The Sursock family is a Greek Orthodox Christian family from Lebanon, and one of the Seven Families of Beirut. Having originated in Constantinople during the Byzantine Empire, the family has been living in Beirut since 1714, when they began to establish positions of power within the flourishing Ottoman Empire. The family, through lucrative business ventures, savvy political maneuvering, and strategic marriages, embarked on one of the most spectacular social climbs 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, alongside a manufacturing and distribution empire spanning the Mediterranean.
The Sursocks are one of Beirut’s aristocratic Christian families, and were readily admitted into Ottoman, Egyptian and European high societies for both business and pleasure. 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. Their wealth and sophistication are also reflected in their stunning residences, which, equal in elegance to any Italian palazzo, remain largely unscathed despite many years of unrelenting mortar fire and violence.
In the 17th century, members of the Sursock family served as tax collectors and held other positions on behalf of the Ottoman Empire, allowing them to benefit greatly from the 1858 Ottoman land reforms, during which they acquired large tracts of fertile land in the region, supplementing their already extensive holdings ranging from Egypt to Beirut. 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. 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
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. 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, Moussa, Loutfallah, Khalil, Ibrahim and Joseph.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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, and for selling large swaths of Arab land in Palestine to Jewish settlers, who demanded the oftentimes forceful eviction of the peasant residents.
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.