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Middle East Kavitha Dispatch

Seeds of a Revolution
February 9, 2000

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It's freezing here!
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Brrrrrrrr...Brian and I shiver as we swiftly walk through the snow-covered streets of Anadolu Hisari on the Asian side of Istanbul. Across the cold gray waters of the Bosphorus River, the homes on the European side look like rows of gingerbread houses covered in white icing. Small white flakes continue to fall...piling on top of the foot of snow that has already accumulated. Falling snow is always pretty, but seeing block after block of melting, dirty slush on black pavement, and house after house of gray stone obscured by the overcast sky can get to be a bit dismal. We trudged along in the cold, wondering why we left the house at all, when we were met with a dazzling scene of bright color and life. We turned the corner to find a young boy standing beside a stand of farm-fresh produce. Even during this, one of the harshest winters Turkey has faced in years, the stands are overflowing with bright red apples, oranges that glow brighter than the sun (well, a sun that has been hidden by snow-filled clouds), deep green broccoli and cucumbers, juicy tomatoes, baskets of almonds, chestnuts, and hazelnuts...The cornucopia of fruits and vegetables was a welcome sight for sore eyes. Brian and I had been stuck indoors for the last two days with only bare essentials, and seeing all this was enough to make me forget about my numb hands and wet feet!

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Of course, you want some bananas!
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Turkey is one of only seven countries in the world that produces a surplus of food, a fact you're reminded of on practically every street corner here in Istanbul. Everywhere you look, there are bakeries making hot bread, delis grilling spiced kebabs to go with fresh cheeses and salads, shops selling dried fruits and roasted nuts, pastry shops serving up cakes and cookies.

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Can I get it all in my mouth?
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"And it's all so cheap!" Brian exclaims as he bites in to a decadent 25-cent chocolate eclair...the red of his cold nose now hidden in chocolate cream.

Turkey's riches cover many arenas. In the next few weeks, we will be writing about the incredibly long, rich history of this country. But, before we get into the great conquerors and rulers, the advanced cultures and monuments, the old churches and mosques, I want to take you back even further...to the base of civilizations. Not only here, but all over the world. I want to take you back to discuss something even more important than palaces and cave drawings...I want to talk about food!

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What do you think made all the rest possible? Do you think our ape-like ancestors had the time to design large fortresses to defend their empire? Do you think they even had empires to begin with? No way! They were too busy looking for food every day. Three million years ago, the first human beings were foragers, like our primate ancestors. As time went on they began hunting as well, and humans existed as hunter-gatherers for many a millennia. Ten thousand years ago, though, a small section of these humans revolted. A small section of human beings revolted against the very structure of all life on the planet since the beginning of time. And what were the weapons of this revolution? Seeds!

Vocabulary

foragers- those searching for food/provisions
indigenous - native to a particular region or environment

Yes, ten thousand years ago, some human beings, for one reason or another, decided to abandon the highland forests that had always provided their sustenance and move to the lowland plains...where they began planting crops, raising livestock, and forming settlements. Agriculture is the single decisive factor that has made permanent settlements possible -- but that's not all it has made possible. Without agriculture, nations, governments, language, math, science, art -- the very chair you're sitting on or the computer screen you're reading -- none of this would have been possible...and most historians believe that it all started here in the Middle East, in a region known as the Fertile Crescent. Our world trek has taken us from the western edges of the Fertile Crescent, along the Nile River in Egypt and through its body, including Israel and Palestine, and up to the Crescent's northern extreme here in the Anatolia region of Turkey. And although we've encountered a number of different cultures, customs, and landscapes throughout this diverse region, one unifying theme has been an abundance of yummy fresh food!

Contrary to popular belief, the changeover to agriculture was not inherent to the evolution of human beings. Not all human beings turned to agriculture 10,000 years ago; it occurred in just one culture among many. Hundreds of indigenous peoples continued to live the same way they always had. As that select farming culture increased in population and power, it started to expand in all directions. Slowly the practice of agriculture overran neighboring indigenous cultures, triggering the extinction of hunting and gathering in its path. Some feel that agriculture symbolizes the belief in human dominance over the rest of the planet. Agriculture has made it possible for us to control nature, and this, in time, has unfortunately lead to disastrous ecological consequences. Today our population has reached staggering numbers as we've expanded to the far corners of land. This has caused the extinction of countless species, the destruction of the ozone layer, the pollution of the air and seas, and the deforestation of ancient forests all over the planet. Is agriculture to blame? Is it inherent in humankind to be destructive to the planet? I'm not even going to try to answer these puzzling questions -- especially when there's a half-ton silverback gorilla who does a much better job at it than I. He's had a number of years to ponder these issues...his name is Ishmael. The novel Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, has created quite a stir since it was published in 1992, and if you're interested in viewing human history in a whole new light, join the thousands of other students, teachers, and seekers who have read the book...you too might become a friend of Ishmael's!

I doubt the hunters and gatherers of the Fertile Crescent had any idea as to the significance of the changes they were making when they planted those first seeds. Agriculture has set off a chain of events with unprecedented ramifications. For the first time in the history of the planet, a species started to grow a reliable food supply -- a food surplus, even. This excess of food allowed for an increase in population. An increased population meant there were more people available to do different jobs, which lead to more complex social structures. Some moved to towns and cities, where they refined their skills in different trades, and used their goods to trade for agriculture. Others, freed from the need to search for their next meal used this new freedom from the search for food to observe, think, and experiment. Thus, science, government, religion, and the arts all owe their beginnings to agriculture.

Here in the Fertile Crescent, these ancient humans started growing crops that are still grown the world over. Historians believe that some of the first crops included: wheat, oats, rye, peas, lentils, chick-peas, grapes, olives, apples, dates, cherries, figs, and pears...and here we are today, enjoying all of the same things...thousands of years later! Turkey's fertile valleys have provided an abundance of yummy crops and good grazing land for thousands upon thousands of years...no wonder it has been such a coveted possession, sought after by the great cultures we'll be learning about in the coming weeks such as the Hittites, the Greeks, the Byzantines, and the Ottomans.

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Who needs cherries with all of this fruit?
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Unfortunately, we're here in Turkey during the winter, so we'll be missing the cherries and figs and the other fruits our Turkish friends have been raving about, but there's plenty more to keep us happy. Unlike our ancestors, we've got chocolate eclairs to warm our souls on a snowy winter day. Thank goodness for evolution!

Kavitha

p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...kavitharao@bigfoot.com
 



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