Friday, June 10, 2011

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | Three Muslim Traders

Since at least the second century B.C. the people known as Sogdians, inhabitants of the oasis cities of Transoxiania, the land between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, had been trading with China far off to the east. Sogdian merchants around this time were familiar with Chang’an (the Current City Of Xian), which would later became perhaps the most important eastern terminus of the Silk Road, and they also initiated trade with the Xiongnu (Hunni) peoples of current-day Mongolia. According to Chinese sources, 
At birth honey was put in their mouth [so they would be adept at the sweet talk often needed to seal a deal] and gum was put on their hands [so that any money they touched would stick to them] . . . they learned the trade from the age of five . . . and at twelve were sent to do business in a neighboring state.
To the west they eventually extend their trade networks into Iran and across Asia Minor to Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. 

Such was their business acumen and the reach of their commercial contacts that their very name—Sogdians—became synonymous with “merchant”, and their language, a early form of Persian, became the lingua franca of the great trade routes which connected the Occidental and Oriental worlds. With the incursion of Arab-speaking Muslims into Transoxiana starting in the late seventh century and the later invasions of Turkic peoples the Sogdians were slowly subsumed and by the tenth century had largely disappeared as a distinct people. Yet the thousand-year old tradition of far-reaching trade networks which they had established lived on in the thirteenth-century Muslim traders of the Khwarezm Empire. According to Juvaini: 
. . . wherever profit or gain was displayed, in the uttermost West or the farthermost East, thither [Muslim] merchants would bend their steps. And since the Mongols were not settled in any town and there was no concourse of merchants and travellers to them, articles of dress were a great rarity amongst them and the advantages of trading with them well known. For this reason three persons, Ahmad of Khojend [now Leninabad in Tajikistan], the son of the Emir Husain, and Ahmad Balchikh, decided to journey together to the countries of the East, and having assembled an immeasurable quantity of merchandise--golden embroidered fabrics, cottons, zandanichi [an exotic fabric produced only in Zandana, a village about fifteen miles north of Bukhara, then part of Khwarezm, now in Uzbekistan] and whatever else they thought suitable—they set their faces to the road. 
It is not exactly clear when this trade mission occurred, nor where they finally encountered Chingis Khan. The Russian Orientalist Barthold suggests that the three merchants accompanied the fact-finding mission of Baha al-Din Razi. Trade, diplomacy, and spying were then, as now, inextricably linked, and it is possible the traders finally met up the Mongol Khan when he was camped on the outskirts of Zhongdu in the summer and fall of 1215. Juzjani, who as noted got a first hand account of the fact-finding mission, does not mention the traders, however, nor does Juvaini, who provides the most detailed account of the trade mission, mention Baha al-Din Razi.

In any case, by the time the three merchants from Khwarezm arrived Chingis Khan was already actively encouraging trade. Merchants arriving at the borders of his domains were given safe conduct passes and their merchandize carefully examined. If officials determined that their wares might be of interest to Chingis himself they were sent to his court for an interview. The wares from Khwarezm were deemed to be of sufficient worth for the merchants to be send directly to Chingis’s camp, wherever he may have been at the time. According to Juvaini, the Muslims were warmly welcomed: “For in those days the Mongols regarded the Moslems [sic] with the eye of respect, and for their dignity and comfort would erect them clean tents of white felt.” 

Perhaps the friendly reception they received made the merchants over-confident. Apparently the merchant Ahmad Balchikh was the first to offer his merchandize directly to Chingis. Unwisely, he set an exorbitant price on this wares, demanding three balish of gold coins for pieces of fabric which sold for twenty or thirty dinars in Khwarezm. One balish was probably equal to about seventy-five dinars at the time, so the merchant was asking 225 dinars for a length of fabric which which sold for twenty or thirty dinars in Khwarezm. This was an exorbitant markup even by Silk Road standards and Chingis was understandably outraged. “Does this fellow think that fabrics have never been brought to us before?” he bellowed. In order to demonstrate to Ahmad Balchikh that he wasn’t dealing with ignorant and gullible rubes Chingis ordered that he be shown a warehouse bulging with similar fabrics already procured by the Mongols and then confiscated all of the merchant’s goods and put him under house arrest. 

His two companions were called in next. Chary from of the treatment of their fellow trader, they refused to set a price on the their goods, saying simply that brought them for the Khan’s delectation. Mollified by this approach, Chingis then offered them a balich of gold for each length of gold and silk brocade and a balich of silver for each length of cotton and zandanichi. This still represented a handsome profit for the merchants. Chingis then released Ahmad Balchikh and bought his confiscated fabrics at the same price. Obviously he wanted to remain on good terms with these merchants who could provide him with the luxurious fabrics that he valued so highly.

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