Private Property and the Rise of a New Class
Certain developments became more pronounced in the provinces of Iraq in the 17th and 18th centuries, and these developments brought forth a more “localized” class. Among the most important was the system by which revenue was assessed and collected for the state; this changed dramatically, and with it, so did the whole tenor of provincialimperial relations. This was most marked in Mosul (where land grants to cavalry commanders were introduced more systematically than in the other provinces), but its effects were noticeable everywhere else.
In the wake of Suleyman the Lawgiver’s sweep into northern Iraq, it had been the case that certain ﬁ eld commanders were given the task of supplying the Ottoman Empire with men and matériel; because this system was prone to abuse, however, it was changed soon after Murad IV’s entry into Baghdad in 1636. Henceforth, revenues were auctioned out to a tax farmer whose primary purpose was to collect not only the initial expenditure spent to buy the title of multazim (a contractor who had the cash to buy the right to tax the rural worker) from the state but to amass additional sums from the peasant in the form of sometimes illegal taxes.
The iltizam system, whereby property was contracted out to taxed farmers to raise revenues for the state, became general practice throughout the empire, including the provinces of Iraq. Eventually, it brought to power a number of inﬂ uential landholders and merchants, such as the above mentioned Jalili and Umari families in Mosul, who began to trade with Europe and to grow cash crops for sale outside the Ottoman Empire.
A third form of land grant made its appearance in the 18th century; the mailkane, or grant for life, presaged the beginning of inherited private property in Iraq and gave added impetus to the changes already manifest in the period. Those changes sprang from the near-monopolization of the produce of agricultural estates and the novel investment in trade by new classes of agrarian and commercial interests, whether Mosuli notables, Kurdish chieftains, heads of Mamluk military households, or, eventually and most signiﬁ cantly, tribal shaykhs.
The trend to provincial autonomy and local dynastic rule was accompanied by regional linkages and interaction across provinces, sects, ethnicities, and backgrounds, and this happened most of all in trade. Regional networks based on long-distance commerce traded across farﬂ ung districts, bartering, buying, and selling goods in market towns and ports all over the region. In the 18th century, everything from horses to wood and tea was exchanged, sold, or paid for by credit, from Arabia to northern and southern Iraq, southwest Persia, and western India. Family ﬁ rms sent sons and nephews to ﬁ nancial and economic centers such as Bombay (present-day Mumbai, India), Aleppo (Syria), or Basra to corner the market in pearls, grain, or coffee.
Credit was extended for long maritime voyages to East Africa or India; partnerships in prized commodities such as Arabian horses soldered associations between Indians from Bombay and Iraqis from Basra. Regional trade networks brought together disparate communities never before linked in history; rural tribesmen in Hail (northern Arabia) sold to Arab or Persian merchants in Baghdad or Basra, who in turn shipped their goods on Kuwaiti ships piloted by Indian sea captains and crewed by African sailors.
Basra was the major fulcrum for all this regional trade. Its port served as a conduit for goods imported and exported by merchants from central Arabia, western Persia, and northern Syria. Indians and Afghans lived either in the Shii shrine cities of Iraq, or in semi-permanent merchant communities throughout the region. Armenian and Jewish merchants were the richest traders in Basra, equal only to the big Chalabi shipowners and merchants of the India trade.
Faced with all this transient wealth, Mamluk governors tried hard to siphon part of it away to Basra’s coffers; for instance, some of Basra’s governors tried to corner the Basra-Aleppo caravan trade, much to the disenchantment of Basra’s merchant community, which was forced to pay extra dues in the process. Meanwhile, Basra’s governors often forced merchant houses to “loan” the local government money or extorted other tariffs in other coercive ways.
Basra’s trade, and by extension that of Baghdad and districts west as well, was not only threatened by rapacious governors. It also fell prey to invading armies. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, trade suffered from wars and the chronic instability of the region. The biggest catastrophe to the trade of southern Iraq was the three-year occupation of Basra in 1776–79 by the Persian ruler Karim Khan Zand.
Until Karim’s death in 1779, his brother Sadiq Khan diverted Basra’s trade to Persia, thereby weakening Mamluk control of the port. Grain shortages in certain areas sparked famines; the great rivers of Iraq ﬂ ooded at the wrong times, devastating agriculture; booms in certain commodities were followed by busts; and smuggling and contraband were rife.
But, signiﬁ cantly, trade continued even in wartime, and traditional routes and markets were not eclipsed so much as they were reproduced elsewhere, continuing to bolster the fragile unity between town and country, tribal shaykh and urban merchant (Fattah 1997, 19–41). However, due to plagues and further reroutings of trade channels, the merchant capital Basra entered a period of decline by the end of the 18th century, from which it was only to revive in the early 20th century, when the British took over Iraq and made Basra their chief entrepôt in the region.