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An Empty Land? Nomads and Property Administration in Hamidian Syria


This dissertation explores the development of modern property administration and governance in the Ottoman Empire from the perspective of pastoral nomads. Utilizing both central state archival material and district court and land registers, the study combines analysis of governance, administration and the development of modern private property regimes with a social history of pastoral nomadic groups during the Hamidian period (1876-1909). The research employs a case study of the district of Salt in the southern half of the Ottoman province of Syria (contemporary Jordan) to advance three main arguments.

First is the imperative to rethink the characterization of pastoral nomads in the historiography of the Ottoman Arab provinces as members of autonomous “tribes” with marginal roles in processes of modern state building. I show how Ottomanization in the Arab provinces extended beyond urban elites to include nomadic communities in the Hamidian period. Using a fine-grained case study, the dissertation demonstrates that interaction with Hamidian property administration facilitated the rise of a “middling group” of nomads who obtained positions as low-level bureaucrats with powers to sanction claims over land and livestock as well as to allocate tax burdens. Analyzing how the growing wealth and power of this middling group was challenged from above and below, the dissertation introduces differentiation and internal contestation into nomadic groups usually discussed exclusively in terms of their leaders.

Second, the dissertation challenges the narrative of Ottoman law and administration as emanating from Istanbul and the related peripheral status of the Empire’s Arab provinces. By detailing the involvement of pastoral nomads in district-level property administration, I show how provincial struggles shaped the social meaning of Ottoman legal and administrative categories and prompted central bureaucrats and jurists to continually clarify and adapt their attempts to survey, tax and regulate people and property.

Third, the dissertation offers new perspectives on the making of modern property relations in the Ottoman Empire and beyond. It details attempts to regulate and exploit both land legally categorized as “empty” and livestock resources in the Empire’s far-flung provinces. Moving beyond narratives of modernizing Ottoman reforms as derivative, rigid or Orientalist that suppose a unitary state agent, the dissertation emphasizes the uneven, internally contested and regionally interconnected aspects of these projects. The dissertation therefore highlights the parallels between contested modernization projects in the Ottoman Empire and other contemporary imperial settings while rethinking the role of marginalized populations in those efforts.

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