What happened over the last two millennia to change the face of the Middle East and reduce it to the sorry state it is in today?

In 1500 AD, the two greatest military powers in Europe were the Spanish and the Ottoman Empires, while in Asia it was the Mogul and the Chinese Empires. If they had united, the Italian city states of Venice, Florence, and Genoa could also have become a great power. Nevertheless, each was a major economic power in its own right. Just 350 years later, in 1850 AD, the tottering Ottoman Empire was labeled the Sick Man of Europe and the Spanish Empire had shriveled to a third rate European power and had lost most of its Latin American colonies to native revolutionary movements. In the East, both the Mogul and the Chinese Empires had been defeated by a new world power, the British Empire, with the former completely eliminated. Meanwhile, the formerly wealthy Italian city states had been reduced to poverty and had fallen under the rule of France and Austria.

What happened in 350 years to change the world balance of power? Was it pure coincidence that the new world powers in 1850, Great Britain, France, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Prussia and Russia all arose in cooler wetter latitudes north of the military powers that ruled in 1500?

The scientific evidence that has accumulated over the last 40 years indicates that the fate of many once prosperous regions around the world was tied closely to major changes in their climates, and man’s response to climate changes with technological innovation. In fact, we may very well be on the verge of a Copernican revolution, in the way historians study and analyze the rise and fall of civilizations. In an article written for the New Yorker dated April 25, 2005, “THE CLIMATE OF MAN-II”, Elizabeth Kolbert lists four different civilizations, from the 4,300 year old Akkadian Empire of modern Iraq to the 750 AD Mayan civilization of Central America, whose collapse has been firmly tied by scientific evidence to climate changes that led to prolonged droughts. Anthropologists like Brian Fagan and Jared Diamond, with support from Climatologists like Hubert Lamb, have been at the forefront of this movement to reinterpret human history through the lens of climate history.

Going beyond Europe, and looking out at the economic and political wasteland we call today the Middle East, it is hard to imagine that this was once not only the cradle of human civilization, but for 90% of recorded history, the most economically, culturally, scientifically and militarily advanced part of the world. It was only in the last 800 years that the Middle East lost its dominance and only in the last 300 years that the last great Middle Eastern power, the Ottoman Empire, was eclipsed as a great power by more powerful opponents to its north. In fact, if we expand the definition of the Middle East to include the entire Mediterranean Basin, we will note that just 2,000 years ago, the south European countries from Greece and Italy to Spain were, not including China, the epic center of human achievement in the arts and sciences. Today, they are third rate economic and military powers whose condition would be no better off than their Arab neighbors to the south, were it not for a strategic decision after World War II by their richer, more advanced neighbors to the north to support them through favorable trading terms and direct economic subsidies to their farming sectors.

What happened, then, over the last two millennia to change the face of the Middle East and reduce it to the sorry state it is in today? Was it an unchanging Islamic ideology and the Arabs or the Ottoman Turks, as a handful of politically motivated Western Orientalists would have us believe? Or maybe it was the distortion of the original Islamic religion and its pollution by alien ideas, as Muslim Puritans would have us believe. For the former, the answer to the contemporary Middle East’s ills is to accelerate the reformation of Islam by ripping it out of the fabric of the societies in which it resides, by foreign violent force if necessary. For the latter, the opposite remedy has been prescribed, and that is to return to a 7th century unadulterated version of Islam and embedding it even deeper into the societies in which it resides, by native violent force if necessary.

The problem with these remedies is that they both depend on the limited understanding which classical historical studies give us about the real versus apparent forces that have moved human history from the dawn of humanity to the present day. Classical historians have tended to study the rise and fall of civilizations almost purely through the written and oral record that have been bequeathed to us by previous generations. While this approach gives us a fairly accurate picture of events as they happened in different periods, it does not explain why they happened. In particular, classical historical studies have not provided general answers to the question of why certain civilizations rose, while others fell, which can be applied to all civilizations. In other words, the answer to the question of what went wrong with the Muslim Middle East must be comprehensive enough to answer what went wrong with Plato’s Greece, Cicero’s Rome, the Mayan civilization of Central America, and even sub-Saharan Africa; and in all these cases, climate change clearly played a leading role.

Given this knowledge that we have today about the role of climate in human development, why have classical historians been reluctant to factor climate change in their study of human history? In actual fact, there was a general trend among some European historians in the early part of the 20th century to acknowledge the role of climate change in the rise and fall of previous civilizations. However, after the study of environmental factors in human development was abused by the Nazis in World War II to justify the classification of people into different races, there was an overly severe reaction in the scientific and social studies communities to any discussion of human development from an environmental point of view. Therefore, the trend was reversed after World War II and historians, anthropologists, and archeologists, each in their own fields began to overemphasize the role of culture and ideology in the fate of civilizations.

Then beginning in the 1970s, new scientific data from Greenland ice cores and geochemical analysis of ancient lake soils, which was not available early in the century, revealed that indeed the climate of the earth during human written history has witnessed dramatic changes in temperature and precipitation in different parts of the world, at roughly the same time periods. Since the 1970s, much research has gone into deciphering past climate changes led not by climatologists, who are mainly focused on current weather patterns, but by hydro-geologists, hydro-chemists, and biologists.

Nevertheless, one of the first books published on this subject, in 1982, “Climate, History and the Modern World”, was actually written by the late British climatologist Hubert Lamb. Using what little hard data was available at the time from ancient pollen analyses and tree ring studies, and combining it with historical accounts of unusual weather patterns in Europe, he was one of the first to identify the Medieval Warm Period from 800 to 1200 AD and the Little Ice Age from 1300 to 1850 AD.

Following in Hubert Lamb’s footsteps, Brian Fagan, an archeologist from the University of California, Santa Barbara, brought climate change in human history front and center with his seminal book in 2002, “The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History”. Then in 2007, the Israeli scholars Arie Issar and Mattanyah Zohar published a very well researched book, “Climate Change Impacts on the Environment and Civilization in the Near East”, in which they demonstrated using climate proxy data from isotopic analysis of wood and soil samples stretching back more than 4,000 years that the Levant experienced several cycles of cool humid weather followed by warm dry weather, which coincided almost exactly with the rise and fall of various civilizations from the Bronze age Akkadian to the Greco-Roman and the Byzantine-Arab periods. Issar even comments that prior to their acquisition of significant evidence of cyclical climate change in the 1990s, he had bought into the classical anthropogenic argument for desertification of the Levant, which argued that the Arab-Islamic invasion of the Levant with their sheep and camel herds in the 7th century was responsible for its desertification. In fact, it was the drying out of the Levant beginning in the 6th century and continuing to the present day that weakened the Byzantine Empire’s agricultural base and opened the way for the Arab-Islamic invasions in the 7th century.

Under any circumstance, the role of climate change and man’s technological reaction to climate change has become almost main stream in academia. Therefore, it is highly likely that in the next few years the study of human history will undergo a Copernican revolution, with climate change and technological response to it being acknowledged as its primary movers, rather than political or religious ideologies.

It is also worth mentioning that technological innovations do not always benefit the people who invent them as much as they may benefit other people thousands of kilometers away, whose climatic or geographic situation allows them to put an innovation to better use. For example the astrolabe, which originated in China was perfected by the Arabs to navigate the relatively short distances of the Arabian Sea in their trade with India. However, once it reached Europe in the 14th century, it allowed the Spanish and the Portuguese, who were the geographically closest Europeans to the Arabs, to navigate the huge expanses of the Atlantic ocean and eventually break the Arab-Turkish monopoly on trade with the Far East and even discover the greater prize of the Americas. Today, it would be equivalent to the Germans developing a low energy method for desalinating seawater. While it would have a minor impact on the water rich Germans, its main impact would be a huge increase in the economic prosperity of the Arabs and other peoples whose bone dry lands border seas and oceans.

Another example of technology transfer’s effect on economic development is the introduction of the South American potato around 450 years ago into Northern Europe. This fertile area of the world always had plenty of precipitation, however, until the introduction of the potato, its agriculture remained at a subsistence level. The introduction of the potato transformed North European agriculture from a subsistence to a surplus tradable goods agriculture, not because the potato itself was tradable (it was easy to store but spoiled when transported), but because its relatively large caloric content and ability to survive the coldest wettest winters, meant that it prevented widespread famine in most of Northern Europe and freed up grain output for export to distant lands.

Therefore, as the Irish anthropologist William McNeill has argued, the head start Northwest Europe had on the rest of the world in its population explosion and industrialization after 1700 AD, was due to the spread of the South American potato (a major technological transfer) into Europe after 1550. Brian Fagan, William McNeill, and Jared Diamond have all pointed out that prior to the arrival of the potato, North Europeans often faced famines due to the spoiling of their wheat harvests by late September rains. Unlike wheat, the potato thrived in the cold wet soil of Northern Europe and became a staple food for the peasants. Healthier, wealthier peasants after 1650 then became a source of labor and a market for the Industrial Revolution’s manufactured goods just 100 years later.

As an aside, we should mention that the potato, which according to William McNeil was the greatest technological innovation that propelled northern Europe forward after 1650, was of no use to the Muslim East because at soil temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius, tuber formation stops completely. This fact also explains why the once mighty Spanish and Ottoman Empires and the formerly powerful city states of Italy could not take advantage of the potato’s huge nutritional advantage to the extent the colder northern European states could. In other words, the further south people were, the less effect the potato had on their population growth. While European historians often focus on the decline of the Ottoman Empire after 1650 and mistakenly tie this decline to Islam’s supposed fatalism, they rarely note the coincident decline during the same period of other north Mediterranean powers, like the Spanish Empire.

In fact, an argument can even be made that the transfer of the potato around 450 years ago from its narrow South American high Andes Mountains native habitat to the much larger habitat of cold and wet Northern Europe, had as big an impact on human history as the transfer of grain agriculture around 10,000 years ago from the narrow confines of its native Southeast Anatolia birthplace to the vast fertile plains of the Nile and Mesopotamian river valleys. Both transfers of agricultural technology had a huge history-transforming effect on mankind.

Returning to the Ottoman Empire and its decline from being the most powerful empire in the Middle East and Europe in the 16th century to becoming the “sick man of Europe” in the 19th century, up until very recently, classical historians have tended to denigrate the Ottoman Empire’s accomplishments and blame its decline on the influence of its Muslim Ulema, who prevented the import of technologies which could have transformed its largely agricultural economy into an industrial economy similar to the North Europeans. Some scholars like Timur Kuran have even argued that a specific (ideological) aspect of the Ottoman legal system, its Vakif or Islamic charity foundation laws, prevented the accumulation of capital over several generations and thus prevented the rise of a bourgeoisie who could finance an industrial revolution in Ottoman lands.

On the other hand, Oberlin College Professor of History, Sam White recently published a brilliant analysis of the effect of little ice age climate change on the Ottoman Empire’s fate after the 16th century. In his 2011 book, “The Climate of Rebellion in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire”, White makes a powerful argument for the role of little ice age induced desiccation of central Anatolia and Syria, which led to famines, disease pandemics and the Celali Peasant Rebellions of the 17th century. Taken together, these events led to a rapid drop in the population of the Empire at the same time as the South American potato was initiating a population explosion in the North European states.

Perhaps if the Ottomans had access to modern cement and tractors in the 17th century, they could have alleviated the effect of reduced rainfall by building dams and canals that would have allowed their Anatolian farmers to continue to prosper, even after rainfall declined all along the Northern Mediterranean. However, these technologies were not available till after the Turkish Republic was founded in the early 20th century. It was these technologies and others like asphalt roads and railroads, which allowed Anatolia’s farmers to export their produce for cash, import industrial machinery with that cash, and led to Turkey’s current prosperity versus the Ottoman Empire’s climate induced poverty. This is another example of how technologies that were developed thousands of miles away in America had a huge impact on an East Mediterranean region that had been in relative decline, due to climatic factors, over the last few hundred years.

Therefore, the lesson we have learned from history is that changing our culture and/or ideological beliefs will not make us richer or help us overcome the challenge of surviving and prospering in the hottest, driest climate on earth. However, investing in research and adopting new and innovative technologies could allow us to thrive by improving our utilization of existing resources and discovering new ones.

This article was originally published in the Saudi Gazette and has been used here with permission from the author.