Fishing off Egypt and Syria in Medieval Times and Today
Following the littoral to the east along the North African coast from Tunisia, we do not meet any significant fishing activity until we reach the coast of Egypt. In Marsa Matruh, there are a few fishermen, but in Alexandria and Damietta there are more. The fish of Egypt have been famous since Biblical times. In Numbers 11: 5, a Jewish crowd, speaking of their exile from Egypt, wept that "We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing." Later the Muslim Egyptians were also infatuated with fish. In medieval times there were such a variety of fish coming from the Nile and deltic Mediterranean that fishmongers were named according to the fish they sold. There were the tawwan, sellers of tuna, and the bunni, who sold carp pickles (literally, pickled pieces of carp), and the qardusi, who sold sea bass. The Arab doctor from Baghdad 'Abd al-Latif (1162-1231) reports that in the Egyptian coastal town of Damietta, they ate a lot of fish cooked in the same way the meat was--that is, with rice and sumac. Today, wonderful fish dishes come out of Alexandria such as griddled fish.
The Syrian fishing industry, if it can be called that, was the most meager in the eastern Mediterranean. The catch was small even though 177 of the 324 species of fish in the Levant basin of the Mediterranean are found off the Syro-Palestinian coast. The continental shelf off the coast is very narrow, rarely wider than four miles, and cut by submarine canyons that plunge to nearly a mile deep. As a result, there is little for fish to feed on and the local fishing culture is minuscule. The number of port villages, even today, are few and only are dots along the coast. The catch is consumed locally. However, in the eleventh century the coast was attractive enough for the mahari, the catchers of shellfish, based in Alexandria to make the long journey to catch the little fish such as red mullet that populate the rocky coastline and to dredge for the precious "purple" shellfish--that is oysters, as they were called. The few fish that are caught along the Syro-Palestinian coast are expertly prepared and some recipes, such as one for spiced fish, demonstrate a culinary finesse beyond what we would expect. Generally, people eat fish with rice, and fish and rice dishes were first, and particularly, associated with the Khazars, a partly nomadic Turkic peoples who converted to Judaism in about A.D. 740.
(Photo: Fish market in Alexandria, Egypt, Luca Mauro Borsellini)
Fish market in Alexandria, Egypt, Luca Mauro Borsellini