Conference Review: "Environmental History of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey”, University of Hamburg, 27-28 October 2017

Onur Inal's picture

The “Environmental History of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey” conference, organized by the TürkeiEuropaZentrum (TEZ) of the University of Hamburg, took place in Hamburg, Germany on 27-28 October 2017. The conference was funded by the Asia Africa Institute of the University of Hamburg (AAI), German Research Foundation (DFG), and the European Society for Environmental History (ESEH).

The two-day conference was 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. There were four panels on the first day of the conference. In the first panel, entitled “Environmental Movements and Protests in Turkey” panelists presented papers on anti-gold mining and anti-coal plant protests, as well as the development of wheat cultivation in the recent history of Turkey. The second panel, “Water and Environment in Eastern Mediterranean,” panelists discussed the use and management of water in Greece and Cyprus in Ottoman and post-Ottoman periods.  The third panel included papers interrogating the links between hydraulic engineering and local politics in Ottoman Salonica, spatio-temporal Jewish identity in Izmir, and the perception of Alexander von Humboldt in early republican Turkey. In the final panel of the first day, there were papers about how health concerns and technological advances brought changes to drinking water infrastructure across the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century.

In the evening of the first day, a keynote lecture with the title “Ottoman/Turkish Environmental History from a Global Perspective: Facts, Thoughts, and Questions” was delivered by Prof. Joachim Radkau, an emeritus professor at the University of Bielefeld in Germany. In his eye-opening lecture, Prof. Radkau discussed how global environmental issues such as global warming, urban sprawl, deforestation, water and air pollution, and environmental refugees were connected to local/regional issues and problems in Turkey and the Middle East.

There were three panels in the second day of the conference. In the first panel, the panelists talked about possible links between climate change and political, social, and economic transformations in the Ottoman Empire. The second panel, focusing on the changes in the rural, included papers on the formation and dissolution of çiftliks in Western Anatolia, the environmental and political adaptation of nomads in northeastern Anatolia, and the politics and economics of forests in late Ottoman Empire and early republican Turkey. In the final panel, the panelists talked about different aspects of the use, management, and perception of soil, water, and animal in Turkey.

The conference in Hamburg was 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. Even such a small-scale meeting illustrated that environmental history is a very promising field in Ottoman and Turkish studies. There are three substantive outcomes of the conference. The first one is the Network for the Study of Environmental History of Turkey (NEHT). Hosted by the TEZ of the University of Hamburg, it will provide a platform for further cooperation and exchange of information among environmental historians of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey from all around the world. The second one is the conference proceedings, edited by Onur Inal and Yavuz Köse of the University of Hamburg. It is planned to be published by the White Horse Press in late 2018. The third one is that the participants concurred a second conference to be organized in 2019 and regularly thereafter. The venue of the next meeting will be announced in 2018.

Onur Inal, 
TürkeiEuropaZentrum (TEZ)
University of Hamburg