AN ENTREPOT (from the Latin emporium) is a settlement founded specifically for commercial activity or a market or mart located within or on the periphery of an administrative/political center. The origins of the entrepot are traced to the commercial behavior of ancient societies.
Traders entering foreign territory were exposed to numerous natural and cultural hazards. In addition to facing harsh traveling conditions, they might be attacked by brigands or find themselves in places where they did not know the local languages or customs and were subject to territory-specific laws under which they would find no protection. Foreign merchants required neutral sites of exchange, which would offer provisions, lodging, interpreters, and legal and economic safeguards. Designated, controlled trading stations met the needs of the host society as well. Restricting stranger merchants to an entrepot protected the local population from potentially threatening foreign influences. Moreover, elites could use control over the flow of prestige commodities, such as items of precious metal, to maintain their social position, redistributing the imported goods locally through processes of gift exchange.
Entrepots for foreign exchange were generally located at the boundaries dividing political territories or distinct economic or environmental zones, such as the SAHEL of Sub-Saharan Africa, which lay between the desert and the savannah. Situated along TRADE ROUTES, the entrepot had to be accessible to foreign merchants—for example, a place with a functional harbor—which in turn was connected to inland distribution networks. Because the entrepot also provided lodging and provisions to visiting traders, who might spend long periods there before returning home, nearby supplies of potable water and an agricultural HINTERLAND also were important.
The population and administrative organization of the entrepot varied with its function and complexity. Whether a seasonal market or year-round point of exchange, a site required a permanent population to maintain it. The permanent service population would consist either of locals or of permanent representatives of a foreign trading diaspora, who would learn the territory’s language, look after the foreign community’s temples, and cultivate relations with the host society.
If the entrepot had an ethnically and linguistically mixed population, it would be divided into distinct residential neighborhoods. Craftsmen resided at the entrepot as well, producing not only goods for exchange but also producing and repairing gear needed by the traders—everything from combs and shoes to ships and carts. Finally, port officials collected tolls and adjudicated disputes.
Extensive entrepot networks arose with the intensification of long-distance trade throughout the Mediterranean and Near East in the first millennium B.C.E. The network in classical Greece (5th to 4th centuries B.C.E.) consisted of two types of entrepot (Greek emporion): harbors attached to but separated from a polis (city) by walls (for example, Athens’s harbor, the Piraeus); and permanent Greek commercial colonies located on the periphery of the Greek world (for example, Naukratis in Egypt). The first type funneled commodities in and out of Greek cities. The second acted as an interface between the Greek world and non-Greeks, giving the Greeks access to metals and other raw materials that were not available in the Greek home territories.
The Romans developed extensive networks of entrepots, linking their resource bases in northwestern Europe, northern Africa, and the Near East with INDIA’s Malabar Coast, and the SILK ROAD, extending across Central Asia to CHINA via a system of desert emporia (caravanserais). Following the collapse of Roman control in northwestern Europe, the Frankish and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms established their own emporia trading networks along the coasts of the North and Baltic seas in the 7th and 8th centuries (for example, LONDON, Dorestad, Cologne), which quickly spread to Scandinavia and RUSSIA.
This period also witnessed the formation by the Islamic caliphates of entrepot networks along the coasts of the INDIAN OCEAN, which acted as interface points with non-Islamic peoples for the acquisition of slaves, spices, and other luxury items from Africa, INDONESIA, and China. In the first half of the 16th century, however, Portuguese and, later, English and Dutch trading corporations assumed control of the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asian entrepots. Here, the host communities eventually lost control of the trade and actions of the foreign merchants, with European traders coming to control not only the entrepots but the adjoining hinterlands and their resources as well.
The integration of the global economy during the last two centuries has transformed the character, but not the function, of the entrepot. International trade now takes place in multifunctional centers, such as the financial and administrative metropolises of NEW YORK CITY and London. Entrepot is now used to describe distribution points within cities, such as warehouses.