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The economy of Byzantine and Early Islamic Aswan mirrored in papyri, ostraca, inscriptions and the archeological evidence (DFG Project number 421143221)


Ägyptologisches Seminar
Freie Universität Berlin

Principal Investigator:



Egypt, like the Near Eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire, came under the control of the Caliphate in the mid-7th century CE and was incorporated into an emerging Muslim Empire. Although the long-endorsed ʻPirenne thesisʼ according to which the Arab conquest brought about a collapse of economic development in the Mediterranean, is no longer accepted today, research has not yet determined the overall economic consequences for the invaded regions. In the past three decades scholarship, particularly studies in Islamic archaeology and Greek and Arabic papyrology, has been able to redefine the traditional view that the Arab conquest brought about decline. Micro-studies have shown that structural developments took different courses depending on their geographical location and that varied preconditions accounted for their different intensities and scales. Further micro-studies will, however, be needed in order to get a more balanced picture of changes in this important and as-yet little studied ‘transition period’. The proposed project on the economy of Byzantine and Early Islamic Aswan (5th to 9th cent. CE), an important trade hub at the First Cataract, will contribute to achieving this goal by providing the first coherent economic study of this strategically important border town in Southern Egypt and its integration into the domestic market. The proposed study aims to provide an in-depth assessment of economic processes that took place from the 5th to the 9th cent. CE. Aswan provides a rare opportunity to analyse transition processes: not only was it a lively production and trade centre before the Arab conquest – a fact that renders studies on continuities possible in the first place. But the rich archaeological evidence that has been unearthed in extensive excavations during the 20th and 21st centuries allows, moreover, a thorough study of economic processes based on documentary sources. On the basis of published Arabic, Coptic, and Greek papyri, inscriptions, and ostraca (potsherds with writing) from the 5th to 9th cent. CE, the proposed project aims at identifying a) internal parameters which affected the economy of Aswan and b) external parameters that had an influence on demand and production of Aswan goods. However, the project that will be carried out at the FU Berlin goes beyond a mere descriptive approach: Besides the analysis of internal and external economic factors it will, moreover, assess c) the integration of Aswan’s market into the domestic economy of Egypt by studying patterns of distribution of Aswan’s goods and the impact of networks among economic actors. The project will thus contribute to furthering our understanding of Egypt’s development before and after the Arab conquest and promises new insights into Byzantine and Muslim economic policies, as well as evidence for cultural interaction and identity formation at the seam between the Byzantine and the Islamic Empires.