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Volume 29, Number 5September/October 1978

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The Iceman Cameth

Written by Paul Lunde
Illustrated by Brian Smith

Nowadays it is difficult to conceive of life in the Middle East without refrigeration and air-conditioning. As one benefit of the huge modernization programs that most Arab countries have launched, particularly in the last decade, such luxuries as refrigerators, freezers and air-conditioning units have become common.

In other eras, to be sure, the Arabs had found ways of beating the heat - some of them ingenious. The traditional architecture of the Arabs, for example, eased the intense summer heat with thick walls, shady gardens and, in many residences, a central courtyard with fountains. Arab architects also provided high-ceilinged rooms, small windows and, in some areas, clever wind-traps, or towers, on the roof to conduct currents of cooling air through hollow conduits built into the walls (see Aramco World, September-October 1972). Another ingenious device to make life bearable during the summer was the lovely mashrabiyah, a handsome wooden screen that deflected the sun, admitted stray breezes into homes and, by channeling the wind across clay pots of cool water, provided an effective form of air conditioning (see Aramco World, July-August 1974).

Architecture alone, however, could not provide that greatest luxury of high summer: a cool drink. To solve that problem, the Arabs had to adapt methods developed in ancient China.

During the Tang dynasty, which was contemporary with the great efflorescence of Arab culture during the Umayyad and early Abbasid periods, the Chinese developed sophisticated methods of food preservation. In the ninth century A.D. watermelons from Khwarizm, now the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, were regularly transported all the way to the imperial capital of China; they were packed in ice inside lead containers. This practice - and others, such as keeping perishable foods in ice-houses and ice-pits during the summer - was widespread in ancient China, and to make it possible the Chinese, each winter, cut 1,000 blocks of ice, 1½ feet thick and 3 feet square, in the mountains and shipped them to the capital. Even flowers were exported great distances, their cut stems sealed with wax and their petals packed in ice, and tangerines were individually wrapped in paper to protect them from bruising during transport

According to medieval Arab historians, al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, the formidable Umayyad governor of Iraq, was the first to adapt such developments to the needs of the new Arab empire; he eventually established a regular trade in snow and ice, importing it from the mountains of Lebanon and even from the Caucasus. On the principle used later to make ice cream, the ice was packed in salt to prevent it from melting on the way, and carried on camel back to a central ice-house in Kufah, then the governor's residence. And by the ninth century AD., the 'Abbasids were able to enjoy an almost inexhaustible supply of chilled melons and iced drinks. It was during these years too that sherbets were invented - an English name that comes ultimately from the Arabic sharab, meaning drink.

The Iraqis and Syrians, of course, had access, within a reasonable distance, to mountains where there was snow most of the year. Yet even the Egyptians, more than 1,000 miles from the nearest source of ice, had ice during the Mamluk era. They obtained it by developing a fleet of refrigerator ships specially designed to transport ice and snow from the mountains of Lebanon.

These ships, which presumably carried the ice packed in salt and straw, docked at Damietta, at the mouth of the Nile, from where the cargo was conveyed upriver to Bulaq and then stored in the sharab-khanah, the "Storehouse of Beverages" of the Mamluk sultans. The refrigerator ships were manned by trained "snowmen" (thallaj), whose duty it was to make sure the ice didn't melt before it reached its destination.

Under the Mamluks special corps of camel couriers were also developed to transport ice overland -presumably to guarantee the supply in case the refrigeratorships met with accident.

In time, the snow trade became independent of royal authority and ice was sold at a relatively low price in the streets of Damascus, Cairo and Aleppo. It became so important, in fact that the snow merchants formed their own guilds and were mentioned in poems and chronicles of the age.

Ice, eventually, came to be seen as an important medicine as well as a preservative and was even used as a local anesthetic in minor operations. But for most peoples of the Arab East it was quite simply a lovely luxury that enabled them to enjoy iced melons, cool drinks and - surely one of the great contributions to civilization - ice cream.

Paul Lunde, a graduate of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, is a staff writer for Aramco World Magazine.

This article appeared on pages 2-3 of the September/October 1978 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1978 images.