Ottoman Cyprus holds clues to modern climate change
EU-funded researchers have used geographical and spatial analysis techniques to uncover clues about the environment and society in Cyprus during the Ottoman Empire.
© #179811719 | Author: marinadatsenko, 2018 fotolia.com
Climate change is nothing new, and there are lessons to be learnt from history. EU-funded scientists have been studying 16th-century environmental data to inform contemporary policy in Cyprus and contribute to local historical culture.
The MEDINS project, funded by the EU, has created a better understanding of how the economy functioned in the past and demonstrates how the previous scale of environmental and climatic change is unlike that of the present.
Researchers studied the spatial history of Cyprus under the Ottoman Empire to reveal new information about the environment, society and economy on the island at the time. The research has contributed to knowledge about Cyprus past by analysing the first Ottoman fiscal survey in 1572.
The project used the methods and tools normally employed in the digital humanities mainly geographic information systems (GIS) to study Ottoman history, says Antonis Hadjikyriacou, MEDINS researcher and assistant professor of early modern Ottoman and Mediterranean history at BoÄŸaziçi University in Istanbul.
More rain, fewer droughts
MEDINS found that climatic and environmental change in Cyprus under the Ottoman Empire occurred at a much slower rate than it does today. It also confirmed the existence of the Little Ice Age a period of colder conditions in the Mediterranean with higher precipitation, floods, more snow and occasional droughts from the 16th to the 19th century and found that early modern droughts were far less frequent and shorter than in the 20th and 21st centuries.
To reach these conclusions, researchers started by decoding the fiscal survey, which included 51 categories of taxes, customs dues and fines, written in Ottoman Turkish a script abolished in 1928.
Transcribing and processing data was a highly specialised task that demanded training in new skills. The register was written in the siyakat script of Ottoman Turkish, perhaps the most difficult of Ottoman scripts, says Hadjikyriacou.
Another challenge was to locate the place names on the Ottoman survey and place them on contemporary maps. The study required the correct identification of place names to find the geographic coordinates of the 1 137 Cypriot villages and settlements included in the register. This involved dealing with material in at least four languages, and many changes in the names of villages by the different administrations since the 16th century, explains Hadjikyriacou.
Using taxation data from the survey alongside historical maps, the project employed GIS to transfer data from Ottoman fiscal records about key agricultural crops the taxable goods of the time including cotton, beans, carobs, silk, wheat and wine, to map agricultural production. The data also enabled researchers to plot the existence of gardens and orchards in 1572.
The study revealed changes in landscape features like wells, swamps, channels, aqueducts and brooks that are now dry due to the damming of rivers.
Extending local knowledge
The project funded through the Marie-Curie Action Intra-European fellowships for career development made the new knowledge available to local people via educational TV programmes, school visits, teacher-training seminars and an exhibition held in Nicosia in 2017. The team has used the results to guide current environmental policy by NGOs such as Cyprus Natural Coastlines.
The next step is to apply the same techniques to 19th-century Ottoman fiscal data in a new collaborative project with Harokopio University in Athens, funded by the Sylvia Ioannou Foundation.