With her study of Mocha in the period between 1650 and 1750, Nancy Um has broken new ground through an innovative combination of architectural and archival materials, thus combining the approaches of historian and art historian in a unique way. This is a particular achievement as very little of the architectural heritage has survived, and the way in which Um uses textual sources to complement the remaining material is exemplary. As a result, she succeeds in convincingly demonstrating how, during the period and due to a combination of Yemeni, Ottoman and Indian Ocean circumstances, Mocha became a major port in the southern Red Sea and a pivotal (albeit not the only) centre of the profitable coffee trade. Between 1538 and 1635, Mocha had become the southernmost Ottoman port, linking the trading worlds of the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. The ousting of the Ottomans from the Yemeni coast by the Qāsimi government in 1635 turned it into a port receiving ships not intending to travel onwards to the Ottoman realms, but often delivering goods which were then transported northwards into the Ottoman Empire's nearest (and only official) port of entry, namely Jeddah.
After setting out this scenario in the first chapter, Um moves on to explain in chapter two the importance of Mocha in terms of its integration into the Yemeni coffee trade network, confirming Brower's challenge to the “popular myths about Mocha's singular place as Yemen's coffee capital” (p. 37) and arguing that the ports of Hodeida and Luhayya were more convenient for traders from the northern Red Sea. Coffee distribution was organized through Bayt al-Faqih, which served as the central emporium for this trade. She further explains how the Mocha trade was far more diverse than just that for coffee. Being part of a mountain-based Imamate which drew significant revenues from its sea trade, it is not surprising that the Imam usually appointed one of his ablest men as Governor of the Mocha.
The administrative structure of the littoral society in general, and the city of Mocha in particular, is the topic of the third chapter. Um bases her deliberations on both existing literature and biographical information available in Yemeni historiography, which, interestingly, includes a few references to the houses built by these governors (p. 57). She also shows how these governors invested in the urban structure of Mocha, although their main concern was with buildings in the highlands. We can thus see a contrast between the Ottomans, whose governors built in the provinces as an expression of imperial representation (and personal investment), and their Qāsimi counterparts who were more concerned with the centre of power and doctrine in the Yemeni highlands (most lowlanders following the Sunni Shāfiʿi school of law).
Chapter 4 takes us into the world of the merchants and captains (nākhūdhas) who often moved between Surat and Mocha, and the land-based merchants organizing the transfer of goods between inland Yemen and the ports. Um argues that the worlds of the two mercantile outlooks (sea and land) were obviously connected, for example by brokers, but concludes, since no mention is made of an important sea-based merchant in local biographies, that he was not considered to conform to the image of a pious merchant. This might be because of his Indian connections (Um is silent as to his religious affiliation, although his possible Turkish origins seem to imply that he might have been a Sunni), or to his close interaction with European traders. Conversely, a similarly important Sunni inland trader is mentioned extensively, possibly because of his important pious contributions and the different type of his links to the Imam's court. While I am not entirely convinced that one such case suffices to assume a “sharp social rift between the world of the seafaring, ship-owning merchant and the world of the land-based merchant” (p. 91), a closer investigation of the underlying thesis on the basis of further research would certainly be worth pursuing.
After setting out the political and economic world of Mochans, Um proceeds to discuss the urban form and orientation of the city, which resembled other Red Sea towns in its contrast between an imposing seaside faҫade and a much more humble interior (chapter 5). On the basis of old maps, traveller reports and an investigation of all available materials on the urban structures and their histories she reconstructs the historical urban geography and the links between its religious and secular component parts. In a fascinating consideration, she applies a cosmological approach when discussing the concentration of religious structures on the Eastern (land) walls in contrast to the commercial and governmental establishments near the shore.
Moving further from the broad to the specific, chapter 6 takes us into the houses and trading structures. Here, Um debunks another notion of conformity in “the Islamic city”, namely the existence of urban khāns. With the exception of one simple Ottoman wikāla intended only for brief stays, the city had no such structure. Instead, Um shows that the merchant houses, often termed “factories” in Western documents, served many of the functions of khāns, certainly for the wealthier among the merchant class, and were in some ways similar to what could be observed for the Red Sea port of Jeddah in the nineteenth century. On the basis of this finding, she goes on to analyse the data we have to explain the layout and use of the space by its inhabitants and visitors. She then enters the debate about “the Arab house”, convincingly pushing the need for localized consideration to the point of showing how houses could differ in their internal organization even among the Red Sea ports, in spite of exterior and functional similarities.
Finally, chapter 7 takes issue with the notion of ethnic and religious segregation, demonstrating the differences between Yemeni towns and showing the functionality of living arrangements within and without the city's fortifications, in spite of the striking existence of a Jewish quarter extra muros. Jews shared this fate with many Somalis and Yemenis, notably those of limited means. In contrast, the Banyan as well as the European merchants lived with other traders in the security of the walled city. She thus succeeds in showing that “Religious difference was only one axis along which spatial segregation was articulated throughout the city” (p. 184).
The disturbances within the Qāsimi dynasty and its eventual downfall caused Mocha to lose its role in international trade (one might have added here the much diminished international significance of Yemeni coffee production), which was taken up by other Red Sea ports. The growth of Jeddah in the nineteenth century might well be one result of the demise of its old rival, although ports such as Hodeida or Suakin and Massawa on the other shore of the Red Sea offered further alternatives, unless specifically Yemeni products were in demand.
Overall, Um succeeds in providing a penetrating image of seventeenth–eighteenth century Mocha, and does so using an innovative methodology. At the same time, her important contribution to debates on port cities in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean with regard to their functioning and relation to sea and hinterland, as well as to debates on architectural history, will surely have a major impact on how we understand urban history on the Arabian Peninsula and beyond. This unusually well-written work deserves a place on reading lists in art history, the history of the Arabian Peninsula as well as the history of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, and port cities in general.