6 things you (probably) didn’t know about the Ottoman Empire

Turkish artillery of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.  (Buyenlarge/Getty Images)
The Ottoman Empire is one of the largest empires in history. In existence for 600 years, at its peak it included what is now Bulgaria, Egypt, Greece, Hungary, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Macedonia, Romania, Syria, parts of Arabia and the north coast of Africa. In some countries, it is a legacy best forgotten; in others, it is a hotly-debated topic and, in a handful, national pride has been nailed to this vital part of their history.

Putting aside all the nationalist politics, the Ottoman Empire is a fascinating subject covering a dynasty that lasted 600 years. Here, Jem Duducu presents six lesser known facts about this exotic, yet still relevant empire.

1

The founder of the empire was a man called Osman

Osman, a Seljuk Turk, is the man who is seen as the founder of the empire (his name is sometimes spelt Ottman or Othman, hence the term ‘Ottoman’). The Seljuks had arrived from the Asiatic steppes in the 11th century AD and had been in Anatolia for generations, while  Osman had ruled a tiny Anatolian territory at the end of the 13th century and the early 14th century. He was very much a warrior in the mould of other great cavalry officers of the Middle Ages (like Genghis Khan before he won an empire).

It was on the coronation day of Osman’s successor that the tradition of wearing Osman’s sword, girded by his belt, began. This was the Ottoman equivalent of being anointed and crowned in the west and was a reminder to all of the 36 sultans who followed that their power and status came from this legendary warrior and that they were martial rulers. This certainly rang true in the first half of the history of the empire, and for the next 300 years, sultans would regularly be seen in battle. But as the empire matured and then waned, so the sultans began to shirk their duties on the battlefield.

Osman’s lavishly-decorated sword and belt are the Ottoman equivalent of the coronation crown jewels, but it’s doubtful that what is seen today on display in the Topkapı Palace Museum in Istanbul is what Osman held in his hand. Putting it simply, Osman was unlikely ever to have had such an impractical sword, though it could be that the original blade was later plated and embellished.

Osman was definitely real, but in some ways, he’s like King Arthur in the west: a founder of an idea and a near-mythical figure. During his lifetime, he was regarded as unimportant enough that we have absolutely no contemporary sources about him. We don’t know what he looked like; we have no proclamations extant from his reign, as Osman’s reign began in what was then the Ottoman Dark Ages.

Turkish chieftain Osman (1258-1324), who is regarded as the founder of the Ottoman Turkish state. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Turkish chieftain Osman (1258-1324), who is regarded as the founder of the Ottoman Empire. “Osman was definitely real, but in some ways, he’s like King Arthur in the west,” says Duducu.(Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
2

The Ottomans could be unlucky

Only once did a sultan die in battle and only one sultan was ever captured by an enemy. Unfortunately for the early empire, these sultans were father and son. In 1389, at the famous Battle of Kosovo, Murad I was in his tent as his forces fought a brutal and bloody engagement with Serb forces. A contemporary account states that: “having penetrated the enemy lines and the circle of chained camels, [serb forces] heroically reached the tent of Murat (sic) … (and killed him) by stabbing him with a sword in the throat and belly.”

While this account claims to describe how Murad died, it doesn’t ring true. The idea that a dozen Serbs were able to break through the entire central force of the Ottoman army, which we know held for the whole battle, doesn’t make sense. Instead, there is a later report that as the Serb lines crumbled, a Serbian aristocrat (often named as Miloš Obilić) pretended to defect and was brought before the sultan. Murad, believing that any change to the battle would finally break the deadlock, met Miloš in his private tent, where the Serb lunged forward and stabbed Murad before the guards reacted. This would make more sense against the overall events of the day. Either way, after 27 years of rule, Murad lay dead in a pool of his own blood.

Murad’s son and heir, Bayezid I, was present at the battle and had already proven himself to be a fearsome warrior. He was known as Bayezid Yildirm (thunderbolt) because he moved as quickly and struck as lethally as a thunderbolt. Amongst many other military successes, he was to annihilate the last serious crusade sent from Europe to counter the rising tide of Islamic power. However, in 1402, he had to face a new threat: that of the legendary warlord Tamerlane (actual title Emir Timur), a brutal 14th-century warlord born in what is now Uzbekistan, who amassed an empire that stretched from present day India to Turkey, and Russia to Saudi Arabia. The two met at the Battle of Ankara, where more than 150,000 men, horses and even war elephants clashed.

Accounts of the battle are fairly sketchy and often contradictory. What is clear is that a pivotal point in the battle took place when some of Bayezid’s Anatolian vassals switched sides or melted away, leaving him with an even greater numerical disadvantage against Tamerlane. However, the core of the Ottoman force fought bravely. The battle was vicious and the resulting carnage was enormous. By the end of the day it was said that around 50,000 Ottoman troops lay dead; the same was said of Tamerlane’s force. If these numbers are true (and there’s no way of knowing), it was one of the bloodiest battles in world history prior to the 20th century.

Bayezid might have been up against a man who was his equal in leadership, but Tamerlane simply had more of everything – and some elephants. Bayezid had thrown all of his empire’s resources into the battle, but he couldn’t overcome the fact that Tamerlane’s empire was bigger. By the end of that violent and sweltering July day, Bayezid’s army was in tatters, and he and his wife had been captured, showing that Bayezid had personally fought to the bitter end.

Bayezid’s death in captivity led to a period of civil war and infighting amongst his sons, each of whom wanted to become the next sultan. These events almost undid the empire just 100 years into its history.

3

Ottomans are not the same as ‘Turks’

Perhaps the most surprising fact about the Ottoman Empire is that many of the ‘Turks’ mentioned in the European chronicles were no such thing. It is thanks to European ignorance (that has lasted centuries) and to nation building in Turkey that the Ottoman sultans have become ‘Turkish’ sultans. Quite often in European Renaissance literature, the sultan was referred to as the ‘Great Turk’, a title that would have meant nothing to the Ottoman court. So let’s clear this up: the Ottoman Empire, for most of its existence, predated nationalism. The attacking forces at the famous ‘Fall of Constantinople’ against the Byzantine Empire in 1453 weren’t all ‘Turks’; in fact, not all of the besieging forces were even Muslim.

More than 30 of the sultans were the sons of women from the harem. Why is that salient? Because none of these women were Turkish; it’s unlikely any of them were even born Muslim. Most of their backgrounds have been lost to the mists of time, but it seems most were European women, so Serbs, Greeks, Ukrainians. It is likely that later ‘Turkish’ sultans were genetically far more Greek than Turkish.

Similarly, any of the legendary Janissaries [an elite fighting corps within the army], including the famous architect Mimar Sinan who started his career as a Janissary, were all Christian children who had been brought into this elite fighting force and then converted to Islam. The best modern analogy to describing anything Ottoman as ‘Turkish’ is like saying that the anything from the British Empire was exclusively ‘English’.

Sultan Suleiman I the Magnificent, 1601. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Suleiman the Magnificent, sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1520 to 1566. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
4

Suleiman was even more magnificent than you think

In the west, he has become known as Suleiman the Magnificent. In the east, he is remembered as Suleiman the Lawgiver. However, here is a full list of his titles and they are fascinating:

“Sultan of the Ottomans, Allah’s deputy on earth, Lord of the Lords of this world, Possessor of men’s necks, King of believers and unbelievers, King of Kings, Emperor of the East and the West, Majestic Caesar, Emperor of the Chakans of great authority, Prince and Lord of the most happy constellation, Seal of victory, Refuge of all the people in the whole entire world, the shadow of the almighty dispensing quiet on the Earth.”

Let’s break things down: the first title is obvious and “Allah’s deputy” implies his supreme Islamic authority without overstepping the mark (the word ‘Islam’ means ‘one who submits to God). The “possessor of necks’ harks back to his father Selim’s practice of beheading even senior officials; anyone who displeased the sultan could expect to be beheaded for certain crimes.

The next few titles are unexpectedly Roman. The Ottomans were aware that when they conquered Constantinople (in essence, the Eastern Roman Empire) the titles of “emperor” and “Caesar” still had importance. Claiming to be ‘”Emperor of the East and West” was not only an exaggeration, but also a direct challenge to the authority of Rome which, at this point, was hopelessly outclassed by the Ottomans.

“King of Kings” may sound a little biblical, but that’s only because the Gospels took the title from the Persian emperors’ shahenshah, literally, ‘king of kings’. So, again, the Ottomans are challenging a major rival, but this time it’s in the east, the Safavid Persians.

The next few titles are little more than showing off, but then we come to “Refuge of all the people in the whole entire world”, which shows that the sultans were well aware that their empire was multi-cultural and multi-religious, with Christians, Jews, Muslims and others all living together, not necessarily in harmony, but much better than anywhere else at the time. The ejection of the Jews and Muslims from Spain was still fresh in the minds of those living in the first half of the 16th century.

Only two of Suleiman’s military campaigns failed; he swept through everything else before him. When he wasn’t in the saddle, he was sitting in his opulent palace in the largest city in Europe. His empire stretched for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles in all directions. If anyone should be called ‘magnificent’, Suleiman fitted the bill perfectly.

5

The greatest humiliation in Ottoman military history was inflicted by Napoleon

On 20 May 1799, Napoleon laid siege to the port of Acre, where he fired the few cannons he had at the mighty defences, while the defenders sought refuge behind the city’s walls. As Napoleon was now committed to the siege, Ottoman forces were able to gather a relief force and march to the aid of the city. Napoleon had always picked competent generals and, even though his force was small, one Jean-Baptiste Kléber was a battle-hardened and highly capable general. His force of around 2,000 men (later joined by over 2,000 of Napoleon’s men) met the Ottoman relief force at Mount Tabor in Palestine. By comparison, Abdullah Pasha al-Azm, the governor of Damascus, had gathered an army of over 30,000. The French were outnumbered about 9-1; but, as we have seen, numbers don’t count for everything, and the Battle of Mount Tabor was possibly the greatest (often forgotten) humiliation of Ottoman martial power.

The Ottoman forces were made up of Sipahis, Mamelukes and other brave but outdated warrior classes. From dawn to late afternoon, Kléber sat in the hollow anti-cavalry squares, resisting every attack by Pasha al-Azm’s men. The Ottoman governor’s losses were mounting, but his army so dwarfed the French force that he could afford them. Meanwhile, after ten hours of fighting under the sweltering sun of Palestine, Kléber’s men were tired, thirsty and dangerously low on gunpowder and ammunition. It was then that Napoleon arrived with about 2,000 men, not enough to match the numbers in the Ottoman army but enough to distract them by sending a few hundred men to attack and loot the Ottoman camp. Abdullah Pasha al-Azm thought Napoleon’s tiny force was the vanguard of a larger army and panicked, thinking he was about to be attacked from the rear and flanks. He ordered a general retreat, at which point the two French forces charged the disengaging Ottomans, and the orderly Ottoman retreat turned into a messy rout.

Total losses of Ottoman soldiers were around 6,000 killed and another 500 captured, versus two dead French soldiers. An army of around 4,500 had fought an army of over 30,000 and not only won, but sustained just two fatalities. It was a devastating humiliation for the sultan Selim III, and a spectacular triumph that allowed Napoleon to continue his siege of Acre (although he would not take the port and this would mark the furthest extent of his conquests in the Middle East).

Engraving depicting the Siege of Acre, an unsuccessful French siege of the Ottoman-defended, walled city of Acre during Napoleons invasion of Egypt, 1799. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Engraving depicting the Siege of Acre, an unsuccessful French siege of the Ottoman-defended, walled city of Acre during Napoleons invasion of Egypt, 1799. (Archive Photos/Getty Images)
6

The Ottomans outlasted all their main opponents… just

From the middle to the end of the empire, when it was on its long slow decline to collapse, the empire faced three main rival powers that crop up again and again in Ottoman history: to the east, the Persian Safavids; to the north, the tsars of Russia; and to the west, the Habsburgs.

The Safavids fell first to Afghan invaders in 1736 and, while Persia/Iran would remain an opponent to the late Ottoman sultans, it was never the same expansionist threat it had been earlier under the Safavid dynasty.

Similarly, as the tsars of Russia began to spread their power south towards the Crimean Peninsula and the Black Sea, the Ottomans began to lose ground and were forced to fight multiple wars with the tsars. The most famous of these in the west is the Crimean War, when France and Britain joined sides with the Ottomans to prop up the failing state against the rising star of Russian power. However, the sultans were still seated in power when the last tsar, Nicholas II, was first deposed and later shot.

The Habsburgs and Ottomans fought so regularly that Vienna was twice besieged by Ottoman forces. There were so many clashes between the two empires that some of the war names sound half-hearted, such as the Long Turkish War (1593-1606). However, during the last war the Ottoman Empire was involved in (the First World War) the Ottomans were on the same side as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, led by a Habsburg. That dynasty didn’t quite make it to the end of the war, whereas the Ottoman Empire survived for a few years after it. The Ottoman sultans didn’t have time to gloat, however. The empire was dismantled by the victorious Allied powers of First World War, and a way of life that had lasted from the Middle Ages into the 20th century was gone by 1922, when the last sultan, Mehmed VI, was forced into exile.

 Jem Duducu

Jem Duducu is the author of The Sultans: The Rise and Fall of the Ottoman Rulers and Their World: A 600-Year History (Amberley Publishing, 2017).

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The Pirate Cemetery of Madagascar was the off-season home for an estimated 1,000 pirates

Featured image

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Ile Sainte-Marie (or St. Mary’s Island as it is known in English), a long, thin island off the eastern African coast, became a popular base for pirates.

Up to 1,000 pirates reportedly called the rocky island home, including widely-feared brigands Adam Baldridge, William Kidd, Olivier Levasseur, Henry Every, Robert Culliford, Abraham Samuel and Thomas Tew. They lived in the île aux Forbans, an island located in the bay of Sainte Marie’s main town, Ambodifotatra.

This place was not far from the maritime routes along which ships returning from the East Indies sailed in transit, their holds overflowing with wealth, it was provided with bays and inlets protected from storms and finally, it had abundant fruit and was situated in quiet waters.

For around 100 years, Ile Sainte-Marie was the off-season home of an estimated 1,000 pirates. Source

The beautiful tropical island’s numerous inlets and bays made it the perfect place to hide ships. The pirates sailed mostly from England, Portugal, France and America to make this island off the coast of Madagascar a home, a hideout and a strategic place.

Cyclones and centuries have worn away many of the well-aged engravings on the stone markers. Source

With so many pirates abiding on the island, some even raising families at the time, it’s no wonder Sainte-Marie claims to have what may be the world’s only legitimate pirate cemetery.

In the center of the cemetery, there is a large black tomb that locals say is the final resting place of Captain Kidd, buried there in an upright position to punish him for his sins.

There are mostly graves from 1800s but only one with the classic skull and crossed bones. Source

The pirates were off Ile Sainte-Marie by the late 1700s, when the French seized the island. It wasn’t returned to Madagascar until 1960. The utopian pirate republic of Libertalia was also rumored to exist in this area, although the republic’s existence, let alone its location, has never been proven.

Today, 30 headstones remain, though locals say there were once hundreds. Source

A recently discovered map from 1733 by John de Bry, an archaeologist working on shipwrecks in the area, called the land mass the “Island of Pirates” and identified the location of three pirate ship wrecks.

The crumbling cemetery, its graves half covered by tall, swaying grass, is open to the public. Source

So many pirate legends are floating around Sainte-Marie, but, is this cemetery authentic? Everyone on the island, including government tourism officials, of course, claim it is. However, dead pirates or not, this cemetery is one of Madagascar’s most popular tourist destinations.

By David Goran

The 150-year-old story of Sri Lankan tea-making

 

Two tea pluckers work on a plantation in Sri LankaImage copyright  SCHMOO THEUNE

Almost 5% of the population of Sri Lanka work in the billion-dollar tea industry, picking leaves on the mountain slopes and processing the tea in plantation factories.

The cultivation and selling of black tea has shaped the lives of generations of Sri Lankans since 1867.

Documentary photographer Schmoo Theune visited plantations in the country to explore the world of Ceylon tea production.

A tea plantation in Sri LankaImage copyright SCHMOO THEUNE

Tea bushes on mountain slopes are situated above the barracks-style housing which each plantation provides for its workers.

Tea buds must be picked by hand every seven to 14 days, before the leaves grow too tough.

This means the working location can change from day to day, depending on where the buds need to be collected.

The tea leaves are gathered in tarpaulin bags, which are lighter than the traditional wicker baskets that were once used.

A tea plucker in a plantation fieldImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE

The leaves are weighed throughout the day and a tea-picker earns 600 Sri Lankan Rupees (LKR), which is approximately £2.70, if they reach the desired quota of 18kg a day.

If they do not meet this target then they are paid 300 LKR (approximately £1.30).

Some plantations use different wage models, such as paying staff monthly and offering temporary loans to employees.

The majority of Sri Lankan tea workers are ethnically Indian Tamils, a people who were transported by the British to work on the plantations.

They differ from Jaffna Tamils who originate from Sri Lanka’s north.

A person travels down a road in a small sunlit valleyImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE

Dirt roads connect the workers’ housing to the tea plantations.

Tea bushes are grown on steep hillsides a metre apart.

Altitude affects the flavour of the tea, with higher altitudes producing a more delicately flavoured crop.

This is more highly valued than the robustly flavoured tea produced at lower elevations.

A tea plucker holds out her handsImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE

Veteran tea-pickers often have rough callouses on their hands.

The difficult physical nature of the work is causing a shortage of young tea-pickers.

Many daughters are choosing to work in garment factories, or abroad in domestic roles, rather than the fields of the plantations.

There can be four different levels of hierarchy on a small plantation, ranging from the owner down to tea-pickers.

Each layer supervises the level below it.

The sun sets over worker houses on a tea plantation near Kandy.Image copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE

Some of the houses the workers live in were built by the British during a housing boom in the 1920s when about 20,000 rooms were built for tea-pickers.

The buildings have changed little since.

Families raise their children in a village setting in colourful barracks-style houses.

Many buildings only have electricity or running water for a few hours each day, or do not have them at all.

Many daily tasks such as washing or bathing are carried out in streams and rivers.

Families walk outside their houses next to a tea plantation.Image copyright  SCHMOO THEUNE
The side of a tea plantation houseImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE
A woman collects water in containers outside her houseImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE

Some areas of housing are supplied with water only once every three days which must be collected in containers.

Tea-pickers and other labourers start work at 7.30am.

In plantation communities, children often have to walk several kilometres to school.

Tea-picking earns relatively low wages, so some tea plantation families have family members who work abroad in the Middle East, or in other cities around Sri Lanka, who send money back home.

A tea plucker poses inside her houseImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE

Women who labour on the plantations also have household duties such as cooking, cleaning and taking care of children.

A shelf of food containersImage copyright    SCHMOO THEUNE

The fresh tea leaves are taken to a factory near the plantation for processing, like the one seen below near the Sri Lankan city of Kandy.

A view of a tea plantation factoryImage copyright    SCHMOO THEUNE

‘Withering’ is the first step, requiring the blowing of dry air to extract moisture from the leaf, which gives it a pliable texture.

A batch of 18kg of fresh leaves can yield 5kg of Ceylon tea after it has been processed in plantation factories.

A worker places tea leaves into a machineImage copyright    SCHMOO THEUNE

A rolling machine then twists the withered leaves and begins the fermentation process, which starts to develop the distinctive flavour.

The machinery used in the tea processing is often up to 100 years old.

Finished tea is separated by leaf size, and packaged in bulk bags to be sent for auction in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka.

A machine processes tea leavesImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE
A woman past a large pile of processed teaImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE
Workers work in a tea shop in KandyImage copyright  SCHMOO THEUNE

Ceylon tea is not just an export, it is an essential part of Sri Lankan daily life, consumed by office workers, labourers, students, and everyone in-between.

A tea plucker works on a plantationImage copyright  SCHMOO THEUNE  
BBC News 10 April 2018

Lake Chad: Can the vanishing lake be saved?

Lake ChadImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES

Lake Chad – a source of water to millions of people in West Africa – has shrunk by nine-tenths due to climate change, population growth and irrigation. But can a scheme dating back to the 1980s save it?

“It’s a ridiculous plan and it will never happen.” That’s the reaction many people have to the idea of trying to fill up Lake Chad and restore it to its former ocean-like glory by diverting water from the Congo river system 2,400km (1,500 miles) away.

Sceptics in Nigeria, who have seen successive governments fail even to make the lights work, wonder if the region’s politicians have nodded off and have been dreaming a little too hard.

But the government ministers and engineers who were recently sipping mineral water in the capital, Abuja, at the International Conference on Lake Chad had good reason to be thinking outside the box.

Lake Chad

Lake Chad has shrunk by 90% since the 1960s, due to climate change, an increase in the population and unplanned irrigation. Its basin covers parts of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon, and has been a water source for between 20 million and 30 million people.

But with the desert encroaching further every year, it is getting increasingly difficult for families to make a living through agriculture, fishing and livestock farming. The UN says 10.7 million people in the Lake Chad basin need humanitarian relief to survive.

“We used to pass fields of maize on our way to the lake and there were vast numbers of boats bobbing up and down on the water back then, and huge fish markets,” says Bale Bura, who grew up by the lake in the 1970s and now works for the Lake Chad Fishermen’s Association.

Drawing of Transaqua planImage copyrightGROUP BONIFICA
Image captionTransaqua would cost tens of billions of dollars to build

Now far fewer farmers are able to earn a living on the mineral-rich but bone-dry shores.

This is one reason why the delegates in Abuja decided to dust off a scheme first mooted back in 1982 by the Italian engineering company Bonifica Spa.

It came up with Transaqua – a plan to construct a 2,400km (1,500 mile) canal to transfer water from the upstream tributaries of the mighty Congo River all the way to the Chari River basin, which feeds Lake Chad.

‘Deafening silence’

It proposed the transfer of up to 100 billion cubic metres (3.5 trillion cubic feet) of water a year and featured a series of dams along the route to generate electricity.

“I sent one of our engineers to the USA, to purchase the only reliable maps of Africa, which were made by the US Air Force and were the only maps with contour lines,” says Marcello Vichi, the Italian engineer who was asked to look into the idea during the early 1980s.

“After a couple of months of solitary study, I announced to the then chief executive that this thing could be done.”

He says 500 copies of the plans were sent out in 1985 to government representatives of every African country, as well as international financial agencies.

“The response was a deafening silence,” he adds.

But more than three decades later, minds are finally focusing on the lake’s shrinkage, prompted by its link to the deadly geopolitical crises of Islamist militancy and migration.

Freed schoolgirls in NigeriaImage copyrightEPA
Image captionBoko Haram recently seized more than 100 schoolgirls, before releasing most of them a month later

In 2014, I headed out of the north-east Nigerian city of Maiduguri towards Lake Chad in a new minibus. There were armoured vehicles in front as well as behind, and right next to me was a Nigerian soldier – fast asleep. Our destination was Kirenawa, the latest village that the marauding Boko Haram jihadists had terrorised.

As the road became steadily sandier, we entered a long-neglected area, passing the faded signs of abandoned government projects in ever hotter and sleepier villages.

Buildings had been torched and people had been left terrified, watching as others were killed in front of them.

In all the villages, people complained there was nothing for young people to do, nothing to dream of except getting out.

‘Ugly kinds of jobs’

It had become a perfect recruiting ground for the Islamist militants. The offer of a little cash and the promise of some training and a gun persuaded many to join.

Of course, Lake Chad’s decline is not the sole reason for the rise of violent extremism – a number of factors including poor governance have also played a role – but there is clearly a link.

“I know many young people from my own village who got into these ugly kinds of jobs,” Mr Bura says.

As if the delegates gathering in Abuja last month needed reminding of how dire the security situation had become, more than 100 schoolgirls had just been seized from Dapchi, Nigeria.

At the meeting, it was agreed that Bonifica and PowerChina, the company that helped build the Three Gorges dam spanning the Yangtze River, would complete a feasibility study. They announced that the effort to raise $50bn (£35bn) for the Lake Chad Fund should begin immediately.

Camels crossing Lake ChadImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES

Bonifica says its plan will use less than 8% of the water the Congo River discharges into the Atlantic and would not be a threat to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s continuing Grand Inga Dam project, which would create the world’s largest hydropower generator if it is completed.

Further engineering work would be needed to enable the Chari River to handle the increased flow of water. The project can be done in a staggered way, with each completed stage immediately adding to the flow of water into the Lake Chad basin.

Other options that have been considered include one which involves pumping the water uphill from Palambo, in the Central African Republic.

As well as the funding challenge for Transaqua, there will be resistance from environmental campaigners to overcome. And even carrying out the feasibility study properly requires peace.

Chinese media has reported the transfer canal would be 100m (328ft) wide and 10m (33ft) deep and would be flanked by a service road and eventually a rail line.

“It is a project which responds to the never-tackled infrastructural needs of the African continent, which maybe will give birth to a real African renaissance,” says Mr Vichi, who sees all along the route of the canal vast potential for agro-processing and transforming agricultural products for African and foreign markets.

Ministers know life is likely to get ever tougher for the people who live around Lake Chad. That’s why they are paying attention to the plans to bring it back to life.

Spice: Why some of us like it hot

Piles of spices in market (Credit: Getty Images)

Human beings around the world delight in fiery foods. Thai, Mexican, Chinese, Indian, Ethiopian – the cuisines that can take the roof off your mouth are numerous and flavourful.

Ranking the world’s most spicy peppers and comparing the most awe-inducing dishes is a common pastime, even if, past a certain point, the distinctions are somewhat moot. Who can say, subjectively speaking, that one Indian restaurant’s Widower Phaal, made while wearing goggles with chilis that rank about 1,000,000 on the Scoville Scale – an international measurement of pungency – is necessarily a fierier experience than the notorious Korean Suicide Burrito?

There’s plenty of burn to go around: more common dishes include vindaloo with ghost peppers and hot pot from Sichuan, where you must part a swarm of chillis bobbing in a sea of broth to fish out tender, fiery morsels of meats and vegetables.

As you savour these intense tastes, however, you may wonder, why do some cuisines compete for the title of spicy champion, while others feature barely the hint of a burn?

This is a question that has intrigued anthropologists and food historians for some time. Indeed, it’s a curious truth that places with warm climates do seem to have a heavier preponderance of hot and spicy dishes. That may have something to do with the fact that some spices have antimicrobial properties, studies have found.

Chilli pepper and powder (Credit: Getty Images)

Chillis pack fierce heat but also antimicrobial agents that could have been useful in the days before refrigeration (Credit: Getty Images)

In one survey of cookbooks from around the world, researchers note: “As mean annual temperatures (an indicator of relative spoilage rates of unrefrigerated foods) increased, the proportion of recipes containing spices, number of spices per recipe, total number of spices used, and use of the most potent antibacterial spices all increased.” In hot places, where before refrigeration food would have gone off very quickly, spices might have helped things keep a bit longer – or at least rendered them more palatable.

It’s also been suggested that because spicy food makes most people sweat, it might help us to cool off in hot parts of the world. The evaporative cooling effect that happens when we perspire is indeed useful in maintaining a body’s heat balance. In a very humid climate, though, it doesn’t matter how much you sweat: that evaporation won’t come to your rescue because there’s already too much moisture in the air. One study of people who drank hot water after exercise showed that they did cool down slightly more than those who drank cold water, but only in situations with low humidity. Thailand in August, that ain’t.

But spice is hardly limited to the tropics. While chilli peppers are originally from the Americas, this particular kind of heat grew widespread in the 15th and 16th Centuries, travelling with European traders. Other spices – not spicy in the same way as peppers, perhaps, but still strongly flavoured and bringing an extra oomph to a dish – had been circulating in Europe for centuries, with ginger, black pepper, and cinnamon brought in from the east.

As spice prices plummeted in Europe in the 1600s, and it became easier for just anyone to lace their food with them, tastemakers fell out of love with them

Heavily spiced dishes were the darlings of many cuisines we currently don’t think of for their zing. Numerous recipes in one 18th-Century British cookery book include potent doses of mace, cloves, and nutmeg, for instance. What happened?

Well, one possibility is that it became a bit uncouth to like quite so many flavours in one’s food, as Maanvi Singh has written over at The Salt. What we now consider classic European cuisine has a tendency to focus on pairing like flavours with like, rather than bringing in a riot of strong, contrasting ones. That may be because, as spice prices plummeted in Europe in the 1600s and it became easier for just anyone to lace their food with them, tastemakers fell out of love with them.

Shifting the goalposts for high-end food, they began to emphasise dishes where the focus was the purest essence of the basic ingredients, combined with flavours that served to bring that out. In a word – it may have been snobbery, Singh writes, that erased the thrill of spice from many European palates.

Nutmeg (Credit: Getty Images)

Many European cuisines used to be heavily spiced with ingredients such as nutmeg (Credit: Getty Images)

Indeed, the role of human culture in determining whether spice is hot or not cannot be underestimated. Like all animals, we use taste as a way to determine what’s safe to eat, and once we get used to certain flavors signalling the familiar, we like them all the more. It would not be surprising if some people, having acclimated to chillis, began to prefer them over the absence of chillis.

Today, we have our own reasons for eating spicy foods, and they may have more to do with adrenaline than social status or sheer flavour, per se. The physiological reaction to peppers, as we’ve discussed here before, is the result of temperature sensors in the mouth being activated. Your body responds as if you had burned it, causing you to sweat and flush, and in extreme cases vomit.

The thrill of triggering this intense experience without (usually) any long-term effects is thought to be part of the attraction – as well as, for some chilli fiends, the bragging rights.

Antimicrobial qualities and body temperature regulation are probably not on the list of possible draws today – something to ponder, and thank your lucky stars for, as you wait for your next curry.

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY: FEBRUARY 27

Chile earthquake; Concepción

Chile struck by earthquake and tsunami
2010   On this day a magnitude-8.8 earthquake struck Chile, causing widespread damage and triggering a tsunami that devastated coastal areas; it was the most powerful earthquake to strike the region since 1960.

MORE EVENTS 

Nimoy, Leonard
2015  American actor Leonard Nimoy—who was best known for his portrayal of the stoic, cerebral Mr. Spock in the sci-fi TV and film franchise Star Trek—died in Los Angeles.
Buckley, William F., Jr.
2008  American editor and author William F. Buckley, Jr.—who became an important intellectual influence in politics as the founder (1955) and editor in chief of the journal National Review, which he used as a forum for conservative views and ideas—died in Connecticut.
Remains of an Iraqi convoy near Kuwait city, Kuwait, during the Persian Gulf War.
1991  U.S. President George Bush ordered a cease-fire effective at midnight and declared victory in the Persian Gulf War, a conflict triggered by Iraq‘s invasion and occupation of Kuwait in August 1990.
American Indian Movement members and U.S. authorities meeting to resolve the 1973 standoff at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.
1973  Two hundred members of the American Indian Movement forcefully took the reservation hamlet of Wounded Knee, South Dakota.
Saint Kitts and Nevis
1967  Saint Kitts and Nevis (with Anguilla) became an independent state associated with the United Kingdom.
Second Empire style; Reichstag building
1933  In Berlin the Reichstag (parliament) building caught fire, a key event in the establishment of Nazi dictatorship.
Elizabeth Taylor, 1953.
1932  American actress Elizabeth Taylor—whose career, highlighted by award-winning portrayals of emotionally volatile characters, was often overshadowed by her highly publicized personal life—was born in London.
John Steinbeck.
1902  American novelist John Steinbeck—who was best known for The Grapes of Wrath (1939), which summed up the bitterness of the Great Depressiondecade and aroused widespread sympathy for the plight of migratory farmworkers—was born.
Hugo Black.
1886  American lawyer and politician Hugo Black—who, as a Supreme Courtjustice, was known for his support of the doctrine of total incorporation—was born.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
1807  American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born in Portland, Massachusetts (now in Maine).
1884  Paul Kruger, president of the South African Republic, signed a treaty in London that disavowed British authority over the Transvaal.
1776  At the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge, North Carolinian revolutionaries defeated loyalists during the American Revolution.