Nancy Um


On her book The Merchant Houses of Mocha: Trade and Architecture in an Indian Ocean Port

Cover Interview of November 20, 2009

The wide angle

I embarked on the first stages of research for this book over ten years ago as a graduate student at UCLA, where I was doing my PhD in Islamic art and architectural history. The vibrant, multicultural and migratory population of Los Angeles sparked my interest in the movement of people and the diverse and itinerant urban communities that result from these migrations.

But, such urban diversity is hardly singular to the contemporary moment. The Indian Ocean facilitated the transit of people and goods across extended sea journeys that have connected continental masses fluidly since antiquity. Thousands of miles away from Los Angeles on the Pacific, the early modern city of Mocha on the Red Sea adjacent to the Indian Ocean, with its diverse, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual and itinerant population, emerged as a prime site for such an inquiry.

When I first visited the city of Mocha in 1996, I found that its historic core had been largely destroyed, partially as a result of historic acts of aggressions against the port. For instance the French bombed it in 1737 and the Italians in 1911. Additionally, the trade of the port definitively declined in the nineteenth century when other neighboring ports were chosen to replace Mocha’s prime status, such as Aden by the British and al-Hudayda by the Ottomans.

As any recent visitor to the city will attest to, the present port city is quite impossible to decipher because so few buildings from past centuries remain today.  Unlike other historic cities where modern building has been inserted within the earlier fabric, in the case of Mocha, the historic heart has been largely abandoned. The majority of Mocha’s current residents live outside of the previous limits of the city wall, which has been reduced to small and sparse mounds of crumbled brick and rubble ruins.

As a result of this urban decay, my work turned to the spatial reconstruction of the site, relying mostly on texts, both published and archival, but also other types of visual materials, such as historic maps, photographs, and prints. The Merchant Houses of Mocha offers a reconstructed image of this now-ruined city during the late 17th and early 18th centuries.  By identifying the locations of earlier residential quarters and the city’s major institutions that no longer stand, such as the retail market and the prison, I put Mocha’s pieces back together.

Beyond architectural reconstruction, I endeavored to capture the social dimensions of port city life. Again, this brings us back to Los Angeles, which, while emblematic as a diverse city, is marked by extreme social stratification. A fixed social hierarchy also dominated Mocha’s urban order. Unlike the traditional social structure of other parts of Yemen, where one’s status was tied to family lineage, tribal affiliation, religious identity, and occupation, this coastal hierarchy privileged the maintenance of the trade as its key prerogative.

The governors of Mocha came from the interior regions of Yemen and oversaw the trade in the interest of filtering its revenue back into the center of Yemen. Ship-owning merchants from the northwestern Indian province of Gujarat and their nakhudhas, or sea captains, were considered to be the city’s main elite. The Baniyans, Hindu and Jain commercial brokers who served as translators, intermediaries, and moneychangers in Mocha, were perhaps the most interesting and least understood of Mocha’s communities. While they were socially marginalized according to their dhimmi (protected religious minority) status, they received certain advantages from the local government because of their economically central role in the maintenance of the trade.

On the quintessential questions about the relationship of the port city to its hinterland and foreland, which have long occupied port city studies, I moved beyond the expected analyses of the economic flows of revenue and assumed fiscal imbrications between center, port, and overseas.  The cultural effects of the wider Mocha trade network stretched into the mountains of the Arabian Peninsula and across the Indian Ocean to South Asia, often becoming visible through built nodes—houses, mosques, cisterns, and charitable structures—which were constructed in Mocha, but also in the highlands of Yemen and the port city of Surat in Gujarat.

While the tight and age-old maritime relationship between Yemen and India has been acknowledged duly by previous scholars, the role that the Indian Ocean trade played in penetrating the most remote areas of the southern Arabian Peninsula has not been studied. These areas are often featured as entirely cutoff from external contact, an image that persists even today.