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New Texts Out Now: Alan Mikhail, "Nature and Empire in Ottoman Egypt"

[Cover of Alan Mikhail, [Cover of Alan Mikhail, "Nature and Empire in Ottoman Egypt"

Alan Mikhail, Nature and Empire in Ottoman Egypt: An Environmental History. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

[Winner of the 2011 Roger Owen Book Award]

Jadaliyya: What made you write this book?

Alan Mikhail: In the most general sense, I wrote this book because I wanted to understand the period of Ottoman rule in the Arab World. The Ottomans were in Egypt for over 350 years, so they clearly must have had a fundamental role in shaping its history, politics, culture, and economy. I wondered why so many historians of the Middle East work on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries rather than on the earlier period. Thus, I wanted to write a book that would help us understand the complex dynamics of the relationship between Egypt and the rest of the Ottoman Empire during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I wanted it both to attend to local conditions in Egypt and to larger imperial processes of governance, economics, and ecology.

It eventually became clear to me that the perfect lens through which to view the relationship between the Ottoman Empire and Egypt—its most lucrative province—was natural resource management. Irrigating land, growing food, using timber, managing disease, and harnessing rural labor were all processes at the intersections of imperial concerns and local specificities. As the largest grain producing region in the empire, Egypt fed areas all over the Mediterranean and Red Seas. Similarly, the province also consumed natural resources like wood from other parts of the empire. These and other processes had enormous imperial implications for the Ottoman Empire and yet were fundamentally based on particular and very localized rural ecologies and villages societies. In other words, irrigation, food, wood, disease, and labor tied the fates and fortunes of the highest echelons of the imperial bureaucracy and the wellbeing of populations all over the Ottoman world to the smallest villages in Egypt. The push and pull, cooperation and tension, between these Egyptian locals and the empire over the management of natural resources is the story of this book.

In telling this story, a rather new topography of the Ottoman Empire emerges. First, peasant cultivators come to take center stage in imperial Ottoman history. Because of their specialized knowledge of local environments and accumulated experiences on the ground, Egyptian peasants became the local experts on which the empire necessarily had to rely to make natural resource management productive and sustainable. Canals, embankments, and silt beds were radically different from one village to the next, so there was clearly not a one-size-fits-all solution to environmental management in rural Egypt. Thus Egyptian peasants in many ways came to use the empire to their own advantage—to improve local conditions and to fix infrastructure for example. They used the empire, not the other way around, as we have often thought.

Second, Nature and Empire traces some of the many links that natural resource management created around the empire—trees going from southwestern Anatolia and the Black Sea littoral to Suez, grains moving from Rosetta to Tunis, and all sorts of other connections that functioned and were maintained largely outside of the imperial capital’s direct control. The overall picture then is one of a kind of early modern localism in the Egyptian countryside that the empire coordinated and put into contact with other local circumstances elsewhere in the empire. The local made the imperial, and the imperial helped to build the local.


[Jarim (Cerim in Ottoman Turkish). A ship used to transport heavy items like wood along the Nile. Image via the author.]

Beginning around the turn of the nineteenth century—importantly, several decades before Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt—much of the local autonomy and rural control over natural resources that Egyptians had enjoyed for centuries began to be degraded by the Cairo-based imperial administration’s seizure of land and resources. Ottoman-Egyptian elites began to undertake larger and larger infrastructural projects—chiefly the construction of grain storage facilities and the cleaning and expansion of canals. Among other things, these projects required more and more Egyptian peasant workers and led to the concentration of resources in the countryside.

These processes culminated in the first few decades of the nineteenth century as Mehmet ‘Ali, the most successful of the Ottoman-Egyptian elites, built his bureaucracy. The construction of the Mahmudiyya Canal—perhaps the largest infrastructural project in Egypt since antiquity and the subject of the book’s final chapter—made clear that the early modern system of managing rural ecologies and peasant labor was forever gone. This project brought over 300,000 peasants to dig a canal roughly fifty miles long between the Rosetta Branch of the Nile and Alexandria. Of these workers, nearly a third—100,000 people—died. To put these numbers in perspective, consider that the population of Cairo in this period was approximately 220,000. The Mahmudiyya, in other words, resulted in the forced movement and labor of more people than lived in Egypt’s largest city and the deaths of a number just under half of the city’s population. Local control over resources and labor had clearly ended.

What is more, this kind of enormous public works undertaking has been repeated in Egypt (and elsewhere of course) ever since the early nineteenth century. The Mahmudiyya was the first major infrastructural project imagined and undertaken to change the political, economic, and social fortunes of the Egyptian state. The Suez Canal, the First Aswan Dam, the Aswan High Dam, and Toshka have all followed the script written by the Mahmudiyya. All have employed massive numbers of workers, all were very expensive, all had enormous and unseen deleterious effects on the environment, and all essentially failed in one way or another.

Nature and Empire thus speaks to some of the ecological and political consequences of the transformation of Egypt from an early modern imperial province of the Ottoman Empire to a centralizing administration in the nineteenth century.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?

AM: Nature and Empire is one of the first environmental histories of the Ottoman Empire and Middle East. Environmental history is most usefully defined as the study of the mutual determinative relationships between humans and the rest of nature. Humans have clearly always been in intimate dialogue with the multiple environments around them. It would not take long for us to realize that everything around us—from democracy to the iPad—has been developed over the steady course of millennia from an initial set of biological and physical conditions. Understanding how humans have both impacted and been impacted by these complicated conditions to produce ideas, fixed commodities, and basically everything else is part of the work of environmental history.

Beyond these basic points, it strikes me that the overwhelming majority of the historical experience of people we study in the Middle East is one shaped by the constant engagement with the natural world. Agriculture, husbandry, irrigation, and disease were the day-to-day concerns of most people in the Middle East until quite recently. Taking this history seriously and trying to understand some of how it worked is crucial to any work on the history of the Middle East. Environmental history provides a set of tools to do this.

Of course, this book is centrally positioned in the literature and debates of Ottoman and Egyptian history as well. Despite centuries of Ottoman rule in Egypt, we have surprisingly few works that take seriously both the complexities of Egyptian rural society and the intricacies of Ottoman administration. I attempt to keep both of these balls in the air, not simply to wed two historiographies, but because I think that neither Ottoman history nor Egyptian history can be understood correctly without accounting for the other.

Nature and Empire also engages the literatures of early modern history, the history of public works, and the history of medicine.


[Alan Mikhail. Photo via the author.]

J: How does this work connect to and depart from previous research and writing?

AM: Nature and Empire owes a great debt to several generations of scholars working on Ottoman and Egyptian history. Ottomanists have for decades now been producing amazingly high quality work on the histories of various parts of the empire and their various connections to imperial institutions and modes of rule. Likewise, writing mostly in Arabic, scholars of Egypt have been using the archival record of Egypt to give us a rich understanding of the social and economic history of Egypt during the Ottoman period.

Until quite recently, though, and with important exceptions, scholars have generally treated Ottoman Egypt as either just Ottoman or just Egyptian. There are several problems with this. One, it is not at all clear what each of these terms means and how they could be productively harnessed to do historical work. Two, this mode of writing assumes certain nineteenth and twentieth century categories that did not exist in the early modern period. Three, it potentially forestalls a more capacious treatment of available source materials and historiographies.

Nature and Empire begins from a different set of concerns to trace connections between Egypt and elsewhere. How did peasants in rural Egypt irrigate land and grow food, and where did this food go? How did they get the wood they needed? What kinds of relationships were forged through the movement of natural resources and the deployment of knowledge about them? Answers to these and similar questions make some long-debated issues in the field of Middle East history—Ottoman decline, relationships between Istanbul and the empire’s provinces, statist development, and the rise of local elites and later national movements—look very different.

The book also seeks to make an intervention in environmental history. Environmental historians have largely ignored the Middle East, and Middle East historians have largely ignored environmental history. This is unfortunate since the Middle East has much to teach us about the globe’s ecological pasts and because Middle East Studies stands to gain a great deal from considering the field of environmental history. For a more involved discussion of some of what the Middle East can offer to environmental history, please see this article.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AM: I hope Ottoman, Egyptian, environmental, and early modern historians will read this book. I wrote it to speak to all of these fields. For Ottoman and Middle East historians, I hope the book will contribute to the development of new ways of conceptualizing and studying the Ottoman Empire and Middle East and that it will show some of the enormous rewards derived from bringing together Ottoman and Egyptian archives.

I hope as well that environmental historians who have never thought seriously about the Middle East will read this book. If it gets environmental historians interested in the Middle East (and of course Ottoman and Middle East historians interested in environmental history), then I’ll consider it a success.


[Portion of a work register to repair a canal in Manfalut in southern Egypt in 1808. Image via the author.]

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AM: At the moment, I am working on two book-length projects. One is a study of the changing relationships between humans and animals in Ottoman Egypt. I see this relationship as one of the most fundamental aspects of understanding early modern history and the transitions from early modernity to something else in the nineteenth century. Animals were crucial to the function of everything in early modern Ottoman Egypt. Indeed, when one begins to look for animals in historical sources, they are quickly found to be creeping around everywhere!

The other book is a collection of essays I am editing on Middle East environmental history. The hope is that this volume will help to mark this new field and that it can be assigned in environmental and Middle East history courses.

Excerpt from Nature and Empire in Ottoman Egypt:

Water made agricultural land in Ottoman Egypt. Peasants, though, made agricultural land productive. Without their knowledge of local village environments, labor in maintaining irrigation works, and contributions to the generating of revenues and food for the Empire, ample supplies of water were not enough for growing food in the fields of Egypt. As we saw earlier, because irrigation in Egypt had wide economic consequences for the Empire as a whole, Egyptian peasants were able to use the Ottoman provincial bureaucracy to improve their lot through the dredging of canals, the reinforcement of embankments, and the strengthening of dams. In many instances, however, Egyptian peasants could not get their way by working within the imperial system; rather, they made their concerns and discontent known to the Ottoman state through avenues other than the court, provincial bureaucrats, or petitions. One of the most dramatic and effective means by which peasants forced the hand of the imperial bureaucracy was through the wholesale abandonment of villages—a phenomenon that powerfully changed the physical and demographic history of the rural Ottoman Egyptian environment.

By completely abandoning a village and leaving its fields unirrigated and untended, Egyptian peasants were able to affect with great impact the well-being both of the Egyptian countryside and of the Ottoman bureaucracy managing it. In the face of dire and desperate situations, peasants readily undertook such wrenchingly disruptive transformations in their own lives and in the demography of the countryside, because they understood that the threat and act of abandonment was highly effective in achieving their goals. A village without peasants to plant and harvest fields and to maintain irrigation works could not survive and could not generate revenues.

In a court case from 1688, we see that the collective abandonment of a village on the part of a group of peasants was able to reverse a situation in favor of the peasants’ interests. In that year, a group of multazims and other notable representatives of the seven military blocs of Egypt stationed in the subprovince of al-Daqahliyya came to the court of al-Manṣūra in the northeastern Nile Delta to investigate the transfer of the village of Famm Ẓāfir to the iltizām of an amir named Aḥmad Jalabī ibn al-Marḥūm al-Amīr Muṣṭafā Bey. Located on the banks of the major canal of al-Baḥr al-Ṣaghīr, Famm Ẓāfir had been administered by the village of al-Kashūfiyya from time immemorial (min qadīm al-zamān) and had generally enjoyed prosperity, proper irrigation, and ample cultivation. When control of the village was given over to Aḥmad Jalabī, however, things quickly began to change for the worse. Fighting and all other kind of evils (shurūr) took hold of the village, thereby visiting great harm, disrepair, and hardship on the social, economic, familial, and public works structures of the rural community. Irrigation, sowing, and planting in the village stopped as did the payment of taxes to the state. Things came to a head in the year this case was brought to court as a huge deadly fight broke out in the village between some of its peasants. During the course of this battle, numerous fields in the village were destroyed and could not be planted, and, as such, many peasants decided to leave Famm Ẓāfir for good out of fear that its problems would never be solved.

This upheaval in Famm Ẓāfir resulted in the people of that village failing to dredge the imperial canal that ran through their village, a waterway known as Jisr al-Ẓafar, which meant that little or no water reached many of the villages downstream from Famm Ẓāfir, causing all of them to be left without water. Moreover, because the canal had not been properly dredged, water collected behind silted up areas of the waterway, overflowing its banks, and flooding parts of the village of al-Manzala. Thus, problems of administration in Famm Ẓāfir and its peasants’ dissatisfied reactions to those problems resulted in a lack of proper irrigation both in Famm Ẓāfir and in other nearby areas. From an imperial Ottoman perspective, the great destruction wrought in this village and its effects on communities around it meant great losses to the state’s budget and created a pressing situation.

The report of these notables in the court of al-Manṣūra in 1688 was only the beginning of Famm Ẓāfir’s troubles. As agreed in the court, the multazim of the village of Tahākān, a village neighboring Famm Ẓāfir, was sent with a letter of peace for the people of Famm Ẓāfir to investigate further the situation in the village. He asked those still living there why the community had fallen into ruin and destruction and why so many peasants had left their lands. The peasants informed him that, since time immemorial, their village had fallen under the administration of the village of al-Kashūfiyya and, moreover, that no individual—not the kāshifs, the amirs, or the heads of the seven military blocs—had the right to take the village away from al-Kashūfiyya for his own personal gain. The peasants went on to say that when control of the village was taken over by Aḥmad Jalabī, he caused all sorts of civil strife and infighting to break out amongst the villagers. The remaining peasants threatened to abandon the village as well and never again to maintain its canal or cultivate its fields as long as it remained under the control of Aḥmad Jalabī. As if this were not strong enough of a statement, the villagers also vowed to prevent any other peasants—those loyal to Aḥmad Jalabī or those from other villages—from planting the fields of Famm Ẓāfir. The entire village of Famm Ẓāfir was, in other words, to be left deserted forever unless it was returned to the control of the village of al-Kashūfiyya.

If all were restored to its former state, though, the peasants of Famm Ẓāfir promised to return to their village to plant its fields, to restore its built structures, and to maintain and protect (ḥifẓ wa ḥarāsa) its canal in accordance with previous laws. Understanding the seriousness of the peasants’ threats and their inability to do anything in the face of them, all the multazims and other imperial officials in the court acquiesced to the peasants’ demands and recommended that Famm Ẓāfir be reattached to the administration of al-Kashūfiyya. Thus, the peasants of Famm Ẓāfir successfully leveraged their powers as cultivators and sources of revenue to expel an unjust and corrupt ruler and to return their village to the administrative control of al-Kashūfiyya. By abandoning their village and preventing it from functioning as a productive agricultural unit (by essentially breaking the factory’s machines), peasants were able to force the hand of multazims and of the Ottoman administration of Egypt itself to agree to their demands to remove Aḥmad Jalabī.

The role of irrigation works was central to this case, because their failure to function properly was the reason the peasants of Famm Ẓāfir were able to win the support of the leaders of nearby villages. Indeed, because the peasants of Famm Ẓāfir purposefully allowed the canal in their village to fall into disrepair, numerous other villages were not able to irrigate their fields and were thereby also made victims of the hardships visited upon the peasants of Famm Ẓāfir by Aḥmad Jalabī. The canal and the waters it carried were thus strategically used to great effect by the peasants of Famm Ẓāfir. Not only does this case (and numerous others) prove that Egyptian peasants indeed had agency and voice in the eighteenth-century countryside; it also exemplifies how peasants were able to affect Ottoman rule in Egypt by altering the material conditions of their rural world through changing the course of a canal and, in turn, the course of their own history.

[Excerpted from Alan Mikhail, Nature and Empire in Ottoman Egypt: An Environmental History. @ 2011 by Alan Mikhail. Excerpted by permission of the author. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here; for the author's website, click here.]

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