previous sub-section
Cotton, Textiles, and the Politics of Trade
next sub-section

Invasion and Resistance

According to Halil Iṅalcik, the invasion of British and other European textile goods came in three stages.[88] First was the introduction, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, of the highly competitive machine-manufactured cotton yarn, which was cheaper, stronger, and better made than locally spun yarn. This was followed by a conscious effort to imitate items of dress popular among the well-to-do urban elements. Third, by the 1850s a final push was made into the mass market of peasants and urban lower classes.

Great Britain became the dominant European trading partner of the Ottoman Empire in the first half of the nineteenth century, and the Ottoman Empire was England’s third major trading partner. More than a third of the total British exports to the Ottoman Empire was in cotton cloth.[89]Table 6 shows a steady increase in Ottoman imports of British cotton goods, with an exponential jump occurring after 1850.

The numbers in Table 6, it must be emphasized, are not very accurate because record-keeping practices were irregular and differed from one region to the next. For example, Roger Owen noted that between 1831 and 1850, Ottoman imports of British twists and yarns rose from 1,700,000 pounds to nearly 6,350,000 pounds.[90] The latter figure is substantially higher than the one noted by Iṅalcik in Table 6, but there is no question of the trend: imports of yarn and, consequently, stiff competition for local spinners increased substantially beginning in the 1830s.

6. English Exports of Cotton Goods to the Ottoman Empire, 1825–1860
Year Cloth (in Thousands of Yards) Yarn (in Thousands of Pounds)
Sources: Adapted from Table 17.2 in İnalcik, “When and How,” p. 381.
1825 3,578 557
1830 15,940 1,528
1835 25,692 3,272
1840 ? ?
1845 46,793 5,830
1850 31,124 2,384
1855 132,605 8,446
1860 229,201 22,824

The centrality of textiles to British exports was even more pronounced in the case of Greater Syria. Table 7 shows a threefold increase in just five years between 1840–1844, then a slow decrease as the market leveled out.

7. British Exports to Syria/Palestine, 1836–1850, Annual Averages (£—declared values)
Year Total Exports Cotton Goods Percent
Sources: Adapted from Tables 6 and 7 in Owen, Middle East, p. 85.  
1836–1839 119,753 112,155 93.6
1840–1844 441,107 430,194 97.5
1845–1849 382,219 358,456 93.8
1850 303,254 271,457 89.5

This energetic expansion into Greater Syria—driven partly by technological improvements, such as the introduction of regular steamship service in the mid-nineteenth century, which lowered transportation costs, cut travel time, and made shipping safer and more predictable—led many contemporary Western observers to pronounce in their journals and reports the end of local handicrafts in general and of the textile industry in particular. These pronouncements, in turn, were often quoted by historians as accurate statements. Writing in 1975, Shmuel Avitsur noted that by the nineteenth century, “local textile centers like Bayt Jala, Nablus, and later also Hebron and other towns, were either completely ruined and disappeared or were reduced to the proportions of an ancillary trade furnishing an additional pittance to the hard-hit craftsman now struggling to make a living in other ways.”[91]

Ihsan Nimr, a local historian, was of the same opinion. In a section entitled “The Undermining and Destruction of the [Jabal Nablus] Manufactures,” he wrote:

Local industry was undermined in inverse proportion to [the import of] Western manufactures. With the use of petrol lamps, gone were the oil lamps.…With the use of tin cans, leather pouches were put aside, as were the tanneries [which produced them]. With the use of foreign leather, the local leather industry started declining so that out of seven local leather factories, only one was left until it too closed down, and its remains were erased with the paving of Palestine Street.

The death blow was the one that hit textile weaving. [Previously] the number of looms was so high in both city and countryside that a local saying—“Where is Fatima in the cotton market?”—became a common expression for a crowded place. The same blow was dealt to woolen textiles, and the bisht industry was wiped out during the last wool crisis [after World War II]. And with the destruction of the textile industry, the dyeing establishments were destroyed as well. [At one time] they used to be twenty in number, then they shrank to just a few simple cauldrons. Only a small dye establishment, that of the Abwa family, was left.…

They [Nabulsis] used to use wooden spoons…but the arrival of metal ones put a stop to that. And with the use of Ottoman and foreign gold coins as necklaces, goldsmithing contracted to a very low level even though it was growing previously. With the introduction of oil-powered milling, the water, air, and animal-powered mills were gone. So were the stone olive and sesame presses, now replaced by machines imported from the outside.…And they [now] use caustic soda for soap, [thus] halting the production of qilw. Ironsmithing and carpentry have been greatly weakened, and with the use of foreign medicines, local drugs and prescriptions have fallen by the wayside.[92]

This detailed epitaph by a writer very much embittered by the decline of Nablus’s traditional industries is a powerful reminder of the long-term impact of competition from the industrialized countries, but it must be taken with several grains of salt. Nimr painted this gloomy picture from the vantage point of the second half of the twentieth century; that is, he conflated developments of several periods, most of which took place after World War I.[93] Although there is no doubt about the overall trends, many of the old manufactures survived well into the twentieth century. In any case, the production of olive oil, soap, and other commodities did not cease; rather, it restructured with the adoption of new factors of production. After all, the large, round stones used for pressing oil or sesame were not exactly a major product of Nabulsi industry, and the qilw used in soapmaking was imported from bedouins on the east bank of the River Jordan.

One must also add that changing patterns of demand gave rise to new artisanal occupations and manufactures. Nimr himself, a few pages later, recounts the names of Nabulsis who learned to tailor Western suits and make Western shoes, as well as those of carpenters and ironsmiths who also learned how to use new tools and to produce new products, some of which were copied from advertisement catalogs! This is not to mention a whole range of services and industries connected with automobiles, printing, glassmaking, cement production, and so on.[94]

Manufacturing activities, therefore, were restructured and adapted to changing conditions. Dominique Chevalier’s 1962 study of the resistance techniques of Syrian artisans was the first concrete rebuttal of the traditional view of unmitigated decline.[95] Later, Roger Owen and Donald Quataert raised more general objections. The former argued that the internal market of the Fertile Crescent was growing in the nineteenth century due to rising population. This increased local demand for textiles in general, because there were more and more people to be clothed. Owen also noted that European manufacturers failed to successfully imitate many local styles, patterns, and fabrics. Even when they were successful, they had to contend with the reverse process: local imitation of European products. Owen also cited a common example of restructuring concerning the contradictory effects of the importation of machine-made yarn. On the one hand, it was stronger and cheaper than locally woven yarn and quickly replaced it, undermining the spinners (and, by implication, weakening the household economy of the urban lower classes because spinners were usually females who worked at home). On the other hand, imported British yarn was used by the weavers (usually males) to produce a cheap, durable cloth composed of a mixture of local and imported yarn that proved to be highly competitive with British cloth in terms of cost.[96] Recall the example, in Chapter 2, of how Nabulsi weavers and tailors used both local and imported cloth in the production of basic textile items such as outergarments and mattress covers.

Quataert faulted historians for not taking into consideration the underlying assumptions of contemporary European observers or the contexts in which their reports about the destruction of handicrafts industries were made.[97] For example, one must be cautious of the ethnocentric assumption that lack of mechanized factories implied a lack of industry, of the narrow focus of observers on the large urban centers that were the most vulnerable to European competition, and of the scant attention paid to rural areas that were also important centers of production. Finally, he brought up the essential point that cheap labor, especially female labor, was very important in allowing locally produced goods to survive, restructure, and remain competitive with machine-made imports.

Most of the above caveats apply to the situation in Nablus during the period under study, and it is the combination of these factors that accounted for the resilience of the textile-manufacturing sector. Briefly summarized, Nablus was a relatively small, interior city blessed by a plentiful water supply (crucial for the fulling and dyeing stages of production). It was well provisioned with locally grown raw materials and a cheap labor force. It also had a textile-manufacturing sector geared toward meeting the less expensive needs of the mass market as well as the specific and varied tastes of the peasant communities in the hinterland (such as for wedding clothes). Both characteristics were reinforced by deeply rooted local merchant networks that assured supplies and markets as well as by the investments of textile merchants in this sector. Each textile merchant had loyal clients from specific villages and was well informed about his client’s conditions, needs, and preferences. Large textile merchants also commissioned spinners, weavers, and tailors on an order-by-order basis, commissioned women for piecework in their homes and sank significant amounts of capital into the dyeing of clothes.[98]

The first set of issues has to do with Nablus’s location, size, and basic economic orientation, all of which made it difficult to penetrate. The city of Nablus was less vulnerable to European competition because its interior location raised the costs of transportation. The elasticity of demand for luxury goods made this a relatively unimportant factor, but the same could not be said about the demand for low-cost textile goods. Nablus’s small size compared with Damascus, Cairo, and Aleppo also made it a less important market for European merchants. None of them, for example, established a permanent trade mission in the city itself. The strong influence of the local merchant community, as well as Jabal Nablus’s jealously guarded autonomy and conservative antiforeigner reputation, also limited outside access to its markets. Foreign merchants complained bitterly about the difficulties they encountered in establishing trading houses in the large interior cities, as well as in enforcing contracts, collecting debts, and receiving adequate support from local government for the practices of “free” trade.[99] These difficulties were multiplied manyfold in the case of the smaller and more autonomous urban areas in the interior. Haim Gerber argued, for example, that the textile-manufacturing towns of Palestine suffered much less than did Damascus, as evidenced by a comparison of the labor structures, and that locally produced textile goods remained popular among peasants and the urban lower classes.[100] As detailed in Chapter 2, the real competition for local production originated regionally rather than from overseas.

The second set of points has to do with the ready availability of relatively cheap raw materials for textile manufacturing, most of which were locally produced in commercial quantities. This was especially true for cotton. H. B. Tristram, who visited Nablus in the early 1860s, wrote: “The busy hum of the cotton gins greeted us on all sides, and heaps of cotton husks lay about the streets.…Though we had seen everywhere the signs of a nascent cotton-trade, yet in no place was it so developed as here.”[101] Wool, the second most important raw material, was supplied by both peasants and bedouins. Most of the latter were based east of the River Jordan; the rest roamed the coastal region of Palestine and the flatlands of Marj Ibn Amir. The third most important raw material—natural dyestuffs such as gallnuts (afas), indigo (nila), or sumac (summaq)—were grown locally and/or in Bisan, Jericho, and other areas close to Nablus.[102] In 1824–1825, for example, Muhammad Ali Pasha, the viceroy of Egypt, sent a merchant to arrange for the importation of indigo seeds from the latter two areas.[103] All the above-mentioned dyestuffs were frequently encountered in the estates of merchants and artisans, but the most ubiquitous were gallnuts. These were used for dyeing both textiles and leather water pouches and were grown in sufficient quantities to allow for export to Egypt and Aleppo.[104]

The third set of issues has to do with the type of manufactures. Most textile articles produced in Nablus and some of the villages in its hinterland were geared toward the mass market of peasants and the lower classes in the urban areas. Bowring’s list of locally produced textile products in the epigraph of this chapter summarizes well the orientation of the textile sector in Nablus, a city known for the eminently practical but hardly chic cotton thawb (pl. thiyab) and for the long-lasting woolen bisht, which kept many a peasant warm during cold winter days.

Thiyab were the most frequently mentioned type of locally manufactured clothes in the estates of textile merchants.[105] The trade caravan that left Nablus after the 1771 siege, recall, was carrying 100 camel loads of thiyab, yarn, and “other things” to Damascus. This particular product was also exported eastward, to points across the River Jordan. In the early nineteenth century, for example, James Silk Buckingham noted that a monthly caravan connected Nablus to Salt and that the stock of a textile merchant in the latter consisted of “cotton cloths from Nablous.”[106]Thiyab were also present in the estate of a merchant from Mosul (in today’s Iraq) who died in 1825 during the Holy Month of Ramadan, while on a business trip in Nablus.[107] Mass produced in three basic sizes—small, medium, or large—thiyab were not expensive, especially when compared with similar items imported regionally or from overseas. In the estate of Shaykh Abdullah Fityani (d. 1840), for example, a thawb malti—made from British cloth apparently imported through Malta—cost 44 piasters; a thawb baladi wasat (medium size, locally made) cost 13 piasters.[108]

“It was like wearing a carpet.” This is how an older peasant from the village of Dayr Ghazzala, near Jenin, described the woolen bisht, the other textile item that Nablus was famous for producing.[109] Made of coarse, thick, tightly woven sheep wool thread, bishts were practically indestructible and very popular among peasants, shepherds, and poorer folk. Also mass produced in preset sizes, all bishts were white with wide red stripes, had short sleeves, and reached to just below the knees. They were worn almost continuously during the winter: “We used to sleep in it, inside and outside the house,” said another peasant from the village of Bayt Wazan near Nablus.[110] The demand for this item was such that during the first half of the nineteenth century every quarter in the city had shops that made bishts.[111]

The fourth set of issues is the low cost of equipment and labor—two important elements of resistance to external competition. The prices of cotton gins ranged from 1.5 piasters in 1800 to 35 piasters in 1830; of looms, from 1.5 piasters in 1800 to 10 piasters in 1808 and 7.5 piasters in 1833.[112] These prices of used equipment found in the estates of deceased individuals suggest that those who wanted to purchase their own did not face serious obstacles in terms of costs.

The low cost of labor was a far more important factor. First, as shown by Sherry Vatter in the case of Damascus, it was not unusual for artisans who were worried about their employment prospects to grudgingly accept cuts in their standard of living, though not on an indefinite basis.[113] Second, women who worked for even lower wages were heavily employed in the spinning and weaving of textiles in the Fertile Crescent, Egypt, and Anatolia.[114]

In Nablus, Nimr claims that it was mostly women who spun the cotton and wool, either as paid workers or as individual producers for the market.[115] Nimr’s claim is substantiated by a number of inheritance estates of merchants who dealt in wool and cotton. The court’s inventory of the property and debts of these merchants often included a number of women who were owed money for labor rendered.[116] An example is the estate of Hasan son of Salah Zakar (d. 1806), who traded mostly with Damascus. Apart from family members, he owed small amounts of money to sixteen individuals, thirteen of whom were women.[117] The way the women were referred to is telling: only their first names were mentioned, which implies that they were hired labor with low social status. In contrast, other women mentioned in these estates, whether as inheritors or loaners, were identified as belonging to a particular family or male relative. Another example is the estate of Sayyid Muhammad Sadiq son of Muhammad Afandi Bustami, which listed ten looms in his shop.[118] He owed hundreds of piasters in wages to employees, many of whom were women. Judging from the inventory of textile products, the basic item his workers produced was the ubiquitous thawb. He exported his production to Damascus, and he even owned a shop there. This estate also shows that a substantial portion of his production was locally commissioned by textile merchants, many of whom owed him money at the time of his death. It is highly likely that rural women, especially those from the larger villages near Nablus, also worked as spinners, as was the case in other parts of the region, such as Egypt.[119]

Cheap labor, low cost of equipment, and a decentralized process of production all combined with the factors mentioned above to make the textile industry in Jabal Nablus a resilient one. Nevertheless, this sector was facing serious difficulties by the early nineteenth century. This is indicated by the following petition sent by the Nablus textile merchants to the city’s Advisory Council on April 2, 1850:

In 1254 [1838/1839], the Egyptians imposed on all those who sell cloth an offensive, illegal tax of 3,710 piasters, and this imposition has continued until today although [it] does not exist anywhere else in the Protected Dominions. [As a result] we have [suffered] decline and damage, especially during the tenure of the last multazim [tax farmer who collected taxes on textiles]. It is not hidden, your excellencies, that we pay import and export customs at the proper places according to the Noble Regulations on all the cloth and other goods that we bring. If this imposition continues we will be totally ruined, and since the [state] cannot allow its subjects to suffer treachery and decline we have found the courage to present this petition.[120]

The council forwarded the petition to the provincial headquarters in Sidon with the comment that, indeed, this was an illegal tax and should be looked into. The real issue, however, was almost certainly an effort to undermine the status of the previous multazim, because on the same day the petition bids for urban iltizam posts were posted, including that of textiles.[121] Yet, and even if we allow for the exaggeration implied in the phrase “total ruin,” the underlying premise was that all had not been well with textile trade and manufacturing since the 1830s—that is, since before foreign competition had its greatest impact.

One must also look, therefore, for internal reasons for the slow contraction of the textile sector and the stagnation in cotton production, or, more accurately, its reduced weight in the political economy of Jabal Nablus as compared with the fate of other types of trade and manufacturing. The key factor in this regard is that merchant capital was increasingly diverted to other sectors of the economy. As the following chapters will show, the investment of merchant capital became concentrated in the lending of money to peasants, the purchase of agricultural lands and urban real estate, the trade in olive oil, and, most important, the production of soap. All of these areas took advantage of profit-making enterprises that were far less vulnerable to European competition than was textile manufacturing and which, especially in the case of soap, commanded a large and expanding regional market.

previous sub-section
Cotton, Textiles, and the Politics of Trade
next sub-section