Towards the First Conference on the Environmental History of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey

Onur Inal describes the genesis of the first ever conference on Ottoman and Turkish Environmental History, some of whose proceedings will form a White Horse Press edited collection in 2018.

Environmental history is a very slowly growing field in Ottoman and Turkish studies and it still gets a stepchild treatment from the scholars of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey. For the past several years, researchers in the field, including me, have grumbled about the lack of interest in environmental history among Middle Eastern historians. I have defined environmental history as a ‘fledgling sub-field of Ottoman history’[1] which is not wrong at all, as the number of environmental historical studies focusing on the Ottoman Empire and Turkey is remarkably limited. Compared to the increased number of studies with different perspectives on North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa, the Middle East, indeed, remains rather a neglected geographical area; it is, as the American environmental historian Alan Mikhail has stated ‘one of the gaping holes in the global story of the environment”[2]

Let us not give into pessimism. Last year this time, neither a community, nor a research network, nor a conference of any kind dedicated to Ottoman/Turkish environmental history had existed. Now we have them all (almost): Turkey has become a new region of the European Society for Environmental History (ESEH). There is the newly-started Network for the Study of Environmental History of Turkey. The first international conference ever focusing on the environmental history of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey will take place in Hamburg in just over a week. And the proceeedings of that conference will be published by the White Horse Press in late 2018. I didn’t think it would all happen this quickly.

Environmental History Conference Poster-page-001

The idea to create a new ESEH region, to organise an international conference, to form a network, and to publish an edited volume arose from my desire to bring historians, sociologists, political scientists, geographers, environmental and natural scientists, both early career and experienced, identifying themselves or showing an interest in the fields of Ottoman and Turkish environmental history, together. Before I published the CfP for the Environmental History of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey conference in January 2017, I had concerned about low number of submissions that might jeopardise the conference. However, it turned out quite well; the number of paper abstracts we received was more than double what we could include in a two-day conference. After weeks and months of hard work, the papers for the conference were selected, the panels were organized, the keynote lecturer was found, and other practicalities were dealt with. We are now ready to go! The Environmental History of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey conference that will take place at the Asien-Afrika-Institut of University of Hamburg on 27–28 October 2017 will be the first academic gathering, and the most important step, in the formation of a Ottoman/Turkish environmental history community.

The conference will be divided into seven panels, each exploring historical processes and transformations that have shaped the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey from the viewpoint of environmental history. It will provide a forum for discussion of the latest research and development in environmental history to a total number of 24 researchers from 8 different countries. Among the themes of the conference are the so-called Little Ice Age and its impact on political, economic, and social transformations in the Ottoman Empire; the manipulation, management, and control of nature through infrastructure projects; the use of natural resources and related conflicts and problems; circulation and transfer of environmental and technological knowledge; environmental politics and management in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey; and recent environmental movements and protests. The keynote speaker will be Prof. Joachim Radkau, an emeritus professor at the University of Bielefeld in Germany. Considered one of the leading representatives of environmental history in the German-speaking world, Prof. Radkau will deliver a keynote lecture with the title ‘Ottoman/Turkish Environmental History from a Global Perspective: Facts, Thoughts, and Questions’

Images showing environmental challenges facing contemporary Turkey. (Hover over for captions)

In short, the conference will be the first academic meeting to showcase the interdisciplinary nature of environmental history, providing a fresh perspective to the study of the Ottoman and Turkish past. It will provide a platform for cooperation and exchange of information among environmental historians of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey from all around the world. The conference, furthermore, will be of interest to anyone, academic or non-academic, looking forward to hear more about new avenues for the environmental history of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey. The substantive outcome of the conference will be the book I edit with Prof. Yavuz Köse of the University of Hamburg and to be published by the White Horse Press in late 2018.

[1] Onur Inal, ‘Environmental History as an Emerging Field in Ottoman Studies: An Historiographical Overview’, The Journal of Ottoman Studies 38 (2011): 25.

[2] Alan Mikhail, ‘Introduction: Middle East Environmental History: The Fallow Between Two Fields’, in Water on Sand: Environmental Histories of the Middle East and North Africa, ed. Alan Mikhail (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 1.


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