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Could a pandemic destroy an economy? Iran and the Black Death

As the world copes with COVID-19, one of the biggest issues surrounding the pandemic relates to the economic damage that has been caused. What will the long-term consequences be? A look back at the Black Death reveals how even regions that were not hard-hit by the plague would find themselves suffering other repercussions.

The recent article “The Impact of the Black Death on Iranian Trade (1340s-1450s A.D.),” by Ahmad Fazlinejad and Farajollah Ahmadi tells the story of how that region lost its position as an international trade hub because of a pandemic. This was not because of population losses in Iran, but rather because the Black Death was so destructive for their trading partners.

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The thirteenth-century has been considered a golden age when it came to international trade and the rise of global connections. The rise of the Mongol Empire helped to facilitate trade over the Silk Road, allowing goods from China and India to reach Europe. During this period, Iran, and particularly its southern coast benefitted as a trading hub. The city of Hormuz was the leading port of the region, having established seaborne networks with India and China to the west, and Yemen and Africa to the south. Travellers to the city praise its economic vitality – for example, Marco Polo writes about Hormuz:

Merchants come here by ship from India, bringing all sorts of spices and precious stones and cloths of silk and of gold and elephant tusks and many other wares. In this city they sell them to others, who distribute them to various customers through the length and breadth of the world. It is a great centre of commerce, with many cities and towns subordinate to it, and the capital of the kingdom.

Marco Polo with elephants and camels arriving at Hormuz from India – BNF Ms Fr 2810 f.14v

One of its most important connections was with the city of Tabriz, located in present-day northern Iran. It served as the capital of the Mongol state known as the Ilkhanate, which ruled a vast territory in the Middle East and Central Asia between the 1250s to 1330s. It also was the home for many European traders, particularly Genoese, who would facilitate the passage of goods from Iran to the Black and Mediterranean seas, and ultimately to the ports of Europe.

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In their article, Fazlinejad and Ahmadi note several recorded instances of European travellers passing through Iran before the mid-fourteenth century, either for business or religion. However, with the fall of the Ilkhanate in 1335, and political disorder in their former territories afterwards, these travels declined.

The outbreak of the Black Death, between the years 1347 to 1352, would see many parts of Eurasia suffer disastrous population declines. Moreover, the bubonic plague would return in the years afterwards –  Fazlinejad and Ahmadi observe ten more major outbreaks between the first pandemic and the year 1450. Iran itself would be struck by the plague – chroniclers report, for example, that 300,000 people died in Tabriz between the years 1369 to 1370, However, the article also reveals that one part of the region seems to have been largely spared:

What is remarkable about the Black Death outbreaks in Iran is that since the beginning of the spread of the disease until the middle of the 15th century, no report has been found in the historical sources about the plague in the Persian Gulf coasts and ports. The only available information is about the outbreak of plague in Sistan in 1347, which has been reported by the 16th century Persian historian Malik Šāh Ḥusayn Sīstānī. He says that the inhabitants of Sistan suffered much from the plague, but there is no evidence indicating the spread of the disease to the Persian Gulf coasts.

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While the Black Death did not seemingly cause huge losses in the population of Hormuz and other parts of southern Iran, it still devastated their economies over the long-term. This is because the plague crippled their trade partners, in particular their connections with Europe. Italian merchants simply could not continue their trade networks. The same was true for their connections to eastern Asia, as the port cities of China also declined. Even the local trade suffered during this period.

Hormuz depicted in 1572 – Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg

It would take generations for populations to recover from the Black Death, and for the demand for international trade to return. By then geopolitical changes – namely the domination of the Ottoman Empire over the Middle East and southeastern Europe – meant that European merchants could no longer access the trade corridors through Iran. This left cities such as Hormuz in economic decline, as global business passed them by.

The article “The Impact of the Black Death on Iranian Trade (1340s-1450s A.D.),” by Ahmad Fazlinejad and Farajollah Ahmadi, is published in the journal Iran and the Caucasus. You can read the article through its publisher Brill.

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See also: Defending Venice against the Black Death

See also: The Black Death and COVID-19 with Winston Black

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