Local Capitalists in the Late Ottoman Levant

Episode 438

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Though the history of capitalism in the Middle East has been closely tied to the history of colonialism, local forms of capitalism emerged in the Ottoman Empire long before the advent of the British and French mandates. In this episode, Kristen Alff offers a new perspective on the joint-stock companies of mercantile families in the late Ottoman Levant. These families, the Sursocks being foremost among them, were largely based in Beirut, but they held property in modern-day Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, and Egypt. Throughout our discussion of these joint-stock companies, we consider what they mean for understanding a history of capitalism that pushes against a normative, Western European model and what they mean for understanding the politics of the post-Ottoman Middle East. 

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Contributor Bios

Kristen Alff is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Middle East History at the University of Virginia. She is currently working on two research projects on the topic of capitalism: the first is on the Levantine Joint-stock company and the commodification of land in the Levant and Egypt; the second, is a history of bitumen. 
Chris Gratien is Assistant Professor of History at University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on global environmental history and the Middle East. He is currently preparing a monograph about the environmental history of the Cilicia region of the former Ottoman Empire from the 1850s until the 1950s.


Episode No. 438
Release Date: 3 December 2019
Recording Location: New Orleans, LA
Music: Silicon Transmitter - Badlands; Pictures of the Floating World - Waves; Kahraman - Laya Laya; Soft and Furious - So What
Audio editing by Chris Gratien
Bibliography and images courtesy of Kristen Alff


Multi-village estates consolidated during the war under one owner. This is the Nuris Estate, comprised of the formerly independent villages of Shatta, Jalud, Nuris, Tel al-Sheikh. Central Zionist Archive S15/20734, 1921.
List of villages in Palestine attached to contract for sale to the Jewish Colonization Association in 1902. This sale ultimately failed. Sursuq Family Archive 21357 Letter to JCA from Sursuq and Brothers, addendum to Contract, September 15, 1902.

Peasant Petition from peasants in the village of Aylut (outside of Nazareth) to the German Consul. They asserted their usufruct rights suspecting, correctly, that the Sursuqs and the Hellers were trying to take away their rights to continual use of the land. Israeli State Archive 522/2 “Dorfes Ailut c/a Hans Keller” 1902-1904

Daily letter from the Sursuq joint-stock companies to lawyers during World War I, asking lawyers to make lawyers put all of the shares in villages in the companies’ name. Sursuq Family Archive 19235 (p. 117) Letter to Phillip Jahshan from Alfred Sursuq, 4 Eylül 1918.


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