Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Wood for Ottoman Egypt

As chronicled by Giancarlo Casale in a number of articles and his book The Ottoman Age of Exploration, the Ottoman Empire of the 1500's was an active participant in Indian Ocean geopolitics.  Ottoman diplomacy was active against the Portuguese throughout the littoral, and its naval forces and privateers saw action on several occasions.  In 1538, the Ottomans put to sea a fleet of 70 ships, the largest armada since those of Chinese admiral Zheng He a century before.

These efforts were handicapped, however, by the lack of important strategic resource in the Ottomans' Indian Ocean territories: wood.  In order to construct fleets, the empire had to requisition lumber from Anatolia to the Black Sea littoral, ship it by sea to Egypt, then by caravan to Red Sea shipyards.  The expense of such projects was no small part of the reason why Ottoman efforts in the Indian Ocean were inconsistent with the turning of political factions, and perhaps explains the failure of the entire venture.

In a more recent book, Nature and Empire in Ottoman Egypt, Alan Mikhail dedicates a chapter to the continuing significance of Egypt's reliance on outside sources of wood.  Egypt was the Ottoman Empire's granary, but the technology to extend cultivated areas and keep crops irrigated relied on wood, which still came primarily from Anatolia.  In an interesting passage, he writes:
Wood was everywhere in rural Egypt, and without it, peasants could not have functioned as they had for centuries.  Wood came to be so "natural" a part of the countryside's environment that it would be hard to imagine Egyptian villages without dams, canals, waterwheels, embankments, and other wooden structures and equally as hard to imagine Egypt without ships to move grain across the Empire...Indeed, without those objects, Egyptian peasants could not irrigate otherwise uncultivable land, and they could not protect themselves against the ravages of the flood.  In short, given their millennia of interactions with wood and their dependence on it, peasants could not live without the material and what they made of it...
With the story of wood in Ottoman Egypt, we see that it was the demand for and use of lumber by both Egyptian peasants and the imperial bureaucracy of the province that led to the removal of large portions of forest in Anatolia.  Put differently, Egyptian peasants - who had never seen Anatolia and likely never heard of the place - affected its history in massively important ways.  As forests were cut, ecosystems were altered or destroyed, soil fertilities depleted, and animal habitats changed.
Egypt's need for wood played a critical role in its 19th-century expansion.  Mehmet Ali (or Muhammad Ali) wanted a self-sufficient industrialized polity to call his own.  Early on, he rashly depleted the country's meager existing wood supplies, which he then later tried to rebuild through a mandatory tree-planting campaign.  As time passed, however, his answer to Egypt's wood security problem was expansion.  After he conquered the Sudan, he explored ways to try and ship wood up the Nile from the south.  Wood also figured prominently in Egyptian and Ottoman internal memos related to the negotiations which ended his 1830's campaign into Syria and Anatolia, and one of Mehmet Ali's core objectives was access to the wood-rich province of Adana.

Today, trees are mostly about love of nature and preservation of  the ecosystem.  Through much of human history, however, they have been a resource worth controlling and fighting over.

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