‘Wars are won in peace’
In addition to grain, survival of the Romans also heavily depended upon the availability of spices. Fortunately or unfortunately, like the present day oil, the Middle East then had some ‘Arabian Spice Kingdoms’ and so on Caesar Augustus’s orders, those ‘Spice Kingdoms’ were brought under the Roman yoke
Discovery of oil in the Middle East shaped its life and politics during the past about one hundred years. While it enhanced the wealth and power of some countries, it also unduly attracted interference of some big world bullies such as the UK, USA and Russia. The big powers pursue their own agenda that complicates the local politics. Such complications lead to rivalries and military conflicts and the Mideast has had its fair share of wars. More than anything else, to use the classical English poet John Donne’s expression, the Middle East has been “undone” by its oil.
Even in antiquity, the Middle East could not keep itself in peace from the prying eyes of foreigners, situated as it has been on the highways and byways of the East and the West. For many centuries, it was ravaged by Roman Emperors, not for oil, but for grain to feed their burgeoning populations and survival became critical for the Middle Easterners especially in times of climate shifts when the summers became cool and the winters became dry in the West because then the Romans squeezed out whatever they could to save themselves from starvation.
In addition to grain, survival of the Romans also heavily depended upon the availability of spices. Fortunately or unfortunately, like the present day oil, the Middle East then had some ‘Arabian Spice Kingdoms’ and so on Caesar Augustus’s orders, those ‘Spice Kingdoms’ were brought under the Roman yoke. Despite this, the Arabs retained the monopoly over the spice trade in the seas which too was broken by the Roman navy. Apart from spices, the Middle East supplied many vital items to savour the tastes of the Europeans such as Chinese silks, Egyptian linen, Calicut cloth, paper, cotton, books, rare woods, perfumes, sugar and the Syrian wine to name a few. Moreover, the Mideast fueled as well as satiated the Roman passions for the ‘Great Games’ which required the provision of exotic wild animals. There was a tremendous demand in the Roman Empire and the Middle Eastern markets catered well by providing lions and tigers from India, Africa and the Caspian Sea region; horses from Central Asia, camels, steppe ponies and wild goats from Bactria in northern Afghanistan, crocodiles from the Nile and even antelopes, zebras and dolphins.
These ‘Great Games’ often witnessed the struggle between men and beasts. Equally ferocious was the ‘game of death’ played by one ambitious ruler after the other throughout the history of this region. When foreign adventurers in the form of Mongols, Romans and sundry Europeans had their fill; the ambitious Middle Easterners fell upon one another be it the pharaohs of Egypt, the Khusros of Persia or the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire.
The Middle East comprises several countries, inhabited by people speaking different languages and practising distinct cultures. There can be no discussion of Middle East without Persia yet Persia has never allowed itself to be submerged by the greater Arabian culture. In 642 AD, the Arabs subjugated Persia despite frantic Persian pleas for help to the Chinese. Almost a millennium later, the Persians fought a successful fifteen-year war with the Ottoman Empire for their survival. Earlier on, the Persians fought a nineteen-year war of survival against the Byzantine Empire. SaudiArabia will find today’s Persia (Iran) a hard nut to crack in the present day Saudi – Iranian struggle for ascendancy in the Middle East. The baggage of history is just too heavy to be jerked off lightly.
Another permanent source of conflict in the Middle East has been the city of Jerusalem. It has been conquered and liberated by the competing forces on many occasions. Before becoming a bone of contention between the Jews and the Muslims, this city remained a cause of enmity between the Romans and the Jews. Today, the Jews of Israel look upon themselves as a part of the Western world; yesterday, they were the first to rebel against the Roman rule which they viewed as alien Western rule and to punish them, not only did the Romans destroy Jerusalem but the new city that they built over its ruins completely barred the Jews from entry. Starting in 1095 AD, the next one hundred and fifty years witnessed eight Crusades including a Children’s Crusade between the Christians and the Muslims during which the control of Jerusalem changed hands between the people of these two faiths. The notion behind Children’s Crusades was that their innocence would be able to achieve what the senior Crusaders could not accomplish by the force of arms. Lives of over fifty thousand crusading children were ruined because those who survived hunger and exhaustion were kidnapped to be sold either as slaves or prostitutes in Rome, Naples and Spain.
From time to time, disease and epidemics also took a heavy toll of life in the Middle East. During the Third Crusade, more Crusaders were killed by dysentery and famine than on battlefields. Moreover, about a quarter of the Crusaders fell victim to the outbreak of the bubonic plague in the Fourth Crusade. Furthermore, in the Seventh Crusade, the march of the crusading armies was hampered by typhoid fever and scurvy whereas their horses shipped from Europe suffered from thrush which infected the hooves. The Crusading armies also became carriers of the leprosy disease from the ME into Europe during the thirteenth century.
One should not try to read too much into these diseases during the Crusades because history has faithfully recorded occurrence of epidemics before and after he Crusades as well. For example, the ME was hit by an epidemic of plague in 541 AD which significantly cut back Roman Emperor Justinian’s military ambitions whereas the outbreak of another bubonic plague in Constantinople completely decimated the army of Roman Emperor Constantine V.
Sometimes the sudden appearance of these diseases served to stop the ongoing military or religious conflicts. The Persian persecution and forcible conversion of the Christians into Zoroastrianism halted with the outbreak of smallpox in AD 460 that was followed by a famine of three years. A thousand years later, Persia was hit by Bone Fever that spread far and wide into Afghanistan and the land of the Golden Horde in the Mongol Empire. The typhus fever having its origin in Cyprus in the twilight years of the fifteenth century caused the death of about 12 percent people in Italy, Spain and France. Two centuries ago, a deadly bubonic plague having erupted in northern and central China reached the Middle East through the Silk Road and from its commercial ports of Black Sea entered Europe and in the next twenty-five years wiped out a third of the European population.
There is a lot more to learn through this time travel in ME. The region has had its ups and downs but thecenturies old rivalries and animosities have remained the same more or less. The conflict over Jerusalem continues to this day. The imperial conquerors of yester years like Alexander the Great, Hulagu Khan and Tamerlane continue to reappear today in the form of Bushes and Blairs. When not attacked by outsiders, the Middle Easterners slit one another’s throats. Currently, the Arabs (Saudis) and the Persians (Iranians) have locked horns in the war theatres of Yemen and Syria without realising that the “wars are won in peace.” It is time for the Middle East to get out of the time it has been stuck in for centuries and move on like the rest of the world.