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Rivers of the Sultan: The Tigris and the Euphrates in the Ottoman Empire

March 28, 2022 at 9:31 am

  • Book Author(s): Faisal H. Husain
  • Published Date: August 2021
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Hardback: 272 pages
  • ISBN-13: 9780197547274

“From a deep history perspective, Ottoman rule in Iraq — the land of ancient Babylonia — was a political oddity,” writes Faisal Husain in Rivers of the Sultan: The Tigris and Euphrates In the Ottoman Empire. “In its millennia-long history, Iraq was never ruled from Istanbul before the sixteenth century… among the most distant imperial capitals to ever govern Babylonia for any considerable stretch of time were Persepolis and Antioch in the second half of the first millennium BC. But Achaemenid and Macedonian rule in Iraq pales into insignificance compared to what the Ottomans accomplished from the sixteenth century, ruling from a far more distant capital and for a far longer span.”

Of central concern to the Ottomans were control and management of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Husain’s new book takes us on a tour of how Istanbul organised life in Iraq.

The history of the environment and human interaction with climate, geography and disease are more important now than ever before. Environmental concerns are easy to overlook when we live in huge urban sprawls with supermarkets stacked with every kind of food imaginable. However, as news about climate change and its effects becomes more frequent, more people are asking existential questions about our position in the current age. Challenges posed by the environment are nothing new, though; earlier societies had their own environmental issues to resolve.

For the Ottomans, the two major rivers of Iraq were essential for building a sustainable political order, which would benefit not only Istanbul and Iraq, but also other parts of their empire. Indeed, many empires have sought to conquer or spring from that region. In 1534, Sultan Suleyman (the Magnificent) seized Baghdad during his war with the Persian Safavids; thus began Iraq’s long Ottoman history.

“Before his departure from Baghdad in March 1535, Suleyman I personally ordered officials to do everything necessary to secure the river crossings,” writes Husain. This directive included everything from building bridges to developing trade routes across Iraq and building infrastructure to support the use of the rivers. Traffic police kept the bridges secure and controlled foot and boat traffic while collecting tolls.

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The scale of the Ottoman project was enormous and, “following the Ottoman unification of the Tigris and Euphrates, the largest fortresses along the rivers — Aleppo, Diyarbakir, Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra — received considerable financial support from Istanbul to improve their communication infrastructure.” Control of the rivers allowed them to balance ecological disparities. For example, Iraq suffered from issues to do with growing cereal grain, and shortages were common. The transport system enabled grain from more fertile regions to be sent by river towards places experiencing such shortages.

When building the river infrastructure, the Ottomans took into account the history of the region and local hydrologic traditions. According to Husain, “The Ottoman state fashioned itself as the guardians of the traditional wisdom of society — tried and true laws, values, and procedures. A traditional posture called for Ottoman intervention in water management to follow the example of ancient rulers and thus preserve the ‘natural’ order of things.”

While there were numerous practical reasons for this, there seems also to have been a political incentive, as seventeenth century Ottoman travel writer Evliya Celebi noted on his 1656 visit to Baghdad. “The land of Iraq is more prosperous than it was in the age of the caliphs,” he wrote. Husain argues that the point Celebi is making here is that Istanbul’s local legitimacy depended partially upon creating a smooth connection with Iraq’s “glorious past”. Irrigation was also a major part of the Ottoman’s political ideology, known as the “circle of justice”. This concept links economic prosperity with good governance and social justice; for the Ottomans, Iraq’s waterways were essential to wealth creation as well as political and social harmony.

Rivers of the Sultan… offers a fascinating glimpse into the political, social and economic histories of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The Ottoman system enabled different regions to benefit and develop, a fact which comes across clearly in Faisal Husain’s work. Surprisingly easy to read he offers insights to get us thinking about the ways that environmental history interacts with political history in Iraq and elsewhere.