EGYPT 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. …