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  • Nature and Empire in Ottoman Egypt: An Environmental History
  • Stuart Borsch (bio)
Nature and Empire in Ottoman Egypt: An Environmental History, by Alan Mikhail. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 380 pages. $95.

This innovative book explores the interaction between the physical environment and the social structure of Ottoman Egypt and its relationship with the wider Empire. It is a highly original work which attempts to analyze the changes that accompanied Egypt's transition from the early modern period to the beginning of modernization at the end of the 18th century. The use of sources in this book is creative, and the work stands out for its novel treatment of transformations of material life in Egypt.

The focus of the first chapter is the irrigation system of Ottoman Egypt. Mikhail cleverly employs two new source areas here. The first is a 16th-century Ottoman survey of the irrigation system located in the Egyptian National Archives. Mikhail's analysis of this record supplies the reader with a wealth of new information about this irrigation system. The second is provincial court documents, which Mikhail uses in an original way to bring out of them a description of water rights and how they were negotiated through court cases. He then provides a detailed analysis of competition and conflict over water resources. Mikhail is the first scholar to explore this subject, and it provides an important addition to our knowledge of the mechanics of Egypt's irrigation system. Scholars of ancient and medieval Egypt will be very interested in this schematic. He has done a considerable service to the field here, and the book stands out as innovative and exceptional on the basis of this first chapter alone.

The first chapter also demonstrates how the use of the irrigation system tied together the interests of the peasant communities and the interests of the Empire in a cooperative relationship of mutual reliance and trust. Mikhail then explores the ways in which the Empire devolved authority to peasant communities, who were able to apply their practical, on the ground knowledge of how to manage the system. Finally, there is an analysis of the manner in which the irrigation system functioned as a lever of change in the economy and society of Ottoman Egypt. The themes here are a guide to the rest of this book, as it follows the story of interaction between the physical environment and social change.

The second chapter explores a model of early modern natural resource management. Mikhail does this via the lens of the commoners of Ottoman Egypt and how they developed and maintained the infrastructure needed to manage the flow of primary goods and their trade and consumption. He shows how the peasants worked in tandem with the Empire in this area, in the same way in which they mediated authority vis-à-vis the irrigation system.

In the third chapter, Mikhail analyzes the manner in which the supply of wood was managed in tandem with the supply of grain. He demonstrates how the Empire weighed choices regarding the use of raw materials in Ottoman Egypt and Ottoman Anatolia.

The fourth chapter details the manner in which the use of localized and autonomous labor slowly gave way to the mass employment of labor in ever larger projects managed by a rapidly growing state bureaucracy in the late 18th century. Mikhail describes how the management of work and labor shifted from a local to a centralized basis at [End Page 172] the end of the long 18th century.

In Chapter 5, "From Nature to Disease," Mikhail explores the dimensions of disease, specifically plague, and how conceptions of this disease changed in relation to the modernizing trends in the late eighteenth and early 19th centuries. Here and in the sixth and final chapter, we are provided with a description of the process of change in labor management and how it reflected broader issues of transformation of institutions and social structures in general.

One might take Mikhail to task for his categorization of environmental problems. While mismanagement of the irrigation system may have led to a temporary retraction in agricultural productivity, it is doubtful that this...


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