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Establet Colette et Pascual Jean-Paul, La gent d’État dans la société ottomane damascène : Les ʻaskars à la fin du xviie siècle, Institut Français du Proche-Orient, Damas, 2011, 351 p.

James Grehan

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1For the past fifteen years, Colette Establet and Jean-Paul Pascual have been engaged in a somewhat unique project in Ottoman studies. They have painstakingly worked at reconstructing the social and economic history of a single town in a single ‘moment’ of time: i.e., Damascus during the final decades of the seventeenth century. To tell their story, they have used a particular set of documents: probate inventories (mukhallafat) and orphans’ estates (muhasabat) drawn up and preserved by the Islamic courts of the town. Few researchers have spent so much time poring over these documents: fascinating, essential, and absolutely maddening, as those who try to interpret them quickly come to understand. And yet Establet and Pascual have persisted like few others. The three previous books that they have generated from these records stand out as an unusual achievement and highlight the opportunities and constraints of these invaluable sources.

2In combing through probate records, Establet and Pascual have been making a virtue of necessity. We have few other sources covering seventeenth-century Damascus. Surviving court records become abundant only from the eighteenth century onwards, as do literary accounts and legal treatises. Thus Chapter One begins the study by acquainting the reader with the limits of the materials at hand. The individuals who appeared in the probate inventories were not exactly a random sample of the population. Under the rules of Islamic law, the estates belonged to those who had died either intestate or with minors among their heirs. In practical terms, these restrictions created a legal net which nonetheless caught up a large part of the urban population, allowing historians to glimpse a fairly broad cross-section of society (with the notable exception of the very poorest, a substantial minority who had virtually nothing to bequeath and lived on the margins of subsistence). The real difficulties start with the contents of the documents themselves, which are barely more than lists of objects and accounts accompanied by terse labels. Establet and Pascual have worked at turning these vast databases, full of tens of thousands of everyday items, into an intelligible picture of life at the end of the seventeenth century.

3Unlike their first two books, which looked into records from the general population (the reaya, or ‘flocks’, who were liable for state taxes) and Muslim pilgrims who passed through the town, this third installment examines those Damascenes who held ‘military’ (askeri) status. Their analysis in this volume is microhistory at its most microscopic, resting on an examination of 77 probate inventories and 68 orphans’ estates from the askeri population over a very narrow period (mostly 1680-82, with a few scattered cases recorded a little later, 1690-91). What can this relatively small sample of townspeople tell us? As the reader soon learns, Establet and Pascual are skilled at making the most of their documents. By the late seventeenth century, they show us, this ‘military’ portion of urban society was not what it used to be. It had grown and diversified. The main contribution of Establet and Pascual is not this insight itself, but their ability to work it up into a fuller snapshot (Chapter Two). They break askeri Damascenes into four basic subsets: ‘civil agents of state’, comprising officials and bureaucrats who served in the province; cavalrymen (sipahi) from the Ottoman army who doubled as tax-collectors in parts of the countryside; imperial Janissaries (qabiqul) planted in the citadel of Damascus since 1660; and ‘local Janissaries’ (inkishariyya), by far the largest of these groups, who were fully entrenched in urban society. Most of this ‘military’ elite consisted of freemen. Even among the Janissaries, once recruited from a levy of slaves, one-third had inherited their position; most of the others had originated in the ‘civilian’ population. The boundary between ‘military’ and ‘civilian’ was therefore quite porous by the seventeenth century.

4The attractions of askeri status become apparent in the economic opportunities that this group tended to reap. At first blush, their advantages, as revealed by the composition of their inventories (Chapter Three) were not too sizable. Askeri Damascenes had estates which were, on average, only slightly wealthier than the rest of the population. A closer examination soon brings other differences to the surface and provides a fuller economic profile (Chapter Four). Though only a little wealthier than their ‘civilian’ counterparts, askeri Damascenes suffered from much greater economic inequality. Ottoman officials could be enormously wealthy; at the other end of the economic scale were low-ranking Janissaries at the citadel, probably young recruits from the ‘civilian’ poor. One of the few consistent askeri advantages was greater access to currency, a fringe benefit of receiving salaries directly from the state. Hence it was relatively easy, as the authors cleverly deduce, for even for impoverished soldiers to enter into moneylending, especially in the countryside, where there was never enough coin in circulation.

5Establet and Pascual try to determine where askeri Damascenes put their wealth. Did they prefer the opportunities of the urban economy or more regularly cast their eyes towards the countryside? As regards the urban economy (Chapter Five), the answer is pretty clear: the wealthiest estates treated it distinctly as a side interest, which held little allure for the shrewd investor. Only towards the lower end of the economic ladder did askeri Damascenes search for their fortune in the urban economy, working mainly as artisans in trades connected with the military. As most of the estates attest, askeri townsmen were far more interested in the countryside as an avenue for profit and investment. They had a ‘choice place’ in the rural economy, and were most notably active in the zone directly around Damascus, where they could keep a close eye on their assets. A survey of their holdings (Chapter Six), region by region, indicates a varied agrarian order, which, apart from the grain of the Biqaʻ, resisted specialization in any one crop. Looking at the management of orphans’ estates, the authors find telling preferences among askeri investors, which reveal social affinities for different financial strategies (Chapter Seven): ‘civil agents of the state’—i.e. mostly affluent ʻulamā’—managing religious foundations (waqf); Janissaries delving more directly into rural production, through the marketing and transport of crops; and sipahis, the older order of cavalrymen, opting for more diverse portfolios that combined these two strategies. Uniting all these askeri investors was a predilection for moneylending in the countryside. As the authors repeatedly show, this sector exerted a powerful attraction on many askeri fortunes, which found a dependable outlet for their wealth by providing credit to villagers (or entire villages).

6How lucrative were these rural pursuits? Establet and Pascual try to work up a rough ‘balance sheet’ for askeri investments (Chapter Eight). They find that the countryside turned a reliable profit, albeit at generally modest rates. (One might further ask whether the main motivation was the search for profit or a safe haven for idle capital.) To place their assessments in a wider early modern context, the authors set up a comparison with rural France (specifically, around the Île-de-France) in the seventeenth century. French landlords, they conclude, differed in their willingness to sink more capital into the land. Haunting all these brave calculations, however, is the absence of fiscal records—particularly of tax-farms, which had already become the main sustenance of the Ottoman treasury by the late seventeenth century. One cannot help wondering whether the true scale of urban investment in the countryside was greater than probate inventories, which only recorded personal property, could properly represent. For the urban marketplace, too, Charles Wilkins has demonstrated that Janissary officers in seventeenth-century Aleppo were already active in pursuing tax-farms and setting up protection rackets in key sectors like the grain and meat trades. Why should Damascus not hold the same temptations?

7Perhaps the most original section is Chapter Nine, which asks whether askeri townspeople had a distinctive lifestyle. This is a very difficult question to settle, owing to the lack of first-hand askeri testimony about social attitudes. Establet and Pascual are not deterred, and patiently tease out clues from their simple lists of possessions. Askeri living habits, they determine, were not very different from those of ‘civilians’. In their preference for monogamy and the nuclear family, together with the relatively small size of their families, askeri Damascenes conformed to patterns seen widely throughout urban society. The estates of askeri women diverged from their ‘civilian’ counterparts in being, on average, much richer; but for all their extra wealth, they were not necessarily more refined. Askeri men, on the other hand, had a somewhat more distinct profile, expressed in their much greater likelihood to possess arms: not just guns, but swords, daggers, shields, and other military equipment, all of which demonstrated their association with the state.

8Beyond identifying these subtle shades of material culture, the work of Establet and Pascual is important for showing exactly how little askeri status mattered to material culture. Nothing like ‘class consciousness’ emerges from the dusty registers. Askeri Damascenes were more likely to have grand titles and decorate themselves with the accoutrements of power and virility. But as far as they can tell, these cultural symbols had not led by this point to a decisive economic superiority. As Establet and Pascual are quick to observe, the correspondence between wealth and askeri status was far more characteristic of the eighteenth century, and accompanied a parallel disparity, first identified by André Raymond, between merchants and artisans, the latter of whom would become increasingly impoverished towards 1800.

9On the ‘militarization’ of the provincial economy, and its consequent material benefits for askeri subjects, hangs a large historiographical question. The results of this study would seem to put it at a rather late date, coming into full view only in the eighteenth century. Establet and Pascual can be somewhat reticent about the implications of their work. They sometimes bring further clarity to generally accepted points: e.g., their findings about the small divergence in average value between askeri and ‘civilian’ estates, which helps to confirm the eighteenth century as the turning point in the enrichment of the provincial notables (aʻyān). On a more contrarian note, they seem to caution that our understanding of seventeenth-century history is perhaps a little too often shaped by eighteenth-century realities, such as the military penetration of the urban markets and guilds. No doubt the exploration of a fuller range of documents—in particular, fiscal records in the imperial archives—may alter or refine these conclusions. In any case, historians who wish to enter these debates will find a valuable model for the handling of notoriously difficult archival sources, which will continue to play an essential role in the writing of Ottoman social history.

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James Grehan, « Establet Colette et Pascual Jean-Paul, La gent d’État dans la société ottomane damascène : Les ʻaskars à la fin du xviie siècle, Institut Français du Proche-Orient, Damas, 2011, 351 p. », Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 133 | juin 2013, mis en ligne le 24 septembre 2012, consulté le 25 février 2020. URL :

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James Grehan

Portland State UniversityOregon, USA

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