How does history look at non-urban, rural populations who lived through the last century of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the Turkish republic? Chris Gratien’s The Unsettled Plain: An Environmental History of the Late Ottoman Frontier takes us through the experiences of the inhabitants of a central Anatolian plateau called Cukurova, a broad area which includes cities like Adana and the port of Mersin, as well as the Taurus and Amanus mountains. Cukurova underwent a number of major changes, going from the geographical centre of the Ottoman Empire to a frontier zone on the edge of modern Turkey.
“The name Cukurova gestures to that region’s recent environmental transformation,” explains Gratien. “The label Cukur connotes a depression. Coupled with the geographical feature of a plain, or ova, the name Cukurova signifies ‘lowland’.”
A diverse population inhabited the plain: Turks, Armenians, Circassians, Kurds, Greeks and other groups who found themselves within the empire. Cukurova, which until modern times was known by its Roman name Cilicia, encapsulates the modernising efforts of the late Ottoman and Turkish administrations as experienced by non-urbanites. Much of the region was semi-nomadic until the Tanzimat reforms of the 19th century; the plain came to symbolise unruly people who needed to be settled in the minds of reformists. Cukurova was, in effect, a laboratory for Turkish modernity.
For many groups, seasonal migration was the normal way of life, settling in the foothills and lowlands in winter and up in the mountains during the summer. Part of the reason for this, Gratien argues, was an adaptive response to infectious disease, with malaria being a concern of the locals. While there was no cure for malaria before the 20th century, “people possessed means of mitigating malaria’s impact rooted in an intimate knowledge of local geography and a seasonal conception of space.”
In other words, malaria influenced how people thought about time and geography; how they behaved, the beliefs they held and the stories they told. Forcing populations to settle in towns and cities, which the reformers saw as critical to the modernisation of the empire, not only transformed the landscape of the region, but also ruptured their sense of self and culture. In essence, that is what The Unsettled Plain… is about; it charts the way that this transformation took place.
The development of Mersin port and Adana was designed to integrate the region into a capitalist economy. Both were relatively small pre-19th century, but boomed as the reforms gathered pace. The transformation of the region, which included forcing populations to settle, was not entirely popular among locals. During his visit to the region, Ahmed Cevdet Pasha, an Ottoman statesman who had been governor of Aleppo and oversaw the reforms of Cukurova, described the transformation in glowing terms: “As far as the Kozan mountains on our right and as far as the Ceyhan river on our left, everything our eye could see was cultivated, and the air smelled sweet.”
While touring, he encountered a bad smell and was told by his companion that it was coming from an uncultivated land that they had passed through, so he should not worry. However, describing the same landscape, one Turkish novelist who had roots in the region, Yasar Kemal, tapped into local memory of the then newly-cultivated lands: “All summer long,” he wrote, “the plain reeked of carrion… the mosquitos were merciless. The malaria was disastrous… Cukurova was full of animal and human skeletons.” Gratein points out the different narratives, so we can understand that, “What officials cast as a modernisation project, local people remembered as a violent rupture.”
The Unsettled Plain… treats Cukurova as a microcosm of the Ottoman Empire, and its story has everything in it from the rise of port cities to modern medicine, migration and war. It explores differing narratives, overlapping histories and the changing human conception of the environment.
In the late 19th century, Cukurova was fashioned on Egypt, with hopes that the transformation undertaken to take Egypt from a cereals-based agricultural economy to a high-yield, export-oriented economy that evolved around cotton, could be realised in Anatolia too. Gratien’s book guides us through the human and environmental impact of such ambitions, placing ecology, the history of medicine, official imperial history and local memories together in a delightful mix. Why do this? Well, as Yasar Kemal suggests, every story is Cukurova’s story, to which I would add that every history is an unsettled plain when perceived from below.
This book is a wonderful contribution to our knowledge of Ottoman history. The author gets us thinking about change as experienced by the non-elite population, and allows us to ask to what extent non-urban populations are shaped by change itself, as well as the shapers of change.