Land Code of 1858

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extension of tanzimat reforms to agricultural property and taxation.

The Ottoman Land Code of 1858 (Turkish, Arazi Kanunnamesi ) was an extension of the Tanzimat reforms to the areas of agricultural property and taxation. Aimed at increasing tax revenues while replacing local rule by notables with centralized administration, the code reaffirmed prior laws pertaining to land, updated some old terminology, and introduced two major innovations that, by permitting individuals to possess large areas of land, completely transformed the relationship of people to land in many parts of the Ottoman Empire during the last half of the nineteenth century.

Land Ownership and Taxation prior to 1858

Classical Ottoman land-tenure legislation made a fundamental distinction between the right to cultivate land (tasarruf) and the absolute ownership of land (raqaba). The two main categories of land were mülk and miri. The owners of mülk land combined the right to cultivate with absolute ownership; this land was largely confined to orchards adjacent to villages and constituted a small proportion of land in the empire. Mülk land comes closest to private property as understood in the West. Miri land was owned by the state; the actual cultivators of the land were essentially tenants of the state, although they were entitled to pass on the right of cultivation to their heirs. Miri land consisted of arable land upon which crops were sown and constituted the vast majority of agricultural land in the empire.

Taxes on agricultural lands were a primary source of income for the Ottoman state. By the late fourteenth century, a system of revenue collection was established called the timar system. Large grants of land were given to military officers who collected the land tax and used it to procure and equip military forces to fight the empire's wars. Until the 1800s, this system was gradually replaced by one called iltizam (tax farming). Wealthy individuals, often government officials, would bid at open auction for the right to collect taxes. An agreed-upon proportion of taxes would be transferred to the government, and the tax farmer could keep the rest. While initially tax farms were granted for limited periods of time, in a further development, they were granted for life, and even became inheritable. These grants were known as malikane. A consequence of malikane was that tax farmers increased their autonomy from the state and often became local rulers (ayan). The ayan did not challenge the state's claim to ownership of land, but they did prevent the state from collecting taxes, enhancing their own power. In the early nineteenth century, ayan from the western provinces of the empire were briefly able to impose their will on the sultan. But this supremacy was short-lived, and by 1815, Sultan Mahmud II had reestablished the dominant position of the central state.

Mahmud II's successful campaign to reassert state control over the ayan created a need for a new system to administer the state's vast tracts of land while preventing reemergence of the ayan political challenge. Land Reform was taking place throughout the Middle East. The distinguished historian Ahmed Cevdet Paşa, who served on the commission that drafted the code, stated that the radical administrative and financial changes created by the Tanzimat reforms of the first half of the century produced the need for new regulations of landed property. In addition, the growing need of the state for revenue demanded new forms of land tenure and taxation that would enhance cultivation of existing lands and encourage the reclamation of dead lands, while guaranteeing state collection of tax revenues. Finally, both merchants and farmers inside the empire and European countries were pressuring the sultan to pass reforms that would rationalize the government. Part of this rationalization would be accomplished by guaranteeing the property rights of the sultan's subjects. The 1858 Land Code was a response to these multiple needs.

The passage of the code was preceded by several reforms. In 1846, a ministry of agriculture was established to stimulate agricultural production. Efforts were made to sedentarize nomadic tribes, both to provide laborers for the cultivation of cotton and to subject them to taxation. Tax exemptions offered villages for performing public services such as road building were abolished; new state agencies would perform these services. The agricultural tax, which previously had fluctuated between 10 and 50 percent of the product was fixed at 10 percent; this tax was called the üşür. In 1847, the government prepared a system of land registration; land would be registered in a centralized government office, the defterhane, and owners would be given deeds of ownership.

Land Ownership and Taxation following the 1858 Land Code

The Land Code was characterized by marked continuity with the classical fifteenth- and sixteenth-century qanuns regulating agrarian property rights. The fundamental distinction between tasarruf and raqaba was retained, and land continued to be divided into five categories: mülk, miri, waqf (tax-exempt land devoted to supporting religious establishments), metruk (land designated for the public activities of villages, such as the village threshing floor), and mevat (dead and unclaimed land). The preponderance of land continued to be owned by the state. The Land Code reiterated basic legal doctrine on the means of acquiring land through possession and cultivation of land for a ten-year period, the condition that land uncultivated for a three-year period became mahlul (lapsed ownership), and the means of inheriting land. The code liberalized the right of bequeathing land, in the hope that keeping land within one family would lead to greater efforts to improve land.

Despite its conservative nature, the Land Code did contain two crucial innovations that would alter the nature of land ownership in much of the Middle East. The first innovation was the obligation of landowners to register their land with the government and receive formal deed to the land. This measure was not designed to prevent absentee ownership; indeed, the code specifically stated that legal ownership of land took precedence over actual occupation and cultivation. Thus, whereas previously the ayan had possessed the right to collect taxes, now those who did not cultivate land could still possess land and become taxpayers. The code was thus concerned with determining the legal status of the taxpayer, suggesting that the drafters of the code perceived the new legislation as a revenue-raising instrument. The code did, however, prohibit any individual or several individuals from gaining title to occupied villages in their entirety. Nevertheless, the second innovation found in the code permitted individuals to own vast tracts of land; beginning in 1858, the state could issue deeds to formerly unoccupied lands. This was designed to increase the area of land under cultivation. When these two innovations were combined, it meant that individuals could now on paper own very large tracts of land.

The major consequence of the 1858 Land Code was the separation of the taxpayer/owner from the cultivator in many parts of the empire. Before the code's passage, peasants had leased land from the state, and powerful individuals had acted as intermediaries who collected taxes from the actual cultivator; after the code's passage, powerful individuals could legally own land that they leased to peasants. It is frequently asserted that this outcome was precisely the opposite of what was intended by the Ottoman government. Inefficient administration of the law, it is contended, allowed powerful individuals to register in their own names lands previously held by peasants. This occurred because peasants depended on local notables for protection; because peasants were afraid that registration of land would be followed by conscription or increased tax burdens; because peasant indebtedness to moneylenders led to forfeiture of deeds to land; because peasants were too ignorant to comprehend land registration; or because bedouin shaykhs used their authority within the tribe to usurp all the land of their tribesmen.

More recent scholarship has contested this view, arguing that the consequences of the Land Code differed from region to region in the empire and that peasants were willing to participate in and benefit from the new system. In Palestine, for example, in the hilly country surrounding Jerusalem, peasants did register land in their own names, and a survey of property records did not find a single case of a city notable or moneylender registering land. On the coastal plains, however, city notables were able to take advantage of the government's new policy of selling deeds to unclaimed lands. Large-scale landlords took possession of vast tracts of land, still mostly unoccupied or unclaimed. Similarly, in Anatolia large estates were formed on wasteland, often located in swampy plains and in the Kurds' tribal lands to the east. In areas of established peasant settlements in central Anatolia and on the coasts, peasant ownership continued to be the predominant form of land tenure.

In other regions, large estates were created. In Mesopotamia (now Iraq), Ottoman governors, seeking the cooperation of tribal shaykhs, permitted them to register tribal lands as their personal property, creating large estates. In Syria, powerful local families had obtained malikane grants and ruled almost unchecked from the eighteenth century. By 1858, the distinction between mülk and miri land had been considerably blurred. Thus, the Land Code seems to have accelerated, not caused, the creation of large estates. The major mechanism for estate formation in Syria seems to have been peasant indebtedness and default to moneylenders. As a result, by the start of the twentieth century, large landholdings had been created and many peasants reduced to the status of tenant farmer or sharecropper. In Syria, as in other regions of the empire where peasants lost ownership of land, estate formation did not mean the creation of unified, plantation-like farms; instead, absentee landowners negotiated arrangements with individual peasants, who continued to farm small plots of land.

Although a great deal of research remains to be done, these divergent consequences of the Land Code mitigate against drawing any overly generalized conclusions about its results. If in Syria and Iraq urban notables and tribal shaykhs were able to wrest ownership of land from peasants, in Palestine and Anatolia large estates were created primarily through the sale by the state of wasteland that needed to be reclaimed. The capacity of peasants in parts of Palestine and Anatolia to obtain legal possession of their land suggests that peasants were not automatically unwilling to register their land; it would seem to be the case that in many regions, they were unable to do so.

It is not clear that the creation of large estates constitutes the failure of the 1858 Land Code. If a primary purpose of the code was to raise state revenues, it was a success: Between 1887 and 1910, a period when the territory of the empire was shrinking, the revenue collected from the agricultural tax increased from 426 million to 718 million piastres.

see also land reform; mahmud ii; qanun; tanzimat; waqf.


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Sluglett, Peter, and Farouk-Sluglett, Marion. "The Application of the 1858 Land Code in Greater Syria: Some Preliminary Observations." In Land Tenure and Social Transformation in the Middle East, edited by Tarif Khalidi. Beirut: American University of Beirut, 1984.

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david waldner