Pastoral Land Use and Ottoman Law in Late Ottoman Syria

By Nora Barakat
Submitted to Session P4859 (Rethinking Pastoralists and Pastoral Nomadism in the Ottoman Empire, 2017 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper addresses the legal status of lands used for grazing under rapidly changing Ottoman land law in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the 1890’s, Ottoman land officials in Syria attempted to declare large swaths of unregistered cultivable land at the desert’s edge, land used mainly by nomads, as abandoned (mahlul). When they tried to claim the land for the state treasury and auction it off to wealthy investors, the provincial governor intervened, questioning the land’s legal status and arguing that it should be used to settle refugees and nomads. Using this little-known debate as a starting point, the paper uses the texts of laws, imperial decrees and fatwa collections to investigate the status of grazing grounds from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. While Ottoman land law undoubtedly privileged cultivation, the government’s and especially the military’s need for livestock necessitated legal protections for grazing grounds. In the late nineteenth century, however, the increasing value of cultivable land and the need to settle refugee communities raised the stakes of determining the legal status of grazing lands. Further, the debate brought the rights of nomadic communities who used the land into question: could they, like cultivating villagers, claim prescriptive rights for the land they had used historically in order to gain ownership under the Land Code?

The paper argues that by claiming unregistered land at the desert’s edge mahlul, a claim with questionable legal basis, land officials aimed to enact the state’s right to confiscate vast grazing lands, ignoring the potential land rights of nomadic communities. Even when they aimed to return some of the lands to nomads through settlement agreements, state officials would retain the right to choose which land went to which community through land grants rather than recognition of historical right. The paper uses archival material to show that this policy led to violent clashes between nomads and refugees granted lands the nomads regarded as their own. However, the paper also reviews court and land registers showing that nomads were sometimes able to take advantage of the questionable legal status of grazing ground by arguing for prescription rights on the same basis as cultivating villagers. It therefore argues for a mixed Ottoman legacy in terms of maintaining nomads' legal rights to land.