States of Cultivation
Imperial Transition and Scientific Agriculture in the Eastern Mediterranean
Elizabeth R. Williams



During the final years of World War I, Ottoman bureaucrats in the eastern Mediterranean who wanted an expert opinion on developing the region’s agriculture turned to one man: Hüseyin Kâzım. Privileged and wealthy, Kâzım was the son of the governor of Trabzon and pursued studies at the Soğukçeşme military school, the Mülkiye (Civil Service) School, the English Commerce School in İzmir, and the École Agronome de Paris.1 Later, having given up a plan to travel to New Zealand with his friend Tevfik Fikret, Kâzım decided to work on a small farm on land bought by his father in Manisa not too far from Izmir. According to his memoirs, during this period he read about scientific and mechanical agriculture and “tested the most practically applicable theories and did not abstain from investigating the region’s agricultural qualities and conditions.”2 Following the Ottoman Empire’s Second Constitutional Revolution in 1908, Kâzım joined forces with Tevfik Fikret and Hüseyin Cahid to start Tanin, the Istanbul-based daily paper of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), an influential mouthpiece in the post-1908 moment.3 Among his copious publications were seven books about agriculture, including two distributed by the Society for National Defense (Müdafaa-i Milliye Cemiyeti) for use in village schools and a French agricultural textbook translated into Ottoman.4 By the time he fell out with the CUP and moved to Beirut, where he lived in self-imposed exile during the war, his reputation as an expert on matters of scientific agriculture was well-established.5

Thus in 1917, when Rafiq Tamimi, the Beirut commerce school’s director, and Mehmet Behcet, the Sultani school’s assistant director, compiled a two-volume report on the province of Beirut at the behest of its Ottoman governor, ʿAzmi Bey, they invited Kâzım to contribute the section on “Agricultural Matters.”6 Soon after, the governor of Mount Lebanon, Ismaʿil Haqqi Bey, also solicited Kâzım to write about agriculture for his two-volume set on Mount Lebanon.7 Both compendiums aimed to provide a “scientific” (ʿilmi) perspective on, or guide to, the regions they described, and, as Kâzım explained in his introduction to the Mount Lebanon series, to ensure “that the government knows its essence and defines itself.”8 As such, they represented the culmination of decades-long efforts undertaken by successive Ottoman bureaucracies to extract and compile knowledge about the empire’s provincial hinterlands.

In the final years of the war, Kâzım’s contributions aimed to offer a blueprint for the region’s postwar economic development. His essay in the Beirut volume, “A Few Words Concerning Syria’s Agriculture,” took a comprehensive approach to assessing the eastern Mediterranean’s potential.9 According to Kâzım, the region had a soil and climate that were eminently suitable to agricultural production, even with basic methods, and made the area even more fertile than other provinces. He acknowledged the region’s illustrious history as a source of agricultural bounty for the Phoenicians and Romans but blamed environmental changes for what he considered its underdeveloped potential in the early twentieth century—in his assessment there were fewer forests, more silted-up riverbeds and swamps, and decreased soil fertility than in the past.10 But “by science and industry humankind found ways to enable domination [tahakküm] of nature and land and searched for remedies to weather and climatic events.”11 New industrial and mineral substances promised alternative means to replenish the soil.12 The province of Beirut already produced a variety of crops, including wheat, barley, beans, millet, and lentils, but with improved rotational methods, it could expand the cultivation of potatoes, beets, and carrots, providing additional nutrition for both humans and animals.13 Fruit tree and vegetable cultivation, forestry, vineyards, silk production, poultry raising, and dairy-related industry all held promise.14 By applying science and industry, planting forests and pastures, draining marshes, and improving irrigation and seeds, Syria would quickly rank among “the most progressive agricultural regions in the world.”15 Before shifting to more productive rotations and intensive cultivation, however, the region first needed educational infrastructure and institutions to encourage investment.16 In Mount Lebanon Kâzım suggested prioritizing reforestation, expanding pasture lands, and increasing fruit and vegetable cultivation.17 With careful technocratic planning, he envisioned myriad possibilities for making the region’s agriculture an even richer source of revenue for the state.

At the same moment that Kâzım was formulating his vision for the region’s agriculture, another group in the south of France was eyeing the eastern Mediterranean’s agricultural lands’ “richness” with a different goal in mind. Undertaking a campaign to shore up political support for French control of the eastern Mediterranean in the war’s aftermath, they emphasized the “possibilities” that the region’s agricultural resources offered the French empire. The campaigners, many of whom had commercial interests in the region and were connected to the Colonial Party, expressed confidence that the expertise of French foresters and agronomists could be applied to reforestation and hydraulic projects to ensure extraction of the region’s “economic value.”18 The area’s value was not just of importance to domestic and internal imperial economic interests but also to France’s ability to compete with its imperial rivals. The same year that Beyrut Vilayeti appeared, another book in France, La Syrie et la France, urged the campaign’s opponents to consider the imperative of expanding France’s access to resources in the face of imperial competition from Britain and Germany. The anticipated agricultural riches that French rule promised would secure not only a steady stream of raw materials for French industries but also France’s influence in the eastern Mediterranean.19

These two assessments of the region’s agricultural potential came at a pivotal moment for agriculture globally. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries marked a moment of rapid innovation in agricultural technologies that ignited the imaginations of bureaucrats, large landowners, and well-off farmers alike. These new technologies promised lucrative and transformative results if officials created supportive institutions and enacted administrative policies, technologies in their own right, to facilitate their spread. They represented the fruits of new developments in chemistry, mechanization, and the use of fossil fuels. If properly applied and tested, so the thinking went, farmers would no longer be primarily bound by careful husbanding of the soil to maintain its fertility, nor would they be at the mercy of inadequate rainfall or pests that wreaked havoc. On the contrary, they would be able to “dominate” nature, intensifying existing output or expanding into regions that had remained uncultivated because of insufficient labor or lack of water resources. In the early twentieth century the full ramifications of these technologies and their interactions with the environments they purported to dominate had yet to unfold. The devastation of the 1930s Dust Bowl in the United States and massive expansion in crop production as well as the “violence” of the Green Revolution were still years, if not decades, away.20

Nonetheless, technocratic elites were already experimenting with new measures to facilitate access to these capital-intensive technologies and assess their effectiveness in relation to existing methods. In the eastern Mediterranean matters were no different; however, these two assessments represented two different imperial frameworks within which this experimentation would unfold in the region. One was an Ottoman framework whose days were numbered even as Kâzım made his proposals, and the other was a French colonial framework, which, due in large part to these campaigners’ lobbying, imposed itself on the region in the war’s aftermath. States of Cultivation explores the ramifications of the contrasts and continuities between these two empires’ approaches to “dominating” nature in this moment of possibility.

At the Intersection of Environment and Capital: Agriculture, State Building, and Imperial Politics

As bureaucrats around the globe mustered their administrative capacities to facilitate the flow of more capital resources into agricultural production and produce expertise to assess the effects of untried technologies, the region at the center of this story underwent a fundamental reconfiguration of its economic and political space.21 This book focuses primarily on the territory that comprises what are today the nation-states of Syria and Lebanon. But in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries these discrete nation-states did not exist; rather, the region contained provinces of a reforming Ottoman Empire whose contours looked quite different from the region’s current borders.22 Following World War I, a short-lived Arab government ruled from Damascus before British and French officials divided the region into mandates sanctioned by the League of Nations and incorporated them into their respective imperial spheres, a state of colonial rule that lasted through World War II. Post-independence developments are beyond the scope of this book, but as discussed in the epilogue, the legacy of the technocratic ideas that circulated during both the Ottoman and mandate periods continued to live on even as the policies and rhetoric of the mandate period facilitated a representation of the region as agriculturally behind and in need of “development.”

World War I has typically functioned as a periodization break in the literature, with most historians focusing either on the Ottoman period or the mandate that followed it. A small body of work has recently started to explore elements of continuity from the late Ottoman period through the mandate.23 This study builds on these analyses by tracing institutional developments and demonstrating intellectual and practical continuities and divergences related to the region’s agricultural administration across this transition.24 It also aims to place regional developments in their imperial and global contexts.25 Broadening the historical and geographic scales for assessing regional developments underscores shared technocratic ideals and projects and clarifies how regional particularities shaped divergent trajectories.26

Juxtaposing the parallels and contrasts across these historical and geographic scales offers an alternative to the view that Ottoman approaches to governance in certain more distant provinces, such as those in the eastern Mediterranean, were akin to colonialism.27 First, this alternative approach demonstrates how Ottoman technologies of rule that aimed to produce a more comprehensive corpus of knowledge about its territory and create more homogenized infrastructure across its provinces paralleled efforts undertaken by other nineteenth-century states. The eastern Mediterranean provinces were integral to these projects, in contrast to other regions where certain forms of institution building were not extended to the same degree and where scholars have argued that administrative strategies were more invested in delineating difference.28 This is not to deny that these efforts at homogenization often played out differently as imperial officials responded to and frequently integrated local particularities.29

Second, this longue durée perspective enables a study in contrasts between Ottoman strategies of governance and those deployed by French mandate officials after World War I, when the empire’s eastern Mediterranean provinces were divided into mandates and incorporated into French and British imperial peripheries in what was clearly a colonial endeavor. The mandate system’s thinly disguised pretext for this colonial rule insisted on the region’s inhabitants’ need for “tutelage” from France and Britain to prepare them for self-governance.30 Implicit in the idea of the mandate was that the mandated regions would one day become independent states. Hence from the beginning of French rule, as efforts to intensify capital investment in agricultural production and grapple with emerging technologies to increase revenue continued, Syrian and Lebanese officials propounded and pursued their economic priorities within the framework of national development. Their vision predated French colonialism and drew on efforts, which largely continued Ottoman practices, from the brief period of Arab government rule following Ottoman withdrawal from the region; it also challenged French priorities, creating a clash between another state-centered plan for development and a colonial plan and the state building it denied.

Central to the plans of all these actors was a version of how they aimed to “dominate,” in Kâzım’s words, or administer nature to achieve their desired ends. Their plans were contingent on and shaped in part by their (mis)conceptions of the environments before them but also by political, economic, and technocratic considerations.31 Yet despite aspirations of profitable environmental management and transformation, at times buttressed by visions of a more prosperous distant past, these efforts often had unintended consequences. A common theme in histories of the environment is how the natures created by such projects often involve unanticipated ecological responses: Canals silt up, undesirable species thrive, lakes dry out.32 Explanations of such phenomena can focus primarily on the features of dirt or water flows, but widening the lens brings other factors into play—namely, the social, political, and economic arrangements that facilitated a particular “way of organizing nature”33—that is, not just how certain aspects of nature thwarted or reconfigured these designs but how flows of capital and nature were coproduced at the interstices of these multiple factors.

Drawing inspiration from this literature and that of political ecology, which aims to “unravel the political forces at work in environmental access, management, and transformation,” this book traces Ottoman and French mandate efforts to exert greater control over the management of agricultural resources and the capacity to extract from them in the eastern Mediterranean.34 In so doing, it interrogates how the trajectories of imperial rule and state building affected the dynamic intersection of environmental management, capital formation and accumulation, and expertise production, contributing to a growing literature that has addressed aspects of these impacts in neighboring regions, such as Egypt, Iraq, and Adana.35

In the eastern Mediterranean, despite shared technocratic ideals that animated imperial policies during both the Ottoman and French mandate periods, divergent motives on the part of Ottoman, Syrian, Lebanese and French actors led to different approaches to commodifying the region’s land and implementing projects aimed at increasing the value extracted from it. As the region transitioned from integrated Ottoman provinces to a colonial periphery of the French empire, new infrastructures and relations between imperial center and local institutions and actors led to intensified extraction, less protection from the inroads of foreign capital, increased tensions between technocratic officials, and decreased attention to ecological constraints. Ottoman, Lebanese, and Syrian actors emphasized sovereignty in operations of capital accumulation, embraced local expertise, and promoted technocratic governance. In contrast, French officials viewed the region as a repository for surplus French capital, privileged French expertise, and expressed disdain for local technocratic approaches and those who advocated them, if French officials acknowledged them at all. The transition from Ottoman state-building strategies to the colonial ones of French mandate officials yielded increasingly fragmented spaces and natures that reflected the conflicts between these contrasting priorities and their intersection with regional environmental limits.

At the center of this analysis are the myriad human actors whose activities not only involved circulation in global networks of expertise production but also movement between urban and rural spaces at the regional and local levels. Detailing the motives driving these interventions in rural communities, whether by Ottoman bureaucrats, local technocrats, nationalist elites, French colonial officials, or other foreign interests, demonstrates the significance of rural areas to state, nationalist, and colonial projects of environmental management and resource extraction, expanding on a perspective that is largely lacking in the region’s urban-dominated historiography.36 It also reveals the mutually constitutive nature of urban and rural developments.

Different as their goals might have been, all parties emphasized the capacity of scientific practice and technology to facilitate their control over the environment.37 Although not a new phenomenon, the scale on which these changes could be carried out had increased substantially by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—a shift in scale made possible by new advances in chemistry and the increasing use of fossil fuels.38 The ever more compressed global space-time that this new scale facilitated created increasing disparities and unevenness.39 Colonial powers’ extraction and exploitation of environmental resources in spaces characterized by vast power disparities between metropole and colony were a crucial part of this process.40 Policies that sought to transform agricultural production, making it more amenable to metropole needs and training the land’s productive capacity on the raw materials its industry desired, were central to imperial projects of “development” at the expense of local subsistence. Not infrequently these policies also led to dispossession.41 In the eastern Mediterranean, French colonial rule sought to reorient the region’s agricultural productivity and processes of extraction at a pivotal moment of innovation in agricultural technologies. Foregrounding local dynamics with reference to this global context highlights how this transition exacerbated unevenness as a result of shifting political, economic, and spatial dynamics.

Ottoman strategies for implementing “scientific” agriculture—what Burbank and Cooper identify as imperial “repertoires of power”—provide an instructive counterpoint to French repertoires.42 The comparison enabled by a perspective of over a century juxtaposes Ottoman efforts to thwart elite capital accumulation and direct more revenue into the imperial treasury, and French policies aimed at channeling surplus capital into the countryside and intensifying extraction. It contrasts the gradual construction of an interconnected network of “scientific” agricultural infrastructure during the Ottoman Empire’s final decades with the piecemeal, desultory, and even destructive approach to such institutions under the mandate. Juxtaposing these two approaches provides fresh insight into the mandate’s impact. The shifting of imperial space after the war not only constrained aspirations for national economic development but also realigned the circulation of capital and expertise within a new imperial sphere. The demands of this new imperial framework exacerbated the effects of environmental variation and limitations, laying the groundwork for resistance driven not only by political but also by economic and ecological grievances in which the political was intimately bound up.

The Eastern Mediterranean

The landscape onto which Kâzım projected his plans for agricultural development was one bursting with ecological and agricultural diversity. In other regions, such as Egypt, a single river (or its watershed) might provide the seasonal rhythms and lifeblood for most agricultural production as well as a unifying lens for colonial officials and nationalists alike in their plans for economic development and for historians in their analysis of those plans and their consequences. For example, in Egypt during the nineteenth-century, cotton monoculture replaced large areas of subsistence crops as Egypt’s well-watered fields supplied British textile mills.43 In contrast, Syrian agriculture remained more diverse and subsistence oriented, with wheat and barley the predominant staples, especially in the rain-fed plains. These were supplemented by vineyards, olives, and a variety of fruit crops.44 Mulberry trees, which provided silkworm sustenance, flourished on the hillsides of Mount Lebanon.45 The eastern Mediterranean offered a multiplicity of ecological zones with their respective advantages and challenges for technocratic planning.46

In broad strokes the region’s geography consists of a narrow fertile coastal plain that rises to a series of mountains dominated by the often snow-covered peaks of Mount Lebanon with lower mountain ranges and hills to the south and north. Because of a system of faults created by the boundaries of two tectonic plates meeting along the region’s western edge, these peaks drop dramatically to the depths of the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea in the south and somewhat less dramatically to the fertile but formerly marshy Biqaʿ, Ghab, and Amik Valleys in the north.47 More arid hills to the east of these valleys give way to the rain-fed plains of the interior, which eventually become eastern grasslands extending into semiarid desert crisscrossed by the cultivated banks of the Euphrates River and its tributaries. The region boasts a rich variety of agricultural production. Like Kâzım, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century local agronomists and technocrats saw all manner of potential in these diverse ecologies, but the approaches, like the ecologies themselves, would have to be diffuse and place-specific.

Managing the region’s water resources was key to this planning because unreliable access to dependable irrigation was a primary concern. Most of the region’s rivers, such as the ʿAsi, Kuwayk, Barada, Euphrates, Litani, Yarmuk, and Jordan, and their tributaries were already used for small-scale irrigation. Some promised additional possibilities in limited areas and even hydroelectric power. However, challenges were rife. For example, the ʿAsi River, though one of the most extensive rivers after the Euphrates, was prone to swampy breeding grounds of malaria that made year-round habitation not just undesirable but potentially deadly.48 The lack of a gradient along much of its course required creative techniques, such as the waterwheels (nuria) of Hama, which raised the ʿAsi’s waters to channels connected to irrigation networks. Other rivers were not reliable as year-round sources of water. Notably, following the division of the former province of Aleppo between Syria and Turkey, the Quwayq River, which started north of the border and flowed south through the city of Aleppo, ran dry in the city during summers.49 Meanwhile, vast expanses of fertile rain-fed land, located far from the reaches of these rivers, required other strategies to ensure adequate moisture.50 The summer months were dry with rainfall starting in mid-fall, signaling the beginning of soil preparation for planting, and continuing through the spring. Not just the amount but also the timing of rainfall was crucial for a successful harvest.

FIGURE 6. An 1884 rendering of “The Botanical Regions of Syria.” A color-coded key distinguishes between the coastal plain, mountains up to 1000 meters, the high mountains and those below them, interior plains, the desert, and the Jordan Valley. From George Post, Nabat Suriya wa-Filastin wa-al-qutr al-Misri wa-bawadiha (Beirut, 1884), 411. Source: Hathitrust.

FIGURE 7. “Double waterwheel” on the ʿAsi River in Hama. Source: G. Eric and Edith Matson Photography Collection, Library of Congress,

Ottoman, Syrian, and Lebanese technocrats pursued a variety of strategies to address what they regarded as one of the most pressing obstacles to agriculture’s development, prioritizing dry-farming studies alongside plans for dam building or drainage projects.51 Exploring multiple options suited their goal of encouraging a diverse array of crops. In contrast, French officials fixated on irrigation schemes, which were most conducive to ensuring water for their preferred crops, such as cotton, although they ultimately focused more on the planning and studying than on actual execution. Only one small project to raise the dam on the lake near Homs was under way by the late 1930s, despite multiple studies.52

Fluctuation in water levels was one of the primary variables that determined the relative bounty of the agricultural season from year to year, but other factors also posed challenges. The perennial threats of locusts and field mice were joined by Sunn bugs soon after the mandate’s arrival in the region. Winds, untimely frost, or hail were also matters of concern. Humid winds bringing moisture from the west were beneficial, but northern winds were cold, and dry winds from the south, east, and southeast, which appeared at the end of spring and could blow into the fall, were hot and could be devastating, particularly at certain points in the season when they scorched crops and led to losses.53 Although some of these factors proved more challenging to resolve than others, all were in play as technocrats assessed their options for the region’s agricultural development.54

Networks and the Production of Knowledge

Knowledge about agricultural technologies and the administrative tools developed to facilitate their use circulated in networks at the global, imperial, and local levels. Goals such as increasing the legibility of provincial hinterlands, incorporating rural production more fully into state or empire-centered infrastructures of capital accumulation, and making production itself more lucrative through either more intensive or extensive methods drove these circulations. The “imperial intersections” between competing empires facilitated exchanges and encouraged innovation.55 An increasingly robust scholarship on networks has documented the transnational and coproduced nature of the knowledge that networks have generated, but it also has demonstrated how this knowledge is contingent on uneven power relations and local particularities.56 Technocrats and administrators trained in Ottoman or French imperial contexts brought their experiences to the new colonial context of the mandate, where, despite speaking a common technocratic language derived from these networks, they advocated divergent approaches to translating ideas into local policies derived from conflicting interests and the particularities of their backgrounds.

By tracing the circulation of Ottoman, Syrian, Lebanese, and French technocrats in these common networks, this book provides a counterpoint to the historiography that, to the extent it has examined the factors influencing approaches to governance, has focused on colonial officials. For example, scholars have explored the backgrounds of French officials and how their experiences in other regions of the French empire, such as Morocco, influenced their approach to mandate rule in Syria and Lebanon.57 The backgrounds of their Syrian and Lebanese counterparts have received less attention, particularly regarding their circulation in Ottoman and international networks and the impact on their ideas about economy and governance.58 Despite noting the participation of some of the most elite among them in Ottoman institutions, scholars have yet to examine the full ramifications of these actors’ education and participation in these institutions.59 Situating local and French technocrats in common global networks of expertise circulation not only adds to our understanding of how French policymakers’ formation and colonial experiences informed their rule in mandate Syria but also illustrates the parallels that characterized the experiences of local and French technocrats, making the divergences in their practice resulting from different end goals and prior points of reference all the more stark.

An emphasis on these individual actors facilitates a narrative that operates on multiple scales and across shifting arrangements of space, underscoring their unique contributions.60 Just as mandate policies reflected French officials’ attempts to apply techniques developed in other areas of the French empire to the idiosyncratic nature of colonial mandate rule, local officials drew on the Ottoman legacy and their training in that milieu to formulate counterproposals. Constrained by the uneven power relations of colonial rule, these proposals largely went unfulfilled and have remained unaddressed in the literature. However, just because local technocrats were unable to implement their vision of economic planning does not mean that their proposals are undeserving of attention.61 On the contrary, not only do their ideas suggest paths not taken as a result of colonial interventions into the environments and economies of the eastern Mediterranean, but they also provide long-term context for programs of rural development and agricultural self-sufficiency whose emergence scholars date to the aftermath of World War II.62 Recently, scholars examining the political-economic perspectives of “men of capital” in mandate Palestine and nationalists in British-occupied Egypt have demonstrated the diversity and complexity of their ideas.63 By detailing the perspectives of Ottoman, Syrian, and Lebanese technocrats, this book provides not just further evidence that ideas circulating in the region were far from mere pale imitations of European models but also demonstrates their roots in and the inspiration they derived from long-term developments in local institutions and practice.64

The term technocrat used throughout the book refers to a group of administrators or midlevel bureaucrats, some agronomists among them, who insisted on technical or “scientific” knowledge (ʿilm) and a more managerial approach as the basis of administration, particularly when dealing with economic questions.65 Typically occupying positions less prestigious than provincial governors, government ministers, or nationalist notables, their central role in formulating and implementing policies of governance has long been overlooked.66 Whether of local origin or assigned to an area from farther afield, over the course of the nineteenth century the Ottoman government increasingly relied on these officials with their “scientific” training to carry out administrative policies.67 Sidelined during the mandate, they made their displeasure known.

State, Empire, and the Politics of Rural Space

The institutional continuities that characterized local technocratic proposals for expanding infrastructures of state space in rural areas challenged French plans for those localities; French officials considered the exploitation of these areas an essential component of their efforts to incorporate the region into their imperial sphere. State space refers to the product of an array of institutions and technologies designed to organize and manage the creation of a seemingly homogeneous but hierarchical space that facilitates surveillance, control, and the reproduction of power.68 Colonial state space works to reinforce those hierarchies between the metropole and the colony while incorporating the colony into a globe-spanning imperial sphere in which those elements of exerting power are deployed in the service of imperial competition and expanding the imperial economy. As Manu Goswami argues about colonial India, “The colonial state space was inseparably part of a broader imperial scale-making project, one that sought to secure and maintain a Britain-centered and globe-spanning imperial economy.”69 In a similar vein, French officials pursued the production of a colonial state space in Syria and Lebanon through an array of technologies that sought to realign the space between the local and the global sphere and serve the expansion of their own imperial economic interests.

Contrasting the tension between Ottoman, French, Syrian, and Lebanese visions for the respective state spaces they worked to produce (or in the case of Syrian and Lebanese nationalists, aimed to produce) illustrates stark differences. From the efforts, albeit gradual and incomplete, to create increasingly homogenized institutions and hierarchical provincial administration of the Ottoman period, mandate rule fragmented the region, and each statelet’s administration developed its own peculiar structure. The attempts of urban-based administrators to implement in the rural countryside policies developed through global and imperial networks often stoked controversy and resistance. Tracing the implementation of, resistance to, and reformulation of technologies of land reform, taxation, agrarian credit provision, and education underscores the negotiations involved in establishing boundaries that characterized the maintenance of the Ottoman and mandate states’ “social and political order.”70

As technocratic elites implemented these technologies at the regional and local levels, they sought to establish new forms of relationships with rural areas.71 But the framework in which they understood the significance of their work was not just local; it was global as well. As Goswami observes, “Colonial practices of spatial and political-economic restructuring were indissolubly tied to broader processes of global restructuring whose pervasive if uneven effects were articulated on multiple spatial scales.”72 The same can be said of state practices in the metropole. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “governments . . . turned increasingly to scientific expertise to deal with the problems of capitalist production, resource management, and social order.”73 Ottoman, Syrian, Lebanese, and French technocrats were well aware of the economic competition they faced as technocrats the world over assessed the latest innovations and experimented with strategies to restructure their institutions to accommodate them.

A number of scholars have dealt in turn with Ottoman efforts to reorder the empire’s state space and the place of rural communities within it, whether redefining their rights to land, streamlining processes of extraction, or intervening in local relationships of debt and obligation.74 This book traces how these various reforms intertwined and built on each other. Their consequences, intended and unintended, reshaped the relationships between urban and rural actors and the impact of these policies continued to resonate in local technocratic proposals during the mandate. These proposals also foreshadowed the projects purportedly aimed at rural development and peasant enlightenment in the 1940s and 1950s, demonstrating their deep roots in local rural administration.75

Modernity, Science, and Expertise

The Ottoman and French mandate political-economic projects transformed local rural spaces and the region’s relation to the global economy and networks of expertise. The region’s encounter with the technological changes and shifts in circulation of capital that characterized this historical moment produced increasing unevenness. But intimately bound up in these projects was a representation of the region’s rural spaces, environments, and communities that was productive in its own right. By and large, as we saw at the beginning of this introduction, these discourses represented the region as previously flourishing but later, for various reasons, unable to fulfill its potential. These perceived shortcomings necessitated an intervention. This intervention and those who considered themselves capable of successfully carrying it out used modifiers such as scientific and modern to define the kinds of expertise they claimed to possess and the methods they insisted would allow them to “dominate” nature and recover that flourishing past.

Technocrats’ and officials’ claims to “scientific” or modern” expertise constituted a performance as well as a means of asserting a sense of belonging to an elite group of globe-trotting technocrats.76 The representation of their expertise as scientific constituted a form of “boundary-work,” distinguishing their knowledge from that of local farmers and identifying it with the knowledge of their similarly trained counterparts.77 Their claims to modernity also involved a performative element; as Mitchell argues, “The modern occurs only by performing the distinction between the modern and the non-modern.”78 Fully understanding the productive work achieved by a term such as modernity means teasing out the multiple registers asserted by its use as “a claim-making device.”79 Similar to what Michael Gasper has detailed with respect to “scientific” agriculture in Egypt, elites’ enthusiasm for this “science” and more broadly the package of technologies that would make rural spaces more legible to and exploitable by state institutions in the eastern Mediterranean derived in part from the ability it gave them to claim a role mediating between the state’s administration and rural communities.80

The neat binaries produced by these discourses belied the more complex realities that characterized the production and application of these forms of knowledge. Despite visions of dominating nature, nature is not so easily cowed. New technologies encountering the idiosyncrasies of different environments did not always produce the results anticipated. In such instances, as Mitchell has argued, “the projects themselves formed the science.”81 That is, knowledge deemed scientific emerged from a process of trial and error that often involved the input of local forms of knowledge that represented what “scientific” knowledge defined itself against. These processes constituted an aspect of the “translation” necessary “to render models of modernity intelligible.”82 The knowledge produced was indebted to local expertise but through boundary-work elided its contributions.83

A recent group of works on the history of science and technology in the region has examined topics as diverse as the history of astronomy and the social sciences in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean,84 science and subjectivity among Ottoman elites in Istanbul,85 and the building of the power grid in mandate Palestine.86 These works offer in-depth analyses of the contingent nature of developments and showcase the debates, translations, subjectivities, boundary-work, and infrastructures they produced. The literally dirt-bound debates and contestations over “scientific” or “modern” approaches to taxation, land reform, agrarian finance, and agricultural practice may seem far removed from the ivory towers and government offices where many of these other debates and contestations played out. Yet, as this book demonstrates, the productive power of their claims did not just identify the farmer as a particular kind of subject or the technocrat as a privileged mediator; it generated practices and created material realities on the ground in rural areas that continually shaped and reshaped rural communities’ relationship to Ottoman and then French mandate state space.

This rhetoric also had lasting legacies on a more global scale. Not only were representations and manifestations of boundary-work integral to the outcomes of imperial and state-building projects, serving to justify and buttress them, but they often also had ramifications well beyond the colonial state’s demise. Scholars of environmental and agricultural management in French North Africa have demonstrated the productive nature of colonial misrepresentations of the local environment. In Morocco and Algeria declensionist narratives deployed by French colonial officials represented the region as a former granary of Rome that was being neglected by its current inhabitants. Such representations justified policies of dispossession that persisted post-independence and continue to manifest in knowledge production by NGOs and the United Nations.87

As Ottoman, nationalist, and colonial technocrats surveyed the eastern Mediterranean and envisioned a prosperity that they insisted once had been and could be again, they shared common notions of the “scientific” and “modern” approaches they considered necessary for that revival, but the claims staked in those terms had contrasting meanings and were put to different ends. Contextualizing those claims within the global, imperial, and local networks through which they circulated and the practices they engendered highlights the intricacies and multivalent nature of these representations. In the eastern Mediterranean, as in North Africa, the final iterations of these practices and the representations they inspired, forged at the intersection of colonial state policies and nationalist resistance, had ongoing resonance and productive power post-independence. Not only did they justify intervention framed as “development,” but they also completely elided the long history of “scientific” and “modern” claim making that had characterized Ottoman, Syrian, and Lebanese expertise production.

Methodology and Sources

Agriculture is a particularly fruitful lens and the context of the late Ottoman Empire and French mandate is an instructive moment for exploring a series of questions positioned at the intersection of environmental history, histories of political economy, and science and technology studies. Agriculture was a central component of the state’s budgets throughout this period, a primary source of financial obligations between urban and rural actors, and, of course, an essential element of rural communities’ basic sustenance and the region’s provisioning more generally. Despite the topic’s importance, the literature on agriculture in the late Ottoman eastern Mediterranean and under the French mandate has not fully addressed the consequences of many of these dynamics.88 In particular, understanding how local technocrats in the eastern Mediterranean went about managing the productive intersection of environment and capital through their approach to agricultural policy making remains largely unexplored. States of Cultivation focuses on this intersection and its consequences, shedding new light on the region’s agrarian history. It does so by examining these technocrats’ interactions with urban landowners anxious to invest in and apply the latest technologies to their lands, peasants eager to demonstrate their expertise but resistant to policies that might imperil their subsistence, economic interests, or claims to land, and colonial officials whose technocratic ideals they often shared but whose imperial designs they challenged.

Chapters 1 and 2 focus on developments during the Ottoman period. Chapter 1 traces the myriad reforms passed following the initiation of the Tanzimat to make the empire’s provincial countryside more legible and therefore increasingly more lucrative for the Ottoman state. With a focus on the eastern Mediterranean, these developments are positioned in a global context of political-economic restructuring and the technocrats increasingly tasked with carrying them out in the global networks of expertise that informed their projects. Chapter 2 examines how Ottoman administrators translated global expertise into the establishment and expansion of institutions promoting “scientific” agricultural practice throughout the empire. Representations of the knowledge produced in these institutions tended to obscure the incorporation of local expertise, even though they were reliant on it, insisting instead on a “scientific” knowledge that was distinct from these contributions. Chapter 3 explores the consequence of the region’s shift from integral provinces of the Ottoman Empire to a colonial periphery within a French imperial sphere at the end of World War I. It demonstrates how this shift in imperial space led to multiple incompatible visions for developing the region’s agriculture and the contestations these provoked.

Chapters 4 and 5 examine developments in expertise production and administrative strategies parallel to those in chapters 2 and 1, respectively, but in the context of the mandate, underscoring the continuities and divergences from the Ottoman period. Chapter 4 contrasts the competing narratives of nationalist technocrats and French officials as they promoted their respective plans for agricultural education and experimentation in the region. Although local technocrats called for expanding infrastructure as part of cultivating a national state space, mandate officials eschewed any such comprehensive plan, favoring instead a piecemeal approach that was more intent on spreading French influence, rewarding local clients, or supplying French industries. Chapter 5 follows rising discontent with mandate agricultural policies that refused to acknowledge the ecological limits of extraction, provoking multiple episodes of resistance that escalated into increasingly organized political protest by the 1930s. The crisis enabled Syrian nationalist elites, many of whom had investments in agriculture and were therefore not immune to these adverse effects, to promote themselves as mediators intervening with mandate authorities on behalf of cultivators. Finally, the epilogue contrasts local technocratic efforts to grapple with the mandate’s legacy and representations of the region in the post–World War II development literature. It underscores the extent to which characterizations of the region as “behind” in this literature can be traced to colonial rhetoric and a lack of acknowledgment of local technocratic expertise and its longue durée contributions to agricultural change in the region.

Tracing the networks of technocratic expertise that spanned the late Ottoman and French mandate periods has involved quite a journey, literally and figuratively. Piecing together the stories of the myriad actors whose voices fill these pages entailed work in archives and libraries in Turkey, France, Lebanon, the United Kingdom, Italy, Switzerland, Syria, and the United States. This book draws on a wide variety of published and unpublished sources, many of them previously unexplored, including official correspondence, investigation transcripts, petitions, government reports, statistics compilations, journals, meeting minutes, pamphlets, parliamentary debates, telegrams, textbooks, theses, newspaper articles, consular reports, cartoons, photographs, maps, and personnel files. Composed primarily in Ottoman Turkish, Arabic, French, and, occasionally, English, these materials provide intimate insight into the perspectives and decision-making processes of Ottoman, Syrian, Lebanese, and French officials and technocrats, many trained agronomists among them, as well as nationalist activists and rural communities. Although rural communities’ individual voices are at times mediated or obscured by the pen of the transcriber, a colonial translator,89 a technocrat’s account of their exchange, or petitions signed by many, reading these sources against the grain when necessary enables insight into how farming communities responded to technocratic attempts to intervene in their land-tenure arrangements, lending relationships, tax collection methods, and agricultural practices. Exploring the vitality but also the precariousness of life in the countryside as it intersected with the idiosyncrasies and enthusiasm (albeit at times rather misguided) of technocratic planning has been quite a fascinating adventure. As we embark, may the reader find it just as compelling.


1. Türk Ansiklopedisi, 420; TNA, FO 195.2337, Fontana to Lowther, 15 November 1910. “École Agronome de Paris” is the term used by the British Consul. It is unclear whether he is referring to the Grignon Agricultural School, located in Thiverval-Grignon, or l’Institut national agronomique, located in Versailles, both of which were a short distance from Paris.

2. Kâzım Kadri, Meşrutiyetten, 68–69.

3. Türk Ansiklopedisi, 420.

4. See Kâzım Kadri, Meşrutiyetten, 136–39.

5. Refik and Behcet, Beyrut Vilayeti, 1: 58. He moved to Beirut eight months before the start of World War I (Kâzım Kadri, Meşrutiyetten, 139).

6. Refik and Behcet, Beyrut Vilayeti, vol. 1, frontmatter, 58.

7. Haqqi Bey, Lubnan, 2: 367–79. Mount Lebanon’s special status had been revoked in 1915, which meant that the Ottoman Interior Ministry appointed its governors (Akarlı, Long Peace, 199).

8. Refik and Behcet, Beyrut Vilayeti, vol. 1, frontmatter; Kâzım, “Dibajat al-Kitab,” 1, 2.

9. Given the administrative divisions of the region into the provinces of Beirut, Syria, and Aleppo, Kâzım’s proposal does not refer to Aleppo specifically.

10. Kâzım, “Suriye Ziraatına,” 58, 59–60.

11. Kâzım, “Suriye Ziraatına,” 59.

12. Kâzım, “Suriye Ziraatına,” 59.

13. Kâzım, “Suriye Ziraatına,” 61.

14. Kâzım, “Suriye Ziraatına,” 63.

15. Kâzım, “Suriye Ziraatına,” 60–61.

16. Kâzım, “Suriye Ziraatına,” 62, 63.

17. Kâzım, “Lamha,” 378.

18. CCM, MQ.5.4/35, “Lettre.” See chapter 3 for more details.

19. Roederer and Roederer, Syrie.

20. See Shiva, Violence; and Worster, Dust Bowl, 89–90.

21. For these efforts in France, the United States, Russia, and Japan, see Moulin, Peasantry; Paxton, French Peasant Fascism; Gilbert, Planning Democracy; Fullilove, Profit of the Earth; Fitzgerald, Every Farm a Factory; Moon, Plough; Sunderland, Taming the Wild Field; Kotsonis, Making Peasants Backwards; Kotsonis, States of Obligation; Fernández et al., Agriculture; Waswo, “Transformation”; Smethurst, Agricultural Development; K. Smith, Time of Crisis; and Wigen, Making of a Japanese Periphery.

22. During the first decades of the Tanzimat, the region was divided into eyalets. Following the promulgation of the first provincial regulation in 1864, the region was redivided between the provinces (vilayets) of Syria and Aleppo. Following the events of 1860 in Mount Lebanon, the special district (mutasarrifiyya) of Mount Lebanon was created in 1861 and, in 1888, the Ottoman administration carved out the province of Beirut. During the latter decades of the Ottoman Empire, the eastern Mediterranean encompassed the provinces of Syria, Beirut, and Aleppo and the special districts of Mount Lebanon, Zor, and Jerusalem.

23. Several scholars have traced elements of continuity from the late Ottoman period through the mandate, although they all ultimately focus more on the post-Ottoman period. See, for example, Watenpaugh, Being Modern; Provence, Last Ottoman Generation; Schayegh, Middle East; and Norris, Land of Progress.

24. Several recent works have underscored the value of tracing continuities and divergences in rural institutions or resource management over time periods distinguished by changes in political regimes. See, for example, Rosenthal, Fruits of Revolution; Matteson, Forests in Revolutionary France; and Peterson, Pipe Dreams.

25. For other recent works in this vein, see Yaycıoğlu, Partners of the Empire; Duffy, Nomad’s Land; and Minawi, Ottoman Scramble.

26. Goswami, Producing India.

27. Makdisi, “Ottoman Orientalism,” esp. 770; Deringil, “‘They Live’”; Norris, Land of Progress.

28. Minawi, Ottoman Scramble; Kuehn, Empire; Minawi, “Beyond Rhetoric”; Kuehn, “Shaping.” For a critique of the assumptions underlying this perspective on Ottoman governance, see Cole, “Empire on Edge,” 28–29. On institution building even in the Syrian interior, see Barakat, Bedouin Bureaucrats.

29. Saraçoğlu, Nineteenth Century Local Governance; Aymes, Grand progrès.

30. See “French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon.”

31. On the environment influencing human intentions, see Nash, “Agency.”

32. For several recent examples, see Mikhail, Nature and Empire, 273–74; Jakes, “Boom, Bugs, Bust”; Derr, Lived Nile; and Peterson, Pipe Dreams.

33. J. W. Moore, Capitalism, 2.

34. Robbins, Political Ecology, 3. See also Peet et al., Global Political Ecology.

35. For works more focused on environmental management, see Mikhail, Nature and Empire; S. White, Climate of Rebellion; Husain, Rivers of the Sultan; and Gratien, Unsettled Plain. For those dealing more specifically with capital accumulation and expertise production, see Jakes, Egypt’s Occupation; and Derr, Lived Nile, respectively.

36. See, for example, Gelvin, Divided Loyalties; Khoury, Urban Notables; Khoury, Syria; Thompson, Colonial Citizens; Watenpaugh, Being Modern; Dueck, Claims of Culture; Hanssen, Fin de Siècle Beirut; and Kayalı, Arabs and Young Turks. Some scholars have focused on specific aspects of urban-rural relations, such as the Syrian Revolt, instances of peasant resistance, and violent strategies of colonial control. See Provence, Great Syrian Revolt; Batatu, Syria’s Peasantry; Hanna, al-Qadiya (1820–1920); Hanna, al-Qadiya (1920–1945); and Neep, Occupying Syria. For one of the only accounts focused on more general change in rural areas, see Lewis, Nomads.

37. For the broader repercussions of ideas about technological and scientific superiority in colonial contexts, see Adas, Machines.

38. On this shift, see Wrigley, Energy; and Mitchell, Carbon Democracy.

39. On time-space compression and the forms of control and connection that this facilitated, see Harvey, Condition of Postmodernity, 240–83; Headrick, Tentacles of Progress; Ross, Ecology and Power, 15; Gelvin and Green, Global Muslims; and Barak, Powering Empire.

40. See Ross, Ecology and Power; and Ax et al., Cultivating the Colonies.

41. See, for example, Hodge, Triumph of the Expert; Ludden, Agricultural Production; Ludden, Early Capitalism; Ludden, Agrarian History; Whitcombe, Agrarian Conditions; M. Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts; Arnold and Guha, Nature; and Beinart and Hughes, Environment and Empire. For work on an earlier period, see Grove, Green Imperialism.

42. See Burbank and Cooper, Empires, 16–17.

43. See Richards, Egypt’s Agricultural Development, 53–110; and Tucker, Women, 36.

44. Owen, Middle East, 245.

45. Khater, Inventing Home; Labaki, Introduction; Ducousso, Industrie.

46. On the eastern Mediterranean’s diversity and its impact on social spaces, see Doumani, Family Life, 16, 39.

47. Most of these areas remained marshlands throughout the period covered in this book, although they would later be drained, especially starting in the 1940s and 1950s. See Métral, “Land Tenure”; and Vedat, “Human-Induced Wetland Degradation.”

48. Ashton, “Geography of Syria,” 170.

49. Eddé, Géographie, 14.

50. Al-Shihabi, Ziraʿa, 47–48.

51. Sarrage, Nécessité, 113–24; al-Shihabi, Ziraʿa, 589–603.

52. Sarrage, Nécessité, 115; Ministère des affaires étrangères, Rapport (1937), 64.

53. Al-Shihabi, Ziraʿa, 47; Eddé, Géographie, 19–20; Ashton, “Geography of Syria,” 167–68.

54. See, for example, al-Shihabi, Ziraʿa.

55. Burbank and Cooper, Empires, 14–15.

56. Raj, Relocating Modern Science; DelBourgo and Dew, Science and Empire; Bennett and Hodge, Science and Empire; Beattie et al., Eco-Cultural Networks; Drayton, Nature’s Government; Boomgaard, Empire and Science; Kirchberger and Bennett, Environments of Empire. For another perspective on networks, see Arsan, Interlopers of Empire.

57. Khoury, Syria, 55–57, 89; Burke, “Comparative View”; Mizrahi, Genèse. These works tend to focus on officials involved in the early years of the mandate.

58. One exception is Provence, Last Ottoman Generation, which examines the impact of the Ottoman legacy through circulations of military officers.

59. Khoury, Syria; Khoury, Urban Notables. Khoury provides background details on major nationalist and pro-mandate politicians, which he breaks down by religion, education, occupation, and class origin. He then explains their response to mandate rule by how they acted on the “interests” implied by these categories (Khoury, Syria, 252–61). Delving into broader political or economic ideas that shaped their approach is beyond the scope of his project.

60. On methodological considerations involved in focusing on individuals, see Cole, “Empire on Edge,” 40–42.

61. Omar, “Arabic Thought,” 45.

62. See, for example, Thompson, “Akram al-Hourani”; and Ajl, “Political Economy.”

63. Seikaly, Men of Capital; Jakes, Egypt’s Occupation.

64. See Jakes, Egypt’s Occupation, 10.

65. For discussions about the Ottoman “technocratic gaze,” see Gratien, “Ottoman Quagmire,” 585; and Low, Imperial Mecca, 33–34.

66. Many of these men, who for the most part were educated and well-off, were quite influential in the technocratic circles in which they circulated, even though they were not the most wealthy or influential politically, resulting in their relative absence in the literature. Recent work on Egypt has begun to explore the role of some of these elites. See Derr, Lived Nile; and Gasper, Power of Representation. For the more substantial literature on urban notables, see, for example, Khoury, Urban Notables; and Schilcher, Families in Politics.

67. For Istanbul elites, see Quataert, “Ottoman Reform.”

68. Lefebvre, “Space and the State,” 227, 243–44.

69. Goswami, Producing India, 32; emphasis in original.

70. Mitchell, “Society,” 77.

71. For instance, Ottoman officials, in an effort to reduce the power and influence of certain “imperial intermediaries,” implemented policies that expanded the array of intermediaries on whom they relied, diffusing power in the process, and increasingly prioritized the employment of officials trained in the empire’s expanding school system. See Fortna, Imperial Classroom; Rogan, “Aşiret Mektebi”; Provence, Last Ottoman Generation; and Burbank and Cooper, Empires, 13–14.

72. Goswami, Producing India, 27.

73. Hodge, Triumph of the Expert, 7–8.

74. See, for example, Mundy and Saumarez Smith, Governing Property; Rogan, Frontiers of the State; Fischbach, State, Society, and Land; Özbek, “Tax Farming”; Özbek, İmparatorluğun Bedeli; Quataert, “Dilemma of Development”; and Schaebler, “Practicing Mushaʿ.” Martin Bunton discusses aspects of these reforms’ continued legacy and incorporation into British mandate policies in Palestine (Bunton, Colonial Land Policies).

75. See Hinnebusch, Peasant and Bureaucracy. For their legacies, see Hinnebusch, Authoritarian Power.

76. See, for example, Bourdieu, Distinction. On expertise as a performance, see Derr, Lived Nile. For a broader look at expertise production in the mandates, see Bourmand et al., Experts.

77. On boundary-work, see Gieryn, “Boundary-Work.” Boundary-work functioned similarly in colonial contexts; see Prakash, Another Reason.

78. Mitchell, “Stage of Modernity,” 26.

79. Cooper, Colonialism, 146.

80. For example, Michael Gasper argues that the Egyptian intelligentsia incorporated scientific agriculture into representations of “the peasant” in order to articulate “a vision of Egypt’s future while positioning themselves socially and politically in Egypt’s present” (Gasper, Power of Representation, 3). See in particular Gasper, Power of Representation, ch. 4 (“Scientific Agriculture: Cultivators, Agriculturalists, or Peasants?”).

81. Mitchell, Rule of Experts, 37. On the production of scientific knowledge, see, for example, Latour, Reassembling the Social.

82. El Shakry, Great Social Laboratory, 5–10. For example, see Kâzım’s introduction to his translation of an agricultural book written by Eugène Leroux, a French author (Kâzım, İlm-i Ziraat; Leroux, Cours d’agriculture). Kâzım indicated that he was unable to translate the book directly into Ottoman; rather, he had to alter it to suit “our agriculture methods” (Kâzım, İlm-i Ziraat, 4).

83. Relying on local knowledge was not new, as Alan Mikhail has demonstrated for an earlier period (Mikhail, Nature and Empire), but the increasing insistence on using the language of science to demarcate between this knowledge and that produced at the nexus of local knowledge and new technologies was more pronounced by the late nineteenth century. For the importance of local sources to the production of Ottoman knowledge about Yemen, see also Kuehn, “We Know Nothing About Yemen.”

84. Stolz, Lighthouse; Elshakry, Reading Darwin; El Shakry, Great Social Laboratory.

85. Yalçınkaya, Learned Patriots.

86. Meiton, Electrical Palestine.

87. Swearingen, Moroccan Mirages; D. K. Davis, Resurrecting the Granary, esp. 174; Peterson, Pipe Dreams.

88. Quataert, “Ottoman Reform”; Whitaker, “Union”; Keyder and Tabak, Landholding; Hanna, al-Qadiya (1820–1920); Hanna, al-Qadiya (1920–1945); Lewis, Nomads; Ouahes, “French Mandate Syria and Lebanon.”

89. In a number of files, the original petition, sometimes in Arabic and sometimes in Ottoman Turkish, was preserved alongside the translation. In others, however, it was not. Whenever possible, I have used the original petition.