This dissertation investigates the governance of seventeenth-century Damascus by examining claims upon the productive capacity of land, and the collection and redistribution of agricultural taxes. The early modern Ottoman Empire--of which Damascus was a province--was a large agrarian empire wherein the interests of numerous groups and individuals converged around the land and its produce. In light of its centrality to both the subjects and the state, the management of land as a resource has much to tell us about what governance was expected to be in this period, at a time before religious, economic, political or social authority had been disembedded from one another. In this, Damascus is not much different from any other provincial town lying within the early modern empires of Asia and Europe; the issues raised here are not pertinent to the history of the Middle East alone but are relevant to other early modern states.
The inquiry into what the state governs and how it does so starts with the observation that Ottoman political literature conceives of a unified political body wherein different groups of people play different roles in allowing the state to function. Through the lens of tax assessment and collection, the first chapter examines the role within the Ottoman state body that is played by the peasant cultivators in the villages surrounding Damascus. The first half of the chapter explores how the prerogatives comparable to other fiscal military states shaped Ottoman taxation policy in the seventeenth century. The importance of obtaining cash led not only to the imposition of new taxes and updated tax registers at the Istanbul finance bureau, but to a new responsibility of the villagers for tax collection. The chapter argues that where compliance with taxation was concerned, the most important governing authority in the village was the villagers themselves. Examining the interactions between villagers, judges, muftis and tax farmers, the chapter examines how individuals and groups that are not state agents strictly speaking, become authorized to exercise state power. The chapter concludes that peasant cultivators do not merely maintain a relationship with the Ottoman government, rather, in some sense they are the government and form an integral part of its machinery.
The question of how the governing authority of the state intersects with the authority of Islamic law has long been a question in the historiography of the Ottoman Empire and Islamic societies in general. However, the question of shifts in the configuration of religious and temporal authority in the seventeenth century is not an issue whose importance is confined to the history of the Islamic regions of the world. Rather, the question of expanding state power and the proper role of `religion' in the body politic is a widespread concern of the early modern period. With this question in mind, the second and third chapters explore the changing legal powers of the sultan and his agents to control productive land and peasant labor. Chapter two notes a change in the meaning and scope of sultan's authority to legislate peasant access to the land in the seventeenth century. This expansion in the sultan's legislative role is absorbed into the jurisprudence of the empire's jurist-scholars, and creating a specifically `Ottoman' practice of Islamic scholarship. Starting in the sixteenth century, the sultan's enacted laws--known as `qanun'--regulate with far greater detail the rights and obligations of peasants and soldier-tax collectors. What emerges is a right of usufruct for the peasantry that is controlled by the dynasty's statutes rather than the interests of local military administrators or local custom. The fact that this concept of the usufruct right eventually comes to prevail in Damascene villages suggests that usufruct was an increasingly standardized right across the empire's rural communities. This is despite the fact that the Damascenes had their own local and juridical traditions that ran counter to the concept of usufruct being promulgated by the sultan. What we find in juristic discussion of usufruct is a very slowly changing idea of the boundaries of imperial authority and its legal consequences.
While the second chapter demonstrates a growing consensus that the sultan had wider authority to legislate in matters pertaining to the lands of the state treasury, the legality of some land tenure practices sanctioned by the sultan remained controversial. The third chapter examines the limits of state power to pursue its need to fill the coffers, and how it was expected to treat the village taxpayers. There was no debate among Ottoman subjects that a solvent treasury was a necessity. Without exception, we find that keeping fertile land productive and distributing the revenues in appropriate ways are shared priorities. The common reference point defining the limits of the sultan's authority over production and taxation was the shari'ah, yet there was great disagreement on what the shari'ah enjoined, and in some sense, what the shari'ah was. When it came to what means of extraction the shari'ah permitted or the extent to which the state could coerce the villagers to produce, disagreement was rampant. It was not always the ulema (religious scholars) that opposed state actions on the grounds that such actions violated the shari'ah--as this chapter shows, the views of the ulema were sometimes more cooperative with the dynasty's decisions than those held by its temporal administrators. Both chapters address the question of the shifting configuration of state and religious authority in the early modern world, and examine its consequences on the lives and livelihoods of Damascene cultivators.
The fourth and fifth chapters investigate two groups in Damascus who were frequent beneficiaries of the revenues produced in the villages, the ulema and the soldiers based in the city. The right of these groups to receive the tax moneys of the peasant cultivators was premised on the services that each provided for the political body as a whole. There did not appear to be much dispute about the nature of the services that each was to perform, but differences did spring up when the question arose of how or whether such services had been performed in specific instances. The chapter maintains that it is these conflicting interpretations of service, status, privilege and vocational responsibility that most clearly reveal how the provincial elites did or did not take part in the exercise of Ottoman authority in Damascus. The ulema earned their access to the revenue sources through their scholarship and teaching and the general duty of providing moral guidance to other Muslims. Part of this duty was to denounce oppression, and to protect the strong from abusing the weak. An argument arose among the ulema of how much honor or revenue one could seek from the state without compromising oneself in the process. Could one covet the sultan's largess and still be adequately critical if he or his agents overstepped their authority? Other ulema found that the dignity of their profession was an asset when their management of cultivators and taxes was called into question. They deflected the accusations of greed and fraud by invoking their dedication to pious works and scholarship. In all cases, the self conception of the ulema as a group with a particular function in the political body was critical to the way they responded to opportunities for gaining wealth and power.
For the soldiers stationed in Damascus as well as the great military families of the countryside, access to rural revenues was contingent upon obedient military service. Increasingly, the entirety of the fiscal and military resources of the province of Damascus was oriented towards financing the pilgrimage to Mecca. The need for effective, reliable and obedient military leadership of the pilgrimage began to assume a higher priority for the Ottoman government. From 1660 to 1690, the Damascene janissaries dominated the office of pilgrimage leader, as they had a number of qualities to recommend them for the position: not only did know the routes from accompanying the caravan, but their capacity to create trouble as well as their expectation of reward was modest in comparison with the great military families of the countryside. Through investigation of their economic activities, it is clear that the question of which soldiers were considered `local' to Damascus had more to do with their involvement in the city's commerce rather than their origins or ethnicity. In turn, when the dynasty finally moved to destroy their leadership and punish them for insubordination, the question of how their `local' sympathies had affronted imperial prerogatives played out differently than might be imagined. While the issue of what constituted obedience might be read differently in Damascus than in Istanbul, it was clear that the Damascenes shared the belief that military men, even local military men, must be obedient to the sultan.
This dissertation argues that Damascenes from all backgrounds play an important role in Ottoman governance of the province, and one that is comparable to that of other early modern subjects. It shows people trying to locate their place within the political body as a whole, while the limits of their duties and powers associated with different groups underwent great flux and were vigorously debated. It is this uneasy integration of these various groups into the body of state which best demonstrates the relations between the subjects and the state in the early modern Middle East.