- The Nature of Ottoman History
Environmental history, as a field, is nearly forty years old. Thus it is remarkable that until now there has been almost no work on the environmental history of the Middle East. In the last two or three years, however, this has begun to change, and the two books under review here represent a remarkable first foray into the environmental history of the early modern Ottoman Empire. Environmental historians tend, perhaps unconsciously, to divide themselves into two camps. The first, and perhaps most familiar, are those scholars who view the environment as a singularly powerful causal factor in human history—Braudelian deep structure, if you will. The second group sees the environment more as a heuristic device that helps historians understand human social relations and cultural ideas for the simple reason that environmental resources have so often been the locus of social conflict. The divide between these two groups is not necessarily stark, in the sense that all environmental histories have to grapple in some fashion with the problem of environment as structure. The distinction ultimately lies in how much agency the environmental historian chooses to assign to the environment and how much to the human protagonists of the story. Happily, one might say, the two books under consideration are representative of the two styles of environmental history, and thus offer an excellent starting point for future environmental histories of the Ottoman Empire. White offers a broad, environmentally-driven explanation for a major series of revolts in sixteenth-century Anatolia, while Mikhail looks at how shifts in agrarian life and economic organization in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Egypt altered the way in which the state understood and managed both the riparian environment of the Nile and the lives of its peasant subjects.
For White, the key structural factor is the climate, specifically the so-called Little Ice Age of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Historical demographers and environmental historians have long recognized the effects of what we now call climate change on past societies. Along with the Little Optimum of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Little Ice Age is one of the most famous climatic events in European history. White does a wonderful job laying out the case for thinking about the Little Ice Age as an important factor in Ottoman and Middle Eastern history. As he rightly points out, while the lowering of temperatures was a global event, its effects were unevenly distributed and varied a great deal by region. So while northern Europe experienced unusually wet conditions, for Anatolia and much of the Middle East the Little Ice Age meant cold winters accompanied by extreme drought conditions. In a region dependent on dry cereal cultivation, this was a recipe for dearth and, in White's telling, social unrest culminating in the Celali Rebellion, a series of armed insurgent uprisings against Istanbul in the late sixteenth century.
White makes his case with care. The reader will become familiar not only with the history of the early modern Ottoman Empire, but also the effects of the [End Page 302] North Atlantic Oscillation, the Pacific Oscillation (El Niño), the Maunder Minimum, and more. This kind of analysis is a traditional strength of environmental history, and White does it well. He brings his readers in close to look at the culture of the regions most affected by the climate fluctuations of the sixteenth century; takes them on campaign with the Sultan's armies to encounter crippling snowfalls and the frozen Danube; and pulls back into near-earth orbit to imagine a satellite's-eye view of the contraction and expansion of nomadic pastureland in response to the successes and failures of dry cereal agriculture. The book covers a lot of ground, both figuratively and literally.
The core of the book concerns the Celali Rebellion, which White sees as directly caused by the droughts that accompanied the Little Ice Age in Anatolia. In short, the most ecologically vulnerable regions...