Faisal Husain, Rivers of the Sultan: The Tigris and Euphrates in the Ottoman Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021).      

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Faisal Husain (FH): The time and place of my graduate training made me want to write an environmental history of the Ottoman Empire. Shortly after I started grad school in 2011, Alan Mikhail’s and Sam White’s groundbreaking books appeared, bringing to my attention a field that most Middle East scholars had not heard of until then—environmental history. I was one among many young students to embrace the new method and the countless possibilities it offered to study the history of the region. As an MA student at Yale, I was also incredibly fortunate to meet Alan Mikhail in person, who introduced me to my future dissertation advisor, J. R. McNeill, a renowned environmental and world historian. Ever since, Alan and John have been a constant source of support and inspiration, in their research, writing, and impeccable character. Had I gone to a different grad program at a different time, I would not have written this book.

Out of all environmental topics, I decided to write a history of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to grapple with questions to which I could not find answers in the literature. Namely, why do the Tigris and Euphrates feature so prominently in surveys of the ancient Middle East, while they receive a cursory treatment in the historiography of the post-classical period? If the twin rivers were critical to Sumerian and Akkadian states, what role, if any, did they play in the history of the Ottoman state in the same region? I also realized that in the early sixteenth century, the Ottoman Empire brought virtually the entire Tigris-Euphrates basin under its control, a feat only a handful of states have ever accomplished throughout history. I wanted to make better sense of this political oddity—how it happened, and what it meant.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

FH: The book addresses the most discussed issues about the Tigris and Euphrates in Ottoman archival sources: river transport (to which Chapter 1 is devoted), boat construction (Chapter 2), irrigation agriculture (Chapter 3), animal herding (Chapter 4), wetland exploitation (Chapter 5), and river channel shifts (Chapters 6 and 7). Within the timeframe of the book (1534-1780), those are the issues that were most at stake for the Ottoman state and for the riverine societies it had to deal with. The book, therefore, adopts their priorities as topics of discussion instead of imposing its own anachronistic agenda.

At the same time, the book engages with ongoing conversations about Ottoman and environmental history. One such conversation concerns Ottoman eastward expansion from the early sixteenth century. The literature on this subject portrays Iraq as yet another domino to fall under Ottoman rule after the fall of Egypt and Syria. But from a deep historical perspective, Ottoman expansion into Iraq was a political oddball and begs the question of how it was possible. Anatolia, the Balkans, and the Mediterranean coastlands had experienced imperial rule from Istanbul before the rise of the Ottoman state, during the Byzantine period to be more specific. Iraq, on the other hand, was never ruled by Istanbul in its millennia-long political history. Both the geographical pressures of distance and the political pressures of Iran prevented Roman and Byzantine armies from keeping Iraq under their fold for any meaningful stretch of time. In the early sixteenth century, the Ottoman Empire from Istanbul defied both the geographical and political odds to rule Iraq, with brief interruptions, until World War I. How could the Ottomans accomplish what Rome and Byzantium could not? The book argues that they did in part because of an unprecedented imperial system of waterborne communication along the Tigris and Euphrates that kept Ottoman garrisons in Iraq well-armed and well-fed a thousand miles away from Istanbul.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

FH: The articles I published before this book in Environmental History and the Journal of Interdisciplinary History dealt with the same theme, but they were more narrative driven because they relied heavily on chronicles written in Ottoman Turkish and Arabic. Most of the book, on the other hand, is concerned less with narrative and more with long-term political, environmental, and economic patterns—how did farmers cultivate wetlands? How did soldiers acquire their ammunitions? How did shipwrights build boats? To mention just a few patterns. This departure was made possible thanks to the additional time I had to incorporate Ottoman archival sources, particularly the cadastral surveys (tapu tahrir defterleri), which offer a precious insight into the daily lives of ordinary people that urban-based chroniclers often disparaged and ignored. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

FH: The book is based primarily on sources written in Ottoman Turkish, so scholars and students of Ottoman history will likely be its core audience. At the same time, I tried my best to make the book comprehensible and interesting to readers with no background in Ottoman history. In particular, I hope environmental historians interested in river systems, regardless of their geographical focus, will find the book useful.

River systems today often feature in public policy discourse as sources of discord. Think of the conflict between China and its southern neighbors over the Mekong, between India and Pakistan over the Indus, and between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq over the Tigris and Euphrates. If there is one real-world impact that the book will have, I sincerely hope that it will show that rivers are not destined to be tinderboxes ready to ignite. When managed cooperatively and holistically, they can promote economic and political cohesion, as the Tigris and Euphrates did during the early modern period.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

FH: I am working on a new book project on the environmental history of Ottoman frontier expansion during the sixteenth century. Historians have studied the political and cultural dimensions of Ottoman expansion into the Middle East, but the environmental dimensions have been largely ignored. My first book focused on one overlooked consequence of Ottoman expansion—its political unification of the Tigris-Euphrates system. But the enormous trove of written records we have from the period—particularly the cadastral surveys—allows for a broader story that considers other policies and subsistence strategies that could be pursued independent of river resources.

J: Where do you see the field of Middle East environmental history headed?

FH: I am optimistic. Environmental history is one of the most vibrant fields in Middle East studies today. Its vibrancy reflects a growing interest in our relationship with the rest of nature among humanities scholars across the board, regardless of their regional specialization. My book is just one entry in a rapidly expanding list of books on Ottoman and Middle East environmental history. Just before my book came out, Andrea Duffy (Colorado State) and Michael Christopher Low (Iowa State) published their wonderful books on the Mediterranean and the Hijaz, respectively. Onur İnal and Yavuz Köse (Vienna), meanwhile, published a handy introductory volume on the field. Soon, Chris Gratien (Virginia), Samuel Dolbee (Harvard), Elizabeth Williams (UMass Lowell), Graham Pitts (George Washington), Zozan Pehlivan (Minnesota), Dale Stahl (CU Denver), Camille Cole (Cambridge), Isacar Bolaños (CSU Long Beach), among others, will publish their books. Every year since Mikhail’s and White’s books came out in 2011, environmental history has been attracting more interest from Middle East historians and improving our understanding of the region’s past.


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 5-9)

Writing a history of the Tigris and Euphrates is an attempt to piece back together a jigsaw that time has torn apart. Even though natural scientists take the physical and biological unity of river systems as an article of faith, the twin rivers appear in most historical works as dismembered bodies. In Ottoman historiography, for example, different portions of the drainage basin feature in national and provincial monographs in isolation from each other. Studies framed around administrative units illuminated the adaptability of imperial governance in different localities but rendered invisible the total fluvial system. The Tigris and Euphrates, as a result, have leaked through the cracks of monographs about Anatolia, Syria, and Iraq as well as their cities and provinces.

One aim of this book, therefore, is to overcome the historiographical dams that have divided the Tigris and Euphrates into artificial basins and to demonstrate the utility of adopting a hydro-scale that considers the fluvial system as a continuous whole. Unified under Ottoman hegemony, the natural drainage pattern of the twin rivers fostered intimate bonds between upstream and downstream provinces, transporting not only water and sediment but also boatloads of men, guns, and grain that cemented the Ottoman presence in the east. The hydro-scale clarifies the magnitude and significance of these movements. It reveals, moreover, how the Tigris and Euphrates could expand the reach of natural and political disturbances happening anywhere in their basin. For instance, drought in the highlands of Sivas and Diyarbakır could trigger floods in the lowlands of Baghdad, and security anxiety in the Persian Gulf could spur the construction of riverboats upstream in Birecik.

Long before the “river basin” came into vogue as a concept during the twentieth century, human perceptions and institutions presupposed its natural unity.  Ottoman officials considered the Euphrates to be an interconnected environmental system when, for example, they floated timber downriver, leaving it to its fate, knowing that flow could carry it over 800 miles to their downstream partners. Ottoman geographers, furthermore, gave expression to the spatial unity of the Tigris-Euphrates basin. One of the earliest Ottoman panoramas of the river system is a remarkable eleven-foot-long map drawn in the middle of the seventeenth century. The map features the entire river system, from the Taurus Mountains to the Persian Gulf, and indicates the major routes, settlements, and holy sites in-between. By the standards of the time, the map is an impressive cartographic achievement. Even travelers flying over the Tigris and Euphrates today cannot see the rivers in their entirety at one time. The magnitude of the landscape, however, could not defy the anonymous cartographer’s sense of dimension, which recognized that settlements along the Tigris and Euphrates all belonged to a single fluvial system that could be represented in a single map.

Operating on an unconventional spatial scale invites an unconventional vocabulary. The area of land drained by the Tigris and Euphrates lacks a general historical name. This book will refer to it as the drainage or river basin, a geographical term synonymous with watershed in North American usage and with catchment area in other parts of the world. Within the drainage basin, most irrigation and navigation activities before the age of fossil fuels could not break free from a micro-geography that is referred to here as the alluvial plain. If the Tigris-Euphrates basin before the nineteenth century were a concert hall, the alluvial plain would form the center stage; thus it attracts the lion’s share of attention in this book.

Nature throws the alluvial plain into stark relief. Geologically, it is an extensive depression filled with thick sediment deposits south of Hit on the Euphrates and Tikrit on the Tigris, boxed in by the rocky scarps of the Arabian desert along the southwestern flank, the marshes of Basra and Khuzistan on the southeastern boundary, and the Jabal Hamrin hill range on the northeast. Topographically, the alluvial plain is exceptionally flat, largely sitting at an elevation lower than 165 feet and less than 1 percent gradient. In the middle of the seventeenth century, Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi compared it to the Kipchak steppe in the Ukraine. His French contemporary, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, thought it looked more like the terrain in Holland. Coming from the Mediterranean, travelers could recognize their arrival in the alluvial plain from changes in the vegetation cover. Here the date palm dethrones the olive tree and rules the plant kingdom. Historically, the alluvial plain roughly corresponds to the ancient lands of Sumer and Akkad, the Ottoman provinces of Baghdad and Basra, and Arab Iraq (Irak-i Arab), as the region was referred to in early modern Ottoman literature. To the Tigris and Euphrates, the alluvial plain is what southern Louisiana is to the Mississippi. To avoid prolixity, it will often be referred to as the alluvium or Iraq.

From a purely materialist perspective, the Tigris and Euphrates are modest rivers. If the drainage basin area and the annual discharge volume are used as metrics for global comparison, the twin rivers would rank low, overshadowed by the fluvial heavyweights of the world such as the Amazon and the Congo. Despite their humble geographical standing, they could still play an outsized role in the political affairs of Eurasia when a central administration based in Istanbul coordinated their exploitation with upstream and downstream settlements. The energy of river flow expanded the combat radius of Ottoman armies in West Asia and supported the stability of the eastern frontier as they fought in Central Europe. The twin rivers in this way helped the Ottoman Empire balance its military engagement between the Asian and European fronts.

Their historical influence disproportionate to their geographical size, the Tigris and Euphrates remind us to appreciate the small things in nature. Small rivers can be as complex and as enchanting as large ones. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, writing in 1852, “A brook need not be large to afford us pleasure by its sands & meanderings and falls & their various accompaniments. It is not so much size that we want as picturesque beauty & harmony. If the sound of its fall fills my ear it is enough.”