Popularized in American culture in the 1970s, the “Mediterranean diet” touted health benefits of “traditional” foods focusing on fish and vegetables with olive oil as the primary fat. The Mediterranean diet became such an icon that it was declared an “intangible cultural heritage” by UNESCO in 2013. But in the popular imagination this diet was largely built of influences of Greek, Italian, Spanish, and Southern French cuisine. Anyone who has seen a map, though, knows that a lot is missing. Where in this version of the Mediterranean diet were the foods of Turkey? Of North Africa? Of Syria?
This ignorance obscures not only a wide swath of geography and culture: it prevents us from acknowledging and celebrating a significant technological and environmental story that connects Southern Europe with Western Asia and North Africa: The Arab Agricultural Revolution, or, as it is sometimes called, the Islamic Green Revolution. In the Middle Ages (so-called because, from a European standpoint, they occur between the far more exciting and supposedly learned eras of Antiquity and the Renaissance) the scientific scene in Europe is kind of bland. But not so in the realm of Islamic science. During the seventh and eighth centuries CE, with the rise and expanse of Islam, we see a true “golden age” in the history of science and technology. We can thank this Islamic golden age for things like algebra and hospitals.
Unfortunately, much of our textual archive of these technological and scientific era has been destroyed. And although we may find the organismal, genetic, and culinary artifacts of the Arab Agricultural Revolution in the landscape of southern Europe, our gardens and fields, and our favorite recipes, much of the material remains have also been destroyed. Geographer Diana K. Davis describes the Maghreb as a once fertile and productive region, but she challenges a typical narrative that the desert region results from poor management, poor management on the part indigenous people, followed by the destructive treatment of the Arabs. Davis shows that this narrative is constructed by nineteenth-century French colonizers to validate their occupation of the region, while the material evidence of the landscape suggest that the French imperial occupation is in fact the source of the desertification. Still, French colonists used this narrative to destroy local agricultural practices and foodways, including the nomadic pastoral lifestyles that have become a familiar image of life in the Maghreb. But in the material evidence that remains, where can we find it, and how can we make a connection to the Arab influences in the food we grow, buy, and eat every day?
To read part II of this post published on 9/17/2023, please click here.
Ann Campbell is a PhD candidate in the History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University Bloomington, where she studies the intersection of agriculture, natural history, and political economy in the eighteenth-century. She is also an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional dedicated to cheese education and exploration.