Updated date:

A Review of "Under Osman's Tree," a Book About Egypt in Transition

Ryan loves learning about lesser-known aspects of history by reading and reviewing the literary works of historians.

Cover of "Under Osman's Tree"

Cover of "Under Osman's Tree"

History books don't have to necessarily answer all of the big questions or address all of the grand changes in the course of human events. Nevertheless, it has to be admitted that some studies of history show a metamorphosis or turning point in the human condition, something of great import, or something that was previously unexplored. Under Osman's Tree: The Ottoman Empire, Egypt, & Environmental History by Alan Mikhail is an excellent example of this. It covers the massive ecological transformation that occurred in the Egyptian countryside and economy at the end of the 18th century and the dramatic ramifications it had for the political position of Egypt within the Empire and its own internal organization.

It gives the reader an in-depth look at the Egyptian environment and countryside before modernity, the huge transformations that impacted the country, and why they were so intimately bound up in ecological history. It shows a different facet of Egypt's transition to modernity and the vast impacts that it has had both on the world and the country itself.

The Book's Content

The introduction to the book lays out the proposition that the Middle East has suffered from a lack of study of its ecology and that the picture which has been painted of it is unbalanced and unfair. The author aims to look at the ecological and political economy through climate, plague, and energy to examine Egypt's role in the broader world economy and its evolution.

Irrigation canals have always been a vital part of Egyptian agriculture.

Irrigation canals have always been a vital part of Egyptian agriculture.

For the next few chapters, the focus is on irrigation works that were vital for Egyptian agriculture, and how rather than being the products of Oriental despotism, they were actually a collaboration between peasants' decentralized authority and the state, who provided them the necessary resources for large projects. It also had to intervene in protecting the status quo and property rights to ensure the smooth functioning of the countryside, which it took seriously, with authorities as high as the sultan himself often being involved in approving irrigation projects.

Labor for this, of course, came from the peasants themselves, who in contrast to the relatively bucolic picture painted of them in the previous centuries, started to be increasingly drawn into commercialized cash economies as a rural proletariat in the 1700s, as land, labor, and resources were centralized, and peasant labor was mobilized in increasingly large-scale and sophisticated projects. These were overseen by specialists and engineers, who were an enduring feature of the Egyptian countryside, existing long before the introduction of European style engineering in the 19th century.

In a pre-industrial economy, animal labor was a vital element of energy.

In a pre-industrial economy, animal labor was a vital element of energy.

Animal power was a crucial component of the rural economy in pre-modern Egypt and represented some of the only disposable capital possessed by Egyptian peasants. Animal labor was an important part of productivity. This began to change in the 1750s as the economy centralized and a vast die-off of animals in the countryside happened during years of plague and famine.

The rich seized those that remained. Only an increasingly small percentage of the population could afford animals, and their farms and production grew relative to the rest of the population, resulting in a more unequal and stratified countryside where former small farmers were turned into laborers for big farms and for corvee labor—much harsher than the small-scale corvee existing before—for huge projects.

Far away Iceland would have tremendous impact on Egypt via volcanic eruption, showing how tightly bound together the world is.

Far away Iceland would have tremendous impact on Egypt via volcanic eruption, showing how tightly bound together the world is.

The final segment of the book is devoted to the various material constraints on Egypt, the plagues that wracked the country, and the 1784 Iceland volcanic eruption, which was responsible for much of the terrible suffering that Egypt experienced during this time. It starts out with an example of Ottoman imperial resource coordination, as wood was shipped from Ottoman south Anatolia to Alexandria, then to the Nile, then overland to Suez to build ships for the pilgrimage to Mecca.

It continues on to discuss the recurring patterns of plagues in Egypt, including the particularly severe one in the 1780s, which lead to famine and tremendous suffering. Instrumental in this plague was the eruption of the Laki volcano in Iceland. Its massive plume of ash led to a decline in global temperatures, greatly intensifying the Egyptian famine. This had key political impacts as it further centralized authority and power in the hands of the elites who profited from the situation to the disadvantage of the Ottoman central government.

The conclusion functions to restate the general principles present in the book of the need to integrate together history holistically with environmental interconnection and to truly understand and accept the environment for what it is without portraying it as flawed and unnatural, as is often be done in historical writings about the Middle East.

My Review of Under Osman's Tree: The Ottoman Empire, Egypt, & Environmental History

Alan Mikhail's book is able to create an effective and convincing narrative of an evolving ecological history in Egypt over the course of its chapters from its look into how the Egyptian working environment was composed and how it interacted with Egyptians to the dramatic changes in the Egyptian political economy driven by political and ecological transformations.

It starts by describing how the Egyptian environment was composed of and interacted with by peasants, stressing that they were valued by the regime, that their opinions and expertise were taken into account, and that important authority was concentrated in the countryside—a dramatic counter to the idea of the oppressed and powerless Middle Eastern peasant being completely powerless and a slave to the state.

This is well-explained by the author in holistic terms, combining the plague, climate change, famine, and political ambitions to explain the changes that transpired in Egypt. He manages to integrate these to write a convincing narrative, and to do so in human terms, explaining the fate of the poor peasant laborers who were deprived of their previous individual autonomy and reduced to serfs of the state, laboring away on the great state ambitions of the newly centralized Egypt—the Alexandria or Suez canals being notable examples.

Mikhail convincingly portrays this before-and-after and does so by examining a wide range of causes of the dramatic change in environmental management. He also does so with humor and an impressive command of sources, occasionally using poetry and texts to enliven his discussion beyond simple statistics and cold examples and weaves his story well on both the local and "national" levels.

If there is one thing that I would critique about this book, it would its annoying tendency towards self-reference and utilize examples from previous chapters as evidence for its arguments to an excessive extent. To some extent, I appreciate this in a book as it is useful to restate things that have been previously said since the reader rarely remembers them as well as the author, and thus what may seem clear and easy to recall for the writer may actually be very difficult indeed for the reader to remember. But the style in which this book is written sounds too self-referential when drawing broad conclusions from the individual examples that had been written about previously.

Perhaps it is because the author has written so profusely about the subject, with three books—and doubtless many articles—published previously. This makes for an odd sense when reading since the conclusions the author draws are larger than the examples he has in the text.

The other issue that one might look at it is a simple one: phrasing. The book in its presentation, via its title, is about Ottoman environmental history. In fact, other than a chapter about the transport of timber the book could be written without much reference to the rest of the Ottoman Empire. The title is misleading and gives the impression that the book is much broader than it is in practice.

It is still a very good book and one which is well worth the read to look at a facet of Egyptian history that would be terribly incomplete without the perspective of environmental studies. It is original, holistic, meaningful, impactful, and relevant. It is a history book that makes for an important part of an understanding of both Egyptian history and the ecological and economic transformations that can occur in an economy and political system during a time of tremendous ecological and political change. Its lessons are ones that can be applied to many cases and that give a different picture of what modernity means.


Nell Rose from England on April 16, 2020:

Reading this reminded me of a set of Encylopedia's we had at home. I covered all this info. Interesting stuff! I bet it doesn't mention that between 1600 and 1900, 0ver a million white slaves were taken by the Barbary coast Arabs, from Cornwall England, Ireland Wales and Scotland! it seems that history has a way of wiping itself clean when it wants too.