Yosef ben Shlomo ibn ʿAwkal, Nasi, Nagid of Fustat and Rome (c.1035 - c.1085) MP

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Nicknames: "Joseph", "Yosef", "Yoseph", "of Cairo", "of Rome", "רבי יוסף מרומי"
Death: Died in Nasir, Bani Sweif Governorate, Egypt
Cause of death: Crucified
Occupation: rabbi
Managed by: Tsvi Mostovicz
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About Yosef ben Shlomo ibn ʿAwkal, Nasi, Nagid of Fustat and Rome

Some sources call him Joseph of Cairo, others call him Joseph of Rome. In 1040 he fled to Granada, an independent sultanate in what is now Spain. He took refuge there with Rabbi Yosef ha-Naggid until the latter's murder in 1066. Yosef then traveled north in Christian Spain, into France and Italy, and finally to the Middle East, where he settled at Fustat (Cairo)...then the entire family disappears from records of the Cairo Geniza. This usually happens when there are conversions to Islam or Christianity - and with the entire family disappearing from the Geniza documents we can assume that some converted to Christianity and some converted to Islam...but none were left as members of Rabbinic Jewish Community (at least one is known to adopt Qaraite traditions).

The Ibn ʿAwkals were an important merchant family in Fustat. Apparently of Persian origin, they arrived in the Maghreb following the Fatimid conquest at the beginning of the tenth century. The mashāriqa (easterners), as they were called by Maghrebis, were not liked by the local residents, and many of them moved to Egypt with the Fatimids after 969. Jacob, the head of the family, most likely also went to Egypt at that time, but left some family members in the Maghreb to develop his commercial interests.

The correspondence of the Ibn ʿAwkal family extends over four generations. The sixty-two letters discovered in the Cairo Geniza constitute the oldest private collection of commercial documents from that repository, and in effect are the oldest known medieval archive in the entire Mediterranean region. The letters shed light on a period—the tenth and eleventh centuries—in which the commercial revolution reached its zenith in the Muslim and Byzantine worlds, and began to develop in the cities of Italy.

The historical importance of the Ibn ʿAwkal family’s correspondence is twofold:

1. It relates, on the one hand, to the social-economic history of the Mediterranean area, and

2. to the history of the Jewish people during the gaonic period.

Abū Bishr Jacob, the head of the family, settled in Fustat, which became the headquarters of his worldwide commercial enterprise. The Ibn ʿAwkals dealt with an extremely large quantities of commodities of many different kinds. Merchandise imported to Egypt from the Maghreb and Sicily via Alexandria and from there to Fustat played an important part in their operations. Ten letters addressed to Jacob Ibn ʿAwkal in the Geniza reveal that his correspondents were very respectful to him and knew that they were dealing with a man who was strict and uncompromising. Jacob did not belong to the stratum of Torah scholars (talmide ḥakhamim), but in his youth he had spent some time at the Pumbedita yeshiva studying with Sherira Gaon.

By virtue of his devotion and his importance in the world of business, however, he was appointed to represent the Babylonian yeshivot in Fustat and to serve as intermediary between them and the Maghreb. He was responsible for transmitting donations and halakhic questions from the communities to the yeshivot and conveying the responses to the communities. But Yosef seems to have been inconsistent - When Joseph ibn ʿAwkal neglected to forward responsa from Baghdad to Fustat, Hay Gaon (1004–1038) had the Tustarī brothers transport them instead; in Fustat, they passed them on to the Tāhertīs, who copied them before forwarding them to Qayrawān. Cooperation between Iraqi geonim and Karaites was not unusual; Samuel ben Hophni Gaon of Sura (998–1013) also had Karaite supporters in Fustat. Likewise, a court document shows Abū Yaʿqūb Yūsuf ben Yisraʾel al-Tustarī, the middle brother of the second generation, cooperating with the leaders of the Syro-Palestinian Rabbanite community in remanding an inheritance case from the chief Ismāʿīlī qāḍī in Cairo to the court of the gaon of Jerusalem Josiah ben Aaron Gaon (ca. 1000–1025).

In recognition of this activity, as well as the direct financial support he gave the yeshivot, he was awarded the distinguished titles of alluf and resh kalla. Members of Jewish communities under Fatimid rule in Egypt, as well as in Palestine and Syria, asked Jacob to intervene with the authorities on their behalf.

Jacob’s son, Abū Yaʿqūb Abū ʾl-Faraj Joseph Ibn ʿAwkal, was Egyptian Jewry’s most prominent economic and social-political leader in the first half of the eleventh century, that is, the public figure who had the greatest influence on what happened in the community. He was also the major personality of this illustrious family. Apparently Joseph had already taken up residence in Cairo,where aristocratic families with ties to the regime lived. He dealt with an enormous variety of imported and exported merchandise, and carried on an extensive correspondence with his network of agents in the Maghreb, Palestine, Syria, Sicily, and throughout the Mediterranean region.

Joseph Ibn ʿAwkal was the archetype of the mujahhiz—the aristocratic international merchant. The Ibn ʿAwkal trade enterprise was larger than most of the other Jewish businesses known from the Geniza, but its organization and operations were typical for the era. Most of its transactions were based entirely on family capital, although some of its investments entailed temporary, short-term partnerships. Joseph Ibn ʿAwkal was typical of the successful businessmen who controlled their operations from their headquarters. From his center in Cairo and Fustat, he administered extensive business activities that extended across the entire Muslim-controlled Mediterranean Basin. He himself did not travel; he managed his business affairs with the help of agents and partners scattered throughout the lands where he had dealings.

Like most other medieval merchants in Europe and in the Muslim world, the Ibn ʿAwkal family handled remarkably diverse types of merchandise, including spices, aromatics, medicinals, precious metals, gemstones, fine textiles, and dye stuffs—around eighty-three types of commodities in all. Their most important commodities, however, were flax and linen. In those years, flax farming and the linen industry were booming and, to a great extent, were the basis of the Egyptian economy. The Ibn ʿAwkal correspondence paints a picture of business cooperation between Jews and Muslims. The Ibn ʿAwkals had Muslim business associates and employed Muslim agents. Most of their merchandise was shipped in vessels owned by Muslims. Members of the family figured prominently in trading enterprises, some of them as partners and others as agents.

Joseph Ibn ʿAwkal’s influence in the Egyptian Jewish community was enormous, and he held sway over many matters affecting its social and political functioning. This was not due to his scholarship or his being a man of letters, but rather by virtue of his great wealth and influence. His ties with the Pumbedita yeshiva, like those of his father, were close and warm. The sages of Pumbedita were extremely appreciative of his work on behalf of the yeshiva and his financial support, and they awarded him too the title of alluf. They also authorized him to be the yeshiva’s representative in the Maghreb and in Fustat. Joseph Ibn ʿAwkal transferred donations to both Babylonian yeshivot and sometimes to the Palestinian one as well. He transferred halakhic queries (Heb. sheʾelot) to the yeshivot from Fustat and the Maghreb, and in turn conveyed back the responses (Heb. teshuvot).

Joseph apparently had four sons—Hillel, Benjamin, Manasseh, and Abū Saʿīd (Khalaf?)—who continued in his footsteps and at least one or two daughters. Frequently mentioned alongside his sons is a certain Abū Naṣr, probably a son-in-law. Goitein theorized that he might have been Abū Naṣr Ḥesed al-Tustarī, purveyor of gems to the Fatimid court, but Gil believed the name was just another kunya (by-name) for Joseph’s son Benjamin.

Ḥesed al-Tustarī was likely married to the daughter of Yosef, but the marriage contract identifies the groom only by his kunya, Abū Naṣr, and Gil proposes instead that Ḥesed al-Tustarī married the daughter of the Karaite magnate Sahlawayh ben Ḥayyim. The marriage produced at least one son, Abū Faḍl Sahl (Yashar) al-Tustarī(fl. ca. 1050), author of a Torah commentary, a work of fiqh (jurisprudence), a treatise on the equinox, and a polemic against Saʿadya Gaon.

After thirty years of continuous correspondence during the time that Joseph was head of the family, the family almost disappears from the Geniza documents. A grandson of Joseph, Jacob ben Hillel Ibn ʿAwkal, appears as a witness on a Karaite ketubba (marriage contract), and this may mean that the descendants were no longer Rabbanites. Another possible grandson, Japheth ben Khalaf Ibn ʿAwkal,appears as a creditor in a document drawn up in Alexandria in 1076. Although the near-disappearance of the family from the Geniza records could be coincidental, it might also be the result of conversion to Islam by some of the family’s offspring, as was the case with several descendants ofother prominent families in that period.

Elinoar Bareket

Bibliography

Gil, Moshe. Jews in Islamic Countries in the Middle Ages (Leiden: Brill, 2004), pp. 679–687 et passim.

Goitein, S. D. “Additional Material from the Ibn ʿAwkal Archive on the Mediterranean Trade Around 1000,” Tarbiz 38 (September 1968): 18–42 [Hebrew with English summary].

———. “Jewish Trade in the Mediterranean in the Beginning of the Eleventh Century (From the Archives of the Ibn ʿAwkal Family),” Tarbiz 36 (July 1967): 366–396; 37 (October 1967) ; January 1968): 48–77; 158–190 [Hebrew with English summary].

Stillman, Norman A. “The Eleventh-Century Merchant House of Ibn ʿAwkal,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 16 (1973): 88–15.

———. “Quelques renseignements biographques sur Yosef ibn ʿAwkal, médiateur entre les communtautés juives du maghreb et les Académies d’Irak,” Revues des Etudes Juives 132, no. 4 (1973): 529–542.

Citation Elinoar Bareket. " Ibn ʿAwkal Family." Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World. Executive Editor Norman A. Stillman. Brill Online , 2013. Reference. Jim Harlow. 02 February 2013 <http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/encyclopedia-of-jews-in-the-islamic-world/ibn-awkal-family-SIM_0010170>

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