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VALÉRIAN Dominique, Ports et réseaux d’échanges dans le Maghreb médiéval

Casa de Velázquez, 2019
Ramzi Rouighi
Référence(s) :

VALÉRIAN Dominique, 2019, Ports et réseaux d’échanges dans le Maghreb médiéval, Madrid, Casa de Velázquez, 355 p

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1This is the first major scholarly work on the subject of Mediterranean ports and exchange networks in the medieval Maghrib. In it, Dominique Valérian seeks to situate Maghrib-specific developments in relation to historiographic debates that range from the legacy of Rome and the Islamic conquests to the Commercial Revolution and the emergence of the modern world. By virtue of its range, focus, and the rich bibliography on which it stands, this book is now the main reference work on the subject.

2Valérian divides Ports et réseaux d’échanges into two parts, the first extending from the end of the 7th century to the beginning of the 11th, the second from the end of the 11th to the end of the 15th century. Defined by changes in the orientation of commercial networks in the Maghrib, this periodization departs from the political periodization that has weighed heavily on historical research. Interestingly, it also reflects differences in the character and quantity of the evidence. In a methodologically oriented and historiographically grounded introduction, the author maintains that a focus on Maghribi ports and commercial networks extends, modifies, and ultimately improves arguments about the Mediterranean (from Pirenne and Braudel to Picard and Horden and Purcell) and the emergence of the Modern World System (Abu Lughod). Valérian’s pragmatic approach utilizes the notion of networks, in the plural, to handle the specificities of the sources and the challenges they present historians. His goal is to replace unwarranted interpretative biases with cogent explanation and contextualization grounded in a reasonable appreciation of the relative importance (weight and rank) of ports and commercial networks, and of their evolution over time. In this perspective, ports are privileged vantage points for the analysis of commercial networks. Sixteen maps augment the book’s arguments, as do the copious bibliography and index.

3Entitled “L’intégration des ports au sein de l’espace islamique (fin VIIe – début XIe siècle),” the first part is divided into three chapters, two of which distinguish between a period of limited investment in ports (mid-7th to end of 8th century) and another which saw the establishment of a port infrastructure (9th to 11th century). In the third chapter, Valérian makes a case for a progressive integration of Maghribi ports in commercial networks in the Maghrib, evaluating their ties to trans-Saharan commerce, and their place in a unified Islamic economic space that extended from al-Andalus to Baghdad. In this early period, Valérian notes that commercial relations with Christian Europe were relatively unimportant, although there were signs of their rising significance especially in the 11th century.

4Also divided into three chapters, the second part of the book places “Les port maghrébins dans la Méditerranée latine (fin XIe – fin XVe siècle).” Central to this part, and in fact to the whole book, is Valérian’s chapter about the “littoralisation” of economic activity in the Maghrib after the 11th century (chapter IV), which sets up his argument about the prevalence of new “logiques de structuration des réseaux” from the 13th century to the 15th. The last chapter offers reasoned explanations of the transformation of commercial networks in relation to Maghribi and Mediterranean “conjonctures.” A helpful compact conclusion summarizes the book’s main arguments and sets them again in relation to processes regionally and at a world scale.

5Although historians had noted the shift inland of political and economic life in the Maghrib following the Islamic conquests and then of the emergence of port cities as capitals after the 11th century, they had attributed these shifts primarily to political and military considerations. Rather than a complete rejection of this received wisdom, Valérian offers a broader contextualization of political decisions about the localization of capitals and the development of maritime infrastructures. Concretely, his approach amounts to a reassessment of statements found in Arabic literary sources, which have weighed heavily on historical interpretation. Among the many such instances, the most famous is doubtlessly the attribution of the “littoralisation” of political capitals in the 11th century to the migration and settlement of Bedouin tribes from the east. According to literary sources, the control of the Banū Hilāl over inland areas led to a retreat of agriculture, an expansion of nomadism, and ultimately to a net decline of economic activity in the Maghrib. More cautiously, Valérian uses evidence about the evolution of commercial networks to offer a more nuanced interpretation.

« Deux phénomènes se conjuguent en effet et contribuent à ce déplacement des centres de pouvoirs et des pôles économiques vers les ports : d’une part les effets, incontestables, de l’arrivée et de l’installation des tribus hilaliennes dans l’intérieur, et d’autre part l’essor de la navigation en Méditerranée dans un contexte de forte expansion économique. » (142)

6The authors of Arabic chronicles lacked the sort of “vue d’ensemble” and analytical framework that a meticulous analysis of a broad range of sources offers. Rather than a failure of Islam or some other essentialist argument, Valérian accounts for the temporal and geographic distance separating the phenomenon and its representations in the sources, and then offers an explanation that situates Maghribi developments within broader contexts.

7Ports et réseaux d’échanges is a culmination of years of research. Expanding an approach that netted the field his now classic study of the port-city of Bijāya (Bougie), Valérian shows the benefits of combining commercial documents from the northern Mediterranean and mostly literary and prescriptive Arabic sources to propose interpretations grounded in the sources but not limited by them. In this sense, breaking the monopoly of Arabic sources is Valérian’s most significant contribution. The multitude of questions he raises about commercial infrastructures, the intensity and direction of exchanges, and their evolution over time point to a demand for research in a broad range of disciplines. In many ways, this book is a demonstration of just how much research remains to be done.

8The analysis of the evolution of commercial infrastructures and networks in the medieval Maghrib comes with a careful work of comparison to developments in neighboring regions and across regions.

« On n’y trouve certes pas des pôles d’impulsion de dimension mondiale comme Le Caire ou Venise. Mais ses villes et, de plus en plus, ses ports, jouent un rôle essentiel dans les échanges, qui n’est ni passif ni limité à une simple fonction de redistribution ou de transit pour des produits qui ne feraient que traverser le Maghreb. » (277)

9Yet, even if the “pôles d’impulsion sont ailleurs,” Maghribi actors, dynastic rulers foremost among them, were able to create for themselves varying degrees of relative independence from major economic centers. Integration into the world economy led to interdependence, even when Maghribis had little control over maritime routes. Moreover, Valérian notes “c’est progressivement que l’ensemble de l’espace maghrébin intègre les différentes régions en un ensemble relativement unifié et irrigué par des flux hiérarchisés.” (278). Just what these regions were and how the hierarchy between them functioned remain open questions. In such instances, and they are too many to discuss in detail, it is clear that Valérian is proposing ideas for re-interpreting medieval Maghribi history.

10Situating Maghribi developments within the history of medieval commerce is not a simple task, and, as it happens, this is the first systematic attempt to do so. In Ports et réseaux, Valérian has formulated the most advanced synthesis on the subject and, in the process, has constructed a distinctive analytical framework. His contribution to the field amounts to a giant leap forward in the direction of networks, structures, and engines of economic activity. This is an important way of thinking these days and now the medieval Maghrib is a different field for it.

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Référence électronique

Ramzi Rouighi, « VALÉRIAN Dominique, Ports et réseaux d’échanges dans le Maghreb médiéval », Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 148 | décembre 2020, mis en ligne le 07 janvier 2021, consulté le 14 juin 2021. URL :

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Ramzi Rouighi

University of Southern California, USA; rouighi[at]

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