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The Commercial Revolution of the 12th Century - An Editorial Review of "The Merchant of Sepharad"

Book Blurb:

Embroiled in the tumult of the twelfth century’s commercial revolution, Joshua ben Elazar, the scion of an illustrious trading dynasty, is torn between the dictates of his faith and his quest for wealth and love. The Merchant from Sepharad, the third book in the series beginning with The Sugar Merchant, is a tale of religious persecution and deadly conflict.

Joshua’s first commercial venture in Muslim-ruled Portugal ends in disaster when he is cheated by corrupt officials. Failing as a merchant, he journeys to Cordoba where he establishes a new life as a Talmudic scholar. As an accomplice to the murder of a spy, however, he is forced to flee for his life. Joshua is granted one last opportunity for redemption. He must establish a new trade route to the vast riches of India. Joshua’s world is changing quickly and he must do everything in his power to succeed amidst the chaos. On his journey, he faces new challenges and discovers his true faith.

Author Bio:

Jim Hutson-Wiley’s long career in international trade and project finance involved extensive travel and residence in the Near East and Europe. He graduated with a BSFS from the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and received an MBA from the Wharton School. He currently lives in Miami, Florida with his wife and two Chartreux cats.

Editorial Review:

''The Merchant from Sepharad'' by James Hutson-Wiley is the third book in the author's series of fine and meticulously researched historical novels of Medieval fiction and following on from his previous books 'The Sugar Merchant' and ''The travels of Ibn Thomas''; both also excellent examples of the genre of Medieval fiction scrupulously researched and executed admirably well and with a refreshing panache. The other two books are also highly recommended and have received justifiable critical acclaim. ''The Merchant from Sepharad'' deserves no less a treatment and may be treated as a stand alone read. The author clearly has considerable mercantile, financial and trading experience and this novel, set in the mid Twelfth century, takes as a major theme the extraordinary phenomena and consequences of the Commercial Revolution of that period, and its very important ramifications and consequences. The book, however, is far more than a simple chronicle of a physical journey, or rather a whole series of physical journeys, it is also very much a spiritual journey of a young man seeking a personal peace and contentment in a time and place of violently jarring and violently opposed religious and political beliefs, a passionate time of treachery, violence and betrayal. Through all of this we follow the young protagonist of the novel, Joshua ben Elazar from his first stumbling, hesitant and faltering steps to a greater security of both wealth and standing and personal conviction. It is a characteristic of just about every authentic Medieval travelogue and account - ''The Travels'' of both Sir John de Mandeville and of Marco Polo are two classic cases in point - that they are riddled through with contradictions, exaggerations and downright bare-faced lies. James Hutson-Wiley makes just this point in his introduction; quoting the near contemporary Sephardic philosopher and writer, the Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, known to history as Maimonides [1138-1204] in his ''Guide for the Perplexed'':

''Do not consider it proof because it is written in books. A liar who will deceive with his tongue will not hesitate to do the same with his pen.''

The 'travels' of Joshua ben Elazar, however, rings true throughout; and here we may thank the meticulous guiding hand of Hutson-Riley. Joshua is scrupulous [ a true Merchant's son!] in his descriptions of such things as weights and measures, coinage, titles and commodities and various objects [usually using the Arabic terminology] and the reader has no cause to doubt his account as anything other than worthy, honest and trustworthy. To read Joshua's accounts of the cities of Al-Andalus or Arth al- Bortugal [Medieval Moslem Spain and Portugal], of Alexandria or Cairo or Aden is to have one's ears assailed by the sounds and shouts of the crowded and teeming streets, to have one's nostrils filled with the odour [some sweet and others less so] of the quays and the wharvesides, or to step in something noxious underfoot, so fine is the quality of the descriptions.

The young Joshua, as he steps ashore at Lishbunah [Lisbon in Portugal], is on a mission at the behest of his father in the Christian year of 1146. He is a brash, supremely confident and rather naive young man. He is eighteen and full of self belief. This is a far cry from the Joshua who comes ashore at the city of Panormos [Palermo] in Sicily in 1148; a mature man much travelled and fully experienced in the wickedness of the world. He has been far and has learned much in the intervening years. This fast moving and exciting novel is an account of the turbulent years in between, told with eye catching fluency and an admirable clarity as Joshua learns as much about himself as the widening world that he travels; for much of his journey has proved to be a spiritual quest, with valuable cues, lessons and pointers from a wide variety of comrades and acquaintances. Many of the people Joshua meets in the course of his tumultuous and action packed travels, rather like the eponymous Pilgrim in 'Pilgrim's Progress', seem like the quintessence of personal traits, archetypes. There is wisdom and patience represented, zeal and passion, steadfastness and loyalty, cunning and treachery. The reader is provided, amongst other things, with a crash course in the religious sects and beliefs both dividing and unifying the Jewish population of southern Europe and the middle east of the time, experiencing as they do, an almost universal prejudice and oppression from the Christian and Moslem worlds alike.

Broadly speaking, ''The Merchant from Sepharad'' falls into three main sections; Joshua's experiences in Portugal and Spain, his return to Iskandariyyah [Alexandria] and his subsequent exploration and voyage to the Red Sea in search of a trading depot in India and, finally his return and his voyage to Sicily. When young Joshua arrives in Lishbunah for the first time he is armed with a small box of fine gold ornaments with which to exchange for living expenses and to secure a suitable warehouse for a cargo of flax and valuable sugar which is imminently expected. It is intended that he will act as his entrepreneurial father's agent and representative in Portugal for the company and receive his training in trade and commerce. Fresh from Marrakech in Morocco, where a certain percentage of Jews enjoy a high and favoured standard of living, he is immediately appalled by the sheer level of anti Semetism and oppression that he encounters from the ruling Muslim powers, both in Portugal and later in Spain. He is reviled and abused at the very start. His contact in Lishbunah - a man called Essua - he discovers is in prison on charges of impiety and his surety of gold ornaments is confiscated. Finally, with help, he is able to retrieve these and convert them into ready cash. When, finally, he does secure a suitable warehouse for the valuable and perishable goods that have now arrived, it is only to discover that this has been handed over to a Moslem trader! Thwarted and victimised because of his race and beliefs, he sets fire to the warehouse as an act of foolish sabotage and he is forced to flee Portugal. He has already been befriended by a notable Jewish teacher, Rabbi Hiyya al- Daudi and his son Yaish ibn Yahya. They will prove to be good friends indeed to Joshua and enable his escape from Lishbunah. The Rabbi is a wise and learned man who has much to teach Joshua and is the first to set him on a path of a scholar and a true understanding, if, perhaps, a fatalistic one at times, of the way things are in the world:

''What has transpired is the result of your ignorance; that is all. What you must do now is take what steps you can to avoid such an error in the future. Dwelling upon guilt resolves nothing. If there is anger in your heart, pray to remove it. G-d has granted you the ability to see this event in diverse ways. The sages tell us that to dwell in anger is the same as worshiping an idol......''

These are wise words indeed, given the circumstances, that Joshua takes to heart and further develops in his career and voyage through life. If he is obliged to live under the control of the Ishmaelites'' - the Jewish term for the followers of the Quran and the ruling authorities - then he must bend, be flexible, adapt and learn. If he has proved to be a total failure as a merchant and to have failed his father then he will turn scholar. Provided with board and lodging, he also attends lessons at the Rabbi's school or 'yeshiva' and studies the Talmud and 'halacha' - Jewish law and the Scriptures ['tanakh']. He also studies the written script of 'Ashurit' and soon becomes quite proficient. But his wanton and foolish act of arson means that now, with the aid of the Rabbi and his son, he must flee for his life. They get him to safety with a giant Slav, a wholly dependable and taciturn ex Christian slave eunuch named Bakh. But in return for their hospitality and this needed passport there is a price; for both father and son are in treasonous correspondence with a Christian self claimed King to the north, Alfonso Henriques, who has designs upon the city of Lishbunah. He would be a far better option for the Jewish community, they reckon, than either the current reigning authority of the ailing al-Murabit dynasty in Spain and Portugal or the rising and far more militant Islamic sect of the 'Almohad' in north Africa, who will be an even greater threat to the Jews of Arth al-Bortuga and in neighbouring al-Andalus [Spain]. Joshua's life has taken a very dangerous turn indeed - a life both as a Jew and a spy! Once taken safely to the city of Coimbra to deliver his messages to Alfonso Henriques, he is astounded to hear of the depth of the planning [including the news that English Crusaders are involved and the astounding revelation that the man Yaish ibn Yahya is in fact also a highly prized and trained warrior and commander]. As Bakh remarks, Joshua has much to learn.

In Coimbra, Joshua meets the man that he had been instructed to find in Qurtuba [Cordoba], a highly esteemed teacher named Maimon ben Joseph and his life takes another critical turn, one that takes him to an even higher level of scholastic study at the internationally famous 'beth midrash' School and a rigid study of the ''hahakha'' [''the way''] and attendance at the ''beth din'' [the law court]. Under the expert tutelage of Maimon ben Joseph, Joshua gains a greater awareness of both orthodoxy and also alternative, heretical and militant varieties of Jewish belief. Maimon is resolutely orthodox and makes his reasons perfectly clear to Joshua: ''We Jews,'' [he declares] ''are trapped between a Christian mortar and a Muslim pestle. If we are not to be ground to dust and discarded forever, we must retain our identity and gain strength from it. We must have a common language, an understanding of G-d's laws, and a common ritual, a tradition for life itself.'' And so, Joshua is set hard to work on the study of the true way and the true belief. All of which runs utterly counter to the beliefs of new friends, fellow students that he meets in the taverns of Qurtuba; for they are believers in the ways of the Judaic interpretation of the Karaites. It is not the function of this short review to enter the various divisions of Jewish belief, but it is sufficient to say that followers of the Karaite belief hold that only a study of the Torah reveals 'the way' and that Rabbis have no authority. Followers of this considered heretical belief are anathema to Orthodox minds such as that of Maimon! The situation is further complicated when Joshua falls hopelessly, helplessly, in love with Hannah, the beautiful sister of his new friend Simon; a person deeply committed to the teachings of the Karaites and who is of a highly militant disposition and wishes to return to the lost lands of Siyyon and to liberate Jerusalem for the faithful. He also teaches him how to use the deadly sling as a weapon; a skill that will stand Joshua in good stead subsequently in the dangerous days to come. Joshua's accidental discovery of a nest of Almohad spies in Cordoba is bad news for everybody, including the al-Murabit authorities, and this, combined with a letter from his father instructing him to travel to Alexandria, is instrumental in Joshua's confused and lovesick departure from Europe, first in the company of Simon and his beautiful sister, whom orthodoxy declares he cannot marry, and some like-minded followers on their way to the desired liberation of Jerusalem.

This departure for Alexandria, following his father's instructions to open up a successful trading route and permanent post in India, takes Joshua on his next phase of adventures; this time as a merchant trader in his own right. A long and detailed journey across desert and sea, one full of incident and adventure. [the author usefully supplies maps of both Joshua's time in Portugal and Spain and also of his journey to Aden and back] On this journey, rich in descriptive detail, Joshua also, though still a young man, grows in self awareness and humanity in his quest to be a successful and prosperous merchant and trader. ''The Merchant from Sepharad'' is a remarkable work, rewarding and informative and illuminating an often neglected episode and aspect of European and middle Eastern history and Joshua and other characters emerge as fully rounded characters in their own right and attract empathy from the reader. This book provides the reader with an excellent motive for tracking down and reading his other works; ''The Sugar Merchant'' and ''The travels of Ibn Thomas''. Quoting once again from the Author's Introduction - his 'Confession' is a piece of sage advice to all prospective writers of historical fiction:

''To the extent possible within a work of fiction, I have attempted to avoid lies and discover the truth. As is the case in the first two books of this series, I have followed the example of the first historian, Herodotus: if the truth is unclear or unknown, fabricate it.''


The Merchant of Sepharad” by James Hutson-Wiley receives five stars and the “Highly Recommended” award of excellence from The Historical Fiction Company



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