The Way We Were

Ancient receipts, boats made of reed, and old photos long forgotten serve as wayfinders for researchers challenging the historical narrative of the Middle East.

By Naser Al Wasmi, NYU Abu Dhabi Public Affairs

On the fringes of the NYU Abu Dhabi campus, just within earshot of buildings that host labs conducting research on the forefront of technology and innovation, Robert Parthesius, an associate professor of heritage studies at NYU Abu Dhabi, and Eric Staples of Zayed University are constructing a Bronze Age boat using nothing but the tools they believe were employed more than 4,000 years ago.

Parthesius touches the vessel much in the same way a copper trader might have off the coast of the southern Arabian Gulf. The construction of the ship is part of a project that looks to gain deeper knowledge of this region’s civilizations by emulation — the historian’s equivalent of learning on the job.

“If we knew how they worked, how they built, then perhaps we can learn how they think. That’s what we’re trying to show, we don’t know if this ship ever sailed 4,000 years ago but it could have, and that allows us to understand the problems in building. So, we find out more about our past by working with these fragments.” 

Parthesius says those fragments were collected with the same academic vigor and curiosity that were used on the deep-sea shipwrecks he excavated in the past. Using archeological evidence from former Bronze Age construction sites, iconographic material and some written evidence, they have an accurate idea of the type of boat that started the trade revolution in the Bronze Age. They believe the reed boats were able to move copper over long distances to service Mesopotamian and Dilum empires.

But on a more personal level, he believes this provides alternative explanations of history — a way for this region to validate its past. Although the boat they are constructing may not be a carbon copy of those used in 2,000BC, he says that its importance as a totem of the past represents both knowledge of our ancestors and an inquisitive look at times forgotten.

“The need to have reference points in the past, whether you need to have it with your parents or a whole culture, I think it’s built in our species,” he said. “If you don’t have an understanding of what the people before you solved then you have a hard time moving forward. Heritage doesn’t exist by itself, but because we assign importance to it.”

Tangible representations of history give contextual significance to humanity. But what it represents, be it in a boat that spurred the development of an entire culture or a rare photograph, gives us a deeper understanding of today and what it means to be living in the modern era. 

History through a new lens

Although working mostly in monochromatic material, the stories of how the Akkasah Center for Photography at NYU Abu Dhabi accessed photos for its archives cannot be more colorful. From recovering a century-old archive in a Jesuit school in Egypt, to scouring the markets of Istanbul for photos, Akkasah is working to preserve our heritage for reasons that will likely play dividends in the future.

Director Shamoon Zamir believes that by compiling and essentially immortalizing photography of the intimate lives of individuals living in the young nations of this region, future generations can look back and tell a more complete story of its emergence.

“In a quiet but important way, every photo archive is a promise to the future that an alternative history will be available. It will be available for people who want to write it in a different way. It’s important for the archive not to write history but to make available the resources to make history possible,” said the associate professor of literature and visual studies.

Akkasah is working on digitizing thousands of these promises through the use of state-of-the-art technology. Each collection in the archive is given painstaking attention. The photographs arrive in all manners of state, from prints of birthday parties organized in family albums to decaying negatives tossed in boxes left unopened for decades. Each photograph is digitized and catalogued with a mandate to be made available online for open access.

But perhaps it’s the cultural integrity that differentiates Akkasah. An Emirati student of Zamir’s mentioned in passing that his family were great photography hobbyists. Considering the importance and scarcity of photography in the UAE, Zamir visited the family with the intent of allowing him access to the treasure trove of images showing how Emiratis lived in the years before and after unification. The student’s father obliged after some convincing, but with one caveat:

“Only women staff are allowed to work with the images of women in the family, some of whom were photographed uncovered.” Although essentially cutting his staff by one-third for a majority of the photographs, Zamir was happy to agree. The photos were digitized, catalogued, rehoused, and returned to the family for safe keeping. The photos the family wanted to keep private were never published, everything else was – providing a rare glimpse at early life in the UAE.

“The minor details that photographs can reveal are significant: they show how people sat, how people gathered, how women and men looked in public. Architectural history is another thing. How did the city develop, for example? For many students who take Dubai or Abu Dhabi for granted, it is very hard to really imagine it,” he said.

Photography’s late inclusion in the story of humanity leaves millennia of questions unanswered. Fortunately, civilizations have had an obsession with documenting their existence. It might be a mundane, rudimentary exercise today, but the equivalent of a grocery store receipt in history has an invaluable impact on the understanding of our ancestors and the way they lived.

A number is worth a thousand words

Pointing at an Excel sheet with numbers organized in columns of commodities and wages, Global Distinguished Professor of Economic History and Social Science Robert Allen knows exactly how much the average laborer in Ancient Egypt was getting paid.

“And I know what they could have bought. One thing that would surprise you is that the typical laborer in Egypt from 250BC all the way to 1950 is at subsistence, no better than that. Since 1950, things have gone up, for several reasons but independence from colonial rule being the main one,” said Allen.

For the last 30 years, Allen has studied the past in numbers. The process involves tracking the prices of things over time and trying to use the information to measure living standards in the past, to look at market integration, trade patterns, and the cost of stuff.

This massive data collection will help illuminate an untold story of the Middle East. The process helps describe the emergence of nations in the region and their integration into the larger world economy. Furthermore, they help prove through hard evidence larger theories about economic growth. But in some ways, they describe in detail the lives of individuals who lived, thrived, and grew alongside these emerging economies.

For example, using computational analysis, Allen is able to correlate the cost of staples, the nutritional value needed to sustain a human being, and the average wage of a given individual in Bahrain in 1911 to understand what their diets consisted of.

“A lot of dates, hundreds of kilos a year, that was the cheapest staple. But you can’t just live off that, so there was fish as well, and some lemon for the vitamins,” he said.

For Allen, the numbers illuminate certain socio-economic and political realities about emerging economies as they developed from poor nations under colonial rule to oil-rich economies capable of growth. Comparing data compiled from British, Persian, and Turkish records to modern data, Allen hopes that some realities can be drawn about the current state of affairs of countries around the world. Despite having worked in the field for decades as an academic and an advisor to the World Bank, Allen’s research seeks to answer a fundamental question: What differentiates wealthy nations from those that are struggling?

“If you ask anyone on the street why they’re rich, they might tell you it’s because of their religion or culture. It’s civilization-ist thinking and it’s on the rise. Leaders in some countries think like this, and I think it’s false, it’s dangerous and it leads to conflict. The thing I don’t like about invented histories to the degree that they embody false historical claims is that they lead people to things that are often dangerous for absurd reasons. And we have to confront this.”