Agricultural land in Palestine: Letters to Sir Moses Montefiore, 1839

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Letters on the subject of land and agriculture, written by the Jews of Safed, Tiberias, Acre, Haifa, Jerusalem and Hebron to Sir Moses Monteflore during his second visit to Palestine in 1839, have been dealt with by various authors. Some have seen them in the context of the history of the movement for Jewish national revival and the 'Hibbat Zion' movement, or of European concepts about 'the restoration of the Jews'.((Citron, Sokolow, Gelber, Medzini and Dinur, cited by I. Bartal, 'Settlement Proposals During Montefiore's Second Visit to Eretz-Israel, 1839', in Joseph Hacker (ed.) Shalem: Studies in the History of the Jews in Eretz-Israel II (Jerusalem 1976) 231-5 (Hebrew).)) Others have used them as sources for the study of the history of Jewish settlement in Palestine and of the attempts of Jews to engage in productive occupations there.((Luncz, Ya'ari, Harisman, Gat, Klausner, Zvi-Zehavi, Kressel and others, cited by Bartal (see n. 1); see also M. D. Shub, Memories of the House of David (Jerusalem 1937) 45-50 (Hebrew).)) Most authors, however, did not study the documents themselves very carefully. A more detailed examina? tion was published by Israel Bartal.((The major article is the one which appeared in Shalem II (see n. 1) 231-96. Further references to the year 1839 are found in another article which deals mainly with 1849, see I. Bartal, 'Two Letters Addressed to Sir Moses Montefiore by the Jews of the Galilee Concerning Agricultural Matters', Cathedra 2 (Nov 1976) 141-52 (Hebrew).))

The present paper focuses on the availability of land and agricultural activity in Palestine during the period of the Egyptian occupation (1831-41). It is based on a close study of the original manuscripts of the letters, and forms part of a broader study on changes in the pattern of land ownership in Palestine between 1800 and 1917, and their effect on settlement.

The letters((Most of the letters are in two volumes of manuscripts in the Montefioriana collection in London, numbered 5 74 and 575.)) represent a rich, but barely tapped resource relating to the Egyptian administration, and to the historical geography and economic history of the Middle East and Palestine. They contain information on the period preceding the Egyptian occupation as well as on the period of occupation itself, and include references to the state of security (looting and banditry, for example), the treatment of minorities, taxation, local rulers, public health (epidemics) and natural disasters (earthquakes).

They also contain information on economic ventures as varied as crafts, trade with Egypt, and details on the measures in use, currency exchange rates, interest rates and prices. Especially important is what can be learned about the land situation in Palestine during the 1830s, a subject on which information is relatively scarce. The letters are informative also on the ownership and owners of land (the government, effendis, Muslims, Christians and Jews), the fellahin, the size of the cultivated areas in the villages, systems of economic cooperation linking town-dwellers and villagers and members of different religions, forms of land tenure, crops and their regional variation, livestock

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