World History 1 257 - 16.3.2 The Black Death in Asia and North Africa

Although the exact date of the Black Death’s arrival in China remains unknown, Chinese historical records first refer to the appearance of a deadly epidemic in the years from 1331 to 1334. The accounts of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service, compiled in the late nineteenth century, suggest that roughly thirteen million people perished during this lethal outbreak. For those living in China, the devastation likely seemed to portend the withdrawal of the Mandate of Heaven from the rulers of the Yuan dynasty. Epidemics, droughts, and other catastrophes could be perceived as omens of divine displeasure and an indication that a ruler had lost divine support.

After ravaging China, the plague continued to spread west along trade routes by land and sea that eventually enabled it to engulf much of the Middle East. The Il-Khanate was heavily reliant on the trade networks of the Silk Roads and especially vulnerable to the plague’s disruption of the trade communities therein. In the midst of a protracted conflict with the Golden Horde, a rival khanate to the north, the Il-Khanate was reeling from the shock of invasion, factional disputes, and the death of the ruler Abu Sa’id Bahadur Khan (possibly from plague) in 1335. The plague’s devastating impact on trade and the population decline further compounded the deterioration of Il-Khanate Mongol rule after Abu Sa’id’s death. Cities such as Tabriz in Iran that had long served as thriving centers of trade were largely abandoned by the 1340s, when foreign merchants abruptly fled the city and commerce plummeted. To put this into perspective, imagine what would occur if today’s most renowned cosmopolitan centers of trade like New York, Tokyo, London, and Hong Kong fell suddenly into ruin as deserted ghost towns.

The decline of Tabriz was truly shocking to contemporary observers, but few cities were spared when infected fleas accompanying trade caravans were readily transported across central Asia and into the Middle East. Although the mortality rate across the Middle East was high, much of our knowledge of the plague’s impact in the Muslim world comes from historical documentation of its impact on the Mamluk Empire (1250–1517), which suffered a population loss of roughly one-third.

Under the control of the Mamluk rulers, who were based in Cairo, the trade routes of the Nile delta were hit especially hard. As in Yuan China, the onset of plague in Egypt was intensified by localized famines that disrupted agriculture and sent many rural peasants to large cities like Cairo and Alexandria in search of employment as unskilled wage laborers. Being in these densely populated zones significantly increased their chances of contracting the plague. The nomads of the region had long known to avoid settled areas when strange diseases appeared, and they largely managed to outrun the disease by retreating into the desert. Although some of Cairo’s Mamluk elite fled to rural areas north of the city in 1347, most decided to remain and protect their citadel from potential attacks from their rivals. In the process, however, they made themselves vulnerable to the plague and experienced high mortality rates.

Treatises written by Islamic scholars in the 1340s shed some light on the ways in which the Muslim world responded to the suffering. These texts, meant to serve as chronicles of the plague, also provided medical guidance and advice about proper conduct during epidemics. Doctors could neither define nor remedy the disease, so plague texts tended to frame the epidemic with religious explanations and recommendations derived from the Quran and religious law. Typically describing the plague as noncontagious, they instructed readers not to flee from it, declaring it a potential opportunity for martyrdom for faithful Muslims and a warning to infidels sent directly by God.

Other contemporary Arab writers described the plague as an apocalyptic catastrophe that resulted from a breach in the gate that separated humanity from Gog and Magog, the evil forces that, according to tradition, threatened to destroy the faithful. Even given the apocalyptic tone of this account, however, the Muslim response to the plague generally lacked the doomsday predictions and persecution of minorities that occurred in other regions such as Christian Europe. Although many undoubtedly fled the plague in spite of the treatises, Muslim writers tended to emphasize the importance of a collective and controlled response that promoted resignation and acceptance of God’s will.

Many formerly thriving industries in Mamluk cities went into deep decline during the plague, but there was a sudden increase in the construction of madrasas, mosques, and tombs, which for those who survived were a means of expressing gratitude. As a result, urban artisans who worked on these tended to be compensated very well for their skill. The only other occupational group in the Mamluk Sultanate that prospered in the wake of the plague was the spice merchants, since Egypt continued to serve as an important depot in the international spice trade. As agriculture and trade in other industries plummeted, however, the golden age of the Mamluk rulers came to an abrupt end in 1341. Although the Mamluks continued to rule until 1517, fierce clashes and ethnic rivalries within their empire created significant political instability that ultimately led to its collapse.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax