Vegetal Vectors: Plants and Plant-Knowledge in Middle East History
Panel X-7, 2023 Annual Meeting
On Saturday, November 4 at 5:30 pm
Plants and plant-knowledge were central to the making of the modern Middle East. People engaged with vegetal actors as food for nourishment, raw materials and goods for trade, medicines, and spiritual objects. Vegetal vectors shaped how they experienced their bodies, built political regimes, constructed social worlds, and fueled the roots of everyday life.
Social and economic historians of the Middle East have famously highlighted agriculture’s centrality to negotiations of power, capital, and labor, with a particular interest in the subjugation of landless peasant classes. Cash crops, like cotton, mulberry trees for silkworms, and sugarcane dominate the historiography’s botanical imaginaries and our understandings of the human and non-human interactions embedded within them. Yet, our understanding of people’s daily interactions with plants outside of the realm of extractive agricultural labor remain obscure.
Considering plants in the archive—and as archival materials in their own right—the papers in this panel explore encounters between the human and vegetal worlds in the early modern and modern periods. Together, they ask: What roles have plants played in the social and cultural history of the Middle East? How have endeavors to control plants and harness indigenous plant knowledges shaped intellectual and economic pursuits? What hidden human histories can an analytical focus on plants reveal?
The first paper follows a mysterious plant specimen, the hamḍ, to unpack the history of American missionary George Post’s botanical expeditions in the late Ottoman Eastern Mediterranean, along with those of the human and vegetal actors he encountered. The second paper places okra and its preparation at the center of novel negotiations of the “texture and flavor” of Egyptian nationhood in the wake of the construction of the Aswan High Dam. The third paper charts the history of weed science in twentieth-century Egypt and explores what being “in the weeds” can tell us about Egyptian colonialism and the writing of social history. The final paper utilizes fragmentary seventeenth-century visual sources to highlight early modern Ottoman perceptions of nature. Introducing the frame of “Ottoman nature studies,” it shows how and why the intellectual and scientific labors of the Ottoman experts who produced these drawings were rendered invisible by European interpretation and translation.
The hamḍ arrived to Beirut by mail from Haifa, sent by a Mrs. Lily Ashley at the US consulate there. It was accompanied by a note from Lily, explaining that “I do not send the enclosed [hamḍ] as being “correct” but to let you see that I had not forgotten only found the irb [sic] more difficult than I had anticipated!!!” A debate ensued via post about the Arabic name for the plant, al-hamd—was this the plant's true name, or the name of the place it had been found? If the former, was it a “native” species or one that occupied other geographies as well? If the latter, what exactly was the relationship between plants and the lands upon which they grew?
The hamd was only one of many samples that Beirut-based American missionary George Post received from his network of amateur botanists and collectors across the Levant. Post had come to Syria to be a doctor. He taught the dreaded course on Materia Medica at the Syrian Protestant College in the 1870s and 80s, but his passion for plants extended far beyond the medicinal. He spent vacations traveling around the region collecting samples for his herbarium (est. 1867) and “discovering” new species, whose novelty was often contested by other botanists. In the 1890s, Post published accounts of his voyages, recounting his journeys and the locations of his samples. In 1883, he published the Florae Orientalis, a huge manuscript with original illustrations detailing many thousands of species he “discovered” in the region.
This paper unpacks the history of Post’s botanical explorations and the actors—both human and vegetal—his accounts brought to light, and hid from view. Encounters with Syrians dot Post’s stories of his search for rare plant species across the Eastern Mediterranean. This paper analyzes Post’s archive, correspondence, and publications to answer two key questions. First, how did Post work to localize the plants he encountered in the Eastern Mediterranean, rewriting the genre of biblical geography in the new, contested terms of Linnean botany, which fell apart when he encountered uncertain beings like the hamd? Second, what can Post’s accounts of his botanical travels tell us about relationships between people and the land in the late Ottoman Eastern Mediterranean? Even if Post himself considered living people at the margins of his investigations, in other words, what did he record despite himself?
The construction of the Aswan High Dam (1960–1970) marked an unprecedented change in the history of Egyptian agriculture. After millennia of annual floods that had dictated Egypt’s growing seasons, the vast waters of the Nile were placed under the control of the postcolonial state. It was a pivotal moment both for Egypt’s nation-building and decolonization processes and for the destruction of historical Nubia, which was flooded by the dam’s rising waters. As food scholar Krishnendu Ray has observed, “nation-making is a refugee-making process.” How can we read the traces of human displacement in the displacement of one cooking method by another? This paper responds to this question with a history of okra preparation in Egypt to show how the High Dam, a transformational event in the political economy of plant cultivation in the Nile Valley, shaped the texture and flavor of Egyptian nationhood in urban quotidian contexts.
While recipes (manuscript, print, and oral) are at the core of the paper’s evidence, it also draws on travelogues, lexicons, vernacular poetry, and oral histories to produce a historical ethnography of the context that produced those recipes and which explains how they changed over time. The paper shows that preparation methods using dried okra and/or beating okra into a thick green stew, historically associated with Upper Egyptian, Nubian, and Sudanese cuisines, became residual elements of Egyptian cooking in ways that contributed to constructions of the cultures of the southern Nile Valley as traditional and archaic. Meanwhile the newly dominant mode of okra preparation in Egypt embraced the tomato, a relatively recent introduction to the Egyptian kitchen whose mass cultivation was made possible by the damming of the Nile that had submerged the Nubian homeland. The tomato stew, originally a mode of preparation tied both to Ottoman sophistication and modern cooking, swiftly domesticated okra into a new expression of Egyptian national cuisine. By tracing changes in everyday interactions between urban Egyptian home cooks and two important edible plants––okra and tomatoes––this paper reveals how the High Dam drove the production of Egyptian nationhood through domestic and intimate practices, flavors, and tastes. It shows that a focus on plants and human encounters with them offers a way to trace unconscious and affective reverberations of major infrastructural and political projects.
Weed flora and their study were rooted in the shifting soils of a swiftly modernizing Egypt. The hardy plants were both harbingers and victims of the numerous political, social, economic developments and resulting ecological changes that swept through the country during the twentieth century. Colonial botanists and agricultural scientists initially viewed these pesky plants as harmful impediments to agricultural progress and horticultural aesthetics. Early surveys of weed flora sought to eradicate them. New species of weeds thrived in the irrigation canals of cotton fields and blocked the flow of water to the precious cash crop. Others stubbornly flourished under the shade of otherwise well-kept orchards and private gardens. Yet, by mid-century, Egyptian botanists recognized these plants as important material archives of eroding vernacular knowledges, violent displacement, and environments long past.
Combining the scientific publications of colonial and Egyptian botanists with botanical specimens from the Harvard University Herbaria, this paper charts the history of weed science in Egypt over the course of the twentieth-century. First, it provides a necessary overview of the development of the botanical sciences at Cairo University and the Cairo University Herbarium, highlighting the work of Egypt’s most esteemed weed scientists. It then reveals weeds’ intimate connections with colonial projects in Upper Egypt and Sudan, and Nubian displacement due to the Aswan dam. In doing so, it shows how shifting our gaze to these disruptive plants may provide a unique view of modern Egyptian history from the ground up.