Chris Gratien, The Unsettled Plain: An Environmental History of the Late Ottoman Frontier (Stanford University Press, 2022).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Chris Gratien (CG): I wanted to write about a place that challenges normative representations of the Middle East in the broadest sense. The Unsettled Plain defies the conventional framings of the region’s history. The protagonists of this book are the people often left out or relegated to a minor role: pastoralists, peasants, workers, and migrants who lived in Ottoman countryside. Many books adopt national or imperial geographies, but I have used a space that destabilizes such geographies. Call it Cilicia, Çukurova, or the Adana region—the book is about a coherent, interconnected place that is hidden on the map today.
During the nineteenth century, this corner of the Mediterranean at the border of Syria and Turkey contained diversity that would surprise Anglophone readers accustomed to images of the Middle East painted with a broad brush. Within both the Muslim and Christian populations, there were many distinct confessional groups. Speakers of Turkish, Arabic, Armenian, Kurdish, and Greek lived side by side there for centuries, not just in cosmopolitan cities but also in the vast hinterland. With large-scale migration during the latter half of the nineteenth century, Tatar, Circassian, and Chechen refugees from the Russian Empire, as well as Cretan Muslims and various people from the Balkans built new settlements in the region, not unlike parts of the American frontier. An extraordinary array of communities that made up the population of the late Ottoman Empire shared this one small place.
Among rural inhabitants, there were many ways of life, ranging from long-distance, nomadic patterns of grazing sheep and goats to intensive, plantation-style cultivation of cotton for global export. And in a space only a little bigger than modern-day Lebanon, there was also intense environmental contrast. Foreigners used to remark that one could set out on foot from a lowland city like Adana, which might have felt just as hot as Egypt on a summer day, and in two or three days be in mountain spaces reminiscent of the Swiss Alps. That is in fact precisely how the local people lived, migrating between the highland and lowland micro-climates on a seasonal basis and spending the summer in those precious mountain spaces. So in all these ways, the world of The Unsettled Plain is more complex than what we get in Ottoman histories written from the vantage point of Istanbul or Cairo, or for that matter the histories of the modern Middle East written inside of nation-state containers.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
CG: The Unsettled Plain is an environmental history, and I also think it has a little bit of everything one would expect from a good social history. The central issue that runs throughout the book is malaria, which is a blood-borne disease transmitted between humans by mosquitos. Malaria is associated with the tropics today, but it used to be very widespread not only in the former Ottoman Empire but also Europe and North America. I use malaria to show how the transformation of the Ottoman Empire from the Tanzimat reforms of the mid-nineteenth century onward impacted rural people. Settlement policies and the commercialization of agriculture disrupted malaria avoidance strategies that were rooted in an intimate understanding of the local environment, resulting in catastrophic malaria epidemics for resettled or displaced people and the gradual intertwining of malaria with agricultural labor and increasingly uneven relations between landowners and workers. Far from being unique to the Ottoman experience, this story harkens to the experiences of many spaces throughout nineteenth-century empires.
Each chapter of the book circles back to the question of malaria through different interlocking themes, and those themes are indigenous ecology, the state, capitalism, war, and science. Chapter 1 is focused on aspects of Cilicia’s local ecology and politics before the Tanzimat period, and Chapter 2 studies the impacts of state reform and settlement policy during the high Tanzimat period of the mid-nineteenth century. Chapter 3 studies how a new form of capitalism centered on cotton export shaped this region during the last decades of the Ottoman period, and Chapter 4 studies how much of that new world was destroyed during the World War I period and the subsequent Franco-Turkish war. Chapter 5 traces continuities between the late Ottoman period and early Republican period in Turkey, focusing on the themes of science and technology and examining the role of medicine and public health in the remaking of the countryside.
The book makes a few important interventions in the field of Middle East studies. It is one of the first books to be published on this time period that adopts environmental history as its primary approach. I am sure a lot of readers have read books on the making of the modern Middle East before, but I think this one is unique among what exists. It is also unusual in bridging the gap between Ottoman and Armenian sources as well as the late Ottoman and early Republican periods in Turkey. Most importantly, this book makes a claim for the inclusion of the former Ottoman Empire within the broader field of global environmental history, and I have written in a way that I hope is rich in local texture but not too bogged down by conversations internal to the field of late Ottoman studies to appeal to colleagues in environmental history who work on other parts of the world.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
CG: I do hope the core readership of Jadaliyya will check out the book. Before starting my PhD, I did an MA degree in Arab studies at Georgetown University, and the region and history I discuss have strong connections to the history of Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. So while The Unsettled Plain is about a region of modern-day Turkey, students of the contemporary Arab world and its history should find plenty to engage with as I did.
I also hope this book will reach a few of the millions of people around the world who have family links to this history. Between modern-day residents of Çukurova, those who have settled in Istanbul, Ankara, or other cities in Turkey, and those who have emigrated abroad to Germany or elsewhere, a sizeable percentage of people from modern Turkey either claim this region as home or have some personal connection to it. There is also a substantial portion of the Armenian diaspora in the United States, France, Lebanon, Armenia, and elsewhere who think of Cilicia as their ancestral homeland. I do not have those personal connections, but in putting this region at the center of a book that is essentially about the making of the modern world, I hope such readers would come away with an appreciation of how significant their own history really is.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
CG: I have started writing the “prequel” to this book, which revolves around the unsolved murder or likely assassination of a US missionary in Cilicia during the 1860s and its immediate aftermath. I am calling it a “microhistory of empire”—not any one empire as such—but rather the overlapping consequences of Ottoman, British, French, Russian, and US imperial activity in a region that as of the mid-nineteenth century was a bastion of local autonomy. The incident that forms the starting point of the book is a blip in extant histories of US empire or Protestant missionaries, and even then, some of the details are wrong. By using sources in Ottoman and other languages and archives rarely consulted by the scholars of such topics, I show that the fallout of this event was quite dramatic, and in the process of doing so offer a story full of fascinating characters and a unique window onto how imperial archives and histories often make empire seem more orderly than it is, thereby sanitizing its history even in attempts at criticism. I think it will be fun to write, and I am hoping the connection to US history will allow me to reach a different audience.
J: Since 2011, you have been working on the Ottoman History Podcast. How did that experience shape The Unsettled Plain?
CG: Writing this book and working on the podcast were complementary activities. The collaborative nature of the Ottoman History Podcast offered a break from the solitary work of researching and writing. It also required getting things done on a schedule. We have tried to release an average of one episode per week. That is good training for writing a book, which involves an indeterminate and distant deadline but lots of small tasks needed to get there. The podcast likewise creates more space for creativity and deliberate reflection on the art of composition than a conventional academic publication, in my opinion. And above all, making podcasts made me a better scholar and communicator. When you are recording and editing a podcast, there is an immense attention to detail, literally focusing on every breath and utterance of the guest and trying to make their work as comprehensible as possible for a large audience. By paying close attention to what my colleagues are doing and learning about the wide array of subjects that are interesting to scholars and enthusiasts alike, I learned to frame my own work better and continually apply new perspectives to it. Podcasting also requires you to think in clear sentences and paragraphs. You need to think about how to keep the audience’s attention, and ultimately this experience led me to approach the book as something that can be read “cover to cover.” Even though podcast work has occupied an unfathomable number of my hours over the years, I think working on it made me more rigorous and definitely made the book a better read.
Excerpt from the book (from Chapter Two, “The Stench of Progress” pp. 56-58)
During an official visit, the Ottoman statesman Ahmed Cevdet Pasha toured Çukurova to examine the outcome of reforms instituted there during his tenure as governor of Aleppo. Cevdet had overseen a scheme in 1865 to not only expand agricultural production but also forcibly sedentarize tens of thousands of pastoralists. His itinerary took him deep into the plain, past the ruins of Anazarbus and other sites where settlement had taken place. “As we left Kars-ı Zülkadriye and reached Sis,” he wrote, “we passed through three hours of continuous cotton fields. 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 [mis gibi].” Cevdet marveled at the developments he saw unfolding. “Then for a time a bad smell reached our noses,” he recalled. “I wonder if there is a carcass somewhere,” he remarked to his companion Hüseyin Bey. “It’s nothing,” he replied. “It’s just that we’ve left the fields and come to a yet uncultivated area. That’s where this bad smell is coming from. Last year when we toured Çukurova we had passed through all these bad smells. However, because everywhere was the same, we didn’t notice it.” The clean, white cotton of progress made the swamps of Çukurova all the more foul. “Now that one part is reformed and cultivated,” Hüseyin Bey explained, “the smell of the ruined and deserted areas is more noticeable. After all, the reason for Çukurova’s bad air is its ruinedness [harabiyet]. This shows that if it is developed, its air will become finer.” Cevdet noted that this statement was supported by the writings of Ibn Khaldun, the medieval scholar whose theories were now being tested. There was an air of progress in the still pungent Çukurova plain.
Cevdet was a keen observer and compelling writer. But on this point, his account proved less fact than fiction. The sweet-smelling rows of cotton that tantalized the pasha’s nostrils differed considerably from the memory of the summer after settlement in Çukurova’s villages reflected in Yaşar Kemal’s Binboğalar Efsanesi. “All summer long the plain reeked of carrion,” he wrote. “The mosquitos were merciless. The malaria was disastrous. That summer previously unseen epidemic diseases ravaged the area. Çukurova was full of animal and human skeletons.” Though Binboğalar Efsanesi was a novel, Yaşar Kemal’s narrative was rooted in local memory of forced settlement that was very much alive in his childhood village near the ruins of Hemite, a fortification dating to the Armenian period of the thirteenth century. His early work documented the songs and folk traditions of the very communities forced to settle under Cevdet’s governorship. One verse about Hemite perfectly described the swampy environs of the new settlements: “the west wind doesn’t blow, the flies descend / the nights are hot, the mosquitos sting / you can’t drink the water, it stinks of algae / Oh Lord, if only we could get back to the yayla.”
These divergent olfactory impressions reflect competing interpretations of what the Tanzimat reforms meant for Ottoman provincial society. What officials cast as a modernization project, local people remembered as a violent rupture. The resettlement scheme in Çukurova, an episode that might earn a few sentences in the conventional narratives of the Tanzimat, was a catastrophic moment in the histories of the communities it targeted. Implementation of the Tanzimat reforms entailed creating new villages in spaces where agricultural settlements were scant. In the span of about a decade, the Ottoman government enlisted more than 100,000 people in its settlement project in the region. The settlements were premised on the notion that the creation of villages would render the people governable and economically productive. If comprehensive reform was the goal, settlement would be the means. But the environmental underpinnings of Ottoman settlement policy were flawed, even according to understandings of the period. Tens of thousands of people died as a result, and by the end of the 1870s, many of the settlements had been abandoned.