A fictional museum exhibit spins a narrative from documents related to a money transfer end of the Fatimid caliphate. The interpretation casts history as an institution that permanently exists in the present.
A 21st-Century Look at an 11th-Century Transfer
The public events of the last three months are of the class which will go into its permanent history. We have been living in an atmosphere of history which will be immortally preserved. Even the brief series of important dates to be collated for the use of the schoolboys of centuries hence will contain the day of the assassination, and the day of the death of President Garfield. […]
Perhaps a careful reading of the daily papers of the present period may give some future antiquarian a fine idea of the feelings of the nation during the past summer. But these journals are so large, so full of detail, that we imagine the coming American will never find time to read the record. He must depend on a brief statement, meagerly compiled by some dry and tedious historian.
—The Bloomington Daily Pantagraph, September 30th, 1881, reproduced by XKCD
As a student in Subah Dayal’s “Community, Conflict, and Connections in the Pre-Modern Indian Ocean,” one of the things that stuck with me is just how big history is. In addition to being big in a fractal kind of way, with each event containing finer and finer levels of detail, it’s also just enormous in breadth, with the huge expanse of time and space containing so many events, not just details, but entire eras and places that have passed out of the memory of whole populations, or never entered them in the first place. And exploring that record often feels disorienting. It feels wrong that a region so familiar to me in certain contexts can somehow seem so alien in a different time, or a time with which I’m completely familiar in one region is just a blank space in my mind in another. Furthermore, it’s wrong and disorienting that very clear historical narratives that it’s so easy to fall into often seem built on assumptions that can’t be universally applied to an expanse as vast as the historical record.
It’s alienating to think that the entire structure of how we lay out time and the events that slot into those simple rules are actually not universal at all, but merely at the mercy of the present, not just our historians and records, but rather whatever system under which we currently live, to have the parts of the past with which we’re familiar chosen for us and structures that mirror the present give our present systems legitimacy.
And this is easy to do; things simply pass out of memory and into the history books unless they’re actively preserved. Even a sentence as ubiquitous and seemingly contemporary as “The save icon is a floppy disk” has gradually left our memories, first the “floppy” stopped making sense, then “disk” after that, and now even the concept of “saving” is finally leaving collective memory. I imagine the concept of an “icon” may soon depart next. And these changes have been just in five or so years! In our current historical moment, the 2008 financial crisis has passed from immediate event to vague concept, 9/11 is now simply a historical feature for many, and the Berlin Wall has already passed from memory, as well. Next will be the USSR, and soon the entire twentieth century will exist solely in records. Someone even twenty years from now who wants to find out for themselves what it was like in the twentieth century will have to seek out someone who was there or go diving in the record pile. And someone sixty years from now will probably need academic training to go digging. Someone one hundred years from now might have trouble even finding the records, left on decayed tape and rotted paper and dead disks, and will instead have to consult the collections the people of our time saw fit to preserve.
And, even if our historian does find a trove of twentieth century records, who’s to say they’ll be able to communicate their findings if those findings are unorthodox by 2100? Some institutions may still exist in forms as we know them today, but those kinds of stable preservatory institutions are almost never global in scope. If there’s been one constant theme of this course for me, it’s just how little we can know about the vast past, and how beholden we are to present institutions to basically tell us not only what happened, but how things happen and did happen and will happen, and take these institutions on faith.
The idea of known history as an institution that permanently exists in the present and simply changes as the present does was the germ of my midterm project. My fictionalized sources are a series of disconnected documents all tangentially related to a simple money transfer around the time of the end of the Fatimid caliphate, right before the rise of the “early modern” period and the forging of consistent links of trade and information. A time of sparser records than other chronological periods, this is the perfect place for institutional historians of the present to invent stories out of whole cloth, and so I wondered if it would be possible to make a heroic origin story that legitimates current activities out of a few financial records that clearly shouldn’t be used in this way.
My rules were simple: Only one document could be directly addressed to the person or institution trying to create a favorable historical narrative about themselves, and half or fewer could mention them by name. No document could be about the person’s personality or ambition, and ideally most would be editorialized fragments. I would then attempt to use flavor text (non-sourced “context” supplied by the institution itself) to spin these fragments into a clear, dogmatic story that implies way more about the person tangentially related to these documents than would be appropriate, all under the veneer of “responsible” historiography.
The people I picked to engage in this bit of fictional credibility laundering are a large (ostensibly) U.S.-based trust. In the United States, and throughout much of the world order the U.S. represents, history is a privately funded affair. Charitably, it’s a philanthropic exercise; less charitably, it is often a legally convenient front for the laundering of money, the purchasing of influence in the form of grants, or the use of antiquities as tax shelters. But regardless of whether money is being laundered, credibility certainly is, and such organizations often are under incentive to promote historical narratives that justify their actions. The fictional trust in my story is a charitable organization run by the historically real Sassoon family. Known as the “Rothschilds of the East,” the Sassoon family made its money through banking, and not premodern banking, but large-scale nation-state backed banking. The primary enforcement arm of Sassoon financial power was the British Raj.
As the present became less and less friendly, economically and otherwise, to the nation-state/empire paradigm, the Sassoons engaged in a shift, moving to instead purchase the sovereign debt of South Asian nations and exercise financial power that way. This was accompanied by a massive shift in the kind of historiography these causes championed, moving from a valorization of large Indian empires to an exploration of “indigenous” history, a history of self-sufficiency and resistance, and the production of historical narratives that justified this shift. And so, the Sassoons, banking partner in empire, became the Sassoons, banking partners in home rule, continuing to make enormous amounts of money.
The world is now at the moment of another great shift in sovereignty. The revolution that “started” with the telegraph, the telephone, the personal computer, the Internet, and the global telecommunications system has once again continued to accelerate. There’s now so much free computing power that we’re seeing the growth of self-regulating networks, decentralized institutions that can manage and transfer value and agency away from prying eyes. The economic development of South Asia and the Indian Ocean directly coincides with this shift, and it seems inevitable the two will be commingled.
But just as the end of the Empire wasn’t the end of the power of “Western-style” finance in India, so neither will Bitcoin and its children spell the end for banking power there. Banks are beginning to issue their own digital tokens. Stocks are being listed the same way. Much as it did to the new nation-states that emerged during the transfer of power from the old empires to the new UN system after World War II, institutional money is now pouring into this space from the old banking system. And that necessitates a new historical narrative. What can we pluck from the historical record that justifies this enormous shift by institutional power?
My theory is that the historical institution destined to go from obscure to universally known is hawala, the decentralized Islamic finance transfer system. Fundamentally, it’s similar to a blockchain, actually, just much slower and with a slightly higher trust requirement. (Cryptographic proofs not being available, hawala brokers used fear of divine retribution, which seems to have worked well.) Hawala actually had a moment in the sun after 9/11, as some sort of terrifying insurgent terrorist tool that allowed Al-Qaeda operatives hunkering down in Maryland a way to get money wired to their secret cells from Bin Laden himself. But this narrative seems to have been deliberately wound down, and in fact, many U.S. institutions openly deny that it was ever spun. Sure, Homeland, a popular War on Terror show financed in part by the CIA, may have depicted it as an ominous coin-clinker in the halal meat market, but the CIA World Factbook site now lists hawala neutrally as a “traditional financial instrument,” with only one mention of terrorism, as a potential “misuse” of the system.
My theory is that the sudden memory-holing of the “evil, scary hawala” narrative is because potential was seen instead to lionize hawala as Conclusive Proof™ that the natural state of South Asia is some sort of free-trade utopia, one on which culture is immaterial, the exchange of money easy, and commoditization standard practice. Which is, of course, the reality that would make banks and financial institutions a lot of money. Hawala may be the perfect instrument for this narrative, but the past is big. I anticipate we’ll see plenty of historical narratives advance these present-day ideas with evidence grabbed from the historical record, and I’m sure hawala records aren’t the only way they’ll justify themselves.
As for the sources themselves, they’re a collection of (deliberately scant) financial records, testimonies, and business communications from various sources tangentially related to the quest by one Sauson bin David (the Sassoon trust’s chosen forbear) to transfer money from Cairo to Surat to start a business. The documents hint at a struggle to have the money transferred, due to obstacles both cultural (Sauson is Jewish, and he’s using a Muslim financial network) and material (mixups in the transfer of the money), to India. Sauson is portrayed in the flavor text as an intrepid adventurer, but it’s fairly obvious that he, financing his own voyage and calling in favors from family, is rich and well connected.
The time period is right before the early modern period begins, at the end of the Fatimid Caliphate and just prior to the turbulent centuries before the rise of the Mughal dynasty. In Europe, this was just prior to the massive expansion of the banking system, but in the Indian Ocean, it’s a time period of enormous trade (often alongside warfare) between competing polities and, fortunately for our hypothetical historiographers, often a lack of reliable or singular record keeping. The social context is one of mobility, of access to a newly liquid form of wealth and an abstraction of assets from the grounded to the transferrable and universally applicable, a new dynamic that informs much of the activity, and conflict, of Sauson’s life and the attempt documented here. Sauson’s life and reputation are defined largely by the ownership of assets, of the buying and selling of commodities between vastly different environments, and it’s this unique situation that has given him the kind of perspective to see himself, a resident of Fatimid Cairo, as a natural hand at starting a venture in India.
This is a time of connection, but it’s also still a time of fewer resources being delivered more slowly than in other historical moments. The large and far-reaching trade zones of Rome and Han China are but memories; even the Rashidun and Umayyad caliphates no longer exist to facilitate overland trade. Trading and commerce in this time is a struggle to universalize and commoditize assets across wildly different states and cultures, to try and form a common maritime culture that could facilitate this commerce away from the machinations of these land-bound polities, and of cooperating with sea-dependent states to forge a culture that could be attenuated over long distances. This unique historical moment, and the kind of networks and ways of thinking about capital and ownership this situation necessitates, is why hawala became such a big institution at this time. These challenges are also, more darkly, the same challenges faced by supranational corporations and international banks, and that’s why this historiographical narrative makes such sense as something they’d push.
This time period, of a rapid expansion of trade between heterogeneous polities, concurrent with the building and rebuilding of non-land power structures positions this time as a unique historical nexus, filled with possibilities. It’s interesting to imagine what it would be like to be one of the first people to command this radically new way of not only doing business, but seeing, interacting with and conceiving of the world and how power is organized within it.
Ultimately, what I’m trying to do with this work, both the primary sources from the eleventh century and the flavor text from our time, is put our modern anxieties and fears into a historical moment that may yield some insight into the nature of these problems and how they might evolve. But, at the same time, I’m trying to include a warning. The past is big, and it’s all too easy to go looking until you find a historical example that legitimates the current power structure. We have to make sure that learning from historical moments of the past isn’t maliciously conflated with using those moments as a way of legitimating bad behavior in the present.
Premodern Capital: An Exhibition
Recent interest by the national governments of India, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other states in regulating financial instruments and cryptographic assets has sparked a new interest in the possibilities and future of financial instruments being traded across borders in this region, and of the potential economic repercussions of such an evolution in financial technology. In light of this discussion, this exhibit showcases a collection of documents, artifacts, and works of art that reflect the enduring nature of these questions.
This collection has been assembled and will be displayed in multiple galleries in the United States, Egypt, India, and Singapore. Special thanks is given to the United States State Department and the Sackler Family Gallery Trust. This exhibit is made possible through the cooperation and generous financial support of the ASEAN-India Free Trade Area, and the Sassoon Family Trust, which has contributed to this exhibition with the aim of advancing global free trade. Many of the works seen in this collection have not been publicly shown before and have not been placed in this context. We thank the generous private owners for their cooperation and enthusiasm.
Please refer to this guide for translations of the documents you see here, or scan the QR codes next to the documents. Other languages and dedicated audio guides are available on request. This exhibit is T-coil compatible, ethically sourced, and CovidOVID-WellELL Seal™ compliant. In keeping with the themes of this exhibition, the companion book for this exhibition will be made freely available online, with five copies sold as non-fungible tokens. (NFTs) Both the book and the NFT sale may be accessed by the QR codes at the end of the exhibit, or by visiting the exhibit’s website. Proceeds from the NFT sale will benefit the Sassoon Family Trust.
Letter from Sauson bin David to Aaron bin Said, c. 1009, Cairo
This is a letter recovered from the records of a merchant association in modern Gujarat during the Raj, as part of research funded by the Sassoon family to investigate the roots of their presence in Bombay. “Sauson” here is thought to be an early form (or misspelling) of the modern “Sassoon”; however, this is inconclusive. Regardless, prevailing theory is that Bin David was a member of a cadet branch of the Sassoon family that never fully enjoyed the wealth of the main branch, and either folded back into it or married out of the Jewish faith, leaving assets to be absorbed by the main family. At the time of this letter, however, Bin Said must have been a formidable potential heir to the Sassoon fortune, hence a personal response from the wealthy Bin Sauson himself.
Readers will notice a mention of restrictions on the use of Muslim financial networks by Jewish merchants. At the time, it was seen as inappropriate to allow Jews to use the institutional infrastructure of Muslim nations for their own ventures.
Salutations to a friend and cousin1 who now crosses the sea to India. May the fortune and favor of the LORD fall upon you in these times. I have received the request from [your father] the elder Aaron, who in his favor has smiled upon you and seeks my blessing2 on his sanction of your establishment [of a trading venture] in India. There has been time to […] and considered a measured sum of 3,000 gold dinar3 to be adequate for your establishment in the lands of India. I ask only your good memory and [trading?] preference as you pursue your endeavors.
As to the matter of laws of the Gentiles, it is regrettable that there has been a change in their ruler4 since the last letter of your father, which has made the laws more harsh. It is known that the Gentiles of Egypt and India alike have no desire for us to use their designs5 to take profit at their expense, and so proceedings must be taken with care. Have faith, upon your arrival in Surat [Gujarat] you shall meet with our people, who shall show you to a Gentile broker, and there you shall have your dinar.
Fortune be with you.
Record of the hawala exchange, Cairo
Money typically entered the hawala system by one of two ways. Muslims could simply deposit money for transfer to one of a network of brokers, who would then communicate the transaction to their peers until the transaction reached the broker of the recipient. However, for Jews to enter their money in this system, a common system of exchange in Cairo was necessary; a Jewish depositor would give money to a Muslim intermediary who placed his own money into the hawala system, often taking a commission. The following is a small portion of a record of deals concluded in such an exchange. As stated in the previous letter, as this was an attempt to transfer business capital from one Jew to another, Sauson could not have used such a centralized method of exchange to send his money in this case.
Note the universal use of Hindu/Arabic numerals.
|Sender||Recipient||Depositor [Broker]||[Broker Number]6||Amount||Commission||[Hawala]
|Solomon b. […]||Isaac b. Massoud||Yusuf ibn. Islam||117||3 dinar,
|5 dirham||Kadin ibn. Halim|
|[…] b. Yakov||Abraham al Najd||Umar ibn. Ashf||64||51 dinar||3 dinar,
|Abd. el Rahim|
|Ismail b. Aaron||Rebecca b. Isaac
|Hamid ibn. Muhammad||150||300 dirham,
|2 dinar||Ismail ibn. Faruq|
Public Edict in Search of a Notary, Aden, 1012
The strategy Sauson seems to have used to circumvent restrictions on Jewish use of the hawala system was to engage in a kind of notarized swap that would require merely an enforcement agent on site, not an intermediary with capital. The advantages of such a swap are obvious: any institution that could enforce penalties for contract breaking could carry it out without knowing the exact amount of currency exchanged and between whom.
As the city of Aden (now in Yemen) was a hub for trade, laws such as those in Fatimid Cairo were not as enforced, and so it would have probably been easier for Said to find a willing notary here, especially since capital was not required on the part of any citizen of Aden and the swap would be concluded immediately with no lasting obligation.
As for the delay since the original letter, it’s possible that a bad storm season or economic hardship had delayed Sauson, or the terms of the deal had been changed.
BE IT KNOWN: On this, the ninth day of the time of Dhu al-Qidah, twenty-score and two years since the hijri of the Prophet (PBUH) a man of letters is sought to bear witness of a contract between the two men who come here to the city. A Bin Salah shall enter into a contract with the Jew8 who comes here representing and bearing assets of the same [Sauson] Bin David. Such contract is [not in the long term], and so any who seeks to enforce truth of word may meet the parties when the sun begins its descent.9
Oath of Servant of Bin Salah, Aden, 1012
Apparently the governing authorities of Aden did have cause to believe that this swap was suspicious, and so required a sworn testimony from a servant as to the mechanisms of the swap between Sauson’s agent and the hawala broker. The reason for the suspicion is unknown. Potentially this was part of a larger testimony as to unknown other activities by this broker, and is only separate due to its relevance to this transfer of money. The nature of the swap is complicated, and possibly reproducible across longer distances without a notary, which indicates that this kind of procedure had been done before. Sadly, some of the document was lost, with a pattern of damage that indicates a potential act of deliberate destruction of these records prior to their discovery in a mosque in the 1700s. It is possible that someone was attempting to obfuscate wrongdoing following this questioning of the servant.
[…] MERCIFUL,10 I do attest that such things have happened as I have seen them. The Jew [Sauson’s agent] arrived and attested that such sums of gold and metals were placed in the public treasury under guard, as such wealth may be, and then drew up such a document on rough paper, which explained the means by which a sesame-phrase11 could be derived. I did hear the Jew say that such a phrase would only be obtainable by a confirmation of such a [hawala] deposit as is used in Aden. My master said […]
[…] the knowledge that such an agreement would be completely reversible at any time until both the Jew and Bin Salah’s terms had been concluded [at once?].12 After such a time, it was uttered, no act of God or man could reverse such an exchange.13 The Jew and Bin Salah signed the document and exchanged gifts of sugared dates and other such candies14 to conclude the arrangement and departed for a meal in the courtyard. I was sent away to prepare the food for the evening meal.
All of this happened as I said it has had. I do not know the names of others who did observe this, nor do I know the nature of the agreement between Bin Salah and the Jew. I may attest as well on behalf of my master, who merely affixed his name and [notarized] it as so, and I may also attest that I heard him later speak of the matter as though he knew nothing of it beyond his name. This I do believe was said in truth.
Letter from Siraf to Debal, 1012
This letter was sent from Siraf, in modern-day Iran, to Debal, a port city in modern-day Pakistan, and was found in a private collection before being transferred to Pakistan’s National Museum. Neither the name of the sender nor that of the recipient survives, in large part due to the lack of identifying information in the letter. It is possible that the names were indicated on other papers that have been lost, or that this letter was part of a regular correspondence that occurred so routinely that names were not necessary. Regardless, it’s clear that the two parties frequently correspond. The format of this letter is a simple hawala transaction common at the time.
It is said that a man in Surat comes to expect a sum of money of notable size. In the coming year, he shall arrive in that place, and will seek to acquire 3,000 dinar, of the value that is known to those in Cairo and Ifriqiyah.15 A man in Aden has furnished these dinar in the standard quantity16 to the broker Bin Salah, who deals in such quantity, and so has Bin Salah contacted me here in the city [of Siraf], with designs to inform contacts in those parts of such a debt. Please be obliged to make such a debt known and oblige those closer to Surat to inform their brothers17 of this as I have. May Allah, the most merciful, the most gracious, protect and guide you in these and other endeavors.
Record of Court Proceeding from Surat, 1013
Sauson reappears in the story in this document, which details his attempt to retrieve his money from the hawala network after having arrived in India. Unlike previous disputes, this one does not stem from religious conflicts; rather, it appears the hawala transaction had not reached the city, preventing withdrawal of funds. The document can be dated to 1013 from the use of a seal that contained the year.
At the time of this record, Surat, in modern-day Gujarat, was the most prosperous port in the Ghaznavid empire, and a key source of wealth for the empire, which saw the granting of a considerable amount of autonomy to the city from the Ghaznavid authorities. Based on the finding of this record in municipal archives, it’s believed that this case was heard in a form of chancery court, a place for disputes involving money within the city separate from the rest of the Ghaznavids’ centralized legal system characteristic of that of Islamic sultanates at the time.
The primary witness, al-Jahan, was called forward in the matter of dispute between the outsider Sauson and the witness himself. The witness swore that Sauson, having arrived in this city, approached the witness and asked to receive a notable sum.18 The witness attested that nowhere in his records was such ownership or obligation listed, and so was there much disagreement. Sauson proposed a simple receipt19 of the monies, but this was not possible, as the witness had already outlaid significant sums to other borrowers. […]20 Having heard the full testimony, the Court and the witness concluded an agreement by which requests for clarification would be sent to others engaging in the witness’ particular business.21
Reconciliation of Accounts, 1013
The annual monsoons that swept through this region greatly facilitated the speedy transfer of goods and information, but this came at a significant cost: As the wind only favored one direction of travel at a time, ships arrived on a staggered schedule; half the year they would come from points south and west, the other half north and east. This could lead to problems with information management as is seen in this document, a semiannual “reconciliation of affairs” by a wealthy merchant in Surat, during which transactions to the west had to be squared with transactions from the east, with outdated information being culled from the books. This reconciliation happened “as the wind changed,” which would place it either in the spring or at the end of the year.
It is unclear if this is the same merchant who had previously denied Sauson his money, but highlighted are a number of hawala exchanges that were altered with the arrival of new information, which would have cleared clients to borrow or withdraw. The original form of this document is not in this exhibition; it remains property of the government of India, which has not cleared it for exhibition. We thank the National Museum of New Delhi and the government of India for providing us with a digitization of selected pages as part of the Orange Lotus Cultural Ambassadors Program, which pledges an unbiased selection of Indian and Hindu cultural heritage to be made available to the museums of the world.22
The lines you see here are an excerpt of hawala reconciliations. Note the use of numbers instead of names; hawala brokerage was clearly a large enough part of this merchant’s income to justify a system of bookkeeping. The first line seems to be a change of amount, the second an annulling of a transaction, the third a change of destination.
|Account23||Indebted24||[To] Receive25||Old [Amount]||New [Amount]||[Reasons for]
|15||Al-Hadj||[Contact in] Debal||80326||1,251||Another letter having just arrived informing us of a larger sum having been [deposited] at a different [broker]. The sums have been rectified.27|
|26||Aqbar ibn. Hafez||Umar [of the] Malay||329||–||Conflicting news brings mistrust.28|
|38||Azhar ibn. Jahan||Yusuf [in] Lahore||2,035||2,035||Do they then not travel through the Earth, so that their minds gain wisdom and their ears thus learn to hear?29|
A key question thus arises: If the hawala network diverges and rectification of accounts is ultimately in the hands of these brokers, how do they choose which chains of transaction to trust and which to cull? Some answer can be found in this passage from a margin of the document:
I have [pledged] to rectify honorably, without thought to [my] person or the wealth which may be gained dishonestly. For wealth earned dishonestly is paid back at great cost. I say I shall do this by consideration of trust that has been placed by me in each sender, their relations and [reputation] as honest and honorable men, and shall always place in that whose accounts are known to be true. I also do exercise […]30 the truest of that in which I place trust in my own instincts, and shall not set in my records that which appears to be false to me. Instead I shall ask the honorable men of my colleagues for their assistance in such rectification.
It is clear from these segments that the entire medieval hawala network, in a world of long distances and spotty information, relied on a network of “honorable men” to constantly error-correct these transactions as discrepancies arose. One can’t help but liken these documents and their process of trust and rectification to the eventual emergence of decentralized finance protocols today, a testament to the intellect and forward thinking nature of these banking pioneers.
Private Letter of Ghaznavid Viceroy, 1014
We know that Said was able to withdraw his money in an interesting way: a letter from a viceroy sent by the Persian-speaking Ghaznavid Empire to consolidate power over Gujarat, on the southern fringes of their large land-based empire. This excerpt is from a letter detailing new copper mines in Gujarat.
[…] and there has been such an amount of copper mined in this place that every man now has some sundry small fortune in copper coins, which has had the result of diminishing in value that which has been held. One arrival, a Jew, who did so transact with a merchant of the [Delhi] Sultans known in these parts, did have letter to obtain the value of some large quantity of gold that had been sent ahead [by hawala] so as to meet him on arrival. By the time the Jew did arrive with his designs and was shown by his fellows to the [merchant] who had the charge to give unto such funds, the copper coinage was so abundant in this place, that the value was much less than he was expecting and so was this attempt foiled! Truly, the divine favor of Allah, the most gracious, the most merciful has shown itself here for us […]
Whether or not Sauson himself was successful, we do not know from the available historical record. But more and more documents are being found every day. Either way, it’s clear that the roots of banking, and especially of decentralized finance and free trade in this region, have enormous historical precedent, and a legacy which Sauson’s (probable) descendants are proud to carry forward in the modern South Asian economic space.
- “Cousin” here is attenuated, it’s clear that there’s no immediate family relation; rather the two are linked by some venerable common ancestor, about the identity of which there is historical controversy.
- “Blessing” here is assumed to imply financial support, judging by the rest of the letter.
- About two million U.S. dollars today.
- Assumed to be the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim, who placed strict limits on Jewish and Christian activity. This would place this letter during or shortly after 1009.
- Judging by context, “designs” here means financial networks.
- It remains unclear what this number means. Possibly it was a way to track who was placing outside money into these financial networks, or perhaps it was mandated for tax purposes by the Fatimids themselves. The numbers do not appear in other documents, and are rare even in tables of this kind.
- June, 1012. Of note, this month signified a pickup in business in Islamic commerce as the beginning of a four-month prohibition on armed conflict in the sea lanes.
- Unclear as to the identity of this messenger, and syntactical ambiguity could point to it being Sauson himself. This is unlikely, however; it was common at this time to deputize those carrying even large sums of money.
- Possibly sunset, but more likely the early hours of the afternoon, around 1:00 or 2:00.
- It’s assumed that the text preceding this was the bismillah, used to begin verses of the Koran and sanctify Islamic oaths. It is unclear whether the preceding text was removed by accident, or intentionally stricken by a subsequent owner.
- Potentially what we would think of as a passphrase, likely inspired by the phrase “open, sesame!” from the then-current Thousand and One Nights. As details of these furtive transactions rarely survive, “sesame” could reference actual sesame seed pods traded through Aden instead, or possibly something else entirely.
- The grammar is vague, but context implies that both sides of the deal were to be concluded at the same time, difficult to coordinate time-wise at this time.
- Potentially this blasphemous boast is what caused the interrogation of those involved in the transaction, but this is unproven.
- Possibly also a form of payment beyond common courtesy, sugared goods came at a premium price.
- Another trading city through which international wealth flowed to and from the Fatimid caliphate. Older than Cairo.
- “Standard quantity” here is unclear; standard practice would dictate that the money would be deposited in some known form or otherwise explained in terms of assets. It’s possible that “standard quantity” here refers to Fatimid currency and the associated metal content. This would be important for conversions throughout the hawala process.
- This term is not biological, rather it is a religious euphemism for business partners or other contacts within the hawala network.
- Note the exact amount is absent. This could be due to money taken on commission, or exchange being left up to the discretion of the broker.
- Possibly some form of cash advance.
- A section from this record is inferred missing due to an abrupt change in grammar from the witness statement to the language of court procedure. The omitted section from the records could have been a simple list of outlaid expenses, or elements of the dispute itself that were deemed unworthy of mention.
- The hawala network is not mentioned by name. The Ghaznavid authorities may have frowned on its use, as it allowed for quick transfer of funds between subjects and outsiders like Sauson, or perhaps there were economic incentives to deny one’s participation.
- Disclosure: This initiative has received State Department funding subject to diplomatic oversight by the government of India. Disclosure of this funding is made under Public Law 114-191, the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act of 2016.
- This word may be misleading; “account” here refers to a singular business matter, such as a single transaction, not the continuous relationship between client and service provider such a term would now imply.
- Probably the referrer, the previous node in the hawala network.
- Probably not the final recipient, merely the next node in the network.
- Note the lack of units; either the units used are implicit, stated in an as yet non-digitized portion of this document, or this is some internal system solely used by the record-keeper.
- Consolidated, or added together.
- Possibly a poetic euphemism for the discovery of fraud or overdraft of some kind.
- The citation of a Quranic verse here is interesting; we assume it is a euphemism for the intended withdrawer of the money having moved, but the citation of religious language indicates that this may also be a gift to enable a pilgrimage or something similar. The former would necessitate a corresponding annulment of a transaction, but the document has not yet been fully digitized, so there is no definitive answer as of now.
- Missing segment assumed to be some statement of discretion.