Alchemy and Economy

By Nicholas Harris
Submitted to Session P4878 (The Occult in Islamicate Society: The Cases of Magic and Alchemy, 2017 Annual Meeting
13th-18th Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The Mamluk period (1260-1517) witnessed an unprecedented swell in alchemical literature. Departing from his important predecessor, Abu al-Qasim al-‘Iraqi (fl. 13th cent.), the Egyptian alchemist ‘Izz al-Din Aydemir al-Jildaki renovated and systematized alchemical theory and practice in the 14th century. To be sure, al-Jildaki staunchly defended the efficacy of metallic transmutation, but he was also familiar the Ayyubid mint manual of Ibn Ba‘ra. However, at the same time, alchemists occasionally had reason to fear government surveillance. Mamluk-era chronicles contain grisly accounts of what befell alchemists accused of zaghal, adulterating or counterfeiting the coinage.

Regulation of currency is among the most important responsibilities of a government. In the pre-modern Islamic world, that responsibility also entailed the acquisition of specie metals in ever larger amounts. Most lands were not blessed with native mineral wealth, and therefore they were forced to rely on international trade for their bullion, always a potential source of insecurity. In the Mamluk sultanate, the supply of available bullion never slaked the demand of the mints. While the numismatic history of the Mamluks is today fairly well explored and developed, scholarship has left the metallurgical expertise of the period largely unexplored.

What kinds of metallurgic equipment and skills were required, and available, for the production of coin alloys with precision? How well did the alchemists' skill sets fit that mold? Did the Mamluk state, desperate for specie metal, employ alchemists to transmute base metals in an attempt to bypass the import market? Outside of the state's control, could alchemists have successfully counterfeited Mamluk coinage, and if so, to what extent? This paper will attempt to survey the relevant alchemical literature and the metallurgic skill of the Mamluk period to detect the neglected connections between alchemy and the economy and to begin to answer many of these questions.