Q&A on The Medieval Persian Gulf with Brian Ulrich

Why did you decide to write this book?

I decided to write this book because it didn’t exist. In a sense that might be part of why all books get written, but it seemed wrong for there not to be a historical synthesis of the Gulf region between the rise of Islam and the Portuguese arrival. The Gulf is part of the broader Indian Ocean region and has often been the Middle East’s primary connection to that region, so it is important to scholars working on both the medieval Middle East and the Indian Ocean world. The medieval Gulf usually comes up only in chapters or even parts of chapters of longer works. What’s more, those tend to privilege either written or material sources, which really need to be brought together.

What particular topics does the book address?

The historical framing emphasizes the themes of ethnic and religious diversity and widespread trade connections. I talk about Christian monasticism on Gulf islands and how Islam’s rise affected them, the presence of people from South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, people diving for pearls that were exported long distances, and sultans’ investing in trade infrastructure. The region’s political history does provide important framing given ruling powers’ differing religious and economic policies, and snippets of social history sometimes flow from those broader themes.

A replica dhow on Saudi Arabia’s Tarut Island – The island hosted an important Church of the East synod in 676.

Why do you think these topics are important?

Within medieval history, I think more scholars are becoming more attentive to the fact that medieval societies were not homogenous, and nor were they isolated. A fact like we have a man of partial sub-Saharan African descent writing for an Arab audience about the virtues of those racialized as Black, including in that time and place many from South Asia, may be interesting in that light. The Gulf was the transit region for many products which became important in Islam and Middle Eastern culture, especially high culture, such as camphor for washing the dead. Finally, I actually frame five of my six chapters with issues from today’s world to which I think the chapters are relevant, such as sectarianism and the boom-and-bust cycle of particular major cities.

Jabal al-Qarah in Saudi Arabia’s Hofuf Oasis – the oasis was an important agricultural and political center, and an important pre-Islamic market was held in the shadow of the mountain.

Does the book contain any distinct interpretations?

The major one may be that I reject the conventional wisdom that a period of voyages between the Middle East and China was followed by a period only of shorter runs between emporia in India and Southeast Asia. I think that is based on a few written sources that have been over-interpreted, and that most trade was shorter all along with a mostly continuous stream of some trips with a longer distance. I also draw from Middle East Studies writ large that insight that Sunni and Shi’ite Islam as we know them today took centuries to develop and apply that to the Gulf evidence. Then there are smaller scale points where, for example, if we combine textual evidence that enslaved South Asians were valued as cooks and lots of South Asian cookware at archaeological sites, we strengthen the case for South Asian cuisine as important in the medieval Gulf.

A Bahraini Shi’ite religious display commemorating the Battle of Karbala – Twelver Shi’ism came to dominate Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia during the later medieval centuries.

Whom do you hope will read the book?

Beyond those involved with the scholarly fields mentioned above, I hope anyone interested in the medieval Gulf reads it. I prized accessibility, and tried to make it useful as a course text for those who want to cover the medieval period in a Gulf history course or those, presumably at Anglophone Gulf universities, who might want to add a local emphasis to a broader regional survey. In addition, if you just visit the Gulf and want to know its medieval heritage, this book is for you.

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