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.
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.
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). Other sources list the name as having been derived from the Arabic phrases for “secrets” and “market.” The family left Constantinople at its fall in 1453, settling near Jbail. 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.
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, 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. 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.
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. In addition to connections with Paris, a French report written the following year listed Moussa Sursock as dragoman of the German Consul, 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. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
Jezreel Valley Construction
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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
Hippodrome and Casino
In 1918, the Sursock family financed the building of the Beirut Hippodrome. 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. The Sursocks had also previously built Lebanon’s first casino, the Sawfar Grand Hotel, in the late 1880s.