Rural societies in an age of urbanisation

Rural societies in an age of urbanisation, 1550 to 1850

Astrid Meier

The aim of the project is to explore the dynamics of rural-urban relations in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman empire between 1550 and 1850 from the perspective of the “rural”. The period usually counts as a time of profound transformation, in the form of both momentous change and long-term developments, in an increasingly globalized world. This includes the transition from the early modern to the modern. The project regards the disparities characteristic of these processes and puts the primary focus on the rural side. It aims at developing a new perspective on how to understand the multi-scalar, multi-layered and uneven processes related to phenomena such as “urbanisation” which is understood here in a two-fold way. The concept refers to the often uneven and non-linear growth of towns and cities in terms of inhabitants and built-up space, and the ways in which such growth was managed, as well as to new urban life-styles and the development of norms and values related to the gradual emergence of the new political and social actor whom we now recognize as the “citizen”.

The project wants to bring to light how rural societies participated in these processes. The dynamic and co-constitutive relationship between the rural and the urban as well as the diversity of rural spaces are givens that guide the project. Accentuating the agency of people of rural background in terms of economic activities, but also in politics, administration and the military as well as in the cultural and religious life of their times, the project seeks out the actors of change, their settings and impact, as well as those who resisted such change. By advocating a bottom-up perspective on transitions at the economic, social, political and cultural levels, we challenge the exclusive focus on urban societies that prevails in much of the scholarly literature pertaining to the history of the Middle East.

The project started with developing a more comprehensive framework of how to understand the various aspects of “rurality” and the role of rural communities in economy, society and politics. At this stage, the main focus is on the writing of a long-term history tentatively entitled “Bedouin Syria” from the Ottoman conquest until about 1850. Johann Büssow (University of Tübingen) as co-author will bring the narrative from the period of Ottoman reforms up to the present.

The book takes a fresh look at Bedouin groups and the environment in which they have lived by identifying the factors that shaped their history. We give consideration to the configurations of people, wealth, and power in this region and trace their connections in both space and time. In so doing, we adopt a long-term perspective to gain a more comprehensive picture of the changes in livelihoods, ways of life, social organization, and identity constructions of Bedouin groups, which are in many ways paradigmatic for more general trends in Middle Eastern history. Our analysis will connect to the ongoing debates in scholarly fields such as environment and human agency; marginality versus integration of particular social groups in the Middle East; and the Ottoman heritage in the modern Middle East.

To refine the comparative angle of the project, a contrastive case study is developed in parallel. My study is part of a cross-disciplinary and international research project which aims at investigating the economic, social and political life of rural communities in the Nahr al-Jawz valley, Northern Lebanon in its long-term trajectory.  This approach offers the opportunity to explore some of the same questions in a landscape which differs from the ‘Open Country’ of the Syrian Steppe (Bādiyat al-Shām), and not only in environmental terms. The workshop “Cross-disciplinary approaches to the Hydraulic Landscapes of the Eastern Mediterranean, 1200-1900CE”, held at the OIB and the University of Balamand in April 2016, was a first result of this cooperation, offering a platform to debate the possibilities of interdisciplinary cooperation and the availability of source material, including various kinds of both textual (literary and archival) and material sources (archaeological finds, environmental data). 


Dr. Astrid Meier (