Under Osman's Tree: The Ottoman Empire, Egypt, and Environmental History

Under Osman's Tree: The Ottoman Empire, Egypt, and Environmental History

by Alan Mikhail


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Osman, the founder of the Ottoman Empire, had a dream in which a tree sprouted from his navel. As the tree grew, its shade covered the earth; as Osman’s empire grew, it, too, covered the earth. This is the most widely accepted foundation myth of the longest-lasting empire in the history of Islam, and offers a telling clue to its unique legacy. Underlying every aspect of the Ottoman Empire’s epic history—from its founding around 1300 to its end in the twentieth century—is its successful management of natural resources. Under Osman’s Tree analyzes this rich environmental history to understand the most remarkable qualities of the Ottoman Empire—its longevity, politics, economy, and society.
The early modern Middle East was the world’s most crucial zone of connection and interaction. Accordingly, the Ottoman Empire’s many varied environments affected and were affected by global trade, climate, and disease. From down in the mud of Egypt’s canals to up in the treetops of Anatolia, Alan Mikhail tackles major aspects of the Middle East’s environmental history: natural resource management, climate, human and animal labor, energy, water control, disease, and politics. He also points to some of the ways in which the region’s dominant religious tradition, Islam, has understood and related to the natural world. Marrying environmental and Ottoman history, Under Osman’s Tree offers a bold new interpretation of the past five hundred years of Middle Eastern history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226638881
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/08/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 1,185,941
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Alan Mikhail is professor of history at Yale University. He is the author of The Animal in Ottoman Egypt and Nature and Empire in Ottoman Egypt: An Environmental History and the editor of Water on Sand: Environmental Histories of the Middle East and North Africa.

Read an Excerpt

Under Osman's Tree: The Ottoman Empire, Egypt, and Environmental History

By Alan Mikhail

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-42720-1


Irrigation Works

Understanding water management is crucial to any understanding of the political, social, and economic history of Egypt. Water management during the period of Ottoman rule in Egypt (1517–1882) — one of the longest single periods of Egyptian history — was characterized by the local control of water resources by rural communities. Peasants, local notables, and others in the countryside participated in a collaborative and collective political system with Ottoman authorities to harness the Nile's water resources in the most effective, sustainable, and equitable manner for the largest number of water users. Those users included rural cultivators in Egypt, consumers of food all over the empire (from Tunis to Salonica to Istanbul to Aleppo), and the entire imperial bureaucracy, which largely ran on the tax revenues produced by Egypt's irrigated soils. To irrigate Ottoman Egypt, peasant communities relied on the administration and money of the empire, and the empire relied on the knowledge, labor, and experience of Egypt's rural cultivators. Like most other regions of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt could only be irrigated through this cooperative arrangement of imperially coordinated localism that delegated authority to thousands of local communities throughout the province. Analyzing various aspects of this water management history, this chapter argues that peasants were the most vital actors in the politics and economics of irrigation in Ottoman Egypt and that they were recognized as such, indeed encouraged in these roles, by the empire's administrative structure. Rather than looking down from the sultan's throne in Istanbul, this chapter stands in the mud of Egypt's canals to look out at Ottoman governance.

Irrigation Surveyed

Perhaps the single most important effort by Ottoman authorities to delineate and understand the complexities of irrigation in the Egyptian countryside was the imperial irrigation survey undertaken after the conquest of the province in 1517. This gargantuan bureaucratic enterprise was an imperial recognition and legal instantiation of local Egyptian peasant knowledge as the key determinant and driver of water management in the countryside. By beginning with a state-centric effort like the imperial survey, I want to make the point that even a centralized administrative tool of this kind was built on the knowledge, expertise, and work of local peasant communities. It could only ever be this way. Irrigation was radically different from place to place. Knowing the water situation of one village in no way helped one understand the situation in neighboring villages. Particular, specific, on-the-ground local knowledge was needed to manage water in Egypt. The Ottomans therefore dispatched imperial representatives to the countryside to get this knowledge, interviewing locals about canals, sluice gates, embankments, and other waterworks in their villages. The information these rural cultivators provided then became the basis for organizing Ottoman water management in Egypt, the empire's most lucrative province. The administrative strictures and structures built on the empire's irrigation survey determined the outcomes of legal disputes over water in the countryside and shaped peasants' interaction with one another and with the imperial bureaucracy. In the end, it was peasants working through the Ottoman system, not the Ottoman state itself, who controlled irrigation in rural Egypt.

The Ottomans' irrigation survey of Egypt, first compiled in 1539 or 1540, as best we can tell from internal and paleographic evidence, was known as al-Jusur al-Sultaniyya. The survey aimed to delineate and map the many communities created by water and irrigation in the Egyptian countryside. Determining which villages used which waterways would reveal aqueous connections between communities and, perhaps more important, show who was collectively responsible for maintaining irrigation works, since those who shared water also shared the responsibility for maintaining the irrigation works carrying that water. This collection of information — a kind of liquid map of the countryside — could then be put toward the ultimate goal of water management in Ottoman Egypt: that all the province's villages and agricultural lands be agriculturally productive and that Egypt enjoy a state of full and total irrigation (husul al-riyy al-kamil al-shamil).

To achieve the empire's aims of mapping the irrigation network of rural Egypt, determining responsibility for the upkeep of irrigation works, and maintaining the agricultural productivity of Egypt, this survey sought answers to the following questions: Did a particular canal serve the common interests and needs of a large group of peasants, their lands, or a waqf (a pious endowment whose revenues funded a particular purpose or group in perpetuity), or, conversely, did the canal only serve the more narrow interests of a particular set of people? Did the repair of a canal lead to equality among peasants and serve the common good (al-maslaha al-limma])? This irrigation report was also meant to ascertain which canals had been abandoned and were no longer maintained in any regular way. These were canals that had dried up, become filled in with earth, or were no longer clearly visible. Surveyors were to determine why these canals had been abandoned and for how long. Moreover, given the history of these canals and their current poor condition, if resources were put toward their repair, could they ever return to full use? Was there some inherent ecological problem with the land, water, geography, or topography of the particular area of a canal or with a canal's water flow? Was it, in short, better to accept the environmental reality of the canal and to leave it abandoned, or to attempt to revitalize it? And who would be responsible for the reconstruction of an abandoned canal? Was it the charge of the ruling Ottoman divan (imperial council), the holders of waqfs, or those who used the canal to irrigate their lands? Likewise, what were the costs of previous repairs to a particular irrigation work? Above all, did human technical knowledge and experience allow for the construction and maintenance of canals within the limitations of a particular natural environment? The overall aim was to match lands to canals and people — to link agricultural areas to sources of water and to identify the people responsible for both. Thus, the survey had to establish, among other things, which villages were irrigated from waterways and which were irrigated from lakes or other bodies of water. It was also tasked with determining which waterways were free from obstruction and which were clogged. Moreover, was it beneficial to open the clogged waterways or better to leave them closed?

How to answer all of these highly technical and complicated questions? The Ottomans' surveyors leaned on the knowledge of the communities that lived along Egypt's canals. These Ottoman state employees walked along the banks of every canal in Egypt with locals. Together they measured the length, width, and height of these canals; decided which needed dredging, cleaning, and general maintenance (al-jarafa); and specified how these canals served as borders of property and dividers of rural space. The more the Ottoman administration could learn from locals about the irrigation situation on the ground in rural Egypt — village by village and canal by canal (baladan baladan wa jisran jisran), as stated in the survey — the better it could manage Egypt's water and maximize the province's agricultural productivity and thus profitability. Creating a bureaucratic map of the thousands of communities of water in the Egyptian countryside demanded and deserved this kind of work. Moreover, this was a task that could only be accomplished through the participation of rural peoples in the Ottoman system — through the sharing of their knowledge of local irrigation environments; through their labor; and through the Ottoman imperial administration's recognition of the power, utility, and autonomy of this local expertise. Egyptian peasants understood that the Ottoman state could improve their particular individual situations by providing them with resources for irrigation repairs. Likewise, the imperial administration understood that Egyptian peasants helped the empire achieve its overall goals of stability and economic solvency. This was a mutually beneficial working relationship.

In the section of al-Jusur al-Sultaniyya dedicated to the sub-province of al-Minufiyya in the northwest delta, the role of local communities in shaping water management policies emerges quite clearly. The subprovincial district leader (al-kashif) of al-Minufiyya, a man named Muhammad ibn Baghdad, was tasked with gathering information about the subprovince's canals and irrigation features. Himself a local who had risen within the empire's rural governance structure, Muhammad relied on his local connections in undertaking the survey. Led by rural cultivators, Muhammad and his assistants walked up and down the subprovince's waterways — again, canal by canal (jisran jisran) — inspecting and measuring each of them thoroughly and attempting to answer all of the state's questions. Throughout the text of this and other similar cases, the voices of locals are invoked for their expertise and know-how. This particular elder said this about a local canal. This group of men understood that when the annual flood came, this embankment often broke. In this particular case from al-Minufiyya, the elders of the districts (masha'ikh al-nawahi) were singled out for the information they gave the surveyors. Moreover, the case emphasized that these were the men most immediately in charge of overseeing irrigation and water management in the area. After the survey had been completed and recorded, they were responsible for ensuring that all would be managed properly and efficiently going forward.

These men — masha'ikh al-nawahi, alternatively known in Arabic as ahl al-wuquf or ahl al-khibra — were locals who had likely spent most of their lives in al-Minufiyya; they were familiar with the canals, dams, and the normal course of the flood in their area; they understood the soils and topographies of their villages' fields. Because the environment of the countryside, and irrigation within it, could only be understood through sustained and intimate local interaction and knowledge, the Ottoman bureaucracy of Egypt had to rely on Egyptian peasants like these men to maintain the province's rural irrigation network. The local knowledge, experience, and expertise of these rural cultivators ultimately determined how the Ottoman Empire managed irrigation works throughout Egypt. With administrative tools like al-Jusur al-Sultaniyya, the on-the-ground directives and collective local knowledge of these Egyptians were codified as all of this information literally entered the bureaucracy of the Ottoman state to influence and sustain its rule.

Once the initial highly detailed survey of al-Minufiyya had been completed, two copies were made — one for the high Ottoman divan in Cairo, the most important imperial body in the province, and the other for the local court in al-Minufiyya. The latter copy was to serve as a kind of local handbook for all matters related to irrigation in the subprovince. As a baseline statement of irrigation in al-Minufiyya at the start of the Ottoman period, it was to direct how newly appointed imperial officials were to manage the subprovince's irrigation. Because so much of the survey represented a codification of local understandings and practices of water management, the document instantiated local knowledge as the law of water management in al-Minufiyya. From then on, moreover, if there were changes to the subprovince's irrigation situation that required a reworking of various aspects of the survey and its legal purview, it was the same class of local men of knowledge and expertise who would be consulted to amend the imperial record. This again indicates the great local autonomy Egyptian peasants enjoyed with respect to the management and use of the countryside's irrigation infrastructure and water resources.

Irrigation Negotiated

Al-Jusur al-Sultaniyya was in many ways a snapshot: a picture of the countryside at a particular moment meant to establish a sort of year-zero for Ottoman Egypt's irrigation. Water levels, however, rose and fell, canal beds silted, embankments broke. One could never step in the same canal twice. Egypt's water network and rural environment were in constant flux, and so the survey was in many ways always already incomplete. Still, Egypt's continually changing environment had to be managed — it affected property holdings, cultivation levels, tax revenues, people's livelihoods, and indeed their very lives. Thus, turning from the sort of static picture captured on the pages of the survey al-Jusur al-Sultaniyya to some of the thousands of cases of negotiation, conflict, and challenge that emerged around water management in rural Ottoman Egypt's constantly changing, ever-evolving environment affords us a deeper understanding of how local peasant control and autonomy over irrigation worked on the ground — in the mud.

Peasants were the water management eyes and ears of the countryside. They flagged irrigation works in need of repair, undertook the work of repairing them, and then oversaw their proper function. In 1771, for example, a group of Egyptian rural cultivators in the northeastern subprovince of al-Daqahliyya initiated a set of repairs to a canal. Peasants, village elders, and the poor from the village of al-Manzala came to the court of al-Mansura to report that certain sections of the canal of al-Bahr al-Saghir had silted up with dirt, sand, and debris, restricting the waterway's flow and hence preventing irrigation water from reaching their villages. Moreover, the presence of many ditches along the length of the canal drew water out of this main conduit, adversely affecting the strength of its overall downstream flow. The Egyptian peasants who came to the court thus suggested that areas of buildup in al-Bahr al-Saghir needed to be dredged and that many of the ditches and small canals along its length should be dammed or otherwise sealed to improve the waterway's overall flow. These rural cultivators also directed that each village along the length of the canal should be held responsible for cleaning and dredging the section of the waterway nearest it and for the reinforcement of the canal's embankments in each of those areas. This series of actions would improve access to water resources for all the villages along the length of the canal and also those elsewhere that drew their water supplies from it. Citing the many advantages of these peasants' suggestions, court officials forwarded their request to the Divan of Egypt, standard procedure to gain permission for the repair of a large subprovincial canal of this sort. The divan sent a firman (imperial order) back to the court of al-Mansura granting imperial permission to begin executing the peasants' plans.

Following the bureaucratic trail in this case shows how Egyptian peasants directed the Ottoman bureaucracy in the management of the complicated and ever-changing rural environment of irrigation in the Egyptian countryside. Set in motion by a group of peasants and villagers in their local Ottoman court in the subprovincial city of al-Mansura, the bureaucratic flow of this case took the peasants' ideas from the court to the Divan of Egypt in Cairo for approval and sanction. Bureaucratically, this was an extremely unproblematic case since all seemed to agree that the peasants' ideas were practical and exigent. The Divan of Egypt's function was thus merely to approve the peasants' requests and to register them in the administrative record of the empire. As part of the Ottoman solution to the complexities of the administration of irrigation and environment in rural Egypt, we see here (and in thousands of other cases) that the empire deferred to the knowledge, expertise, and initiative of Egyptian peasants. They suggested the most efficient and expedient means of managing the water resources and maintenance of the canal of al-Bahr al-Saghir. They lived on it and understood that if peasants in each of the villages along the canal managed the small portion of the waterway that served their village, then the entire length of this main artery would be well maintained to serve all those — in Egypt and elsewhere — who relied upon Egypt's imperially consequential irrigation infrastructure.


Excerpted from Under Osman's Tree: The Ottoman Empire, Egypt, and Environmental History by Alan Mikhail. Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface: Osman’s TreeIntroduction: The Global Environmental History of the Middle East
Part One: Water
1. Irrigation Works
2. History from Below
3. Silt and Empire
Part Two: Work
4. Rural Muscle
5. Expert Measures
Part Three: Animal
6. Animal Capital
7. Brute Force
Part Four: Elemental
8. Food and Wood
9. Plague Ecologies
10. Egypt, Iceland, SO2
Conclusion: Empire as Ecosystem

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