Trade, commerce, and empire-building throughout the history of Western civilization have often facilitated cultural exchange amongst various social groups or ethnicities. In effect, certain ethnic cuisines that have been passed down to the present age do not seem to have been formed in a vacuum or in strict isolation from extraneous influences from other cultures. Such cuisines are partly products of economic, political, and historical forces that spanned across various cultures and geographic regions. The Neapolitan pizza does not seem to be an exception! Having studied some of the cultures that have flourished around the Mediterranean Sea, including the Levantine territories, I hypothesize that a roundish, flattened, baked dough burdened with certain simple garnishes, either before or after baking, is typically a Mediterranean phenomenon. In other words, baking a leavened (and sometimes unleavened), flattened piece of wheat dough that is topped (or sometimes stuffed) with certain basic ingredients and baked in a wood-fueled oven is fundamentally Mediterranean. Mediterranean regions such as Egypt, Palestine/Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Greece, Italy, and etc., they all have their own characteristic flatbreads that are dressed with specific, traditional ingredients. Just to name a few, the typical topped flatbread in Egypt is known as “feteer” (فطير), in Palestine/Israel as “manakish” (مناقیش), in Lebanon as “sfiha” (صفيحة), in Syria as same as the preceding, in Turkey as “lahmacun” (and “pide”, which is oval akin to a calzone), in Armenia as “lahmajoun” (although Armenia is not a Mediterranean territory), in Italy as “pizza”, and so on. There are several overlapping varieties. As shown in the pictures below, the topped flatbreads have certain attributes and ingredients in common.
Often, people of each Levantine nation (Palestine/Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and sometimes including parts of Egypt, Turkey, and Iraq) claim that such topped flatbreads originated from their respective nations. As some scholars argue, if such topped flatbreads were originated, evolved, and disseminated around the Mediterranean territories from an eminently distant past—when there were no nation-states—, then it might be nonsensical to attribute them to a specific nation at the cost of excluding the rest. Again, my contention is that: a roundish, flattened, baked dough burdened with certain simple garnishes is typically a Mediterranean phenomenon.
Some scholars posit that the rise of some of the “early empires” (such as the Persian and Macedon Empires), the “classical empires” (such as the Roman Empire), and the “post-classical empires” (such as the Byzantine, Arab, and Ottoman Empires) played crucial roles in shaping and/or disseminating some of the Mediterranean cuisines or certain elements thereof.
As the aforementioned empires expanded their powers around the Mediterranean Sea and beyond, they also inadvertently spread various elements of the cuisines of the conquered lands. Such elements were sometimes diffused and adopted by the host cultures with minor or major modifications, or they were sometimes synthesized into a new fusion. (The formation of New York style pizza is a case in point, except it happened not by conquest, but by immigration of the Italians to the United States in late 1800s.) In regard to the Arab Empire, about 100 years after death of the founder of Islam, Mohammad, in 632 A.D., the empire (particularly under the Umayyad caliphate) stretched all the way from the Arabian Peninsula, through the Northern Africa, to Spain, where they ruled for about 700 years. In addition, the Arab Empire under Fatimid Caliphate included parts of the modern France and Italy. And, to the East, the empire expanded all the way to the Western parts of China. As the Arab empire conquered the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, they tried to culturally homogenize the inhabitants of those lands under the banner of Islam. In this manner, many cultural elements of the conquerers and the conquered people were diffused around the Mediterranean areas, including Southern Italy. Such cultural exchanges/influences spread to wherever the empire expanded to and beyond.
Many of the conquered people whom today we consider as Muslim Arabs (such as the people today we know as Egyptians, Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis, and etc.), were originally neither Muslims nor Arabs until after they were conquered by the Moslem Arabs. The pita bread, which is often construed as the “Middle Eastern” or “Arabic bread”, might be another case in point, perhaps! According to the 4th edition of The American Heritage Dictionary, the word “pita” is defined as follows: “A round flat bread of Middle Eastern origin that can be opened to form a pocket.” However, the word “pita”—literally meaning “pie”—is a Greek word (πίτα)! Furthermore, the Arabic alphabet is devoid of the letter “P”. The actual Arabic word for pita or pita-like bread is Khubz (خبز), which literally means “bread”.
Employing the wisdom of their conquered subjects and due to their own ingenuity, the Arab civilization of the time managed to become quite sophisticated and progressive in realms of arts, literature, math, science, and philosophy—which fueled and made possible the Renaissance in Italy and other parts of Europe. The free Greek thinking of the classical Greece was revived and promoted under the Arab rule, which needed the ancient wisdom in order to be able to administer the ever expansive empire. Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived in harmony together under the rule of Arabs in Andalusia (southern Spain). And, they committed themselves to preserving and translating the ancient wisdom embodied in the Persian, Greek, and other texts of antiquity into Latin, which during the Crusades (1095 – 1291 A.D.) made their way into Europe, changing many aspects of European cultures.
Here is an irony: while pizza was imported to the United States by the Italian immigrants (who ended up altering its original Neapolitan composition and gastronomy to the form of what is known today as the New York style pizza), the same was exported to the rest of the world from the United States! Some are of the belief that America’s great economic power has hijacked the pizza! Hence, the rest of the world views the pizza through the American, not Neapolitan, perspective. When a Swedish friend of mine recently came face-to-face with a traditional Neapolitan Pizza Margherita for the first time, he surprisingly remarked: “What?—You call this a pizza?” He had expected to see a New York or American type of pizza; the Margherita looked naked and foreign to him.
So far, the Pizza Hut empire (an American corporation) has expanded itself to 54 foreign nations around the globe:
Moreover, the Domino’s Pizza empire (another American corporation) has so far expanded to 53 nations around the world. No need to enumerate them. (http://www.dominosbiz.com/Biz-Public-EN/Site+Content/Secondary/International/) In addition, according to the official website for Little Caesars Pizza (another American corporation), “Little Caesars has franchisees in over 20 countries on 5 continents from North America to Central America, the Middle East to Europe, and many countries in between.” And, at last, per the official website for Papa John’s Pizza (yet another American corporation), it has so far expanded to Canada, Mexico, United Kingdom, South Korea, and Philippines. It is no exaggeration that American business—not Naples—has first and foremost shaped how the world views pizza.
Next article: Part 4: Fragments of History of Neapolitan Pizza
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Below are some relevant links of interested: