The Business of Land: Levantine Joint-Stock Companies, Land, Law, and Greek-Orthodox Networks, 1838-1925

By Kristen Alff
Submitted to Session P4473 (Networks of Capital: Land, Markets, and Community in the Levant and North Africa, 2016 Annual Meeting
The Levant;
19th-21st Centuries;
In the mid-nineteenth century, Levantine Greek-Orthodox joint-stock companies became powerful forces in the expanding global capitalist economy. One important aspect of the families’ ascension was their creation of commercial estates on some of the most fertile land in Palestine’s Jezreel Valley and their establishment of intra-Levantine and cross-Mediterranean networks of agricultural business and trade. By examining changing property relations in the Jezreel Valley, business relations between Beirutis and their Levantine and European/Greek-Orthodox partners, and Levantine companies’ large-scale development and export of cotton, my paper argues that, from the mid-nineteenth century, a local variety of capitalist accumulation developed in the Levant as part of the wave of late-nineteenth-century globalization.
Drawing on archives in Arabic, Hebrew, German, French, and Ottoman Turkish housed in Lebanon, the UK, France, Israel, and Turkey and employing the previously-unexamined private papers of the Sursuq, Bustrus, and Debbas families, my study contributes to theorizations of local and global capitalism through an investigation of the concomitant rise of Beirut and Haifa as metropolitan centers of capital, the formation of trans-regional Greek-Orthodox business-networks, and related forms of social and political negotiation and contestation in Palestine’s countryside.
Scholarly debate persists on the nature of capitalist practices in the non-West. In recent years, social scientists have challenged the explicit or implicit Eurocentrism of structuralist or post-structuralist approaches to capitalism. These new works highlight fundamental gaps in our knowledge of the commercial history of the Levant and its place in investigations of global capitalism. My study inserts an investigation of the Levant’s Greek-Orthodox, trans-Mediterranean corporations into this current discussion and debate. Moreover, my study of Greek Orthodox networks shows how legal categories of land-tenure were more fluid, inconsistent, and contested under the Ottoman Empire than has previously been demonstrated. Finally, it moves the discussion of land in Palestine beyond the rigid Zionist vs. Palestinian Arab paradigm, by demonstrating how the rise of the Levantine joint-stock company and its participation in the world capitalist market altered local capitalist practices in the functioning of capitalism as an ongoing global process.