Here, we re-count the past in order to recount it.
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Re-Counting the Past
History is a recounting or retelling of the past, so that it makes sense. There are many ways to describe the past and reveal its logic. This project is dedicated to the use of numbers to that end.
In the past, people used numbers to describe their incomes, the prices of the goods they bought and sold, the volume of trade, the population of provinces and its division into religious and national groups, and for many other purposes. This website gathers together those numbers.
To study the past, we must first find information about it. This website project presents numerical information about the Middle East in the past. Eventually, we hope to display data on population, imports, exports, the cost of travelling and shipping goods overland and across the oceans, the production of old and new industries, the wholesale prices of the principal products, imports, and exports, the retail prices of the main consumer goods, and the wages and earnings of workers and other members of society.
This information will allow us to track the integration of the Middle East in the world economy, to calculate the profitability of traditional activities as well as modern technology, to evaluate development projects like irrigation, railways, and improved roads, and to measure real incomes and standards of living. The results will provide the basis for assessing grander theories about economic growth and stagnation in the Middle East.
The first focus of data collection is the ‘long nineteenth century’ from 1798, when Napoleon invaded Egypt, to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Beginning in the 1830s, European governments were allowed to appoint consuls in the main cities of the Ottoman and Persian empires. The consuls wrote frequent reports to their governments on conditions in the regions where they were located. One of the consuls’ responsibilities was promoting the trade of their country, so they frequently discussed economic and social conditions in their reports. These reports are the single most important source of the information on the Middle East posted here.
The first phase of data collection is based on the reports of British consuls since many of those reports (at least from the mid-nineteenth century onward) have been printed in the British House of Commons papers, which have been digitised. In the future, data collection will be broadened to include archival sources and reports from consuls of other countries. Some of the information in these reports has already been extracted by the great scholar Charles Issawi and printed in his books The Fertile Crescent, 1800-1914: A Documentary Economic History, Economic History of Turkey, 1800-1914, and Economic History of Iran, 1800-1914. This material has been incorporated in the spreadsheets here, but we have gone beyond Issawi’s work. We have also incorporated the findings of other scholars, as appropriate.
- Freight Rates
- Imports and Exports
- Cities and Countries
- Weights, Measures, and Money
Increasing globalization has been an important trend in the last two centuries. An important underlying driver of globalization has been reductions in the cost of shipping goods and moving people around the world. In the nineteenth century, there were improvements in transportation across water and over land. The shift from wooden sailing ships to steal steam ships reduced the cost of shipping goods over the world’s oceans. Railways cut the cost of moving freight overland and increased the speed of journeys Data on shipping costs and speeds are included in the following spreadsheets:
In the Ottoman and Persian Empires, taxes were levied on trade that crossed provincial boundaries as well as on imports and exports. The volume of trade can, therefore, be measured within these empires as well as between these empires and other countries. The latter include India as well as Europe. The spread sheet shows the value of imports and exports into major economic centres. These data are ultimately based on the records of the custom houses concerned. Values have been expressed in British pounds sterling. The values in these tables are in current prices, that is, they have not been adjusted for inflation.
The volume of imports and exports are one indicator of trade connections between the Middle East and the rest of the world. Prices are another indicator. When markets are integrated, merchants respond to a rise in price in one market by shipping goods to it from other markets in order to make a profit by selling at the high price. When markets are well integrated, these shipments occur rapidly, so price gaps are eliminated quickly and prices become highly correlated across markets. Examining these correlations is one way to use prices to study market integration. In addition, price differences indicate the magnitude of the shipping and other costs of trading between the markets. As the efficiency of transportation increases, for instance, price gaps shrink. This is a second feature of market integration that can be studied with prices.
Prices of major commodities are reported on the attached spreadsheets. These prices are generally ‘unit values’ of imports and exports, that is, the total value of imports of a particular good divided by the quantity of the good imported and similarly for exports. Where feasible and appropriate, unit values for the United Kingdom, India, Russia, and the USA are included to show the global context in which trade was occurring.
The ‘Imports and Exports’ spreadsheets show the total value of imports and exports into the customs districts of the Ottoman and Persian empires as well as total values for Egypt. In this section, details at the commodity level for these districts are reported. The ‘data (raw)’ tabs report the quantities and prices as recorded in the source. Often the prices were in local currency and the quantities were often in trade units like bags or cases. On the tabs of ‘Data adjusted,’ the prices are converted to pounds sterling and the quantities are expressed in British imperial units. The latter is possible since there were often standard weights or volumes for the trade units. However, there was also some variety in packing, so there was also some variation around the standard units. Hence, there is some room for error here.
Converting the quantities and prices into British units required many conversion factors. The spreadsheet on ‘Weights, Measures, and Money’ details the conversion factors we used and their sources.