Many of the tactics used by authorities more than a hundred years ago to stem the tide of disease may seem familiar to us today.

Disease outbreaks and plagues were a common aspect of most societies as recently as a hundred years ago.

Advances in modern medicine and disease management have made instances of the most deadly diseases rare, but in our response to the Covid-19 crisis for which there is no known cure or vaccine, many of our tactics can find their antecedents in history.

In the days of our ancestors, epidemics of diseases like cholera or smallpox, were common and often wreaked a devastating toll on people.

The Ottoman empire, the predecessor state of the Turkish Republic, was no exception and dealt with its share of devastating outbreaks.

A 1911 outbreak of cholera had its roots in Russia but soon infected thousands of Ottoman citizens. No exact figures are given for the total death toll, but a May 1911 outbreak infected 18,876 with cholera, of which 12,143 would die.

The disease would eventually be brought somewhat under control before the start of World War I due to advances in sanitation methods and with thanks to a vaccine developed by German scientist, Wilhelm Kolle

Global death tolls for the outbreak, which lasted between 1899 and 1923, lie at around 800,000, with 500,000 in India alone.

Earlier outbreaks, however, before developments in urban hygiene and vaccines, relied on methods that we are now used to due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Ottoman archives reveal how the state then took similarly strict measures to the ones we are witnessing today. Notable similarities include the banning of travel between cities and the suspension of religious pilgrimages.

Quarantine and social distancing

Documents show that cholera epidemics starting in 1847 and 1892 caused panic among the population of a number of major Ottoman cities.

Measures were taken by authorities to prevent entry and exit from several regions, including the capital Istanbul, the holy cities of Jerusalem and Mecca, as well as the regional hubs of Beirut and Baghdad.

Ottoman officials, such as ambassadors returning from postings abroad, were also required to spend time in quarantine. A practice that many countries have adopted. 

Cemeteries were also placed outside of city walls to mitigate the risk of infection to those who lived within them. 

"The Ottoman Empire fought a number of epidemics at various times and took strict measures to prevent their spread," said academic Mehmet Celik, an expert on Middle Eastern History.

Celik explained that the immediate priority for Ottoman officials was to ensure that those areas, which were unaffected by disease remained that way.

"The Ottoman Empire prohibited pilgrimage trips for Muslims traveling from Basra, Samara, and Iran towards the Holy Land, to prevent infection from reaching these areas."

In an era without mass communication methods we have become used to, such as smartphones and the internet, newspapers became the medium through which citizens were informed, Celik explained.

But not every act of social distancing today has its precedent in history. Friday prayers for example were not cancelled even during the outbreaks of infectious disease in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

As a March report by TRT World explains, however, it was not until well into the twentieth century that virology took off as a discipline.

Today’s religious leaders also have the means of reaching congregants in ways that would have been hard to imagine in the early 1900s. Inventions like the loudspeaker mean sermons can be broadcast to entire neighbourhoods, whereas a hundred years ago to listen to a sermon meant physically being in or near a mosque.

Source: TRT World