Under Osman's Tree: The Ottoman Empire Egypt and Environmental History Review
History books don't have to necessarily treat the big questions and the grand changes in the course of human events. But nevertheless it has to be admitted that generally a study of history which shows a metamorphosis or turning point in the human condition, something of great import, and which shows something that was previously unexplored. Under Osman's Tree: The Ottoman Empire, Egypt, & Environmental History by Alan Mikhail is an excellent example of this, showing the massive ecological transformation which occurred in the Egyptian countryside and economy at the end of the 18th century, with dramatic ramifications for the political position of Egypt within the Empire and its own internal organization. It gives the reader an in depth look at a snapshot of the Egyptian environment and countryside before modernity, and then the huge transformations which impacted the country and why they were so intimately bound up in ecological history: it shows a different facet of Egypt's transition to modernity and the vast impacts that this has had both on the world and on the country itself.
The introduction to the book lays the proposition that the Middle East has suffered from a lack of studies of its ecology, and the picture which has been painted of it is unbalanced and unfair: instead it wants to look at the ecological and economy through climate, plague, and energy to examine Egypt(s role in the broader world economy and its evolution.
For the next few chapters, the focus is on irrigation works, vital for Egyptian agriculture, and how rather than being the products of Oriental despotism, they were actually a collaboration between peasants and their decentralized authority and the state who provided them the necessary resources for large projects. It also had to intervene in protecting status quo and property rights, to ensure the smooth functioning of the countryside, which it took seriously, with authorities as high as the sultan himself involved in approving irrigation project.
Labor for this of course, came from the peasants themselves, who in contrast to the relatively bucolic picture painted of them in the previous centuries, started to be increasingly drawn into commercialized cash economies as rural proletariat in the 1700s, as land, labor, and resources were centralized and peasant labor was mobilized in increasingly large-scale and sophisticated projects. These were overseen by specialists and engineers, who were an enduring feature of the Egyptian countryside, existing long before the introduction of European style engineering in the 19th century.
Animal power was a crucial component of the rural economy in pre-modern Egypt, some of the only elements of disposable capital possessed by Egyptian peasants, and whose labor was an important part of productivity. This began to change in the 1750s as the economy centralized and a vast die off of animals in the countryside happened in years of plague and famine. The rich seized those that remained. Only an increasingly small percentage of the population could afford animals, and their farms and production grew relative to the rest of the population, making a more unequal and stratified countryside where former small farmers were turned into laborers for big farms and for corvee labor - much harsher than the small-scale corvee existing before - for huge projects.
The final segment of the book is devoted to the various material constraints on Egypt, plagues which wracked the country and the 1784 Iceland volcanic eruption which was responsible for much of the terrible suffering that Egypt experienced in this It starts out with an example of Ottoman imperial resources coordination, as wood was shipped from Ottoman south Anatolia to Alexandria and then to the Nile and then overland to Suez, to build ships for the pilgrimage to Mecca. It continues on to discuss the recurring patterns of plagues in Egypt, and then the particularly severe one in the 1780s, which lead to famine and tremendous suffering. Instrumental in this plague was the eruption of the Laki volcano in Iceland: with its massive plume of ash it led to a decline in global temperatures, greatly intensifying the Egyptian famine. This had key political impacts as it further centralized authority and power in the hands of the elites who profited from the situation, to the disadvantage of the Ottoman central government.
The conclusion functions to restate the general principles present in the book of the need to integrate together history holistically, environmental interconnection, and to truly understand accept the environment for what it is, without portraying it as flawed and unnatural as can often be done for the Middle East.
Alan Mikhail's book is able to create an effective and convincing narrative of an evolving ecological history in Egypt, evolving over the course of the book from its look into how the Egyptian working environment was composed, how it interacted with Egyptians, into the dramatic changes in the Egyptian political economy driven by political and ecological transformations.Starting with how the Egyptian environment was composed and interacted with by peasants, stressing that they were valued by the regime, their opinions and expertise taken into account, and concentrated important authority in the countryside - in a dramatic counter to the idea of the oppressed and powerless Middle Eastern peasant, completely powerless and a slave to the state.
This is well explained by the author in holistic terms, combining the plague, climate change, famine, and political ambitions to explain the changes which transpired in Egypt.He manages to integrate these to write a convincing narrative, and to do so in human terms - explaining the fate of the poor peasant laborers who were deprived of their previous individual autonomy and reduced to serfs of the state, laboring away on the great state ambitions of the newly centralized Egypt - the Alexandria or Suez canals being notable examples. Mikhail convincingly portrays before and after, and does so through taking into a wide range of causes of a dramatic change in environmental management. He also does so with humor and an impressive command of sources, using poetry and texts to occasionally enliven his discussion beyond simply statistics and cold examples, and weaves his story well on both the local and "national" levels.
If there is one thing which I would critique in this book, it is its annoying tendency towards self-reference and to utilizing examples in previous chapters as evidence for its arguments to an excessive extent. To some extent I appreciate this in a book as it is useful to restate things which have been previously said, since the reader rarely remembers them as well as the author, and thus what may seem clear and easy to recall for the writer is actually very difficult indeed for the reader to remember. But the style which this book is written in sounds too self-referential, drawing broad conclusions from the individual examples which it had written about previously.
Perhaps it is because the author has written so profusely about the subject, with three books - and doubtless many articles - having been published by Alan Mikhail previously. This leads its imprint on the project, as one cannot escape the feeling that much of what has been said is in fact backed up by something more, and that is why the print material that one accesses in this book itself relies upon singular examples, referred back to -in fact they are certainly nothing of the kind, since they're based on the author's work in other books. But it makes for an odd sense in reading it, since the conclusions the author draws are larger than the examples he has in the text.
The other issue that one might look at it is a simple one: phrasing. The book in its presentation, via its title, is about Ottoman environmental history: in fact other than a chapter about the transport of timber the book could be written without much reference to the rest of the Ottoman Empire. The title is misleading, and gives the impression that the book is much broader than it is in practice.
It is still a very good book, one which is well worth the read to look at a facet of Egyptian history which would be terribly incomplete without the perspective of environmental studies. Original, holistic, meaningful, impactful, and relevant. It is a history book which makes for an important part of an understanding of both Egyptian history, and the ecological and economic transformations which can occur in an economy and political system during a time of tremendous ecological and political change. Its lessons are ones which can be applied to many cases, and which give a different picture of what modernity means.