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Plague and Empire… is a timely look at the Ottoman experience of epidemics

Academic Nukhet Varlık [Newark History Dept/Twitter]
Academic Nukhet Varlık, 29 July 2017 [Newark History Dept/Twitter]

Academic Nukhet Varlık has written a timely book on the experience of the Ottoman Empire in coping with plague. The Professor of History at Rutgers University is the author of Plague and Empire in the Early Modern Mediterranean World: The Ottoman Experience, 1347-1600 which explores the historical connections between the growth of Ottoman power in the Mediterranean world and the simultaneous spread of plague.

Speaking exclusively to MEMO from the United States, Varlık pointed out that plague was a persistent problem throughout Ottoman history, from the mid-fourteenth century until the Empire was dissolved in 1923. “We are talking about a series of epidemic outbreaks that kept recurring in periodic intervals; in the empire’s early centuries, it was on average every ten years or so, then it became more frequent to the point of happening almost every year. Ottoman society became familiar with outbreaks of plague over time, and in a way learned how to live with it.”

cemetery scene

An illustration depicting a cemetery following deaths due to the plague

There were a number of institutional, legal and medical interventions by the Ottoman state starting more prominently in the sixteenth century, she pointed out. “These are all very important to understand the development of the state-formation process. The response to plague was one of the elements that made the Ottoman state what it became during the sixteenth century: a state that monitored, controlled and managed the health of its population.”

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There is, she said, some comparison to be made between the understanding of public health systems in Western and Eastern societies. “Here we see the rise of public health and its administration by the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century, but many historians still imagine public health as a product of Western modernity, and as something that was ‘imported’ by Middle Eastern societies. This is simply not true. We see these institutions and practices fully in place in the sixteenth century, and they continued to serve Ottoman society for several centuries after that. Even during the modernisation period in the nineteenth century, when public health and medical reforms were introduced, we see how these earlier institutions were repurposed and continued to be used in the context of modern medicine.”

Ezekiel resurrecting plague victims

Ezekiel resurrecting plague victims

During outbreaks in the eighteenth century, some scientists observed and wrote about plague in the Ottoman Empire. Mordach Mackenzie, for example, was the physician of the Levant Company in Istanbul in the eighteenth century and observed Ottoman society. His letters, Prof. Varlik told me, are important in the study of the history of plague as they contain important observations about the disease, its spread and the methods of its treatment in Istanbul. Mackenzie included information that he had received from his own networks about how plague affected other Ottoman cities.

According to Varlık, because the physician spent about thirty years working in the Empire, his observations about the changes in behaviour of plague over time are also valuable. It is important to remember, though, that as a foreigner, his writings offer a limited understanding of the workings of Ottoman society, medicine and public health. “We need to use sources such as Mackenzie’s letters or those produced by other European actors in conjunction with sources produced by members of Ottoman society in order to avoid potential biases.”

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In 1838, the Ottomans signed a quarantine reform law to cope with epidemics. For Varlık, this marks the point when the Empire decided to adopt a new strategy to deal with the problem, but to what extent this was successful is open to debate.

“Plague continued to break out after the establishment of quarantine stations for almost another century, so the claim that the quarantine reform stopped the occurrence of plague needs to be investigated very carefully.”

According to Varlık, plague is not a contagious disease — there being no direct person-to-person transmission under normal circumstances — so quarantine doesn’t necessarily stop its spread, especially if there are infected rat colonies living in quarantined cities. “Quarantine was effective in controlling the movement of other contagious diseases like cholera, but not plague,” she claimed.

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In 1838, the Ottoman Empire established a number of quarantine stations in port cities and other locations, and enforced disinfection procedures at the checkpoints for the purpose of preventing the spread of disease epidemics. However, we know that such measures also helped the state to keep a closer check on its borders and track the movement of individuals and goods that passed through, allowing the authorities to gather more intelligence. It would be appropriate to understand this effort as part of the Ottomans’ assertion of their geopolitical claims across their borders during this period of heightened political, military and ideological tension.

Nowadays, governments want to protect both the economy and public health, yet it seems difficult to cope with the coronavirus pandemic only by keeping people at home. For example, the World Bank has announced that it may cause a worldwide recession and the UN has warned that it could cost the global economy up to $2 trillion this year alone. How did the Ottoman Empire protect its own economy during plague outbreaks? What was the secret behind a stable economy at such times?

A hospital for coronavirus (COVID-19) patients, in Tehran, Iran on 30 March 2020 [Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency]

A hospital for coronavirus (COVID-19) patients, in Tehran, Iran on 30 March 2020 [Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency]

Varlık explained that it is not helpful to look for historical analogies or establish precedents here. This is not only because the Covid-19 pandemic is unprecedented in many ways, but also because the Ottoman economy can’t be understood from the vantage point of the modern capitalist system.

“It is, of course, true that the loss of life caused by plague was a major blow to the Ottoman economy every time that a major outbreak took place, but the economy was able to offset the losses by expanding the Empire’s territories in the sixteenth century. And as long as cities continued to attract immigrant populations from their hinterland, the problem of plague mortality could be kept in check. However, this was no longer the case in the seventeenth century, when things took a turn for the worse, owing to ecological and economic crises.”

She added that problems like drought, famine, war, banditry and mass migrations all became serious issues in the seventeenth century. Plague mortality further aggravated this dismal scene.

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“Starting in the eighteenth century, plague started its slow and gradual process of retreat from the Ottoman Empire, even though major outbreaks still continued to occur though the nineteenth century as well. Overall, the loss of life caused by plague is still one of the major problems in Ottoman history to be explored fully in terms of its long-term economic impact.”

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has forced us to reconsider our journeys, holidays, work, conferences and travel, all of which we once thought important. The plague of terrorism hasn’t had such an effect on world affairs as this virus has. Will it be a long-lasting effect? We can learn from the Ottomans in many ways, not least from the changes that they made to cope with plague and other epidemics, some of which are still with us today. If nothing else, we need to look at errors of judgement that have precluded our governments from tackling coronavirus as effectively as they might have, if only modern politics hadn’t got in our way. We can always hope.

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