Ibrahim Pasha’s Reforms in Syria and Palestine (1832-1840)

Dimashq Blog | Vladimir Borisovich Lutsky

Introduction by Fadi Esber

Ten years ago, I remember picking up a copy of ‘The Modern History of the Arab Countries’ (translated to Arabic) off a dusty shelf in a Damascus bookstore. The book was used, put on sale, and obviously forgotten by both the seller and the potential buyers. I could not hide my excitement when I leafed through it, and the owner of that bookstore, who knew nothing about the book but saw how interested I was, demanded 1000 liras ($20). I had no option but to pay up. The book was published in 1969, and the Arabic translation came out a year later. The copy I had in my hands was from that very first edition.

The author was Vladimir Borisovich Lutsky (1906-1962), one of the Soviet Union’s leading specialists in modern Arab history. His book was the first attempt in Russian or Soviet literature to write a systematic history of the Arabs in modern times. Lutsky set about studying the modern history of the Arab countries as an independent historical discipline in the 1930s, and is rightly regarded as the founder of the Soviet school of Arab historians.

Before the 1917 October Revolution, Russian classical Orientalists showed no great interest in modern Arab history. Journalists, diplomats, and military men referred to Arab history only in connection with the Eastern Question or the European Powers’ colonial policy. Despite their importance to Russian scholarship even such impressive works as K. M. Bazili’s ‘Syria and Palestine Under Turkish Government’ (in Russian) and A. Adamov’s ‘Arab Iraq and the Basra Vilayet in Its Past and Present’ (in Russian) are no more than essays on the history of individual Arab countries.

In the Soviet era, many interesting articles and monographs dealing with the history of the Arab countries and, in particular, Egypt, Syria, the Sudan, and Arabia, have been published. None of these works, however, set out to provide a coherent and systematic account of Arab history at the turn of the 19th century. Nor do any of them give an overall picture of the history and development of the Arab world and its place and role in modern times.

The absence of Russian historical traditions, the relatively limited amount of literature on the subject and the fact that many cardinal problems of Arab history have been little studied both in Russian and foreign literature were bound to have its effect on Lutsky’s book. Some of its chapters and sections lack development. There is, for example, no section on the social and economic history of Morocco, which remains a blank in world history to this day. At times Lutsky only gives outlines and reference points where further research and concrete details are needed. But this does not detract from the significance of his work as the first attempt to systematise and generalise modern Arab history.

Lutsky wrote from the Marxist-Leninist point of view. He sharply criticized the European Powers’ colonial policy and regards their presence in the East as an evil. His book was inspired by a warm and deeply felt affection for the Arabs, enthusiasm for their struggle to free themselves from the Turkish pashas and European colonialists, and belief in the Arabs’ future and in their ability to choose their own way of life.

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 8: Mohammed Ali’s Struggle for Syria and Palestine. Egypt’s Defeat.

Ibrahim Pasha’s Reforms in Syria and Palestine (1832-1840)


The political plans of Mohammed Ali and his son Ibrahim, the supreme ruler of Syria, went very far. Both dreamed of creating a large independent Arab state. “His real design is to establish an Arabian kingdom including all the countries in which Arabic is the language,” [George Antonius, The Arab Awakening, L., Hamilton, p. 31.] wrote Lord Palmerston about Mohammed Ali in 1833.

A French envoy, Baron de Boislecomte, who paid Ibrahim a visit at the time, related that Ibrahim made no secret of his intention to revive Arab national consciousness and restore Arab nationhood, to instill in the Arabs a real sense of patriotism and to associate them in the fullest measure in the government of the future empire. Baron de Boislecomte added that Ibrahim was active in spreading his ideas of national regeneration. In his proclamations he had frequently referred in stirring terms to the glorious periods of Arab history and had infected his troops with his own enthusiasm. He had surrounded himself with a staff who shared his ideas and worked for their dissemination.

However, the conditions for the consolidation of the Arab nation had not yet matured: the Arab bourgeoisie of Syria was still very weak; feudalism had not been liquidated. Ibrahim Pasha, who was a talented politician, made a careful study of the experience of the advanced countries of the time. He saw the tendencies of future development and tried to accelerate their realisation. He carried out a series of reforms in Syria, which, like the reforms of Mohammed Ali in Egypt, were aimed at the centralisation of the country, the liquidation of feudal arbitrary rule and separatism, and the creation of prerequisites for the development of capitalist relations.

First of all, Ibrahim tried to turn Syria into a granary of the future Arab empire. To check the decline of farming, he ruled that the fellaheen (peasants) pay a fixed tax. He forbade arbitrary feudal extortions and exempted the newly ploughed land from taxation for many years. He settled Bedouins on abandoned land, forcing them to give up their nomadic way of life. Thus new villages were built and close to 15 thousand feddans of virgin land were brought under cultivation in the steppe between Damascus and Aleppo. During the first two years of Egyptian rule the area under cultivation rose from 2,000 to 7,000 feddans in the fertile Hauran Valley. The Turkish army had always been notorious for its marauding. But Ibrahim sent his troops on a campaign against the Turkish army, thereby putting an end to the continuous devastation of the Syrian crops.

The liquidation of the tax anarchy promoted the development of industry and trade. Now the merchants and the artisans had no need to fear for the safety of their property. They had no need to fear the plundering and blackmail of the Turkish pashas. They knew the exact amount of the tax they had to pay and could freely dispose of the remainder of the surplus value which they had collected. With a boldness hitherto unknown, they circulated and turned into capital the rotting treasures hidden from the jcovetous eyes of the pashas and derebeys. The custom houses were wrested from the tax-farmers and fixed customs duties were introduced. This policy, which was conducive to economic development, led to the growth of Syrian towns and foreign trade. “The liberty granted to trade by the Egyptians, gave new life to the seaports. Saida, Beirut and Tripoli became free markets where the mountaineers could exchange their silk and olive oil for wheat and European manufactured goods. Output in the Lebanon increased by at least one-third and the consumption of overseas goods doubled,” Russian consul Bazili wrote.

Roads inside the country and caravan routes through the desert linking Damascus with Baghdad were made safe. Transit trade expanded. British cloth was sent via Syria to Mesopotamia and Iran. Goods from India and Iran passed through Syria to Europe.

Ibrahim waged a fierce struggle against the Syrian feudal lords. Naturally, he could not destroy the feudal mode of production and the feudal class domination that went with it. But he strove to end feudal separatism, restrict the political rights of individual feudal rulers and replace the indocile seigniors with men who would obey him absolutely. In the Lebanon, for instance, he depended on Emir Beshir II,who continued the war against other Lebanese feudal lords in the name of Ibrahim Pasha. In Nablus, Ibrahim depended on the Abd el-Hadi sheikhs in his struggle against the other sheikhs.

Ibrahim consolidated the central authority and reorganised the administration of the country along Egyptian lines. Syria, Palestine and Cilicia were divided into six provinces or mudiriyas headed by mudirs. Deputies of the central power (mutasallims) were appointed in each town. The sheikhs of the neighbouring villages were subordinate to the mutasallims. Each mutasallim headed a consultative organ, mejliss, or shura, which was formed from among the local landowners, merchants and clergy. The mejlisses were given the functions of civil courts. The highest judicial authority was in the hands of Ibrahim, who personally passed sentence on criminal and political cases after their preliminary consideration by the courts.

Educational reforms were also introduced during Egyptian rule. The first Lebanese printing house was founded in 1834 in Beirut. In the same year, Ibrahim initiated a wide programme of primary and secondary education. He established primary schools all over Syria and founded secondary colleges in Damascus, Aleppo and Antioch. The pupils were boarded at government expense. They wore uniforms and were given a strict military education as was the custom in Egyptian schools. The teaching was conducted in Arabic. The American traveller, George Antonius, related that the school director, the famous Clot Bey, received instructions to “inculcate a true sense of Arab national sentiment.” [George Antonius, op. cit., p. 40.]

Like Mohammed Ali, Ibrahim was known for his religious tolerance, which was an unusual trait among the Turkish pashas. Ibrahim freed the Arab Christians, in whose hands were concentrated the crafts and urban trade, from many humiliating restrictions forced on them by the Turks.


Fadi Esber is the editor of Dimashq Journal

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