Steppe Cycle

This post is a review of Water on Sand: Environmental Histories of the Middle East and North Africa. The chapters have different authors and mostly stand on their own; the editor of the whole volume is Alan Mikhail.

One of the things I've read a fair bit about (although never formally studied) is the history of irrigation and hydraulic engineering. I've also read and written about water and other environmental issues quite a bit on my blog. So the title of this book caught my attention. Water on Sand didn't have as much on water resources as I expected from the title, but it was interesting and I learned a lot from it. The range of authors it included made it a nice sample of perspectives on environmental history in general.

Because each chapter in Water on Sand covers a different topic, discussing all of them in this review would take way too long. Instead, I'm going to briefly outline the book then discuss a few sections I found most interesting.

The introduction of Water on Sand spends some time explaining what environmental history is. This field considers how human history has been shaped by environmental factors and also how the environment has been influenced by human action throughout history:

By contrast, a dialectical understanding of humans and environments recognizes, in William Cronon’s well-known formulation, that “environment may initially shape the range of choices available to a people at a given moment, but then culture reshapes environment in responding to those choices. The reshaped environment presents a new set of possibilities for cultural reproduction, thus setting up a new cycle of mutual determination.

The introduction also mentions Wittfogel's "hydraulic hypothesis", which I've written about before:

One of the best-known historiographical interventions of the MENA in environmental history revolves around Karl A. Wittfogel’s thesis of Oriental despotism, which states that highly complex and coordinated systems of irrigation lead to authoritarian forms of government because only a central power can oversee and coordinate such a diffuse network of actors, interests, and limited resources. Several of his examples of the emergence of such despotic forms of authoritarian government come from the Middle East—Mesopotamia and the Nile Valley. However, a full examination of the documentary record shows that it was the very people Wittfogel claims were exploited by sultans, emperors, and kings who were actually in control of the day-to-day functioning and maintenance of the large-scale irrigation networks that are so crucial to his argument.

The book has 11 chapters that deal with very diverse topics (everything from Ottoman fisheries to national parks in French North Africa). In brief, here is what each chapter is about:

  1. The unique environmental factors in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA): arid and vulnerable to drought, surrounded and penetrated by navigable seas, plentiful grazing land interspersed with arable land (leading to an "archipelago" settlement pattern), plentiful oil but scarce coal.
  2. A geographical/environmental/macro-economic theory for why the MENA region lagged behind Europe in the Early Modern period. I'll discuss this chapter in more detail later.
  3. The Little Ice Age and its impact on the Ottoman Empire. There was drought in 1591 - 1596 and the Bosporus froze over in 1621. Shortages (exacerbated by price controls, perhaps?) led to political crisis and rebellions (see my timelines of Beirut and Sana'a which include challenges to Ottoman authority in the Seventeenth century) .
  4. Fishing in the Bosporus as it developed over centuries. The general concept of the nets and weirs used seems fairly consistent, albeit increasing significantly in complexity and capital costs; after property rights to fishing concessions were introduced in 1858 there seems to have been more investment in fishing weirs.
  5. The plague in Egypt, focusing on a particular outbreak in 1791.
  6. Turkmen nomads and their interactions with empires. The East India Company commissioned a man to travel through Central Asia to find markets where the best horses could be bought because these nomads were famous for the quality of the horses they raised. I'll discuss this chapter in more detail later.
  7. The creation of National Parks in North Africa, and how they had a (probably deliberate) side effect of interfering with nomadic lifestyles. I'll discuss this more below.
  8. The construction of the Aswan High Dam. It was a point of national pride for Egypt, but a lot of the Nubian people who lived in the area had to be relocated, as did numerous archaeological sites (with the people complaining that more concern was shown for relocating the ancient temples than for them).
  9. Environmentalism in Lebanon, a small country that covers at least five eco-regions—and at least as many sectarian groupings. The prominent environmental issues there include quarrying, water resources, solid waste, air quality, energy, air quality, and deforestation. The environmental movement there has had two tracks: an upper-class one more in line with international environmental concerns (e.g. establishing national parks), and one amoung the historically-disenfranchised Shi'a population looking for more control of the natural resources they rely on.
  10. In Saudi Arabia, in contrast to Lebanon, environmental policies were very centre-driven and primarily based on political concerns such as boosting agriculture and finding mineral resources to cement power. The Al-Saud royal family power base was in Najd but most of the resources were in other regions of the country. Part of the reason for boosting agriculture was to encourage nomadic populations to settle down and cease problematic behaviours like raiding.
  11. A case study of a project, funded by the World Bank, to turn some desert into farmland in Egypt (so this chapter best fits the book title). Water is the limiting resource in greening the desert so the motivation for this kind of project is obvious. However, the canals ended up flowing half empty; the chapter gets into the debates between Egyptian and World Bank personnel on how much water was needed per feddan (approx. 1 acre). The project struggles frankly sounded typical for grandiose schemes financed by loans or grants.

One of the things I appreciated was that a lot of these chapters (each author had their own style, so I can't completely generalize) brought in a lot of data. They took an analytical approach rather than a narrative one. Primary documents are often the source for this data. For example, chapter 4 has tables listing varieties of fish that were commercially harvested in Istanbul in different centuries, gleaned from travelogues and the like.

The first sections I want to discuss in more detail are chapters 2 and 6. They deal with the importance of pastoralism in the environmental history of the MENA region. Many areas in this region do not receive enough rainfall to grow crops for human consumption, but they will grow enough grass to support livestock. This encourages a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle of moving herds between grazing areas. Having small areas (e.g. river valleys) where crops could be grown surrounded by areas only suitable for grazing greatly influenced settlement patterns in the Middle East (described in Chapter 1):

The MENA had no such broad [agricultural/settlement] expanses. It instead had small zones of continual settlement, such as western Anatolia or the river valleys, together making up an archipelago. The settlement pattern resembles that of Polynesia more than that of China or India, with larger and smaller “islands” of habitation existing where enough water could be found.


This fragmented pattern maximized the interaction between pastoralists and farmers, between tribal confederations and agrarian states.

In Chapter 2, Water on Sand explains that the abundance of land available for grazing gave animal power a low opportunity cost compared to other parts of the world. In Europe, by contrast, land used to raise animals could have otherwise been used to grow food for people. This gave Europeans an incentive to replace animal power with wind- or water-power, leading to a technological class (Miller is a common surname in many European languages but much less so in Arabic, according to a table in Chapter 2) that was well-suited to take advantage of coal power during the Industrial Revolution. Here are some excerpts from Chapter 2 that develop this theme:

In political terms, the MENA’s grass and animals were an important source of military power, wielded sometimes by pastoralist tribes, but sometimes by agrarian empires employing tribesmen as fighters. But when coal became king, the MENA’s economic and political position plummeted vis-à-vis other parts of the world.


Thus no other broad region matches the extensive foraging resources of the arid zone or supports such robust traditions of dispersed pastoral nomadism devoted to extracting animal sustenance from almost every seemingly desolate square mile.


Given the near-zero cost of animal power, the peoples of North Africa, the Middle East, and Inner Asia were no more capable of seizing the opportunities presented by Europe’s ever more sophisticated utilization of water- and windpower than we are today, in the face of cheap oil, of investing vast sums on the alternative energy sources that we will one day so greatly need.

Chapter 6 also makes much of the "interface between steppe and sown". It was a recurring pattern on the margins of Central Asia for nomads to take over established polities:

In time, pastoralists crossed from deserts to the urban spaces of river valleys to conquer cities and establish new dynasties, only to burn out and be conquered by city life in turn.

Chapter 6 is specifically about Turkmen pastoralists, who lived in the Qara Qum desert formed when a river changed course:

around the year 1576, the Oxus River changed channels, swerving toward the Aral Sea and turning the lands between its former bed and the Caspian Sea into a waterless desert.

Attracted by the fine horses of the Turkmen, the East India company sent a man named Mir Izzat Ullah on a journey through Central Asia (Delhi – Kashmir and Ladakh – Kashgar – Khoqand – Samarqand – Bukhara – Balkh – Bamiyan – Kabul, taking 21 months); Chapter 6 is mainly based on the record of his journey:

The peregrinations of Mir Izzat Ullah took him through a borderland space where contacts and encounters between empires and steppe peoples were commensurate and symmetrical. His journeys betray the strength and resilience of a pastoral world on empire’s edge. Even more, Mir Izzat Ullah’s journeys demonstrate the interaction and encounter between different “regimes of circulation,” between the pastoral societies of the Eurasian Steppe and a merchant traveler from the imperial setting of the East India Company.

The relationship between pastoralist communities and empires was not one-dimensional. Turkmen raided Marv and Mashhad, but they also had a resource that empires coveted: excellent horses:

The steppe landscape could destabilize, even conquer, surrounding imperial regimes, just as it could supply empires with much sought-after pastoral resources. As Turkmen horses gained fame and became coveted commodities, early modern Eurasian empires set out to find Central Eurasian breeds and hence harness the pastoral resources of the steppes.

The other section I wanted to focus on in this review was Chapter 7, about national parks in North Africa and how one of their uses was to attempt to control nomadic populations. The French colonists had a vision that North Africa used to be lushly forested (inspired by accounts from Roman times) and assumed that over-grazing was the reason that that was no longer the case. So they created national parks in Algeria (and elsewhere in their North African colonies) to restrict extant forests from pastoralists' use:

While far from accurate, this French colonial environmental history served, beginning in 1830s Algeria, to undermine the lifeways of the indigenous populations as it justified—in the name of environmental protection—the expropriation of their land and property, the transfer of tribal forests to the French state, and the sedentarization of nomads.


What the French never understood during the colonial period was that traditional North African land-use practices were largely ecologically appropriate and thus “sustainable” for the population levels of the early to mid-nineteenth century. Given the ecology of the region, in which a majority of plants were highly adapted to drought, fire, and grazing, regenerating pastures and clearing fields of weeds and pests with fire was well suited to the environment.

(Another book I've read discusses the indigenous use of fire for landscape management and a documentary I've watched argues that grazing can be beneficial for grasslands).

Designation of areas as national parks (or other protected status) continues to be a method of trying to restrict the movements of herders:

The MENA is home to more pastoralists than almost anywhere else in the world. To enclose more of their productive arid grazing lands in the name of biodiversity or environmental protection will lead almost certainly to further social injustice and likely to greater ecological harm.

Chapter 7 also makes the point that a vision of nature devoid of people is not actually natural:

Western visions of the natural world that are increasingly being revealed to be social constructions largely divorced from ecological, social, and historical realities.

This is worth remembering even with respect to national parks in Western countries. Close to home, for example, a number of families had their homes expropriated when Kouchibouguac National Park was formed in 1969. With calls to protect huge additional areas in Canada it is worth being vigilant so these protections aren't used to restrict rural (here it would be things like fisheries and forestry rather than herding) ways of life.

Chapter 10 touches on similar themes, describing how Saudi Arabia has promoted the settlement of nomadic tribes:

Promoting sedentarization and using settlements as instruments to overcome politically threatening raiding practices reflected a new strategic thinking on the part of Saudi leaders.

To wrap up this post, there were some quotes and factoids from Water On Sand that didn't fit neatly in the review above but I still wanted to share:

[The] average pharaoh, emir, or sultan had less energy at his command than has a modern bulldozer operator.


According to one calculation, before fossil fuels a European or Chinese city needed wood from an expanse of forest 50–200 times its own area.


the politics of using national development schemes such as dams as an opportunity to relocate ethnic groups that the state has been trying to control for the past century—such as the Kurds—present clear comparisons to the High Dam case.


There is a long history of water manipulation and agricultural development projects around the world that have failed to meet their ambitious goals.

  • This is an Arabic environmental magazine that was mentioned in Water on Sand.

  • A USAID study in Egypt found that if water had to be lifted more than 20 m, energy costs made desert land reclamation non-feasible.