Can environmental scholars rethink Middle East history?

Surely there are too few environmental histories of the Middle East.  With its distinctive landscapes and impressive features—the intimidating mountains of Iran, the nourishing rivers of Mesopotamia, the dangerous yet life-giving floods of the Nile, and the harsh deserts of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, to name just a few—it is perhaps surprising that only a few scholars have provided explicitly environmental interpretations of the region’s past events.  So when Cambridge University Press published two environmental histories of the Ottoman Empire, one by Sam White and the other by Alan Mikhail, as part of its “Studies in Environment and History” series, I was excited about the opportunity to invite one of the authors to participate in a roundtable.  In the end, rather than choose between the two books, I invited both authors to contribute and they graciously agreed.  I asked the kind roundtable participants to comment not on a single book, but on both of them together.  The result is a stimulating discussion about the environmental dimensions of the Ottoman Empire and a provocative discussion of the future of scholarship on the Middle East’s environmental history.

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Sam White’s The Climate of Rebellion in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire proposes that a climate event, the so-called “Little Ice Age,” nearly led to the collapse of the Ottoman empire.  The cold temperatures in the final decade of the sixteenth century led to famine and widespread death, during a time when the imperial government already was pressing its subjects for supplies and men for its ongoing wars.  White’s exploration of the ensuing revolt, the Celali Rebellion, is rooted in a climate crisis, and his analysis draws in subsequent climate challenges that frustrated the Ottomans’ attempts to recover over the next century.  White’s book provides a new narrative that brings climate into human history, revealing an empire that arose under “precarious ecological circumstances” and suffered the trauma of a climate catastrophe (14).

In Nature and Empire in Ottoman Egypt, Alan Mikhail tells the story of Egypt’s history (from 1675 to 1820) through the management of water use and food production, and from the point of view of Egyptian peasants.  He draws attention to some of the hidden dimensions of the slow shift from imperial Ottoman management of water resources to a more autonomous, centralized bureaucracy in Egypt.

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Although nationalist histories might argue that this move toward autonomy was a sign of greater Egyptian independence, Mikhail shows how this was not necessarily good for peasants, because it meant less access to commodities previously available under the empire.  Without empire, Egyptians had to work the soil harder and give up more themselves.  They had little room to maneuver and, Mikhail tells us, “a despotic form of bureaucratic government” in Egypt took over not only water, but also peasants’ lives (4).

I invited Yaron Ayalon to contribute to the roundtable because of his expertise on the Ottoman era, and because he is writing a book (also to be published with Cambridge) on natural disasters in the empire.  Ayalon is an assistant professor of history at Ball State University.  In his work, he has argued that responses to disasters can reveal important features in the relationship between state and society, such as acceptable norms of privacy. He also has written about the different kinds of sources scholars can use, such as visitors’ observations, to understand the social impacts of disasters.[1]

Another commentator, Richard W. Bulliet, has written prodigiously on Middle East history, world history, and the history of animals.  His work has been attentive to the lives of farmers and camel herders, and his early work explored the reasons for the widespread domestication of camels (including their superiority over the wheel as a mode of transport).  He also has taken up the role of climate change in world history.  For example, a recent book shows how an eleventh-century cooling climate led to the decline of cotton agriculture in Iran and the migration of large numbers of camel-breeding Turkish nomads to Iran, where they would play a dominant role in society for many years to come.[2]

Arash Khazeni is currently writing an environmental history of the turquoise trade.  His past work focused on people at “on the margins” of empire.  In his study of the Bakhtiyari tribe in nineteenth-century Iran, he draws heavily on the importance of physical geography to explain the ways in which state and imperial projects transformed tribal life.  Khazeni notes that the Bakhtiyari participated in imperial projects but also resisted some changes to their own autonomy, as the Qajar state and British empire tried to control the environment through dams and river diversion, and to extract resources through mining and oil prospecting.[3]

Before turning to the first set of comments, I would like to pause here and thank all the roundtable participants for taking part.  In addition, I would like to remind readers that as an open-access forum, H-Environment Roundtable Reviews is available to scholars and non-scholars alike, around the world, free of charge. Please circulate.

All of the roundtables are here.  But click here for a PDF of the above roundtable.


[1] Yaron Ayalon, “Famines, Earthquakes, Plagues: Natural Disasters in Ottoman Syria in the Writings of Visitors,” Journal of Ottoman Studies 32 (2008), 223-247; Yaron Ayalon, “Ottoman Urban Privacy in Light of Disaster Recovery,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 43 (2011), 513-528.

[2] Richard W. Bulliet, The Camel and the Wheel (Cambride: Harvard University Press, 1975); Richard W. Bulliet, Cotton, Climate, and Camels in Early Islamic Iran: A Moment in World History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

[3] Arash Khazeni, Tribes and Empire on the Margins of Nineteenth-century Iran (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010).

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