History of the Modern Middle East–Lecture 4: The Military-Industrial Complex of the West vs. the Military-Commercial Complex of the Islamic World (part 7)


The original title of Prof. Richard Bulliet’s lecture given on January 29, 2009 at Columbia University lecture is “Inequality” vs. “Difference”; he prefers the term “difference” to that of “inequality”.  In this final post of the series, he concludes his lecture by discussing the religious elite and their relationship to the military elite in the Middle East, how the European tradition of primogeniture differs from the traditions of the Middle East, and finally how climactic and technological factors have helped shape the differences between society in Euroamerica and that of the Islamic world.  

16. The Relationship between the Religious Elite and the Military Elite

When you get into the religious elite, you find that the religious elite is to some degree connected with the government, but is in a very large sense independent. It has its own independent economic base as would churches in Europe has.

However, there is almost a complete disconnect between the religious elite and the military. In other words, you have the notion of primogeniture in Europe for a long time among certain aristocratic families in Europe for a long time, that is, the first son is the one who has the land, and the second goes into the church or what have you. This notion means that the same families produce elites in the diplomatic corps, in the army, in the church, in the rural control of land, and in authority; that sort of complex family you don’t really have in the Middle East. Instead you have a more narrowly tracked set of career paths. Prof. Bulliet will spell out more on this topic in a later lecture.

With regards to this one particular difference, is it a matter of inequality (between Euroamerica and the Middle East)? No, it’s a matter of difference. There is nothing particularly great about hereditary aristocracy, and the idea that in Europe leaders were expected to have as their primary skill acquired during their upbringing the talent and the will to get in somebody’s face and smash it in with an axe. It’s not appealing; it’s basically having the ruling system predicated on serial murder, whereas the idea that your leadership comes from the group that would ultimately rather sell chicken is not necessarily bad (laughter). But it’s different. Now if you looked at Russia, you would find that the nature of the aristocracy there is also rather different from what it is in Western Europe.

17. Climatic Differences and Inequality

There are a whole bunch of other parameters that you could throw in here that would raise questions of where this difference (in the nature of aristocracy) overlaps the concept of inequality. For example, if you take the so-called Little Ice Age, nobody agrees on when it began, but maybe it’s around 1400 or 1500. It got very, very cold, and even though nobody can agree on when the Little Ice Age began, there is, according to Wikipedia, our authority on almost everything—that’s a joke, not a recommendation (laughter)—there’s a consensus that the Little Ice Age was over and the period of cold with all that it implied for crops was over by the middle of the 19th century.

The coldest year in the history of the Ottoman Empire and of Iran is 1602—it’s cold everywhere in that year. But otherwise, it’s in the 1870s when there are massive famines in the Ottoman Empire, massive famines in Iran. And if you look at the temperature indices, you find that at the point where you have the greatest inequality of power between Europe and the Ottoman Empire, this is also the point of the most dramatic climate difference. Everything was getting better in Europe, and people were freezing to death and starving in the Ottoman Empire and in Iran, because of changes in climate. These changes were in turn due to the vagaries of the Siberian high that appears once every winter in Mongolia and Siberia and affects the winter weather and the crop output.

So nobody has really approached climatic history as a variable (with respect to inequality between Europe and the Middle East).

18. Differences in Transportation Technology and Inequality

There are other variables. Prof. Bulliet would really like to talk about 4-wheel vehicles. If the class gives him 3 minutes, he can perhaps put in a little explanation here.

One of the things that was observed by everyone who went to the Middle East and saw it as a hallmark of backwardness was that there weren’t any roads, or rather than the roads were simply dirt tracks. Not only that, but if you went into the cities, the cities had narrow streets. Sometimes you could just reach out and touch the walls. If you have a narrow street, probably you’ll get the plague or you’ll be raped or something like that because a narrow street is scary (laughter). You just have to go to a lot of Weimar-period German movies to see how dangerous the street is. These narrow streets are dangerous, but of course Amsterdam Avenue with 3-ton vehicles going at 40 miles an hour and ignoring the pedestrians—that’s safe. That’s really nice; you may killed there, but at least it’s not dark (laughter).

Prof. Bulliet wrote a book called The Camel and the Wheel that argued that the disappearance of wheeled vehicles in the Middle East has economic and technological bases. The development of a society without paved roads and with narrow, pedestrian-scale streets was an outcome of changes in the technological domain. It has nothing to do with Islam, nothing to do with ideology, it’s simply a matter of technical evolution. But it’s certainly the case that when you come to differences between these regions the absence of paved roads is important.

And then you have to ask yourself why you have paved roads in Europe. The answer to that has to do seemingly not with wheeled vehicles per se, because you have carts in India and carts in China without much in the way of paved roads, but rather it has to with the particular type of wheeled vehicle that is uniquely European, and that originates from apparently profound European stupidity (laughter).

When people first invented wheeled vehicles, they fundamentally had a choice between two wheels and four wheels. The power source, let’s say, a pair of oxen, was the same. The primary problem in pulling the vehicle was friction. If you have one axle with two wheels, or two axles with four wheels, what do you think happens in the latter case with the friction? The friction doubles when you add the second axle. The result is that everybody in the world outside of Europe decided to use two-wheeled vehicles because four-wheeled vehicles don’t make any sense.

Europeans also used two-wheeled vehicles for most of their heavy lifting, but they kept the four-wheeled vehicles. Why? Not only did they have high friction, but they didn’t know how to pivot the front axle, so they couldn’t steer them; they had a turning radius of four blocks (laughter). If one wheel broke, the whole thing goes down—they were a terrible idea.

But the Europeans stuck with them from 3000 BC until around the time of the Renaissance when they figured out how to wiggle the front axle, and then they invented the coach—originally a Hungarian word, it doesn’t come from Western Europe, it comes from Eastern Europe. The coach was a suspended vehicle, which means that you have a chassis, four wheels, and a pull for the animals to pull. Then you have some verticals, and then you string chains or leather belts between the verticals and you put a passenger assemblage on top of them and now they can sway. That’s the beginning of suspension; they are literally suspended, and that turns into springs. There are a whole lot of other developments, but the reason this happens is because, although there were some uses that were more practical for four-wheeled vehicles, the dominant force in this appears to have been the desire to move parties of women from place to place. High-status women don’t move easily (laughter). You can’t really tell the Princess, “go on over there to such-and-such a place.” She has to travel with her maids of honor, or else she would be raped.

The early pictures we have from Roman times of four-wheeled vehicles don’t show them carrying huge loads, they show them carrying passengers, particularly women. Down to the 19th century, we have these pictures from Eastern Europe of women, for example going out from Istanbul to the outskirts of town to have picnics, where you have a whole covered wagon full of women. Well the women are the ones that needed the suspension. They wanted to ride in comfort. The suspension improved their comfort, but so did a paved road. So the evolution of steering and brakes and suspension goes along with the development of paved roads.

You end up with a road system in Europe (but not in Russia) that you don’t have in the Middle East. That plays a very important developmental role when you get down to the changes in the 20th century. But more importantly, all modern wheeled transport is predicated on the concept of four wheels–not the bicycle or the Segway, but your basic train, car, truck, or bus. The horsepower has moved from the exterior to the interior. You cannot mechanize a two-wheeled oxcart; there’s no real way you can do it, because you depend upon the animals supporting it in front and the wheels supporting it in back.

Europe, because of its peculiarity, decided to wheel women around. Of course, you could decide to leave the women home and travel with a pretty boy, which made a lot more sense to a lot of people in the Middle East (laughter). In Europe, they had these peculiarities, they had four-wheeled vehicles, therefore they had roads, and therefore they were able to develop trains and cars which could not have developed in China or India or Indonesia where they only had two-wheeled vehicles, and you certainly couldn’t have built them in the Middle East where you didn’t have any vehicles at all.

So we have a problem of inequality or difference. Prof. Bulliet is not going to debate the issue of decline, which implies a pernicious interpretation of inequality, but he is going to insist on certain aspects of difference. He has brought up some (in this lecture), and will probably burden the class with some others later on.

This concludes this long series of posts on this topic.   I appreciate the many readers from various countries around the world who have read these posts.   It shows that there is a genuine need for more balanced, academic approaches to the subject of the Middle East to balance the more one-dimensional portrayals people get from the media.

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