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Foreigners are a nuisence: not only do they persist in such anti-social behaviours as eating too much garlic, driving on the wrong side of the road and wilfully refusing to speak English (or, if they do, to speak it properly) but they also have different money and you never know, when you arrive in a foreign land, whether you are going to be dealing in shekels, lira, francs, punts or marks. One of the most common phrases heard in the markets of a foreign land is “How much is that in dollars?”
Of course, all this is part of the rich exoticism of the orient and there is a certain fascination to being charged twenty million something-or-others and discovering that really it is only three of whatever you use back home. In addition, you can always comfort yourself with the recollection that it was worse in the past; back in the good old days when Britain had an Empire and you had farthings and perches and lb and oz, converting into seers or parasangs provided many a headache for the traveller and many an opportunity for fraud to the cany merchant. Today at least metres – even if spelled incorrectly – are pretty well universal, as are kilos and litres.
It occurred to Clifford Lamberg-Karlovsky, an archaeologist at Harvard University, that possibly things were worse back in what he would regard as the “good old days” – back around 2,000 BC. He linked up with Alfredo Mederos from Madrid’s Complutense University to try and work out the relative values of the various units of weight (and therefore of money) used in the ancient world. The two studied various ancient texts as well as the variety of weights that are preserved in museums around the world and examined the standards used in trade all the way from India to north Africa.
The result was surprising. First of all they found a considerable amount of standardisation: for example, the Egyptian kdt, the Ugarit shekel and the Syrian shekel all weighed 9.4 grams and were, therefore, directly equivalent to each other. Even where there was not direct convertability, however, the ratios were easy to work out. 16 Egyptian “dbn” were the same as 15 Dilmun shekels, 24 Babylonian shekels or 26.25 Ebla shekels. Compared to some of the conversion rates our group had to work with on this year’s tour, these exchange rates are easy enough to be worked out in the head.
Lamberg-Karlovsky claims that this easy convertability indicates the “birth of globalisation”, for it facilitated trade, enabling merchants from different parts of the world to trade together easily without being cheated. After all, if you were an Egyptian trying to work out the price your Babylonian counterpart was charging, you simply divided by two and multiplied by three – much easier than multiplying by 1,208,064 which was the exchange rate for one American dollar in one of the countries we visited.
Although not wanting to disparage the good work done by Lamberg-Karlovsky and Mederos, I am not so sure that the alleged easy convertability was either as easy or as significant as they claim. With no central standards authority, traders could easily – and without intending to – use a weight which was greater or smaller than what the man next door was using. If you were weighing out shekels against “dbn”, you could find yourself one or two short in every hundred.
Secondly, life proceeded at a different pace back then, as it still does in most parts of the east. A merchant who is willing to spend the best part of an hour bargaining over the price of his carpets is not going to begrudge an extra minute or two trying to work out his price in Dilmun shekels – after all, the camel caravan isn’t going to leave for another couple of days!
If there was a motive for arranging easy convertability, it probably had nothing to do with impending globalisation and more to do with the lack of mathematical tools. Even in our heads, most of us could probably multiply 7 x 1.3 and end up with the decimal point in the right place. We might well find, however, that III x IV = XII is beyond us, to say nothing of MDCCXIX x CCVII. (Answers on the back of a postcard, please.)