Nancy Um


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

Cover Interview of November 19, 2009


In the age of the early modern Indian Ocean, Mocha was at the center of a vast maritime network, with a number of cross-regional spheres overlapping in and around the port. Some of the city’s main necessities, such as water and firewood, came from across the Red Sea. Some members of the city’s elite, such as the famous Indian shipping magnate Abd al-Ghafur, never even set foot in Mocha, but were known locally through their ships and ship captains that frequented the port. Commodities that left Mocha were destined for Basra in Iraq, the port city of Surat in Gujarat, Dutch Batavia in Indonesia, and even St. Malo on the coast of Brittany. This was an era when the merchants and officials of Mocha communicated and traded with their cohorts from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and even Central America, directly and indirectly.

The Merchant Houses of Mocha appears at a time when the lines that divide global spaces appear to be less rigid and more porous than ever before. New technologies allow us to traverse vast spaces that in the past required the commitment of extended and arduous journeys to cross. In this age of globalization, we often marvel at the ways in which geographic space has been compressed by technologies of communication and transportation.

With the emergence of these new networks, however, Mocha and also Yemen have lost their centrality in global matrices of trade, exchange, and interaction. Mocha’s trade migrated to other neighboring ports and Yemen, after losing its global monopoly on the coffee bean in the eighteenth century, has not discovered the oil riches of its neighbors. Mocha’s contemporary geographic marginality is underscored by the decay that the city has experienced over time.

Although its ports played a key role in cross-cultural trade networks since antiquity, Yemen has been peripheralized and left out of the story of contemporary global interconnectivity, with all of its perceived achievements. With this contemporary context in mind, it is increasingly important to redraw the historic international vectors of maritime movement and cultural exchange to represent a moment in time when Mocha and Yemen were major players in the global sphere.

© 2009 Nancy Um