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Atlas of Jordan

Myriam Ababsa

Chapter five - Territory and Nation Building (from 1918 onwards)

The British Land Programme

Myriam Ababsa

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Land registration and property taxes under the British Mandate

1Transjordan’s economy was largely based on agriculture. In order to benefit from it, the British government decided to reform land policy and taxation. They broadened the tax base and replaced the system of communal land ownership with that of private ownership, in an attempt to improve crop yields and extend areas planted with fruit trees. According to Michael Fischbach, one of the reasons for the stability of the Hashemite regime was that small and medium-sized holdings were consolidated under the British Mandate, while large landholdings were not affected by land reforms (as was the case in Syria and Egypt).

2Unlike Syria and Palestine, in the early 1920s Jordan was characterized by a relatively egalitarian structure of land ownership, dominated by small holdings of around 40 dunums (4 ha). Although the big sheikhs and wealthy traders had managed to amass large areas of land, inequalities were less striking than in the rest of Bilad al-Sham. There was considerable social control over land, as evidenced by the extent of musha’a ownership (communally owned land with periodic rotation of use apportioned among villagers). Musha’a ownership represented 82% of land in the province of Ajlun, 22% in Balqa and 26% in Kerak, while Ma‘an had none. Mafruz privately owned land prevailed in the central regions of Balqa (except in the villages of Bani Sakhr), in Kerak and in Ma‘an. Olive groves and orchards were mostly privately owned. Sheikhs oversaw the yearly allocation of musha’a land shares (Fischbach 2000, p. 68).

3The British implemented a new land registration system. In 1927, the Ottoman dunum, which was equal to 919.3 m², was replaced by the metric dunum of 1,000 m² (0.1 ha). One of the objectives of the British was to gradually replace the system of communally owned musha’a land with privately owned land, which was believed to give better yields. They began by registering land in Mandated Palestine. By 1928, all 753 Palestinian villages had been registered, covering an area of 4,876,000 dunums, 56% of which was owned under the musha’a system (Fischbach 2000, p. 81).

4The Land Demarcation and Valuation Law was introduced in 1927. For the first time, village boundaries were set following consultation with village mukhtars and demarcated with steel markers (fig. V.5). To combat deforestation, it was decided that all forests should come under the State, but the population was opposed to this decision, especially in Ajlun. This led to increased deforestation as villagers rushed to extend the land area of their villages by cutting the forests. By 1933 all of Jordan’s fertile land had been surveyed and registered: making up a total of 10,008,000 dunums (1 million ha), of which 4,556,007 dunums were cultivated, and 600,000 dunums were State land. Fertile State land accounted for 18% of all registered land (Fischbach 2000, p. 94).

Figure V.4 — Agricultural land productivity by Hawd in 1931.

Figure V.4 — Agricultural land productivity by Hawd in 1931.

Fischbach 2000

Figure V.5 — Cadastral limits in 1933.

Figure V.5 — Cadastral limits in 1933.

Tax Law of 1933

5The Ottomans levied 12% tax on cultivated land. The Irbid region was over-taxed, while the Kerak region was under-taxed, as was the tribal area of the Bani Hasan in the province of Ajlun, which constituted 37 villages inhabited by 15,000 people in an area covering 335 km². However, this Bani Hasan land had not been planted with fruit trees or olive groves because of the ambiguity of the musha’a ownership system.

Table V.1 – Size of Lanholdings in 1950.


< 100 dunums

10 ha

100-200 d.

10 – 20 ha

200-300 d.

20-30 ha

300-500 d.

30 – 50 ha

> 500 dunums

> 50 ha


27 116

2 487





6 052





Jabal Ajlun

7 526






9 655






6 083






9 895






9 098


















76 686

7 847

2 513

1 823

1 337

Source : Jordanian Statistical Yearbook 1950, p. 74-77 in Fishbach 2000, p. 151.

6Since half the land was left fallow on alternate years, the British decided to halve the old Ottoman tax rate, but also to raise the rate for fallow land (according to the value of the land estimated in the register). However, it was extremely difficult for them to calculate individual rates of taxation for musha’a land. According to the British Tax Law of 1933, 6% of the value of the yield of each Hawd was to be paid in tax. The value of each Hawd was calculated according to soil fertility, to determine the level of taxation. The most fertile lands of Transjordan had a yield of over 80 kg of grain for every 10 kg of seeds sown per dunum. The least fertile had a yield of less than 40 kg/ dunum (fig. V.4 and table V.1).

7While the new law resulted in reduced taxes for the Irbid region, it was very unpopular in the under-taxed central regions (Amman and Salt) and with the Bedouin leaders of the Bani Hamida. A special commission was set up for the lands that the Ottomans had transferred to the Bani Hasan in Ajlun.

Land Settlement Law of 1933

8The Land Settlement Law was enacted in 1933 to settle disputes between private (mafruz) and communal landowners (musha’a). Farmers subsequently began clearing rocks and stones from land that was previously collectively owned. However this new law overlooked one of the major advantages of the old musha’a system; it limited the division of land among heirs, since each received a share of the total yield. The average size of plots was reduced by half, resulting in the leasing of the smallest parcels of land to large landowners. Thus in Ajlun in 1953, 25% of land was leased out because it covered less than 10 dunums. Moreover, the reduction of musha’a land put an end to the upkeep of communal erosion banks and wind-break walls, thus increasing soil erosion (Fischbach 2000, p. 137) (fig. V.6).

Figure V.6 — Distribution of Landholding in 1950.

Figure V.6 — Distribution of Landholding in 1950.

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure V.4 — Agricultural land productivity by Hawd in 1931.
Crédits Fischbach 2000
Fichier image/jpeg, 160k
Titre Figure V.5 — Cadastral limits in 1933.
Fichier image/jpeg, 152k
Titre Figure V.6 — Distribution of Landholding in 1950.
Fichier image/jpeg, 132k


© Presses de l’Ifpo, 2013

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