Bedouin Bureaucrats
Mobility and Property in the Ottoman Empire
Nora Elizabeth Barakat



IN OCTOBER 1879, Dawjan and Hamad al-Wiraykat, from the Wiraykat family of ʿAdwan Bedouin, rode with their sons from their encampment in the region of Abu Nusayr southwest toward the town of Salt. They went to meet with a group of men who had come from the west, from the district capital of Nablus on the other side of the Jordan River, to register rights to land in the interior region where the Wiraykats camped and cultivated during the summer months. The path descended into a deep valley and then began a long climb to the elevated town. Hamad, Dawjan, and their entourage passed a few other Wiraykat encampments and farms, as well as lands controlled by their ʿAdwani relatives, the Lawzis.1 When they reached the outskirts of Salt in the early afternoon, they greeted the small Ottoman garrison stationed there and entered the district government’s rooms at the center of town. A large group of ʿAdwani men were already there, haggling over the land registration process. In the end, Hamad and Dawjan each registered separate plots of land in the region of Abu Nusayr northeast of Salt.2

The formulaic Ottoman land register that the day’s work created listed the names of the places where individuals claimed land, the amounts of land they claimed, and, in some cases, the land’s four cardinal borders. There is no evidence that the production of this 1879 register involved modern surveying techniques. No one stood on the land and demarcated borders with steel markers.3 We have no record of the officials from Nablus actually visiting the Abu Nusayr region to survey the land in 1879. The borders were vague, often referring to the names of the holders of neighboring plots rather than to landmarks fixed in space. Dawjan al-Wiraykat’s registrations listed no borders at all, and the imprecise toponyms and round numbers of units (donums) involved in both the Lawzi and Wiraykat registrations suggest a shareholding arrangement.4

Even so, the registers became the basis of something lasting. Ten years after this initial registration, Dawjan al-Wiraykat would use his 1879 title deed as collateral against a series of cash loans from a prominent merchant capitalist in the town of Salt.5 Half a century later, during the British Mandate period in the 1930s, Hamad, Dawjan, and Hamad’s son Ghishan al-Wiraykat mortgaged their land in the Abu Nusayr region to the Agricultural Bank in Salt for another series of cash loans.6 Well over a century after that initial registration, in 2004, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan began a large-scale highway-building project with funding from the United States government. In the preceding years, the population of the city of Amman had swelled, first with Palestinians expelled from Kuwait and then with refugees of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. The highway was meant to relieve the ensuing traffic congestion. Called “Jordan Street” (Shārʿ al-Urdunn), it was to cut directly through Wiraykat land, close to the regions Dawjan and Hamad registered in 1879. In response, two of Dawjan’s great-grandsons joined fourteen other Wiraykat men and women in court in Amman in 2005. They demanded that the state, specifically the Public Works Ministry of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, pay them compensation for losses in the value of the land their grandparents had registered around the town of Abu Nusayr, amounting to 121,389 Jordanian dinars, about USD 170,000. After a series of appeals, Dawjan’s grandsons ultimately lost their case to garner a portion of the capital influx associated with the highway.7 The case shows, however, that they had maintained their claims over land in the regions they registered, under the sovereign jurisdiction of three different governing regimes, for 150 years.

By registering land in 1879, and later entering the rapidly expanding Ottoman bureaucracy, Hamad and Dawjan al-Wiraykat contributed to fundamental transformations in the way people have understood, articulated, and contested their interrelated relationships to land and the state, not only in Jordan but across the Eastern Mediterranean, until today. The importance of the Ottoman registrations, and the conflicts over land that followed, lies partly in the fact that the British and French regimes in the post–World War I Eastern Mediterranean began where the Ottoman administration left off. They employed similar categories of land and population and built on preceding Ottoman institutions.8 The 1879 registration, however, was also the centerpiece of an Ottoman attempt to include the landscape and the tent-dwelling inhabitants of the Syrian interior in newly coalescing forms of standardized imperial administration.

Prior to the 1870s, Ottoman lawmakers had focused their sovereign attention on the closely administered corridor of the pilgrimage route in the Syrian interior. Administering the pilgrimage engendered a wide network of lasting, multigenerational relationships with particular Bedouin groups in the surrounding regions, but the Ottoman regime had not attempted to directly govern the landscapes beyond the pilgrimage corridor or their inhabitants. Through a system of layered sovereignty, the imperial regime left everyday administration of land and other resources in the hands of Bedouin elites. In the 1860s and 1870s, in contrast, Ottoman lawmakers and officials looked to the Syrian interior as an outlet for capital, a ground for large-scale infrastructure projects, and a region of settlement for small-holding Muslim refugees. They shared this agrarian developmentalist vision with lawmakers, capitalists, and small-scale entrepreneurs in multiple imperial polities, responding to a booming and newly global grain market by focusing attention on landscapes they regarded, and defined through property law, as “empty.”9 After the global financial crisis of the 1870s, this moment of agrarian optimism shifted to one of anxiety.10 For embattled Ottoman lawmakers in the aftermath of bankruptcy and loss of territory, the imperative to retain sovereignty over and develop spaces like the Syrian interior took on new urgency. In the 1890s and the first decade of the 1900s, the Ottoman government joined other imperial polities in attempting to fill landscapes they defined legally as empty, closely managing land and its human inhabitants and incorporating both into territorially bounded grids of administrative law.11

This book reveals the roles of Bedouin in these processes of Ottoman state transformation on local, imperial, and global scales. In the Syrian interior, a group of tent-dwelling men acquired positions as representatives of administratively defined “tribes,” entering a standardized hierarchy of provincial governance in the late nineteenth century. These Bedouin bureaucrats used their growing political, social, and economic leverage to gain wealth and status and to maintain their communities’ legal control over land. Their work was part of an uneven, contingent, and fundamentally unpredictable set of attempts to create administratively uniform and economically productive state space between the fiscal and territorial crises of the 1870s and the imperial disintegration of World War I. I use the term state space to describe the landscape within a territorially conceived and hierarchical administrative and judicial apparatus and a theoretically uniform and bounded grid of property relations.12 Over the course of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman regime shifted from an imperial mode of governance crafted to manage human difference across a politically diverse landscape, in which layered forms of sovereignty were connected to both geographical space and human subjects, to a nation-state mode that aspired to standardize administration of juridically equal subjects within a bounded territory. In the final quarter of the nineteenth century, and especially after losses in the Balkans and a crippling fiscal crisis, Ottoman lawmakers saw potential in rural regions of the Eastern Mediterranean and Iraq that they had previously deemed marginal, aiming to both defend threatened Ottoman sovereignty in these regions and include them in an emergent imperial-national polity.

This book conceptualizes the Ottoman project of making territorial state space within a global context of polities attempting similar transformations from variegated imperial to standardized nation-state modes of governance. Global historians have recognized the similarities between increasingly aggressive imperial approaches to frontiers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, although this has largely been told as a story of European expansion. Many scholars have considered the expansion of settler “neo-Europes” like the United States and Australia within a comparative analytical frame.13 In addition, multiple studies have noted the congruence between Russia’s imperial expansion into Central Asia and Siberia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the experience of “neo-Europes,” especially the United States’ expansion into western North America. The comparison between the Russian and American polities has been particularly useful because, in contrast to the late British or French empires, both expanded into contiguous regions populated by communities with whom they had long preexisting connections.14 As Charles Maier has argued, “governing at home” was different when it came to territorial thinking about state-building, particularly in the realm of defining the legal status of settlers and the existing inhabitants of regions formerly deemed marginal.15

Ottoman attempts to expand direct administration, intensify resource extraction, and ensure territorial sovereignty and a loyal population in previously lightly governed regions like eastern Anatolia, the Syrian interior, and the Arabian Peninsula have not usually been placed in the same analytical frame as expanding contiguous empires like the American and Russian. Scholars have largely considered that by the late nineteenth century, the Ottoman state was contracting and defensive, not expanding.16 Here, I draw on the American and Russian experiences to consider the Ottoman Empire within a framework of polities that embarked on making what Steven Hahn called “imperial nation-states” in the late nineteenth century.17 In these contexts, lawmakers and officials attempted to integrate formerly lightly governed landscapes and their inhabitants into a more cohesive, standardized, and ultimately, if highly contested, national territorial landscape.18 In the Russian, Ottoman, and American empires, attempts to transform “marginal” regions responded both to optimism around a global grain market and an aggressive and expansive British-centered global order in the decades preceding World War I. The Ottoman initiative to fill in spaces like the Syrian interior converged with the reconstructed US project of administrative expansion into the western plains and Russian initiatives in the Central Asian steppe to create state space under the firm control of a centralized administrative hierarchy.19

In particular, Ottoman legal expressions of “empty land” that privileged cultivation over other kinds of land use and state attempts to settle immigrants and refugees in regions deemed empty were remarkably congruent with the measures of other national-imperial polities. In the mid-nineteenth century, lawmakers in the Ottoman, American, and Russian regimes converged around evolutionary discourses of human productivity that privileged intensive cultivation in the determination of land rights and categorized existing populations as “nomadic” and undeserving of title because of their purportedly inefficient land use.20 In the final decades of the nineteenth century, some Ottoman officials dreamed of large-scale refugee resettlement in the interior, considered confining Bedouin to well-defined territories and opening the interior to capitalist interests, and legally privileged settled cultivation in establishing increasingly exclusive individual property rights.

Making visible these convergences in imperial aspirations, administrative discourse, and law is important for deexceptionalizing the Ottoman experience and placing it in a wider global frame. But imperial aspirations are not the end of the story. A global perspective also illuminates the unique outcomes of these state-making projects in the Syrian interior and their deeply contingent nature. In particular, unlike many communities categorized as “nomadic” in other imperial polities and within the Ottoman Empire itself, Bedouin in the Syrian interior were able to maintain control over most of the land they had inhabited for generations well beyond the fall of the empire. While they lost some land to capitalist entrepreneurs and refugees, groups like the Wiraykat both maintained their seasonal mobility and increased their legal connections to the interior landscape in the final decades of Ottoman rule.21 The major demographic shift to permanent settlement in the interior that Ottoman officials had envisioned in the 1890s did not occur until the mid-twentieth century, well after the fall of the empire and on terms no one in the late nineteenth century could have imagined. At the same time, men like Hamad and Dawjan al-Wiraykat took on important bureaucratic roles in the making of Ottoman state space alongside other middling and elite tent-dwelling Bedouin men.

What explains this unique outcome? As we will see, a set of historical relationships and circumstances enabled both elite and nonelite Bedouin men in the Syrian interior to maintain their communities’ control over land by entering the expanding Ottoman bureaucracy. This process occurred on two levels: first, Bedouin elites in particular communities leveraged the political influence their ancestors had developed and maintained in the Ottoman administration of the pilgrimage route between Damascus and Mecca. These relationships became more complex and lucrative in the eighteenth century prior to imperial attempts to create territorial state space. Detailing these understudied and robust imperial networks complicates both Ottoman modernizers’ and modern scholars’ characterizations of the Syrian interior as a “tribal frontier” prior to the nineteenth century. Bedouin Bureaucrats presents late Ottoman attempts to create territorial state space as a renegotiation and intensification of existing forms of layered sovereignty rather than the “penetration” of an uncharted frontier. This renegotiation meant that elites within certain Bedouin communities with centuries of influence in the pilgrimage administration retained that influence despite Ottoman attempts at political and administrative standardization, maintaining their hold on increasingly valuable interior land.

On a second level, for Bedouin communities who did not have historical connections to the pilgrimage, a late Ottoman politics of administration that included them within aspirations of territorial state space was much more important. After the crises of the 1870s, Ottoman lawmakers constructed Bedouin as potentially productive Muslim subjects whose assumed political loyalty was important to sustain in sparsely populated regions like the Syrian interior. This position responded to anxieties about political loyalty and threatened territorial sovereignty that constituted a state of siege by the final quarter of the nineteenth century.22 Expansive British, French, and Russian imperial practices—especially in forms of legal extraterritoriality that worked through protégés claiming immunities inside Ottoman borders—created thorny questions about the nature of imperial subjecthood, loyalty, and religious identity that deepened after the Russian-Ottoman war and the Treaty of Berlin.23 When combined with the individualization of property rights in a nineteenth-century context of territorially conceived sovereignty, the perceived loyalties of landowners became newly politicized.24 This was especially true in regions like the Syrian interior, which became a contested borderland and “spy-space” after the British occupation of Egypt in 1882.25 This political environment constituted a significant barrier to capitalist expansion, as lawmakers attempted to close the land market to anyone whose loyalty they considered questionable.

The prioritization of political loyalty and the maintenance of sovereignty over aspirations to productivity created space for middling Bedouin bureaucrats to maintain land rights and participate in the politics of Ottoman administration.26 Elite Ottoman statesmen considered Bedouin and other “tribal” populations analogous to Muslim refugees: they did not enjoy the privileges of cultivating, village-dwelling peasants in the new matrix of land rights, but they were potentially loyal, productive subjects. This construction undergirded administrative regulations and laws in the Syrian interior, but it also enabled men like the Wiraykats to bring the social struggles that the establishment of a private property regime precipitated into the Ottoman bureaucracy. In doing so, they left their mark on a constantly contested and unfinished project of modern state formation.

In the late nineteenth century, tent dwellers’ encounters with a newly intrusive Ottoman administration created a different type of leader within their communities in Syria: the Bedouin bureaucrat. Men like Hamad and Dawjan al-Wiraykat, as headmen of administratively defined tent-dwelling communities, engaged in Ottoman bureaucratic practices across the encampments of the interior. Creating territorial state space entailed reaching every tent and house-dwelling inhabitant of the interior through theoretically standardized and rationalized practices of property registration, taxation, and dispute resolution. In the imagined state of codified imperial law, Bedouin headmen were the low-level officials meant to purvey state policy to their communities of subjects. Bedouin bureaucrats’ quotidian performance of state power through the documentary processes of land registration, taxation, and adjudication increased their social and political influence both within the standardized Ottoman administration of the late nineteenth century and within their own communities.27

But Bedouin bureaucrats did not follow the playbook for administration laid out in minute detail in codified law. In particular, when Ottoman imperial land policy began to directly threaten Bedouin communities with dispossession, headmen turned their performance of state power on its head: rather than organizing their communities to collect taxes, they organized them to protest the settlement of refugees on land they regarded as their own, collected bribes for higher-level officials, and orchestrated prison escapes. Rather than integrating into the fundamental rural administrative category of the Ottoman agrarian imaginary, the settled village, they employed and maintained the “tribe” as a power field through which to contest and transform taxation, resource distribution, and state powers of adjudication.28 Through their iterative performances of state power, Bedouin bureaucrats contributed to outcomes that were diametrically opposed to higher-level officials’ visions and plans for the Syrian interior: ultimately, their tent-dwelling communities maintained much of their control over land without settling in villages. Into the twenty-first century, this control has taken two forms: on the one hand, state-sanctioned title deeds and, on the other, an informal market in unregistered land claimed for the state domain that both directly challenges central state attempts to monopolize the allocation of resources and complements and responds to state-sanctioned documentary forms of contract.29

Late Ottoman struggles over the governance of land and people established the terms for territorial state practice in Eastern Mediterranean landscapes for much of the twentieth century. By narrating the biographies of Bedouin involved in Ottoman administration from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, the contested administrative category “tribe” alongside the figure of the Bedouin bureaucrat, and the changing legal status of land in the Syrian interior, this book brings tent-dwelling populations to the center of a fundamentally unpredictable process of making state space. The formal land registration process in which Dawjan and Hamad al-Wiraykat took part was a foundational element of a broader imperial vision of transforming “empty land.” It was also the beginning of a documented legal relationship between the Wiraykats and the lands of Abu Nusayr that lasted for more than a century.


This book explores the roles of individual men from five different communities—the al-Fayiz Bani Sakhr, the Kayid ʿAdwan, the Wiraykat ʿAdwan, the Manasir ʿAbbad, and the Fuqaha ʿAbbad—in the creation of Ottoman state space in the Eastern Mediterranean. Some, like the ʿAdwan communities, had been involved in wheat production for at least a century in the Syrian interior when Ottoman land registration began; others, like the Bani Sakhr, derived more of their livelihoods from camel herding and involvement in the pilgrimage administration. All of these communities lived in tents for at least part of the year, moved seasonally, and produced both agricultural and animal-based commodities in the late nineteenth century. Court and land registers show that alongside these activities, individual ʿAdwani, ʿAbbadi, and Bani Sakhr men played important roles in the daily bureaucratic tasks of establishing and maintaining a private property administration in the Syrian interior. Their contributions to the making of territorial state space necessitate a rethinking of durable assumptions about the fundamental incompatibility of mobile agropastoral practice, private property regimes, and modern administration in the Ottoman Empire and beyond.

Perhaps James Scott best articulated the idea that the modern state is the “enemy of people who move around” and that it creates social systems unilaterally “through its ability to give its categories the force of law.”30 Historical scholarship on the Ottoman Empire and the Eastern Mediterranean has also portrayed Bedouin, understood as nomadic and tribal, as external to reified state domains from diverse theoretical vantage points. Historians writing in the framework of modernization theory in the mid-twentieth century consistently depicted unruly and politically autonomous Bedouin as the fundamental obstacles to a nineteenth-century Ottoman modernization project.1 In the twenty-first century, scholars approaching Ottoman reform through a lens of postcolonial theory transformed Bedouin from the spoilers of an apparently failed modernization project into the victims of an apparently successful one.32 While employing sharply contrasting frameworks of the modern state, these studies shared assumptions about Bedouin communities as politically autonomous tribes inherently antagonistic to agriculture, private property, and bureaucratic institution-building.

The assumption that seasonally migrating, tent-dwelling agropastoralists like the Wiraykats were necessarily opposed to standardized administrative state-making has been closely related to two ideal types: the pastoral nomad and the segmentary tribe. Western European concepts of exclusive private property and enclosure influential throughout the colonized world employed an ideal of pastoral nomadism as their ultimate other.33 In the work of John Locke and Adam Smith, nomads occupied stage two of a four-stage theory of human progress rooted in modes of subsistence: hunting and gathering, pastoral herding, farming, and, finally, commerce. Locke argued that by mixing their sweat with the soil to create something new, cultivators acquired exclusive rights to property, and Smith saw such property rights as the basis for law, judicial systems, and differentiated authority in society more broadly. While pastoral herders developed private property in animals, they did not have a connection to land meaningful enough to confer rights. For both Locke and Smith, the main empirical example of early evolutionary stages was Native Americans, whom Smith saw as consigned to the stage of hunting and therefore vulnerable to the “intermeddling” of the more advanced Europeans.34 More complex versions of this evolutionist thinking entered historical scholarship mainly through the writings of Karl Marx and Max Weber, both of whom argued that mobile forms of land use and kinship-based political idioms were isolated phenomena of premodern societies that would necessarily disappear when urban forms of settlement and commerce spread.35

While the empirically tenuous nature of these evolutionist ideas has been understood for decades, their categories have exhibited remarkable staying power, especially in ideal types employed to describe communities inhabiting the rural areas of regions that came to be known as the Middle East. This is partly due to a voluminous twentieth-century anthropological literature that perfected the segmentary tribe as the political form nomadic societies took: autonomous, geographically isolated, and essentially egalitarian entities governed only by internal segmentary principles.36 This discourse of unfettered tribes that Lila Abu-Lughod and others have so effectively deconstructed also enabled the idea of an isolated nomadic mode of production.37 Scholars posited a hierarchical continuum of nomadic groups from the “pure” camel herders who visited villages and towns only rarely to the “mixed” sheep and goatherds more closely involved with settled life.38 For people making a living herding livestock in the Eastern Mediterranean and Arabian Peninsula, agriculture became the ultimate mark of identity loss. Recent environmental history of the region has sometimes adopted the concept of a nomadic mode of production, positing nomads as a fixed, climatically determined historical element with the constant capacity, like locusts or sandstorms, to rise from the desert and threaten sedentary society.39

In contrast, this book contributes to a vein of social history and anthropology that has problematized assumptions about the social, economic, and political isolation and autonomy of tent-dwelling communities.40 This scholarship has emphasized part-time agriculture that was not necessarily linked to permanent settlement, as well as myriad trade connections between communities spending more time on herding and those spending more time on agriculture.41 The trajectories of tent-dwelling communities like the Wiraykats, who were involved in markets for both animal-and plant-based commodities in the nineteenth century, also illuminate the ways in which mixed uses of land created long-standing connections to particular landscapes. Other communities, like the Bani Sakhr, increased their agricultural production in direct response to the global wheat boom of the mid-nineteenth century. In the late Ottoman context, these connections to the landscape and to regional commerce framed Bedouin bureaucrats’ active participation in the making of territorial state space.

At the same time, as a legal history, Bedouin Bureaucrats reveals the ways in which the nomadic tribe as an ideal type had specific historical effects in the administration of rights to property in the Ottoman context. Global historians have narrated the dispossession of populations defined as nomadic, imperfectly cultivating, or unproductive as a largely Anglo-American story that started in enclosure movements in sixteenth-century England and traveled to contexts of Anglophone white settlement and colonization worldwide.42 An exclusionary discourse of agricultural productivity and improvement was hardly limited or endogenous to British and neo-British imperial contexts, however.43 Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, Ottoman officials developed similar ideas about the links between cultivation, exclusive individual property rights, and improvement. They envisioned an ideal landscape peopled by settled, cultivating smallholders with well-defined, easily taxable, and alienable rights to land. To achieve this, they created law codes mandating both the mass settlement of tent dwellers and the breakup of agricultural shareholding practices common in villages in Syria and beyond.44

The extent of the intent and implementation of a regime of individuated and alienable private property rights in the late Ottoman context has been the subject of some debate, and the legal constitution of individual property rights entailed references to both agricultural labor and tax payment.45 But the emphasis on cultivation as the preferred form of labor for the establishment of individual prescriptive rights clearly privileged full-time agricultural land use and year-round, easily taxable village-based settlement. This legal construction of land rights represented a break from the vision of rural landscapes implied in fifteenth-and sixteenth-century Ottoman law—one involving many kinds of dwellings including both houses and tents, with many people involved in mobile and semimobile forms of part-time farming.46 Explaining this historical shift, and especially its connections to changing Ottoman ideas about territorial sovereignty, requires a study of its own. The sketch here is preliminary, providing background to the story of Bedouin involvement in the creation of a private property regime in the Syrian interior.

Many scholars have demonstrated the deep influence of political theories most commonly associated with the fourteenth-century North African polymath Ibn Khaldun on Ottoman statesmen between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.47 Like European scholars after him, Ibn Khaldun posited a fundamental juxtaposition between nomadic rural and urban settled communities. Whereas in evolutionist Lockean and Smithian thought, nomadic herders would eventually become settled agriculturalists and then graduate to commerce, in Khaldunian thought they would become city dwellers and create civilizations that would eventually decline and succumb to the external pressures of other nomadic communities.48 Ottoman statesmen used Ibn Khaldun’s ideas about the rise and decline of dynastic states to make sense of the relevance and power of mobile Turkic polities in medieval Muslim political formations, the institutional development of the Ottoman dynastic state in the sixteenth century, and what they perceived as the internal corruption of that state in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.49 These Khaldunian ideas of state formation took on increasing importance in the context of the political, environmental, and economic crises of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. In this period of heightened anxiety about imperial decline, the potential of actors understood as mobile (bandits and nomads) to dilute the state’s bureaucratic power seemed more plausible.

It was also in this context of seventeenth-century crisis that Ottoman laws that attempted to regulate mobile pastoral practice and part-time farming in the empire began to shift. Fifteenth-and sixteenth-century Ottoman lawbooks and surveys convey diverse forms of rural land use, with part-time farming and seasonal mobility explicitly sanctioned and included in taxation schemes alongside settled year-round farming.50 In the context of the seventeenth-century crisis, moves toward granting cultivating peasants more exclusive property rights were closely related to the ruling elite’s perception of increasing rural mobility and the tax anxieties this mobility engendered. In Syria, a long-term change in official attitudes toward agropastoralism coincided with the uneven migration of large camel-herding Bedouin communities into the interior regions from the southern (Hijaz) and southeastern (Najd) regions. Aggressive attempts to relocate and settle particular groups, especially in the northern Syrian interior, were a response to the anxiety these migrations, along with rural unrest in Anatolia, precipitated.51

Khaldunian cycles continued to inform notions of Ottoman order among prominent statesmen during the Age of Revolutions at the turn of the nineteenth century.52 But Tanzimat-era lawmakers also drew on Smithian ideas about progress and in some cases adopted the Ricardian idea of comparative advantage to argue that the Ottoman Empire should specialize in agriculture.53 Nineteenth-century Ottoman iterations of Smithian economics marked a departure from Khaldunian cyclical thought. But evolutionist ideas about progress that centered cultivation as a crucial step in social development found precedent both in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Ottoman anxieties about agropastoralism and in the early Islamic idea of property rights arising from the labor associated with cultivation, one that ruling elites had sidelined in the early modern period in order to maintain ultimate control over arable land.54

The gradual exclusion of part-time farming and pastoral land use from the realm of rights-generating labor in Ottoman legal thought followed. In the intrusive property reforms of the nineteenth century, embodied in the 1858 Land Code, the link between settled cultivation and individual rights to property became firmly entrenched in Ottoman law. While they implied greatly strengthened rights for cultivators, they also marked the exclusion of those who, according to the ideal-type categories of modern administration, did not cultivate. The mid-nineteenth century witnessed the first comprehensive Ottoman attempts to transform mobile tribes into settled villages across the empire in an effort to create a uniform state space.55

The connection between imaginaries of improved landscapes, legal definitions of individual and private property, and physical dispossession of local inhabitants was a global phenomenon in the nineteenth century.56 Widespread imaginaries of a settled rural landscape made their way into Ottoman law and, in some cases, into experiences of enclosure and dispossession.57 That Bedouin dispossession in the Syrian interior remained limited in the late Ottoman period was the result of local, regional, and global conditions constitutive of a particular politics of administration. The point that codified late nineteenth-century Ottoman property law can be mobilized to dispossess people whose historical connections to cultivation are considered tenuous has been quite salient in twenty-first-century Israel, where courts continue to reference the 1858 Land Code to dispossess Palestinian Bedouin families of the lands they have inhabited for generations.58 In Israel, global, regional, and local contingencies have combined to render the existence on the land of Palestinian communities defined as Bedouin constantly precarious. In the late nineteenth-century Syrian interior, however, these contingencies enabled tent-dwelling Bedouin individuals both to acquire durable land rights and to participate in modern state formation. This outcome was closely related to the Ottoman Empire’s status in the global “age of property.”59


Ottoman official attempts to create a uniform state space stretching across what was left of the empire’s sovereign territory occurred in the aftermath of the crises of the 1870s. While the financial elements of these crises were felt worldwide, for the Ottoman government they manifested most clearly in the forms of state bankruptcy in 1875, losses of valuable territory in the Balkans in the 1877–78 Russo-Ottoman wars, and partial forfeiture of economic sovereignty in the establishment of the Ottoman Public Debt Administration.60 These crises both created a sense of urgency about increasing state revenue and focused attention on the empire’s remaining territory, including the highly contested regions of Syria and Iraq. As in other imperial polities, the project of making state space and its particularly national, territorial character took form during the intense interimperial competition of the late nineteenth century, especially in response to British financial and territorial expansion.61

Scholars of world history have long defined the Ottoman Empire as a peripheral zone of Western European—especially British, French, and German—capital expansion in the final quarter of the nineteenth century.62 In Eric Hobsbawm’s formulation of the “winners” and “losers” of the mid-nineteenth century that bifurcated the globe into zones of colonized and colonizer, weakened but still-sovereign spaces like the Ottoman Empire and Latin America were unquestionably in the “losers” chapter.63 The Syrian interior and its inhabitants, in this bifurcated conception of world history, are relegated to the status of the periphery’s periphery.64

This framework speaks a certain historical truth, especially from the perspective of British and French understandings of “the Eastern Question.” It is crucial to recognize the limitations of Ottoman capacity to make state space in the late nineteenth century, especially in fiscal terms, not least because Ottoman lawmakers themselves were painfully aware of those limitations. Foreign-financed railroad construction, for example, in India as in the Ottoman territories, prioritized Western European over Ottoman prosperity, and as much as one-third of Ottoman revenue went to the financing of public debt.65 But the Eastern Question narrative has also tended to obscure the historical significance of the Ottoman state-space project in the decades following the 1870s crises, especially in the realms of agrarian policy and civil law.66 Court and land records, even those dealing with the Public Debt Administration, show that codified Ottoman law remained the referent for civil administration in the Syrian interior.67 Ottoman lawmakers, like their American and Russian counterparts, sought to make imperial state space in competitive opposition to Britain’s free trade hegemony before World War I. They struggled with questions of population, prosperity, and revenue that hinged on issues of labor, capital accumulation, and market creation.

These questions were shared among lawmakers in sovereign states across the nineteenth-century global context. Ottoman lawmakers looked to regions they had previously deemed marginal as underperforming spaces of potential in the context of making territorial state space in a competitive interimperial environment. They developed bifurcated visions of Syria in the mid-nineteenth century, reconstructing the interior as a neglected region in need of improvement in contrast to booming coastal towns like Beirut and Jaffa. After the 1870s crisis, they transformed landscapes outside the cultivated fields of settled villages from zones of part-time farming and grazing to “empty land,” a phrase that took on new legal meaning owing to the empire’s increasingly exclusionary private property regime. Ottoman officials employed both geographic imaginaries of improvement and a legal arsenal defining private property that were based on concepts of enclosure and exclusion after the 1870s. Historical shifts in agrarian policy were closely connected to concerns about territorial sovereignty.

The registration in which Dawjan and Hamad al-Wiraykat took part occurred during one of these shifts in Ottoman agrarian policy and governing practice. The 1879 process, through which ʿAdwani men registered their rights to land on generous terms, came at the tail end of a period of agrarian optimism that Ottoman officials shared especially with their European and North American counterparts in the 1850s and 1860s. In both the Ottoman Empire and the United States, the midcentury global wheat boom encouraged capitalist entrepreneurs and cultivating producers to migrate to new regions and invest in agricultural production.68 In the Balqa region of the Syrian interior, “pioneers” moved both from Palestine and Damascus into the Syrian interior to start plantation-style farming operations. These Ottoman pioneers treated local Bedouin, who were investing in larger-scale cultivation projects of their own, as landholders who deserved a share of their profits.69 In the US context, the 1850s and 1860s witnessed large waves of migration, with contestations over the future political economy of the new territories west of the Mississippi, constituting one of the main immediate causes of the Civil War.70 The American government bought up large amounts of territory in the western plains, forcing Native Americans onto what were still comparatively expansive reservations.

Migration into the western plains and the Syrian interior took different forms and occurred at vastly different scales. The combined populations of Minnesota, Kansas, and Iowa grew from two hundred thousand to more than one million in the 1850s, and Nebraska and the Dakotas would experience similar growth in the 1870s and 1880s.71 While no comprehensive statistics have been compiled, migration to the southern Syrian interior consisted of a handful of monied families and a few thousand small-scale cultivators in the 1850s and 1860s.72 Imperial laws in both contexts, however, are testaments to midcentury agrarian optimism and global competition, especially for European migrant cultivators construed as productive.73 The American government issued the Homestead Act in 1862, promising immigrants plots of land and government assistance while promoting the future political economy of western territories as free soil.74 This law would be the basis for the claims of thousands of migrant families for decades afterward. The Ottoman government issued an extremely encouraging immigration law in 1857, promising new immigrants tax-free land grants and government assistance with agriculture.75 The 1858 Land Code, which transformed the rights of cultivators of state land from usufruct to alienable ownership that could be mortgaged, should also be read in this context of encouraging agricultural expansion.76 This optimism among capitalists, officials, and expectant cultivators, and the impending competition over land it signaled, helps explain what motivated Dawjan, Hamad, and 331 other Bedouin men to obtain title deeds to land in October 1879. Viewed through a broader lens, both the 1857 immigration law and the 1858 Land Code fit into a global context of imperial land grants encouraging agricultural expansion.77

If optimism reigned among “pioneers” and imperial lawmakers across these agrarian spaces in the 1860s, anxiety replaced it after the fiscal crises and territorial losses of the 1870s, resulting in newly exclusivist and competitive imperial stances toward land that coalesced in the following decades. By the 1890s, officials of the Ottoman land administration, in particular, began to employ a logic of “empty land” in support of wealthy investors attempting to secure full land rights. Land officials imagined empty land in terms of the legal categories of the Land Code, in combination with an intensified discourse of improvement, to legitimize declaring the Syrian interior’s desert fringe as an exclusive state domain in contradistinction to other local claims and auction it to investors. This move would have transformed Bedouin in the interior and elsewhere from business partners into wage-earning renters. This was the kind of policy followed in the United States, where the government began aggressively administering the plains region as landed property during this period. The American regime mandated exclusive individual registrations for Native American household heads and declared the leftover reserved land as state domain for sale to investors.78

Scholarship on Ottoman agrarian policy has focused largely on the social question, but debates among lawmakers were closely linked to the creation and maintenance of territorial sovereignty.79 In Ottoman Syria, unlike in the American West, the exigencies of interstate competition curtailed investors’ search for cheap wheat. Land officials’ campaigns to sell “empty land” to capitalists met with fierce resistance from other Ottoman agencies. Their quarrel was related, first and foremost, to interimperial competition over territorial sovereignty. The question of Ottoman sovereignty in the Syrian interior became much more fraught after both the loss of territory in the Balkans and the British occupation of Egypt, which transformed the southern, arid regions inhabited by tent dwellers in Syria into a contested borderland. In this new political climate, in which questions of religious identity, nationality, and loyalty were closely intertwined, Ottoman officials in Damascus and Istanbul became increasingly skittish about the nationalities and religious identities of people owning land in the region. They constantly expressed concern about the politics of land speculation, specifically investors selling the titles to empty land they acquired at auction to foreign interests.

In this context, Ottoman officials in the Ministry of the Interior and the Damascus governor’s office began drawing up technocratic plans for the development of the interior. They aimed to match “empty” land to productive, industrious, and loyal population groups. These initiatives targeted Muslim refugees displaced from the Russian Empire most specifically as ideal subjects.80 But they also included Bedouin, if they were willing to settle in villages in the right places. These officials also lobbied to shield the land of the interior from capitalist investors. Their concerns about potential ownership of land by foreigners ultimately led to an imperial decree banning auctions of empty land in the Syrian interior in the mid-1890s, in line with a similar policy in Iraq.81 These bans were a significant check on the expansion of capital into the Syrian interior at the turn of the twentieth century.

These technocratic Ottoman approaches to land, population, and ethnic and religious identity after the 1870s were remarkably similar to Russian attitudes toward the settlement of peasants from the interior in the southern steppe regions. While Russian peasants had migrated into the Kazakh steppe illegally throughout the nineteenth century, the legalization of such migration, the 1890s establishment of the Resettlement Administration, and the Stolypin land reforms of the first decade of the twentieth century transformed migration and land distribution into a technocratic initiative.82 The project of “channeling . . . ethnic Russians to the empire’s peripheries” responded to the same anxieties about building a loyal borderland population that Ottoman officials experienced. Like their Ottoman counterparts, Russian officials in the Resettlement Administration were concerned with productivity, and they aimed to match population to a fund of “empty land” in a process of state management.83 In both contexts, officials looked for legal avenues to justify claiming empty land—that is, land used by agropastoralist groups understood as underproductive—for the state domain and reallocating it to industrious peasants.84

In the Hamidian period, territorial loss and Great Power attempts to sponsor both foreign protégés and nationalist separatist movements inside the empire combined with new doctrines of private property to produce increasingly exclusionary imperial policy. From the 1890s onward, the agrarian policy of the highest Ottoman officials moved closer to technocratic approaches to population and territory that prioritized excluding communities whose political loyalty was deemed questionable from landownership in borderland regions over capitalist expansion. This exclusionary policy was an important element in making territorial state space, and it culminated in violent creations of “empty land” in the form of the Armenian Genocide and the population exchanges of the early Republican period.85 The creation of territorial state space through a private property regime and an aggressive definition of state domain after the crises of the 1870s laid the groundwork for these violent removals of population from bordered landscapes.86 This policy shift responded to the rising anxieties of interstate competition, anxieties that overrode the desires of land officials to increase the capacity of local coffers through alliances with capitalists no matter their religious or national affiliations.

Even as the exigencies of interstate competition fueled anxieties about the political loyalties of particular communities, they also framed Ottoman officials’ attitudes toward Bedouin as potentially productive and loyal Muslim subjects of national state space. Unlike in the Central Asian steppe under the Russian Empire, the spaces Bedouin inhabited were not reconstructed as Ottoman “colonies” and excluded from standardized imperial administration.87 This inclusion in contiguous state space, combined with the ultimately limited nature of immigration into the interior, granted Bedouin men the demographic leverage both to participate in Ottoman administrative governance and to maintain control over much of their land throughout the tumultuous decades following the 1870s crises. Their participation had lasting effects both on the process of state formation and on the internal political economy of Bedouin communities themselves.


In the decades after registering land in Abu Nusayr, Dawjan al-Wiraykat entered the lowest rungs of the Ottoman provincial administration as a headman of the Wiraykat community. In the vision of standardized rural administration set out in imperial codified law, the headman was the “access point” linking the provincial government to villages and town quarters for purposes of property administration, taxation, and dispute resolution.88 This administration, fully elaborated after the crises of the 1870s, aimed to fit every Ottoman individual and every piece of land into a uniform and seamless state space. Men like Dawjan al-Wiraykat and his sons after him entered this bureaucratic space as headmen of administratively defined “tribes.” The social and political influence they gained from these subordinate bureaucratic positions enabled them to maintain Wiraykat control over land in the interior, both through their involvement in land registration and through organizing resistance when Ottoman politics of “empty land” became untenable.

Why conceptualize tent-dwelling men like Dawjan al-Wiraykat, his sons, and others who occupied the position of headman as “bureaucrats”? The lives of Bedouin headmen did not resemble a Weberian ideal type: they did not report to any office from nine to five to scribble among uniform “bureaus.”89 Their positions were at least nominally elected, not appointed, and it is not clear if they drew a regular salary. Rather, I use the term to draw attention to Bedouin participation in and complex contributions to an administrative system and property regime defined and legitimated by claims to rationality and standardization. The world-historical comparisons that undergirded Weber’s theory of bureaucracy denied the coeval nature of his ideal, the Prussian railway administration, and the Ottoman fiscal and land administrations at the turn of the twentieth century.90 But Weber and late Ottoman lawmakers inhabited the same world. Rational administration was the shared solution to the immensely unsettling developments of the long nineteenth century: in the Ottoman case, the privileging of the ideal of “order” (nizam) extended from the “new order” military (nizam-i cedid) in the late eighteenth century to the “reordered” state administration (tanzimat) of the 1840s to the “courts of order” (mahakim-i nizamiye) of the 1870s.91

By becoming headmen, Bedouin entered a theoretically standardized hierarchical system that purported to be rational, procedural, and comprehensive: a system that aimed to create a “state effect.” Administrative categories that theoretically applied across the empire were a crucial part of this state effect. The expansion of bureaucracy into the Syrian interior in the late nineteenth century meant that social struggles over land and wealth became articulated in reference to these administrative categories. These struggles took place in part through iterative performances of a property regime involving formulaic land deeds, judicial procedure, and tax assessment practices.

Michael Lipsky’s analysis of “street-level bureaucrats” helps articulate my understanding of the iterative work Bedouin bureaucrats performed in the interior. Lipsky argues that low-level public servants like welfare agents, teachers, and police “mediate aspects of the constitutional relationship of citizens to the state” through their everyday interactions.92 Lipsky’s description of street-level bureaucrats’ quotidian encounters with citizens of a twentieth-century welfare state is useful for imagining Bedouin headmen’s work on projects like tax relief, avoiding foreclosure, and taking disputes to court with the subjects of their administratively defined communities in the nineteenth-century encampments and villages of the Syrian interior. Men like the Wiraykats performed this system with its forms and calculations in the tent-dwelling communities of the interior, even if they often signed the forms with their fingerprints and took time off from managing their herds to participate in tax collection.

Unlike Lipsky, however, I imagine the work of Bedouin bureaucrats not as “mediation” between a stable, external state and its citizens but as a daily performance of power that created a state in encampments and villages that looked quite different from the standardized administrative edifice that imperial and provincial legislators imagined. The quotidian performances of Bedouin headmen and other subordinate officials both changed the meaning of administrative categories and had a profound impact on which categories remained salient both in official understandings of the interior population and in the distribution of resources. In particular, Bedouin bureaucrats embedded the “tribe” into rural administration as a standardized population category alongside the village. In tandem with their social and political influence, men like Dawjan, Hamad, and their sons also increased their material wealth through their roles in the Ottoman bureaucracy. Their new status shifted the political economy within their own communities, prompting a new kind of contestation over resources and political representation conducted in terms of the administratively defined “tribe.” These struggles unfolded in reference to, and simultaneously shaped the meaning and boundaries of, the tribe as a power field bounding struggles over taxation, land registration, and adjudication.93

Likewise, when Ottoman officials began challenging Bedouin communities’ land rights with land grants to refugees in the final decade of the nineteenth century, Bedouin headmen began using the political influence and tactics they had gained through quotidian performances of the state to organize their communities in multiple forms of resistance. Some of these practices, especially the collection of bribes for superior officials, mimicked the calculative and distributive tactics of tax collection and took explicit advantage of the political and social connections headmen had gained in the town-based bureaucracy. They also used the cross-community connections they had built as Bedouin bureaucrats to violently resist refugee resettlement on a wider scale. Rather than treating the state as a fixed entity, therefore, I use district-level court and land records to reveal Bedouin headmen’s participation in the practice of modern state formation, sometimes in direct opposition to the visions and plans of higher officials. These activities affected both the categories of rural administration and its outcomes.94

Lipsky’s category of “citizen” was also highly unstable in the late Ottoman context. Through struggles over property and revenue conducted in terms of standardized administrative categories, the line between Ottoman subjecthood and citizenship came to be drawn in interior encampments. Whereas Ottoman subjecthood was defined by Ottoman nationality, male subjects with immovable property registered in their names acquired rights to become and vote for a wide range of provincial positions, on councils and as headmen, as members of a new administrative category: “men of property.” The stakes of this category and its connections to political participation were high, because councils at the various levels of the provincial administrative hierarchy had extensive powers especially in the realm of determining land rights in the late nineteenth century.95 Court cases show that struggles over tax and land distribution in encampments were also struggles over the political inequalities that discrepancies of wealth, especially in land, had come to confer. These struggles drew a line between two groups: property-owning Bedouin headmen with a voice in local elections and the political processes that followed, on the one hand, and Bedouin without those privileges whose claims pushed the boundaries of the administrative categories that defined their tax obligations, on the other. This division can productively be thought in terms of a line between citizens and subjects.96

In the past two decades, anthropologists and historians have highlighted the political roles of communities involved in herding and part-time agriculture as empire-makers and mobile aristocracies. In particular, this scholarship has revealed the territorial power and dynamics of Central Asian and North American polities that existed alongside, in both collaboration and tension, more well-known historical empires.97 This scholarship, however, has focused largely on the premodern and early modern periods. Pekka Hämäläinen’s work on Native American “kinetic empires” in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, for example, has emphasized the rupture point that the making of state space in 1870s America implied.98 The account presented here draws on the insights of this scholarship but extends over the rupture point of the late nineteenth century to explore the roles of seasonally migrant, tent-dwelling men in the building of a governing apparatus that aimed for bureaucratic standardization.

The late 1870s moment of administrative state-building and land registration in the Syrian interior constituted a profound shift in relations between Bedouin communities inhabiting its landscape and the Ottoman state. But contrary to their own modernist discourse of rupture, Ottoman officials did not attempt to create homogeneous state space in a previously untouched and isolated “tribal frontier.” Chapter 1 shows that in the eighteenth century, partly in response to migrations of large camel-herding communities into the Syrian interior, the provincial administration in Damascus used tax-farming revenue to increase efforts to provision and secure the pilgrimage route to Mecca.99 In the process, they drastically expanded an existing practice of providing annuities to Bedouin groups, establishing long-term hereditary contractual agreements with particular elites and communities that lasted into the twentieth century. The chapter presents a model of layered sovereignty to describe the relationship between an overarching and geographically amorphous Ottoman “sphere of submission” and Bedouin leaders’ everyday administrative control over parts of the interior landscape. Outside intensively cultivated regions, this form of governance created a network of alliances with loyal elites in the interior, aiming to provide security for trade and pilgrimage routes rather than comprehensively govern population and landed property. This network became much thicker in the eighteenth century. Through their work with the pilgrimage administration, leaders of specific camel-herding communities like the Bani Sakhr would acquire political privilege that proved crucial when the Ottoman regime moved to expand and standardize territorial governance in the late nineteenth century.

In the Syrian interior, Saudi expansion at the turn of the nineteenth century, the Egyptian interregnum of the 1830s, and the reestablishment of Ottoman rule in the 1840s were key moments in the transformation of this alliance-based form of governance. Chapter 2 shows that the unrest of the Egyptian period created opportunities for tent-dwelling elites whose wealth was based more in the trade and management of agricultural and pastoral products than in camel herding. Leaders of the ʿAdwan community, in particular, accumulated notable wealth in the context of the global wheat boom of the mid-nineteenth century, prompting elites from camel-herding communities like the Bani Sakhr to increase their own involvement in agriculture. The rising wealth and power of ʿAdwani elites and the promise of expanding wheat production fueled Ottoman officials’ midcentury visions of a prosperous agrarian economy. These aspirations combined with city-based merchant capitalists’ ambitions to extend intensive and uniform administrative governance to the interior in the late 1860s.

Chapters 1 and 2 use a variety of archival sources, chronicles, poetry, travelogues, and consular reports to place Ottoman reformers’ claims that they were entering an untamed frontier into a global perspective of aggressive imperial expansion. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 shift to the sources that the Ottoman project of making state space in the interior produced: court cases, land registers, and imperial investigations. These provide a granular account of transformations focusing on one interior locale: the Balqa subprovince and the Salt district in contemporary Jordan. During the late nineteenth century, Ottoman governance shifted from a pilgrimage-based administration to one intrusively governing land conceived as property. New ways of governing the interior after the 1870s crisis represented a renegotiation of existing relationships with Bedouin communities like the Bani Sakhr and the ʿAdwan, conducted in reference to standardized imperial law. But the administration also aspired to comprehensive connections with every tent dweller and village dweller, creating relationships with communities like the ʿAbbad that had not been involved with the Ottoman administration previously. This Ottoman policy move to include the Syrian interior and its tribes in an emergent standardized state space, while also marking them as in need of improvement, enabled the rise of a group of Bedouin bureaucrats.

Chapter 3 shows that in the tent-dwelling reaches of the Syrian interior, implementation of this uniform system depended on the participation, and ultimately the day-to-day administrative labor, of Bedouin bureaucrats like Dawjan al-Wiraykat and his sons. Court and land records from the interior district of Salt illuminate the contributions of these men in the making of Ottoman state space. Dawjan al-Wiraykat’s entry into the Ottoman bureaucracy built on his preexisting presence in regional wheat, barley, and clarified butter markets that credit relations with prominent town-dwelling capitalists sustained. His new connections to the paper-based circulation of imperial power also granted him a place in the Ottoman bureaucracy.100

Bedouin headmen’s work as street-level bureaucrats in the encampments of the interior enabled them to enter the circles of town-dwelling merchant capitalists who dominated the administrative councils governing interior districts in reference to imperial codified law. Chapter 4 delves into the contradictions of this new kind of bureaucracy in the 1890s and 1900s, when Bedouin communities began to openly resist Ottoman reallocations of land they regarded as theirs to refugees. The social and political influence that men like Dawjan al-Wiraykat had accumulated with both Ottoman officials and powerful town-based merchant capitalists helped them navigate the violent conflicts that ensued.101 Bedouin bureaucrats quickly translated the networks they had built through tax collection and court duties into organizing their communities to resist dispossession. They defended community rights when the government, defining the land they inhabited and used as “empty,” tried to settle refugee communities in their midst. More subtly, Bedouin bureaucrats maintained an unofficial market in land that remained unregistered owing to imperial decisions to limit registration in an exclusively-conceived “state domain.” The unofficial market Bedouin communities administered was “noncompliant” in the sense that it challenged the foundations of the state’s exclusive claim both to state domain and to allocate land rights, but it also appropriated and complemented documentary forms of state sanction.102 The persistence of this unofficial market in unregistered land into the twenty-first century is one of the most salient reflections of Bedouin communities’ long-term contributions to an uneven and contingent modern land administration.

Whereas Chapter 4 shows the ways in which Bedouin bureaucrats problematized and reshaped land administration, Chapter 5 delves into their participation in the administration of resources and people. In particular, the active participation of Bedouin bureaucrats as headmen of “tribes,” a category that had no place in uniform provincial governance as it was imagined in the 1860s, cemented its salience as a fundamental tool for the distribution of resources in the twentieth century. Court records from the late nineteenth century show that the tribe, as a population category within state space, became the bounding framework for contestations over resource distribution within administratively defined tent-dwelling communities.

Chapter 5 argues that ultimately, these contestations were about the nature and scope of Ottoman citizenship. The juridical equality of Ottomans had been a central pillar of standardized administration since the 1850s. But tax and administrative law limited participation in new forms of provincial politics, especially the right to vote in and stand for elections of governing council members and headmen, to property-owning, taxpaying men. These regulations created the figure of the “man of property” in the late Ottoman political context, men who had unique claims to the fullest political rights Ottoman citizenship offered.103

In terms of their wealth and proximity to Ottoman governing institutions, Bedouin bureaucrats became men of property, but nonelite tent dwellers could only aspire to their wealth and political status. In this emergent context, nonelite tent dwellers contested the prerogative of increasingly wealthy headmen to serve as their “access points,” especially regarding the distribution of tax burdens within their communities. These contestations occurred within the administrative framework of the tribe that delineated political representation within tent-dwelling communities. During the second constitutional period (1908–14), the tribe embodied the contradictions of an Ottoman administration determined to reach individuals but deeply and historically intertwined with collectivities and their leaders.104

My conclusion explores the legacies of Bedouin bureaucrats’ participation in Ottoman processes of modern state formation during the Faysali and British and French Mandate periods following World War I in the Syrian interior. In the immediate aftermath of the war, regional governments under the jurisdiction of the Faysali regime in Damascus increasingly regarded themselves as political and administrative reference points. This rural political empowerment undergirded the persistent interior resistance to colonial rule embodied in interlinked anticolonial revolts across the interior after British and French Mandate regimes proclaimed sovereignty in the early 1920s. The colonial regimes aimed to sever rural-urban connections that enabled wide-ranging resistance, especially through reifying and juridically isolating the “nomadic tribe,” in hopes of containing the nationalism that they saw as a town-based phenomenon. This juridical bifurcation, creating a separate legal regime for those defined as “nomadic Bedouin,” constituted a break from Ottoman imperial nation-building efforts that assimilated tribes into standardized village-based administration.

In contrast, British and French agrarian policy followed Ottoman precedent in leaving large swaths of land beyond zones of settled cultivation in a contested state domain. As in the late Ottoman period, much of the Syrian interior remained under the everyday administrative control of Bedouin communities until investor interest, refugee crises, or state-led development projects created drives to register land.105 Under these conditions, a market in unregistered plots of land under elite Bedouin administration has persisted, sometimes until the present.106 This land market and the contestations it continues to precipitate are one of the lasting legacies of the ever-unfinished project of making Ottoman state space.


1. This sketch of what the October 1879 land registration in Salt may have entailed is based on DLS Register 1, yoklama, Teşrinievvel 1295/Oct. 1879. I would like to thank Eugene Rogan for providing me with a copy of this register, which was not in the DLS archives in Jabal Luwaybda, Amman, when I worked there in 2012.

2. The Wiraykat registrations are in DLS Register 1, yoklama, Teşrinisani 1295/Oct. 1879, p. 7, entries 170–80.

3. According to Martha Mundy and Richard Saumarez Smith, residents of villages in the regions north of the Wiraykat lands identified the British use of steel boundary markers in 1930s Transjordan as a rupture in community land relations. See Mundy and Smith, Governing Property, 103, 235.

4. DLS Register 1, Teşrinievvel 1295/Oct. 1879, p. 1, entry 7.

5. Khuraysāt and Dāwūd, Sijill Maḥkamat Al-Salṭ al-Sharʿīyah, 204.

6. DLS Register 1, Teşrinievvel 1295/Oct. 1879, p. 7, entries 170–76. These entries include a marginal note confirming the subsequent mortgage of the property to the Agricultural Bank in 1932.

7. The LawPedia Project published two Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan Cassation Court civil rulings related to this case: 2008/1639 and 2010/1616.

8. Rogan, Frontiers of the State, 1–2; Bunton, Colonial Land Policies in Palestine, 5–6; Fischbach, State, Society and Land, chaps. 3 and 4; Mark LeVine, Overthrowing Geography, 184–85.

9. For the integration of the global wheat market, see Findlay and O’Rourke, Power and Plenty, 404–5. For other examples of agrarian visions of “empty land,” see Belich, Replenishing the Earth, chap. 3; and Weaver, The Great Land Rush, 135–36, 147–48.

10. Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century, chap. 4.

11. Holquist, “In Accord with State Interests,” 163; Otis, Dawes Act; Banner, How the Indians Lost Their Land, chap. 8.

12. See Brenner et al., State/Space: A Reader, especially the contributions of Nicos Poulantzas (“The Nation,” 65–83) and Henri Lefebvre (“Space and the State,” 84–100). I rely in particular on Manu Goswami’s use of the concept of state space to describe modern state formation in British India after 1858. Goswami, Producing India, 9.

13. “Neo-Europes” is Alfred Crosby’s phrase, adopted in a number of works on imperial frontiers. See, e.g., Crosby, Ecological Imperialism, 4; Weaver, The Great Land Rush, 4–5; and Hopkins, Ruling the Savage Periphery, chaps. 5 and 6. For a similar narrative focusing on the “Anglo-world,” see Belich, Replenishing the Earth, 49–51.

14. Burbank and Cooper, Empires in World History, chap. 9. See also Weaver, The Great Land Rush, 41–43; Osterhammel, Transformation of the World, 362–68; and Sabol, The Touch of Civilization.

15. Maier, Once within Borders, 145.

16. Minawi, The Ottoman Scramble, 2–4.

17. Hahn, “Slave Emancipation,” 309.

18. İslamoğlu, “Towards a Political Economy,” 11–12.

19. Sunderland, Taming the Wild Field, chap. 5; Martin, Law and Custom, chaps. 2 and 3; Richard White, It’s Your Misfortune, chaps. 6 and 15; Bensel, Political Economy, 15, chap. 5.

20. Banner, How the Indians Lost Their Land, 151–53; Pravilova, “The Property of Empire,” 374–76. On discourses of productivity in late Ottoman society more broadly, see Hafez, Inventing Laziness.

21. In some regions of the Ottoman Empire, these notions of progress produced violent forced-settlement campaigns and dispossession of populations deemed “nomadic” in the 1860s and 1870s. See Gratien, The Unsettled Plain, chap. 2; and Toksöz, Nomads, Migrants and Cotton, 65–73.

22. On extraterritoriality, see Can, Spiritual Subjects, chap. 3; and Low, Imperial Mecca, chap. 2. On the effects of the climate of interimperial competition of the late nineteenth century on immigration policies, see Fratantuono, “Producing Ottomans,” 5–6; and Kale, “Transforming an Empire,” 259–60.

23. Can and Low rightly caution against the tendency to view questions of territoriality and nationality primarily through the prism of religious identity, although European consuls’ practice of appointing coreligionist protégés and supporting separatist movements associated with non-Muslims did increase the politicization of religious identity, especially when it came to landholding. See Can and Low, “‘Subjects’ of Ottoman International Law,” 224–25.

24. Klein, The Margins of Empire, chap. 4; Astourian, “Silence of the Land,” 77–78; Rafeq, “Ownership of Real Property,” 223–24; Derri, “Imperial Creditors,” 10; Fitzmaurice, Sovereignty, Property and Empire, 6–9.

25. Satia, Spies in Arabia, 4.

26. With “politics of administration,” I refer to Huri İslamoğlu’s framework for understanding administrative regulations and rules as “power fields where multiple actors, including administrative ones, confront each other to negotiate the terms of their existence.” İslamoğlu, “Politics of Administering Property,” 277.

27. For conceptualizations of quotidian modern state practices as performances, see Saha, Law, Disorder and the Colonial State, 10–14; and Martinez, States of Subsistence, 8–14. Both draw on Judith Butler’s theory of performance in Butler, “Performative Acts.”

28. İslamoğlu, “Politics of Administering Property,” 276–81.

29. Razzaz, “Contestation and Mutual Adjustment,” 12–14; Al Naber and Molle, “Politics of Accessing Desert Land,” 500–501.

30. Scott, Seeing like a State, 1; see also Scott, Against the Grain, chap. 9.

31. The literature that views Bedouin in this way is voluminous. A foundational example is Gibb, Islamic Society and the West, 266–67.

32. Deringil, “‘They Live’”; Makdisi, “Ottoman Orientalism.” For scholars of the Mandates, this victimization occurred only after the disappearance of the Ottoman Empire, which they regarded as premodern. See Massad, Colonial Effects, 11; Dodge, Inventing Iraq, chaps. 4 and 5; Neep, Occupying Syria; and Hopkins, Ruling the Savage Periphery, 70–73.

33. Bhandar, Colonial Lives of Property, 37–39.

34. Fitzmaurice, Sovereignty, Property and Empire, 3, 19; Meek, Social Science, 20–22, 119–21. Assi, History and Politics, 8–9.

35. Twentieth-century Marxian historians and anthropologists, while adhering to evolutionist theories, focused extensively on the relationship between tribes and property. See Caton, “Anthropological Theories,” 75–85; see also David Sneath’s analysis of Soviet scholars’ debates over “nomadic feudalism” in Central Asia. Sneath, The Headless State, chap. 3. Hanna Batatu’s work on Iraq is a good example of this literature. Batatu argued that in Iraq, tribal shaykhs retained their power in the modern period, which he saw as distorting the natural course of history, because the British supported them. Batatu, Old Social Classes, 78; see also Haj, “The Problems of Tribalism.”

36. Much of this literature is discussed in Khoury and Kostiner, Tribes and State Formation, introduction.

37. Abu-Lughod, “Zones of Theory,” 285–87.

38. This continuum follows the discourse of elite members of camel-herding communities themselves. See Ibn Sbayyil, Arabian Romantic, 106n16. For a recent employment of this framework, see Çiçek, Negotiating Empire, 14–15.

39. Sam White, Climate of Rebellion, 229–43. For a critique of the historical role of Bedouin in White’s narration of the seventeenth-century crisis, see Meier and Tell, “World the Bedouin Lived In,” 24–25. For a sustained discussion of the overlaps between literary and historiographical representations of locusts, nomads, and other human communities conceived as mobile (e.g., refugees), see Dolbee, Locusts of Power.

40. Asad, “Beduin as a Military Force,” 71; Asad, “Equality in Nomadic Social Systems?” 423–24; Sneath, The Headless State, 16–21.

41. Doumani, Rediscovering Palestine, 201–5; Khoury, State and Provincial Society, 31–32; Shields, Mosul before Iraq, chap. 5; Lancaster, People, Land and Water, 62–63.

42. Belich, Replenishing the Earth; Weaver, The Great Land Rush, 17–30; Fields, Enclosure, x–xiv; Hopkins, Ruling the Savage Periphery, chap. 1.

43. Its salience in French imperial contexts has also been demonstrated. See, e.g., Davis, Resurrecting the Granary of Rome, chap. 3; Duffy, Nomad’s Land, 108–26; Roberts, “Almost as It Is Formulated.”

44. Mundy and Smith show that in some villages, certain shareholding practices endured even in the context of individuated registration. See Mundy and Smith, Governing Property, 234, chaps. 10 and 12. A reading, however, of tax and land law together, especially amendments to the Land Code after the 1870s, clearly points toward Ottoman lawmakers’ commitment to fully individuated and alienable title in agricultural land. See Kaya and Terzibaşoğlu, “Tahrir’den Kadastro’ya,” 38–39; Cin, Osmanlı Toprak Düzeni ve Bu Düzenin Bozulması, 310–30; and İslamoğlu, “Politics of Administering Property,” 279–80.

45. Mundy and Smith, Governing Property, 5.

46. Muslu, “‘Nomadic’ Borders”; Lindner, Nomads and Ottomans, 30–31; Avcı, “Tanzimat in the Desert,” 970.

47. See, e.g., Fleischer, “Royal Authority”; Topal, “Order as a Chronotope”; Gratien, The Unsettled Plain, 76–77; Schaebler, “Civilizing Others,” 16–20; and Adamiak, “To the Edge,” 28–29, 47–50.

48. On anthropologists’ employment of Khaldunian theory in functionalist notions of tribes, especially through the work of Ernest Gellner, see Caton, “Anthropological Theories,” 94.

49. Fleischer, “Royal Authority,” 215–16.

50. See, e.g., the discussion of uninhabited farms (mezraas) in İslamoğlu-İnan, State and Peasant, 40, 45–46, 147–48. Especially in the later sixteenth century, Ottoman administrators clearly privileged settled cultivation. My point here is simply that these earlier laws anticipated and sanctioned more diverse land-use patterns than their later iterations. See also Hütteroth and Abdulfattah, Historical Geography, 29.

51. Kasaba, A Moveable Empire, chap. 3; Winter, “Alep et l’émirat du désert,” 46.

52. Topal, “Order as a Chronotope,” 29–30.

53. Kılınçoğlu, Economics and Capitalism, 19–25. See in particular Kılınçoğlu’s discussion (24–25) of the debates over agriculture vs. industry among Ottoman intellectuals and officials in the nineteenth century.

54. Johansen, Islamic Law; Mundy and Smith, Governing Property, chaps. 1–4.

55. Barakat, “Making ‘Tribes,’” 484.

56. Gary Fields’s analysis of the way discourses of landscape improvement entered law and became “facts on the ground” through architectural changes is particularly helpful here. See Fields, Enclosure, 9–10. For private property as a globally constructed institution of the nineteenth century, see İslamoğlu, “Towards a Political Economy,” 12–13.

57. For examples of dispossession that followed the legal channels of the Land Code, see Gratien, The Unsettled Plain, 98–99; Williams, States of Cultivation; and Ben-Bassat, “Bedouin Petitions,” 143–44.

58. Kedar, Yiftchatel, and Amara, Emptied Lands, chap. 2; Nasasra, Naqab Bedouins, chaps. 10–11.

59. İslamoğlu, “Property as a Contested Domain,” 7.

60. Pamuk, “Ottoman Empire in the ‘Great Depression’”; Schilcher, “The Great Depression.”

61. Goswami locates the “rise of nationally regulated capitalism” in contradistinction to Britain’s global hegemony in Germany, France, the United States, and Japan. Ottoman lawmakers did not have the financial sovereignty to resist British hegemony in all of the same ways, but Ottoman internal administration in particular responded to this larger context of resistance. See Goswami, Producing India, 11.

62. Osterhammel, Transformation of the World, 54; Pamuk, The Ottoman Empire, 13–15; Findlay and O’Rourke, Power and Plenty, 426–27.

63. Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital, chap. 7.

64. Beshara Doumani uses the phrase “periphery’s periphery” in reference to Nablus; see Doumani, Rediscovering Palestine, 3. The dismissal of late Ottoman sovereignty dovetails with a tendency among historians of the twentieth-century Middle East to locate the foundations of the modern state in the British and French Mandate administrations. See Neep, Occupying Syria; and Massad, Colonial Effects, 11.

65. Birdal, Political Economy, 7.

66. Minawi, The Ottoman Scramble; Derri, “Imperial Creditors,” 2.

67. Barakat, “Underwriting the Empire,” 391.

68. Lewis, Nomads and Settlers, 59–63, 126–31.

69. Abujaber, Pioneers over Jordan, 137–40.

70. Levine and Foner, Half Slave, 209.

71. Belich, Replenishing the Earth, 84.

72. Especially the latter remain largely undocumented, and it is unclear how many of them remained. See, e.g., BOA.MVL 755/12, 14 S 1276/12 Sept. 1859, which documents the migration of eight thousand cultivators from the hinterlands of Nablus over the Jordan River to Ajlun in the late 1850s. Norman Lewis also discussed the phenomenon of cultivators working for Bedouin elites on plantation-style farms in the northern interior from the 1850s. See Lewis, Nomads and Settlers, 69–72, 126–31; and Abujaber, Pioneers over Jordan, 187–90.

73. Roberts, “Almost as It Is Formulated,” 610.

74. Clark, “Agrarian Context,” 33; Weaver, The Great Land Rush, 321; Foner, Free Soil, 27–29.

75. Chatty, Displacement and Dispossession, 97–98; Fratantuono, “Producing Ottomans,” 2–4.

76. İnalcık and Quataert, Economic and Social History, 2:856–57; Vladimir Hamed-Troyansky has also recognized the confluence between these laws, as well as the resettlement of peasants in the Russian context. See Hamed-Troyansky, “Imperial Refuge,” 16–17.

77. For the ways these global debates played out in French Algeria, see Roberts, “Almost as It Is Formulated.”

78. Genetin-Pilawa, Crooked Paths to Allotment, chap. 7. Jason Moore’s concept of “commodity frontiers” as “cheap” landscapes that gain value through commodification after profit-threatening crises is useful for linking the experiences of the Syrian interior and the American West here. See Moore, Capitalism in the Web, 15–17.

79. Derri, “Imperial Creditors,” 4; Zandi-Sayek, Ottoman Izmir, chap. 1; Cole, “Empire on Edge,” chap. 4.

80. Blumi, Ottoman Refugees, chap. 1; Hamed-Troyansky, “Imperial Refuge,” 15–16.

81. Kiyotaki, Ottoman Land Reform, 20–21, 162, 200–202; Çetinsaya, “Politics of Reform in Iraq.”

82. On the Stolypin land reforms, see Yaney, The Urge to Mobilize, chaps. 5–6; and Pallot, “The Stolypin Land Reforms.”

83. Holquist, “In Accord with State Interests,” 157; Pravilova, “The Property of Empire”; Masoero, “Territorial Colonization,” 85.

84. As we will see, in both contexts there was also extensive official anxiety about peasants both meeting their productive potential and claiming more land than they deserved. See Masoero, “Territorial Colonization,” 76.

85. Polatel and Üngör, Confiscation and Destruction, chap. 4; Morack, The Dowry of the State?; Kürt, The Armenians of Aintab, chap. 4.

86. Astourian, “Silence of the Land,” 76–80; Klein, The Margins of Empire, chap. 4.

87. Kuehn, Empire, Islam, and Politics of Difference; Low, Imperial Mecca, 33; Morrison, “Metropole, Colony, and Imperial Citizenship,” 329–30.

88. “Vasite-i tevsil.” See the “Financial Affairs Regulation” of 1867, Article 6, in Düstur, 2:4.

89. Weber, Economy and Society, 2:956–58; Swedberg and Agevall, The Max Weber Dictionary, 20.

90. Felten and von Oertzen, “Bureaucracy as Knowledge,” 3.

91. I owe this point to conversations about nineteenth-century administration with Camille Cole. See also Cole, “Empire on Edge,” 142; Yaycıoğlu, Partners of the Empire, 47; and Yaycıoğlu, “Karlofça Ânı,” 19.

92. Lipsky, Street-Level Bureaucracy, 4. Ilana Feldman’s observations about the importance of repetitive, daily practice in extending bureaucratic power are relevant here; see Feldman, Governing Gaza, 10–17.

93. İslamoğlu, “Politics of Administering Property,” 277.

94. I use “practice” here in the sense of Bourdieu, as a structured process referring to certain rules, in this case rules expressed in codified law, with contingent and unpredictable outcomes. See Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory. On the unpredictable outcomes of modern bureaucracy, see also Gupta, Red Tape; and İslamoğlu, “Politics of Administering Property,” 311n3.

95. Saraçoğlu, Nineteenth-Century Local Governance, 51.

96. This argument takes into account the productive recent scholarship on the distinctions between subjecthood, nationality, and citizenship in the late Ottoman context and connects citizenship to political participation conditioned by taxation in particular. See Can, Spiritual Subjects, 24, 157; and Hanley, “What Ottoman Nationality Was,” 278.

97. Sneath, The Headless State, chap. 3; Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire; Hämäläinen, Lakota America, chap. 4.

98. Hämäläinen, “What’s in a Concept?,” 87–88.

99. On the transformations of the pilgrimage administration in the eighteenth century, see Barbir, Ottoman Rule in Damascus, chap. 3; Rafeq, “Qāfilat al-Ḥajj al-Shāmī”; and Petersen, Medieval and Ottoman Hajj Route, 27.

100. Hull, Government of Paper; Cole, “Empire on Edge,” 14–20.

101. For an account of how local communities have reacted to capital and state expansion resting on some of the same approaches as this book, see Tutino, The Mexican Heartland.

102. Razzaz, “Contestation and Mutual Adjustment,” 12.

103. Hanley, “What Ottoman Nationality Was,” 278.

104. Özbek, “Osmanlı İmparatorluğunda Gelir Vergisi.”

105. Razzaz, “Contestation and Mutual Adjustment,” 14–15.

106. Al Naber and Molle, “Politics of Accessing Desert Land,” 501.