Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

The Ottomans in Syria: A History of Justice and Oppression

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

The Ottomans in Syria: A History of Justice and Oppression

Article excerpt

The Ottomans in Syria: A History of Justice and Oppression, by Dick Douwes. London and New York: LB. Tauris Publishers, 2000. vii + 244 pages. Gloss. to p. 221. Annexes to p. 230. Bibl. to p. 240. Index to p. 244. $55.

Justice was at the core of the political theory that informed the Ottoman sultans and their bureaucrats. They understood that it served both as the bedrock of state legitimacy and the necessary lubricant that enabled the wheels of government to turn. Unlike other early modern empires, the ideology of the divine right of kings was absent in the Ottoman realm, and the sultan's legitimacy rested in his commitment to implement the holy law. For his Muslim subjects, this necessarily meant the rule of justice as ordained by God. Furthermore, the Ottoman elites inherited the political philosophy, first articulated in pre-Islamic Iran, that good government rested in the maintenance of the "Circle of Justice." Simply put, to rule, the sovereign required an army, which in turn required revenue produced by the peasants. But peasants could only continue to produce revenue if there were an army to protect them. All of these elements would cease to function smoothly if justice were absent from the sultan's domains. Yet, both local chronicles and foreign observers agreed that justice was all too often absent from the Ottoman provinces in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Dick Douwes helps to explain why.

Douwes has chosen central Syria, comprising the districts of Hama and Homs, to illustrate the disjuncture between the theory and practice of government in the Ottoman Empire in the decades preceding the implementation of the Tanzimat reforms (1839-78). It is an appropriate choice, as there were probably few regions in the empire that were more remote from the sultan's grasp. It also provides balance to most other historical studies on Ottoman Syria, which privilege either Damascus or Aleppo. Governors of central Syrialacking a major metropolitan center and situated on the borderlands of the Syrian steppe-had either to reach an accommodation with, or to dominate, the bedouin. …

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