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Ottoman and Turkish Environmental Histories in a Global Context

Session III-05, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
In 1982, the renowned environmental historian Donald Worster wrote: “Environmental History, it seems to me, cannot flourish in the face of so constricted mobility. Its greatest success, I predict, will be found in research that moves easily across national boundaries.” In the same Worsterian vein, the goal of this panel is to demonstrate how environmental history as a method opens new opportunities to write new stories that place the Ottoman Empire and Turkey in a global context. To that end, this panel uses three case studies from three different geographies and time periods. The first presentation studies the extreme winter of 1708-1709 in Europe and how the Ottomans used the European demand for Ottoman grain as a diplomatic tool. While the harsh winter conditions and subsequent famine caused great troubles in European economies, Ottoman authorities reimposed the traditional protective measure that prohibited the export of grain, a prohibition that would last until the summer of 1709. The second presentation moves to the evolution of scientific forestry in the Ottoman Empire from the mid nineteenth century. Among other things, it highlights the role of French experts in the development of the first Ottoman forest school and the first Ottoman forest code. The third and last panel considers the global resurgence of the science fiction and the engineering master plan in the early twentieth century and how these distinct trends (one literary and one infrastructural) converged during the conception of the Southeastern Anatolia Project in the upper Tigris-Euphrates basin. Moving between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, from grain fields, forests, to rivers, this panel demonstrates how environmental historians can pioneer efforts to globalize the history of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey, and the broader Middle East.
  • In 1709, the English natural theologian William Derham wrote in Philosophical Transactions that the apocalyptic winter of 1708-9, which he called the Great Frost, “was greater (if not more universal also) than any other within the Memory of Man.” Derham’s observation was confirmed with the data collected by the modern-day climatologists who declared the winter of 1708-9 as the coldest European winter during the past 500 years (Science, vol. 303, no. 5663 (2004), pp. 1499-1503). The harsh winter conditions and the subsequent famine killed thousands, ruined economies, triggered revolts, and caused vast immigration both in and out of Europe. Although the “Great Frost” did not affect life in the Ottoman Empire as it did in most of the European states, there is a remarkable increase in the number of Ottoman imperial edicts in 1709 (re)announcing the prohibition of grain exports to Europe and (re)stating that those found guilty of breaching these orders would be harshly punished. The Ottoman authorities allowed the exports of grain in the summer of 1709, only after getting positive reports from the provinces on the level of stocks in the grain cellars and recurring requests of the European ambassadors. These documents are not only helpful for us to understand the Ottoman response to a great environmental crisis but also how the Ottomans employed its centuries-long grain export prohibition practice as a useful tool in the European theater of diplomacy in the early modern period.
  • This paper uses the lens of forest administration to examine the construction and application of modern environmental policy in late Ottoman society. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Ottoman administration hired French forest agents to promote sustainable forest exploitation in the Ottoman Empire. These consultants established the first Ottoman forest school, trained local agents, developed an Ottoman forest code, and contributed to the 1858 Land Law (Arazi Kanunnamesi). They also promoted French environmental perspectives, including a condemnation of mobile pastoralism. My paper first highlights the role of these and other European experts in shifting Ottoman environmental perspectives and state policies. It then considers the impact of nineteenth-century environmental administration on Ottoman subjects, contrasting the experience of sedentary peasant farmers with that of semi-nomadic tribes in the Anatolian countryside. Together, these developments reveal the complex nature of the onset of the Anthropocene in the Ottoman Empire. They demonstrate how, even as the Ottoman state ostensibly sought to reduce its ecological footprint, its policies impacted Ottoman inhabitants and their environment in new and dramatic ways. This study of nineteenth-century Ottoman environmental administration is based on Ottoman and French archival sources as well as scholarship in history and related fields. It will form a key chapter in my current book project, The Nature of Empire, a global history of the environmental dimensions of imperialism since 1800, under contract with Routledge Press. By chronicling environmental administration in a non-Western empire and by linking conservation ethics in the Ottoman Empire to those of Europe, it contributes to scholarship in world environmental history and in Middle Eastern / Ottoman history.
  • A foreign firm. A utopian vision. A mythical terrain. Is this the stuff of science fiction or of an engineering master plan? Turkish writer Orhan Duru is credited with bringing the concept of science fiction and its Turkish term, bilim kurgu, into the language in the 1950s, at roughly the same time as another genre, the engineering master plan, became a necessary factor in accomplishing massive infrastructure works on Turkish rivers. Since that time, the two types of world-making—one literary and one infrastructural—have evolved in tandem. Writers have expanded the scope of science fiction in the Turkish language. Engineers have expanded the scope of master plans (the Southeast Anatolia Project [GAP] Master Plan runs to four volumes and nearly 600 pages). Both genres conjure on a fantastical scale. Both evoke imagined pasts, presents, and futures. Both authorize, justify, and legitimate imaginative constructions, though one has generally been more successful in bringing about material manifestations. This research connects the production of master plans and other engineering documents with the cultural production of science fiction narratives in a Turkish context, illuminating how each genre expresses the boundaries of its world-making endeavors, imagines environmental change and human-nonhuman relations, and reflects social and historical processes.