The Problematic Environmental History That Defines
the Middle East
Diana K. Davis
Nowhere in all the waste around was there a foot of shade, and
we were scorched to death … in this blistering, naked, treeless
—Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, 1869
[In Algeria]… the resplendent sun … the almost imperceptible
vibrating of the air above the scorched earth.
—Gustave Guillaumet, “Tableaux Algériens,” 1879
The Negeb is barren and sun-scorched, … [and] marauding
nomads … swoop down … killing… destroying… [and]
contribut[ing] to the creation of “man-made” deserts.
—Walter Lowdermilk, Palestine: Land of Promise, 1944
NO OTHER REGION ON THE PLANET, except, perhaps, the polar zones, has been more strongly defined by its environment than the Middle East. From Morocco to Afghanistan, many writings on the Middle East, penned today and in the past, contain detailed descriptions of the profound aridity and dearth of vegetation in most of the region. Phrases such as “the highest percentage of land at high risk for desertification in the world” are all too commonly applied to the Middle East. Such descriptions are also nearly inevitably accompanied by histories of environmental degradation wrought over centuries or millennia by ignorant and destructive indigenous populations. Deforestation, overgrazing, and over-irrigation by humans are most commonly blamed for ruining what is often claimed to have been a much lusher, more forested, and more fertile environment in the past (Figure 8.1). Such long-standing environmental histories of the Middle East, though, were largely constructed by European colonial (and Mandate) powers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and were based on questionable evidence.