NATURE AND EMPIRE IN OTTOMAN EGYPT: An Environmental History

By Butzer, Karl W. | The Geographical Review, July 2012 | Go to article overview

NATURE AND EMPIRE IN OTTOMAN EGYPT: An Environmental History


Butzer, Karl W., The Geographical Review


NATURE AND EMPIRE IN OTTOMAN EGYPT: An Environmental History. By ALAN MIKHAIL. XXV and 347 pp.; maps, ills., bibliog., index. New York: 0-bridge University Press, 2011. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 9781107008762.

Alan Mikhail's goal is to present a social and environmental history of water usage and irrigation in Egypt between 1675 and 1820 C.E. Egypt was a province of the Ottoman Empire from 1571 to the Napoleonic interlude of 1799-1801 and then became the quasi-independent fiefdom of its Albanian-Ottoman governor, Mehmet 'Ali, whose family ruled the country until 1952.

At the beginning of the period discussed in this volume, traditional peasant knowledge and experience with local environments were paramount in the management of water, cultivation, plague, and timber resources. Wood was critical for shipbuilding, construction, and irrigation works but had to be imported from Anatolia in exchange for grain, creating a complementarity between the Ottoman heartland and the imperial breadbasket of the Egyptian alluvial lands. This coordinated system of local autonomy, directly sponsored by the sultan in Istanbul and by the bureaucracy of the province, allowed the Egyptian merchant fleet to trade freely in Ottoman waters of the Mediterranean and Black seas.

Symptomatic of a change in bureaucratic intervention was the use of ever-larger groups of forced laborers in canal repairs, though at first only for local irrigation works. But under the ruthless and authoritarian Mehmet 'Ali (1805-1849) the mobilization of workers, now conscripted from all over the country, increased exponentially. A major canal reconstruction between 1816 and 1820 used a cumulative total of almost 400,000 laborers, of whom perhaps a quarter succumbed to disease under inhumane conditions. The people had become pawns of a centralizing Albanian-Egyptian bureaucracy that insisted on ruling from the top down. Traditional ecological knowledge had been debased, never to recover its original role as Egypt swept through a painful modernization that periodically used the carrot of new irrigation developments but that ultimately failed to resolve deep structural problems.

Mikhail has facility with Arabic and Ottoman Turkish and used manuscript repositories in Cairo and Istanbul to add a wealth of archival materials to the socioeconomic discourse about irrigation management in early-modern Egypt. …

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