The Sons of Maimon 2: What is Done is Gone

Moses Statue

This is episode two of three on the brothers Maimon, Moses and David. Here, I'll talk about the move to Egypt, a bit about the goings-on in Egypt at the time (the end of the Fatimid Caliphate), and the place of Egypt at an intersection of international commerce. Finally, it will be time for David's story and his crossing to India. It was a trip that many made, setting sail from Aden, but not always successfully. 

Thanks for listening!


  • The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela, translated by Marcus Nathan Adler. Philipp Feldheim, inc.

  • Judaism in Practice: From the Middle Ages Through the Early Modern Period, edited by Lawrence Fine. Princeton University Press, 2001.

  • Abu-Lughod, Janet L. Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350. Oxford University Press, 1989.

  • Bareket, Elinoar. Fustat on the Nile: The Jewish Elite in Medieval Egypt. Brill, 1999.

  • Cooper, John. The Medieval Nile: Route, Navigation, and Landscape in Islamic Egypt. The American University in Cairo Press, 2014.

  • Bramoullé, David. "The Fatimids and the Red Sea (969-1171)," in Navigated Spaces, Connected Places. Archaeopress, 2012.

  • Davidson, Herbert, A. Moses Maimonides: The Man and His Works. Oxford University Press, 2004.

  • Goitein, S.D. A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, Vol. IV: Daily Life. University of California Press, 2000.

  • Goitein, S.D. & Friedman, Mordechai A. India Traders of the Middle Ages: Documents from the Cairo Geniza. Brill, 2007.

  • Halbertal, Moshe. Maimonidies: Life and Thought, translated by Joel Linsider. Princeton University Press, 2014.

  • Jacoby, David. "The Economic Function of the Crusader States of the Levant: a New Approach," in Medieval Trade in the Eastern Mediterranean and Beyond. Routledge, 2018.

  • Kraemer, Joel L. Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization's Greatest Minds. Doubleday, 2010.

  • Margariti, Roxani Eleni. Aden and the Indian Ocean Trade: 150 Years in the Life of a Medieval Arabian Port. University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

  • Peacock, Andrew & Peacock, David. "The Enigma of 'Aydhab: a Medieval Islamic Port on the Red Sea Coast," in The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 2008.

  • Udovitch, Abraham L. "Medieval Alexandria: Some Evidence from the Cairo Genizah Documents," in Alexandria and Alexandrianism: Papers Delivered at a Symposium Organized by The J. Paul Getty Museum and The Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities and Held at the Museum, April 22–25, 1993. Getty Publications, 1996.


“A man’s return from the sea is like his rise from the grave, and the port is like the place of congregation on the Day of Judgement: there is questioning, and settlement of accounts, and weighing, and counting.”

-Ibn al-Mujawir, early 13th-century

Approaching Alexandria from the sea, the travellers would have seen the lighthouse first, the Pharos Island tower visible from as far away as 110 km. As they got closer, they would have seen those wide, straight streets, straight enough that you could look through from the Gate of the Rashid to the Gate of the Sea; they would have seen the marble columns, gleaming white houses, and beautiful palaces, and then, closer still, the frantic bustle of the harbour, the comings and goings of customs officials and dockworkers processing the incoming ships, seeing their cargo unloaded, inspected and taxed, and then taxied off to the city’s many markets and warehouses or for immediate transport on to other destinations. Their ship’s captain would have brought it in warily, watchful for the narrow channels of approach, the shifting sandbanks, the perilous coastal waves.

During the the busy months of August and September, they would have seen the many ships that had departed in the spring returning for winter, and the last preparations of those soon bound for Italy and elsewhere, bringing back indigo, flax, and spices with them. Travel on the Mediterranean had its season, and nature determined a cycle of human endeavour which merchants, pilgrims, and other travellers were bound to follow.

Benjamin of Tudela wrote of merchants arriving in Alexandria from the Italian city states and Al-Andalus, from France and Flanders, Scandinavia and Saxony, from across the Maghreb, Syria, the Arab world, Ethiopia, and India, all coming to the city with its inns of many nations and through which flowed silks, spices, and the enslaved. And new residents arrived in Egypt there too, many new arrivals from Al-Andalus and the Maghreb driven to pack up and move their lives by the Almohad and Norman invasions of the 12th-century, and among them many Jews who now joined those who had lived there for generations. 

Alexandria was an important port, its “pier, a king's highway running into the midst of the sea,” but it was not, despite its advantageous position, the commercial capital of Egypt at the time. Many goods may have entered via Alexandria, but people living there wrote to the city of Fustat where those goods were plentifully stored to secure them, saying they needed shoes, clothing, parchment, or ink, cinnamon, pepper, or ginger. “Nothing is worth buying here,” they would sometimes say in their letters.

Fustat had come a long way. From its 643 beginnings as a military camp of the conquering Muslims, safely inland and removed from sea-borne threats, it was now the primary commercial city in the area, the place where the bulk of the major transactions were made, and only about 3 km from the Caliphal capital of Al-Qahirah, or Cairo. Unlike Alexandria, the city of Fustat was not known so much for the violent dissatisfaction and unruliness of its lower classes, the unrest that periodically drew the attention of the authorities. Unlike Alexandria, Fustat was where people tended to come to stay and live, Alexandria where they might stay for a time then leave. To Fustat then, after a short stay in their port of arrival, would our Moses and David be going.

Hello, and welcome. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval World, the podcast that follows the stories of medieval travellers and also the stories around them. At this time, if you’re enjoying the podcast and you’re neither involved in a land war in Asia nor behind the wheel of a large automobile, I ask you to take a moment, this moment right now would be best, to have a look at the Human Circus Patreon page and see if it’s something that you’d like to support. And on that note, I’d like to thank my newest Patreon supporter. Thank you very much, Harriette!

Now, let’s get back to the story, to that of the brothers Moses, David, and their family, and to their 1166 arrival in Egypt. There, though they may have missed Al-Andalus, they would make their home, and there, Moses would spend the greater part of his life. This episode will be about that arrival in Egypt, the Fatimid Caliphate, and the merchants that made their way south along the Nile, east to the Red Sea, and then much, much further east. It will be about those patterns of trade and one very personal story within those patterns. And it will begin in Fustat. 

The trip from Alexandria to Fustat was not far. I mean it’s roughly 210K, or 43 hours by foot according to Google Maps, but in terms of the distances we’re often dealing with here, it was not so far, and it was a well travelled route. People, goods, and information streamed between the two cities. Messengers leaving regularly brought mail from one to the other in four to six days, even faster by “flying courier,” and merchants frequently made the trip. The brothers would have had little trouble in arranging their travel.  

The city they reached was a thriving hub of trade and Nile traffic, a hinge between the northern Nile opening onto the Mediterranean and the south, with its caravan routes to the Red Sea, and beyond it, the ocean and access to India and more. The city was an industrial centre for ceramic, metal, and glassware, as well as paper, sugar, and cloth, and a home to Jews whose names indicated its international character: al-Fasi, al-Massali, al-Barqi, and al-Maghribi, from across Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, and the Maghreb more generally; al-Dimashqi, from Damascus; al-Tarabulusi, from Tripoli; al-Harrani and al-Raqqi from Syria, al-Andalusi, from Spain. 

When Al-Muqaddasi wrote of the city, it was with the words that the

“Fruits of Syria and Al-Maghreb reach it in all seasons, and travellers are ever coming to it from Al-’Iraq and from the eastern countries, and the ships of the peninsula and the countries of Rum are ever ploughing their way to it. It's commerce is marvellous, and its trades are profitable and its wealth abundant.”

It was, it sounds, a land of financial opportunity, and unlike their lives in Morocco and Al-Andalus, where religious freedoms were limited under Almohad rule, it was also one where they would have been relieved to at last live without much fear or worry, from that direction at least.

The Shi’a Fatimid caliphs for the most part did not care for the beliefs and practices of their people - the reign of Al-Hakim a notable exception - just so long as they paid their taxes. So while Shi’a festivals were publicly celebrated, the Jewish communities in Fustat, along with the Christian and Sunni ones, lived largely by their own rule. They produced leaders of broader society, at court, in administration, and in the highest ranks of the army. They worked in tax farming, governance, apothecaries, and as physicians or bureaucrats. 

And into this world of relative freedom and opportunity stepped Moses and David. They moved into the area bordered by the Qasr al Rum, the Fortress of the Romans, no longer really a fortress at all in function. They lived in part of the Tujib district, still named after the Arabs who had brought back great riches from the conquest of North Africa centuries before. 

In the neighbourhoods around them, you might find a property surrounded by “a small house; a store in ruins; a newly built ... caravanserai; and a tower of the Roman fortress, which belonged to the ‘the Jewish synagogue.’” There were high-priced homes, compounds really, which stood alone, and there were multi-purpose, multi-story buildings housing both residences and businesses including wine and oil presses, raison sellers, perfumers and druggists, sugar refiners and glassware merchants. Within this world, the family made their home.

Moses associated with highly placed administrators. He taught the sciences. He traded in gems. He practised medicine. There’s a story that he once refused to go serve a king of the Franks, which some have fancifully connected to Richard the Lionhearted. Moses, quite against the grain, didn’t believe it was correct to live on the proceeds of religious office or teachings. Much better, he wrote, “to strip hides off animal carcasses than to say to other people, ‘I am a great sage, I am a priest, provide me therefore with maintenance.’” So, Moses earned his living in other ways and somehow in all of this also found time to compose his immensely important Commentary on the Mishnah, on the transmission of Jewish oral law. 

As for David, well it is, as it will always be right up to the sudden burst of information at the end of his life, rather hard to say what he was up to. Perhaps, as would later be the case, he was the commercial arm of the family, the businessman in the market, maybe involved in the gem trade as we hear Moses was, maybe investing the family’s money in ventures from the city, perhaps travelling abroad as a merchant, along the Nile or further afield.

And Maimon, he was dead. Sometimes, Maimon ben Joseph is said to have died even before they came to Egypt, to have been buried in what is now Israel, but according to Moses’ letter to their host in Acre, it had been in the months just after they’d parted. It’s uncertain then that he would have lived to see Fustat, perhaps only Alexandria, if that, of his family’s new homeland.

Now the sisters, and the mother, you might be asking, what of them? Well, of the mother, I’m afraid there’s still nothing, again why some have suggested she’d died in childbirth or soon after. But for the sisters, we do have something. We have a letter from David in which he asks Moses to convey his greetings to his sisters, plural. We have a letter from a sister named Miriam, a Miriam who had apparently remained in either Spain or the Maghreb. She had wanted Moses to help her find her son who she’d heard nothing of for months and was quite worried about. And like David, she sends greetings to their sisters, again plural, giving us at least three, one in Spain or the Maghreb, two in Egypt, likely Fustat.

So we have a family there in Fustat: Moses, David, probably two sisters, maybe a mother, maybe not as David never wrote give my regards to mother, with Moses a wife, for they’d married soon after the move to Egypt, and David also, a wife, and a daughter, already arrived or on the way. And we have them all very close to the events that came not many years after their arrival there in Egypt, to the fall of the Fatimids, the end of more than 250 years of the caliphate’s rule in North Africa, stretching back to the victories of its founder and the 11th imam, Abdullah al-Mahdi Billah, and his general, in the year 909.    

The Maghreb, as we saw a little of last episode, was a place where movements took hold, and among its Berbers, the preaching of Isma’ili beliefs had found enough support to see Abdullah brought to power. And the kingdom they had made had grown, stretching from present-day Algeria in the west, to the west coast of the Arabian Peninsula in the east, up north into Syria and into Sicily. But it had contracted since then. 

By the time Moses and David lived in Fatimid lands, those land were more limited, and not all was well. Civil war and the suppression of an uprising by Turkish forces in the military had taken their toll. A Berber dynasty had broken off in North Africa and aligned themselves with the Abbasids. And Seljuks and crusaders had eaten away at their possessions in the Levant. What remained, essentially, was Egypt, roughly as we know it today, and even that was all about to be taken from them. 

Clearly there had been problems for some time, but the final stages of these problems, if we can try to neatly pick these things apart, came with a struggle over the Fatimid vizierate, a struggle for power between Abu ‘l-Ashbal Dirgham and Abu Shuja’ Shawar. When things did not go well for Shawar, he looked elsewhere for the resources the needed, that extra push to achieve his goals, and he sold the caliphate’s interests to do so. He sold them in Damascus to the governor Nur ad-Din who he promised a third of Egypt’s revenues in return for the army that would unseat his rival. 

And Nur ad-Din loved the idea. He liked the look of a place for himself in Egypt and a hold on its wealth. He’d had his eye on it for a number of years; he and the King of Jerusalem both had, and the Byzantine Emperor too. When an opportunity had presented itself in the past, Nur ad-Din had received right of rule for Egypt from the Abbasid caliph, if only he could make it his. Now, he seized the opportunity and sent an army under his emir, Asad al-Din Shirkuh, and in that army that emir’s nephew, a young named Salah ad-Din, the Salah ad-Din who would go on to unite resistance to the crusaders, to take back Jerusalem, and so much else.

For now, the army did its work, and all went to plan, with Dirgham swept out of power and Shawar swept in and established as vizier. But then, as so often seems to happen in these situations, Shawar did the imperial equivalent of a dine and dash. He’d enjoyed his meal and reaped its benefits, and now he wanted those Syrian fighters gone, and he did not want to pay for it. He ordered Shirkuh and his men out and then pivoted to a new ally, reaching out to King Amalric of Jerusalem, whose armies had raided Egypt just the year before, and making the point that Amalric really didn’t want the forces of Nur ad-Din, who had spent a lifetime fighting crusaders, to his south. He offered allowances and an alliance. And having used the Syrians to push himself back into Egypt, he now used crusaders to push them back out, with joint forces besieging Shirkuh and soon forcing his departure. 

So it had been back in 1164, before our central characters arrived on the scene in Egypt, and it had gone very nicely for Shawar, but of course he was going to need to pay for that meal eventually. And eventually would come in just a few years. Shirkuh and his army were back in Egypt, Salah ad-Din again with them, and Amalric was back too, his status as ally muddied somewhat by his violently sacking Bilbeis, threatening Cairo, and possibly causing a fire in Moses and David’s new home. But for that fire, the last days of the Fatimid Caliphate, and Fustat’s place in international trade, we’ll have to wait just a moment, for this short break.


There are various stories as to why the fire happened. Was it a scorching of the earth before the advancing army that denied them a launching point to take Cairo? Did Shawar give the order to deter Amalric from violent sack and slaughter, as had occurred at Bilbeis? Was it a deliberate act on Shawar’s part at all? That is the common narrative and indeed it’s what the historian Al-Maqrizi would say a few centuries later; however, some sources suggest that it was not a deliberate move on Shawar’s part but the result of anti-Christian violence provoked either by a particular church’s embellishments or fear and anger over the encroaching Christian army. 

However it happened, Moses, David, and their family would have a front row seat, whether to the widespread destruction and suffering that are sometimes depicted, or perhaps to something more limited - the damage to the city was not lasting, at least according to the reports of travellers soon after. While Moses raised money to ransom the crusaders’ Jewish captives, they seem not to have been otherwise affected by the nearby fighting or the fire, seem not to have been troubled by flames in their neighbourhood at all as their lives in Fustat went on and the Fatimid Caliphate entered its final chapter. 

And Moses and David were not only close in proximity to the last days of Fatimid rule. There was a deeper connection there. Moses’ patron, a man by the name of Al-Qadi al-Fadil, had long served the Fatimids, and this put both men, both Moses and al-Fadil, in an intriguing position, not unique, but certainly interesting, as the vizier Shawar again opened up negotiations with King Amalric. In his book, Joel L. Kraemer paints a bit of a picture of this moment.


For Maimonidies and al-Fadil the situation was bizarre. Al-Fadil was, after all, a Sunni Muslim in the entourage of Fatimid Isma’ilis, making common cause with Christians to protect Egypt’s independence from Sunni Turks ruling in Syria. Maimonides was Jew in the entourage of Fatimid Isma’ilis, supporting his Sunni Muslim patron’s policy of alignment with Christians.

The situation was, shall we say, complex, for all involved, for Moses and his family, for al-Fadil, for Shawar and the crusaders. And as we really always find, the “crusaders” were living rather more interesting lives than the kind of civilizational struggle that their actions in the Levant are often boiled down to. Now, they again negotiated with Shawar over again helping him against his still unpaid helpers of the past. But Shirkuh was not put off by Almaric’s interest in Egypt, far from it.

Shirkuh would soon manage to see Shawar killed, supplant him, and set himself up as the new vizier in Egypt if only for all of a heartbreakingly fleeting two months. That’s when his own health failed him, and he’d die, leaving the way open for his nephew Salah ad-Din to step into his place, to ruthlessly crush Fatimid loyalist opposition to his move, and to stave off crusader attempts at Egyptian acquisition, becoming something of a saviour figure against Christian encroachment in the process. 

And two years later, when the last Fatimid caliph, al-’Adid, died at only 20 years old in 1171, that left Salah ad-Din free to step to step up into HIS place, free to seek out and eliminate the last of the Fatimid sympathizers and to establish the Ayyubid dynasty with himself in power. 

He’d go on to take Jerusalem, to expand his rule into great chunks of Palestine and Syria, and to unite all of this with Egypt under his sway. He’d war with Rashid al-Din Sinan’s Nizari Isma’ilis, also known as “the Assassins,” and with King Richard I of England and the members of Third Crusade. He stands out as a canonical figure, a star of his era, and Moses was attached to that star. 

His patron, Al-Fadil, rather than glumly look on as his horse in the race, Shawar, was outmaneuvered and outmuscled, as his power and life slipped away, had made the move that made sense. He’d become Salah ad-Din’s chief administrator, had been there when he’d become vizier, and had been the one who proclaimed the Fatimid caliph’s death a quote unquote natural one. So, Moses, after their years in difficulty, and in exile, was now quite close to power in its highest forms, and he had a certain amount of power of his own at this time too. He was made Ra’is al-Yahud, the Head of the Jews in Egypt, taxing and administering to his community as the Ayyubids took power, and he was well on his way to becoming the judicial authority he would come to be, the one to whom, as he would later write, “all or most of the judges of Alexandria” came to for his opinion. 

So we have a picture of a family living in some degree of comfort, even as dynastic upheaval occurred around them and as Salah ad-Din established his grip on Egypt. And we’re going to leave them for a moment, to put aside the reshaping of the region that Salah ad-Din was going to be doing, to talk about something else. 

Let's talk about trade. Let's talk about the shipbuilding facilities near Cairo, the ships which competed with those of the Italian cities, and those which aggressively patrolled the Red Sea and access to the Indian Ocean. Let's talk about the Egyptian spice route and also the dealers in cloth, silks, lead, gems, porcelain, and the enslaved. Let's talk about the merchants with their operations in Aden and on the Indian coast.

Egypt operated within two fairly distinct trading systems and as a doorway between them, it's ports open to the world of the Mediterranean and, via caravan to the Red Sea, the Indian coast and lands beyond, to China and the “spice islands” of Indonesia. Byzantine merchants brought silks, mastic, and cheese. Italians delivered pilgrims and crusaders to Acre, and then continued on to Egypt, perhaps bringing that city’s high quality glassware with them and forming a triangle of commerce. From the Maghreb, ships traced Maimonides’ course along the coast of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. 

In winter months, trade from the Levant continued by land along the coast and from Damascus and eastward along inland caravan routes that passed to the east of the Sea of Galilee and the River Jordan. And often goods were moved over a combination of land and water. Silk from Khorasan, from northeastern Iran, went by way of Aleppo and then Tyre before reaching Egypt by sea. Paper from Damascus was also brought to Levantine ports before making its way south. 

And into the Mediterranean system poured Egyptian flax, indigo, sugar, metalwork, leather, paper, and pottery. Into the Mediterranean poured the colourants, aromatics, spices and more: frankincense, myrrh, pepper, cloves, cinnamon, sandalwood, nutmeg, ginger, cardamom, betel nuts, pearls, cottons, silks, and porcelains from Arabia, India, and beyond. 

And all of this was not entirely new. In fact, it was old, very old. It might have even been old by the time we have the first century Roman, Petronius, complaining of the scandalously insubstantial fabrics of the east that Roman women had taken to wearing. We have Roman trade in gems, silks, spices, sugar, fruit, ivory, animals and wood that were all brought from Indian shores and the substantial finds of Roman coins since made on those same shores. By the 8th-century, we have Arab and Persian ships completing the journey all the way to the ports of China. And by the time of our story, we have the Fatimids having moved from Tunisia and really nurtured and encouraged this trade through the Red Sea, depending on your reading either actively diverting it from the hands of their Abbasid rivals, taking advantage of it to transport Ismaili missionaries, or simply profiting handsomely from their grip on Egypt and the sea, perhaps all three. Whatever the Fatimid caliphs had wanted out of it, they and then the Ayyubids oversaw a crucial gateway through which money and material flowed between circuits in the global system.

And If Egypt was one gateway between international trading systems, then the Yemeni port of Aden beyond the mouth Red Sea, was the center of a spider web, ships reaching it from the Red Sea to the west, from the ports along the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman to the North, from all along the eastern coast of Africa to south, and from the east, from India with all the goods it produced and which flowed through it. Like Alexandria on the Mediterranean side, this unwelcoming peninsula, though dry, rocky, hot, and inhospitable, was an opening into an ocean of possibilities, ones like Mangalore or Kollam (Quilon). 

The Jewish communities of Aden and the west coast of India, though distant, were bound by regular communication, by ties of business, family, and the rabbinical court at Aden, under whose jurisdiction the Jews of India operated. And this trade led to established communities there on the Indian coast, of Muslim and Jewish merchants. Those involved would often need to stay on layovers of 3-6 months, obeying the natural cycles of the sea. They’d settle in and set up all the requirements of a life there, mix and mingle with locals who they might employ, do business with, or sometimes marry, and as that last possibility implies, some would stay much beyond what the monsoon required, very much making the place their home. One man, for  example, spent the better part of seventeen years there on the Malabar coast, establishing a successful import/export business, operating a bronze-ware factory, and possibly marrying. 

Those like this who came to India and remained there wrote regularly to representatives, often in Aden, and through that city to their family, in Egypt, Sicily, Spain, or the Maghreb. They and their fellow merchants criss-crossed the Arabian Sea with cargo and correspondence. But we shouldn’t let these close ties and frequent crossings between Aden and India lull us into thinking that the voyage was not a daunting one. 

It was, like sailing the Mediterranean, a seasonal endeavour and one that required knowledge and skill on the part of the Arab and Indian sailors who dominated these waters. Dictated by the monsoons and periods of predictably unfavourable conditions, it actually aligned with the Mediterranean conditions in such a way that goods might move through Alexandria, up the Nile, and, via the Red Sea, arrive in Aden in late summer to be sent on to India even as the Mediterranean vessels were being pulled in for repairs. By the end of winter, goods brought from India could make the return trip, reaching the Mediterranean ports in time for the new sailing season there in spring.

The ships making the trip to India were, as travellers such as Marco Polo would note with wonder and no small amount of distress, entirely without nails. They were sewn together and sealed. It was an old technique and not a bad one, but they required frequent maintenance and were quite fragile among the shallows, reefs, and storms. Entering and exiting the open sea were particularly dangerous moments, and diving operations were sometimes attempted to recover sunken goods just off the coast. In the waters around Aden, in the Bab al-Mandab Strait, and near the Indian shore, shipwrecks were not infrequent, and they led to loss of baggage, money, and life, the latter coming from drowning and death by shark. 

Still, travellers ventured across the water “like worms clinging to a log.” And against these dangers, important letters were copied out and dispatched on multiple ships, goods were spread around to minimize the loss of all the eggs in one boat, and convoys were formed to go in relative safety and discourage piracy. But convoys and escort ships or not, that proximity to the other ships was not always sufficient to save you. Sometimes, it was only enough that you could hear the screams of a nearby crew in the dark, crying out in horror as their boats broke up and leaving no trace on the surface by morning. Sometimes, it was enough that some fellow traveller might preserve your name and fate, and later inform your family what had become of you.

They might write, as the authorities in Aden did when an Egyptian merchant on the way to India was lost, quote:

“These are the details of their drowning. The ship they were in, that is the Kulami, sailed from Aden together with the other ships … . This ship and the Baribatani were in the same position … travelled together for about four days from Aden. On the eve of the fifth day, the sailors of the … Baribatani heard the cries of the sailors of the ship Kulami and their screams and shrieks in the night as the water inundated them. When morning came, [they] did not encounter any trace of or evidence of the Kulami ship. … Any ship that sinks in the environs of Aden … never surfaces, nor does anyone who was in it survive at all, because of the turbulence of the sea and the distance from the shore and the abundance of [the sharks].”

So when merchants made for India, they did not do so lightly. They wondered whether they would again see their families. They surrendered their fates to God, writing, as one man did to his wife, “We will not be reunited unless God wills.” 

And with that, let’s move from the idea of travel and trade going east from Egypt to one particular journey, that of one particular person, to the expedition of Moses’ brother, David ben Maimon. But first, a quick break.


The exact date is uncertain, but we could say the early 1170s. For the sake of something solid to hold onto, we could say 1171. We find David still in Fustat but about to depart. We find him preparing to take money of his own as well as funds from Moses and from other investors and preparing to part from his wife and daughter and leave on business for ‘Aydhab on the Red Sea. We find him at the port and among all the bustle of merchants and other travellers from across the medieval world. They left or arrived by the Nile or made their living one way or another from those who did.

He would have brought with him money, food, bedding, trading goods, letters of introduction, safe conduct, or credit, and his travelling companion, a man named Ma’ani. He would have said goodbye to his family, if they had accompanied him down to the boat, and he would have climbed aboard an oar-driven galley, and then watched as Fustat slipped away behind him. As I've alluded to already, he would not live to see it again, not the city he now called home, his brother Moses, or his wife and daughter.

There would have been danger as his boat moved upriver, danger of theft or murder by his fellow passengers and the crew enough that taking the trip alone was considered unwise. Sudden winds could cause smaller vessels to capsize, and the changeable riverbed brought the risk of running aground and the boatmen needing to scramble into the water and shoulder or pole the ship from its predicament. Piracy, as with any substantial body of water, was a concern, tying up at night, for rest or supplies, could lead to bandit attacks from the shore, and the taxation of local officials could stray easily into extortion.

Despite these dangers, the journey was a scenic one. David and the other travellers would have looked up at the palaces and forts of the city sailing past, the mosques and minarets. They would have seen richly irrigated land bursting with life, with date palms, figs, and melons, barley and flax, and then beyond to either side the harsh expanses of the desert, the Libyan Desert on one shore and the Eastern Desert on the other. Villages would have passed by and with them people going about the daily business of the river, their laundry, fishing, and hunting. Sparrow hawks, geese, and swallows would have flown above, and water buffalo crossed before them to clamber back up onto dry land. And there were crocodiles of course, basking on the banks and waiting just below the surface, fed every now and then on an unfortunate passenger from a boat much like David’s, some victim of bandits, their fellow passengers, or their own clumsiness.

Up the river some 65 km, David would have passed into Fayyum, a region renowned for its flax production but hardly limited to it. There was sesame and rice, and orchards of dates, grapes, and sycamores, all to soon enough be replaced by sugarcane. There were Coptic Christian monasteries, and there was the Bahr Yussef, the canal said to have been dug by the biblical Joseph. 

At Akhmim, further on, they would have needed to stop, to wait and pay the toll. And there, the officials there were known to make travellers wait a while and to squeeze them for all they had. But at least there was the ancient temple to admire in the meantime. 

So striking was that site, that the widely travelled Ibn Jubayr called it “the most remarkable of the temples of the world talked of for their wonder.” He was struck by its size and mighty columns all covered in relief carvings, its rich colours in lapis lazuli and more, and perhaps most of all its ceiling. The ceiling was constructed of stone slabs so precisely joined so as to seem a vast, single piece, and it was richly decorated in birds about to leap into flight, human figures in a multitude of positions holding weapons, statues, or chalices, and other, more mysterious, forms, that he said “would take too long to describe and which words are not adequate to express.” And from ceiling to floor, both within and without, the stone walls of the temple were covered in script and images, with hardly space to place a needle between them, some of them, the traveller reported, “dreadful, inhuman forms that terrify the beholder and fill [them] with wonder and amazement.” 

In the early 14th-century, Al-Tujibi would also write of these images on the walls, mentioning that people, he would say “ignorant people,” still then came to the temple and made offerings to those ancient figures in the belief that they could perform magic on their behalf, the ancient temple evidently retaining something of its power to overawe even surrounded by Muslims, Christians, and Jews. And perhaps David stopped there and admired those images, but certainly there would have been other temples, shrines, and caves along the cliffs of the Nile as David made his way on the 550 km, and roughly three week, journey from Fustat to the caravan town of Qus.

Qus, the mostly Christian capital of upper Egypt, connected by caravans the Red Sea to the Nile system and through it the Mediterranean. It drew merchants from India, Ethiopia, Zanzibar, and Aden whose goods were sent by boat down the Nile, and pilgrims on their way to Mecca rested there before crossing east to the sea. It was, via the river on one side and the desert routes leading to the water on the other, a link between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. 

David and Ma’ani would have rested there, in this town used to travellers and with a large Jewish community accustomed to receiving visitors. It was a good place to recover and to make arrangements for the next stretch of the journey. They would have needed a caravan bound for ‘Aydhab on the coast. They would have needed to hire camels, drivers, and handlers, to supply themselves with water and food for the journey, to load their baggage and so begin the nearly 500 km crossing of the Eastern Desert, an intimidating prospect scattered with dried oases and the dried bones of those who had not made it. 

Some made the journey in relative luxury. In camel-born litters and beneath canopies to protect them against the sun, they might even read or play chess as the interminable sands passed below them. But that was not the way for most, and would not have been the way for David and Ma’ani. As it happened, they did not make the journey with a caravan at all. 

Almost unbelievably, David allowed himself to be convinced by Ma’ani that they should leave their party and go it alone, a shockingly stupid decision, a disastrous leap moved mostly by ignorance but also perhaps by a not ungrounded fear of what it meant to go by caravan.

One went in numbers to take advantage of the expertise of those who regularly made the trip, to avoid becoming lost and dying in the desert, and for safety in strength against banditry. But of course, such a sizeable party also made for a more appealing target, a plump and juicy fruit to be plucked from the branch; they might be more likely to be ambushed where a smaller party could go unnoticed. And then there were the guides and protectors themselves, the Beja tribesmen who could be just as threatening to their charges as any attackers and nearly as likely to take everything they could from them. David’s own letter as to the events is incomplete, but what survives does seem to indicate a distrust of someone in charge of the caravan, a fear even. 

And maybe they were right in this assessment, but accurate or not as judges of character, they were now striking out across this region of the Sahara without the comforts of the caravan, and they had regrets. They would wish that they hadn’t gone alone, but there was no longer anything they could do about it. To search for the rest of the party would have been folly, even fatal, and they could only press on, towards ‘Aydhab and the Red Sea. 

For nearly three weeks they went, enduring the searing heat of the day and winds of the night, conserving water, and likely wondering if this one mistake might not be their last. However, they not only made it, unscathed by brigandry and baggage intact; their idiocy was, in sense, vindicated, for God, as David put it “had willed [they] should be saved,” while others were not so lucky. 

There they were at ‘Aydhab’s city gates unloading their belongings, when those who had stayed together came straggling in. They’d been robbed and wounded. Some had died of thirst. An acquaintance named Ibn al-Rashidi was with them. He was unharmed but had been robbed, and David wrote in a letter to his brother Moses that it was all he could think of, the thought that Moses would hear that al-Rashidi had been robbed and think that David had been in his company, and that Moses would worry for him. Then, David wrote, “God c[ame] between [him] and [his] reason.” He wandered through the marketplace without knowing where he was, his mind on Moses back in Fustat.

And reading that letter, Moses would have felt keenly the sense that his little brother, who he had helped raise and educate, was now beyond his reach and protection. As he continued to read, his alarm, his distress, would have only increased. 

According to David, there had been nothing of note to purchase in ‘Aydhab save for indigo. There was no good business to be done there, so he had resolved to press on, to make the voyage to India. He had already endured hardships enough in the desert that the way by sea should be nothing, and God would surely again preserve him as he extended his initial trip to ‘Aydhab into a 5,8000 km expedition from Fustat to India. 

On this stretch, he wouldn’t be going with Ma’ani, whose poor judgement had led to his troubles so far. He’d sail instead with a man named Mansur, and on the same ship as others who he mentioned: Sitt Ghazal’s brother; the broker’s son, Salim, and his nephew; Makarim al-Hariri, the silk merchant, and his brother. And he went on, speaking of others who Moses would know. Ma’ani and Ibn al-Kuwayyis had embarked already on another ship. Bu ‘l-’Ala was safe and his goods intact, though his ship had foundered, but Ibn ‘Atiyya and Ibn al-Maqdisi had lost all but their money and lives in a shipwreck. These details David recounted not to cause his brother concern but to be passed along to the others’ families. 

David urged his brother not to worry for him, to reassure his family.

“I am doing all of this out of my continuous efforts for your material well-being, although you have never imposed on me anything of the kind. So be steadfast; God will replace your losses and bring me back to you. Anyhow, what has passed is past, and I am sure this letter will reach you at a time when I, God willing, shall have already made most of the way. But the counsel of God alone will stand. Our departure will probably be around the middle of Ramadan.”

So he wrote, apparently as a caravan was readied to make the journey back west to the Nile with his letter going with it. David, not knowing he’d never have another chance to write more, promised to later tell in full all that had happened to him.

He made ready to depart. He was there at the docks where pilgrims made their way toward Mecca, where goods from East Africa, South Arabia, India, Indonesia, and China all arrived and customs were paid, where ginger, pepper, galangal, cinnamon, cloves, cotton, porcelain, and silks were unloaded to be sent on Fustat, or beyond to Alexandria and the ports of the Mediterranean, where pearls, dates, glassware, sugar, copper, corals, lead, textiles, and paper were loaded on the ships heading east. For all the traffic that passed through though, it seems to have been a fairly small and for many not a place you would stay for long if given the choice. It was renowned for its appallingly hot winds, summer sandstorms, and mistreatment of pilgrims. It was thought sufficiently inhospitable that people sometimes hid there with their debts or were exiled to “the prison of the Fatimid caliphs,” there among those reed dwellings between the Eastern Desert and the Red Sea. Ibn Jubayr would note the similarity of the town’s name to the Arabic word for torture or punishment. It was no place to linger, and David boarded one of those ships to leave.

His situation was not unique. We have the letters of others of the time, who meeting with some misfortune, having failed in business or been in one way or another victimized, saw India as an opportunity to rebuild something for themselves, to recover what they had once had, or to amass the wealth they saw necessary to start a family. But David was in neither of those situations. He had lost nothing, already had a family, and was looking instead not to waste the efforts of the trip thus far, to return having made something of the money that had been entrusted to him by his brother and others. 

And this also was not unique. It was not only the desperate who sailed for India. Despite the dangers, many made extended careers in the Indian trade. Many established lives there on the Indian coast. 

David’s ship would likely have stopped in Aden having navigated the difficult Red Sea. He may have looked for opportunity there - many merchants found it there - but he journey on, encouraged perhaps by something gleaned while in the port, some suggestion of better investments ahead. Or maybe, as in ‘Aydhab, he simply arrived at an inopportune time and so sailed on.

And it’s not certain where his ship was wrecked and he and his companions with it, but somewhere on the long voyage from the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula to the coast of India it happened. Perhaps there was warning enough of trouble that the crew flung their cargo from the side in order to lighten the load and save themselves and their ship, but whatever they attempted, it was not enough. He had begun his life in Islamic Spain, had lived in Morocco, had made his way to Jerusalem and then at last made a home in Egypt, had travelled the Nile, the Red Sea, and then made to cross the Arabian Sea, but David did not reach India and was lost, along with the investments of those whose money he carried with him. 

“From then until this day,” his brother Moses would later write, “that is, about eight years, I have been in a state of disconsolate mourning. How can I be consoled? For he was my son; he grew up upon my knees; he was my brother, my pupil. It was he who did business in the marketplace, earning a livelihood, while I dwelled in security.

He had a ready grasp of Talmud and a superb master of grammar. My only joy was to see him. The sun has set on all joy. For he has gone on to eternal life, leaving me dismayed in a foreign land. Whenever I see his handwriting or one of his books, my heart is churned inside me and my sorrow is rekindled.”

And on that sad note, we’ll end for today. But I’ll back be back next episode with the conclusion of the Maimonides story.