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From Tuscany to Alexandria: Arabic letters in the Prize Paper Collections

From Tuscany to Alexandria: Arabic and Hebrew mercantile letters in the Prize Paper collections

The Prize Paper Collections in the National Archives in Kew Gardens contain a sack full of business letters in Arabic and Hebrew script, which were seized in 1759 by British seafarers as part of the loot on a Venetian ship bound for Alexandria. 

Virtually untouched since that time – most of the letters are still unopened and have been since they were archived in the 18th-century – they present a most exciting opportunity to investigate the interaction between Christian, Jewish, and Muslim merchants across borders in the 18th-century Mediterranean. The letters, numbering in the dozens, are particularly valuable as very little comparative material in Arabic script from that period is known and virtually nothing has been edited and published on the topic. 

Traders make an extremely important subject for studies on historical interfaith relations for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it is usually business activity that creates the only opportunity for people of different faiths to meet in a neutral place and work for a common benefit. Commerce therefore really establishes an arena in which people deal with each other regardless of their respective religious background. Secondly, being part of a community of merchants also provides a facet of identity to people that may become as important as their religious identity. Merchants therefore often feel as much part of a perceived community of traders as they see themselves as Jews, Muslims or Christians. 

The mercantile networks of the medieval and early modern Mediterranean and the interactions between Jewish, Muslim and Christian traders have been investigated by many scholars working on the Cairo Genizah. Much of the research, however, has focused on the medieval period, whereas the early modern period has been largely neglected.

In addition, the Genizah business correspondence was overwhelmingly written in Judaeo-Arabic in Hebrew script, whereas few Arabic script letters have been preserved. This means that we have mostly access to the letters sent within the Jewish networks, but we are lacking the correspondence of Christian and Muslim business partners, which would not have been deposited in a Genizah. The Arabic script letters from the Prize Paper Collections will therefore on the one hand fill this gap and provide unprecedented insights into the early modern trade relations between Mediterranean Christians, Jews and Muslims.