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How Climate Change Weakened the Ottoman Empire

By Andrea Duffy*

Ottoman Empire climate change
The Battle of Navarino, in October 1827, marked the effective end of the Ottoman Empire’s occupation of Greece. Public Domain.

At its peak, the Ottoman Empire spanned three continents, and its power was such that it controlled a vast part of Southeastern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.

By Andrea Duffy

In the late 16th century, hundreds of bandits on horseback stormed through the countryside of Ottoman Anatolia raiding villages, inciting violence, and destabilizing the sultan’s grip on power.

Four hundred years later and a few hundred miles away in the former Ottoman territory of Syria, widespread protests escalated into a bloody civil war in 2011 that persist to this day.

These dark episodes in Mediterranean history share key features that offer a warning for the future. Both forced waves of people from their homes. Both were rooted in politics and had dramatic political consequences, and both were fueled by extreme weather associated with climate change.

As an environmental historian, I have researched and written extensively about conflict and environmental pressures in the Eastern Mediterranean region. While severe droughts, hurricanes, rising oceans, and climate migration can seem new and unique to our time, past crises like these and others carry important lessons about how changing climates can destabilize human societies. Let’s take a closer look.

Drought in the heartland of an empire

We live in an era of global warming largely due to unsustainable human practices. Generally known as the Anthropocene, this era is widely considered to have emerged in the 19th century on the heels of another period of major global climate change called the Little Ice Age.

The Little Ice Age brought cooler-than-average temperatures and extreme weather to many parts of the globe. Unlike current anthropogenic warming, it likely was triggered by natural factors such as volcanic activity, and it affected different regions at different times to different degrees and in vastly different ways.

Its onset in the late 16th century was particularly noticeable in Anatolia, a largely rural region that once formed the heartland of the Ottoman Empire and is roughly coterminous with modern-day Turkey. Much of the land was traditionally used for cultivating grain or herding sheep and goats. It provided a critical food source for the rural population as well as residents of the bustling Ottoman capital, Istanbul (Constantinople).

The two decades surrounding the year 1600 were especially tough. Anatolia experienced some of its coldest and driest years in history, tree rings and other paleoclimatological data suggest. This period also brought frequent droughts, frosts, and floods. At the same time, the region’s inhabitants reeled under an animal plague and oppressive state policies, including the requisitioning of grain and meat for a costly war in Hungary.

Prolonged poor harvests, war, and hardship exposed major shortcomings in the Ottoman provisioning system. While inclement weather stalled state efforts in distributing limited food supplies, famine spread across the countryside to Istanbul, accompanied by a deadly epidemic.

By 1596, a series of uprisings collectively known as the Celali Rebellion, had erupted, becoming the longest-lasting internal challenge to state power in the Ottoman Empire’s six centuries of existence.

Peasants, semi-nomadic groups, and provincial leaders alike contributed to this movement through a rash of violence, banditry, and instability that lasted well into the 17th century. As drought, disease, and bloodshed persisted, people abandoned farms and villages, fleeing Anatolia in search of more stable areas while famine killed many who lacked resources to leave.

Weakening of the Ottoman Empire

Before this point, the Ottoman Empire had been one of the most powerful regimes in the early modern world. It included large swathes of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East and controlled the holiest sites of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Over the previous century, Ottoman troops had pushed into Central Asia, annexed most of Hungary, and advanced across the Hapsburg Empire to threaten Vienna in 1529.

The Celali Rebellion had major political consequences.

The Ottoman government succeeded in reestablishing relative calm in rural Anatolia by 1611 but at a cost. The sultan’s control over the provinces was irreversibly weakened, and this internal check on Ottoman authority helped curb the trend of Ottoman expansion.

The Celali Rebellion closed the door on the Ottoman “Golden Age,” sending this monumental empire into a spiral of decentralization, military setbacks, and administrative weakness that would trouble the Ottoman state for its remaining three centuries of existence.

Climate change as a threat multiplier

Four hundred years later, environmental stress coincided with social unrest to launch Syria into an enduring and devastating civil war.

This conflict emerged in the context of political oppression and the Arab Spring movement as well as on the tail end of one of Syria’s worst droughts in modern history.

The magnitude of the environment’s role in the Syrian civil war is difficult to gauge because, as in the Celali Rebellion, its impact was intricately linked to social and political pressures. However, the brutal combination of these forces can’t be ignored. It’s why military experts today talk about climate change as a “threat multiplier.”

Now entering its second decade, the Syrian war has driven over 13 million Syrians from their homes. About half are internally displaced while the rest have sought refuge in surrounding states, Europe, and beyond, greatly intensifying the global refugee crisis.

Lessons for today and the future

The Mediterranean region may be particularly prone to the negative effects of global warming, but these two stories are far from isolated cases.

As Earth’s temperatures rise, climate will increasingly hamper human affairs, exacerbating conflict and driving migration. In recent years, low-lying countries, such as Bangladesh, have been devastated by flooding while drought has upended lives in the Horn of Africa and Central America, driving large numbers of migrants into other countries.

The world has learned three important lessons from Mediterranean history related to addressing current global environmental issues. The first of these is that negative effects of climate change disproportionately fall on poor and marginalized individuals or those least able to respond and adapt.

Additionally, environmental challenges tend to hit hardest when combined with social forces, and the two are often indistinguishably connected.

Yet another vital lesson from Mediterranean history pertaining to climate change is the potential of such changes to prompt migration and resettlement, as well as spur violence, unseat regimes, and dramatically transform human societies throughout the world.

Climate change ultimately will affect everyone in dramatic, distressing, and unforeseen ways. As we contemplate such a future, there is a whole lots we can learn from our past.

*Andrea Duffy is the Director of International Studies, Colorado State University. The article was published at The Conversation and is republished under a Creative Commons License

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