The role of agriculture in Mamluk-Jordanian power relations

The role of agriculture in Mamluk-Jordanian power relations

By Bethany J. Walker

Bulletin d’Etudes Orientales, Vol.57, Suppl. (2008)

Introduction: Power politics between rulers and ruled need not always take the form of open conflict. Particularly in rural society, the exercise of and response to state power can express themselves in multiple, nuanced ways and through multiple channels, such as the administrative structure and management of agricultural lands. Power relations based on access to and control of rural land may alternate between cooption and coercion, on the part of the state, and cooperation, and resistance, on the part of local villagers and tribesmen. Such are the patterns that emerge from a combined analysis of written and archaeological data on Mamluk Jordan.

Today’s Jordan was, in the Mamluk period, divided into two different administrative regions: Mamlakat Kerak (the Province of Kerak) in the south and the southern safaqa (district) of Mamlakat Dimashq (the Province of Damascus) in the north. Together, the two regions were of great strategic and economic importance to the Mamluk state. In the mid-thirteenth century, Ayyubid princes still retained castles there, and the hajj route from Damascus to Mecca ran through its interior. The peoples of the region brought sultans to power: Kerak Castle, the “nursery” of and place of exile for Mamluk sultans, gave refuge to both al-Nasir Muhammad and Barquq during their political exiles, and its local tribes actively supported their return to the throne. By the fifteenth century, Kerak had become a hotbed of political discontent, where ambitious governors and amirs struggled for power within their own ranks and against the sultan himself. Such patterns of tribal support and amiral rebellion were not limited to Kerak, but characterized much of Jordan in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, making the region critically important to the stability of the state. The Mamluks’ fluid administration of the region, with shifting administrative borders and district capitals, was one way that Cairo co-opted local tribes, manipulated their alliances, and attempted to quell amiral rebellions. Jordan, moreover, served the state in another strategic way by providing Cairo with the horses on which its cavalry so heavily depended.

In terms of its economic importance, Jordan’s rich farmland was exploited to its maximum potential by the Mamluk state to support the iqta‘at that were the financial and social underpinnings of its military. In addition, the region produced for the Mamluks’ export market, namely the sugar industry, which was one of the highest profit agricultural sectors of the Mamluk economy. The foundation, however, of the Mamluks’ agricultural regime was grains: Jordan was a key supplier of wheat to Cairo, in times of shortages there, and regionally.

Its geography and human and natural resources thus made Jordan important to the Mamluk state on many levels. It is the power relations between the state and Jordanian peasants, however, that is the focus of this paper. Key to these relations was control over land, through tenure and planting decisions. Written and archaeological sources suggest that rather than being passive participants in the Mamluks’ agricultural regime, the fallahun did, at times, assert control over their own natural resources and markets. This paper builds on the seminal work of two Jordanian historians, who have written extensively on the Mamluk and early Ottoman periods: Drs. Yusuf Ghawanmeh (Yarmouk University), who has written many books and articles on Mamluk Jordan, and Muhammad Adnan al-Bakhit, (the University of Jordan), who has demonstrated the importance of the Ottoman period for Mamluk studies through his analysis of sixteenth-century tax registers (defters). All of us doing research on Mamluk Jordan are indebted to them for their many years of important and original scholarship.

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