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Volume 55, Number 6November/December 2004

In This Issue

Flavors 2005, Gregorian and Hijri Calendars
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Worlds of Flavor

Arab cooking is as various as the Arabs themselves. What else would you expect from a people who fish in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Arabian Gulf and the Indian Ocean? Who farm the slopes of the Atlas, the banks of the Nile, the terraces of Mount Lebanon, below sea level at Jericho, on the wide plains of Syria and Iraq and in the hothouse oases of Arabia? Who have traded since time immemorial with China, India, the Spice Islands, Zanzibar, Samarkand and the West? Who once ruled Persia, parts of the Byzantine Empire, Sicily, Spain, Berbers, Nubians and Kurds, and who were themselves partially conquered by Mongols, Normans, Seljuk and Ottoman Turks, Portuguese, Italians, French and English?

Of course there is a certain unity in the diversity. The ubiquity of rice is one of the ties that bind. Another is the tomato–onion–garlic–olive-oil culture of the Mediterranean. The kindness of the climate produces the same fruits—oranges, lemons, grapes, apricots, dates, figs—almost everywhere, or at least close by, while the harshness of the terrain forces a reliance on the hardy sheep and goat for meat and milk. A surprising unity in the arts of good living, including cooking, was bequeathed by 500 years of Ottoman rule. And even a negative unity is imposed by religion, which removes pork from the menu and wine from the cooking pot.

But in food, diversity is the spice of life. Changing one ingredient—substituting olive oil for butter, cracked wheat for rice, coriander for parsley—can transform a dish. The many ways of treating chicken—with pickled lemons in Morocco, with onions and sumac in Jordan, with walnuts in the dish known as Circassian chicken or, most surprisingly, turned into a sweet dessert in Istanbul—show what variations can be played on a single theme.

In most of North Africa, the culinary tradition is Arabo-Berber with a Turkish overlay. The distinctive dish is couscous—steamed grains of semolina—used as a base for a wide range of dishes, from fish and meat stews to spicy fruit-and-nut desserts. Further east, the Egyptians still enjoy the beans, onions, garlic and cabbage that appear on wall paintings in pharaonic tombs 4000 years old, and make a national dish of mulukhiyah—a thick, dark-green sauce flavoring chicken, lamb or rabbit.

Moving northward up the Mediterranean shore, we come to that great network of rivers—the Euphrates, Tigris, Orontes and Jordan—that water the valleys and plains of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq. This region is a vegetarian’s paradise, with a seasonal procession of fruits and vegetables, cereals and fragrant herbs.

Complementary to the fertile river valleys, the neighboring deserts have produced a tasty cuisine of necessity: chunks of meat skewered and roasted over hot coals, a bird sheathed in clay and left among the ashes, lamb boiled in ewe’s milk, succulent desert truffles, dates and coffee—the last short, sharp and astringent with the flavor of cardamom. And especially on the eastern fringes of the Arabian Peninsula, the spices of India seduce the tongue, brought by the monsoon winds aboard trading dhows.

Persian cuisine, with its luxury and elaboration, has been famous since antiquity, and its influence has been felt throughout the region. Turkey has injected its textures, colors and harmonies of taste wherever the Osmanl¦s penetrated, leaving a legacy of dishes, some of a Byzantine subtlety, in Arab cities as far apart as Tunis and Jiddah. Yet they also brought the cleanest taste of all—yogurt, or laban in Arabic—from their Mongol past.

Most important, the Arabs, Turks and Persians still show an old-world respect for food—for the ingredients, the preparation and the act of eating, as well as for the eater. They search out the best raw materials, each cook having his or her favorite and often secret source of olive oil, goat cheese, apples or kanafi. The menu is seasonal, the strawberries or zucchini tasting all the sweeter for the short time there is to enjoy them. The cook is still willing to take infinite pains and usually follows her or his mother’s or grandmother’s recipe.

With such a cornucopia of delights to choose from, it has been difficult to select only seven images—not even enough for appetizers!—to represent the flavors of the Arab and Muslim worlds. Yet we hope that they will indeed serve as appetizers, encouraging our readers in their own culinary explorations.


Converting Dates

The following equations convert roughly from Gregorian to hijri and vice versa. However, the results can be slightly misleading: They tell you only the year in which the other calendar’s year began. For example, 2005 Gregorian spans both 1425 and 1426 hijri, but the equation tells you that 2005 “equals” 1426, when in fact 1426 merely began during 2005.

Gregorian year = [(32 x hijri year) ÷ 33] + 622

hijri year = [(Gregorian Year – 622) x 33] ÷ 32

Alternatively, there are more precise calculators available on the Internet: Try
www.rabiah.com/convert/ and www.ori.unizh.ch/hegira.html.

Patterns of Moon, Patterns of Sun

By Paul Lunde

The hijri calendar

In AD 638, six years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam’s second caliph ‘Umar recognized the necessity of a calendar to govern the affairs of the Muslims. This was first of all a practical matter. Correspondence with military and civilian officials in the newly conquered lands had to be dated. But Persia used a different calendar from Syria, where the caliphate was based; Egypt used yet another. Each of these calendars had a different starting point, or epoch. The Sasanids, the ruling dynasty of Persia, used June 16, AD 632, the date of the accession of the last Sasanid monarch, Yazdagird III. Syria, which until the Muslim conquest was part of the Byzantine Empire, used a form of the Roman “Julian” calendar, with an epoch of October 1, 312 BC. Egypt used the Coptic calendar, with an epoch of August 29, AD 284. Although all were solar, and hence geared to the seasons and containing 365 days, each also had a different system for periodically adding days to compensate for the fact that the true length of the solar year is not 365 but 365.2422 days.

In pre-Islamic Arabia, various other systems of measuring time had been used. In South Arabia, some calendars apparently were lunar, while others were lunisolar, using months based on the phases of the moon but intercalating days outside the lunar cycle to synchronize the calendar with the seasons. On the eve of Islam, the Himyarites appear to have used a calendar based on the Julian form, but with an epoch of 110 BC. In central Arabia, the course of the year was charted by the position of the stars relative to the horizon at sunset or sunrise, dividing the ecliptic into 28 equal parts corresponding to the location of the moon on each successive night of the month. The names of the months in that calendar have continued in the Islamic calendar to this day and would seem to indicate that, before Islam, some sort of lunisolar calendar was in use, though it is not known to have had an epoch other than memorable local events.

There were two other reasons ‘Umar rejected existing solar calendars. The Qur’an, in Chapter 10 Verse 5, states that time should be reckoned by the moon. Not only that, calendars used by the Persians, Syrians and Egyptians were identified with other religions and cultures. He therefore decided to create a calendar specifically for the Muslim community. It would be lunar, and it would have 12 months, each with 29 or 30 days.

Though they share 12 lunar cycles—months—per solar year, the hijri calendar uses actual moon phases to mark them, whereas the Gregorian calendar adjusts its nearly lunar months to synchronize with the sun.This gives the lunar year 354 days, 11 days fewer than the solar year. ‘Umar chose as the epoch for the new Muslim calendar the hijrah, the emigration of the Prophet Muhammad and 70 Muslims from Makkah to Madinah, where Muslims first attained religious and political autonomy. The hijrah thus occurred on 1 Muharram 1 according to the Islamic calendar, which was named “hijri” after its epoch. (This date corresponds to July 16, AD 622 on the Gregorian calendar.) Today in the West, it is customary, when writing hijri dates, to use the abbreviation AH, which stands for the Latin anno hegirae, “year of the hijrah.”

Because the Islamic lunar calendar is 11 days shorter than the solar, it is therefore not synchronized to the seasons. Its festivals, which fall on the same days of the same lunar months each year, make the round of the seasons every 33 solar years. This 11-day difference between the lunar and the solar year accounts for the difficulty of converting dates from one system to the other.

The Gregorian calendar

The early calendar of the Roman Empire was lunisolar, containing 355 days divided into 12 months beginning on January 1. To keep it more or less in accord with the actual solar year, a month was added every two years. The system for doing so was complex, and cumulative errors gradually misaligned it with the seasons. By 46 BC, it was some three months out of alignment, and Julius Caesar oversaw its reform. Consulting Greek astronomers in Alexandria, he created a solar calendar in which one day was added to February every fourth year, effectively compensating for the solar year’s length of 365.2422 days. This Julian calendar was used throughout Europe until AD 1582.

In the Middle Ages, the Christian liturgical calendar was grafted onto the Julian one, and the computation of lunar festivals like Easter, which falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, exercised some of the best minds in Christendom. The use of the epoch AD 1 dates from the sixth century, but did not become common until the 10th. Because the zero had not yet reached the West from Islamic lands, a year was lost between 1 BC and AD 1.

The Julian year was nonetheless 11 minutes and 14 seconds too long. By the early 16th century, due to the accumulated error, the spring equinox was falling on March 11 rather than where it should, on March 21. Copernicus, Christophorus Clavius and the physician Aloysius Lilius provided the calculations, and in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII ordered that Thursday, October 4, 1582 would be followed by Friday, October 15, 1582. Most Catholic countries accepted the new “Gregorian” calendar, but it was not adopted in England and the Americas until the 18th century. Its use is now almost universal worldwide. The Gregorian year is nonetheless 25.96 seconds ahead of the solar year, which by the year 4909 will add up to an extra day.

Historian Paul Lunde ([email protected]) specializes in Islamic history and literature. His most recent book is Islam: Culture, Faith and History (2001, Dorling Kindersley).

This article appeared on pages 17-32 of the November/December 2004 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 2004 images.