Islamic History Sourcebook:
George E. Thompson:
The Great Market of Tripoli, c. 1890
IT is early morning, as I walk on the wide expanse of sand extending along the shore
outside the white walls of Tripoli. The sun already shines with a fervent heat from a sky
of cloudless blue. It shines on a busy scene. The usually quiet shore is tenanted by
hundreds of Arabs, Negroes, and their animals; camels, donkeys, and cattle. They still
pour in by the various lanes leading through the orange groves and palm forest from the
distant oases of the desert; and as they arrive, they settle down on the shore in groups,
some close to the water's edge,---for there is scarcely any tide here,---others farther
in, their place being regulated according to the nature of the produce they have for sale.
A refreshing breeze blows in over the clear waters of the bay, renewing the life of the
tired travelers of the night.
Everything is conducted with precision and in perfect order by this ancient people,
whose manners and customs change not, who are the same now as they were centuries ago.
There may be directors or policemen about, and they may have their eye upon me; but if so,
I know them not. I wander down the long lines of Arabs, watching and marveling as the
market grows up rapidly, here and there staying to take a photograph with my hand camera.
Finding the folk pleasant and interested rather than otherwise, I rush back to my hotel
for the tripod camera. and am soon at work among the various groups. By this time the vast
market has assumed the air of an industrial exhibition. It is now in full swing, and
booths are erected in long rows, to shelter the occupants from the sun's rays.
Beginning at the far end, we find a fine herd of camels for sale; then come cattle:
cows, sheep, and goats. Here, on the golden sands, are pictures of Arcadian, pastoral, or
Old Testament life, brilliant with delicious coloring, calm, reposeful, and beautiful;
long-bearded, fine-looking Arabs squatting in their baracans or blankets amidst a
few clean sheep and goats, quietly awaiting purchasers. No push, no hurry, no noise. We
leave these groups, with their delicate coloring, lights, and shadows, and pass down a
narrow avenue between the booths of the fruit-sellers. Here are heaps of oranges, bananas,
melons, and many a strange product of which we know nothing, laid out in long rows on the
sand: no tables! The owners squat behind their goods under a small tent. The buyers swarm
down the narrow path, sometimes seated on a donkey, shouting
"Balek"---"Make way." And so we move.
There are the blacksmiths at work, and on the sand, too; in the center of each group a
small charcoal fire burns. An Arab boy works a pair of bellows looking like two
concertinas, which he moves alternately. A small anvil stands in the sand, and filing is
done on a large ox-bone, used as a bench.
A double row of shoemakers' tents follows. The occupants are all at work; highly
colored red and yellow slippers---some of them embroidered---are being turned out by the
dozen. The meat stalls are the only unpleasant feature of this fascinating market, for on
erections of bamboo canes there are hung up, alongside good joints of meat, the most
loathsome-looking entrails---yes, and it all sells too! Let us pass on and see what is the
center of the crowd yonder. Another picture from Arcadia! Pan with his pipes! Arab
musicians playing on double reeds!---not high-class music, but ancient, and pleasing to
Close by is the pot market; water-coolers, wine jars, oil cisterns large and small,
mostly with pointed bottoms for placing in the sand. Then there are the basket-makers,
many of them Negroes of the blackest hue. There are large basin-shaped baskets for fruit,
round, conical-shaped dish-covers, and small wicker baskets closely made and interwoven
with bits of colored cloth. The Negro women make the latter, and so closely that some of
them will hold water. One woman has two little babies---ebony---with ivory teeth and eyes,
fat, black, merry, India-rubber sort of babies, with little woolly heads, and a bracelet
or string of red coral for clothing. One of these was frightened by the white man, and hid
its face while I bought a basket from its mother. I coaxed it with a copper, and left it
thinking that the white man was not so bad after all---as a white man.
There were touching sights, too, on the sand that day; I saw one poor Negro woman and
her baby, both tired out; they lay sleeping in each other's arms in the sunshine. There
were the donkeys, poor things, that had traveled many a mile in the early hours of the
morning from distant hamlets; numbers of these lay on their sides, stretched out and fast
asleep. Ropes are pegged into the sand, forming square inclosures, and the donkeys' feet
are tied thereto, so that they may not stray. For the most part they looked well kept and
Next we come to the oil merchants with their long pointed earthenware jars stuck in the
sand; and there are charcoal fires, where food is being prepared for the evening meal. All
goes on in a quiet and orderly fashion; no drunkenness, no unseemly rows, for these people
are barbarians on the burning sands of Africa, not Christians in the slums of London or
I passed on among that dense crowd of Arabs, Negroes, and Turks, camera in hand, and
they made way---nay, helped me! " Balek," " Balek "---polite and
kindly, for are they not barbarians and children of the Desert?
From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story,
Song and Art, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. III: Egypt, Africa, and Arabia,
Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by
Note: Many Western sources about Islamic countries exhibit what has
come to be known as orientalism. The terms used ("Mohammedan" for
instance rather than "Muslim"), and the attitudes exhibited by the writers need
to be questioned by modern readers.
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© Paul Halsall, November1998