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The Ottomans were nomadic Muslim Turks from central Asia who
had been converted to Islam by Umayyad conquerors in the eighth
century. Led by Uthman (whence the Western term Ottoman), they
founded a principality in 1300 amid the ruins of the Mongolwrecked Seljuk Empire in northwest Turkey. Fifty years later
Uthman's successors invaded Europe. They conquered Constantinople
in 1453 and in the sixteenth century conquered all of the Middle
East. From 1300 to 1916, when the empire fell, 36 sultans, all
descendants of Uthman, ruled most of the Muslim world. Europeans
referred to the Ottoman throne as the Sublime Porte, a name
derived from a gate of the sultan's palace in Istanbul.
From 1516 the Ottomans ruled Syria through pashas, who
governed with unlimited authority over the land under their
control, although they were responsible ultimately to the Sublime
Porte. Pashas were both administrative and military leaders. So
long as they collected their taxes, maintained order, and ruled
an area not of immediate military importance, the Sublime Porte
left them alone. In turn the pashas ruled smaller administrative
districts through either a subordinate Turk or a loyal Arab.
Occasionally, as in the area that became Lebanon, the Arab
subordinate maintained his position more through his own power
than through loyalty. Throughout Ottoman rule, there was little
contact with the authorities except among wealthier Syrians who
entered government service or studied in Turkish universities.
The system was not particularly onerous to Syrians because
the Turks respected Arabic as the language of the Quran and
accepted the mantle of defenders of the faith. Damascus was made
the major entrepot for Mecca, and as such it acquired a holy
character to Muslims because of the baraka (spiritual
force or blessing) of the countless pilgrims who passed through
on the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca
, ch. 2).
Ottoman administration often followed patterns set by
previous rulers. Each religious minority--Shia Muslim, Greek
Orthodox, Maronite, Armenian, and Jewish--constituted a millet.
The religious heads of each community administered all personal
status law and performed certain civil functions as well.
The Syrian economy did not flourish under the Ottomans. At
times attempts were made to rebuild the country, but on the whole
Syria remained poor. The population decreased by nearly 30
percent, and hundreds of villages virtually disappeared into the
desert. At the end of the eighteenth century only one-eighth of
the villages formerly on the register of the Aleppo pashalik
(domain of a pasha) were still inhabited. Only the area now known
as Lebanon achieved economic progress, largely resulting from the
relatively independent rule of the Druze amirs.
Although impoverished by Ottoman rule, Syria continued to
attract European traders, who for centuries had transported
spices, fruits, and textiles from the Middle East to the West. By
the fifteenth century Aleppo was the Middle East's chief
marketplace and had eclipsed Damascus in wealth, creating a
rivalry between the two cities that continues.
With the traders from the West came missionaries, teachers,
scientists, and tourists whose governments began to clamor for
certain rights. France demanded the right to protect Christians,
and in 1535 Sultan Sulayman I granted France several
"capitulations"--extraterritorial rights that developed later
into political semiautonomy, not only for the French, but also
for the Christians protected by them. The British acquired
similar rights in 1580 and established the Levant Company in
Aleppo. By the end of the eighteenth century, the Russians had
claimed protective rights over the Greek Orthodox community.
The Ottoman Empire began to show signs of decline in the
eighteenth century. By the nineteenth century European powers had
begun to take advantage of Ottoman weakness through both military
and political penetration, including Napoleon's invasion of
Egypt, subsequent British intervention, and French occupation of
Lebanon. Economic development of Syria through the use of
European capital--for example, railroads built largely with
French money--brought further incursions.
Western penetration became decidedly political after the
Druze uprising in the Syrian province of Lebanon in 1860. The
revolt began in the north as a Maronite Christian peasant
uprising against Christian landlords. As the revolt moved
southward to the territories where the landlords were Druzes, the
conflagration acquired an intersectarian character, and the
Druzes massacred some 10,000 Maronites. France sent in troops and
removed them a year later only after the European powers had
forced the Sublime Porte to grant new laws for Lebanon. By the
Statute of 1861, for the first time Mount Lebanon was officially
detached from Syria, and its administration came increasingly
under the control of France.
Because of European pressure as well as the discontent of the
Syrian people, the Ottoman sultans enacted some reforms during
the nineteenth century. The Egyptian occupation of Syria from
1831 to 1839 under the nominal authority of the sultan brought a
centralized government, judicial reform, and regular taxation.
But Ibrahim Pasha, son of the Egyptian ruler, became unpopular
with the landowners because he limited their influence, and with
the peasants because he imposed conscription and taxation. He was
eventually driven from Syria by the sultan's forces. Subsequent
reforms of Turkish Sultan Mahmud II and his son were more
theoretical than real and were counteracted by reactionary forces
inside the state as well as by the inertia of Ottoman officials.
Reforms proved somewhat successful with the Kurds and Turkomans
in the north and with the Alawis around Latakia, but unsuccessful
with the Druzes--who lived in the Jabal Druze (now known as Jabal
al Arab), a rugged mountainous area in southwest Syria--who
retained their administrative and judicial autonomy and exemption
from military service.
Although further reform attempts generally failed, some of
the more successful endure. Among them are the colonization of
Syria's frontiers, the suppression of tribal raiding, the opening
of new lands to cultivation, and the beginnings of the settlement
of the beduin tribes. Attempts to register the land failed,
however, because of the peasants' fear of taxation and
Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909), sometimes known as Abdul
Hamid the Damned, acquired a reputation as the most oppressive
Ottoman sultan. Opponents died quickly; taxes became heavy. Abdul
Hamid tried to earn the loyalty of his Muslim subjects by
preaching pan-Islamic ideas and in 1908 completing the Hijaz
Railway between Istanbul and Medina. However, the sultan's
cruelty--coupled with that of his deputy in Acre, known in Syria
as The Butcher--and increasing Western cultural influences set
the stage for the first act of Arab nationalism; World War I
opened the next.
Data as of April 1987