There are many ways to celebrate a military victory -- you can sack a city, purge your opponents, or put on a flight suit and strut around an aircraft carrier. In August 2006, I was in Lebanon, where bridges, highways, and entire neighborhoods had been smashed to rubble in the war between Israel and the Iran-backed Shiite militia Hezbollah. Just after the cease-fire, I got an email from a friend in Tehran: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had celebrated the "divine victory" over Israel by treating his subjects to what he claimed was the world's largest grilled kebab. The "victory kebab" was 21 long feet of juicy, meaty celebration -- a display of raw carnal politics that would have made a 19th-century New York Tammany ward boss proud.
Inside the Middle East's defiant kitchens.
By Anna Badkhen
We tend to speak of food in benevolent terms, as the social glue that binds us together. But in the wrong hands, food can be a weapon. A piece of meat can say: "I own you." Bread obligates. Generosity creates dependence. The Romans were not the first rulers to rely on bread and circuses to prolong their rule, and they won't be the last. Modern-day Middle Eastern dictators have been particularly insistent practitioners of the art of using food to maintain their power, from Saddam Hussein's self-serving and corrupt use of the United Nations' oil-for-food program to the food subsidies that for years helped prop up Egypt's Hosni Mubarak -- until they didn't. Food's persuasive hold over loyalty has its limits, but in the long tradition of Middle Eastern food imperialism, those limits have been reached on very few, and very brief, occasions.
Ahmadinejad's victory grill was part of a tradition going back centuries to an ancient feast called a simat. A simat was a massive public banquet served by a king, a sultan, or a caliph: not just food, but propaganda -- an edible reminder of exactly who buttered your bread. The first such meal that we know of was the banquet of Ashurnasirpal II, an Assyrian king whose empire spanned Iraq, the Levant, and parts of Turkey, Egypt, and Iran. Around 869 B.C., he inaugurated a new palace on the banks of the Tigris, in what is now Nimrud, Iraq, and decided to hold a massive housewarming party.
Ashurnasirpal was a master food propagandist. Wherever he conquered, he collected seeds, like an imperial Johnny Appleseed. He left us a clay tablet enumerating his accomplishments, both military and agricultural: "I provided the lowlands along the Tigris with irrigation; I planted orchards at [the city's] outskirts." And he listed each of the trees he brought back "from the countries through which I marched and the mountains which I crossed."
The fruits of his conquest included fig, plum, pomegranate, pistachio, pear, and 29 others. "They vied with each other in fragrance," he boasted of his trees, whose pomegranates "glow in the pleasure garden like the stars in the sky." Ashurnasirpal's victory garden was a microcosm of his far-flung empire -- a fertile, edible map of his power.
For his housewarming banquet, which lasted 10 days, the king summoned 69,574 guests from all corners of his empire. No guest list survives, but given that one of his successors dined underneath the severed head of an Elamite king, mounted on a pole above the dinner table, attendance at an Assyrian banquet was probably less than optional.
According to the tablet, Ashurnasirpal's guests feasted on 2,200 head of cattle, 27,000 sheep and lambs, 1,000 stags and gazelles, 34,000 birds, 10,000 eggs, 10,000 assorted fish, 10,000 jerboa (like a tiny kangaroo), 1,000 crates of vegetables, 300 jars of oil, 100 pistachio cones, 11,000 jars of beer, and 10,000 skins of wine -- among other things. After the banquet the Assyrian king anointed his guests with oil and sent them back to their homelands, "healthy and happy."
Ashurnasirpal understood something about empire, which is that it spreads by the seed as much as by the sword. The ancient Athenians knew this too, which is why they required their citizens to swear loyalty to a country defined as wherever wheat, vines, and olives grew; spreading these crops, and their cultivation, meant expanding Athenian rule. If you happen to read the infamous memos released by WikiLeaks in which U.S. diplomats try to convince European leaders to accept the American corporation Monsanto's genetically modified crops, remember Ashurnasirpal and his orchard.
The early caliphs of Islam learned this lesson too. As the new faith marched across Asia and even into Europe, its armies rode a wave of innovation that historians now call the "Arab agricultural revolution." The caliphs spread the long-standing Middle Eastern practice of irrigation to the countries they conquered; from the East, they brought back spinach, eggplant, oranges, limes, and other booty.