Bursa as a Center of the Silk Trade

Although Chinese silk seems to have become popular in Rome as early as the beginning of the Common Era, the background for understanding the silk trade of Anatolia and more particularly Bursa must be sought in the world of Byzantium. Traditional accounts about how knowledge of silk production spread from China stress the fact that the process was a closely guarded secret. The classic story concerning the beginnings of the silk industry in Byzantium is typical. The sixth-century historian Procopius wrote:
About the same time [ca. 550] there came from India certain monks; and when they had satisfied Justinian Augustus that the Romans no longer should buy silk from the Persians, they promised the emperor in an interview that they would provide the materials for making silk so that never should the Romans seek business of this kind from their enemy the Persians, or from any other people whatsoever. They said that they were formerly in Serinda, which they call the region frequented by the people of the Indies, and there they learned perfectly the art of making silk. Moreover, to the emperor who plied them with many questions as to whether he might have the secret, the monks replied that certain worms were manufacturers of silk, nature itself forcing them to keep always at work; the worms could certainly not be brought here alive, but they could be grown easily and without difficulty; the eggs of single hatchings are innumerable; as soon as they are laid men cover them with dung and keep them warm for as long as it is necessary so that they produce insects. When they had announced these tidings, led on by liberal promises of the emperor to prove the fact, they returned to India. When they had brought the eggs to Byzantium, the method having been learned, as I have said, they changed them by metamorphosis into worms which feed on the leaves of mulberry. Thus began the art of making silk from that time on in the Roman Empire.

We can see here two themes of lasting importance for the Anatolian silk trade--one being the key role played by those who ruled Persia in controlling the trade from the east, and the other being the concern to develop one's own silk industry, if taking control of the trade routes would be impossible. So long as Byzantine territories included Syria and adjoining regions, the empire's growing silk industry was located there, but already in the century after Justinian, the borders shrank resulting, perhaps gradually, in the transfer of Byzantine-controlled silk production to Western Anatolia. The importance of silk as the quintessentially royal fabric and an important source of revenue for the crown can be seen in the detailed Byzantine regulations of various aspects of silk manufacture and trade. The needs of the Byzantine Church for silk garments and hangings also were substantial. Unfortunately we seem to know few details of the production itself; much of the Byzantine silk industry probably involved processing of raw silk obtained through the eastern trade.

Thanks to the relative peace across Asia under Mongol rule, supplies of Chinese silk to the West were substantial in the late thirteenth century. However, the disruptions resulting from the breakup of the Mongol Empire stimulated the growth of Iranian silk production as a major alternative source for the markets of the West. One of the most important routes which developed under the Mongol Ilkhanids in the early fourteenth century ran from Tabriz (near the Caspian silk-producing regions) across Anatolia. Tabriz was also an emporium for the Eastern spice trade. Italian merchants, notably the Genoese, were key partners in this trade; it is significant that they obtained trading privileges from Ottoman Sultan Orhan in 1352. As Prof. Halil Inalcik puts it, "The rise of Bursa as a world market in the second half of the fourteenth century became the economic foundation of Ottoman power." The struggle between the Ottomans and Tamerlane half a century later was in part a contest over who would control the silk trade; despite the blow administered to the young Ottoman state, paradoxically Tamerlane's conquests enhanced the importance of the silk routes from Tabriz through Asia Minor and the ability of the Ottomans to profit from control of the ports from which the valuable commodity was shipped to the West. The Italian colony in Pera, the still Byzantine (but soon to be Ottoman) suburb of Constantinople, was the home of merchants who met their Muslim Iranian counterparts at Bursa and obtained from them silk, spices and other eastern products. Western woolen cloth was particularly valued in exchange. Between 1487 and 1513, the imports of raw silk into Bursa from the East reached record levels (some 120 metric tons a year). At that time, the population of the city was some 5000-6000 households.

However, the rivalry between the Ottomans and the new Safavid dynasty in Persia in the sixteenth century led to frequent disruptions of the city's prosperous trade. Ottoman political control over the silk-producing regions of northwestern Iran never lasted for long; the frequent wars forced silk producers to seek alternative trade routes to those through Anatolia. A combination of increasing Western demand and interruptions of the Iranian supplies led to substantial price increases for Bursa raw silk by the early 1580s and on into the middle of the seventeenth century. However, one recent study suggests that the Bursa silk trade with Iran was still very substantial in the second half of the seventeenth century, a period when, it seems, local Ottoman merchants had replaced the Persians as the most important silk traders and invested more money in that trade than in any other enterprise. By then, western merchants likewise had just about disappeared from the Bursa market.

Silk production in Bursa probably was not very significant before the late sixteenth century, when we have the first documentation for the raising of mulberry trees. The only new guild established in the seventeenth century was that of the silk spinners, which was quite small still when first mentioned in 1678. However, there is evidence that mulberry cultivation was very widespread already. If, as it seems, the silk industry was expanding then, this situation contrasts with a picture of economic decline and a shift to subsistence crops elsewhere in the Middle East in that period. Silk production in Bursa continued to grow, reaching a peak in the nineteenth century. Its story in modern times must be left for a future discussion.


Xinru Liu, Silk and Religion: An Exploration of Material Life and the Thought of People AD 600-1200 (Delhi etc.: Oxford, 1998), esp. Chs. 3-5; Robert Sabatino Lopez, "Silk Industry in the Byzantine Empire," Speculum, 20/l (1945), pp. 1-42; An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire, 1300-1914. Halil Inalcik and Donald Quataert, eds. (Cambridge: Cambr. UP, 1994), esp. Ch. 10 ("Bursa and the Silk Trade"); Haim Berber, Economy and Society in an Ottoman City: Bursa, 1600-1700 (Jerusalem: Hebrew Univ., 1988), esp. pp. 81-89, 114-121; The Ottoman Empire and the World Economy. Ed. Huri Islamoglu-Inan (Cambridge, etc.: Camb. UP, 1987), esp. chs. 10 (Murat Çizakça, "Price history and the Bursa silk industry: a study in Ottoman industrial decline, 1550-1650"; Donald Quataert, "The Silk Industry of Bursa, 1880-1914"); The Travels of Ibn Battuta A. D. 1325-1354. H.A.R.Gibb, tr. and ed. Vol. II (Delhi reprint of Hakluyt Soc. ed., 1993).

© 2001 Daniel C. Waugh. Last revised December 28, 2001.
Silk Road Seattle is a project of the Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington.