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Crusader

Does the word "sugar" come from southern Jordan?

As I've mentioned before, my research on copper production has led me to be more interested in the history and archaeology of sugar production than I otherwise might be. This interest has exposed me, on several occasions, to a wonderful etymology for the English word "sugar." Allow me to present a brief outline:At some point in the second millennium AD, the technology of sugar production made its way west into the southern Levant, where sugar became a lucrative cash crop in Galilee, the Jordan Valley, and – the important part for our story – the lowlands (aghwar; أغوار) around the Dead Sea (the exact date is a bit unclear, but some time in the 12th century AD is likely for the area around the Dead Sea). One of the key centers of this production was a town to the southeast of the Dead Sea, in Ghawr al-Safi, known then as Zughar. Zughar produced a lot of high-quality sugar, some of which was exported to Europe. Because of its quality, or the amount they produced, or whatever else, the name of the town became so closely associated with sugar that people simply began using the name of the town to refer to the sweetener.It's a neat story, especially for those of us who work in southern Jordan, as it confirms our suspicion that our research area is the center of the world. That's not to say that Zughar wasn't an important place, of course. 19th century scholars like Le Strange (1890:287) noted that, "[t]o the Arab Mediaeval writers, Zughar, the City of Lot, was as well known a place as Jerusalem or Damascus," which isn't that much of an exaggeration. Al-Muqaddasī (1896:2), for example, calls the town a "little Busrah."Getting back on track, I've always wanted to repeat this story, but two things have stopped me from doing so. First, it's simply too good a story, which raises my suspicions. Things that seem too good to be true, as the old adage goes, probably are. Second, it's difficult to trace the origins of the story. For example, the Rough Guide to Jordan tells the story and attributes it to a museum display. Politis repeats the story in brief reports in the AJA and the ACOR Newsletter, but doesn't give a source (Politis 1999:519; Politis 2010:4). I'm sure I've seen it in other sources (and I've been told the story in person on several occasions), but it's difficult to make much sense of where it came from, and I've been looking.I was rather content to regard this story as probably apocryphal without looking into it too much, but this quarter I'm TAing for a world history/writing course covering the period from 1200-1750 AD. One of the themes of this course is the commodification of luxury goods in the Early Modern period, and sugar is, of course, one of the goods that we're discussing. I'm certainly no linguist, but I have a passing interest in etymologies (and I enjoy ruining everyone's fun), so I decided to look into this one a bit to see if there was anything to it (tl;dr version: not really).My first thought, before really looking into it, was that the word for "sugar" is more or less the same in most languages I'm familiar with, including Arabic, and a quick look at the OED more or less confirms this. The first example given in the etymology for "sugar" is the French sucre, and most European languages seem to use basically the same word, derived from the Arabic sukkar (سكر). The exceptions are, of course, English, which replaces the "k" sound with a "g," and Spanish and Portuguese, which also include the Arabic definite article (in Arabic, al-Sukkar (السكر) is read "as-sukkar"). (Messner [1992] points out that leaving the article off is characteristic of Arabic words coming through Italian, apparently.) Ultimately, the Arabic word is derived from a Persian word, which in turn comes from an older Sanskrit word. All of this took place before sugar was produced in Zughar, so already things aren't looking good for our story. Let's not stop there, though.It's still possible that European sources conflated the two words (sukkar and Zughar), linking the two as sugar became more common in Europe. This also seems unlikely. As one example, William of Tyre's Historia refers to the town as "Segor" (see here, Book 10, section VII), but calls sugar zachara (unfortunately this isn't in the Fordham Medieval Sourcebook version, but see here, for example). It doesn't seem likely, then, that these two were closely associated, at least in William of Tyre's mind.The only thing we're really left with is the anomalous English word, with its "g" sound. As the OED notes, though, this isn't entirely uncommon in English, either. The word "flagon," for example, is derived from the Old French word flacon, and even in Middle English was flakon. It seems much easier to attribute the English word "sugar" to this change, rather than to an association with a town that most people in England were certainly unaware of.I wonder, to some extent, if the origins of this story don't have as much to do with the true etymology of the English word "sugar" as they do with a bit of clever wordplay on the name of the town. Obviously there's the "Sugar from a town called Sugar? No Way!" response that we can imagine. Beyond that, though, there's this excerpt from Yāqūt in Le Strange (1890:291): "The name of Zughar, according to the same authorities, is also spelt Sughar and Sukar." It seems fairly straightforward, then, to assume some connection between sukkar and Sukar. The hint to what's going on here, though, is in the fact that Le Strange also calls Yāqūt "Yakut," and generally transcribes the Arabic letter qaf as "k." What he's saying, then, is not that the town is also known as Sukar (سكر) but Suqar (سقر). And therein lies the punchline.You see, one of the sources that gives this alternate name is al-Muqaddasī, who quips, "The people of the two neighbouring districts call the town Sakar" – (read: Saqar, سقر) – "(that is, 'Hell'); and a native of Jerusalem was wont to write from here to his friends, addressing 'From the lower Sakar (Hell) unto those in the upper Firdûs (Paradise)'" (1896:62). So it seems that Zughar was closely associated with hell before they ever produced sugar there. If you've ever been through Ghawr al-Safi in summer, of course, you know this is pretty accurate.Overall, it doesn't seem like there's very much truth to this story. I definitely don't blame people for repeating it. It's certainly, to borrow a term from journalism, a story that's too good to check. Of course, it often turns out when you do check them that they're too good to be true, as well.Works CitedLe Strange, Guy1890 Palestine under the Moslems: A Description of Syria and the Holy Land from A.D. 650 to 1500. London: Alexander P. Watt.Messner, Dieter1992 Further Listings and Categorisations of Arabic Words in Ibero-Romance Languages. In The Legacy of Muslim Spain. S.K. Jayyusi, ed. Pp. 452-456. Leiden: Brill.al-Muqaddasi1896 Description of Syria, Including Palestine. In The Library of the Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, Vol. III. Pp. 1-103. New York: AMS Press.Politis, Konstantinos D.1999 Deir 'Ain 'Abata and the Ghor es-Safi. Pp. 518-520 in Archaeology in Jordan. Virginia Egan and Patricia Bikai, eds. American Journal of Archaeology 103(3):485-520.Politis, Konstantinos D.2010 Ancient Landscapes of the Ghor es-Sāfī: Surveys and Excavations 1997-2009. ACOR Newsletter 22(2):1-5.

Filling gaps in Middle Islamic settlement

My colleague and good friend Kyle Knabb just posted an abstract for a paper he's giving at the SAAs in Honolulu this year, and I thought, "Oh, I'm also presenting half of that paper. I should probably mention it."So, as Kyle said, we're working together right now to analyze some of the pottery from an intensive survey he led in Wadi al-Faydh, near Petra, in 2009. I was a member of his survey team, so it's exciting to get to analyze a lot of this material finally. As Kyle also mentioned, the majority of the assemblage is made up of rather coarse hand-made pottery (how coarse, you ask? Here's an example collected in Petra by the International Wadi Farasa Project, which gives you an idea of what we're talking about). In addition to not being the most attractive pottery (though I would argue that it has its charms), much of it is also rather difficult to date, especially when it comes from surveys, rather than excavations. One of our arguments, however, is that recent (and in some cases not-so-recent) excavations have produced evidence that enables us to date some of the ceramics Kyle found – especially some distinctive decorated forms – to the 11th and early 12th centuries AD.Our abstract begins with a related problem, which is that evidence of settlement during this period has been somewhat tricky to actually find. To get an idea of this, we just have to check out the DAAHL's (that's the Digital Archaeological Atlas of the Holy Land, for those not yet in the know) Archaeological Periods page. If you zoom to the study area and select Fatimid or Crusader, you see relatively little settlement. If you click Ayyubid, Ayyubid/Mamluk, or Mamluk, the picture is different (and this is also true if you select 'Abbasid/Fatimid, actually). If, as we're going to argue, many ceramics of the Fatimid and Crusader periods have been misclassified as Ayyubid/Mamluk – especially in the south – we have to wonder how good our understanding of settlement patterns in the Middle Islamic I (1000-1200 AD) actually is.These dating concerns have implications beyond simply establishing the chronology of settlement in the region. The biggest issue for me is that sites which weren't occupied during the same period obviously can't be directly connected to one another. This is important for reconstructing local patterns of trade, and one of the things I'm concerned with in terms of my work in Faynan. As the dating of sites becomes more precise, connections that seemed obvious when all the ceramics were lumped together as "Ayyubid/Mamluk" suddenly disappear. But that's a different story for another day. . .

Why open-access is a good idea

There's a specific type of work that I often like to do during my morning coffee drinking/news reading ritual.  It's a kind of low-intensity reading of things that are interesting, but only marginally related to my current projects.  This morning, that took the form of reading a few pieces of William of Tyre's Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum, a 12th century account of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.  (Parts of it are available in translation here, if you're interested.)  This inspired me to check Google Books to see if they had a preview of a book I was looking for, so I wouldn't have to go to the library to get it.  They didn't, but the search also turned up a book I hadn't heard of before: Unknown Crusader Castles by Kristian Molin.  I have no idea whether this book is good or bad, as I only found out about it this morning, but it sounds like something that would have some appeal even beyond an academic audience (or would, at least, if it were available as anything but a $220 hardcover. . . another downside of many academic publishers).So, to determine whether I had much interest in tracking it down, I went looking for some book reviews. The second Google Scholar result was, indeed, a book review, in The English Historical Review.  I clicked the review and met, to my surprise, an Ingenta paywall.  This wouldn't have surprised me, except that I was already logged into my university VPN, and know I have several EHR papers in my Papers library.  Moreover, our library pays for access to a number of journals I regularly read through Ingenta.  But no, Ingenta wanted $36 for a two-page book review.  That wasn't going to happen, so I figured I would try JSTOR, but didn't have any luck there, either, since the review was from the year after the JSTOR cutoff.  Finally, I did the sensible thing and searched my university library's catalog, and found that we subscribe to the EHR through four services, including JSTOR, but that Ingenta isn't one of them.  In the end, it took far more time to actually track down the review than it did to read it.There are a few things wrong with this picture, but the one that really stands out to me is that Ingenta wanted $36 for a copy of this review.  I understand that the per-article fees are designed to encourage subscription, rather than to actually give access to individual papers, but that's an outrageous amount of money for two pages of book review.  In this case, too, it really highlights the problem everyone seems to have brought up with academic publishing: there's really no way for anyone to have access to a lot of this stuff unless they're affiliated with a research institution that has a good library.  Even for the most interested non-academic, buying a $36 book review to determine whether you should buy a $220 book isn't worth it.

You always have friends in Acre

This AP story promoting travel to Acre got forwarded around various archaeology lists the other day, and it got me thinking about my visit to Acre in 2009.  I was digging at Tell es-Safi at the time (there's a Crusader castle there, too, called Blanche Garde, although the current excavations focus on the earlier periods), and four of us decided to take a trip to see a few sites in northern Israel, including Acre, Caesarea Maritima, and Megiddo.  Acre was definitely a memorable place, and I'd say it's certainly worth a visit if you get a chance.The history of the site is, of course, fascinating.  As the article mentions, it was an important Frankish port up until its destruction in the late 13th century by the Mamluks, as part of a larger campaign wherein they destroyed nearly every Mediterranean port in the Levant (Gaza being the one exception).  Following that (and its abandonment in the 14th century), the city went through some ups and downs in the Late Islamic (Ottoman) period, and there are a few interesting stories there.  Notably, it was briefly a holding of Fakhr ad-Din II, starting in 1610.  Hartal (1997:111) describes that situation like this:

Following Fahr ed-Dîn's conquest of the city in 1610, he cleaned the harbor, renewed maritime trade, enlarged the city, and built some new buildings . . . In 1613, however, when the Ottoman Turks campaigned against him, Fahr ed-Dîn ordered the harbor to be filled in and had the city devastated.
I've always found this to be an amusing story, in a way.  In 1610, he cleans the harbor and expands the city, and three years later fills the harbor in and destroys part of the city.  There's also the story, mentioned in the AP article, of Napoleon's failed attempt to take the city in 1799, when it was controlled by Jazzar Pasha.  Al-Jazzar (الجزار), incidentally, is not a very nice nickname; it means "the butcher."  After Napoleon's unsuccessful siege, Jazzar Pasha understandably decided to fortify the city, using stone taken from the Crusader city as well as 'Atlit castle (Hartal 1997:112; generally, Hartal [1997] has a good, brief discussion of the post-Crusader architectural history of the city).Reading the story, though, I decided to go back and look at the photos I'd taken while I was there.  Of course, I got some nice, scenic shots of the city, like this one:Acre HarborLike most of coastal Israel, it really is a beautiful place.  I definitely wouldn't mind spending more time there.I also took quite a few photos of buildings in the Crusader city, like this one:AcreThis isn't the most interesting photo I've ever taken, but if you look at it closely you get some hints at the construction phases of the building.Then there's this one, taken in the refectory (dining hall) of the Hospitaller fortress in the old city:Acre, Crusader refectoryOh, hello there. . . didn't see you guys up there before.
1997     Hartal, MosheExcavation of the Courthouse Site at 'Akko: Summary and Historical Discussion. 'Atiqot 31:109-114.