Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Egypt, bread basket of the Mediterranean

I have recently mentioned that Roman people gave up their political freedom just for the sake of free “bread and entertainment” (“panem et circenses”) and told about the entertainment side of the issue; i.e. gladiator combats and chariot races offered by the state. This time, I’ll write about the “bread” … In Rome and Constantinople, distributing free bread to the public was the main condition for the rulers to remain in power, free of problems and riots. In the Ottoman period, although bread was not distributed to all citizens of the capital  but only to the poor by “imarets” (Ottoman soup kitchen), one of the most important roles of the Grand Vizier was to check the weight and price of bread and the amount of grains at depots by wandering around main markets and bazaars every week.
For two thousand years, the considerable amount of the grains of the capital city from Roman to Byzantine and from Byzantine to Ottoman periods came from Egypt, i.e., “bread basket of the Mediterranean”. The historian Peter Garnsey from Oxford University stated that around a hundred thousand tonnes of grains were sent from Egypt to Rome in the first century during the reign of Emperor Augustus. In the fourth century, around two hundred fifty thousand tonnes of grains were sent from Egypt to Constantinople to feed the half a million population of the city those times. The grains coming from Egypt by sailboats were stored in Tenedos (today’s Bozcaada), forwarded to Constantinople in parts as needed and the bread made of these grains were distributed to the people of the capital city every morning for free. During the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, around eighty thousands loaves of bread were distributed daily in Constantinople. Distribution of free bread was over when the Arabs took Egypt from the Byzantine Empire and for the first time people of the capital city had to pay for their bread which mas mainly made of grains from Balkans. People of the capital city of the empire which lost its “bread basket” must have felt very bad when they paid money for the bread they had been eating for free for thousands of years. Speaking of emotions, maybe we shall also talk about the emotions of the Egyptians who had sent their grains for centuries to the capital city of their colonist as a tax. When the Ottomans took Egypt from Mamluk Empire in the sixteenth century, ships loaded with grains set off from Alexandria to Istanbul again but bread was not free anymore.

Egyptian mural painting / Wheat harvest
Alexandria, Egypt’s port town, became the second most important city of Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman periods both when the capital was Rome and Constantinople. As the crowded population of all three empires fed on the grains coming from Egypt, it had always been different from other provinces and ruled semi-autonomously. But its government never became local; Egypt had something so precious that it could not be left to the Egyptians itself. There were no other province around the Mediterranean Sea where the assigned administrators rebelled and declared independence so many times. When the governor of Egypt ceased sending grain ships to the capital city, usually a chain reaction occurred; the distribution of free bread, in other words, the magic wand of the government, ended within a few months, then it became difficult to find bread even for a fee and the public rebelled against the empire or sultan in the end if necessary measures are not taken immediately. Consequently, in all three empires, the governor of Egypt was the most powerful ruler after the emperor and the most risky one against the emperor, as well.

Pompeii mural painting / Bake house
In Roman period, when all other provinces were ruled by governors assigned by the senate, Alexandria’s ruler called as “praefecttus” was assigned by the emperor and had more rights than the other governors. The first riot in Egypt rose up in the period of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius; in 175, governer Avidius Cassius declared independence but the riot was suppressed. In 193, this time governor Pescennius Niger declared himself emperor and Septimius Severus, the Roman Emperor, defeated the armies of Niger (his name meant “black” due to his rather dark skin) and took Egypt back (It is an irony of fate that, as soon as Septimius Severus supressed this riot, he went to the North-western part of the empire to suppress the riot of the Britain and Spain’s governor, Claudius Albino, whose name meant “white” due to his rather white hair and skin. Another interesting story we learnt from the Roman senator and historian Casius Dio, born in Nikae (today’s Izmit) is that; with this riot, Byzantium (today’s Istanbul) experienced the greatest destruction in its history. Septimius Severus destroyed the city walls and almost all of the important buildings of the city as a punishment after he had taken over the city and killed almost half of its population, for the reason that the city had sided with Niger against the Roman Emperor, which, so to speak, “backed the wrong horse”. Palmira Empire, which was founded in the Third century after its rebellion against Rome while it had been one of the Roman provinces, took over Egypt to access grains and ceased the grain supply to Rome. Then the Roman army suppressed the riot and took Egypt back again. The grains sent to Constantinople during the Byzantine Empire whet Sassanian’s appetite in the sixth century. Though the Byzantium Emperor Heraclius managed to take Egypt back from the Sassanians, it failed to stop the Arabian invasion in 641 and Egypt changed hands for four times in the subsequent nine centuries, it was invaded by the Arabians, Fatimids, Ayyubids and Mamluks, respectively and the grain supply from Egypt to Constantinople ceased until the Ottoman Sultan, Selim I. The Ottoman Empire worked hard to protect Egypt but just like in Roman and Byzantine periods in early 1800s, they lost it to their own governor, who was Mehmet Ali Pasha of Kavala. Mehmet Ali Pasha declared his own Khediviate where the right of ruling descended from father to son and he conquered Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Jerusalem, Beirut and Syria after Egypt and founded his own empire within the Ottoman Empire in other words. Egypt Khediviate was an Ottoman province only on the paper, such that, upon a disagreement with Mahmud II. Mehmet Ali Pasha marched to Istanbul and only with the help of the Russians did Ottomans could stop Mehmet Ali Pasha’s army in Kütahya. Foreign countries mediated between the parties, Mehmet Ali Pasha returned back to Egypt and when he died, he had left a dynasty that would rule Egypt for a hundred years.

Mehmet Ali Pasha of Kavala
In the last few centuries, both the world and the needs of the developed countries for which they depend on underdeveloped countries have changed. Today, while the USA is the world’s greatest grain exporter thanks to modern agricultural techniques, Egypt, which had been the “bread basket” of the Mediterranean in the past, is the world’s greatest grain importer. Unbelievable, isn’t it? On the other hand; the top ten crude oil exporters in the world mainly consist of the Middle Eastern countries. The Middle Eastern countries which are rich of natural resources has now replaced Egypt, crude oil has replaced the grains, huge tankers have replaced the wooden sailboats but neither the direction of good flow nor the essence of the relationship between the receiver and the supplier has changed for the last two thousand years. The Roman emperor, who would lose his throne upon a riot if he fails to supply the grain for the crowded population in the capital city, wasn’t so much different from today’s President who worries about the price of oil barrel prior to elections.

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