LearningLife Stories

Lessons of the Ottoman Empire

Introduction to Global Environmental History

by Christian Fredrickson

Portrait of Zozan Pehlivan

More and more, we’re seeing news stories on extreme weather trends and record-breaking phenomena. Articles cover every aspect of their impact, from floods and fires in communities to examination of entire civic infrastructures that are unprepared to cope with the aftermath. In her LearningLife course, Introduction to Global Environmental History (begins February 20), Dr. Zozan Pehlivan will survey human−environment interaction throughout history.

Pehlivan, an assistant professor of History in the U of M’s College of Liberal Arts, received her two history degrees in Istanbul: her bachelor’s at Istanbul Bilgi University, and her master’s at Sabancı University. She received her Doctor of Philosophy at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario.

“I’ve always had an interest in the economic history of the Ottoman Empire, particularly in understudied regions like Ottoman Kurdistan,” she says. Today, the Ottoman Kurdistan is divided between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. For five centuries, however, the region served as the breadbasket of the Ottoman Empire—a significant land-locked hub of trade for the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, and the Persian Gulf. The region was inhabited by a diversity of cultures: “millions of Armenian, Kurdish, Arab, Syriac, Nestorian, Turkish, Jewish, and Greek peasants, pastoralists, and townspeople.” Wanting to know how such a rich array of philosophies and lifestyles came to assemble, Pehlivan felt compelled to study the region’s social, political, and economic conditions.

“When I first began my research (2011), I’d intended to work on the pastoral nomadic economy of the Middle East, specifically Ottoman Kurdistan, Iraq, and Syria, in the 18th and 19th centuries.” 

Yet plans go askew, as they will when new experiences are presented. In this case, the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship in the Humanities, via the Institute of Historical Research in the University of London, offered the young scholar the opportunity to study at the British National Archives for nine months. What Pehlivan found there was confirmed by the Ottoman archival documents that she had worked on in the following two years in Istanbul: “Every archival file that I read had something related to climatic anomalies and their various and complicated impacts on agrarian and herding communities in Ottoman Kurdistan, Iraq, and Syria,” she says. “These archival documents changed not only my research questions, but also my entire career path.”

Drawing from this vast comprehension of the past, Pehlivan participated in “Appraising risk, past and present: Interrogating historical data to enhance understanding of environmental crises in the Indian Ocean World,” a project hosted by the Indian Ocean World Centre at McGill University and funded by the Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. 

“The major purpose of the Appraising Risk project is to illustrate the past−present pattern of climatic anomalies and the ways in which societies and political groups have responded to mitigate their impacts in the Indian Ocean World, a macro-region stretching from East Africa to the Middle East to South Asia, China, East Asia and Australia,” she explains. “By focusing on six major environmental crises that occurred between the 6th and the 19th centuries, the project aims to demonstrate a long-term historical picture of environmental disasters to today’s policymakers—to assist them in developing policies for mitigating the social, economic, and environmental impacts of global climate change.”

Because, as we all know, history is prone to repeating itself, and forewarned is forearmed.