In the bellies of the marshes: Water and power in the countryside of Ottoman Baghdad

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The economic fortunes of states and grain farmers in the Iraqi alluvium plummeted following the deterioration of the Sasanian irrigation system during the early medieval period, giving scholars the impression that the region's environment went through a period of perpetual decline. This essay utilizes the flood pulse concept and argues that the deterioration of comprehensive waterworks restored the natural unmodified flood regime of the Euphrates and reinvigorated different species and natural systems, particularly the Iraqi marshes and their biota. Vibrant and reviving, marshes provided the material basis for the rise of the Khaza¯'il tribal confederation to political dominance in Iraq's Middle Euphrates region at the turn of the eighteenth century and served it as an ecological niche and political ally during its struggle with the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman provincial authorities in Baghdad repeatedly dammed the Middle Euphrates and drained its marshes in order to break the basis of the Khaza¯'il's power in the countryside. Ottoman hydraulic warfare weakened their tribal foes, but it produced unexpected outcomes in the long term that changed the history of the Ottoman Empire and its Iraqi provinces forever. Most notably, it facilitated a westward channel shift in the Euphrates and the consolidation of Shi'ism as a majority religion in the region.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)638-664
Number of pages27
JournalEnvironmental History
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 1 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)


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