Sursock family

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Sursock House, Beirut, Lebanon

The Sursock family (also Sursuq) is a Greek Orthodox Christian family from Lebanon. Having originated in Constantinople during the Byzantine Empire, the family has been recorded as living in Beirut since 1714, when they began to establish positions of power within the growing Ottoman Empire. The family, through lucrative business ventures, savvy political maneuvering, and strategic marriages, embarked on what Leila Fawaz called "the most spectacular social climb in the nineteenth century," and, by their peak, had built a close network of relations to the families of Egyptian, French, Irish, Russian, Italian and German aristocracies and a manufacturing and distribution empire spanning the Mediterranean.[1][2]

The Sursocks are one of Beirut's aristocratic Christian families, along with the Bustros, Ferneini, Fayad, Gebeili, Trad, and Tueni families and were readily admitted into Ottoman, Egyptian and European high societies. The Sursocks became an integral part of an international bourgeoisie that constantly moved between the cities of Alexandria, Beirut, Cairo, Istanbul, Paris and Rome and are effectively one of the "Seven Families" which define Beirut's aristocratic nobility.[3][4] Their wealth and sophistication are also reflected in their stunning residences, which, equal in elegance to any Italian palazzo, remain largely unscathed despite fifteen years of unrelenting mortar fire and violence.[5][6]

In the 17th century, members of the Sursock family served as tax collectors and held other positions on behalf of the Ottoman Empire, eventually allowing them to benefit greatly from the 1858 Ottoman land reforms, during which they acquired large tracts of fertile land in northern Palestine, in addition to their already extensive holdings ranging from Egypt to Beirut.[7] The means by which this Greek-Orthodox Ottoman family came into possession of such particularly palatial real estate were multiple. As a long line of land owners and tax collectors, the Sursocks were able to leverage their finances and capital using their connections to American, Russian, German and French consuls over the decades to establish extensive economic and political connections.[8] The family developed wide social ties and was close to key Ottoman and European figures, frequently playing host to a wide range of royals and diplomats, including King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia, William I, Sultan Abdul Hamid II and Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, amongst other monarchs.[9][10]

The Sursocks built their fortune in the beginning of the 17th century through their successful manufacturing and transportation empire, which extended from Turkey to Egypt and ultimately to the United Kingdom.[11] Dimitri Sursock was the original founder of the "Sursock and Brothers," a prominent firm in nineteenth century Beirut which acted as an agent for Lascaridi and Company in the 1850s and 1860s and shipped grain to London, Cyprus and throughout Europe. The firm and its assets were subsequently taken over by his sons after his death: Nicolas, Khalil, Moussa, Ibrahim, Joseph and George.[12]

In addition to their manufacturing and export activities, the family increased its fortune as landowners in the Ottoman Levant, amassing profits from both rent and tax collection. as well as from the sale of their many properties.[13][14] Their financial activities were wide-ranging, and included shipping and the production of silk and other goods built for transport to London and throughout the region. The Sursocks also became heavily involved in banking in Egypt and Lebanon, where they helped finance major projects including the Suez Canal, the Beirut-Damascus highway, and the Beirut Harbour Company.[15] The family also served as direct creditors to Ismail Pasha and other members of Egyptian royalty, who soon found themselves heavily involved with and indebted to the family.[16] As a result of their extensive financial activities, the family was branded "the Rothschilds of the East," and indeed engaged the Rothschild banking family during their sale of the Jezreel Valley to the Jewish National Fund in 1906.[17]

However, members of the family also gained notoriety for taking advantage of the famine in Lebanon during the First World War by selling overpriced basic food supplies,[18] and for selling large swaths of Arab land in Palestine to Jewish settlers, who demanded the oftentimes forceful eviction of the peasant residents.[19][20]

Though in the wake of the Lebanese Civil War many members of this old Greek-Orthodox aristocratic dynasty chose to relocate throughout various European and Asian capitals, Lady Cochrane Sursock remains in Beirut as the family matriarch. Despite the vast damage done to Beirut during the conflict's most brutal years, the main Sursock residence lies untouched alongside buildings whose outer walls bear to this day scars caused by years of violence.[21]


For many decades, the Sursocks were Lebanon's leading business family. As business partners of the Otis Elevator Company, they were successful industrialists and played a key role in the development and manufacturing of elevators.[22]

The Sursocks have shaped Lebanon's history from the late Ottoman period to present; indeed, the selection of Beirut, which would come to be known as the 'Pearl of the Orient,' as the provincial capital was in no small part the result of their entreaties to the Porte.[23]

According to Lady Cochrane Sursock, daughter of Alfred Bey Sursock and Donna Maria Theresa Serra di Cassano, the name is a corruption of Κυριε Ισαακ ("Kyrie Isaac", meaning Lord Isaac).[24] The family left Constantinople at its fall in 1453, settling near Jbail.[25] Towards the close of the 18th century the Sursock family then moved to Beirut where they subsequently became successful traders, exporting grain from the east Mediterranean to the United Kingdom, whilst also engaging in the import of textiles from Europe to be sold throughout the Middle East. Nicolas Sursock founded the Banque Sursock et Frères in 1858 and purchased extensive properties throughout different parts of the Ottoman Empire.[4]

The Sursocks soon became protégés and dragomen to numerous European and American consul-generals and were afforded political privileges and protection by the various countries with whom they had ties, including Russia, Germany, Greece, Ireland and the United States of America. Moussa Sursock, the 8th Duke of Cassano[disambiguation needed], his brothers and his father Alfred are reported to have travelled on Greek and Russian passports as well as to have gained protégé status with other European consulates in Beirut as a result of their wide-ranging activities.[3] Furthermore, the Sursocks' heavy involvement in Egyptian affairs allowed the family to form close relations with members of the monarchy including Khedive Sa'id of Egypt, who reigned from 1854 to 1863, and his nephew Isma'il Pasha (1863-1879), affording them preferential deals on large infrastructural projects and extravagant public works.[3]

File:The Pine Residence in 1918.jpg
Alfred Sursock's Pine Residence

The Sursocks′ success was measured by their admission to the highest circles of both the Ottoman and European elite political spheres. They formed close connections with officials in Istanbul, while aristocrats often approached them to intercede on their behalf with the Ottoman government. One sign of their intimacy with the sources of Ottoman power was the appointment of Alfred Sursock to the post of secretary at the Ottoman embassy in Paris in 1905, who then joined Moussa, Michel and Yusuf Sursock in taking seats within the Ottoman power structure.[5] In addition to connections with Paris, a French report written the following year listed Moussa Sursock as dragoman of the German Consul,[16] and a year later, Mathilde Sursock married Alberto Theodoli, the Italian president of the League of Nations Permanent Mandates Commission, in Paris, thereby extending the family's reach around the Mediterranean.[26][27] Further evidence of the Sursocks' influence can be found in the court accounts recorded under Russian Grand Duke Nicolai Nikolaevich, identifying Nicolas Sursock, who had long maintained a strong relationship with the court, as an "Honorary Dragoman" of Russia.

Alfred, meanwhile, moved throughout the titled circles of Europe and married Donna Maria Serra di Cassano, daughter of Francesco Serra, 7th Duke of Cassano, who came from an old Italian princely family.[28] Their daughter Yvonne would go on to become Lady Cochrane after marrying Sir Desmond Cochrane, 3rd Baronet, bearing four children.

Michel Sursock, a deputy to the Ottoman parliament, became infamous during the great famine in the First World War for hoarding grain and speculating on the supply. He would not sell the grain, which cost 40 piastres in peacetime, for less than 250 piastres.[7][18]



When Moussa Sursock died in 1890, his grand share of the Sursock family assets was divided amongst his brothers, nephews, wife, three sons and five daughters. The assets left to the family included a wide range of real estate in and around Beirut, Mersin (Adana, Turkey), Tartus (Syria) and Alexandria (Egypt) which afforded the heirs significant influence over the region. Moussa also passed on extensive rural holdings, including entire villages in Egypt and Palestine, land situated on Mount Lebanon and, notably, a chateau that would become the fashionable resort of Sofar on Mount Lebanon.[3]

The Sursock villa in Sofar, constructed in the early twentieth century by Alfred Sursock for his wife Donna Maria di Cassano, bears original foundation inscriptions that proclaim the wealth of these merchants-turned-aristocrats. Though this Greek Orthodox family of foreign proteges often adopted the style and manners of French and other European elite, the Arabic inscriptions indicate deep traces of an Ottoman alliance stretching back centuries.[1]

Nicolas Sursock built himself a spectacular private villa in 1912 and decreed in his will that the villa be transformed into a museum after his death. Thus, when he died in 1952 the villa was bequeathed to the city of Beirut. The Sursock Museum collection consists of 5,000 pieces, including paintings, sculptures, ceramics, glassware, and iconography, all of which date back to the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.[29] The Sursock Museum building embodies Lebanese architecture with its Italianate, specifically Venetian, and Ottoman architectural influences.[30][30] The museum is currently undergoing an extensive US$12 million renovation led by French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte and Lebanese architect Jacques Aboukhaled.[31]

Rue Sursock, in the Achrafieh district of Beirut, is named after the family, which owned and continues to own palatial homes on the street, such as Sursock House. Lady Cochrane Sursock, who in 1946 married Sir Desmond Cochrane, is the owner of the Sursock House, as well as a vast amount of property along Rue Sursock, up to the fashionable Rue Gouraud.[32] Nicolas Sursock transformed the house into a museum of art and amassed a large collection of art and glass. But it was Lady Cochrane's father, Alfred Bey Sursock, who initially expanded the size of the Sursock palace gardens and contributed most to the collections of art, carpets and other exquisite items, which are amongst the finest and best preserved in the Middle East. The palace is also home to a large collection of Italian artwork from the 16th and 17th centuries, many contemporary Lebanese pieces and antique Lebanese jewelry.[11]

Jezreel Valley

In 1882, a consortium headed by the Sursock family won an Ottoman concession for the construction of a railway across the Jezreel Valley. The family sought to build a railway there both to raise land value around the line, which was mostly family-owned, and to enjoy economies of scale in the transport of goods from the Hauran, also owned by the family, to the Mediterranean Sea for export. In 1883, Sir Laurence Oliphant founded a company along with Gottlieb Schumacher, one of the founders of the German Colony of Haifa, to find investors for attaining a construction permit for the Sursock family, and capital for the construction itself.[33] On June 13, 1883, early surveying work was completed and Oliphant began to look for investors, both in Britain and Germany. In a letter he wrote to the Duke of Sutherland, Oliphant claimed that the construction of the line was extremely important both politically and economically, that it would eventually serve as the connection between Asia Minor, the Fertile Crescent, and Egypt, and expressed fear that the line would be under sole German ownership. Oliphant and his peers advertised the line as extremely profitable for investors, estimating the gain at 34%, and promising additional permits to construct additional extensions, a modern port in Haifa or Acre, and a shipping company. For that purpose, Oliphant purchased additional lands on Haifa's coast, and in the Megiddo area. Despite these efforts, the plans failed — the British government, the only one interested in the project, sent the Duke of Sutherland to inspect it, who refused to help sponsor the project. The Lebanese families headed by Mr. Sursock, who wished to build the railway for their personal needs, instead saw their permit and subsequent deposit with Sultan Abdul Hamid II expire two years later.

The family owned more than 90,000 acres, or 400,000 dunams, (364 km²) in the Jezreel Valley in Palestine, having purchased it from Ottoman authorities in their dealings with the empire.[34][35] Evidence of the remarkable concentration of wealth accumulated by the Sursocks, who already owned tens of thousands of acres of the finest land in the region, can be found in records detailing their sustained purchases of numerous new villages every year.[36] In 1906, the Sursock family sold land in Palestine to the Jewish National Fund for a sum believed to be nearly three quarters of a million pounds, or roughly USD$120,000,000 when adjusted for inflation.[37][38] The buyers demanded the existing settlers be relocated and as a result, the Arab tenant farmers were evicted, with some receiving compensation the buyers were not required by law to pay.[39] Because the villagers paid tithes to the Sursock family in Beirut for the right to work the agricultural lands in the villages, they were deemed tenant farmers by the British Mandate authorities in Palestine, and the right of the Sursock family to sell the land to the JNF was upheld by the authorities.

Land Sale Records

In 1918, the Sursock family financed the building of the Beirut Hippodrome.[40] Alfred Sursock, who funded the endeavor, agreed to a deal with the city of Beirut regarding the development of 600,000 square meters in Beirut's pine forest. The Hippodrome project was to include a public causeway, a movie theater and a casino in addition to the hippodrome itself. The hippodrome complex was ultimately built in 1921, with the casino eventually becoming the seat of the French Mandate Authorities in Lebanon.[40][41] The Sursocks had also previously built Lebanon's first casino, the Sawfar Grand Hotel, in the late 1880s.[42]

See also

Notable Members

Michel Sursock was a high-ranking member of Ottoman parliament and a senior dragoman to the Persian Empire, having been granted the title "Senator of the Empire." [43] Similarly, Moussa, Michel-Ibrahim and Yusuf Sursock all served as members of Ottoman parliament for a number of years, beginning in 1912.[43]

George Moussa Sursock had developed close ties with a wide variety of rulers and members of Europe's monarchy, from Franz Joseph of Austria to William of Germany and Louis Prince of Battenberg. Moussa was also involved in Freemasonry, as is evidenced in archives and letters addressed to the Grand Orient in Paris, dated April 1906, as well as in other sources such as "Les Grandes Families." [44]

Alfred Bey Sursock married Donna Maria Teresa Serra, daughter of Francesco Serra, 7th Duke of Cassano. His first cousin Nicolas married Alfred′s sister-in-law Donna Vittoria Serra of the Dukes di Cassano, also a daughter of the Duke. Nicolas′ eldest sister married Marchese Alberto Theodoli, and his youngest, Isabelle, married the head of the Colonna family, an ancient Roman family whose history spans nine hundred years.[45][46]

Isabelle married Prince Marcantonio in 1909 and subsequently became Princess Isabelle of Colonna.

Catherine Aleya Beriketti Sursock, who was born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1938 and was formerly the wife of Lebanese aristocrat Cyril Sursock (son of Nicolas Sursock and Donna Vittoria Serra of the Dukes di Cassano), married Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan in November 1972 in the British West Indies.[47] (His father, Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III is said to have traced his bloodline to the Prophet Muhammad and was the leader of the Ismailis, who form the second largest branch of Shia Islam). The Prince's marriage to Catherine brought with it three sons: Alexandre Sursock, who married Thai Princess Mom Rajawongse Charuvan Rangsit Prayurasakdi, Marc Sursock and Nicolas Sursock.[48]

Alexandre Sursock, son of Cyril Sursock, married Princess Mom Rajawongse Charuvan Rangsit of Thailand (by Mom Nalini) on 9 September 1978.[49]

Cairo's most famous restaurant entrepreneur, Nicha Sursock, the Co-Owner of world-renowned restaurant and bar "L'aubergine", was also a member of the prominent Greek Orthodox family, [50] while Cici Tommaseo Sursock was a renowned artist having hosted exhibitions throughout the world, including in Lausanne, Beirut, Cairo, New York, Rome. [51]

Isabelle Sursock

Isabelle Hèlene Sursock fell in love with Marcantonio VII Colonna (it) who brought her to Italy, where she was able to integrate successfully into Roman society at a time when it was up against the rise of Mussolini. After the fall of the monarchy, Isabelle effectively replaced Jose Maria as the substitute queen of Italy, hosting regal receptions where royalty and, among the bourgeoisie, only financiers and bankers were allowed.[52] [53] Donna Isabelle, as she then became known, occupied a prime position amongst the élite of Roman Society throughout her long life up to the 1980s, and was a lady of great intelligence and power who intensely guarded the artistic collection of the family throughout the darkest periods of both world wars, shielding persecuted Jews and resisting the fascist powers wherever possible. She and her husband were immensely loyal to the Holy See, so much so that she was given the rare honor of Vatican citizenship.[54]

The "alternate queen," as she was known in Italy's elite circles, never abandoned her palace, which she so profoundly loved, and continued to weave her diplomatic skills at the highest level, receiving heads of state and royalty from half the world. Narrowly escaping arrest by the Neofascists, Isabelle dedicated her life to preserving the uppermost interests and image of the family. [55]

Sursock Archives

The halls of the Sursock Palace contain the historical archives of the Sursock family empire. The archives, which are divided into three categories (public, private, and commercial-accounting) primarily span from the years 1876 to 1978 and record the activities of Alfred, Moussa, Nicolas, Princess Isabelle, Lady Yvonne and other particularly prominent members of this small Greek-Orthodox family.[43][56]

An extensive study on the archives and the family itself can be found in Lorenzo Trombetta's 'The Private Archive of the Sursocks (Sursuqs), A Beirut Family of Christian Notables: An Early Investigation.'

File:Sursock Family Lineage.jpg
Sursock Lineage Since 1712


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