadanites are described by the Arab postal manager/historian Ibn Khurdadhbih, notably, one through the central Asian region:

Those of them that set out from Spain...[sometimes] take the route behind the Byzantine Empire though the land of the Slavs to Khamlij, the capital of the Khazars. Then they cross the Sea of Jurjan [the Caspian] toward Balkh and Transoxania. From there they continue to Yurt and Tughuzghuzz [an Arabic adaption of Toghuz Oghuz or "Nine Clans," referring to the Turkic confederation of tribes in central Asia] and finally to China.30

Impelled by traumatic experiences under Christian, Byzantine and Islamic regimes, Jews filtered out along the Asian byways that offered freedom from tyranny, freedom to practice their religion and where they were welcome to work and trade. Such a community settled in the capital of ancient China, Kaifeng. A community of 3000 Jews continued to enjoy Chinese hospitality well into the twentieth century.

Jewish traveler/traders brought knowledge and skills to the West. Thus, Jewish traders in India dealt in the India decimal system (with the critical use of zero). They translated Indian mathematics into Arabic and introduced the system to Islamic North Africa, thereafter to become known as the "Arabic number system." It was so dubbed in the West not because the Arabs had invented it, but because the Europeans obtained it from the Arabs!

The world has yet to acknowledge the huge debt owed to the intrepid traveler/traders of the Persian period.


1: Steven Sidebotham, Ports of the Red Sea and the Arabia-India Trade, 1991, eds. Vinnala Begley and Richard De Puma.

1A: Albert Ten Eyck Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire, Un. of Chicago Pr., 1948, 83.

2: W. D. Davies and Louis Finklestein, The Cambridge History of Judaism, Vol. I, 1984, 344-5.

3: D & F, Ibid., 334.

4: D & F, Idem

5: D & F, Ibid. 347.

6: D & F, Ibid. 347-8.

7: J. M. Cook The Persian Empire, Schocken, 1983, 88-9; W. D. Daview and Louis Finklestein, eds. The Cambridge History of Judaism, vol. I Cambridge Un. Press, 1984, 336-7, 340; Olmstead, Ibid., 74, 83, 192, 565.

8: Olmstead, Ibid., 58 citing Haggai, 1:12, 14; 2:2:4. Zerubabbel is designated the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, in turn identified as Shezbazzar.

9: D & F, Ibid. 347.

10: D & F, Ibid. 346.

11: White later became an Associate Professor of archaeology at the University of Toronto and the keeper of the Eat Asia Collection of the Royal Toronto Museum.

12: William Charles White, The Tombs of Old Lo-Yang, Shanghai, 1934, xii.

13: Takashi Tanachi, "Western Designed 'Composite Eye' Glass Beads Recently Excavated in China," Eng. sum., Bulletin of the Ancient Orient Museum, vol. 5, 1983, 323.

14: Tanachi, Ibid., 324.

15: Samuel Kurinsky, The Glassmakers; An Odyssey of the Jews, 1991, 81-91.

16: W. A. Thorpe, English Glass, 1949, 2.

17:. Aristophanes, 5:74; See also Mary L. Trowbridge, Philological Studies in Ancient Glass, Un. of Illinois Press, 1930, 151.

18:Qiddushin ii,5-62c.

19: Avi Yonan, citing Der Maxamaltarif des Diocletian, ed. by Th. Mommsen, ed., 1893, cap. 26-28, in Israel Exploration Journal, vol. 12, no.2, 128-9.

20: E.Shürer, Geschichte des Jüdisches Volkes, II, 1906,77.

21: .Lionel Casson, Ancient Trade and Society, 1984, 226., citing I. Low, Die Flora der Juden, 1924,108, 113-114; E. Masson, Recherches sur les plus anciens emprunts sémetics en grec, 1967. Casson notes his indebtedness to his colleague, Robert Stieglitz for "invaluable help with the Semitic sources." and adds that kinnamomon first appears in Herodotus 3.107, and in Sappho, frg. 44 (Lobel Page).

22: Nira Karmon and Ehud Spaniel, "Archaeological Evidence of the Purple Dye Industry from Israel," in The Royal Purple and the Biblical Blue, Keter, Jerusalem, 1987, 155, citing Rheingold, The History of Purple as a Status Symbol in Antiquity, Collection Latomus, Brussels, 1970, 59, 169,

23: Sidney M. Edelstein, Historical Notes on the Wet-Processing Industry, Dexter Chemical Co., 1972, 125.

24: Jean M. James, "Silk China and the Drawloom," Archaeology, vol. 39 no. 9, Sept./Oct., 1986.

25: C. G. Seligman, The Roman Orient and the Far East, 1939, 555 and Pl. 1.

26: Norman Stillman, The Jews of Arab Lands, 1979, 34.

27: Eliyahu Ashtor, The Jews of Moslem Spain, vol. I, 1973, 282.

28: Heinrich Graetz, A History of the Jews, vol. III, 1967, 56.

29: Sidney Shapiro, Jews in China, 1984, x.

30: Norman Stillman, Ibid., quoting from Ign Khurdadhbih, al Masalik wa 'l-Mamalik, ed. M/ J. de Goeje, Leiden, 1889, 153 -155.