Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.09.17

Olivia Remie Constable, Housing the Stranger in the Mediterranean World. Lodging, Trade, and Travel in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2003.  Pp. 427.  ISBN 0-521-81918-0.  $65.00.  

Reviewed by Bert Roest, Basel (
Word count: 3391 words

In this fascinating multi-disciplinary study, Constable traces the evolution of the pandocheion in late antiquity (from its earliest references in the fifth century BC), following its transformation into the funduq of the Muslim Mediterranean and its further evolution into the fondaco merchant colonies of European traders.

In her introduction, Constable explains her initial curiosity about the history of these closely related institutions, which drove her to ask what caused their survival and transformation and what this reveals about the thing itself and the worlds in which it flourished. From the outset, Constable reminds us that, over time, pandocheia, funduqs and fondacos took on a variety of forms, with strong underlying themes of travel, commerce and intercultural contact.

In the first chapter, Constable charts the vicissitudes of the pandocheion in late antiquity, explaining that the word literally meant 'accepting all comers' and referred to hostels along the roads of Attica and along other thoroughfares of the late antique world. Yet, by the first and second century CE, pandocheia were predominantly situated in Palestine, Syria and southern Anatolia, the region of early Christianity and the probable homeland of the evangelist Luke, who mentions the pandocheia in his parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35). The term pandocheion sprouted cognate terms in many of the local Semitic languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac), signifying comparable institutions in different cultural groups within the region. For a long time, however, it did not translate into Latin (even Jerome chose the Latin term stabulum in his rendering of the Samaritan story in the Gospel of Luke). This suggests that it was first and foremost a phenomenon of the eastern Mediterranean, eventually ensuring its transference into Arabic (funduq).

Constable traces various other literary references to this kind of hostelry in late antiquity, such as tales in the Jewish Mishnah and its rabbinic commentaries, tales in the Babylonian Talmud, and remarks and stories in pagan, early Christian and early Muslim history and literature. Frequently, the term was used in tales of a moral import, indicating the association of the pandocheion with loose morals, dangers of impurity, criminality and prostitution, but also with mutual trust and assistance in matters of life and death in long-distance travel.

In early Christian literature, the pandocheion could be contrasted with the xenodocheion, which served Christian pilgrims, as well as the sick and the poor, and which, unlike the pandocheion, was normally not associated with money and the dangers of the worldly life. These latter aspects of the pandocheion took on metaphorical significance in Greek and Jewish philosophical texts by Philo and Epictetus, but also in texts by John Chrysostom and Clement of Alexandria, who compared all things of this life to the fleeting and illusory pleasures present in a pandocheion.

Constable consistently complements her literary sources with archaeological and epigraphic evidence, showing that, at least in the fourth century CE, many pandocheia were established by wealthy patrons and government officials to promote the public good and to enhance prestige and that the revenues of these institutions went into the urban or even the imperial treasury. In the eastern Roman Empire, government-sponsored pandocheia continued to be founded well into the seventh century, predominantly functioning as roadside hostelries at regular intervals along the major routes.

The Christianisation of the Roman Empire changed patterns of patronage. The xenodocheion / xenon gained greater prominence, although it did not replace the pandocheion completely. The metaphorical possibilities of the pandocheion continued to be explored by Christian authors, using both its positive connotations of hospitality and charity and its morally negative connotations of the worldly life. Notably in the fifth century (apparently a period of active public building), the literary, archaeological and epigraphic evidence suggests the emergence of large, multi-level pandocheia for pilgrims and commercial visitors alike. However, the archaeological evidence is multi-interpretable, and scholars continue to disagree about the number and the ubiquity of publicly sponsored pandocheia in Syria and neighbouring regions during this period, when the xenodocheion was on the rise, coupling the function of public hostel with that of lodging for the sick and at times evolving into veritable hospitals.

The importance of the xenodocheion in late Christian antiquity explains the migration of the word into early medieval Europe as xenodochium, designating the charitable hostelry associated with monastic lodgings in areas ranging from Italy to Spain and France. At the same time, the word xenodocheion was too closely bound up with Christianity to be transferred into Arab language and culture. In contrast, the pandocheion with its commercial and secular connotations, and its openness to all strangers did not face such boundaries.

Constable notes an important distinction between the pandocheion of the pagan and Christian Roman world and the early Islamic funduq. The former was designed for ease of access, whereas the latter had thick walls, almost no external windows, designated store-rooms and a lockable gate, showing that the Roman pandocheion was open to all kinds of travellers, whereas the funduq quickly became a place where long-distance merchants could lodge safely with their precious goods.

In chapter two, Constable explores in more detail this transformation from the pandocheion into the funduq. Many aspects of early Muslim urban administration and architecture were based on Byzantine prototypes, gradually transforming form and function to suit the needs of the Islamic milieu. The funduq was such an institution adopted and then adapted from the Graeco-Roman world, finding its own niche within an evolving network of hostels, hospitals, government offices and commercial spaces (with different names and slightly different albeit overlapping functions).

The early Muslim funduq catered in particular to merchants, providing storage for their goods, as well as areas to trade and to facilitate government taxation. Interestingly, however, many funduqs were established by rich individuals and Islamic rulers as waqfs: inalienable pious endowments intended to use the funduq's revenues for good purposes.

The lack of sources with regard to the presence of funduqs before the ninth century has led historians to ask whether the institution was in fact unrelated to the pandocheion and evolved independently. Yet Constable has found at least two texts that prove the institutional and linguistic link between the pandocheion and the funduq (Arab manuscripts of the Luke Gospel and Arab translations of dream interpretations by the second-century author Artemidorus Daldianus). She therefore suggests that the Arabic word funduq first evolved in Syria-Palestine, where Greek remained the language of administration in the eight century. From there, the Arabic term funduq (and its frequent synonym khan, with its roots in Persian) was disseminated into the wider Islamic world, designating both a commercial and a charitable institution, as well as a lodging-house for travellers and their goods.

By the eleventh century, the Arabic word funduq was re-introduced into the Byzantine world as the foundax. By then, the word pandocheion was little used, and the commercial ties with the Arab world stimulated not only the building of institutions for fiscal and regulatory purposes but also the adaptation of the Arabic word to name it. Yet, the Byzantine foundax was a warehouse for storing and taxing goods rather than a lodging place for merchants.

Chapter three explores the phenomenology of the funduq and its various overlapping functions in the Muslim Mediterranean during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a period for which there is abundant source material. In that period, the funduq had become a common component of the urban infrastructure throughout the Muslim world. Some large commercial cities had hundreds of funduqs within their walls. These were first and foremost commercial spaces, providing lodging, storage and security to merchants. They also doubled as tax offices and regulated distribution centres for the government and could give shelter to pilgrims and/or provide income for pious endowments (waqfs). Different funduqs could cater to the needs of different sub-groups and different products in the urban economy. Particularly under Fatimid and Ayyubid rule, many funduqs were established and maintained as revenue-producing enterprises for the state, and as centres where certain goods had to be traded to ensure price stability and government control over the food supply. This implied that many funduqs, even when privately owned and exploited, were under a measure of government oversight.

The funduqs inherited some of the more doubtful associations of the pandocheion, and Islamic writers cultivated some of the negative metaphors surrounding the worldly activities taking place there, providing stories of sexual transgression and alcohol abuse. Yet these invectives did not cause disrepute, for the funduqs continued to flourish as lodging-houses and commercial centres. They were generally seen to be relatively safe and respectable. Part of the mistrust may have been caused by the fact that the funduq provided lodging to foreigners with different customs (and faiths). Normally, funduqs catered to a particular clientele, such as traders in particular goods, or merchants from specific regions. Yet strict exclusivity or strict religious segregation seems to have been exceptional, some government intervention and regulation notwithstanding. Matters changed when an increasing number of Christian traders from western Europe entered the Islamic world. Muslim authorities saw that these strangers (unlike Christians and Jews from within the Muslim world) needed supervision. Hence, it became common to assign designated funduqs to merchants and pilgrims from Italy, France and Spain. In time, this changed the function of these centres, paving the way for the emergence of the Italian fondaco, as a base for Christian commercial operations in Muslim markets.

The emergence and development of the fondaco as an outgrowth of funduqs designated for western European traders is the subject matter of chapter four. Constable explains that these changes were related to the increasing dominance of western European traders in the international markets and the emergence of new traffic routes because of the rise of western Europe as an economic force in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The funduq, traditionally an institution that catered to a variety of merchants within the Dar-al-Islam and to those who were culturally well-assimilated, now had to serve the needs of a broader cross-cultural clientele.

The existence of funduqs and the emerging fondacos in Islamic towns encouraged European traders to visit the Muslim world. At the same time, the absence in European cities of comparable institutions (where people of a non-Christian faith could have found hospitality without harassment) kept Islamic traders from European markets. In the wake of the crusades, the commercial cities of Italy (Genoa, Pisa and Venice) and Spain (such as Barcelona) negotiated independent treaties with Muslim states in Egypt, North Africa and Southern Spain. It became customary to include in these treaties access to a designated fondaco, coupled with additional facilities with regard to safe-passage, tax reductions and the like.

Thus, western fondacos made their appearance in Muslim cities such as Alexandria, Aleppo, Tunis and Seville, under the oversight of city officials, and with the possibility of providing westerners with European food and giving them access to European law (for non-capital crimes), Latin priests, and places for worship (access to a church frequently was part of the package deal surrounding the establishment of a fondaco for westerners). By the thirteenth century, it had become common in cities such as Alexandria to have different fondacos assigned to different 'nations' of European traders. Despite regional differences, these developments took place throughout the southern Mediterranean where European merchants from commercial city-states were able to negotiate access to Muslim markets.

Eventually, the combination of fondacos, designated churches, storage houses, baths and adjacent buildings (such as bakeries) could lead to substantial compounds for different 'nations' of western traders sequestered from the remainder of the Muslim city (contrary to the commercial presence of western traders in Byzantium, which was managed differently, with recourse not to sequestered fondacos but to open loggias, notably during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries).

Fondacos for western traders were generally owned, maintained and monitored by local Muslim governments. Yet they were staffed with Christians. When the fondacos grew, full-time staff had to be provided. This eventually included a consul (the general manager responsible for the day-to-day affairs and the administration of his fondaco), additional administrators, priests, notaries, accountants and serving personnel. In time, the consul became the interface between traders from a particular western 'nation' and the local Muslim authorities, as well as the political representative of his home state/city.

In chapter five, Constable discusses the fate of the Muslim funduq and the western fondaco in reconquista Spain. Generally, it would seem, Christian merchants in reconquered areas took immediate steps to maintain the fondaco system. Nevertheless, the merchants' use of these facilities frequently declined in the course of time, and in any case changed character. At first, many Islamic funduqs continued to serve as hostelries, warehouses and as places for sales and tax collection, now integrated into a Christian economic context. There was a tendency to separate out the different functions of the funduq, organising monopoly trade and trade in international goods through royal depots/fondacos, and reducing the fondacos of foreign merchant 'nationalities' to lodging places and markets. As a result the fondacos held by foreign merchant communities in reconquista Spain were marginalised and turned into loggias, facilities for mercantile lodging and trade. Notably in Castile, the words fondacos / alfóndigas / alhóndigas increasingly signified (government controlled) warehouses and custom-houses for mercantile goods. In the Arago-Catalan sphere, the fondech for a while kept its reference to both lodging-house and warehouse.

Throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Castilian government-controlled alhóndigas were an important royal tool for controlling trade (especially traffic in grain) and for collecting revenues, stimulating the continuation or creation of large single-product alhóndigas-warehouses. In Aragon and Catalonia, however, it was less common to find fondechs devoted to a particular product. Moreover, in coastal cities in the east with international commercial ties, such as Valencia and Barcelona, the fondech continued to play a role as a hostel for merchants and other travellers, especially for Muslim traders, who found themselves obligated to stay under supervision in the fondech. Constable explains that the gradual shift in wording and institution from alhóndiga to loggia in the later thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was connected with a pervasive change in the 'terminology of Christian commercial space,' not only in Castile, but also in other regions of the northern Mediterranean, where foreign traders obtained property that they could manage themselves, relatively free from the supervision traditionally associated with the fondacos.

In chapter six, Constable shifts her attention to the fondacos in Sicily, southern Italy and the crusader states. In many ways, developments there showed a similar pattern. Nevertheless, in both Sicily and southern Italy fondacos continued to flourish throughout the thirteenth century as private warehouses and as government controlled commercial facilities. In the crusader states, many developments at first sight resemble those that had taken place in the reconquered areas of Europe. However, the commercial models in the crusader states by and large developed directly from existing Arab funduqs and foreign-merchant fondaco establishments in the Dar al-Islam, shaping form and function of the fondes and fondacos administered by the crown and of the fondacos of Italian city-states appearing under crusader rule. There is less evidence in the crusader states of fondacos functioning as official depots for royal monopolies. Many of the communal fondacos of western traders were themselves royal or noble concessions, negotiated through diplomatic exchange and as a remuneration for naval assistance and vital support to the crusading kingdoms. The power of western merchant communities in the crusading kingdom was such that they sometimes obtained whole city quarters for their use, with fondacos as part of the concessions granted to them.

Changing military and commercial realities in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries left their mark on the organisation of international trade, with varying repercussions for the funduq/fondaco system. This is the subject of chapter seven. In general, the Arab funduq became gradually less prevalent in Near East maritime and overland trade, and its function diminished, losing ground to related commercial institutions such as the khans and the wakalas (in Mamluk lands). The fondaco, on the other hand, continued to flourish, facilitating European traffic in Muslim cities well into the Ottoman period. Hence, though originating from the same root, funduqs and fondacos continued to diverge in function. In fact, the entrenchment of western 'national' fondacos and their proliferation during the later middle ages had a negative impact on the status and function of the traditional funduq in Muslim lands.

This solidification of the western fondaco system in Muslim ports until the early Ottoman period is dealt with in chapter eight. Many factors that contributed to the decline of the funduq in the late Mamluk period, such as the imposition of government controls over trade and the shifting patterns of trade routes, supported the growing importance of the fondaco. This was helped by the growth of the European commercial and maritime hegemony in the Mediterranean. For the European merchants, the fondacos remained highly desirable means of access to the markets of the Islamic world. Western governments also promoted this traffic, as they profited from its revenues and from the fondacos themselves, as did the Mamluk government, which taxed the fondacos and used the fondaco system to limit the access of western merchants to the interior market.

Along the North African coast, outside Mamluk Egypt, western merchants had fewer restrictions, obtaining through Hafsid treaties many fondaco facilities in numerous cities. The great number and open-ended nature of these establishments in Tunis, Tripoli and elsewhere suggest a less clearly enforced division between facilities for foreign and local merchants in the Magrib, allowing western merchants to participate in the commerce taking place in and around Arab funduqs as well.

The success of the fondaco system also influenced commercial facilities in southern Europe. There, newly styled fondacos flourished in the great Mediterranean ports. In almost all cases, the meaning of the word and the institution had by then lost several aspects of its Arab namesake. The Italian, French and Castilian fondacos / alhóndigas in late medieval Europe were first and foremost commercial entities: warehouses, granaries, commercial merchant lodgings and tax facilities, no longer hostels with charitable elements, emporia or points for cross-cultural contact. This development is charted in chapter nine. There, Constable deals at length with the history of the famous fondaco dei Tedeschi at Venice, probably the best-known western style fondaco in Mediterranean Europe, which continued to function well into the early modern period.

In her conclusion, Constable neatly recapitulates her findings and also brings to the fore some other insights that she developed during her research. Initially, she had assumed that the fondaco was an early expression of the movement leading to European colonialism and that the western colonies in Muslim cities were prototypes for later European expansion. Instead, in the course of her research she became convinced that the western fondacos in the Muslim world, albeit western colonies of a kind in Islamic cities, initially were not shaped by European military and technological dominance. As a matter of fact, the decline of the funduq and the fondaco in the Mediterranean world chronologically coincides with the first true expressions of western colonialism. Where fondacos continued to function in this later period, their function changed. Likewise, in the Ottoman world the funduq and the fondaco gradually disappeared, due to changes that damaged the long-established medieval protocols for handling cross-cultural trade and traders, which had been central elements of the funduq/fondaco-system for many centuries. The khan now became the place were European merchant groups did their business in the Muslim world. Increasingly, these were just spaces for commerce rather than residential enclaves. The word funduq never disappeared. But in present-day Arabic, it is a standard term for a hotel. It lacks both the commercial and the charitable connotations once glued to its semantics. In Italian, the word fondaco now only signifies a warehouse, and the Castilian alhóndiga merely refers to a granary.

In all, Constable has written a monumental book, covering the many semantic, political, economic and cross-cultural angles of a truly interdisciplinary historical enterprise. Its diachronic and geographic reach, along with its many intriguing local details and insightful anecdotes create a rich narrative that is a delight to read, and it offers a veritable treasure house of information for classical scholars, medievalists and early modernists of many kinds, whether they are interested in the wider history of the Mediterranean world along the lines of Braudel, or in more restricted political, economical or cultural issues related to their specialty.

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