Climate change has had a massive effect on different civilizations across the world. One of the most affected civilizations is the Ottoman Empire that suffered great losses in terms of lower crop yields, increased cases of communicable diseases and other related issues such as malnourishment and decreased trade volumes. The paper seeks to analyze the potential links between climate change and crisis in Anatolia and the greater region under the Ottoman Empire by concentrating on focusing on the periods affected by the Little Ice Age.

In the 17th century, the Ottoman Empire experienced a critical disaster from which it never completely overcame. After realizing its peak in the 16th century, the empire started to feel the effects of mounting economic tumult and social strife. Starting from the 1590s, the empire experienced a series of Celâlîs rebellions, chasing peasants into the countryside and rendering the greater parts of the Greece and Turkey with sparse populations. White (2014) noted that the crisis carried on through the early 17th century, and regardless of the endurance of the Ottoman state, its efforts to reinstate order and repopulate the region showed little progress. By the turn of the century, the Ottoman Empire lost control over most of the provinces and gradually realized more defeats on the warfront at the hands of the mounting Russian adversaries. Many regions of the empire and current Greece initially displayed rapid population growth for a century. However, these countries were swiftly emptied of over half of their population. For instance, between the years 1560 and 1610, the Karahisar region experienced a massive population decrease of about 7,000 individuals. White (2014) outlined other areas that were similarly affected include the Samsun region with a drop of approximately 20,000 people and Bozok area with a drop of approximately 30, 000 people. Despite the fact that a greater number of the refugees fled to safer locations in the adjacent cities, a significant number remained unaccounted. Various studies have attributed this sharp drop in population to the harsh climatic change popularly known as the Little Ice Age.

The refugee situation within the Ottoman Empire was caused mainly by the misappropriation of land by the administration. Fanani (2015) argued that at the helm of this corrupt system were janissaries, an elite group of soldiers that were awarded power by the state. In addition to authority, janissaries were allowed to administer massive tracts of public land at the expense of the ordinary citizen and peasants. White (2014) added that initially, the strategy was to award this category of soldiers sufficient land to cultivate while being exempted from taxes. Using an effective military strategy of palace coups, this category of soldiers managed to award themselves land titles. In the process, many farmers and workers were rendered peasants and forced to become squatters living under squalid conditions. It is in these unsanitary conditions that most of the population became victims of contagious diseases and infections.

The Little Ice Age weather events that affected the greater part of the empire resulted in high mortality rates in several ways. First, the drought period created harvest failures that served to increase the prices of foods in the market. In the event that the adverse weather conditions carried on for two seasons, the harvest was completely dismal. Simultaneously, the poor weather conditions also disrupted the transport and communication systems within Anatolia. This ensured that markets became largely inaccessible. Apart from the major urban areas, most food markets were localized and this left the residents with few alternatives in the face of a poor harvest. Fanani (2015) proposed that a climate that was designed to create famines made it impossible to cultivate the basic cash crops such as barley and wheat. Apart from starvation and malnourishment, the high mortality rate among the Ottoman populations was caused by diseases. Opportunistic diseases that took advantage of the starved people were recorded across the countryside. Disease outbreaks also occurred in regions that were heavily populated or had low sanitation standards. White (2014) noted that overcrowding within the shanties and slums facilitated the spread of deadly infections such as influenza, typhoid, and cholera that claimed the lives of many individuals.

European Acquisition of Ottoman Territory

Uyar and Edward (2009) presented a definition from a political science perspective in which they argued that a state is considered a failed one if it cannot deliver its primary functions which include protecting its borders and uniting its population towards a common and unitary goal. Using such a definition, the Ottoman Empire had already failed long before it was officially declared so. Already, a massive part of the empire was under the Russian empire. For about half a century, the Ottoman Empire was struggling to recover from the Little Ice Age that had adverse economic and political consequences. White (2014) added that the poor agricultural performance in the subsequent years had reduced their trade volumes and income levels considerably. Furthermore, the high mortality rates had reduced the power of the military significantly. Other factors such as the exemption of several categories of individual also worked towards reducing their military prowess significantly. By 1844, only Muslim men were conscripted into the army and this implied that only a small number of men could serve as soldiers. The low percentages of conscripted army officers within the Ottoman Empire stood in sharp contrast with their European adversaries. Fanani (2015) offered several statistics on the recruitment levels in which the empire recruited approximately 4% of the total population while France recruited about 10% of the overall population. This and other factors led to their ultimate defeat and decline as an empire.

The General Crisis in the Ottoman Empire refers to a situation where the economic and fiscal state was in disarray. Normally, the rational decision would have involved growing the present commercial and industrial sector that was mainly controlled by foreigners from Non-Muslim communities, in addition to extracting the greatest profit from taxation. Uyar and Edward (2009) argued that this approach ceased to be feasible by 1914 due to the massive economic trauma created by the Balkan Wars. Fanani (2015) noted that in these conflicts, hundreds of Muslims, counting an unbalanced proportion of the political and enlightened elite, lost their original homes. Most of the subsequent initiatives created by Young Turks acted to realize objectives aligned to ethno-religious nationalism instead of economic development. The government was more interested in reinstalling Muslim supremacy in the economic and political realm. Inal (2011) noted that the exodus of over 200,000 Greek and Christian entrepreneurs had a massive negative effect on the economic standing of the Ottoman Empire. Fanani (2015) was divided in his argument concerning the nationalist initiatives. On one hand, the “National Economy” initiative paved the way for the emergence of a native Turkish entrepreneurial class that occupied its own republic. Conversely, the decision translated into a loss for the empire in terms of managerial skills, technical, and commercial ability. In general, there was a notable drop in productivity. The close relationship between the church and the state also introduced elements of Islam that restricted the progress of the Ottoman military. Rationality would have embraced the approach of eliminating the conscription exemptions, taking up the largest number of army recruits as possible and exploiting the advantage of numbers to maximize their supremacy. However, ethnic and religious antagonism influenced most of the military decisions. Fanani (2015) noted that the Young Turks distrusted the allegiance of the Greek and Armenian communities and opted to exempt them from any military recruitment.

Lastly, the Ottoman Empire also lacked a strong industrial base that would supplement their military demands. Most of the military equipment had to be imported from other European states. Even basic industrial products such as coal and oil were scarcely exploited. Inal (2011) commented that later efforts to acquire these natural minerals was hampered by the fact that most of the oil-producing regions that were once under the Ottoman Empire had been lost to other European countries. The acquisition of Ottoman territory and the eventual decline of the Empire were not facilitated by external pressure solely. The European pressure and separatist nationalism created by the non-Muslim civilizations worked to ensure that the empire was toppled from within.

Disease Outbreaks

Inal (2011) reiterated that the Little Ice Age that occurred between 1300 and 1870 created several famines that forced drove peasants in pursuit of fertile grounds. Order within the society and the countryside was largely neglected, a situation that was created by the numerous rebel uprisings. In particular, the studies contain indicators that the widespread relocation of different groups facilitated the spread of diseases as well. Inal (2011) noted that while there was insufficient evidence pointing towards the introduction of epidemics with the entry of refugees, the outbreak of the major epidemics in Istanbul supports this proposal. For instance, the massive and unsupervised relocation of peasants from regions infested with plagues contributed to the rapid spread of bubonic plague.


The effects of the ecological changes within the Ottoman Empire cannot be overlooked. The Little Ice Age period was marked by a massive drop in cash crop yield as well as subsistence farming. Furthermore, it was also characterized by widespread diseases that claimed the lives of many civilians. However, explaining the decline of the Ottoman Empire using these two factors merely is not sufficient. Other elements also played a role in the decline. Zürcher (2014) argued that the mounting economic declines as well as the moribund nature of the state were all indicators that the Ottoman Empire was finally on its knees. The Balkan Wars also contributed greatly towards weakening the remaining defenses and military strength. At the heart of the decline, various studies have pointed out the shift in resources and population. The prominence of ethnic and religious values above other progressive values resulted in the slow development of the civilization when compared to its neighboring countries. Inal (2011) concluded that the Ottoman Empire lacked the labor, the finances, and the industrial base to contend productively with European powers. The division of labor based on religious lines created a sharply divided state in which politics was dominated by Muslims while the private sector was completely controlled by Christians enjoying external protection. This situation coupled with the adverse climatic features of the Little Ice Age ensured that the Ottoman Empire was unable to provide for its people in the short and long term.



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Fanani, 2015. Ahmad Fuad. The Ottoman Empire: Its Rise, Decline, and Collapse. Australia: Mahasiswa Pascasarjana Flinders University.

Inal, Omur. 2011. Environmental History as an Emerging Field in Ottoman Studies: A Historiographical Overview. The Journal of Ottoman Studies. 1-25.

Uyar, Mesut, and Edward J. Erickson. 2009. A military history of the Ottomans from Osman to Atatürk. Westport, CT: Praeger Security International.

White, Sam. 2014. Climate Change and Crisis in Ottoman Turkey and the Balkans. New York: Columbia University.

Zürcher, Erik-Jan. 2014. The Ottoman Empire 1850-1922 -Unavoidable Failure? Netherlands: Leiden University.

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