Resource Extraction in a Conquered Province: The Changing Role of Ottoman Syria in the Mid-16th Century

By Linda T. Darling
Submitted to Session P4522 (Imperial State Practices and Local Perspectives in Early Ottoman Syria, 2016 Annual Meeting
13th-18th Centuries;
The Ottoman Empire’s relationship to its provinces is often seen as one of unmitigated exploitation. This view follows from study of its tax registers, but other kinds of records reveal different aspects of Ottoman governance. This paper uses the mühimme registers (records of “important affairs”) to investigate Ottoman governance in Syria after its conquest in 1516 and to discuss some aspects of this transformation that are not very well researched. Focusing on military and fiscal administration, the paper catalogues the issues addressed in the registers and discusses how the Ottoman state dealt with them. It traces relations between the imperial capital and the province, and between the provincial capital and other localities both internal and external to the province, revealing how the state struggled to control its own officials and to negotiate with provincial powers.
The province’s main resource was men, and the paper traces the different military groups of Syria and their activities. The fact that some Ottoman soldiers possessed Mamluk names points to a degree of continuity between the two regimes. Taxation is not ignored, but along with tax collection, the paper examines the expenditure of revenue in the province and the problems and solutions involved in fiscal management. Some of these processes also raise the question of continuity, or at least comparability, between Ottoman and Mamluk systems of governance.
The paper also addresses the changed relationship between Syria and Egypt, Damascus and Cairo. The sources reflect a separation between the two, as after the conquest each was governed directly from Istanbul, and a shift in the relative status of each province. They also provide some evidence on how this separation and altered status affected the outlook and behavior of officials and subjects.
The Ottoman conquest of the Arab lands coincided with the beginning of the early modern period on both shores of the Mediterranean, ushering in a period of state centralization and great power politics. At that moment, Syria was transformed from a frontier province of the Mamluks, their bulwark against the Mongols, to a rather more central province of the Ottoman Empire, a military and commercial crossroads and a center for pilgrimage traffic. At the same time, Egypt changed from an imperial hub to a breadbasket, whose significance was economic but no longer political. Some implications of these changes visible in the mühimme registers will conclude the paper.