Venice, Entrepot of the East

When traveling in the more exotic parts of the world, such as India or Bali, we sometimes arrogantly wonder how people could want to travel to places like Western Europe–how bourgeois, how boring, we think. We know of course that some of the world’s greatest travel destinations are in the developed first world, but we tell ourselves that we’ll save them for when we’re sixty. We figure that they’re unlikely to change very much between now and then (unlike, say, China), and so we may as visit them later, when we might be less keen on enduring the hardships of traveling as backpackers in the developing world. In traveling to Milan to catch our cheap flight out to Senegal, however, we found ourselves passing through Venice, and couldn’t resist. We’d never been, and, well, it’s Venice. Not only did we expect that it would be beautiful, but our historical curiosity was also piqued, for the city-state’s role as Europe and the western world’s connection to the Levant and the East, from the time of the Crusades to Marco Polo and beyond. We knew Venice was known as something of a tourist trap–a city often with more tourists than residents and in some ways more of a museum than a real living place–but having visited New Orleans just months before Hurricane Katrina, we also reasoned that Venice is not one of those places we can wait to visit when we’re old–it could cease to exist. And so, weather warnings aside (late fall/early winter is supposed to be Venice’s dreariest season), we booked ourselves at the Hotel Galleria and spent three days in Venice.

It did not disappoint.

Part of the pleasure of Venice is the pleasure of traveling anywhere in Italy, such as eating well and drinking coffee and wine (both, even with an expensive euro, much cheaper than at home). But mostly, the pleasure of Venice is for its sheer beauty and the uniqueness of it all, and the feat of human creativity and determination, and apparently power and wealth, that led to the construction of such a city on water. Within minutes of our arrival we understood the cause of the city’s fame, why so many canal cities around the world would want to think of themselves as “the Venice of” whatever, why the Las Vegas Sands Corporation modeled casinos on the city, why, when a character was near death in the Simpsons Movie, he would say, “But I haven’t seen Venice!”

Venice captivates: Macau’s Venetian.

We cannot imagine anybody disliking Venice, although the unseasonably beautiful weather (blue skies, no heat, no canal stench) and relative lack of tourists must have weighed in our favor. So do yourself the great favor and go.

But this post isn’t just “Venice appreciation.” In my first post of this trip, I noted that places are generally by their nature connected. And so it is with Venice. We are traveling through Venice because it currently lies, by rail, between Istanbul and Milan, but one could generalize Venice’s historical role to state that it has always lain between the Muslim east and the Christian west, making it in some ways an essential stop on our Islamic journey.

First and foremost, Venice was a commercial power, using its location on the Adriatic, easternmost in the Latin world, to become the primary entrepot for goods from the east, which during the period of Venice’s height meant the Islamic world. Venetian traders and ships operated all over the eastern Mediterranean, and Venetian (along with other Italian) traders were very active in the Levant. In Aleppo, a city that has come to be known in the west through the obviously Italian form of its name (in Arabic the city’s name is Haleb), we saw a caravanserai that once housed the Venetian consulate. Marco Polo, one of the most famous Venetians of all time, purportedly traveled through Bukhara as far as Beijing.

Secondly, Venice became an important military power, from the time of the Crusades on. Venice led the campaigns of the Fourth Crusade, an invasion by Latin Roman Catholics of Greek Orthodox Constantinople, and looted the city, in the thirteenth century. During Venice’s height Crete and Cyprus were among its Mediterranean possessions, although it would eventually lose both to its greatest adversary, the Ottoman Empire. Venetian advisors could be found as far east as Esfahan, where they were helping the Persian Safavids harass the Ottoman Empire’s eastern border.

Tomb of Henricus Dandolo, the Venetian commander of the Fourth Crusade, in Istanbul’s Ayasofya

Some of the loot from the Fourth Crusade, now found outside St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice

Note the similarity of the cross carvings at the base of the columns above to the carvings in the photograph below from Istanbul’s Ayasofya.

Venetian bridge built to facilitate caravan trade, Cyprus

Venetian walls built in a failed attempt to protect Nicosia, Cyprus, from Ottoman conquest

But Venice’s relationship to the Muslim East was not always a hostile one. Back during the Christian Crusades, the Venetians continued trade with the Islamic world, until prohibited by the Pope. Although the Ottomans were in many ways the Venetians’ greatest foes, they were also their greatest trading partner, and at most times the two governments were at peace. There are numerous examples of economic and cultural interchange between Venice and the Ottoman Empire, including many tangible examples to be found in Venice.

The Fondaco dei Turchi, the commercial center of the Ottomans in Venice

Mosaic from St. Mark’s Cathedral depicting the theft of the relics of St. Mark from the city of Alexandria in now Egypt, then part of the Arab Empire. The remains were supposedly smuggled out in a basket filled with pork–the Muslim examiners, disgusted by the pork (see post of 11.12), did not bother to examine the basket too thoroughly, and the relics of the evangelist were successfully brought to Venice. Though acquired by deceit, the relics were held by the Venetians to enhance the city’s religious prestige.

The history of the Campo dei Mori (Field of Moors) is unknown, but sculptures outside a nearby palazzo point to the residents’ extensive dealings with the Islamic world.

Of course, with trade also comes ideas. The decorative motif on the top of the Doge’s Palce (first picture below) is said to have been inspired by the modified merlons on Cairo’s Ibn Tulun Mosque (second picture below).

The windows in many Venetian palazzos and the second floor of the Doge’s Palace (see the first picture in the post) are identical to those found on the Koutoubia minaret of Marrakesh, Morocco (below).

After a treaty signed with Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, the Doge of Venice sent artist Bellini to paint the Sultan’s now-famous portrait. Link to Britain’s National Gallery

PS. Soon after we left, Venice had some of the worst flooding ever. November is supposed to be one of the worst months to travel to Venice, but we were lucky with almost completely blue and clear skies, pleasant cool temperatures and crowds reduced from summertime highs. But I guess the flooding that’s supposed to happen in early winter sometimes does. Link to BBC Article

3 thoughts on “Venice, Entrepot of the East

  1. Venice is also a place of legend, mistery, and charm, specially in "dark seasons" like November, january, February

  2. Venice is nice in any season, has some unique features in any period of the year. Has to be visited at least once in your life… but then again once you see it once you will feel like visiting more and more!

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