Environmental Imaginaries of the Middle East and North Africa

Publication Year



Co-editor Edmund Burke III, Ph.D. 1970.

The landscapes of the Middle East have captured our imaginations throughout history. Images of endless golden dunes, camel caravans, isolated desert oases, and rivers lined with palm trees have often framed written and visual representations of the region. Embedded in these portrayals is the common belief that the environment, in most places, has been deforested and desertified by centuries of misuse. It is precisely such orientalist environmental imaginaries, increasingly undermined by contemporary ecological data, that the eleven authors in this volume question. This is the first volume to critically examine culturally constructed views of the environmental history of the Middle East and suggest that they have often benefitted elites at the expense of the ecologies and the peoples of the region. The contributors expose many of the questionable policies and practices born of these environmental imaginaries and related histories that have been utilized in the region since the colonial period. They further reveal how power, in the form of development programs, notions of nationalism, and hydrological maps, for instance, relates to environmental knowledge production.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Preface by Edmund Burke III


Introduction. Imperialism, Orientalism, and the Environment in the Middle East
History, Policy, Power, and Practice
Diana K. Davis

1. “A Rebellion of Technology”
Development, Policing, and the British Arabian Imaginary
Priya Satia

2. Restoring Roman Nature
French Identity and North African Environmental History
Diana K. Davis

3. Body of Work
Water and Reimagining the Sahara in the Era of Decolonization
George R. Trumbull IV

4. From the Bottom Up
The Nile, Silt, and Humans in Ottoman Egypt
Alan Mikhail

5. Drafting a Map of Colonial Egypt
The 1902 Aswan Dam, Historical Imagination, and the Production of Agricultural Geography
Jennifer L. Derr

6. Remapping the Nation, Critiquing the State
Environmental Narratives and Desert Land Reclamation in Egypt
Jeannie Sowers

7. Salts, Soils, and (Un)Sustainabilities?
Analyzing Narratives of Environmental Change in Southeastern Turkey
Leila M. Harris

8. Hydro-Imaginaries and the Construction of the Political Geography of the Jordan River
The Johnston Mission, 1953–56
Samer Alatout

9. Environmentalism Deferred
Nationalisms and Israeli/Palestinian Imaginaries
Shaul Cohen

Timothy Mitchell



“This well-edited volume can be helpful both for scholars who would like to focus on particular geographic areas of the Middle East and North Africa, and for those interested in a wider view of this region’s history. By questioning dichotomies built by ‘orientalist’ and ‘postcolonial’ scholars alike, the articles gathered in this volume offer a fresh and unusual perception of the region and its history during the past two hundred years. Taking into account the fact that the environment is always a human one, these questions should be asked not only by environmental historians, but by sociologists, anthropologists, and—even more important—political activists in this region as well. It is essential for understanding what is going on there.”


“(T)he collection contributes as much to research on orientalism, imperialism, and nationalism as to environmental studies. Nevertheless, it is the focus on the natural world that keeps the work grounded and takes it into new terrains, literally and metaphorically…. It should serve as a useful corrective to uncritical declensionist accounts of the region still found in world environmental histories.”

American Historical Review

“These outstanding essays create new pathways for applying Edward Said‘s foundational thesis of Orientalism to nature and environment in the Middle East and North Africa over three centuries to the present. Summing Up: Highly recommended.”


Series Title
Ohio University Press series in ecology and history
Ohio University Press