Politics, economics & society in 19th-Century Middle East

More notes from “The emergence of the modern Middle East”


  • diversity & minimalism: Shari’a for Muslims, other laws for others (“capitulations”); tribesmen had traditions, foreigners privileges, taxation was minimal and law and education de-centralized
  • the Grand Vizier chief minister (!) replaced the Sultan together with local representatives
  • Noble people gained control, the rich got in power
  • Boys (not girls!) were schooled well in madrasas and even studied secular subjects such as astronomy and maths

Though there are no reliable stats concerning that period, we can estimate that

  • the Middle East was populated by over 30 million people: 24m Ottoman territories + 6m Iran + 3,5m Egypt (now about 25x that!!), etc. = overpopulated today, slightly underpopulated back then because of famines (Egypt, Iraq completely dependent on rainfall), disease (plague 1785, 1812…) and birth control/ abortion
  • the 19th Century witnessed a demographic revolution due to the introduction of Western medicine, new public health measures, better communications and transport, increased security, reduced internal violence + Balkan Christians got independent while Balkan Muslims moved to stay in the Empire
  • commerce mostly with Europeans, creation of huge debt (why?!?) – Iran a bit different from the rest
  • 1912-1923 = radical demographic change: big deaths in Anatolia, – 20% + religious minorities sought territorial identity in the form of a State = tragedy of the Armenians etc.
  • Eve of WWII: too many people, not enough food (yeah I know, this is 20th Century already :P) – even more of a problem today


  • emphasis on groups rather than individuals: different groups = different rights, interests, requests
  • people defined themselves first by religious association, then by family and tribe
  • there were compact minorities limited to one particular territory: Maronite Christians in Mount Lebanon, Alawis & Druzes in Syria, etc: they had very strong communal identity, unlike for example Orthodox Christians which were spread everywhere; they all had different political affiliations
  • millet system: one millet, one group; different legal authorities, education system etc. / when European-style schools were introduced, this brought about a new class o educated secular people which changed things quite a bit
  • jizyah: a tax for non-Muslims
  • Muslims divided in Sunnis and Shi’is (from “Shi’at Ali”)- a political divide, really little to do with religion as it originated in the 7th Century when they disagreed on who was going to be Caliph
  • Social hierarchy: 1. government = military, bureaucrats (mostly Muslim); 2. religious figures e.g. judges; 3. merchants etc.

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