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Rethinking Ottoman Iraq through Environmental and Medical Histories

Session VI-05, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 4:00 pm

Panel Description
An understudied Ottoman Arab province when compared to Egypt or the Levant, Iraq, made up of the provinces of Baghdad, Mosul and Basra, has been receiving more attention by historians in recent years. This resurgence of attention, perhaps not coincidentally, has emerged in parallel with the growing influence of studies of the environment and medicine in Middle Eastern studies. The centrality of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in its life cycles; the prominence of marsh ecologies in its south; and the increasing focus on the area as part of cholera and plague’s nineteenth century ravages has made studying Iraq’s ecological history a particularly fruitful endeavor. This panel is made up of papers that study Ottoman Iraq in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through the interrelated subfields of environmental history and the history of medicine. They offer new perspectives on the region’s history on several fronts. One is to further contextualize Ottoman efforts in exerting control and incorporating the province into the empire’s centralized administrative structures. We aim to demonstrate that the region’s environmental challenges and disease landscape provided enormous constraints, as well as opportunities, for Ottoman governance in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that were deeply intertwined with political, economic and military issues. Second is to provide insight into how the Ottomans understood relationships between the environment and health, medicine and disease, which they reflected into their policies, and how these found reflection among the local population by studying forms of resistance and consent. Through this focus on resistance and consent, the papers balance the state perspective to argue that very contentious and pluralistic forms of engagement defined state-society relations in the Ottoman period. Through our discussion, we aim to review and take account of the current state of environmental and medical histories of Ottoman Iraq. Panelists will structure their papers to assess what they believe using the approaches and methodologies of these subfields of history have contributed to their/our knowledge of state and society in the Ottoman period. We will also address gaps remaining, what further potential we can foresee in continuing to do historical work in these areas and the archival sources that inform our research.
  • Quarantine institutions are generally conceptualized as highly effective ways for states to extend their physical presence, power and sovereignty, especially in contested territories. A year after the second cholera pandemic (1829-49) swept through the province in 1846-47, it was announced that a quarantine infrastructure would be swiftly laid down in important border towns, as well as the major cities of Ottoman Iraq, which were gateways to merchants, pilgrims and disease from Iran and further East. With focus on the border town of Khanaqin, which was the busiest crossing between Iran and the Ottoman Empire, this paper asks what it meant for an Ottoman quarantine post to become operational institutionally in terms of human resources, finances, and space in the nineteenth century and whether these three elements were always in synchronicity. This institutional focus aims to capture how and in what ways the institution evolved in a single province within the context of the empire’s ambitious effort in the nineteenth century to centralize and modernize, termed as the project of the Tanzimat. Through a close look based on Ottoman archival documents, the paper shows that although Baghdad’s highly prioritized quarantine infrastructure was officially established in 1848, lack of financial resources as well as border ambiguities, meant that no purposeful infrastructure was laid down in the province until the 1870s. The paper adopts a comparative approach, making use of the growing number of studies on quarantine facilities around the empire. While Andrew Robarts suggests in his study of the quarantine complex in İzmir that “given the centralized, comprehensive and empire-wide nature of Ottoman quarantine administration in the middle part of the nineteenth century, it is reasonable to assume that the procedures in place in İzmir closely resembled those in place in other Ottoman quarantine administrations…” this paper argues that these resemblances had severe limitations, highly dependent on geography, state capacity and the broader geopolitical context.
  • During the nineteenth century, pandemics of cholera and plague convinced Ottoman officials of the value of using quarantines to prevent the spread of these diseases within Ottoman territory. This was especially the case in the empire’s Iraqi provinces, which were often hard hit by recurring outbreaks of cholera and plague. While quarantines played an important role in extending the presence of the modernizing Ottoman state in the physical margins of the empire, Ottoman authority through public health institutions was never fully complete. Ottoman subjects and foreigners alike often resisted Ottoman quarantine measures. This paper focuses on the limits of Ottoman quarantine measures in Iraq by highlighting examples of resistance to Ottoman quarantines. In the process, it engages with recent work in the comparative history of quarantine by offering case studies from the Ottoman Iraq to further theorize resistance as a phenomenon in the broader history of health, medicine, and disease.
  • “There is no soul that will not burst into tears when [he/she] sees dried date palms and their blood-shedding sprouts in Hilla and Diwvaniyya, where once was a beautiful garden.” These were the bitter words of the people of Hilla, who feeling neglected by the imperial center, petitioned for justice in 1904. More than a century previously, Asaf-ud-Daula (d. 1797), the famous Indian nawab of Awadh, had sponsored the construction of the Hindiya diversion project to carry water to Najaf in order to show his pious patronage for this sacred pilgrimage center of the Shi‘i world. With the opening of the Hindiya branch, Istanbul and the local government in Baghdad tried to slow down the over-flowing of the Euphrates by opening canals and building embarkments on this branch. However, these attempts failed to maintain a reliable supply of water for the region’s inhabitants and eventually precipitated a major crisis at the beginning of the 20th century. While the complete drying up of the Euphrates’ Hilla branch left four districts and fifteen subdistricts without water, the inhabitants of Hindiya basin were plagued by repeated floods, which resulted in economic ruin, turned agricultural lands to marshes, and displaced many villagers. Drawing upon Ottoman and British archival sources, this presentation explores the changing course of the Euphrates in two ways. First, it tries to understand what kinds of strategies the local inhabitants of the Euphrates basin adopted to respond to the changing environment around them. Second, it attempts to understand how the Ottoman state reacted to material demands and social grievances resulting from the river’s changing course. Benefiting from the interdisciplinary discussions about infrastructure, this presentation questions the modern infrastructural projects’ promise of modernity, progress, and development to all inhabitants of a region when inaugurated. Alternatively, this study portrays the water infrastructure projects in late Ottoman Iraq as open-ended and contingent processes in which some groups, such as the inhabitants of Hilla and Diwvaniyya, had to struggle continuously in dealing with the consequences of infrastructure necessary for their survival.
  • Hannah Battatu described Ottoman Iraq as, “…a death trap, a ‘devourer’ of people,” with numerous endemic scourges, administrative neglect, floods, drought and war devastating its inhabitants. This region of the Ottoman Empire received the attention and support of Istanbul only when disease and environmental crises threatened the state’s authority or seriously hindered productivity. Istanbul dispatched a limited number of doctors who worked in an underserviced environment. The conditions in Iraq made such positions undesirable to an increasingly elite professional cadre with cosmopolitan appetites. As such, medical pluralism characterized public health, and health care and labour in Ottoman Iraq. This paper offers an examination of medicine in Ottoman Iraq from the late nineteenth century, when Istanbul worked to institutionalize the medical profession, until the British occupation of 1917. The following examination positions Iraq in present debates regarding public health legislation, medical professionalization, and the persistence of homeopathy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Specifically, Ottoman Iraq hosted an amalgam of state-assigned officials including doctors from within the realm, contracted foreign labour, as well as non-accredited medical specialists. This amalgam reflected the plural medical apparatus that serviced Ottoman Iraq. The harmonization of Greco-Islamic medical thought along with emerging contentions of germ theories introduced in regional medical schools yielded a medical pluralism that facilitated room for both university accredited as well as apprenticeship trained medical labour at a time when what constituted public health and scientific medicine underwent significant legislative and cultural transformations.