The Meaning of Life (Or Lebanese Bread)
The ancient philosopher, Pythagoras, once wrote that “The universe begins with bread.” While this might seem like a pretty big statement, there is no doubt that bread has had a massive impact on humanity. Wars have been fought over it, uprisings have been sparked by its price, and people have survived for long periods of time on nothing but bread and water.
Nowhere is bread more important than in Lebanon. It is a central part of our culture and a core element in traditional Lebanese food eaten with every meal. In fact, bread is held in such high regard that many of us refer to it as ‘eh’, which is Lebanese for life.
A food of ancient origins
The relationship between humans and wheat – bread’s key ingredient – goes back thousands of years to hunter-gatherer times. Wheat is known to have grown on several continents in ancient times, though it thrived most in an area known as the Fertile Crescent, a region that includes parts of modern day Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Israel.
It is believed that early humans first chewed wheat for its nutritional value. Only much later did they discover that if you dried and ground the grains and added liquid could you bake it over a fire to create bread.
Many believe that humans first learned to bake bread as early as 10,000 BC, though the Ancient Egyptians are viewed as the first to perfect it roughly 6,000 years ago. After becoming wildly popular throughout Ancient Egypt, the practice of baking bread quickly spread throughout the region and beyond. Bread would continue to evolve and become part of almost every culture on earth.
A gift from heaven
The significance of bread’s arrival wasn’t lost on the world’s major religions. Many viewed it as nothing short of a gift from heaven and bread quickly became part of religious writings, sayings and rituals.
You can find references to bread throughout the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments where it is hailed as being a gift from God and even the body of Christ himself. Even the birthplace of Jesus – Bethlehem – translates from Hebrew to mean the House of Bread.
Islam is similarly enamoured with bread, as is shown through the works of Rumi, a prominent 13th Century Sufi mystic. Rumi famously dedicated a series of poems to bread in which he praises it as a mirror of life itself.
A political power
Bread became so important to everyday life that in the middle Ages the rulings powers started to control it – they knew that without access to bread the masses would revolt. Regulations were brought in to control how bread was made, how much it could be sold for, and in many cases governments subsidized the cost of bread to keep prices low. To this day many countries still don’t tax bread as it is seen as a necessity of life.
Despite all of the advancements of the modern world very little has changed when it comes to bread, particularly in the Middle East where it remains just as important as ever. We eat it with dips, such as hommus, it is a key element in salads, such as fattoush, and we have used it as a pizza-like base for manoosh for thousands of years. To us, life simply wouldn’t be the same without bread.