A groundbreaking study of family life among the upper classes of the Ottoman Empire in the pre-modern and early modern period.
The history of the Middle Eastern family presents as many questions as there are currently answers. Who lived together in the household? Who married whom and for how long? Who got a piece of the patrimonial pie? These are the questions that Margaret Meriwether investigates in this groundbreaking study of family life among the upper classes of the Ottoman Empire in the pre-modern and early modern period.
Meriwether recreates Aleppo family life over time from records kept by the Islamic religious courts that held jurisdiction over all matters of family law and property transactions. From this research, she asserts that the stereotype of the large, patriarchal patrilineal family rarely existed in reality. Instead, Aleppo's notables organized their families in a great diversity of ways, despite the fact that they were all members of the same social class with widely shared cultural values, acting under the same system of family law. She concludes that this had important implications for gender relations and demonstrates that it gave women more authority and greater autonomy than is usually acknowledged.
- Note on Transliteration
- One. Family and Lineage: Aleppo's Notables
- Two. Family and Household
- Three. Marriage Bonds and Marriage Partners
- Four. Inheritance and Family Structure
- Five. Endowment and Family Structure
- Appendix One. The Notable Families of Aleppo
- Appendix Two. Selected Genealogies
The thing which has become clear is that family history is inextricably involved in the great issue of the change from traditional to modern society. No other question is more important to historians of the West than the causes, nature, timing, and consequences of this transition.... There is hardly a single one of these transformations in which the family has not played a key role as agent, subject, catalyst, or transmitter of changing values and experience.
In this statement, Lawrence Stone sums up the historiographical impact of twenty years of intensive research on the European family in the past. Historical studies of the European family have a long pedigree, but it is only with the enormous production of family historians in recent decades that family history has come into its own. Its contribution is best reflected in the extent to which it has been "mainstreamed." Most historians now recognize the connection between family history and the major structural transformations of European society. Yet despite the impact that family history has had in reshaping historical studies, Stone concludes his assessment by arguing that we still have few indisputable answers about the family in the past. What we have learned, however, is what questions to ask.
Stone's comments on the state of European family history underscore the challenges that confront historians who wish to study the family, especially in regions for which serious study of family history is just beginning. Until a few years ago, there was no family history of the Middle East. There were some histories of families, but these did not deal with the family as an institution, its evolution over time, nor the relationship between the family and society. This gap in the historical studies of the Middle East is now starting to be filled as historians are being attracted to the study of the family from a variety of backgrounds. For example, scholars interested in women's history find that they need to better understand the functioning of the family as a whole in order to understand the position of women within it. Demographic historians find that basic questions about population change are intimately tied to the behavior of families.
Uncovering the history of the Middle Eastern family is not an easy task. Complex problems of interpretation and methodology, often daunting to European family historians with a rich diversity of sources appropriate to the task and with an established historiographical framework in which to work, pose even greater obstacles to students of the Middle Eastern family. How to study the family—the methodological issues involved—is complicated by the limited nature of the source material, especially before the end of the nineteenth century. Why study the family and how to interpret what we find are hindered by certain underlying assumptions that have not been easy to discard: that the "Islamic" family was a monolithic and unchanging institution, at least until the forces of modernization affected the Muslim world in the twentieth century, and that family life is "private" and therefore not a suitable subject for historical research. Few people would any longer admit to believing these statements, yet such assumptions still linger in subtle and not-so-subtle forms.
The growing theoretical and methodological sophistication of Middle Eastern historical studies, however, can help us overcome both the methodological and conceptual obstacles. Like the history of gender or the reconstruction of culture, both of which seemed impossible to study in any meaningful way for the premodern and early modern periods just a short time ago, family history is possible, as recent research is revealing. A major task for Middle Eastern family historians now is compiling basic information about the family, a process that is just beginning. We still have very little data on marriage and divorce, household structure, inheritance, economic ties, affective relations, and kinship roles for most regions of the Middle East and from different time periods. Another major task is to identify the questions we want to ask. As Stone indicates, this is a critical step in moving forward in our understanding of the family. Identifying the right questions and documenting the family go hand in hand. We have to ask the right questions to be able to collect the evidence; at the same time, the more we learn about the family, the more we can refine our questions and ask more meaningful ones.
The research done to date has begun the process of identifying key questions and amassing evidence. Thanks to the pioneering work of Alan Duben, the best-developed line of inquiry so far concerns household structure and formation. Following the work done by historians of other regions on comparative household structures, Duben's basic question has focused on the type of household system found in the Turkish areas of the Ottoman Empire and during the early republican years, a question intertwined with issues of family size and the nature of the domestic cyclethat is, age of marriage, place of residence after marriage, and the timing of household fission. Duben indicates that both simple and multiplefamily households existed. Although it is too early to tell if one type was more prevalent, Haim Gerber hypothesizes that "the nuclear family was much more widespread in the past than commonly realized." We may never be able to answer the question of which type predominated before the modern period, given the nature of our sources before the late nineteenth century. Our task, however, is to identify what patterns existed, where they existed, and the reasons for these patterns. To what extent did household type vary by class, region, ethnicity, distance from the center, location (urban vs. rural), and the conditions of the local economy?
A second line of inquiry focuses on marriage. Much of what was written about marriage in the past dealt with the legal strictures surrounding this institution, with particular attention to polygamy and concubinage, divorce, and the control of the marriages of females, that is, those aspects of the law that placed women in a clearly subordinate position. Recent research has refocused the discussion in two directions. First, it has looked at marriage law not just as legal text but as it was interpreted and executed by judges and muftis. Second, it has paid more attention to marriage practices, which were affected by a variety of other variables besides the provisions of Islamic law. Judith Tucker has identified some of the important questions to ask: How significant was the exchange of mahr (dower)? How common was polygamy? How permanent were marriages, with particular attention to the issue of divorce? What was the age of marriage? How common was cousin marriage? Underlying all these questions is the connection between these features of the institution of marriage and the position of women within the family: that is, to what extent was marriage another way of controlling and limiting the autonomy of women or, alternatively, a means by which women were provided with some economic security and some control over their own lives? There was no single answer to this, according to Tucker. The impact of marriage practice on women was a mixed bag and depended largely on class position. Moreover, marriage was only one of a number of family relationships in which women were involved. Their relationship to their children and to their parents and other relatives played a role in how they interacted with their husbands. While Tucker's work focuses on marriage in the early modern period, Beth Baron and Duben and Behar explore the nature of marriage ties in Cairo and Istanbul respectively, as marriage practices began to change under the impact of the social transformations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They discuss the transition to more companionate marriages in which bride and groom have greater freedom to choose a spouse. Other information on marriage practices emerges from general overviews on women. We are only beginning to answer these questions about marriage, few of which have simple answers.
A third line of inquiry focuses on the role of the family in structuring gender relations. It was through the family that socialization about gender roles took place and male-female, male-male, and female-female relationships were defined and internalized. The debate about gender and patriarchy is therefore inseparable from discussion of the family. Much of this debate centers around whether something called "Islamic patriarchy" as a form of "classical patriarchy" existed. If so, what were its characteristics and how important was this gender ideology, as opposed to material factors, in determining the position of females?" According to the model of Islamic patriarchy, the family was patrilineal, endogamous, patrilocal, and extended, and it held property jointly—all features that were grounded in the family and personal status laws of the shari'a. These characteristics of the Islamic patriarchal family are seen as necessarily connected, even by historians such as Gerber who question whether such a family type was the norm in the past. Understanding basic features of family life—principles of descent, marriage, household, and inheritance—and the distribution of power within families is intricately linked to determining the nature of the patriarchal system. How were power and authority distributed and resources allocated among males and females within the family and among generations? Through the control of marriage and maintenance of extended family households, were the rights of individuals, especially women, being entirely subordinated to the interests of the family? In other words, was the family the perpetuator of patriarchy, an oppressive institution for females as well as for younger and weaker males, as the model of Islamic patriarchy implies?
This research on household, marriage, and the connection between family structure and the gender system is only the beginning of the inquiry into these issues. It represents the tip of the iceberg in terms of the range of questions that can and should be asked about the historical Middle Eastern family, and it raises as many questions as it answers. At the same time, three critical points are underscored by the research done so far. The first is that we should not take anything for granted. All our assumptions and generalizations about the Middle Eastern family in the past need to be reexamined in light of solid historical evidence. Seemingly true generalizations—that households in the past were large, that age of marriage was young, that kinship ties were more important than other social ties—are being challenged as archival research sheds doubts on their universal application. Many of these assumptions may prove to be true for some groups in some places at some times; it does not necessarily follow that they were always true. Rather, they remain hypotheses to be tested.
The second point, related to the first, is the diversity of family arrangements. The myth of a monolithic "Islamic" or even "Middle Eastern" family is made very clear in this research. Household patterns varied from one region to the next; within one small city marriage practices varied significantly by class. It is probably best to stop using terms such as "Islamic" and "Middle Eastern" and to find different labels that more accurately reflect this diversity by firmly anchoring discussions of the family in a particular region and time. What ties much of the recent research together is the focus on the family in the Ottoman Empire between 1600 and 1914, or what we might call the early modern period and the first decades of the modern era. This is in fact a historiography of the Ottoman family. This is not to suggest that there was such a thing as a monolithic "Ottoman" family, any more than there was or is an "Islamic" or "Middle Eastern" one. The Ottoman Empire was characterized by a diversity of social patterns, religious and ethnic groups, ecological and economic zones, and political arrangements between center and provinces that reflected the flexibility that was one of the Empire's great strengths. Given this, there is unlikely to be a single "Ottoman" family. However, Ottoman rule provided an overarching political structure, a unified system of law, and widely shared social norms and cultural values to the peoples of the Empire and a well-known political and economic context in which to explore the diverse forms of the Ottoman family. Once the similarities and differences among families in this specific historical context have been adequately identified and explained, researchers will be in a better position to compare family patterns in the Ottoman Empire to those of other Middle Eastern and Islamic countries and to analyze the extent to which the cultural values and ideology embedded in a shared religious system, and the structural features imposed by similar environmental constraints, affected these patterns.
The third point underscored by recent research is the danger of assuming changelessness in the family. Scholars of the Middle East acknowledge that profound changes have taken place in the family as the region has undergone social transformation in the last two hundred years, sometimes at the risk of ignoring continuities with the past. Many also appear to believe that little change took place in the family before that time, in part because such change is hard to uncover. Labels like "Islamic" or "classical" patriarchy aggravate the problem by emphasizing similarities across time and space and reinforcing a sense of changelessness. Differences are subsumed to what are seen as more profound similarities.
Some historians of gender are beginning to challenge the view that premodern gender relations were changeless. Implicit in this rejection of an unchanging gender system is a recognition that the family also changed over time. Mervat Hatem has been particularly critical of the failure of scholars who are concerned with questions of patriarchy to anchor their discussions of these issues in a specific historical context and to explore how patriarchal systems differed and how change occurred within them. She and others link changes in the family to changes in the state by exploring the connections between the decentralization of the Ottoman Empire and changes in the gender system. In the case of Egypt, Hatem argues that the weakening of the Ottoman state led to larger kinship structures giving way to a family type in which the power of the patriarch over his extended household was greatly expanded. In return for continued allegiance to the Ottoman state, the state agreed to give the patriarchs a free hand. Linda Schilcher sees a similar connection in Syria between weakening Ottoman control and changes in the family. She argues that the patriarchal extended family emerged there in the late seventeenth century. The rise of the notables, a consequence of the redistribution of power between center and provinces, led to the emergence of this particular family pattern.
Two other historians of Egypt take a different view. They agree that the loosening of Ottoman authority was a catalyst for changes in gender relations and in the family. They, however, do not believe that it led to a more patriarchal family. Instead, these changes gave women more room to negotiate with husbands and fathers, greater autonomy within the family, and increased opportunities to amass wealth that in turn provided them more leverage with significant males. These advantages were lost with state centralization and modernization in the nineteenth century.
We know too little about the family and the patriarchal system in the premodern and early modern periods to begin to resolve such a debate. Nevertheless, the theoretical issue raised—about the relationship between changes in the state and changes in the family—is critical, and these studies offer exciting ideas. They are important for stimulating further research and for their attention to change and to connections between state structures, economic conditions, and family patterns.
The ultimate goal of an emerging history of the Middle Eastern family should be to arrive at an understanding of the evolution of the family and kinship in the various regions of the Middle East and to uncover the relationships between change in the family and other kinds of change. If the study of the family fulfills its potential, historical studies in the future will seem incomplete without thorough attention to the family. Achieving this goal, however, can only be done through a step-by-step process. We need to establish some basic "facts" about the family—size, structure, marriage patterns, economic arrangements, affective relationships—through careful, detailed case studies of the family at different times and in different places, and to place these family facts in historical context. Then we can begin to generalize in a meaningful way, to make comparisons, to see change over time, to determine which variables were critical in family formation and change, and to understand the intricate link between the evolution of the family and the transformation of Middle Eastern society since 1500. This study of upper-class families in late Ottoman Aleppo attempts to be one of the building blocks from which we can construct a family history of the Middle East.
Framework of the Study
The family is a complex institution. This most basic point must be kept in mind and forms the underlying assumption of this study. Even when looking at families among one class in a limited period of time, the diversity of family types and the flexibility of family arrangements can seem to defy generalization. The sources of this complexity grow out of the processes of family life and the role of the family as the primary social institution. In the past, as today, families changed over time. As society changed, so did family structure and relationships. As a pivotal institution, the family was both responsive to and an agent of change. Change in the family occurred not only in the framework of historical time but also on a constant basis in the framework of "domestic" time: families were in a constant state of evolution over the course of the domestic cycle as children were born and grew up, married, started families of their own, and as parents aged and died. This complexity and the accompanying difficulties of studying the family in the past are compounded by the ambiguities surrounding our sense of what constituted the family. The term itself is an imprecise one in English, referring to everything from the "isolated" nuclear family to everyone related by blood and marriage. Although more precise in naming relatives, Arabic terms for family are also ambiguous.
The problem for the historian is how to do justice to this complexity and at the same time establish some basic facts and draw meaningful conclusions about families. In this study, I propose to focus on three aspects of family life: household, marriage, and inheritance. The household, as the fundamental framework for family life, will be the subject of Chapter 2. Which family members shared a residence and for how long are critical questions for understanding the family. This chapter will focus on the formation and breakup of households and compare these patterns to those in other parts of the Ottoman Empire and to cultural ideals.
Chapter 3 will focus on marriage patterns and practices among these families, with particular attention to the much-discussed issues of polygyny, divorce, and the mahr and the effect of these practices on the nature and strength of the marriage bond. Because marriage created a political, social, and economic alliance between families, at least at the level of the upper class, it was a pivotal institution in defining significant social and family relationships and establishing social boundaries.
Chapters 4 and 5 will examine the transmission of wealth from one generation to the next. The two principal means of doing this in Aleppo were the Islamic inheritance system and the religious endowment, although premortem transfers through gifts to brides, property sales, and cash exchanges occurred with some regularity. Chapter 4 will look at devolution through the inheritance system, focusing on the relationship between law and practice and the impact of inheritance strategies on family structure. Chapter 5 will look at the use of family religious endowments as another inheritance strategy and examine whether this form of devolution had fundamentally different consequences for the family. To provide the context for discussions of household, marriage, and inheritance, Chapter 1 will discuss Aleppo's notables as a social group and as patrilineages.
Forming households, arranging marriages, and passing wealth from one generation to the next were the most important decisions facing any family. The choices made reveal family strategies for achieving certain goals within the opportunities available to and limits placed on them by many variables, including how much wealth and what type of resources they controlled, the state of the economy, political conditions, gender and age structure within the family, and rates of fertility and mortality. Some of these factors were within the family's control; others clearly were not. These decisions were rarely simple, and they had consequences for family structure and relationships at the time and in future generations. They involved delicate negotiations, the balancing of competing and sometimes conflicting interests and priorities, and efforts to minimize the tensions that surrounded such processes. On occasion, the sources allow us to see these processes directly; more often they reveal the results in indirect ways. From these results, patterns emerge that allow us to make some generalizations about the nature of the household and the practice of marriage and inheritance in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Aleppo.
Knowing who lived together, who married whom and for how long, and who got a piece of the patrimonial pie lays the foundation for constructing a better understanding of the Aleppo family in the past. Focusing on household, marriage, and inheritance also reveals much about the interaction among kin, the nature of their relationships, and the dynamics of family life that allow us to go beyond mere description of these institutions. Through this interaction insights emerge about three major historical issues that form the themes of this book. The first theme is family and law. The impact of Islamic law on women, the gender system, and the family has been the subject of some very interesting studies in recent years. Much of this work challenges the view of Islamic law as highly mysogynist and as a key institution in perpetuating female subordination. My own thinking about issues of law and family has been greatly influenced by this work. This study, however, does not foreground law as these other works do. Rather, in looking at marriage and inheritance practices as revealed through the mahkama shar'iyya (Islamic court) records, I treat law as one factor among others that influenced these practices and patterns.
The second theme is the relationship between the nature of the family and the gender system. The debate about family and patriarchy was discussed in the previous section. What does a case study of upper-class families in Aleppo contribute to this debate? Did the way in which households were structured, marriages arranged, and inheritance controlled reveal a patriarchal and patrilineal family living under a single roof and dominated by a powerful head who monopolized control of economic resources and placed severe restrictions on the economic and social autonomy of family members, especially women? Or did the realities of everyday life place limits on the ability to form such families and result in a less lopsided balance between genders? The evidence from upperclass families is very important to this debate. Although the elite formed only a small part of the population, and their wealth, power, and status allowed them to lead lives very different from the rest of the population, their lifestyle and values, in theory at least, embodied ideals to which other classes aspired, and therefore their family arrangements had "practical and ideological effects beyond class boundaries. "
The third and most important theme is what constituted the family. Family historians would most like to know what the family meant to people at the time. Unfortunately, we cannot ask these eighteenth-century Aleppo notables, nor have they left records that allow us some window into what they considered the family, as did some individuals in Renaissance Italy, for example. However, as they bought and sold property, formed new households, married, settled inheritances, feuded with each other, received appointments to offices, assumed the guardianship of minors, and went about the business of everyday life as it appears in the court records, we see these families "in action." What emerges from these activities are patterns that suggest an idea of what the "family" was. On one level it did not have clearly defined boundaries. Each individual inhabited several family "circles." Two of these circles, representing the largest and the smallest kinship structures, had more or less clearly defined boundaries: the lineage and the conjugal family (i.e., husband, wife or wives, and children). The lineage included all who shared the family name, including distant relatives, and it could be quite large. The use of the same last name identified a biological relationship and implied recognition of kinship. At the other end of the scale, the conjugal family was bound by the rights and obligations and perhaps ties of intimacy and affection between husbands and wives and parents and children. The conjugal families were the building blocks of the domestic unit. But these two "family circles" were not the only ones. There was the family as defined by law, which may only have become relevant when inheritances were distributed or the guardianship of children was decided. There was the residential family or household, which may have incorporated non-kin in a familial relationship. There was the affinal family created through marriage. But it is not clear that any of these circles alone would have been considered the "family" to which one belonged, in the eyes of Aleppo's elite. Everyone was involved in multiple ties of kinship that changed over his or her lifetime. These family circles overlapped, but they were not necessarily identical. Who formed part of these different family circles? How important were they, and under what circumstances did different types of kinship ties become critical?
By looking at interactions among family members as they formed households, arranged marriages, and passed wealth from one generation to the next, we can begin to see which family connections appeared to be strongest. Which family members were most likely to reside in the same household? Which were chosen as marriage partners in endogamous marriages? Which family members were actually tied together as heirs or beneficiaries of religious endowments? As these relationships emerge, some of the most important family ties are revealed and the boundaries of the family delineated. This is not to say that these boundaries were rigid or impermeable, or that other meaningful kinship ties were precluded. But it means that certain types of kinship interaction were more frequent and centered around the most critical aspects of family life and in effect defined the family in a way that would have made sense to individuals at the time. The main purpose of this study, then, is to attempt to identify the boundaries of the family among the notables of Aleppo and to define family structure in those terms. In other words, who were the "kin who counted"?
Sources and Methodology
The growing interest in Middle Eastern family history is clear evidence of the importance of the issues of concern to family historians. However, historians interested in studying the Middle Eastern family, especially for any time period before the twentieth century, face significant methodological challenges, including the daunting prospect of limited sources, even the best of which are problematic; determining how to use the available sources with few models to guide them; and formulating questions that can be answered and say something meaningful about the family. Because of these methodological problems, it is important to discuss the sources on which this study is based and how they will be used.
For European historians who study the family, there is almost an embarrassment of riches in source materials. Even for the premodern period, manorial roles and household accounts, parish and notary records, and diaries and letters are available in large numbers, and a key question for the historian is how to select from this richness. Middle Eastern historians are not so lucky. Despite the abundance of literary and archival sources for premodern history, relatively few can yield much information on the family. One major exception to this rather discouraging picture are two kinds of legal sources: the fatwa documents (legal opinions by muftis) and the records of the mahkama shar'iyya. This study is based on the latter.
The value of the Islamic court archives for family history lies in the nature of Islamic law and the institutionalization of the legal and judicial system under the Ottomans. The keystone of the Islamic legal system, family law is minutely detailed and explicit on the rights and obligations of family members with regard to marriage and divorce, inheritance, custody of children, parentage, and relationships between spouses. Consequently, the whole range of family matters was subject to the courts and to judges who were administering this law. In this capacity, judges served not only as arbitrators in civil litigation as it concerned family law, but also as the equivalent of notary publics in the West, registering marriages, divorces, inheritance settlements, and guardians. Moreover, cases that were not specifically tied to family law, but that affected and revealed relationships within the family, such as property and commercial transactions, came before the judge for registration or resolution. In all cases, kinship relationships were carefully recorded because of the concern about family matters.
Although the Ottomans did much to regularize the judicial system and although qadis (judges) had jurisdiction over a range of legal matters, what was actually recorded, the form in which it was recorded, the amount of information that was included about participants and issues, and of course, what has survived varied from one Ottoman city to another. For example, although marriages were registered with the qadi in eighteenth-century Aleppo, marriage contracts are not found in the existing records. Marriage contracts have survived for many other places, however, including Cairo and many towns in Palestine. The content and form of these records were influenced by such factors as the effectiveness of Ottoman control in different periods, the real power and authority of the qadi, the importance of the city, and the competence of the clerks.
In assessing the usefulness and reliability of these sources, the historian is confronted with two problems common to all scholars who use legal sources. The first is the question of how extensively the courts were used. Many matters were undoubtedly settled within the family or through informal networks of arbitration at the neighborhood level. Moreover, it is possible that there is a class bias in the recorded cases. As in our own legal system, those who could afford the fees, who were literate and familiar with the law and often had connections with the judicial hierarchy, and who had the most to gain from a duly registered and legally binding contract or settlement of litigation would have been most likely to use the courts. Nevertheless, scholars who have examined these sources have generally come to the conclusion that people registered contracts and brought disputes to be resolved on a routine basis, especially in the larger Ottoman cities. The most persuasive support for this conclusion comes from Haim Gerber's analysis of who used the courts in Bursa. He classified a sample of cases according to the social background of the participants and found that most of them were not from the elite. Moreover, in cases that did involve the elite, most were brought to court by the "social underdog." Gerber concludes that "the court is seen mainly as a tool of the common people to defend a modicum of legal rights." While a similar breakdown of the background of the litigants is not available for other courts, the sheer number of cases in any one year in a city like Aleppo or Cairo suggests that they were widely used by individuals from a range of ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic groups. People seemed to have faith in the courts as vehicles for achieving their goaIs.
The second problem is the extent to which what was recorded in the sources reflected reality. Were the decisions rendered in any case actually implemented? A brief consideration of our own legal system is enough to suggest how frequently the actual implementation of a decision fails to follow the ruling of the judge. However, to some extent this is less problematic than it might appear at first. Much of the value of these sources lies less in the final decisions rendered by the qadis and more in the issues raised and detailed information provided. Moreover, whether a decision was implemented can be confirmed in some cases by subsequent entries in the registers dealing with the same piece of property. A more complicated issue is that of legal fiction. It is possible that fictitious contracts or property sales were registered to serve the particular purposes of the parties involved. For example, a wealthy merchant might register the sale of property to a religious leader to avoid the threat of confiscation, without the property ever changing hands in reality. This type of methodological problem has been raised in the case of historians using notary records in Renaissance Italian cities. We have no way of knowing whether such legal fictions took place nor any means of weeding them out if they did. It is important to note the problem, but we must simply live with the doubt.
Despite the problems posed by the sources and the limitations inherent in the evidence, the religious court archives remain an enormously rich source for the study of the Ottoman family in the early modern period. The very weaknesses of these records as evidence can also be their strengths, since the need to confront their limits forces one to be as creative as possible in devising ways of using them. The great volume of cases and the sheer amount of detail contained in most of them pose real dilemmas of sampling and selecting. At the same time, it is this volume and detail that make the sources so useful, opening, as they do, a window into the social and cultural world of Ottoman urban society unavailable in other sources.
There are a number of different ways to use these sources to study the family. For purposes of this study, I have chosen to concentrate on those families with family names. In the Ottoman Empire of this period, that means elite families. Evidence about family life in other classes will be included at times to provide comparison, but the main focus of the study will be confined to one group. The most important reason for choosing this focus is that it allows us to identify individuals. Consistent social identification, apart from religious affiliation, is missing from these records. A study of the elite, with its family names, allows us to overcome the problem posed by the general anonymity of the sources. This in turn allows us to use two methodologies that minimize some of the problems posed by the sources and maximize their potential: family reconstitution and historical ethnography.
Family reconstitution, a technique devised by European demographic historians utilizing parish registers of births, deaths, and marriages to establish some basic facts about family size and structure, is essentially a technique of genealogical reconstruction, piecing together information about the family from a variety of sources. Reconstructing families in this way makes it possible to resolve questions that we would otherwise be unable to answer, including the approximate size of the lineages and individual families that made up these lineages when we have no reliable statistical data available. It also shows the structure and delineates the boundaries of the lineage, the largest kin group. In addition, being able to answer many basic questions about households, marriage, and inheritance depends on knowing the precise relationship among kin. Determining the frequency and significance of cousin marriage, tracing the changes in residence that indicate the formation of new households, and knowing who among the potential heirs actually inherited require a knowledge of genealogical relationships that only become clear through reconstructing the family.
Historical ethnography, as described by Diane Owen Hughes, is the "study of the cumulative experiences of individuals to construct societal models." Hughes proposed such a methodology for utilizing the notary records of medieval and Renaissance Italy, documents with many similarities to the religious court archives. It involves tracking the behavior of individuals over time in their everyday lives as recorded by the notaries. By studying those Aleppo individuals with family names, it is possible to trace the activities of members of each family through the sources. Single entries, which by themselves are relatively meaningless, become significant when put in the context of all other cases in which that individual was involved. Similarly, the recorded activities of an individual may have little significance alone, but take on new importance when placed side by side with the activities of other family members. In this way, the fragmented, but detailed, nature of the information in the sources can be placed in a meaningful context. We see these families "in action." Patterns emerge that shed light on basic institutions of family life. These documents are also what Andrejs Plakans calls "interaction" documents, windows through which we can see family members interacting with each other. They make it possible to see which family members interacted most frequently, what kinds of issues brought them together, and what kinship roles they seem to be playing. As we see which kin have the closest and most frequent contact, we can begin to define the boundaries of the effective family. Tracing families through the sources and being able to study families across generations helps avoid a static approach that obscures the dynamics of family formation and interaction.
Since the main purpose of this study is to attempt to understand important family ties and identify the boundaries of the effective family, one other methodological issue needs to be addressed: the question of terminology. The problem of using an imprecise term like family to describe and analyze such a complex institution has already been alluded to, although I have continued to use the term rather indiscriminately in this study to refer to all who share a common family name as well as other kinds of kin groups. For stylistic purposes, it will continue to be used in this way occasionally, and the context should make that clear. Nevertheless, for analytical purposes, it is necessary to have a more precise vocabulary to talk about the different family circles in which these notables operated. It is important to be able to use a vocabulary that is appropriate to the way in which Middle Easterners of the time would have understood the family and at the same time use terminology that allows us to put the Aleppo family of the Ottoman period in comparative context.
Arabic is more helpful than English, both in naming kin and describing kinship groups, since it is more precise about the relationship between individuals and groups of relatives. For example, it uses different terms for paternal and maternal aunts/uncles. However, it still falls short of providing a clear terminology in which to discuss family structure and relationships. Ambiguity arises because there is considerable regional and even class variation in the use of these terms today, and there may well be important differences between how terms are used today and how they were used in the past. Moreover, like English, some of the most basic Arabic terms to designate kin groups can have multiple meanings.
For understanding historical usage of kinship terms in Syria, the best source is perhaps Kazem Daghestani, who surveyed the Syrian Muslim family in the 1920s and made careful note of the way kinship terms were used. Usage at that point was probably similar to what it had been a hundred years earlier. Two Arabic terms were commonly used to denote significant family groupings among the great "bourgeois" families of the urban centers—that is, the kind of families who are being studied here. The term `a'ila (or `ala) was used to designate the group consisting of all males and females from the same souche (origin) who shared the same family name and were tied together by consanguine relationships through the males—in other words what we would call a lineage in English. Subdivisions of the lineage were called bayt in Arabic. According to Daghestani, division of the `a'ila occurred when the family grew too large. Each bayt, headed by one or more males and including his or their wives and children, became an independent economic unit and usually, though not always, lived in a separate household. While the meaning of bayt in this sense and the relationship between `a'ila and bayt seems clear at first glance, a closer look reveals some ambiguity. Some lineages were subdivided into separate branches, with each branch consisting of several families or households, but others were not. Did bayt refer to branches of the lineage or to the households or conjugal families that made up each branch? There is also the confusion between bayt used in the figurative sense of family and bayt used to designate a physical structure, the house itself, and/or those people who lived in it, the household, who may or may not have been part of the family. Another term, dar, was also used to refer to the house as a physical structure and in a more figurative sense, as in the "house" of Osman. Moreover, both `a'ila and `ala could mean the conjugal family as well as the lineage. So although Arabic does make some more precise distinctions among levels of kinship organization, the ambiguity in the vocabulary of family and kinship is not eliminated and so does not fully resolve the problem of how to talk about "family" with greater clarity.
Nevertheless, in general the language used by the religious courts seems to make the distinction between `a'ila and bayt on the one hand and bayt and dar on the other, using `a'ila to indicate a larger kin group, bayt a smaller one, and dar to designate the actual physical house. In doing so, it presumably reflected some of the distinctions that society as a whole made about the kinds of kinship groups. With that in mind, I have chosen to use the term lineage as a translation of `a'ila and to refer to the largest kinship group among these families: all individuals who shared the same family name. This is not a completely satisfactory term since lineage is often used in the Middle Eastern context to refer to corporate groups and may suggest connotations about kinship organization that are not appropriate here. Still, it is clear from the use of family names and other evidence that these patrilineal descent groups were recognized and those connections considered important. What to call the subdivisions of the lineage is more problematic. As indicated above, the term bayt can refer to anything from a basic family group of parents and children to a large extended grouping consisting of several generations and several degrees of kinship. Despite this imprecision, bayt will be translated as "branch" when referring to a distinct subdivision of the patrilineage. The term family will refer to individual units of the lineage or branch. The phrases elementary family or conjugal family will be used to refer to husband, wife or wives, and children. The term extended family will refer to parents and children plus father's parents, siblings, and siblings' children. These terms will be used when talking about families as economic associations or social networks as well as residential units. When talking about households, however, the terminology preferred by scholars interested in comparative household structures will be used: simple households to refer to those with only one resident elementary or conjugal family, and multiple households to describe those with more than one conjugal family, consisting of either father and married sons and their families or brothers and their families.
The Historical Context
The century from 1750 to 1850 was a time of upheaval and transition in the Ottoman Empire. Two key processes reshaped the Empire: (1) the integration of the empire into the world econ omy with European expansion, and (2) political decentralization, followed by a more or less effective recentralization with the reforms of the Tanzimat. A major urban center like Aleppo did not remain isolated from the turmoil produced by these changes. How fundamentally Aleppo was affected by the structural changes in the empire, however, is a subject of some debate. The impact of these changes on provincial society throughout the empire depended on a number of factors: the perceived importance of the region to Istanbul, its value to the Europeans as a source of raw materials and markets, the structure of the local economy, and the response of local society. After 1750 political events moved rapidly. Nevertheless, this did not necessarily mean that social structure or cultural values and attitudes kept pace or that basic institutions like the family were transformed. In fact it is almost impossible to find evidence that change occurred in these areas. In his study of Aleppo in the middle of the eighteenth century on the "eve of modernity," Abraham Marcus demonstrates a remarkable stability in the basic social order and continuity in attitudes, values, and worldview. Social and cultural changes that grew out of the processes of economic and political change would not become obvious until later in the nineteenth century. But the beginnings of a major social transformation were already underway beneath this surface continuity. Political events and economic changes were affecting different social groups, including the elite, in a variety of ways and having an impact on their decisions and behavior, including the strategies they used in setting up households, making marriages, managing family resources, and handling family relationships. It is important, then, to summarize briefly the wider political and economic developments as they affected Aleppo and its elite.
The political decentralization of the empire had its roots in changes that occurred in the sixteenth century, such as the influx of New World silver and the resulting inflation, the effective end to acquisition of new land and resources through conquest, and a revolution in military technology. The financial crisis and changes in the military that followed profoundly affected land administration and the collection of revenues. These became the purview of tax farmers, drawn more and more from local notables. In contrast to the "classical" empire of the sixteenth century and to the smaller but recentralized state of the post-Tanzimat period, the Ottoman state of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries experienced a shift of power from the center to the periphery. The notables, through their increasing control of local surpluses and acquisition of offices formerly reserved for imperial officials, were able to wield considerable power. Although they rarely rebelled openly against Ottoman authority, the notables, rather than Istanbul, often called the shots.
“Margaret Meriwether has written an excellent study of family life in Ottoman Aleppo.... Her book will be of great value to those interested in social studies in general, women's history, gender studies, and Middle Eastern studies in particular.”
Amira Sonbol, author of Women, the Family, and Divorce Laws in Islamic History