Mohammed Tahar Mansouri, Professor of History at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, delivered his lecture on “The Consumption of Ice in Medieval Arab-Islamic Civilization: Opulence and Control of Cooling Technologies” as part of ACRPS’ weekly seminar series on Thursday November 19, 2015. Mansouri confessed that his topic was “unconventional” for an audience more suited to discussions of international relations or global economics. The Tunisian professor was still able to share a great deal about the economic and social history of the Levant under Mameluke rule.
Before delving into the historical minutiae of his source material, Mansouri drew attention to a quirk of the Arabic language, which has only one word, thalj, to refer to both “snow” and “ice.” Despite this, Mansouri explained, the Arabic literary canon is replete with references to the purifying qualities of thalj, such as an oft-cited Hadith in which the Prophet Mohammed describes how his “sins were washed away by water and by [ice].” More curious still, Mansouri explained, was that Northern European Crusaders who arrived in Syria, Palestine, and present-day Lebanon between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries were surprised to find snow for sale in the markets of Tyre, Beirut, Saida and Acre.
The Umayyad rulers of Syria were the first Arab dynasty to begin a tradition of harvesting snow from Mount Lebanon--which got its name from the perennial white of its mountaintops—and the mountainous regions to the north of Mesopotamia, adopting a previously existing Persian sensibility and appreciation for snow. The uses of snow in medieval Arab societies were manifold: it was a luxury food item that allowed hosts to exhibit their prestige by offering cold beverages—as well as to provide an alternative to alcohol which was pious but decadent in its own right—and it allowed for ambitious house cooling, which Mansouri described as an early form of “air conditioning.” Control of the “ice trade” allowed for an Umayyad generosity with frozen and chilled food and drink. This continued to afford local rulers the opportunity to enhance prestige. By the late ninth century, however, the use and appreciation of snow had spread to other strata of society becoming a key ingredient, for example, in a sweet delicacy distributed by merchants on the Hajj pilgrimage.
Through these details Mansouri was able to draw attention to his main focus: the emergence of an “Ice Road” that came to link vendors in Syrian markets with customers who lived in Egyptian palaces. By wrapping blocks of snow/ice harvested from the Syrian mountains in sackcloth and loading them on to camels, the Mameluke Levant became witness to a kind of economic and political stability—and cultural sensibility—that allowed for the transport of large blocks of harvested snow from Damascus to Cairo. The a distance of around 1,300 km was traversed in the space of four days by rotating the camels used in the caravans and making stops at 16 separate locations in Jordan and Palestine. Mansouri used the story of the Ice Road to illustrate both the political and social stability of a medieval Islamic dynasty in the Levant, and the ability of Arab architects and engineers to harness nature to create more livable homes.
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