Preferred Citation: Doumani, Beshara. Rediscovering Palestine: Merchants and Peasants in Jabal Nablus, 1700-1900. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1995 1995.

Cotton, Textiles, and the Politics of Trade

3. Cotton, Textiles, and the Politics of Trade

Collect the taxes-in-kind as soon as the harvest season begins, because if you do not do so the…peasants will…sell it…and the entire harvest will end up in the hands of the merchants.

The use to which the consumption of cotton is applied in Syria and these countries is principally in the spinning of cotton-yarn of an ordinary quality, with which coarse clothes are woven for under garments, drawers, shirts, sheets, mattress coverings, stockings and a variety of other articles of ordinary quality; but for the better kinds the consumption has decreased by the introduction of our cotton-yarn, and principally by the importation of the grey domestics, or long clothes, which is one of the great articles of British manufactured goods imported.

Near the end of 1771 Zahir al-Umar, the ruler of Acre, laid siege to Nablus. For years he had attempted to extend his authority over this rich merchant city and its fertile hinterland, but to no avail. This year, however, was different. His Egyptian Mamluk allies had invaded Palestine on their way to Damascus, and the Tuqan’s greatest rivals, the Jarrar family, had initiated an alliance with him.[1] His nemesis, Uthman Pasha, the governor of Damascus province since 1760, was replaced by Muhammad Pasha Azm, and the latter had already left for the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina in his capacity as leader of the pilgrimage caravan (amir al-hajj). Shortly before the siege Zahir al-Umar succeeded in taking Jaffa and expelling its governor, Ahmad Beik Tuqan. He was also able to force Ahmad’s brother, Mustafa Beik Tuqan, chief of the subdistrict of Bani-Sa‘b, to retreat to Nablus. With Nablus’s key outlet to the sea and one of its cotton-producing subdistricts under his control, he was poised for the final blow.

According to Ibrahim Danafi al-Samiri (1712–1790)—the head scribe (katib) and interpreter (turjiman) for the mutasallim of Nablus and an eyewitness to the siege—the Tuqan and Nimr families divided the city in half: the Nimrs defended all points east; the Tuqans, all points west.[2] The dividing line between the two was Khan al-Tujjar, the textile market discussed in Chapter 2. By the time Zahir al-Umar had positioned his forces, he was faced (if we are to believe al-Samiri) with 12,000 riflemen, many of whom were peasants. After nine days of skirmishes and one heavy battle, Zahir al-Umar acknowledged the stalemate and withdrew his forces, but not before he laid waste a number of villages from which the peasant defenders had come.

The first trade caravan to leave Nablus after the siege consisted of one hundred camel-loads of “clothes, yarn and other things,” heading for Damascus.[3] While resting at Uyun al-Tujjar (Merchant Springs) caravansary, located north of Jenin, the caravan was plundered by the forces of Zahir al-Umar and forced to turn around to Acre, his capital. To drive home the lesson that he controlled the arteries of trade connecting Nablus to its northern regional markets, Zahir al-Umar cut off the road to Damascus and harassed both trade caravans and travelers who sought to reach the defiant city.[4]

The 1771 siege of Nablus nicely illustrates the intersections of commercial agricultural production, urban manufacturing, and the politics of trade. First, this anecdote introduces many of the elements crucial to understanding the importance of cotton and textiles to the political economy of Palestine. It was not out of the ordinary that the first trade caravan to leave the city after the siege would carry primarily cotton clothes and yarn: the processing and trade in cotton goods constituted the core of the manufacturing sector in Nablus and consumed the energies of the majority of artisans, wage-earning women, and merchants. Nor was the destination of the caravan surprising: Damascus was one of Nablus’s primary regional markets for cotton and textiles, and regional trade had always been central to the political economy of Jabal Nablus. Nor, finally, were the types of goods unusual: the Nablus textile sector has historically produced inexpensive clothes and yarn designed for the mass market of peasants and lower urban classes. How this particular type of textile manufacturing was affected by competition from European machine-made goods is addressed in the last section of this chapter.

Second, this anecdote sets the stage for the main focus of this chapter: the changing relationship between politics and trade. It is significant that we meet Zahir al-Umar (1690–1775) in this context, because he, more than any other Palestinian leader during the Ottoman period, was closely associated with the growing trade in cotton.[5] His imposition of a monopoly on the export of cotton changed the politics of trade in northern Palestine and put him on a collision course with the leaders of Jabal Nablus. Zahir al-Umar’s quarrels with the Tuqan ruling family, for instance, were precipitated, among other things, by the latter’s takeover of an important cotton-growing area, the subdistrict of Bani Sa‘b, and as well as of the port city of Jaffa, from which much of the cotton was exported. The siege, moreover, took place at a time when the commercial production and export of cotton became the primary link in a new phase of trade relations with Europe that would have far-reaching consequences by the second half of the nineteenth century. Hitherto, the role of Jabal Nablus in this trade has not been studied, even though this region became the largest cotton producer in Palestine, if not the Fertile Crescent as a whole, by the early nineteenth century. The first section of this chapter outlines the rise and fall of both cotton production and the politics of monopoly.

Nabulsi merchants posed the biggest challenge to Zahir al-Umar and his successors in Acre because they were able to successfully limit the expansion of the politics of monopoly: they used their networks to make Nablus the center of cotton processing in Palestine even though the cotton-producing villages were closer to the coastal cities from which cotton was shipped overseas. Yet precisely when they finally managed to dominate the cotton trade, they faced another, more serious, challenge: the rise of the politics of “free trade.” The second section of this chapter investigates how Nabulsi merchants competed with each other, with coastal and foreign merchants, and with the Ottoman government for access to and control of the rural surplus. This competition took place within the context of a new political environment created by the Egyptian invasion and the Ottoman reforms that followed. Specifically, this section considers the process of integration into the world economy from the perspective of local merchants and details the ways in which they used their recent access to political office (the Advisory Council) in order to adjust the politics of “free trade” to their favor.

Cotton and the Politics of Monopoly

The story of the commercial production of Palestinian cotton is not a new one, for this commodity has found its way to European shores since at least the tenth century, although the major market at that time, and until the eighteenth century, was Egypt. Whether most of the exported cotton was in a raw or processed form (such as yarn or clothes) depended on the health of the domestic economy and the nature of demand. Between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, for example, processed cotton constituted the bulk of exports. But by the early fifteenth century, Venice, which dominated trade with the Greater Syria, imported mostly raw cotton and exported processed cotton goods.[6]

From the sixteenth to the early eighteenth centuries the chief commodity in Palestine’s trade with Europe was processed cotton, mostly in its carded and spun forms.[7] During this period, France replaced Venice as the primary European trading partner with the Levant and practically monopolized the northern coast of Palestine.[8] In general, the French supplied woolen goods in exchange for primary products, especially raw cotton and cotton yarn, which were needed for their quickly expanding textile industry. French demand for Levant raw cotton increased more than fivefold over the eighteenth century, while its imports of processed cotton actually decreased (see Table 2).

2. French Imports of Levant Cotton during the Eighteenth Century
(Annual Averages) from All Ports, by Weight (in Quintals)[*]
  1700–1702 1717–1721 1736–1740 1750–1754 1785–1789
Source: Reproduced from Owen, Middle East, p. 7.
Raw 4,316 18,944 30,789 52,550 95,979
Spun 16,946 15,607 14,889 13,853 10,805
1 quintal = 100 kilograms.

This was part of a general trend of increasing European demand for raw cotton, for Europe’s industrialization was spearheaded by textile production. Other parts of the Ottoman, Safavid, and Moghul empires witnessed a similar increase in the commercial production of cotton for export around the same time (see Table 3).[9]

3. British Cotton Imports from Turkey, 1725–1789
Year Quantity (in Pounds)
Source: Adapted from Table 16.1 in Orhan Kurmus, “The Cotton Famine and Its Effects on the Ottoman Empire,” in İslamoglu-İnan, ed., Ottoman Empire, p. 161.
1725 667,279
1755 738,412
1775 2,175,132
1785 2,190,027
1789 4,406,892

Cotton and the Rulers of Acre

In order to secure their supply of raw cotton, French merchants took to investing in cotton production at the local level beginning in the 1720s. Following the example of local merchants (see Chapter 4), they paid village shaykhs for cotton harvests one year in advance.[10] The direct access of European merchants to Palestinian cotton, however, was severed two decades later, when Zahir al-Umar made Acre the seat of his rule in the mid-1740s and, with the help of Ibrahim Sabbagh, his long-time financial manager and political advisor, managed to implant himself as the middleman between French merchants and the cotton-growing villages under his domain.[11] The idea was to corner the surplus and control the prices at the point of sale to foreign merchants. Profits from this less-than-perfect monopoly system helped Zahir al-Umar transform Acre from a little town into an imposing fortress city and the seat of an autonomous enclave within the Ottoman Empire.[12]

In 1784, nine years after Zahir al-Umar’s death, his successor, Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar (1775–1804), was able to enforce an even stricter monopoly over the buying and selling of cotton and cereals. By 1790 he had managed to break the French merchants’ grip on the cotton trade and expelled them to Sidon.[13] By better controlling the supply end of the cotton market, Ahmad Pasha stood to make greater profits: he could increase his options among prospective buyers and put a stop to the French practice of bypassing his revenue-collecting apparatus through direct investment on the village level.

That same year Volney, an astute French observer who traveled widely in the region, wrote:

The dependencies of Saida [Sidon province, whose de facto capital was Acre] are Sur [Tyre] and the towns of Palestine such as Ramleh, Jerusalem, Lydda, and Majdal. This area is one of the most important, importing 800–900 bales of woolen cloth for which it pays in raw cotton and cotton yarn. Here the French face no competition. In Saida they have one or two agents who buy cotton every Monday or Tuesday. They wished to do the same in Acre, but the pasha cornered all cotton stocks, forbade all sales, and became sole master of the market; since the merchants needed to buy goods in return for what they sold, he put a duty of 10 piasters on each quintal of cotton.[14]

The politics of monopoly were not unique to Palestine. The heavy-handed methods of Zahir al-Umar and Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar were quite common at the time for strongmen who ruled semi-independent enclaves within the Ottoman, Safavid, and Moghul empires.[15] Indeed, a monopoly system over agricultural commodities destined for overseas exports reached its epitome under Muhammad Ali (1805–1848), the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt.[16] Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar’s efforts, however, took place in a context very different from that of Egypt. The expulsion of French merchants might not have helped him raise more revenues, because the areas of cotton cultivation, as shall be seen, had spread to regions beyond his control: that is, to Jabal Nablus. It is also likely that the trade in cotton might have become less profitable, due to transportation difficulties during the Napoleonic Wars as well as to increased competition from Anatolia and India (Egypt did not witness a substantial increase in cotton production until the early nineteenth century). Finally, there is reason to believe that the economic and demographic base of Acre began to decline during the last years of Jazzar’s rule.[17]

In any case, Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar’s monopoly system did not survive his death intact. In addition to the growing weakness of Acre and the spread of cotton cultivation to areas beyond its control, his successor, Sulayman Pasha al-Adil (1805–1819), instituted a more decentralized political and fiscal set of policies. The difference in the approach of these two rulers is symbolized by the marked contrast in the appellations they acquired: Jazzar (butcher) versus Adil (just). Of course, just about anyone who succeeded al-Jazzar was bound to look good in comparison: his cruelty earned him this title long before he came to Palestine, and his death was greeted by celebrations as far away as Damascus. In fact, not a single contemporary chronicler had a kind remark to make about this Bosnian mercenary turned pasha.[18]

In order to reduce his expenses and to minimize the threat of rebellion, Sulayman Pasha gutted al-Jazzar’s formidable military machine and relaxed his political control over Acre’s dependencies. According to his sympathetic scribe, Sulayman Pasha preferred diplomacy over violence and rarely interfered in the affairs of his appointees.[19] Far from minutely supervising the affairs of his subjects, he turned the day-to-day operations of his regime in 1806/1807 to his three main advisors: Ali Pasha, his deputy; Haim Farhi, his financial manager; and Ibrahim Awra, his head scribe.[20] All had strong relations with the local merchant community. Ali Pasha’s house was frequented by the local Muslim religious figures and merchants, and Haim Farhi and Ibrahim Awra—a Jew and a Christian, respectively—aggressively defended the interests of these two minority communities, many of whose members were well-to-do merchants.[21]

Political decentralization was accompanied by relaxation of control over the collection and sale of cotton, grains, and other commercial commodities. Merchants were no longer subject to extortion and confiscation on a routine basis, as was their fate under Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar. On the contrary, Sulayman Pasha was so eager to reinvigorate the local economy that he gave the Acre merchants virtual ownership of the government-owned shops they had long rented, and many properties of Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar were sold off to them as well.[22] Sulayman Pasha’s more relaxed fiscal policy was based, or so we are told, on the following advice from his powerful financial manager, Haim Farhi:

We must…reduce the taxation of our subjects and impose it on the foreigners. That is possible if the sale of grain, oil, and cotton to foreigners is limited exclusively to Acre; the people can get what they need directly from the peasants without imposts. Trustworthy agents should be appointed for this purpose, and at the end of every day the surplus of these three commodities taken in, over and above the needs of the [local] people, should be taken from the owners and they should be paid the price at which it was sold during that day. That which is obtained should be deposited in storehouses and sold by the government to the ships of foreigners at the highest possible price.[23]

Farhi—who served Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar, Sulayman Pasha and, for a time, the latter’s successor, Abdullah Pasha (1819–1831)—was proposing a limited monopoly that would not preempt local and regional consumption of, and trade in, cotton. In these two crucial spheres, peasants and merchants were to enjoy a relatively free cotton market. Farhi thus sought to maintain some political control over a profitable trade, but without endangering the peasant base of production that had suffered greatly under Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar. Theoretically, artisans and merchants who needed to purchase cotton for local trade and manufacturing would not have to compete with foreign merchants who were willing to offer high prices in order not to return in empty ships.

This delicate balancing act seems to have been implemented in one form or another. During the reign of Sulayman Pasha there were five permanent employees dealing solely with buying, storing, and selling cotton, more than for any other agricultural product, including wheat. According to Awra, these employees included Rustum Kashif, who, along with two assistants, supervised the government’s cotton storehouse in Acre, and the head of customs, who, along with an assistant, worked as an accountant for “the ginned cotton that comes from the storehouse, and which was bought from village peasants.”[24]

The government, it seems, did not limit itself to purchasing the surplus left in the market at the end of each day. It also intervened directly at the production level to ensure adequate supplies of cotton that it could resell to French traders. It is not clear where Farhi drew the line in terms of how much cotton was bought, what prices were offered to the peasants, and how much foreign merchants were charged. Suffice it to say that he and other high-ranking Acre officials amassed large fortunes through speculation in cash crops and stood to gain a great deal, personally, from loopholes in the monopoly.

Because these decisions directly affected the livelihoods of peasants, merchants, and foreign traders, the balancing act was fraught with tension and conducive to conflict and smuggling. Smuggling—essentially an attempt by merchants, peasants, and bedouins to bypass local and regional monopolies—was spurred on by increasing European demand, making it a common phenomenon all over the Middle East and North Africa.[25] Smuggling not only undermined the politics of monopoly but also constituted a perennial problem for the Ottoman state in general, which was concerned about losing control of the movement of commodities and the customs revenues they generated.[26]

If the accession of Sulayman Pasha heralded the slow decline, from above, of monopoly politics in northern Palestine, and if smuggling eroded the politics of monopoly from below, the Egyptian invasion of Greater Syria in 1831 dealt it a quick and fatal blow, for this invasion spelled the end of Acre rulers’ political and economic influence in Palestine in general. Surprisingly, the Egyptian authorities made no effort to corner the cotton market in their newly acquired territories, even though monopoly was Muhammad Ali’s firm policy in Egypt at the time and even though he was keenly aware that the profits from his control of the cotton trade were essential to the war effort.[27] In a communiqué dated September 1833, Muhammad Ali instructed his son that the cotton harvest in the districts of Acre, Nablus, Jaffa and Gaza need not be purchased because of its small size (even though 1833 was a bad year for Egyptian cotton exports). Instead, the inhabitants (ahali was the word used in the communiqué) were to be allowed to dispose of it as they wished.[28] It is ironic (if the reason given was indeed true) that although the monopoly of Acre rulers was partly undermined by the expansion in cotton cultivation to areas beyond their political control, this expansion was not impressive enough for the Egyptians to impose their own monopoly.[29] A more likely explanation for Muhammad Ali Pasha’s decision is that he wanted to allay the European powers’ concern that Greater Syria would be subjected to the same economic policies as Egypt, policies they considered to be obstacles to free trade.

Cotton Production in Jabal Nablus

The politics of monopoly never took hold in the rest of Palestine. As mentioned above, the large increase in lands devoted to the cultivation of cotton spilled over into areas not under the control of Acre’s governors, primarily Jabal Nablus.[30] The strong position of the merchant community in Jabal Nablus, as well as the decentralized political structure of this region, meant that competition, not monopoly, characterized the politics of trade in cotton. Using their local trade networks—that is, the thick web of connections with specific villages, clans, or individuals—Nabulsi merchants were able to secure a regular supply of raw cotton, mostly as payments for debts.[31] By the 1830s, if not earlier, Jabal Nablus had become the largest producer of cotton not only in Palestine but in Greater Syria as a whole (see Table 4).

4. Cotton Production in the Levant, 1837 (in Qintars)
Source: Bowring, Commercial Statistics, pp. 13–14.
Aleppo 500–600
Edlib 700–800
Kilis, Beld, Azass 600–700
Antioch 100–150
Tripoli 30–50
Nablus 4,500–5,000
Latakia ?
Acre and Jaffa ?

The figures in Table 4, of course, provide only a snapshot for one year.[32] But by that time, cotton grown in the Nablus region had already established a reputation as the best in the Fertile Crescent, and it commanded a ready market.[33] Fifteen years later, the quantity of cotton production in Jabal Nablus was still important enough for the central Ottoman government to initiate efforts to improve the quality of seeds in this region, as part of its general policy of promoting the export of cotton to Europe.[34] On April 28, 1851, the Nablus Advisory Council received a letter from the governor of Sidon province, informing them that they would soon receive four uqqas of cotton seeds courtesy of Ottoman officials in Istanbul. In return, they were to execute the following instructions:

[The] cotton seeds are to be distributed to the ahali [inhabitants] under the supervision of the council and experts. [The ahali] are to plant [the seeds] this year in the good arable lands that accommodate the cultivation of this specie. [You are to] greatly motivate their willingness in this regard and do not allow them to ignore this order for cultivation. Send word upon arrival [of the seeds]. In addition, it is not permissible to charge the ahali a price for the above-mentioned seeds; when the cotton matures you are to put two plants produced by them [along] with [the] soil in a box and seal it. [You are also] to put some of the cotton in a second box and seal it and send word to us. The entire crop [produced from these seeds] is to be put under safekeeping until orders are received from Istanbul.[35]

Five days later the council replied that they had delivered two uqqas of seeds to peasants in the Jenin area and one each to those in the subdistricts of Bani Sa‘b and Sh‘arawiyya al-Gharbiyya.[36] This reply provides the first concrete evidence as to the general areas in which cotton was grown in Jabal Nablus during the mid-nineteenth century. The names of the villages were not mentioned. Fortunately, however, a series of documents detailing human and material losses during factional fighting in 1850 provides additional clues in this regard. These documents listed, among other things, stolen properties supposed to be returned as part of a peace agreement between the peasant clans involved in the fighting. In many instances, raw and ginned cotton as well as cotton seeds and implements were the most important agricultural commodities listed.[37] Just one clan, for example, had 8,300 waznas of cotton-in-the-boll (qashqutun), 505 waznas of ginned cotton, 7 qintars of spun cotton, 145 waznas of cotton seeds, and a large amount of locally produced textiles, all to be returned by another clan that had plundered its village.[38] The villages of cotton-producing clans listed in this and other local sources include Attil, Dayr al-Ghusun, Zayta, Baqa, Shwayka, Qaqun, Talfit, Muqaybli, Arrana, Kafr Dan, Zaboya, and Dannaba.[39] Other villages not mentioned in the sources but still known for their cotton production include Zir‘in, Jalama, Yamun and Silat al-Harithiyya.[40]

Never subjected to the politics of monopoly, the city of Nablus easily became Palestine’s center for cotton processing and trade after the demise of the Acre rulers in 1831. Over time, Nablus became the place to which peasants from the cotton-growing areas sent their cotton to be ginned and sold, even though Acre and Jaffa, the ports from which much of this cotton found its way to Europe, were actually closer to many of these villages than was Nablus proper. Nabulsi merchants also organized the local production and sale of this cotton to European merchants. In 1837, for example, a full three-quarters of the entire harvest of Jabal Nablus was exported to the port of Marseilles, France.[41]

Decline of the Cotton Connection

Ironically, the production of cotton declined precisely when the integration of Palestine and the commercialization of its agriculture began to expand by leaps and bounds. Having helped pave the way for increased trade with Europe, it was overtaken during the mid-nineteenth century by the other commodities that became more important cash crops for export: wheat, barley, sesame seeds, olive oil, and, eventually, the famous Jaffa orange.

This decline was not a linear process. The decade of Egyptian rule most likely witnessed an overall increase in cotton cultivation, because the Egyptian authorities encouraged commercial agriculture and the trade with Europe. It is estimated, for instance, that Ibrahim Pasha’s policy of “forced cultivation”[42] led to the doubling of the cotton-growing areas in Greater Syria by the end of the 1830s, but these figures are only guesses.[43] In short, cotton production seems to have declined by the mid-nineteenth century, peaked during the cotton famine in the early 1860s, then declined again (see Table 5).[44]

5. Cotton Exports from Acre, Haifa, and Jaffa, 1852–1875 (in Uqqas)
Year Acre and Haifa Jaffa
Source: Adapted from Tables 1.3 and 1.7 in Schölch, “European Penetration,” pp. 58, 61.
1852 446,545 ?
1853 294,545 ?
1854 37,091 ?
1855 3,819 ?
1856–1859 ? ?
1859 5,273 ?
1860 68,455 20,000
1861 58,909 ?
1862 55,273 20,000
1863 ? 190,678
1864–1872 ? ?
1873 ? 40,000
1874 ? 10,000
1875 ? 5,000

Regional competition, the changing nature of European demand, and the stagnation of textile-manufacturing sector were all important factors in the initial period of decline. First, both the quality of Egyptian cotton after the discovery of the Jumel (Mako) long-staple plant (1820) and the vast quantity produced in the Nile Valley greatly reduced the importance of Palestine as a source of cotton.[45] This small region’s topography and climate simply did not allow for economy of scale or for the development of a monocrop economy, as Egypt’s did, and the short staple of its cotton became less desirable.

Second, British demand for grains (wheat and barley), especially after the repeal of the Corn (wheat) Laws, caused a shift in the percentage of land allocated for this purpose.[46] Peasants welcomed this change, for they preferred to grow grains. Compared with cotton, grains were more hardy, easier to grow, needed less water, did not exhaust the soil as much, and involved far less labor. Grains were also a less risky proposition: there was always a local and regional market for wheat, whereas that for cotton was vulnerable to international price fluctuations and to the health of regional textile industries. Finally, increasing imports of machine-produced yarn from England undercut local and regional demand for Palestinian raw cotton and cotton yarn, because the English material was stronger and of better quality, though not necessarily always better suited for local manufacture.[47] The impact of foreign competition, as shall be seen in the last section of this chapter, was less than devastating due to continued local and regional demand, and the role of Nablus as the cotton-processing center of Palestine survived well into the early twentieth century.[48]

The Politics of Free Trade

In the 1830s, precisely at the peak of Nablus’s domination of the cotton trade, a new politics of trade threatened this city’s position as the undisputed economic capital of Palestine. The centralization of political control in Greater Syria by the Egyptian authorities and their support of the activities of foreign merchants opened new vistas for trade and circulation of merchant capital. Sultan Mahmud II (1808–1839)—under duress from stinging military defeats by the Egyptian forces and dependent on help from the European powers to reassert his authority over Muhammad Ali Pasha—approved the free-trade 1838 Anglo-Turkish Commercial Convention that struck down monopolies, lowered tariffs on European goods, and opened up the interior markets of the empire.[49] He also laid the groundwork for a sweeping series of political, administrative, and fiscal reforms (Tanzimat), announced four months after his death in 1839, that were designed to facilitate greater control by the government over the empire’s human and material resources. These reforms made it easier for European and regional merchants to gain access to interior markets at the expense of their entrenched local counterparts. Almost immediately, there was a sharp expansion in the size of foreign merchant communities in the Ottoman Empire, especially in Beirut and other coastal port cities.[50]

The gradual implementation of the Tanzimat, however, presented the Ottoman authorities with a contradiction: the administrative reforms, such as the establishment of the Advisory Councils, opened a window of opportunity for local merchants and other urban notables not only to participate in but also to resist and manipulate Ottoman fiscal and economic policies. For the first time in memory they gained public access to official political posts and institutions, which they could use to reinforce their position in the competition with outside merchants. This is why these reforms, although aggressively pursued by the Ottoman government, took more than two decades (1840–1860) to fully implement.

The new politics of trade, one must quickly add, were not due solely to external forces; they were also precipitated by an internal contradiction. The very success of Nabulsi merchants in organizing the local market for the export of agricultural products both regionally and overseas paved the way for the non-Nabulsi merchants to extend their networks into the interior.[51] Specifically, Nabulsi merchants faced increasingly stiffer competition for access to and control of the rural surplus from three external sources: European traders and their agents working out of the port cities; regional merchants, both in the coastal cities and in such interior urban centers as Damascus, Beirut, Acre, Jaffa, and Jerusalem; and a reinvigorated and intrusive Ottoman state bent on consolidating its control and increasing its revenues. The intense struggles for access and control among local and regional merchants, the Ottoman government, and foreign businessmen during these two transitional decades make this period a formative one in the history of Ottoman Palestine.

Each set of competitors had its own political and economic weapons. Foreign traders had the backing of their governments, which lobbied vigorously on behalf of their citizens, and successfully used their political influence to milk the Capitulations (agreements which in effect gave diplomatic immunity to all foreigners and their local agents) and favorable commercial treaties for all they were worth.[52] Just as important, foreign merchants were willing to offer fairly high prices for raw agricultural goods such as cotton and grains, thereby tempting peasants to redirect the flow of their products away from local markets.

Regional trading houses, headed by wealthy Beiruti or Damascene merchant families, did their best to secure the backing of the provincial government apparatus. This was no small advantage at a time when Ottoman centralization greatly expanded the prerogatives of the provinces over their districts in such matters as approving bids for tax farming and the purchase of agricultural commodities collected as taxes-in-kind (zakhayir). Nabulsi merchants, for their part, sought protection and commercial advantage through the Nablus Advisory Council and through their deeply rooted trade networks in the hinterlands. The Advisory Council also served as an arbitrator for commercial disputes, thus giving local merchants an important edge. In other words, what Nabulsi merchants lacked in overall economic and political influence on the regional and international levels they made up for through their connections to and superior knowledge of the local market and their control of the local government. By the early 1840s the stage was set for a series of complicated and tense maneuvers as each side pressed its advantages in order to secure their access to the rural surplus and to enlarge their share of profits in the lucrative trade of commercial agricultural products.

Merchants, the State, and the Movement of Commodities

The role of the Ottoman government was integral to the new politics of trade, for it controlled the collection of part of the surplus as taxes-in-kind and supervised the competition for its purchase by local, regional, and foreign merchants. One can analyze the new politics of trade, therefore, by investigating the pressures that were brought to bear on the physical movement of the zakhayir from point of production to point of sale.

During the mid-nineteenth century the types of agricultural commodities collected as taxes-in-kind varied from village to village. In general, however, they consisted of wheat, barley, meadow vetch, lentils, corn, olive oil, clarified butter, and cotton from the areas around the city of Nablus; and wheat, barley, corn, sesame, clarified butter, and cotton from the villages around the town of Jenin.[53] These crops were transported by peasants to central collection points, where they were measured and kept in storehouses rented from Nabulsi merchants.[54] The zakhayir were then put up for sale in auctions.

The first leg in this long trip of, say, grains or cotton was from the village to the storehouses. In order to minimize its expenses and maximize its revenue, the Ottoman government made every effort to ensure that the zakhayir were assessed, collected, and transported as cheaply and efficiently as possible. Their worry was that any delay would encourage peasants to sell these goods, leaving nothing for the state. Even before the harvest was in, therefore, local merchants and the state were involved in a race for access in a market that leaked like a sieve. In 1850, for example, Sulayman Beik Tuqan, the qa’immaqam of the districts of Nablus and Jenin, received a letter from the governor of Sidon province instructing him to begin collecting taxes as soon as the harvest season was at hand because “if you do not do so, the ahali and the peasants will take over the harvest and sell it. They will use the money to meet their personal needs and the entire harvest will end up in the hands of the merchants.”[55]

Timing was critical for the state because merchants had a built-in advantage: they used their local trade networks to ensure future delivery of crops by extending loans to peasants, hence ensnaring them in debt obligations the previous season (see Chapter 4). This is why merchants were often willing to reschedule debts almost indefinitely: their patience encouraged heavily indebted peasants to continue working the land and assured a dependent relationship.[56]

The actual trip to the storehouses was also a bone of contention. Traditionally, peasants bore the responsibility and expense of delivering the zakhayir to the storehouses. In 1850, however, the governor of Jerusalem, Adham Pasha, abolished the use of corvée labor for the transportation of taxes-in-kind. Instead, peasants were to be paid according to distance traveled from their village to the storehouses.[57] The aim was to provide every incentive possible for peasants to deliver their surpluses to the government. The net effect was to reduce the taxation rate by eliminating the cost of labor involved in transportation and to shift the burden onto the shoulders of merchants, who would have to pay higher prices for these goods. The sources do not tell us whether this order was implemented or whether there was vocal opposition to it from the merchant community.

The struggle then moved to the storehouses themselves. The issues of inventory and control were important to the central government because, hitherto, all storage space had been rented from the rich merchants of Nablus: the same ones who bid on the purchase of the zakhayir and who were also represented in the ranks of the council that was authorized to oversee the bidding process. This cozy arrangement was further reinforced by another, even more nepotistic one: the employees of the storehouses were all recruited locally and were chosen by the council members.[58]

In order to regain control of this key stage in the movement of commodities, the provincial authorities in the mid-nineteenth century gladly approved a request by the Nablus Council to renovate and expand some of the storehouses. They also agreed to deduct the costs from Nablus’s taxes to the central government.[59] In addition to greater control afforded by construction of independent government storehouses, the authorities introduced standardized weight and volume measures.[60] Just as important, in January 1851 they appointed an inspector general, who was dispatched to report on the administration of storehouses in Acre, Jaffa, and other regions.[61]

All of these actions indicated that the central government was concerned about embezzlement—not an unfounded worry, considering that the employees of the storehouses in Jabal Nablus, unlike their counterparts in other cities, were not salaried by the state. When challenged on this score, the Nablus Council members insisted that these employees—six in total (two supervisors, two accountants, and two measurers)—remain unsalaried, because, they argued, the “old way” of payment, which literally operated through sleight of hand, must be preserved. The council explained that incoming grains were measured differently from outgoing grains, though the same measuring container was used for both: the measurer allowed a dome to form on top of the container when scooping the former, but, in a quick movement of the hand, leveled the container off before pouring the latter. The difference—which accumulated every time a container scooped up grains—was used to pay salaries and rent, to buy furniture and stationery, and to meet other costs of operating the storehouses.[62] When the Ottoman authorities questioned this practice, the Nablus Council, in a long and convoluted reply, argued that it was important to preserve the traditional way, which they deemed both fair and equitable. The matter was then referred to the governor of Sidon who, after investigating whether the customary arrangement would cost the government more or less money, gave the Nablus Council permission to continue “as in the days of old.”[63]

The importance of this seemingly small victory for Nabulsi merchants is that it cut to the heart of a larger political question: control of resources. The mid-nineteenth century was a transitional time in the political history of Palestine: the Ottoman administrative system was in the midst of reorganization as the Tanzimat were gradually implemented. In traditionally autonomous regions, including Jabal Nablus, the central government faced a dilemma: it established new institutions, such as the council, in order to centralize its rule at the expense of local notables, but it had to depend on these very notables to run these institutions. The ambiguity inherent in this situation made for fluid boundaries of power, and each side tested the waters through seemingly innocuous disputes over minor details. Thus Nabulsi merchants correctly perceived that both their fortunes and their political influence depended on how well they could use the council to bend the rules of the game to their advantage.

Aware of these difficulties, the Ottoman authorities concentrated their efforts on controlling the most important link in the movement of these commodities: the bidding process that determined which merchant would purchase what type of commodity at what price (and, indirectly, the ultimate destination). Judging from the correspondence on this issue, the provincial governors were far less flexible in entertaining exceptions and, more important, did all they could to maximize revenues by soliciting the highest bids possible, regardless of the source.

To achieve their goal, the authorities needed to be informed. One of the most striking aspects of the contested movement of commodities was struggle over knowledge. Repeatedly the provincial governors and their treasurers demanded that detailed reports be submitted on the types, amounts, and going prices of the zakhayir moved into and stored in the storehouses of Nablus and Jenin. An example of the detailed level of supervision that the central government attempted to implement (though not necessarily successfully) is this letter to the Nablus Council from Adham Pasha, dated September 18, 1849:

You previously sent a memorandum concerning the taxes-in-kind presently in the storehouses of Nablus district, saying that if you had to sell the olive oil and clarified butter locally, you would not be able to find a buyer due to the good season and the presence of old stocks.…The provincial council…deems it absolutely necessary that the above-mentioned zakhayir be sold before they are ruined and cause a loss in the tax revenues. Considering the bad prices, you cannot sell them locally, and if you did, you would get only a very low price, and that also would be a loss to our tax revenues. A buyer in Beirut has not been found because a sample was not received in time. Therefore, you must consider: if you transport the above mentioned zakhayir to one of the nearby ports, would you or would you not get a higher net price after subtracting the transportation costs than you would if you sold them at the price levels available in your local market at this time? . . .

We also received word from you that the ahali are satisfied [with your offer] that they can pay twenty piasters for each irddab of barley [they owe in taxes].…As long as the ahali are satisfied [with this arrangement]…and if this price is profitable at this time, then you can collect [cash] in the place of barley and do the same for wheat and send all the proceeds to the Provincial Treasury. This is the order we received in this regards. [We have agreed to your request] because we do not know what the current value of the zakhayir in Nablus is, nor what the quantity is. We also do not know the prices in the ports near Nablus, such as Haifa and Jaffa, nor the cost of transportation.…

Therefore, we are sending over…Sayyid Faydallah Alami…a member of the Jerusalem [Advisory] Council. Upon his arrival…the [Nablus] Council will investigate and report on: the prices currently available; the types and amounts of zakhayir; which port, Haifa or Jaffa, is closest and the easier for transport; the cost of transportation per irddab…the prices available in the ports; and whether the merchants there have a desire to buy [the zakhayir]. If necessary, also send samples [to the ports] and make sure the merchants there know about them. Once you compare the prices [in the ports] and the costs and possibility of transportation, then take note of the price levels at your end, the difference will become clear. As soon as it does, let us know quickly and in detail.[64]

There is no copy of the council’s original memorandum that provoked this response, but, if it was an attempt to prepare the ground for an eventual sale to local merchants at low prices, it backfired. The governor’s answer immediately ruled out the possibility of local sale and, in a patronizing manner, outlined the basic rules of trade to a council dominated by merchants. By pointing an obvious finger at the port cities as an alternative, he was making the subtle point that this thought would never have occurred to the Nablus Council independently of him. Moreover, he cleverly used the opening provided him as a justification to demand a whole range of information and to dispatch an outside (but friendly) observer in order keep the council in check.

It might seem puzzling that Adham Pasha would ask for information that he probably already had, such as prices in the port cities. After all, following market prices was, of necessity, an obsession of tax collectors and merchants because it directly affected their revenues and profits. It is more likely, therefore, that his pointed instructions were intended to remind the council of its obligations to keep the state informed about all phases of the taxation process, by putting them through an exercise he hoped they would repeat annually.

This speculation is not so far-fetched if one considers the context of the exchange. The Nablus Council had been established only a few years earlier, and the composition of its membership at the time of this memorandum was still a point of contention between the central government and the local ruling families (see Chapter 1). Also, at this time the council was supporting a tax strike against government-appointed customs collectors by soap merchants (all the members of the council traded in soap, as will be further discussed in Chapter 5). Just a few months later, the council would vigorously contest the results of a population count carried out in December 1849.[65] We have also seen how even the peripheral issues of measuring and storage became a testing ground for defining the boundaries of power and prerogative between local and central forces.

In short, Adham Pasha clearly distrusted the motives of council—and, by implication, the local merchant community—because he knew that when it came to the movement and prices of local agricultural production, they were busy pursuing an agenda contrary to that of the state. They cooperated with each other to choke competition from outside bidders in order to keep prices low, and they wanted to purchase as much of the agricultural surplus as possible. They were also keen on deciding the timing of the sales because the release of, say, grains could affect prices, especially during shortages.[66] The overall aims were to resell at high prices, especially to foreign merchants, and to ensure an adequate supply for local and regional needs on which the bulk of their business depended. These aims, one must quickly add, were not driven solely by the search for profits. Nabulsi merchants were also under a great deal of social and political pressure from below: namely, from retail merchants and artisanal groups whose livelihoods depended on the availability of cheap raw materials from the countryside.

Cotton was especially important in this regard, because the textile-manufacturing sector in the city was a large one. Indeed, so much cotton was ginned in Nablus that the newly appointed non-Nabulsi customs inspector, Uthman Afandi, wanted to tax the brisk trade in cotton seeds, which were separated from the white fibers and sold to peasants as fodder for their animals. This tax caused such an outrage that the Nablus Council, citing “a petition from the people,” sent a letter to the customs inspector on September 9, 1852, insisting that it be abolished.[67] The primary argument that the council made in justifying its demand was the unfairness of taxing local trade. Cotton seeds, they argued, were a by-product of the trade between the city and its hinterlands. It was absolutely essential, they said, that this local circulation not be subject to any taxation. In the same vein, the council consistently supported petitions by peasants to pay cash in lieu of taxes-in-kind when prices were high. On September 13, 1850, the Nablus Council argued yet again in favor of such a request. The council members justified their position by claiming that the peasants of Nablus and Jenin could not meet their tax-in-kind obligations because heavy rains had severely reduced the grain harvest.[68] Judging from similar petitions, however, it could very well be that both merchants and peasants in Jabal Nablus wanted to hold on to the surplus in kind in order to meet local demand as well as to take advantage of the rise in prices caused by the grain shortage. In so doing, peasants effectively lowered their taxes by selling their surplus at higher prices, while merchants, in turn, gained greater access to a precious commodity in a volatile market.

Competition and Sabotage

The tight control of Nabulsi merchants over the surplus of Jabal Nablus was a constant source of irritation for the Ottoman authorities. Indeed, in a letter dated June 30, 1852, the non-Nabulsi customs inspectors, Haqqi Afandi and Khawaja Casper, accused Nabulsi leaders of treating the hinterland as if it were their tax-farm for life (malikane).[69] In order to break this stranglehold the central government actively recruited foreign and regional merchants to take part in the bidding process for the zakhayir.[70] This way, bidding prices would be invigorated while outside merchants who loudly protested the difficulties they faced in penetrating this region could be appeased. Much to the chagrin of Nabulsi merchants, the central government occasionally rejected some local bids and, often at the last minute, substituted bids from these outside merchants (see Chapter 5 for a detailed example).

Unable to challenge the central government’s insistence that it approve all final bids, the Nablus Council occasionally resorted to delay and sabotage tactics—that is, if we are to believe the angry accusations leveled against the council by outside merchants. One example is the above letter from Adham Pasha, in which he noted that he was unable to interest Beiruti merchants in offering bids because samples from Nablus “were not received in time.” Another, more detailed, example of resistance to outside competition and the volatility caused by European demand is the following dispute. Sometime in early 1852, Sayyid Muhammad Afandi Halawani, most likely a Beiruti merchant, successfully bid on 550 kaylas of wheat from the storehouses of Nablus and Jenin. He was enraged, however, when the wheat he received turned out to be damaged by worm and rot, or so he claimed in a lawsuit that asked for compensation for the moneys he had lost in the process. Sayyid Halawani was obviously important enough to initiate an investigation of this matter by the highest-ranking fiscal officer in the province. On May 29, 1852, the Nablus Council received a letter from the treasurer (daftar dar) of Sidon province, in which he requested a sample of the wheat sold to Sayyid Halawani in order to examine his allegations. The council replied that all of the wheat in the storehouses had already been sold but that they would send the sample that was kept on the council’s premises and on whose basis, they claimed, Sayyid Halawani had made his purchase. They also provided an alternative explanation for the wheat merchant’s loss:

When the bidding commenced, [wheat] prices reached a level much higher than their real worth. [This was] due to chance, because during that week there was a strong demand for [wheat] to be shipped to the ports. So the city (Nablus) was cut off from wheat for a number of days, causing prices to double. Buyers, hoping to take advantage of rising prices, paid 28 piasters per kayla…But, by the time Sayyid Halawani’s bid was accepted and his agent Fayyad Beik Tuqan arrived to receive the [wheat], the price had already fallen steeply because a great deal of wheat came into the city [in response to the high prices]. So the agent was forced to sell the wheat quickly, and at a loss (before prices fell even further).[71]

If we are to believe the Nablus Council, Sayyid Halawani was a victim of circumstances. Working around the “export season” was imperative, for even an experienced merchant could be caught off guard and forced to bear a substantial loss. This held especially true for those merchants who risked investment in the products of a far-away city and its hinterland. Thus Sayyid Halawani paid dearly for being distant from the local scene by purchasing at the wrong time, even though he had hired a Nabulsi merchant precisely for the purpose of avoiding this mistake. The other possibility, of course, is that the Nablus Council used the phenomenon of European demand as an excuse to cover up what might have been a clever scheme to unload rotten grains on a faraway merchant who could not hold them accountable for their actions. But whether the council’s explanation was truthful or not, the fact that it was used shows that the themes of outside competition from the port cities and the vagaries of European demand were already ingrained in the business discourse of Palestinian peasants and merchants, including those of an interior region like Jabal Nablus. There is little doubt that this discourse can be traced back at least as far as the eighteenth century.

What the council’s letter also makes impressively clear is the dizzying speed with which peasants, merchants, and transporters responded to the lure of high prices offered by regional and foreign traders operating from the port cities: Nablus was emptied of its stocks within days. Thus the volatility of European demand and the ability of foreign merchants to pay high prices added another element of unpredictability into an increasingly contested and tense market. On more than one occasion the council’s letters specifically stated that local merchants were aware that speculation in agricultural commodities must take into account the fact that prices for wheat, cotton, oil, and other crops rose sharply with the arrival of trade ships from overseas, then dropped off considerably after they left.[72]

Arab merchants from the regional metropolitan centers around Nablus, especially those from Beirut, faced numerous problems when dealing with their counterparts in Jabal Nablus.[73] For example, on April 4, 1850, the Nablus Council received a communiqué from the governor of Sidon province ordering the sale of wheat in the storehouses of Nablus and Jenin to Khawaja Ilyas Najjar, a Christian merchant from Beirut who also served as an employee of the U.S. consulate in that city.[74] If we are to believe the governor’s accusations, the Nablus Council delayed the delivery for several weeks, and even then it remained incomplete.[75] Throughout, Khawaja Najjar bitterly complained that he was still waiting for the full amount and that the ship he had hired was sitting idly at the port.

Still another example of perceived delay tactics is the following commercial dispute, recorded on September 26, 1850, in which a foreign consul accused the Nablus customs inspector—then a Nabulsi who was replaced soon after by an outsider—of failing to deliver the ginned cotton he had successfully bid on:

[Today], the Customs Inspector of Nablus, Mas‘ud Agha, and the Customs Treasurer, Khawaja Arakil, appeared before the council. [They] testified that Khawaja “Escowage,” consul at Acre, has accused them of delaying the shipment of ginned cotton that his Nablus agent, al-Abd Ikhrem, had purchased; and that due to their delay of the ginned cotton, he suffered a loss because the ship was forced to leave [empty]. He has demanded adjudication by the Acre Council to settle the account between him and the Nablus Customs Inspector. The aforementioned Mas‘ud Agha and Khawaja Arakil testified that in no way did they delay any of…Khawaja Escowage’s ginned cotton. [On the contrary], at the time of purchase, [it was sent with carriers] under the direction of Hajj Ahmad Najib Ashur, Hajj Yasin Qaraman, Ali [al-Ghlayyan?], and Salih Ikhrem, who signed out the ginned cotton in his name and in the name of his cousin, al-Abd Ikhrem, the agent of the aforementioned Khawaja Escowage. The above-mentioned individuals [were brought] before the council and asked about the testimony of Mas‘ud Agha and the treasurer. They…testified that [the accused] in no way delayed or prevented the delivery of any of the ginned cotton purchased by the Khawaja [Escowage].[76]

The outcome of the case is not mentioned, but this is not our primary concern. More significant is the set of clues that this memorandum provides as to the tensions inherent in the relationship between local and foreign agents and, just as important, as to competition between Nabulsi merchants themselves, for it is clear that some sought to profit from this lucrative trade by acting as agents for the foreign merchants.

Consul “Escowage” resorted to the Acre Council, which raised the matter with its counterpart in Nablus. The Nablus Council naturally turned a sympathetic ear not to the foreign consul but to its fellow merchants, who simply denied the charges. Herein lies the crux of the new politics of trade: the “free” market in cotton was only free in the sense that it was no longer monopolized by a single ruling strongman, such as Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar, and not in the sense that there were no political restrictions at all. On the contrary, local merchants “adjusted” the conditions of trade to work in their favor through their networks and through the Advisory Council. Foreign traders, in contrast, were strangers to the peasants and did not have the power, at least not in mid-nineteenth-century Nablus, to ensure the fulfillment of contracts. Also, there was not a single powerful ruler in Jabal Nablus to whom they could turn for redress, as there had been in the days of Zahir al-Umar in Acre or of Muhammad Ali Pasha in Egypt. That they wished for one was demonstrated by Alexander Schölch, who detailed the efforts of European powers to convince the Ottoman authorities that one single governor, based in Jerusalem, should be made responsible for all of the surrounding regions in Palestine.[77]

Still, foreign merchants had the ability to offer high prices, a factor that became increasingly important with the passage of time. The large profits to be made were recognized not only by the minority merchant communities in the coastal cities but also by Muslim merchants from the interior. As shown in the previous example, some Nabulsi merchants worked as agents for foreign traders. No doubt they were sought out because they were perceived to be more effective in managing commercial transactions in semiautonomous interior regions. Thus, Consul “Escowage” chose the Nabulsi merchant, al-Abd Ikhrem. The latter, in turn, employed both his cousin and three other locals to purchase cotton, and he signed out the consignment from the government storehouse in his name. It would not be accurate, therefore, to assume that all Nabulsi merchants were of one mind or presented a united front toward outsiders. Indeed, breaking ranks was one of the quickest ways for small merchants to gain access to credit from European traders, to assure themselves an outlet for their goods and, in general, to increase their fortunes and compete with the established merchants in their community.[78]

The integration of Palestine into a world economy, therefore, cannot be satisfactorily explained through the often-used dichotomies of internal/external, passive/active, or penetration/response. Rather, each link in the movement, measurement, storage, sale, and transport of commodities was a contested arena that involved competition among a wide variety of actors: peasants, village brokers, Nabulsi merchants, regional trading houses, and European traders, all within the fluid political context of an Ottoman state in the midst of reorganization and reform. This is not to say that all the participants enjoyed the same degree of power to make the new politics of trade work to their advantage. But, at least until the early 1850s, Nabulsi merchants had sufficient tools at their disposal to hold on to the lion’s share of their hinterland’s agricultural surplus. Documents detailing the results of auction bids on zakhayir over the five-year period (1848–1853) for which records are available, for example, show that the overwhelming majority of successful bids were made by Nabulsi merchants and that European and regional merchants were only occasionally able to successfully bid on wheat, cotton, and sesame, and then usually with the help of the central government.[79] Nevertheless, the trends were already in place for a shift in favor of those who controlled the largest reserves of capital and who had access to the corridors of power in Europe and Istanbul: foreign merchants and regional trading houses. Beginning in the 1850s, the power of local councils to affect the outcome of commercial disputes was steadily eroded, as commercial tribunals became dominated by Europeans and, more important, as European commercial laws were adopted and enforced by the Ottoman government.[80] Thus each delaying tactic only postponed the inevitable, as Jabal Nablus became irreversibly enmeshed in a world economic system dominated by Europe.

The other face of European competition was the export of machine-produced commodities that competed with local artisanal production.Textiles, usually made of cotton, were especially vulnerable to such achallenge, for they faced competition from the most advanced Europeanindustrial sector. The following analysis of how the textile sector in Nablus fared can shed light on the pace and rhythm of restructuring in the manufacturing sphere experienced by the market towns in the interior regions of Greater Syria.

Textiles: Resilience and Restructuring

In mid-August 1833 the Nablus Islamic Court inventoried the property of two textile weavers, Hajj Yasin Taha and Dali daughter of Bakur—a husband and wife who died around the same time.[81] They were an older couple, with only a daughter and two grandchildren surviving them. At one time Hajj Yasin had the resources and the opportunity to make the pilgrimage to the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. He must have fallen on hard times, however, because he and his wife died poor: the woman had no jewelry, and the man’s clothes were cheap and worn out. In fact, their household goods at the time of death consisted of the absolute bare minimum for daily survival: a small stone hand mill for crushing wheat, a wooden board for preparing bread dough, a ceramic jug for water, two sieves for sorting grains, an oil lamp, an old rug, two mattresses, two blankets, two pillows, and some copper kitchenware. The only work-related items listed were two looms (idatayn hiyaka). Their life savings were six small gold pieces (habbat dhahab) worth only two piasters each. Half of the worth of their paltry estate went toward burial costs, court expenses, and a debt to a textile merchant.[82]

As weavers, Hajj Yasin and his wife were typical of a significant proportion of the population of Nablus, for the textile-production sector employed the largest number of workers, and many of these were women and/or entire families who worked together as a single economic unit. Most, as in many other cities and towns in the Ottoman Empire, labored at home as part of a putting-out system and were paid by the piece.[83] Many, like the couple above, owned their means of production, but the looms were inexpensive, worth only 7.5 piasters each, or the price of two kilos of cotton yarn.[84]

It is tempting to view the saga of Hajj Yasin and Dali daughter of Bakur as a metaphor for the rise, decline, and death of the once-prosperous textile-manufacturing sectors in the cities and market towns of Greater Syria due to competition from European machine-made textiles. Indeed, the “deindustrialization” argument is a common theme in both nationalist and colonialist discourses about the impact of the capitalist incorporation of the “non-Western” world. Such a metaphor, however, would not do justice to what actually was a much more complicated story of adaptation and restructuring. As will be seen below, the saga of these two individuals more accurately represents how this process of restructuring exacted a heavy toll from textile workers, especially women, who bore a disproportionately large burden of declining living standards, low wages, and limited opportunities.

The Textile Industry in Nablus

Evidence based on the amount of taxes levied on cloth, dye houses and cloth beaters—as listed in the Ottoman cadastral surveys (defter-i mufassal) for the years 1538/1539, 1548/1549, and 1596/1597—suggests that, next to Safad, Nablus was the most important center for the weaving and dyeing of textiles in sixteenth-century Palestine and that there was a steady expansion in the textile industry in Nablus in the last two-thirds of the century.[85] Much less is known about the size and importance of the textile sector during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries. It is likely that it expanded in keeping with the economic and demographic growth of Jabal Nablus during most of this period. We do know that the textile industry of Safad collapsed in the seventeenth century, whereas that of Nablus remained the most important in Palestine well into the nineteenth century.[86] The major reason for this divergence, it seems, is that the Safad industry was based on the production of expensive woolen cloth for regional and overseas export, whereas that of Nablus was geared toward the local and regional mass market. The former was eventually suffocated by foreign competition, especially from France,[87] but the latter proved to be extremely resilient.

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.


The stories of cotton and textiles shed light on the process of Palestine’s integration into the world economy as well as on the role of local merchants in the changing relationship between politics and trade. The cotton connection shows that the qualitative leap in trade relations with Europe during the 1856–1882 period, which Schölch meticulously documented, was not a sudden development nor solely an outcome of European “penetration,” as he phrased it. Palestinian society was more than ripe for accelerated trade relations with Europe, in large measure because Palestinian merchants and peasants, especially those in the interior, played an active role in preparing the basic social, economic, and political structures that made this leap possible in the first place. The question, therefore, is not one of the emergence of commercial agricultural production as a result of the encounter with Europe. These features were not new, and, in any case, regional trade remained paramount until the last decades of Ottoman rule, at least for interior regions such as Jabal Nablus. Rather, it is one of orientation and acceleration as the Ottoman Empire as a whole became slowly enmeshed in the European economic orbit.

During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, control of cotton production and trade shifted from Acre to Nablus, but Jabal Nablus’s integration into the world capitalist system was a slow process. Nablus’s location in the interior, its influential merchant community, and its long tradition of jealously guarded autonomy all meant that external political and economic forces were incrementally absorbed and locally reproduced. Also, cotton production was geared to meet the demands of local and regional markets, not just those of French and British merchants. Jabal Nablus, therefore, was not totally vulnerable to shifting European demand. The process of integration was also uneven: cotton was only grown in the coastal areas and the plains. The villages in these areas were more involved in trade with Europe than were the primarily olive-producing villages of the central highlands and the eastern subdistricts.

The political ramifications of the process of integration were similarly uneven. In northern Palestine the cotton trade was subject to monopoly until the early nineteenth century, unlike Jabal Nablus, where merchants competed with each other. Indeed, Nabulsi merchants came to control the organization of production and trade, and they were able to make Nablus the center of cotton processing in Palestine even though the cotton-producing villages were closer to the coastal cities. Firmly anchored by the dense networks of a strong merchant community, Nablus did not experience the radical fluctuations in its economic and demographic structures that Acre did.

Starting in the 1830s, the Egyptian occupation and the Ottoman reforms that followed introduced new administrative and fiscal practices which greatly enhanced state control of the movement of people and commodities. This, combined with greater European economic involvement in the area, especially after the 1838 commercial convention, laid the groundwork for the politics of “free” trade which pitted the merchants of the interior against regional merchants in Beirut and Damascus, European businessmen and their local agents, and an increasingly intrusive Ottoman government that was eager to enhance its access and control of the rural surplus.

Within the context of this new political environment, the politics of “free” trade was analyzed from the perspective of Nabulsi merchants, especially the ways they acted on the new opportunities and constraints. What immediately became clear were the tensions and uncertainties created by the sometimes clashing and other times mutually reinforcing local, regional, and international dynamics. Through their deeply rooted local and regional networks and the Advisory Council, Nabulsi merchants struggled to adjust the new political environment to their favor. Judging from the correspondence of the Advisory Council, the prevailing goals of the merchant community during this period were preserving their control of the movement of commodities, meeting the needs of local manufacturing and regional trade, minimizing state interference while utilizing the legitimacy and protection it afforded them, and keeping out the prying hands of foreign and regional merchants who were willing to offer higher prices and resort to political pressures. In short, the council’s actions sought to take advantage of changing political and economic realities while defending those aspects of the status quo that underpinned their material base.

Although the members of the Advisory Council, in their correspondence, consistently presented this institution as the representative, interpreter, and arbitrator of the larger population, there was, in fact, no clear internal consensus on the place and role of Jabal Nablus during this transitional yet formative period (1840–1860). Some resisted and others embraced the impersonal external forces that pushed and pulled Nablus into the wheel of international commerce. The main beneficiaries were Nabulsis who had capital to spare and who were not so concerned about maintaining the status quo; that is, those who sought quick profits from speculation on the availability and fluctuating prices of agricultural commodities, as well as from serving as agents for foreign and regional traders.

This process of adaptation and restructuring could also been seen clearly in the history of the textile industry, which, though the most vulnerable to foreign competition, showed great resilience and managed to survive well into the twentieth century, albeit much changed. The weaving together, so to speak, of local dynamics with regional and European ones could literally be seen in the ways in which artisans created new textile items using a combination of local and imported materials, as well as in their ability to successfully cater to changing consumer demands. This is not to say that all remained well with the textile industry, nor that the effects of its restructuring were spread evenly throughout Nabulsi society. The stagnation of the textile sector led some to change their investment options and others to encourage their children to seek other types of work. Over time, the accumulation of daily decisions made two commodities the primary focus of merchant capital: olive oil and soap, which, as will be seen in the next two chapters, have a great deal to tell us about the changing political economy and social history of Jabal Nablus.


1. Al-Abbasi, Tarikh al Tuqan, pp. 83–86. For background, see Daniel Crecelius, The Roots of Modern Egypt: A Study of the Regimes of Ali Bey al-Kabir and Muhammad Bey Abu al-Dahab, 1760–1775 (Minneapolis, Minn., and Chicago, 1981).

2. Ibrahim Danafi al-Samiri, Zahir al-Umar wa hukkam Jabal Nablus, A.H. 1185–1187/A.D. 1771–1773 (Zahir al-Umar and the Rulers of Jabal Nablus, A.H. 1185–1187/A.D. 1771–1773) (ed. Musa Abu Dayya; Nablus, 1986), p. 35. This manuscript is privately owned and was first published in NIMR, 1:390–399. Ibrahim Danafi al-Samiri was a member of the Danafi family of the Samaritan community, whose members often served as scribes or treasurers of the rulers of Nablus and its rich merchants, including Hajj Isma‘il Arafat, whom we met in Chapter 2. Ibrahim Danafi inherited this position from his grandfather, Marjan.

3. The word used for clothes is atyab, slang for thiyab (sing. thawb). See Chapter 2.

4. Al-Samiri, Zahir al-Umar, p. 35.

5. There is no agreement on Zahir al-Umar’s exact date of birth. See Joudah, Revolt, p. 29, n. 2.

6. These generalizations are based on two articles by Eliyahu Ashtor (“The Venetian Cotton Trade in Syria in the Later Middle Ages” and “The Venetian Supremacy in Levantine Trade: Monopoly or Pre-colonialism?”), which were reprinted in his Studies on the Levantine Trade in the Middle Ages (London, 1978), pp. 675–715 and 5–53, respectively. For historical context, see Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony, pp. 233–235.

7. Cohen, Palestine, p. 11; Owen, The Middle East, pp. 83–84.

8. Owen, Middle East, pp. 83–84. See also Charles Issawi, ed., The Economic History of the Middle East, 1800–1914 (Chicago, 1966; reprint, Chicago, 1975), pp. 31–33.

9. For example, Elena Frangakis-Syrett, “The Trade of Cotton and Cloth in Izmir: From the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century to the Early Nineteenth Century,” in Keyder and Tabak, eds., Landholding, pp. 97–111; Fariba Zarinebaf-Shahr, “Tabriz under Ottoman Rule (1725–1730) (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1991), p. 178; and Frank Perlin, “Proto-Industrialization and Pre-Colonial South Asia,” Past and Present, 98 (1983), pp. 30–95.

10. According to Cohen, an example for this strategy in northern Palestine was set by Paul Maashouk, who worked as consul for Britain and Holland in the port city of Acre (Palestine, p. 12). Cohen states that Maashouk was a Dutchman, but Bruce Masters persuasively argues that he was a local (Origins, p. 108, n. 78).

11. For a sketch of Ibrahim al-Sabbagh’s economic and political role during his tenure as Zahir al-Umar’s right-hand man, see Joudah, Revolt, pp. 127–134; and Cohen, Palestine, p. 16.

12. Cohen, Palestine, p. 16.

13. Ibid., pp. 21–22.

14. Quoted in Issawi, ed., Economic History, p. 33.

15. For example, see C. A. Bayly, The Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World, 1780–1830 (London and New York, 1989), pp. 46–63.

16. See Owen, Cotton.

17. See Thomas Philipp, “Social Structure and Political Power in Acre in the 18.h Century,” in Thomas Philipp, ed., The Syrian Land in the 18th and 19th Century (Stuttgart, 1992), pp. 91–108.

18. A typical example is Shihab, Tarikh Ahmad basha Jazzar.

19. His two key appointees, Abu Nabut and Mustafa Barbar, became virtually autonomous rulers. The former ruled Jaffa and Gaza for years, and the latter had free rein over Tripoli and its hinterland. As for Jabal Nablus, it was largely left alone, with Sulayman Pasha playing a patriarchal peace-keeping role. For details, see Awra, Tarikh, pp. 318–321, 377–381, 476–478. This book was written in 1853. See pages 34–73 for a description of the differences between Ahmad Pasha and Sulayman Pasha.

20. Ibid., pp. 63, 326–328.

21. Ibid., pp, 73, 105.

22. Ibid., pp. 108–127, 144, 196–198, 431–433.

23. Mishaqa, Muntakhabat, p. 38. This translation was taken from Mikhayil Mishaqa, Murder, Mayhem, Pillage, and Plunder: The History of the Lebanon in the 18th and 19th Centuries (trans. Wheeler M. Thackston, Jr.; Albany, N.Y., 1988), pp. 56–57.

24. Awra, Tarikh, p. 165. Cotton was also appropriated from peasants through taxes-in-kind (ibid., p. 150).

25. For North Africa, see two works by Julia Clancy-Smith: Rebel and Saint: Muslim Notables, Populist Protest, Colonial Encounters (Algeria and Tunisia, c. 1800–1904) (Berkeley, Calif., 1994), chap. 5; and “The Maghrib and the Mediterranean World in the Nineteenth Century: Illicit Exchanges, Migrants, and Social Marginals,” in Kenneth J. Perkins and Michel Le Gall, eds., Volume in Honor of L. Carl Brown (Princeton, N.J., forthcoming).

26. In 1849, for example, the governor of Jerusalem expressed his concern to the Nablus Advisory Council that cash crops were leaving the country illegally and hence were undermining local needs (NMSR, p. 14). For more details, see below.

27. For example, in November 1832 Muhammad Ali informed his son Ibrahim Pasha, the commander of the Egyptian forces, that he had sent him 2,000 purses (kis, pl. akyas; each purse contained 500 piasters) of money and that he would send him the wages for the soldiers after he sold the cotton harvest (Asad Rustum, Al-Mahfuzat al-malakiyya al-misriyya (4 vols.; Beirut, 1940–1943; reprint, Beirut, 1986), 2:167.

28. Ibid., 2:357. Muhammad Ali Pasha’s dismissal of the Palestinian cotton harvest as insignificant was probably the result of a (unfair but true) comparison with the huge amounts of cotton that Egypt produced, and of the fact that the largest Egyptian harvest ever had taken place just two years earlier. In addition, 1833 was preceded by the long siege of Acre, which must have certainly discouraged the cultivation of cotton, because many of the cotton-growing villages were adjacent to it.

29. Still, these reasons should not have prevented Muhammad Ali Pasha from imposing a monopoly in any case. The most likely explanation, therefore, is that he wanted to allay the European powers’ concern that Greater Syria would be subjected to the same economic policies as Egypt, policies which they considered to be an obstacle to their access and control of the rural surplus.

30. Cohen, Palestine, pp. 13, 260. The dominant position of Nablus cotton by the early nineteenth century (see below) was perhaps due to this expansion, for it seems that little if any cotton was grown in this region during the sixteenth century. An Ottoman cadastral survey which listed the types of crops grown in the villages of Palestine in 1596, for example, shows that most of the cotton-growing villages were in the Acre region and listed none for the Nablus region. Hütteroth and Abdulfattah painstakingly compiled this information (Historical Geography, pp. 111–220; and the results can be clearly seen in the attached map, entitled “Agricultural Production in the Southern Syrian Liwas 1005 H./1596 A.D.”). This information must be viewed with some caution, for this survey did not mention the soap industry in Nablus, even though it was vibrant at the time. In addition, we know from the same cadastral survey that Nablus was an important textile center (Cohen and Lewis, Population and Revenue, pp. 54–62). As Halil Iṅalcik reminded us, such centers were usually located in areas where cotton was cultivated on a significant scale (“When and How British Cotton Goods Invaded the Levant Markets,” in Iṡlamoğlu, ed., Ottoman Empire, p. 374).

31. For Latakia, Bowring mentions only that all of its production was usually consumed locally (Commercial Statistics, p. 13). For Acre and Jaffa he writes that they produced “some quantities” of cotton, the implication being that the amounts were not significant (ibid., p. 14.). Bowring’s calculations are the most reliable source we have for the early nineteenth century, because they were based on detailed reports gathered during a long field trip to the region on behalf of the British government.

32. Ibid., p. 13. Another observer, Julius Zwiedinek von Sudenhorst, was of the same opinion (Syrien und seine Bedeutung für den Welthandel [Vienna, 1873], p. 54). Nablus cotton found its way to many regional markets, large and small. Damascus was no doubt the largest market in the north, but even small market towns in Mount Lebanon bought their cotton supplies from Nablus. For example, John Burckhardt noted in 1810 that in Zahle, “cotton is brought from Belad Safad and Nablous” (Travels, p. 7).

33. The Ottoman government, in turn, was pressured by European textile manufacturers, business associations, and government officials to encourage the production of cotton. The Manchester Cotton Association, for example, promoted exhibitions of commodities in Istanbul and Izmir and urged landowners to focus on growing cotton. See Susan Lee Yeager, “The Ottoman Empire on Exhibition: The Ottoman Empire at International Exhibitions 1851–1867, and the sergi-i umumi Osmani, 1863” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1981), pp. 120–122.

34. NMSR, p. 89. Ten years later, in 1861, the Ottoman government made concerted efforts to encourage the planting of cotton all over its dominions in order to take advantage of the cotton famine caused by the civil war in the United States. For example, they called for annual cotton shows to be held in key cities, approved awards for outstanding cotton producers, and abolished taxes on imported cotton gins (Awad, Al-Idara al-uthmaniyya, p. 241).

35. NMSR, p. 89.

36. Ibid., pp. 108–114, 118–121, 124–125.

37. Ibid., p. 109. For each wazna of ginned cotton not returned they received approximately 46 piasters (ibid., p. 119).

38. Ibid., pp. 93, 108–114, 271, 306; NICR, 7:372.

39. Interview with Kamal Abdulfattah, March 3, 1990.

40. Cotton was usually ginned in shops owned by the same merchants. The estate of Hajj Badran, son of Hajj Muhammad Badran (d. 1799), for instance, shows that indebted peasants from the villages of Tanna, Maythalun, and Sir paid him in raw cotton and olive oil. His shop, meanwhile, contained ten cotton gins (NICR, 6:52).

41. That year Nablus exported 7,500 bales of 100 uqqas each to the port of Marseilles, or approximately 3,750 qintars (Bowring, Commercial Statistics, p. 14).

42. Ibid., pp. 9–10.

43. Owen, Middle East, p. 79.

44. In 1863, for example, the British Foreign Office reported that the Nablus region produced four times as much cotton as it had produced in previous years. For this and other details on the rise and fall of cotton production in Palestine, see Schölch, “European Penetration,” pp. 12–21.

45. Owen, Middle East, p. 66.

46. For example, statistics for the years 1856–1862, provided by the British Foreign Office, show that the average proportion of northern Palestine’s cultivated area devoted to cotton was only 6 percent, as compared with 40 percent for wheat, 14 percent for olives, 13 percent for sesame, and 9 percent for barley (Schölch, “European Penetration,” p. 61).

47. Iṅalcik, “When and How,” pp. 375, 380; Owen, Middle East, pp. 84–85.

48. For example, Nablus cotton was listed first among the goods traded in Nazareth’s famous weekly market in the late nineteenth century (W. M. Thomson, The Land and the Book [London, 1894], pp. 442–443).

49. For a summary of the context and importance of the 1838 treaty, see Owen, Middle East, pp. 90–91.

50. Ibid., p. 88. For Beirut, see Charles Issawi, “British Trade and the Rise of Beirut, 1830–1860,” IJMES, 8 (1977), pp. 98–99.

51. This success also increased competition from within, because anyone with access to capital sought a share in this profitable activity.

52. For British traders, an important moment was the abolition of the Levant Company monopoly in 1825, which increased the numbers of British merchants doing business in the Ottoman Empire and assured them of more vigorous and effective backing by the British government (A. G. Wood, A History of the Levant Company [Oxford, 1935], pp. 180–202). A similar set of developments took place in France (V. J. Puryear, France and the Levant [Berkeley, Calif., and Los Angeles, 1941], pp. 10–14).

53. NMSR, p. 258.

54. Ibid., pp. 191, 286, 312.

55. Ibid., p. 41.

56. For a comparative perspective, see Eugene Rogan, “Money-Lending and Capital Flows from Nablus, Damascus and Jerusalem to the qada;bn of al-Salt in the Last Decades of Ottoman Rule,” in Philipp, ed., Syrian Land, pp. 239–260.

57. NMSR, p. 39. Transportation costs were calculated and detailed in further correspondence (ibid., p. 219).

58. Ibid., pp. 60, 258.

59. Ibid., pp. 286, 312.

60. Ibid., p. 43.

61. Ibid., p. 124.

62. Ibid., p. 192.

63. Ibid., pp. 200–201.

64. NMSR, p. 311. The Alami family has long held leading religious posts in the city of Jerusalem and has intermarried with the Nimr family in Nablus (NIMR, 1:91–92).

65. Doumani, “Population Counts,” pp. 4–9.

66. This was the concern of the Jerusalem Advisory Council in 1855, for example (Finn, Stirring Times, 2:407–408).

67. NMSR, p. 242.

68. Ibid., p. 3.

69. NMSR, pp. 226–227. Khawaja is an honorific normally used to denote non-Muslim men of means, usually merchants. In Nablus, however, it was used to denote rich merchants, regardless of religion. Only in the mid-nineteenth century did its meaning narrow to non-Muslims.

70. Not all of the zakhayir were sold off. Part of the wheat, barley, oil, and clarified butter was used to supply soldiers of the central government who were stationed in the Nablus region following the Egyptian invasion, as well as to the local militia (nafir am). See, for example, NMSR, pp. 57, 123, 143–144, 146–148, 178, 182, 216–217, 238, 241, 253, 268, 271–273, 276, 280–283, 288, 292–293, 297, 300.

71. NMSR, p. 215. The specific ports are not mentioned, the implication being that there was demand from all of them (Beirut, Acre, and Jaffa).

72. Ibid., pp. 215, 311–312.

73. Another example is the case of Darwish Afandi from Damascus, who, in 1851, successfully bid on 81 kayla of lentils and 3,103 uqqas of cotton-in-the-boll (ibid., pp. 161–162; both dated December 3, 1851).

74. Ibid., p. 38.

75. Ibid., p. 44.

76. NMSR, p. 56. The country the consul represented is not mentioned. In the absence of vowels, the transliteration of the consul’s name is uncertain.

77. Schölch, Palestine in Transformation, pp. 13–17.

78. Similar examples can be found in NMSR, pp. 143, 147.

79. For example, auction bids recorded in ibid., pp. 8–9, 18–19, 25–26, 38, 40, 46–48, 57, 60, 67, 79, 82–84, 88, 98–99, 123, 131–132, 137–138, 142–144, 146–147, 158, 161–162, 164–165, 185–186, 191–192, 196, 200–201, 210, 215, 221–222, 248, 258, 277, 311–312, 318.

80. Owen, Middle East, p. 90.

81. Ihsan Nimr wrote that the first floor of most living quarters was reserved for the storage of looms and that both men and women worked together at home in the spinning and weaving of cotton or woolen thread. A husband and wife team working all day, according to Nimr, could make a piece (shaqqa) of cloth worth half a gold coin. The time period and actual worth of the gold coin are not specified (NIMR, 2:286).

82. NICR, 9:117.

83. For an overview, see Donald Quataert, “Ottoman Women, Households, and Textile Manufacturing, 1800–1914,” in Keddie and Baron, eds., Women in Middle Eastern History, pp. 161–176.

84. Calculated from inheritance estate of a wool and cotton merchant who died a month later (NICR, 9:96).

85. Cohen and Lewis, Population and Revenue, pp. 54–62.

86. Schölch, “European Penetration,” p. 50.

87. Shmuel Avitsur, “The Influence of Western Technology on the Economy of Palestine during the Nineteenth Century,” in Ma‘oz, ed., Studies, p. 485.

88. Iṅalcik, “When and How,” pp. 374–383.

89. Ibid., pp. 380–381.

90. Owen, Middle East, p. 95.

91. Avitsur, “Western Technology,” p. 486.

92. NIMR, 4:205–207. See below for a discussion of bisht.Qilw are the ashes of the barilla plant, used in soap production (see Chapter 5 and Appendix 3 for details).

93. Ibid., 4:213–214.

94. Ibid., 4:217–220.

95. Dominique Chevalier, “Un example de résistance technique de l’artisinat syrien aux XIXe et XXe siècles: Les tissus ikates d’Alep et de Damas,” Syria, 39:3–4 (1962).

96. Owen, Middle East, pp. 93–95.

97. Donald Quataert, “Ottoman Handicrafts and Industry in the Age of European Industrial Hegemony, 1800–1914,” Review, 11 (1988), pp. 169–178. See also his books: Social Disintegration and Popular Resistance in the Ottoman Empire, 1881–1908: Reactions to European Penetration (New York, 1983); and Ottoman Manufacturing in the Age of the Industrial Revolution (Cambridge, England, 1993).

98. For example, the estate of Shaykh Abd al-Razzaq Arafat listed a number of women employed by him (NICR, 7:64). Shaykh Abd al-Razzaq Arafat and his brother Abdullah, for example, both invested heavily in the dyeing process (ibid. 6:198; 7:47).

99. Owen, Middle East, pp. 88, 90–91.

100. Gerber, “Modernization,” pp. 250–264.

101. H. B. Tristram, The Land of Israel: Journal of Travels in Palestine, Undertaken with Special Reference to Its Physical Character (London, 1882), pp. 137–138.

102. Nimr mentioned that balsam seeds (bizir al-balsam), brazilwood (baqam), pomegranate skin (qishr al-rumman), and tumeric (kurkum) were also locally produced (NIMR, 2:284).

103. Rustum, Al-Mahfuzat, 1:164.

104. NICR, 6:237, 364; 9:75.

105. For example, ibid., 6:290; 9:70; 10:8.

106. James Silk Buckingham, Travels among the Arab Tribes Inhabiting the Countries East of Syria and Palestine (London, 1825), pp. 2, 15, 34–35.

107. NICR, 8:284.

108. Ibid., 10:8.

109. Interview with Awad Yusuf Abd al-Rahman Abu llaya (b. 1908), July 17, 1990.

110. Interview with Hamid Abu Aysha (b. 1902), August, 10, 1990.

111. Later on, this industry became concentrated in the Qaryun quarter.

112. NICR, 6:59, 290; 9:20, 117.

113. Vatter, “Journeymen,” pp. 75–90.

114. Quataert, “Ottoman Handicrafts,” p. 177. For examples, see Quataert, “Ottoman Women.”

115. NIMR, 2:332. Weaving and spinning can be considered as one of the four major sources of income for women, the other three being moneylending, inheritance, and the marriage dowry.

116. For example, NICR, 6:251, 290; 9:20, 96.

117. Ibid., 6:251.

118. Ibid., 6:290.

119. Judith Tucker, Women in Nineteenth-Century Egypt (Cambridge, England, 1985), pp. 84–85. The absence of direct evidence is due to the fact that until the late 1850s, peasants in general were absent from the Islamic court records except in cases involving primarily moneylending and land. See Chapter 4 for details.

120. NMSR, p. 37.

121. Ibid.

Cotton, Textiles, and the Politics of Trade

Preferred Citation: Doumani, Beshara. Rediscovering Palestine: Merchants and Peasants in Jabal Nablus, 1700-1900. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1995 1995.