Alan Mikhail: Studying the past through the lens of environmental history

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Alan Mikhail, professor of history, was recently honored with the 2018 Anneliese Maier Research Award given by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Valued at €250,000, the award is given to outstanding scholars in the humanities and social scientists working anywhere in the world.

Mikhail, who is a historian of the early modern Muslim world, the Ottoman Empire, and Egypt, focuses his research and teaching on the history of empires and environments and on Islam and global history in the early modern period. With his five-year grant, Mikhail intends to create an international research network, and, with a collaborator in Germany, will come up with research cluster topics and then provide funding for individuals worldwide to pursue research in those areas. His aim is to fund research in environmental history and on other topics that seek to connect the early modern Muslim world to the broadest possible range of scholarly concerns, geographies, and time periods.

YaleNews recently met with the Yale scholar to discuss the importance of his work, what insights studying environmental history in the Middle East can give us for today, and what the future holds for the study of environmental history.

What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

Why is it important to study the Ottoman Empire?

The Ottoman Empire ruled in three continents for over 600 years from around the year 1300 to World War I — twice as long as the United States has been in existence. It was one of the geographically largest empires in world history and the longest lasting empire in Islamic history. Thirty-three modern countries have an Ottoman past. In periods, the Muslim empire held more territory in Europe than say the Netherlands or Britain. Despite its enormous history, historians are only beginning to understand the Ottoman Empire in all of its complexity. In addition to the importance on studying the Ottomans on their own terms, the empire was also crucial for centuries as a waystation for the traffic in commerce, ideas, peoples, and diseases moving between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. To understand global history, one thus has to understand the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East more generally.

Why is studying the region’s environmental history important?

All people, at all times, in all places were connected to the natural world. So much of the past was about these relationships between humans and nature. Part of the work of environmental history is to center those relationships as constitutive of society, politics, culture, and the economy. For me, environmental history allows me to think differently about the Ottoman Empire, as well as to uncover some of its connections to other parts of the world. I would argue that environmental history offers us more insight into the lived historical experiences of more people in the past than any other methodology we currently have. It allows us to connect the Middle East to wider conversations in the humanities and social sciences (and perhaps even the natural sciences), and to counteract the idea that the Middle East is somehow anomalous, somehow outside of history.

What insights do environmental histories of the Middle East offer us today?

We live in a world in which we are all increasingly aware of the deleterious effects of things like climate change, our consumption of resources, water scarcity, and pollution. At both the level of world governments and the level of individual lives, we are thinking and having conversations about how we live with our changed world. Although the physical and chemical alterations all around us are unprecedented and many of them potentially irreversible, we humans have in fact been vastly changing the natural world in very real ways for a very long time. Let me be clear, I say this not as an excuse to minimize our very critical current circumstances. As a historian, I think it is important to have a historical perspective on some of these changes, to understand how people in the past have acted with and against nature, how they have thought about changes to the world around them. I don’t believe we can find ways out of climate change through historical example alone, but I do think we have lessons to learn. The control of nature – or, better yet, living with nature – has been a central concern for political powers and individuals for millennia. The basic understanding that those who live best, most sustainably, and most constructively with the natural world generally maintain and grow their political power is a lesson that is perhaps difficult to understand in the exigency of the moment of political debate, but is one historians grasp and should be vocal about. How power played out in the past is important to any conversation about how it plays out now. Today’s leaders in climate change or water purification technology are going to be the political leaders of tomorrow.

What is future of the study of environmental history?

Global warming notwithstanding, and with apologies, the future is bright! Environmental historians are today both offering us new previously unknown stories about the past and rewriting major events in world history as environmental history. Historians at Yale have long been in the forefront of this field and we have thankfully continued to expand the directions of this field. One of the major efforts within environmental history has been to move it beyond the study of the United States and Europe to other parts of the globe. While Yale maintains its leadership in American and European environmental history, we also boast one of the best collections of environmental historians of the globe and have developed robust connections between those working on these issues in the humanities and natural sciences. This is exciting for us here on campus, as well as for the historical profession as a whole. There will no doubt be continued expansion of thinking about environmental history globally and renewed debate about how an environmental lens changes our understanding of historical events and processes we thought we already understood.

How do you plan to use this award?

This award will mostly be used to fund the work of other scholars of the history of Islam and its global connections in the early modern period. Some of it will support research in environmental history, but this is only one part of the goal. More so, I hope to be able to further work on aspects of how Muslims and Muslim polities impacted the central issues of the history of the world over the last millennium.

Written by Bess Connolly Martell for Yale News.