Interview with Richard W. Bulliet, Professor of History Emeritus, Columbia University

Conducted by Sal Genovese, Boston University, June 3, 2021

Interviewer’s Note: Beyond his primary job of teaching about the Middle East, Richard “Dick” Bulliet also lectured and authored several books on the history of technology, the history of domestic animals, and environmental history.

I had come to know “Uncle Dick” over the past two decades, primarily at family holiday gatherings. In what always seemed like fleeting moments, we’d get a chance to discuss overlapping interests in our academic and research pursuits. As a marine biologist with teaching interests in human ecology and the environmental sciences, I always enjoyed my conversations with Dick and appreciated how he could draw upon events in the natural world to make connections with the historical record. And I was delighted and honored to be a guest lecturer in his World Environmental History course a decade or so ago.

Serving as a guest editor for this special issue of Impact provided an excuse to reach out to Dick, fill in some gaps in my knowledge about his teaching and research, and ask some direct questions about how he thought the historical record could help inform students about our current climate crisis. We spoke over Zoom for more than two hours, and what’s presented below is obviously a very small subset of our entire conversation. Any deficiencies or overindulgences in the text below are solely my responsibility.

Before I focus our discussion on integrating the natural sciences into a history curriculum, I wanted to start by asking about the quantity and breadth of courses you taught at Columbia University. I have a good understanding from reliable family sources that both were significant, but have never spoken with you directly about this topic.

In my 39 years at Columbia, I don’t believe I ever taught the mandated 3-2 course load. I always taught, at the minimum, 3-3 or 4-4. I believe I was as high as 8-8 at some point. I simply taught more than other faculty, and that gave me the opportunity to cover the Middle East, which was my assignment when I was hired, and also teach in the core curriculum, which was something that the university very much wanted senior professors to do. I taught in the core curriculum for 15 semesters.

I thought that the way to get a Columbia education was to teach the core, so I taught all of the four core courses: major works of Western thought, major works of Western literature, major works of Western art, and major works of Western music. Then I worked with Professor Theodore de Bary in creating a non-Western core component, and he and I collaborated in teaching it for several years. My feeling was that whenever I had anything that really interested me, I could create a new course, so long as I fulfilled my basic coverage for the university by being, for most of my time at Columbia, the History Department’s only Middle East historian.

How receptive was your department to the interdisciplinary courses you offered?

I never heard a chairperson say, “I wish you would teach this more than that.” They were always just very pleased that I was teaching in the core, and then I could teach whatever I wanted in addition. So when I started teaching History of Technology that was fine. When I taught Domestic Animals and Human History, they were cool with that. Then, very late in my career, I filled in for a faculty member who had gone on medical leave, to teach a course on World Environmental history. That was certainly not my bailiwick in any formal sense, but I had thought a lot about issues in World Environmental history over the years.

Can you describe the process by which you came to integrate the natural sciences into your history classes?

I did not start out with the intention of bringing natural science into my classroom. It really arose in two different ways. My initial research for my doctorate was on the great medieval city of Nishapur in Iran. I bicycled every day out to the ruins of the city, which is now just farmland. Looking at a landscape of undulating mounds and depressions concealing ruined buildings 20 feet below the surface, I wondered about the whole process by which a city dissolves into ruins.

That made me aware of the very distinctive irrigation system of underground channels they have in Iran called “qanat irrigation.” I was interested in how the water was supplied. This was, after all, a city in a desert that had very little actual rainfall. But there were some mountains north of the city, and the water table there would be tapped by a long underground tunnel, or qanat. Every village depended on a qanat delivering a small stream for household use and for irrigating crops. This raised all sorts of questions about how the tunnels were dug, how the water was distributed for irrigation, and what happened over the course of time as the flowing water slowly eroded the underground soil.

So that got me interested in how the city was maintained, and I also recall a day when I was bicycling through the ruins and my way was blocked by a small flock of sheep. There was a young man driving the sheep, and it was apparent that one of them might not make it into the city to be sold. In order to get the weak or ill sheep to walk, the shepherd was beating it with a stick. It would take a few more steps and then collapse again. I saw that the shepherd was weeping, and I thought, “He doesn’t own the sheep. Someone is paying him to drive these sheep to market.” His season’s pay was probably something close to the value of that one sheep. So if the sheep died before reaching town, he might have lost a season of work. It struck me then how crucial the relationship was between livestock, the people who care for the livestock, and the needs of a large city that has to be supplied. I’ve calculated, for example, how many thousand camel loads of goods must have been brought in per week or per month to sustain a city of 100,000 people in the middle of the desert.

These things stuck in my mind, even though my primary research was based on analyzing a collection of 2000-3000 tiny biographical notices about people who lived in Nishapur at one time. I was doing a sociological analysis of a long list of names and brief career descriptions, but my experience on the ground was adding something else. When I returned home, gradually, over the course of years, I thought more about the irrigation system. And I thought about the livestock.

I remember vividly a day back in my family home one summer after I’d finished my PhD when I suddenly thought, “What is the word for ‘wheel’ in Arabic?” I was surprised that after seven years of classical Arabic, I didn’t know the word for something a commonplace as a wheel. Then I realized that I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen the word for “wheel” in any medieval text I had read. Several possibilities came to mind. Maybe I just had a bad memory for Arabic words. But maybe there hadn’t been any wheels in the medieval period from which the texts were drawn.

And the more I thought about it and collected other sorts of evidence, I realized that there had indeed been an absence of wheeled transport. That led to me writing The Camel and the Wheel, a book with two components: one was the technological history of carts and wagons, putting forward the thought that wheeled transport had at some point disappeared from the Middle East. That ended up being a thesis that resonated with a lot of readers. The other component proposed that the reason this disappearance of the wheel took place when it did was that cheaper transport by pack camel became available, partly for technological and partly for political reasons, at a certain point in time. Camels were decidedly cheaper than wheels, a conclusion that led me to the whole question of how the herding of animals can affect every aspect of an economy. All of this was culminating back at the time I left Harvard in 1973. My book manuscript contained ideas I discussed in a freshman seminar on camels, but otherwise my teaching did not incorporate very much of what I was discovering about animals.

Was there much interest in that seminar?

I could take 10 students in the class, but something like 30 or 40 wanted to register. I thought, “Surprise. Camels are popular!” It helped me to have two hours once a week to talk to students about things I was thinking about, about camels in different parts of the world, about different types of evidence, and so forth. Then when I went out to Berkeley I taught a course on the history of animals: mostly camels, cows, and donkeys, plus a little bit on horses. I taught that for a couple of years and then I let it drop until I’d been at Columbia for a decade or so, when I thought, “That stuff on animals really sticks in my mind. I need to do more.”

I created a course called “Domestic Animals in Human History,” and that proved to be a real mind changer for me. Now, instead of simply talking about the things that I already knew something about, transport and camels and deserts and so on, I had an entire course where I could go from the earliest experience of Homo sapiens with animals to the present day. I taught the course for five or six years, and ultimately wrote Hunters, Herders and Hamburgers, a book that ended up taking a look, at both the theoretical level and the day-to-day level, at the entire history of the human species and its relationship with animals.

I’m quite interested in your book Cotton, Climate, and Camels, especially given society’s current focus on climate-related issues. Did it develop in a similar manner as the two books we’ve discussed so far?

This book focuses on the history of Iran and the broader Middle East. I started my career, as I mentioned, working on the city of Nishapur. Many questions I tried to answer I couldn’t initially, but I got a pretty good grasp of how this city of 100,000-200,000 people operated in the year 1000. A city that size must have been one of the largest cities in the world not situated on navigable water. A city without water transport must bring in overland all sorts of things that are consumed by the population: food, charcoal, cotton and other raw materials for manufacturing and building, and so on.

So I knew a lot about that city, and I had a suspicion that there was something about place names that was peculiar. I remember a student who wrote a doctoral dissertation about Lebanon in the 1600s. He was able to show on maps that every village in a particular region of today’s Lebanon was already there, and known by the same name, 400 years earlier. The tenacity of place names in these very old parts of the world is often quite extraordinary.

When I first went to Nishapur to do field work, I had a list of all the village names I’d found mentioned in history books. Once on the scene, I expected to find the same villages under the same names. But they were all gone. I thought, “Why is it that in one part of the Middle East, villages continue for centuries, and in another part they disappear?” I tied the disappearance to the qanat system I described earlier. These underground water channels must wear out, and therefore need to be rebuilt. But who does that? Who pays for it? There’s no mention of some king ordering 1000 underground tunnels to be built.

Instead, they appeared very clearly to have been built by people who, one way or another, had acquired a right to the water that allowed villagers to grow the crops that are irrigated through the qanats. Those people hired canal-building specialists who knew how to deliver flowing water to otherwise desert land. Before the first water came out, however, the tunnel digging is just an infrastructural investment. And that investment could only be justified by building a village, relocating workers, and selling the crops they grew. How did this rural investment system come into being? Who reaped the rewards?

It took me many years to work it out in my head, but it struck me that the most common pattern of village names in Iran consisted of a person’s name, followed by the word “Abad”. It wasn’t exactly clear what “abad” meant, but I figured if the personal name was that of the man who owned the rights to the water and paid for digging the irrigation tunnel, the following word “Abad” probably meant “with a qanat.”

I found a fairly strong correlation between these things by going through gazeteers, and then I found one medieval Persian text that gave a list of all the villages that were then producing taxes in a certain district in central Iran. Suddenly it became clear what had happened. The person who financed the tunnel put his name on the village that was built to make use of the new stream of water. So, if your name was Mohammed, and you had enough money, you could pay people to dig the tunnel and thus become the owner of the village the tunnel made possible. And you call it Mohammed-abad.

What was important about the many new villages that Arab Muslims and Iranian converts to Islam built in the 8th and 9th century was that the water flowed all year long. Other villages, ones that relied on winter rain or seasonal streams from melting snow, had enough water for a spring crop of wheat or barley. But in deep summer, their water was insufficient for further field crops. Only the  villages with year-round water from qanats were able to utilize Iran’s torrid summer climate for growing cotton.

It became apparent that cotton was the great product that resulted from the early Islamic expansion of the qanat system. This changed the basic economy of Iran and made the country a great exporter of cotton. But then the cotton industry all but disappeared between 1000 and 1200. What happened? My theory is that a change to a colder, drier climate undermined the cotton industry. Famines and epidemics became more common and many villages shifted to growing food crops. Cotton returned to northern Iran a few centuries later when the weather regained its warmth.

I have not persuaded my colleagues in Iranian history that this is what happened. Some people think that I’m imagining a chilling of the climate beyond just everyday variance from year to year, just as today, people who are in climate denial will say, “Well, the weather always varies.”

But I still think that there was a significant chilling on the climate that led to the fall of the cotton industry and, ultimately, to the arrival from the north of camel-breeding nomads whose animals did not take well to the colder weather. That is the thesis of my book. I was proud of the research methods I used, but I’m afraid the details about village naming do not make for a very readable text. Nevertheless, it was another way of bringing together agriculture, animal culture, and climate. So I ended up working on climate history, something which I had not anticipated doing.

What lines of evidence for climate cooling did you find? For instance, was there tree ring data available from that time and location?

To the best my knowledge, we still do not have any tree ring sequences from the parts of the Middle East that the cotton came from, so the tree ring data that are available are from Western Mongolia and Tibet and they show a narrowing of the tree rings in the in the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries that I am interpreting as signaling a worsening of the climate. What contributes to the tree ring variance is temperature and moisture, with moisture presumably the more important. The problem is that I use tree rings as a proxy relating more to moisture, and there is an awkward comparison with my other proxy, weather reports in medieval Baghdad that address temperature more than dryness.

In the period I concentrate on, detailed chronicles for Baghdad, the closest place that I could find to the area I was most interested in, would comment on severe winters, and the frequency of those severe winters increased substantially. The severe winters would be described in terms of precipitation and freezing. It was interesting that, when they talked about freezing, the chroniclers were quite aware that different fluids freeze at different temperatures. When they would say that the water and the water wheels froze that year, they would also say rosewater froze or bulls’ urine froze. Then you can look at the freezing points of these various substances and realize they were quite aware that different fluids freeze at different temperatures, and that was their way of telling you how far below freezing it was.

My third source consists of anecdotal evidence of one sort or another having to do with what happens when you have a climate that is actually changing. One of the things that seems to happen in Iran is that you have a very substantial migration out of the country. This is how you end up with sizable populations of immigrant Iranian ancestry in Turkey and northern India. Their ancestors were people who migrated from Iran because the economy was falling apart a century or so before the devastating invasions of the Mongols in the 13th century.

Were you able to incorporate this body of work into the Middle East History curriculum at Columbia?

Middle Eastern history is taught in compartmentalized fashion. The way American universities were set up in the 1950s, they divided history of the region into a classical Islamic period, which is from Mohammed to Genghis Khan, an Ottoman period, and a modern period. So one person would be hired with skills in medieval Arabic language and manuscript reading, with maybe a little archaeology and art history. Then another would have research skills in Turkish to cover the Ottoman period from 1300 to 1900, often with a teaching focus on Turkey and the Balkans instead of Iraq, Iran and Egypt.

The third person would teach something called “Modern Middle East History,” which hasn’t held up well conceptually. It is founded on the idea that at some point “modernity” happens, and you have to explain what that is and how it manifested itself in the Middle East. I think that was a political project from the very beginning. When United States scholars thought of people becoming modern, they meant that they were on a track to become like us in America. I feel it was hubris to talk about modernization in that respect.

So you would end up having three professors, at say the University of Chicago or Harvard, where each one would deal with one piece of the totality without really having anything that asked them to look the broad sequence of 14 centuries of Islam, much less pre-Islam.

When I was hired at Columbia, however, I was told, “There will never be anyone other than you teaching Middle East history, so you have to teach about, and direct doctoral research on, everything from Muhammad to the present.” So I was that rare creature who was hired and paid to be a generalist, and it gave me an opportunity to make linkages across these dividing points of the Mongol invasion and the beginning of modernity. I had opportunities to structure things any way I wanted, so that Cotton, Climate and Camels and my other books fit well into medieval courses focused on the central Middle East, but also have implications for other periods.

Still, there are a lot of historians who are very uncomfortable with technology and with anything that is quantified. When I started, the field was, as it continues to be, overwhelmingly dominated by scholars who focus on theology, Islamic law, Islamic mysticism, poetry, literature, and the great men of history. None of those topics interest me very much. I’m sure my students to some degree suffered in curricular terms from having too little of those topics and too much of my stuff, but I think that there should have been somebody who does what I do.

Are there other historians who take your approach or your perspective on interpreting historical events?

The closest professional ancestry for me and my way of approaching history is the French school of history called the “Annales school,” named after the journal Annales d’Histoire Economique et Sociale (Annals of Economic and Social History), which goes back to the early 20th century and produced great historians in France. The Annales school was devoted to expanding the universe of what constitutes historical data. So they brought in a lot of archaeology, a lot of material evidence, and a lot of quantification.

The first article I ever wrote that touched on any of this was an article on the disappearance of wheeled vehicles vis-á-vis camel transport. I remember writing the article and then asking a colleague where he thought I might get it published. He said, “Send it to Annales.” I graduated from Harvard with a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in history, and I had never heard of the journal mentioned. So little awareness was there at that time, at least in my orbit, of what was going on in continental historical studies.

I wrote the article and sent it in. After a period of weeks, I wrote and asked whether they ever received it. They said, “Oh yes, we’re having it translated into French and will publish it.” I was happy about that. Then a few years later, a paperback appeared in the United States titled Social Historians in Contemporary France. It was a selection of articles from Annales, and it contained my article. I was amused that they were trying to pass me off as a French historian, possibly because I have a French-looking name.

But for the history profession in America, the Annales school really came down to transferring from Europe to America the notion that class, race, and gender are the three most important things for historians to study. For me, however, it was the material history, the archaeological history, the quantitative history, and the infrastructural history. This is the Annales school that fascinated me, but it has never caught on very well in this country.

Finally, can you speak about your experience teaching the World Environmental History class?

Well, as you know, I got a phone call from the chairperson of the history department who said that a newly hired professor had to take a leave for the semester, even though we were already in the third week. He had an American Environmental History course on his schedule, and the Chairperson asked if I could take over teaching it. I said I can’t do American Environmental History, but I can do World Environmental History, because I know enough about specific episodes to fill such a course with substance.

I read a substantial portion of the readings on the professor’s syllabus and found that they dealt with contested issues in the environmental history in the United States. These were very interesting books, but they were very much devoted to detailed accounts of how the conflicting economic and political interests of one sort of user or another swayed public policy, for better or worse.

My knowledge base dealt with much earlier history, for the most part, where that level of explicit political or ideological contest has usually been lost to history. Instead, you deal with a balance of interests that you cannot recover, or even know whether they were ever articulated as debates.

What I discovered was that virtually every student in the class had a primary interest in environmental studies, not in history. There was only one student enrolled in the course who was actually in the history department. So the first several weeks, where I was going through different episodes of environmental history — deforestation of Europe, relations between herders and farmers, and so forth — didn’t arouse much enthusiasm.

At a certain point, I went around the class and got more input from the students as to what would interest them more. I remember asking the question: “Given that most of you are interested primarily in Environmental Studies at a time when we’re deeply into the climate debate in this country, do you think it’s already too late to save the planet?” Every one of the students in Environmental Studies thought it was, indeed, already too late.

I also realized that the earlier history of how we reached this stage was of very little interest. They wanted to know about contestation because of their desire to enter into public policy debates. Thus a book on who should benefit from the resources of the Columbia River valley intrigued them because it showed how the interests of state and local governments, Native American groups, salmon fisheries, and farmers using river water for irrigation got negotiated, either publicly or situationally.

So over the course of the semester, I gradually shifted from the topics that I had started with, to more contemporary topics that were more engaged with the students’ interest in the here and now. The two classes that aroused the greatest student interest were ones where I arranged lectures by two practitioners, one a California farmer talking about how a modern farm negotiates state and federal environmental guidelines, and you, a marine biologist concerned with threats to fishing in New England and tropical coral reefs.

I did teach one course after that on land and water transport. That course enrolled 10 students, but only one from the history department. All the others were engineering majors. That experience drove home a lesson that I had been somewhat aware of for a long time, which is that Columbia University’s history department had very little interest in the material world. Faculty and students concentrated primarily on issues of class, race, and gender, and on the politics surrounding them. We were admitting promising young people who wanted to study those things, and what I was increasingly interested in teaching dealt with the natural world, or the built world, or the world of technology.

Do you think this is a general trend among history departments in American universities?

At about this time, around 2013, I studied the program for the annual conference of The American Society for Environmental History in Toronto and took note of the affiliations of the speakers: zero from Columbia University, and a tiny handful from the Ivy League, except for Harvard, which furnished around a half dozen speakers. The great majority of presentations were from state universities, and often from their secondary campuses. It became clear to me that the environmental crisis has engaged historians at a practical level that is beneath the notice of the country’s most elite historians.

How would you teach the World Environmental History course differently, if you were to do it again?

Teaching that class, I found out where the students’ interest lay and what really engaged them. If I had known that before I jumped in, I would have designed the course differently. If I had engaged the students in the backgrounds, and then the pre-backgrounds, of their current existential concerns, I might have lured them into using earlier examples to see how those existential concerns are not entirely new.

There has to be some way of seeing futures that does not catastrophize at an Armageddon-like level. You do this by showing how parallel existential crises at the infrastructural level have worked through historically in previous episodes. These episodes would need to be brought together to show how they are addressing a common set of concerns that are concerns today and have been concerns in the past. There’s too much of the present in the way it’s examined now, and that leads to catastrophizing. There are other approaches that would be easier to convey to students if they had the deeper historical record that the teacher brings to bear.

Well, thank you for all your time, Dick, this was quite enjoyable.

You’re welcome, it’s been fun.