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Merchants in Safavid Iran: Participants and Perceptions

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image of Journal of Early Modern History

When dealing with the domestic merchants of Safavid Iran, modern scholarship has largely confined itself to Armenians. But Armenians were by no means the only indigenous traders to engage in commercial and financial transactions. This article looks at Armenians along with the other merchant groups active in Iran's domestic trade-Jews, Banians, and Muslims-from three different angles. Part one, an overview of the types of activities these groups were involved in, finds that, while Jews acted as bankers, they also were active in the long-distance commodity trade. Muslims played a crucial role in the transportation business, but also provided credit to foreign merchants operating in Iran. Part two discusses a topic that has received a great deal of attention in Mughal studies, but that remains neglected in the Safavid context: the position of merchants in society, in particular their relationship with the state. Were merchants an integral part of the state, or did they operate as an autonomous class whose interests differed from those of the political elite? Part three probes this issue further by examining how the state perceived merchants and the group consciousness of merchants themselves. The Safavid state had an eye for trade and its benefits, but there was no fundamental convergence of interests between politics and trade. Merchants, in turn, achieved high levels of status and wealth, yet were not holders of power. Though vulnerable to oppression by local officials, they often offered stiff resistance to those who contravened them.

Affiliations: 1: University of Delaware


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