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


Toward a History of Provincial Life in the Ottoman Interior

As a single unit, Nablus and its hinterland constituted a discrete region known for centuries as Jabal Nablus.[2] Scores of roughly similar regions filled the interior of the vast and multiethnic Ottoman Empire and surrounded each of its few large international trading cities like a sea around an island. Home to the majority of Ottoman subjects, these discrete regions were located at one and the same time at the material core and the political periphery of the Ottoman world. The opinions of their inhabitants did not carry much weight in determining the political course of the central government in Istanbul, but their combined human resources and productive capacity were absolutely crucial to the empire’s tax base and to the provisioning of its metropolitan centers and military forces. An in-depth look at the changing political economy of these provincial regions can provide a valuable and fresh perspective on the deep undercurrents of change in the Ottoman domains.

The need for such a perspective has been made clear by the two dominant trends in the growing field of Ottoman Studies. The first has relied mostly on mining the central Ottoman archives and has used the state as the key unit of analysis. The invaluable research in these archives has demonstrated the dynamic character of the Ottoman Empire and has shown that its remarkable longevity was due largely to the energetic, flexible, and thoroughly pragmatic policies of its central administration.[3] The second (more recent) trend, has focused on the capital cities of the provinces—such as Cairo, Damascus, Aleppo, or Beirut—as the point of departure. Using a wide range of sources, including records of the local Islamic courts, these studies have brought to the fore the realities of daily life in large urban settings and have elucidated the diverse historical trajectories possible under the umbrella of Ottoman rule.[4]

Both vantage points have also made painfully clear that the survival of both the Ottoman Empire and its international trading cities was predicated, first and foremost, on their ability to gain access to and control the agricultural surplus of the peasants and the trading activities of the merchants in the interior. Indeed, it is around these two key issues, access and control, that much of the debate on the history of the Ottoman Empire revolves. Precisely because the discrete building blocks of the Ottoman world, interior market towns and their hinterlands, were not passive spectators in these struggles for access and control, the frontiers of research must be pushed to their doorsteps and their experiences must be integrated into the larger discourse of Ottoman history.

When it comes to the modern period, this discourse has been dominated by a single overarching narrative: the piecemeal incorporation or integration of the Ottoman Empire into the European economic and political orbits. This narrative is a central one because it deals directly with the problematics of capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism and because it has implications for current debates on development strategies, international relations, regional conflicts, state formation, and the social bases of nationalist movements. A variety of approaches have been used to frame this narrative,[5] but the same underlying set of economic and political issues continues to be hotly debated: the commercialization of agriculture and the patterns of trade with Europe; the impact of European machine-produced imports on local manufacturing; the growth of coastal trade cities and the rise of minority merchant communities which served as go-betweens; the commoditization of land and the emergence of a large landowning class; the Ottoman government’s program of reforms; and the rise of nationalist movements, to name but a few.[6]

In discussions of these key issues the Ottoman Empire was, until fairly recently, usually portrayed as a stagnant, peripheral, and passive spectator in the process of integration. The decline thesis, as it has come to be called, has been persuasively challenged since the early 1970s,[7] but the very thrust of the integration narrative, regardless of the theoretical approach used, tends to relegate the interior regions of the Ottoman Empire, such as Jabal Nablus, to the status of a periphery’s periphery. Hence, despite the rapidly growing number of studies, little is known about provincial life, albeit with some important exceptions.[8]

In the case of Palestine it has long been assumed, for example, that transformations in agrarian relations usually associated with so-called modernization did not begin until the first wave of European Jewish immigration in 1882. According to Gabriel Baer, “Arab agriculture did not change its traditional character throughout the nineteenth century. German and Jewish settlers introduced some innovations, but subsistence farming continued to be the predominant type of agriculture in the country, and the growing of cash crops was rare.”[9]

Baer seems to have confused traditional methods of farming with subsistence agriculture. Methods and technology remained largely unchanged, it is true, but they were eminently suited to the thin topsoil and rocky ground of the hill regions, the heartland of Palestinian peasantry. Indeed, it was with these traditional means that Palestine, as later shown in a pioneering study by Alexander Schölch, produced large agricultural surpluses and was integrated into the world capitalist economy as an exporter of wheat, barley, sesame, olive oil, soap, and cotton during the 1856–1882 period.[10] In addition, through a detailed study of Western sources, especially consular reports on imports and exports through the ports of Jaffa, Acre, and Haifa, Schölch showed that exports not only closely shadowed shifting European demand but also exceeded imports of European machine-manufactured goods, which meant that Palestine helped the rest of Greater Syria minimize its overall negative balance of trade with Europe.[11]

Schölch chose the Crimean War as a starting point because of the strong demand it generated for grains and because of the new political environment created by Ottoman reforms (Tanzimat).[12] But the qualitative leap in trade with Europe between 1856 and 1882, it seems to me, could only have taken place given an already commercialized agricultural sector, a monetized economy, an integrated peasantry, and a group of investors willing to sink large amounts of capital into the production of cash crops. Pushing the process of integration further back in time would help explain the massive and quick “response” of Palestinian peasants and merchants to the increase in European demand and would bring the experience of Palestine into line with the rest of the Ottoman domains. More important, what is now called the Middle East was not a stranger to commercial agriculture, protoindustrial production, and sophisticated credit relations and commercial networks.[13] The same has been shown for other regions, especially for South Asia.[14] In other words, many of the institutions and practices assumed to be the products of an externally imposed capitalist transformation existed before European hegemony and may in fact have helped pave the way for both European economic expansion and Ottoman government reforms. It is critical, therefore, to examine the local contexts in which the processes of Ottoman reform and European expansion played themselves out and to explore how these processes were perceived and shaped by the inhabitants of the Ottoman interior.

Because each market town and its hinterland had its own deeply rooted and locally specific social formation and cultural identity, the question becomes: how to conceptualize the relationship between this bewildering diversity of largely semiautonomous regions and the central government in Istanbul? A complicating factor is that Ottoman administrators, long faced with the same dilemma, neither set out to nor could impose a uniform set of policies, at least not until the 1860s. Rather, different and sometimes contradictory fiscal and administrative arrangements were introduced over the centuries, and they often coexisted and overlapped for long periods of time. In addition, the implementation of government policies was usually channeled indirectly through local elites, as a result of which the policies were constantly reformulated and redefined.

Ever since the publication in 1968 of Albert Hourani’s article on the “politics of notables,”[15] historians of the Ottoman provinces in general and of Greater Syria in particular have had access to an insightful framework which explains how native elites mediated between the local inhabitants and the central government authorities.[16] Yet to emerge is an equally persuasive framework which situates the political role of notables within the material, social, and cultural contexts in which they operated, on the one hand, and which allows an agency for those outside public office, particularly merchants and peasants, in the molding of their own history, on the other.

In Greater Syria during most of the Ottoman period, local and regional commerce was every bit as important, if not more so in terms of daily life, as trade with Europe.[17] The merchants of the interior dominated commercial, social, and cultural networks that, so to speak, were linchpins which connected the peasants who produced agricultural commodities with the artisans who processed them and with the ruling families who facilitated the appropriation and movement of goods.[18] These networks also connected the interior regions to each other and, in the process, made it possible for European businessmen and the Ottoman government to gain access to the surplus of these regions. Access and control depended, in other words, on making use of the interior merchants’ knowledge of the productive relations on the village level, their credit advances to peasants, their organization of local production for overseas exports, their management of regional markets and trade routes, and their domination of local retail venues and small-scale manufacturing. Merchants of the interior, therefore, occupied a crucial mediating position that could be seen as the underlying basis or economic and cultural counterpart to Hourani’s “politics of notables.” This book pays special attention to merchant life and to the changing relations between merchants, peasants, and the central Ottoman government.


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