Apr 062019
 

Today may be the birthday Moses ben Maimon, commonly known as Maimonides, and also referred to by the acronym Rambam. His birthday depends what year he was born in because it is recorded that he was born on Passover Eve, but either in 1135 or 1138. So, it could be today or March 30th. Maimonides was a medieval Sephardic Jewish philosopher who became one of the most prolific and influential Torah scholars of the Middle Ages. In his time, he was also a preeminent astronomer and physician. His fourteen-volume Mishneh Torah still carries significant canonical authority as a codification of Talmudic law. He did have contemporary critics in Spain, but he was revered by many Arab and Muslim scholars as well as being influenced by them.

Maimonides was born in Córdoba during the end of the golden age of Jewish culture in the Iberian Peninsula. At an early age, he developed an interest in sciences and philosophy. He read those Greek philosophers accessible in Arabic translations, and was deeply immersed in the sciences and learning of Islamic culture. Though the Gaonic Talmudic academic tradition, especially in its North African version, formed the basis of his legal thought, Muslim law, including Almohad legal thought, also had a substantial influence. Maimonides was not known as a supporter of mysticism, although a strong intellectual type of mysticism has been discerned in his philosophy. He expressed disapproval of poetry, the best of which he declared to be false, since it was founded on pure invention.

The Almohads conquered Córdoba in 1148, and abolished dhimmi status (i.e., state protection, through payment of a tax, the jizya, of the life and possessions of non-Muslims). The loss of this status left the Jewish and Christian communities with conversion to Islam, death, or exile as their options. Many Jews were forced to convert, but due to suspicion by the authorities of fake conversions, the new converts had to wear identifying clothing that set them apart and made them subject to public scrutiny. Maimonides’ family chose exile. For the next ten years, Maimonides moved about in southern Spain, eventually settling in Fez in Morocco. During this time, he composed his acclaimed commentary on the Mishnah, between 1166 and 1168.

Following this period in Morocco, together with two sons, he journeyed in Palestine before settling in Egypt around 1168. While in Cairo, he studied in a yeshiva attached to a small synagogue (which now bears his name). Maimonides shortly thereafter was instrumental in helping rescue Jews taken captive during the Christian King Amalric’s siege of the Egyptian town of Bilbays. He sent five letters to the Jewish communities of Lower Egypt asking them to pool money together to pay the ransom. The money was collected and then given to two judges sent to Palestine to negotiate with the Crusaders. The captives were eventually released.

Following this triumph, the family, hoping to increase their wealth, gave their savings to Maimonides’ youngest brother, David ben Maimon, a merchant. Maimonides directed his brother to procure goods only at the Sudanese port of ‘Aydhab. After a long arduous trip through the desert, however, David was unimpressed by the goods on offer there. Against his brother’s wishes, David boarded a ship for India, since great wealth was to be found in the East. Before he could reach his destination, David drowned at sea some time between 1169 and 1177.

In a letter (discovered later in the Cairo Geniza), he wrote:

The greatest misfortune that has befallen me during my entire life—worse than anything else—was the demise of the saint, may his memory be blessed, who drowned in the Indian sea, carrying much money belonging to me, to him, and to others, and left with me a little daughter and a widow. On the day I received that terrible news I fell ill and remained in bed for about a year, suffering from a sore boil, fever, and depression, and was almost given up. About eight years have passed, but I am still mourning and unable to accept consolation. And how should I console myself? He grew up on my knees, he was my brother, [and] he was my student.

Around 1171, Maimonides was appointed the Nagid (leader) of the Egyptian Jewish community. With the loss of the family funds tied up in David’s business venture, Maimonides assumed the vocation of physician, for which he was to become famous. He had trained in medicine in both Córdoba and in Fez. Gaining widespread recognition, he was appointed court physician to the Grand Vizier, al Qadi al Fadil, then to Sultan Saladin, after whose death he remained a physician to the royal family.

In his medical writings, Maimonides described many conditions, including asthma, diabetes, hepatitis, and pneumonia, and he emphasized moderation and a healthy lifestyle. His treatises became influential for generations of physicians. He was knowledgeable about Greek and Arabic medicine, and followed the principles of humorism in the tradition of Galen. He did not blindly accept authority, however, but used his own observation and experience. Maimonides displayed in his interactions with patients attributes that today would be called intercultural awareness and respect for the patient’s autonomy. Although he frequently wrote of his longing for solitude in order to come closer to God and to extend his reflections – elements considered essential in his philosophy to the prophetic experience – he gave over most of his time to caring for others. In a famous letter, Maimonides describes his daily routine: After visiting the Sultan’s palace, he would arrive home exhausted and hungry, where: “I would find the antechambers filled with gentiles and Jews … I would go to heal them, and write prescriptions for their illnesses … until the evening … and I would be extremely weak.” As he goes on to say in this letter, even on the Sabbath he would receive members of the community.

In 1173/4, Maimonides wrote his famous Iggeret Teman (Epistle to Yemen). Maimonides died on December 12th, 1204 (20th of Tevet 4965) in Fustat in Egypt at the age of 69. It is widely believed that he was briefly buried in the study room (beit hamidrash) of the synagogue courtyard, and that, soon after, in accordance with his wishes, his remains were exhumed and taken to Tiberias in Galilee, where he was re-interred. The Tomb of Maimonides on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee in present-day Israel marks his grave.

Here is a recipe for a Passover dish from the Sephardic community. It is a kind of pie or lasagna made with matzoth rather than pastry or pasta. In Spain it is called mina de maza, in Italian, scacchi.

Mina de Maza

Ingredients:

Spinach Filling

2 tbsp butter
1 medium onion, peeled and finely diced
10 oz spinach, chopped
8 oz feta cheese, crumbled
8 oz farmer cheese
2 eggs, lightly beaten
salt and pepper
ground nutmeg
1 tbsp minced fresh dill

Mushroom-Artichoke Filling

2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely minced
8 oz mushrooms, sliced
8 oz artichoke hearts, sliced
salt and pepper
2 tbsp roasted pine nuts

8 regular matzah squares
2 cups vegetable broth
1 egg, beaten
2 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese

butter for greasing the pan

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Lightly grease a 13″ x 9″ pan with butter. Set aside.

Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a 2-quart pan over medium heat. Sauté the onion until golden. Add the spinach, and cook until wilted. Mix in the feta, farmer cheese, eggs, seasonings, and dill, and then set aside.

Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in a small sauté pan and add the garlic. Cook for 20 seconds over medium high heat, and then mix in the mushrooms, sautéing them for about 5 minutes, until they have given up most of their moisture. Add the artichokes and stir to heat through. Mix in the toasted pine nuts and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Warm the broth. Pour into an 8-inch square casserole or a deep dish that will hold the liquid and soak 2 sheets of matzah at a time until they are soft and pliable. Once you have 4 soft matzoth, fit them into the bottom and sides of the buttered dish. Spread the spinach mixture over the matzoth, then top with the mushroom mixture. Soak the remaining 4 sheets of matzah in the broth and then cover the filling, trimming or tucking in the sides.

Add the remaining egg to the leftover broth in the dish (if there is no broth left, combine an additional ½ cup of  broth with the egg) and pour it evenly over the entire casserole. Sprinkle the Parmesan cheese over the top and bake for 35-45 minutes until golden brown and bubbling. Serve hot or at room temperature

 

Jun 032014
 

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Today is the birthday (1853) of Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, FRS, commonly known as Flinders Petrie, an English Egyptologist and a pioneer of systematic methodology in archaeology and the preservation of artifacts. He held the first chair of Egyptology in the United Kingdom, and excavated many of the most important archaeological sites in Egypt. Some consider his most famous discovery to be that of the Merneptah Stele, which was the first written document to record the existence of ancient Israel in Biblical times. Petrie also developed a system of dating layers at sites based on pottery and ceramic findings.

Flinders Petrie was born in Maryon Road, Charlton, Kent, the son of William Petrie (1821–1908) and Anne (née Flinders (1812–1892). Anne was the daughter of Captain Matthew Flinders, surveyor of the Australian coastline, spoke six languages and was an Egyptologist. William Petrie was an electrical engineer who developed carbon arc lighting and later developed chemical processes for Johnson, Matthey & Co.

Petrie had little formal education in school. His father taught him how to survey accurately, laying the foundation for his archaeological career. At the age of eight, he was tutored in French, Latin, and Greek, until he had a collapse and was taught at home thereafter. He never received any university training and so was considered by others in Egyptology as an amateur. He ventured his first archaeological opinion aged eight, when friends visiting the Petrie family were describing the unearthing of the Brading Roman Villa in the Isle of Wight. He was horrified to hear of the rough shoveling out of the contents, and protested that the earth should be pared away, inch by inch, to see all that was in it and how it lay. “All that I have done since,” he wrote when he was in his late seventies, “was there to begin with, so true it is that we can only develop what is born in the mind. I was already in archaeology by nature.”

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On 26 November 1896, Petrie married Hilda Urlin (1871–1957) in London. They had two children, John (1907–1972) and Ann (1909–1989). They originally lived in Hampstead, where an English Heritage blue plaque now stands on the building they lived in, 5 Cannon Place. Their son was John Flinders Petrie, the mathematician, who gave his name to the Petrie polygon. In 1933, on retiring from his professorship, he moved permanently to Jerusalem, where he lived with Lady Petrie at the British School of Archaeology, then temporarily headquartered at the American School of Oriental Research (today the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research).

When he died in 1942, Petrie donated his head (and thus his brain) to the Royal College of Surgeons of London while his body was interred in the Protestant Cemetery on Mt. Zion. World War II was then at its height, and the head was delayed in transit. After being stored in a jar in the college basement, its label fell off and no one knew who the head belonged to. It was identified however, and is now stored, but not displayed, at the Royal College of Surgeons of London.

In his teenage years, Petrie surveyed British prehistoric monuments (commencing with the late Romano-British ‘British Camp’ that lay within yards of his family home in Charlton) in attempts to understand their geometry (at 19 producing the most accurate survey of Stonehenge). His father had corresponded with Piazzi Smyth about his theories of the Great Pyramid, and Petrie traveled to Egypt in early 1880 to make an accurate survey of Giza, making him the first to properly investigate how the pyramids were constructed (many theories had been advanced on this, and Petrie read them all, but none was based on first hand observation or logic).

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Petrie’s published report of this triangulation survey, and his analysis of the architecture of Giza therein, was exemplary in its methodology and accuracy, disproved Smyth’s theories, and still provides much of the basic data regarding the pyramid plateau to this day. On that visit, he was appalled by the rate of destruction of monuments and mummies. He described Egypt as “a house on fire, so rapid was the destruction” and felt his duty to be that of a “salvage man, to get all I could, as quickly as possible and then, when I was 60, I would sit and write it all.”

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There is too much to say about all of Petrie’s work in Egypt. He was a towering figure not just in Egyptology but in the development of scientific archeology in general. Two aspects of his life’s work stand out – the discovery of the Merneptah Stele and the development of contextual seriation for dating sites. I will focus here on these.

In early 1896, Petrie and his archaeological team were conducting excavations on a temple in Petrie’s area of concession at Luxor. This temple complex was located just north of the original funerary temple of Amenhotep III which had been built on a flood plain. They were initially surprised that this building which they were excavating was also attributed to Amenophis III since only his name appeared on blocks strewn over the site. Petrie dug and soon solved the puzzle: the temple had been built by Merenptah, the son and successor of Ramesses II, almost entirely from stone which had been plundered from the temple of Amenophis III nearby. Statues of the latter had been smashed and the pieces thrown into the foundations; fragments of stone jackals, which must have once formed an imposing avenue approaching the pylon, and broken drums gave some idea of the splendor of the original temple.

A statue of Merenptah himself was found—the first known portrait of this king. Two splendid stelae were found, both of them usurped on the reverse side by Merenptah, who had turned them face to the wall. One, beautifully carved, showed Amenophis III in battle with Nubians and Syrians; the other, of black granite, was over ten feet high, larger than any stele previously known: the Merenptah Stele.

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The original text commemorated the building achievements of Amenophis and described the beauties and magnificence of the temple in which it had stood. When it could be turned over an inscription of Merenptah recording his triumphs over the Libyans and the Peoples of the Sea was revealed. Of key importance were these lines concerning battles in Canaan:

Seized is the Kanaan with every evil,
Led away is Askelon,
Taken is Gezer,
Yenoam is brought to nought,
The people of Israel is laid waste, — their crops are not,
Khor (Palestine) has become as a widow for Egypt,
All lands together — they are in peace.
Every one who roamed about
Is punished by King Merenptah, gifted with life,
like the sun every day.

When reading this text in the field Petrie commented, “Won’t the reverends be pleased?” At dinner that evening Petrie prophesied: “This stele will be better known in the world than anything else I have found.” It was the first mention of the word “Israel” in any Egyptian text and the news made headlines when it reached the English papers. Up until that point the only source for the history of Israel was the Bible itself. This was the first confirmation of Biblical history external to the Bible. It was a find that began the long arduous journey of comparing the Biblical accounts of Israel’s history with archeology, still in progress to this day.

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Petrie’s painstaking recording and study of artifacts set new standards in archaeology, saying “I believe the true line of research lies in the noting and comparison of the smallest details.” Before Petrie archeology was pretty much of the Indiana Jones type – collect magnificent artifacts to take home and place in museums, and leaving the rest behind. Petrie showed the value of collecting EVERYTHING, even the tiniest potsherds, noting meticulously the location of every find. Indiana Jones’ style of “archeology” makes good movies, but it does little to advance our knowledge of ancient times. Sifting and sorting potsherds is a lot less romantic, but a lot more revealing in the long run.

Through the gathering of assemblages of broken bits and pieces from numerous sites Petrie developed a method of dating now known as contextual seriation. I’ll spare you the technical details. Seriation is basically a way of dating a site relative to others when no other dating method is available. Carbon 14 is a well known method of absolute dating that is very accurate. But it relies on the existence of animal or vegetable materials at the site. If you have nothing but stones and pots you have to rely on seriation. Some of Petrie’s methods are still in use today.

Apart from his fieldwork Flinders Petrie was also responsible for mentoring and training a whole generation of Egyptologists, including Howard Carter who discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb. His legacy will never fade.

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Naturally there are no ancient Egyptian cookbooks. There are barely any texts at all, and they are devoted to battles and the like. But archeological sites do give evidence of the diet of the ancient Egyptians. It is not so very different from the diet of the Middle East in general which I noted on 31 May (Visitation of Mary). Meat, however, was more plentiful and more varied, although still not available daily to common people. Interestingly, excavations at the Giza workers’ village have uncovered evidence of massive slaughter of beef, mutton and pork, such that researchers estimate that the workforce building the Great Pyramid was fed beef every day. Otherwise legumes, such as fava beans and lentils were still a critical source of protein. Here’s a falafel recipe that is current but could well have its roots in ancient cooking.

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Taamia Falafal

½ lb/250g fava beans, soaked and drained
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 onions, peeled and finely chopped
2 tsp cumin
1 tsp coriander
2 tsp ground black pepper
½ cup finely chopped parsley
½ tsp salt
sesame seeds
olive oil

Instructions

The fava beans need to be soaked in water for 24 hours.

Remove the skins and mash them along with the garlic, onion, cumin, coriander, pepper, salt, and parsley until they are a smooth paste. Pulsing using a food processor speeds the process. Leave the paste for one hour. Shape into  flat buns and coat lightly with sesame seeds.

Fry them in olive oil in batches on medium heat until golden brown. Strain on wire racks and leave them to cool. Serve with pita bread, cucumbers, lettuce and sliced fresh onion.

May 272013
 

Ibn Khaldoun

Today is the birthday (1332) of Abū Zayd ‘Abd ar-Raḥmān ibn Muḥammad ibn Khaldūn al-Ḥaḍramī (بو زيد عبد الرحمن بن محمد بن خلدون الحضرمي) commonly known as Ibn Khaldoun, one of the greatest thinkers in the fields of history, economics, sociology, and anthropology of all times, and is now rightly considered by many experts in those fields to be their great-great grandfather.  Yet most of his work remained unknown in the West for centuries until it was rediscovered in the nineteenth century when many of his fundamental ideas were reinvented by scholars.  Even now in the social sciences his name is hardly a byword.  I first learned about him in graduate school when I took a class on the pre-modern history of anthropology.  Many of his ground breaking theories are current to this day.

Ibn Khaldoun (or Ibn Khaldūn) was an Arab Muslim born in Tunis into an upper-class Andalusian family of Arab descent, the Banu Khaldūn. His family, which held many high offices in Andalusia, had emigrated to Tunisia after the fall of Seville to Reconquista forces around the middle of the 13th century. After the fall of Tunis to the sultan of Constantinople in 1352, he relocated to Fez (Morocco) where he took up the position of writer of royal proclamations for the sultan, Abu Inan Fares I.  However, he got himself in hot water fairly soon for scheming against the sultan and landed in prison for 22 months. He was released on the sultan’s death but had mixed fortunes subsequently.  He decided to move to Granada, capital of the province of Granada in Andalusia, where he expected to be well received because in his time at Fez he had assisted the sultan of Granada, Muhammad V, regain power following his exile. There he came into conflict with the sultan’s vizier and so relocated to North Africa once again where he bounced around, because of his seemingly insatiable desire to cause trouble, finally ending up in Egypt, where he died in 1406. During his time in North Africa and Egypt he mostly devoted himself to writing and some teaching.  These were the years that produced his greatest works.

His best known book is the Muqaddimah, commonly called the Prolegomena in English because it is the introductory volume in his proposed grand history of the world.  In it he lays out his basic methods and theories to be applied in the body of the work.  He starts out with a critique of previous methods in history pointing out that they are often unreliable because of 7 critical errors in method, such as writing with the purpose of currying favor with a ruler, failure to examine the reliability of sources, and bias towards a particular creed or cultural norm (what we now call ethnocentrism). My favorite of them all, the cornerstone of all cultural anthropology, is the error of  failing to place events in their proper historical and cultural contexts and, hence, failing to interpret their true meaning — a principle I live by in my own writing.

You would be amazed at the breadth of his theorizing in diverse fields, and at how well his work continues to accord with contemporary theory. In economics he expounded on markets, laws of supply and demand, labor and human capital, exchange, and the effects of taxation on productivity. In sociology and anthropology he theorized on the nature of social cohesion, the effects of nomadic versus city life on culture, and the ways in which social bonds weaken as cultures move from a subsistence base to one of surpluses, and, eventually, luxury. He proposed that this progression was the ultimate cause of the cyclic downfall of empires. His political theory might best be summarized by his definition of government: “an institution which prevents injustice other than such as it commits itself” which we must all ruefully admit is the case.   He made major contributions to the philosophy and method of history which includes such sentiments as, “History is a science,” “Myths have nothing to do with history and should be refuted,” and “To build strong historical records, the historian should rely on necessary rules for the evaluation of truth.”  Those in the know believe that Ibn Khaldoun was one of the greatest thinkers of all time.

Few people nowadays realize that what is often referred to as the “Mediterranean Diet” has strong Arab influences dating back to the Middle Ages. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Ibn Khaldoun’s ancestral, and actual, home of Andalusia in southern Spain.  This recipe is my modern adaptation from the 13th century anonymous cookbook, Kitab al-tabikh fi al-Maghrib wal-Andalus  (Book of Dishes from Morocco and Andalusia). It is for a raised dough (rather like egg bread) that is shaped into braids, shallow fried, and drizzled with scented honey then dusted with sugar. The original medieval recipe (which is typically vague about quantities and methods) calls for durum flour in preference OR plain wheat flour otherwise. You can choose your own proportions based on preference, experience with durum flour, and availability.  I prefer a 50-50 split because in bread making this makes a lighter product. The original recipe calls for both cinnamon and Chinese cinnamon.  What you buy in the stores today is Chinese cinnamon, also known as cassia. Cinnamon here means “true cinnamon” which is a different species and much more aromatic than cassia. However, you can use one or the other, or mix the two.

Dafaîr (Fried Dough Braids)

Ingredients:

Dough

10 ½ oz (300 gm) durum wheat flour, all purpose flour, or a mix of the two
¼ cup (½ dl) water
1 package ( ¼ oz/7g) fast acting yeast
2 large eggs
pinch of salt
½ tsp powdered saffron
2 oz (56 g) coarsely chopped blanched almonds
Vegetable oil for frying and coating the dough

Honey sauce

2/3 cup (1 ½ dl) honey
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tsp (50g) true cinnamon, cassia, or a mix
½ tbsp (7.5 g) finely ground lavender flowers or 1- 2 drops of lavender essential oil
caster sugar for dusting.

Instructions:

Put the yeast into a cup with 2 tablespoons of lukewarm water. Stir and let it sit for 5 minutes.

Put the flour and salt in a bowl and incorporate the water little by little. Then add the yeast.  Knead until the dough is elastic.

Pour the saffron into a bowl with the two eggs and beat the mixture thoroughly. Then pour it over the dough, add the almonds and mix them well together. Knead the dough again for a few minutes to be sure all the ingredients are evenly distributed.  Oil the surface of the dough and place it in a clean bowl. Cover with a moist towel and leave it to rise in a warm place.

It should take about an hour for the dough to double in size but you should check it periodically starting after 45 minutes. If a finger pressed into the dough springs back immediately it has not proofed enough. If a finger causes an indentation that remains it has proofed too long.  You ought to be able to press in and have the dough spring back after about 5 seconds. Then it is ready.

While the dough is rising, gently heat the honey so that it is slightly more runny than when cold.  Add the cinnamon, as much ground black pepper as suits your tastes, and the lavender. If you are using lavender oil, add one drop and check for flavor.  Add one drop more if the flavor is too light. Keep warm.

Divide the dough into six portions. Sprinkle the worktop and your hands with flour. Take one portion of the dough and keep the rest covered with a towel. Roll and manipulate the dough until you have a thin sausage about 15 inches long. Cut this in three equal lengths and braid them together, pinching both ends when you are done.  Repeat for the other five portions. Let the braids rest for 15 minutes.

While the braids are resting, pour vegetable oil into a heavy skillet to a depth of about ½ inch and heat until it reaches 340 F (170 C).

Place the braids gently into the skillet without overcrowding. You may need to do this in batches. Fry them  to a golden brown on the bottom , then flip them and cook the other side in the same way.

Place the cooked braids on racks over trays to drain. Don’t use paper towels because then they just continue to sit in the oil. You may pat them with paper towels though.

When the braids have drained, drizzle with the spiced honey, and sprinkle lightly with caster sugar.

Yield: 6