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.

Robert Allen, Global Distinguished Professor of Economic History, NYUAD

Here, we re-count the past in order to recount it.

Robert Allen, primary researcher

Research Data

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.

  • Imports and Exports
  • Commodities
  • 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: