Dr Sam White delivered a lecture on ‘Climate and History in the Middle East and Mediterranean: Lessons from the Past’, combining climatic and historical research to present meaningful insights from history, at the Yarmouk Cultural Centre, as part of the Dar Al Athar Al Islamiyyah’s 24th cultural season.
Dr White is an Associate Professor at Ohio State University in the United States, with a research emphasis on past weather and climate and the role they play in history. His two books, The Climate of Rebellion in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire and A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and Europe’s Encounter, focus on the impact of the 16th/17th Centuries’ “Little Ice Age” in two distinct geographical regions.
In his lecture, he explored how new techniques to reconstruct past climates and our new appreciation of the impacts of climatic change have reshaped understandings of Middle East and Mediterranean history. He examined how this research can shed new light on past economies, populations, cultures and empires of the region, and ask whether those historical experiences hold any lessons for present-day countries faced with global warming. He also revealed some of the new scientific and historiographic techniques involved in historical climatology and discussed case studies of past societies in the region faced with climatic change and natural disasters.
“We know that the climates are changing, and these changes will pose challenges. Heat waves will intensify. Droughts and floods will intensify. Our accustomed seasons will change, and our crops and livestock will suffer. Diseases will make inroads into new regions. The extinction of species will accelerate,” he began.
He noted that parts of the Middle East will face particular challenges as uncomfortable heat will become dangerous, and dangerous heat will become deadly. Arable land may become marginal, and marginal land altogether unfit for agriculture. He pointed out that even without changes of precipitation, more heat will mean more evaporation and less mountain snowpack to feed rivers such as the Euphrates and warned that model projections have been especially worrying for parts of Turkey and Syria.
In the face of these challenges, he stressed that it is natural to look past for guidance. He shared that history contained signs of remote and ancient civilizations brought down by environmental changes and that historians, archaeologists, scientists can do better than simple correlations between climatic changes and crisis and instead reconstruct historic cases in fine detail to understand the mechanisms of climatic and societal change to identify significant patterns in the past, vulnerabilities and impacts, successful and unsuccessful responses, and determine what they mean for us in the 21st Century.
He drew attention to the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 17th Century – a time when, it appears, millions of Ottoman subjects died and the empire’s centuries of military victories came to a halt. While some historians had argued that the crisis came from a change in military technology, others looked to economic factors, but Dr White declared these looked more like symptoms than causes.
“Looking closer into the problem, I found the roots of the Ottoman crisis lay deeper in the empire’s history,” he stated. The Ottomans came onto the historical stage in the late 1200s as a small band of frontier raiders in western Anatolia. Within a couple generations they had emerged as a major power in the Aegean region. In 1453, they conquered Constantinople from the Byzantine Empire, and in 1517 the Arab lands of the Mamluk Empire, and by the late 1500s, the Ottomans had grown into a major world empire that covered parts of three continents and 30 present-day countries.
He pointed out that the Ottomans did more than conquer, they forged a strong central state, with a sophisticated administration for its time. They built up the largest city and the most powerful military in Europe: an army with over 100,000 soldiers, and a navy of hundreds of ships.
He shared that by the late 1500s, at the eve of the crisis, the Ottomans were falling victim to their own success. Population had more than doubled since the late 1400s not only from new territory but also rapid natural growth. As populations grew, Ottoman provisioning systems became vulnerable to rising demands and shrinking surplus.
From the 1560s, imperial records report rising problems of vagrancy, crime, and inflation as pressures on land and natural resources increased. Ottoman and foreign records also show recurring patterns of natural and human disasters in this period. Several waves of drought struck from the 1560s to 1580s, bringing regional famines that sorely tested Ottoman provisioning systems. In some cases, migration followed, helping to spread epidemic diseases, including plague. The stress was worst during major military campaigns that took soldiers out of the provinces and diverted food and resources.
These problems struck hardest in the semi-arid steppe and hills, the land from Central Anatolia to Northern Syria and Iraq. That region witnessed some of the most rapid population growth on some of the most marginal land and in suffered from some of the worst shortages and worst banditry. By the late 1500s, landlessness was high, and farming, largely a monoculture of winter wheat and barley. This situation left food production especially vulnerable to freezing winters and spring droughts.
During the 1590s, eye-witness accounts describe a series of extreme winters in the Eastern Mediterranean, with severe frosts. And from 1591 to 1596, Central Anatolia and the Aegean experienced a long run of dry years and failed harvests. Numerous sources attest to the scale and devastation of the drought. Crops failed and wells dried up. Livestock went hungry in the fields and people in the towns.
He shared that new results coming out from work of dendroclimatologists, experts in reconstructing elements of past climates from tree rings, confirmed that 1591 to 1596 was the longest consecutive run of spring droughts there in perhaps six centuries.
Dr White contended that while natural disaster alone is rarely sufficient to produce a full-blown crisis, he shared the Ottomans got bogged down in a long war with the Habsburg Empire just as the drought began to drive crop failures and food shortages. Between the cold, drought, and war, provinces from northern Syria through the parts of Anatolia and Greece suffered their worst famine of the Ottoman period.
Yet actual trigger for crisis, Dr White points was: sheep. In particular, the fat-tailed sheep of Karaman, in the south-central Anatolian steppe, who were a vital insurance policy for the poor and a source of wealth and food to fall back on in hard times. They were also a vital source of protein to deliver to cities and soldiers. By the mid-1590s the flocks were disappearing.
The Ottoman livestock were perhaps the most unfortunate casualty of these years of extreme weather. Cattle and sheep were perishing in the cold, starving without grass or fodder in the parched fields of Anatolia. But the worst disaster was a panzootic probably set off by the weak condition of the livestock and spread by the long deliveries of flocks and herds from Turkey to the Habsburg front. The disease started in eastern Anatolia then swept across the peninsula. By the late 1590s it moved through the Balkans and Crimea, later crossing into Hungary and even reaching Western Europe.
Desperate to keep supplying the army, sultans continued to demand sheep from the provinces. Finally, to prepare a new campaign in late 1595, Sultan Mehmed III ordered some 200,000 sheep all at once from the poor, dry province of Karaman. The local population resisted the collectors and the province erupted in violence.
The resistance became a tipping point in a rural uprising known as the Celali Rebellion. The Celalis defied the Ottomans and pillaged Anatolia for more than a decade. The violence, extreme weather, and famine set off a mass exodus of refugees – the “great flight”. With the soldiers away at war, there was little the sultans could do. By the time the Ottomans could broker a peace with the Habsburgs and turn their armies against the uprising, perhaps millions of Anatolians had died and millions more were displaced.
Dr White shared that the great drought and the Celali Rebellion marked a turning point in Ottoman fortunes. The 17th Century saw recurring climate-driven disasters and political upheaval. Chroniclers recorded that the Istanbul Bosphorus had started filling with ice, and then the floes locked into place and the straits froze over completely. The ice grew so thick that men actually walked over the strait, the intense cold damaged gardens and crops, and ships couldn’t reach ports in the capital. Sultan Osman II tried to lead a military campaign the following year only to see his forces struggle in the cold and then mutiny over missing pay and provisions.
It set a pattern for events over the following century, Dr White noted. Ottoman systems of provisioning and famine management lost their resilience. Natural disasters provoked provincial unrest and sometimes political crisis. Previous Ottoman victories on the European and Persian frontiers became setbacks and then defeats. The empire entered the 18th Century still intact but greatly weakened.
To learn from the Ottoman crisis, Dr White turned to the insights of interdisciplinary research in climate history to place the Ottoman experience in perspective.
He shared that efforts to understand and predict current climate have driven ever more extensive and sophisticated efforts to reconstruct the climates of past centuries, too. These efforts have taken two basic forms: paleoclimatology and historical climatology, or the study of climates in natural and in human archives.
The clear conclusion of this research is that current global warming is the most sudden and dramatic climate change the world has experienced in thousands of years. Yet climate has changed on a smaller scales in the past. Most recent and notable of these changes was the so-called Little Ice Age. Variously dated between around 1300 and 1850 CE, it reached its coldest point – maybe 0.5˚C cooler than before – during the period roughly 1560-1710.
With respect to climate, then, the Ottoman experience was not unique, he affirmed. Many parts of the world suffered runs of extreme seasons, harvest failures, and in some cases famines that provoked rebellions and conflicts.
“Recently, I worked with a team of paleoclimatologists and climate modelers to try to place the Ottoman experience within this larger climatic context. Broadly speaking, we found good supporting evidence for the extreme cold and drought of the 1590s described in contemporary records. We also found that the cold in the Eastern Mediterranean was an expected consequence of larger climate forcings, including volcanic eruptions in 1595 and 1600”, he said.
Therefore, he concluded, what the Ottomans experienced simply as a sequence of weather anomalies and disasters, can be understood in retrospect as a result of global climate change.
Climate changes like the Little Ice Age were felt on the ground, locally, not so much as changes in averages, as changes in the frequency and severity of extremes. And the problem was not so much that the climate was too hot or too cold but that systems – of agriculture, or transportation, or infrastructure, or public health – were built for a certain climate – for a certain range of temperatures or precipitation: then that climate changed.
He pointed out that grasping the origins and impacts of extreme weather represents only half the picture when it comes to understanding the climate-driven crises of the past and their meaning for us today. The other side of the coin is the human side. Why was it that extreme weather impacts, even disasters, could happen anywhere, but only in some states, in some societies did disaster become a real crisis, in the sense of a turning point? Why did some countries such as Ottoman Anatolia suffer such lasting setbacks, while others such as The Netherlands of the 1600s bounced back from climate impacts?
A simplified model of climate-society interactions, based on the work of Daniel Krämer and Christian Pfister shows how climate changes drive changes in weather which can in turn have different levels of impacts on human societies: first-order impacts on biophysical processes such as food production, health, and infrastructure; second-order impacts on the economy; third-order impacts on political systems and conflict; and fourth-order impacts on culture. At each step in the model, the role of climate change becomes less direct.
He shared that changes in culture drive political changes, which in turn have economic impacts, which may in turn disrupt infrastructure, agriculture, and public health. In this way, the transformation of a society may continue long after the initial impacts of climatic change and meteorological extremes. Feedback loops within cultural, political, economic, and biological systems can amplify the original effects of natural disaster, he warned. Often, they are looking at those societies whose internal weaknesses sustained and aggravated the initial impacts of extreme weather.
These feedbacks are seen at work in the Ottoman crisis. In the short term, the deadly impacts of extreme weather and natural disasters were amplified by synergies of famine, flight, dislocation, and disease. Over the long-term, the crisis tipped a virtuous cycle of imperial growth into a downward spiral of contraction.
Dr White revealed that following the crisis, the empire underwent a transformation in demography and land use. Rural famine and insecurity drove refugees into already crowded cities. Many urban areas suffered from a break-down in basic services and sanitation, aggravating problems of public health and disease. Nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes poured back into farmland and kept out villagers. Ottoman agriculture moved away from centralized provisioning and more into production of new cash crops – and these economic changes brought further changes in land use, which may have aggravated problems of erosion and malaria. Taken together, these changes sustained a long-term contraction in population and imperial resources.
He added that the Ottoman troubles weren’t unique, the mid-1600s were an especially bad time for climate-related disasters and conflict across the world. The Ottoman “imperial ecology” was not very resilient, their systems of land use and provisioning in the 1500s had been effective but brittle. They fractured at the turn of the 17th Century; and they were hard to put back together in the following generations of war and political upheaval.
Ottoman history, Dr White noted, provides one instance of larger problem: The challenges posed by climate change were not limited to the direct impacts of extreme weather or related disasters. Rather, that climate change could expose societal weaknesses and amplify risks and conflicts that had little to do with climate directly.
In conclusion, he expounded on what lessons could be draw from the past and emphasized two ideas.
“On the one hand, when it comes to the challenge of climate change, I find value in studying the particularities, even peculiarities of stories such as the Ottoman crisis I’ve presented to you this evening. History reminds us of all the contingencies, all the messy human factors in any topic as complex as climate change.”
He continued, “It invites to ask: what was it like for people then? what other decisions could have been made? what else might have gone wrong? how could things have turned out differently? In policy discussions often dominated by climate projections and actuarial calculations, history invites us to use our sympathy and imagination as well: faculties that may prove just as important in the challenges ahead.”
On the other hand, he shared, when it comes to applying the past, we have look beyond the particularities to the underlying structures. He stressed that the Ottoman crisis exemplifies deeper patterns in climate-society interactions and shows how global climate change appear locally in the frequency and severity of extremes. “Disasters can strike anywhere, as matter of chance. But climate change turns possibilities into probabilities. And as global warming continues, some possible disasters will become near certainties”, he stated.
He concluded his lecture by stating that the most significant finding from climate history is that just how much of it isn’t about the climate at all but really about people: their reactions, vulnerabilities and the resilience of societies. “In the Little Ice Age, as in the 21st Century, it was impossible to separate climate from other problems, human and natural. Climate-related disasters tended to expose underlying tensions and weaknesses that had little to do with climate itself. Problems could extend far beyond the original location of disasters, too. Climate change may be a call not just to build up our flood walls or reservoirs, but to prepare all our institutions for uncertainty and trouble ahead.”
ROOTS OF CRISIS LAY DEEPER IN THE HISTORY OF OTTOMANS
WEATHER EXTREMES AMPLIFY THE SYNERGIES OF FAMINE AND FLIGHT
CLIMATES HAVE DIFFERENT IMPACTS ON HUMAN SOCIETIES
DROUGHT, REBELLION MARK TURNING POINT IN OTTOMANS FORTUNES
CLIMATE RELATED DISASTERS EXPOSE UNDERLYING TENSIONS
By Cinatra Alvares
Arab Times Staff