T.M.’s Book Review: Plague, Quarantines and Geopolitics in the Ottoman Empire

Published by Edinburgh University Press, ©Birsen Bulmu, 2012
ISBN 978 0 7486 4659 3 (Hardback) $75 to $99 on Amazon.com
This book has 195 pages including comprehensive bibliography, endnotes for each chapter, and index.

Today, I ‘m reviewing Plague, Quarantines and Geopolitics in the Ottoman Empire . Once you get past the price, this book has a lot of good information for any prepper in any nation, not just Turkey. The author discusses various diseases and the reactions of theologians, physicians, politicians, and business leaders. They all have a different approach to the problems over the centuries.

Theologians quote holy book passages to support their side of the debate, while physicians use facts, science, and their experience. Business leaders oppose any measure that will hurt the bottom line, and politicians try to not offend everyone. These have not changed over the centuries.

Nowadays, epidemics quickly overrun available local medical services. Outside assistance usually saves the day. Bottled water disappears from store shelves. Politicians are besieged with angry demands to solve the problem.
Recent natural disasters have shown that those of us who are prepared are faced with an inconvenience, not an emergency. History has and will continue to repeat that fact.

The story in this book takes place from the 1400s to 1923, and is useful to all of us today trying to prepare for the next catastrophe. It took the Ottoman Empire authorities almost 400 years to build an immigrant quarantine site in their capital city of Constantinople (Istanbul today). During those centuries, epidemics came and went with regularity. The author explains the interactions of all players in telling why it took so long to do the obvious to fight diseases.

Muslims on both sides of the debate quoted the Quran. It is God’s Will that epidemics kill people. It is God’s Will if you live or die. It is God’s Will if people take steps to eradicate disease. The same arguments were seen in Europe between Christians. The difference was the Europeans took corrective action quicker.

Sanitation reforms finally began in 1838 at the urging of Europeans hoping to improve business prospects in the empire. Measures such as sewage disposal, clean water systems, immigrant quarantine, and better building codes aimed at preventing disease were begun after much debate and fierce resistance from the local citizens. The opponents were leery of government interference in their private lives and perceived religious transgressions.           

In any case, the Sultan had the final say and improvements were made. He took the advice of a Muslim reformer who said, “Take precaution and get ready by any means but do not put yourself in harm’s way: God created you and your actions.”

In other words, “Be Prepared.”

What can we learn from this history? What is important for readers of this web site is to know what happened before we had the sanitation and medical services we now enjoy. In a societal collapse, we will return to the Dark Ages. There will be no hospitals, sewage treatment plants, or clean city water systems.

When epidemics struck our ancestors, the first reaction was to flee the area, or to ‘bug out’. The disease usually hitched a ride and quickly spread. Europeans were the first to use quarantine as a defense. [JWR Adds: The practice of enforced health segregation actually dates back to at least Old Testament times, as mentioned in Leviticus 15:4-5.] Citizens were told to stay away from the marked houses, but do not leave the city. Keep the disease localized and allow it to die out. Other cities would not allow you to enter. The Ottomans finally embraced this practice in the early 1800s. The lesson is: you need a place to bug out to in your present location or nearby.

The bug out place needs clean water, sewage, and garbage disposal of some sort.

You need the proverbial beans, bullets, and Band-Aids. Information on all of these items is available in the archives of this web site.

This book is well written and organized in eight chronological chapters. The ten pages of comprehensive bibliography provide the interested reader with a wealth of further reading. Chapter endnotes and the index are also handy.

The author has skillfully blended the political, theological, scientific, and commercial debates of the subject into an easily read and understood treatment of the subject. All we have to do is learn from history.