One of the glaring weaknesses in the development of global environmental history thus far has been its neglect of the Middle East. Similarly, until recently, one of the gaping holes in Middle Eastern historiography has been the treatment of environmental topics. In an attempt to address these lacunae, Alan Mikhail’s Under Osman’s Tree frames the Ottoman Empire as an ecosystem. By emphasizing the complex relationships between imperial power and nature, Mikhail introduces a dizzying range of human and nonhuman actors, demonstrating how animals, water, silt, microbes, trees, and volcanoes might recast more traditional readings of sultans, bureaucrats, and peasants. In this ecosystem, the smallest and largest of imperial actors were “locked together in relationships of reliance, conflict, and mutual constitution” (p. xii). Likewise, just as the ecologies of Egypt, Anatolia, and the Balkans were affected by one another, the Ottoman ecosystem was embedded in still wider hydrologic, disease, and climatic patterns stretching well beyond the Middle East. To give substance to this holistic vision of the articulations between regional and global scales, Mikhail makes a persuasive case for empirical ballast. While this book is a plea for more cross-pollination between regional and global environmental narratives, it also anticipates the pitfalls inherent in such an endeavor. To provide these building blocks, Mikhail grounds the global significance of his arguments in the fertile soil of his expertise in the ecologies of early-modern Ottoman Egypt. After the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517, Mikhail argues that it became the empire’s most profitable province and its largest supplier of foodstuffs. Egypt was a critical base of Ottoman rule in the Mediterranean and Red Sea and a linchpin of wider relations with Venetian, French, and Indian Ocean markets. Egypt and the Nile also provide perfect vehicles for “understanding the role of ecology in politics and politics in ecology” (p. xii). Readers familiar with Mikhail’s previous work will recognize updated takes on signature themes like irrigation, the Egyptian peasantry, and human–animal relations, explored in Nature and Empire in Ottoman Egypt (Cambridge, 2011) and The Animal in Ottoman Egypt (Oxford, 2014). Under Osman’s Tree is divided into four parts. Parts I and II are devoted to water management and peasant labor, arguing that irrigation in Ottoman Egypt did not result in the kind of Oriental despotism predicted by Wittfogel. Instead, Mikhail demonstrates how rural muscle and ingenuity forced Istanbul to recognize “local control” as “the most efficient and effective means to govern natural resources and landscapes in Egypt” (p. 92). Part III explores the role of animals as property, capital, and labor. Here, Mikhail places animals at the center of an agrarian empire, “whose calories and revenues were almost entirely based on the cultivation of foodstuffs” (p. 129). Animals provided the energy that the Egyptian peasantry needed to feed not just themselves, but the empire as a whole. In part IV, Mikhail analyzes the role of nonhuman things from grain and wood to pathogens and sulfur dioxide. This section is where Mikhail’s creativity and historical imagination are on full display. A particular treat is the concluding chapter, “Egypt, Iceland, and SO2,” exploring how the fallout from a volcanic eruption in Iceland in 1783 affected Egypt and the wider Ottoman ecosystem. Mikhail’s ability to connect disparate locales offers a masterful example of the wide-ranging material and political impacts stemming from a small-scale episode of global climate change. In short, Mikhail offers another trailblazing contribution to the burgeoning field of Middle Eastern environmental history. It is a welcome addition to advanced undergraduate and graduate syllabi, laying out an ambitious agenda for colleagues working on Middle Eastern and global environmental histories. If there is one very slight tension, the book’s introduction and conclusion give the impression that the author is straining toward an even grander synthesis of the region, one that moves farther beyond his case studies on Ottoman Egypt. Even this unfinished work, however, leaves the reader looking forward to where Mikhail will lead the field next. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: May 8, 2018
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