The onslaught of the plague, possibly exacerbated by climate change, caused a crisis in 14th century Egyptian agriculture. Shifts in ownership from the state to private hands or pious foundations put further stress on the state’s traditional fiscal base. Christ argues that the sultans increased taxation and state intervention in response, and that control of the international transit trade turned out to be particularly profitable. In order to tap it more effectively, the Mamluk sultanate reinforced ties with the Venetians in the Mediterranean and the Rasulids in the Red Sea. Relations were grounded in an ambiguous language of gift exchange which allowed for the harmonization of nominal hierarchical difference and de facto bilateral, symbiotic exchange. On the basis of shared trade interests, the Mamluks delegated power over the ‘Two Seas’. This delegation was not perfect though; the Mamluks also sought to establish a direct if only seasonal fiscal presence in the Egyptian gateways of this trade in Alexandria, Upper Egypt and the Hijaz , thus combining power delegation on the seas with tighter control in the ports in order to channel the lucrative transit trade through their Cairo power base.
Georg Christ is a Senior Lecturer in Medieval and Early Modern History at the University of Manchester. Recent works include “Decline or Deindustrialization? Notes on the Entangled Histories of Levantine and European Industries in the Late Middle Ages”, Comparativ 26, 3 (2016): 25–44. He is currently at work on a book about maritime trade regimes in the Eastern Mediterranean in the 14th century, especially Veneto-Mamluk relations.