The following is excerpted from Part One of Before Their Diaspora: A Photographic History of the Palestinians, 1876-1948, by Walid Khalidi. (A family in Ramallah, north of Jerusalem.)
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From 1516 until the end of World War I, the whole region of western Asia was part of the Ottoman Empire. The majestic superstructure of the walls encircling the Old City of Jerusalem, built by the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-66), attests to Jerusalems’s standing in Ottoman eyes. Equally revealing is the endowment made in 1552 by Khasseki Sultan (known in Europe as Roxelana), the favorite and queen of Suleiman. Seeking “the pleasure of Allah,” she built a complex in Jerusalem “for the poor and the needy, the weak and the distressed” that included a monastery “with fifty-five doors” and an inn together with a public kitchen, bakery, stables, and storerooms. The endowment deed specified the range of employees required to run this institution – stewards, clerks, master cooks (and apprentices), food inspectors, dishwashers, millers, handymen, and garbage collectors. It described in detail the menus to be served, the ingredients to be used, and the quantities to be cooked. For the maintenance of the establishment, it set aside the revenues from twenty-three Palestinian villages as well as those from a village in northern Lebanon, and shops and soap factories in Tripoli. Khasseki Sultan’s public kitchen and bakery were still functioning under the British Mandate.
The Ottomans scrupulously continued the Muslim tradition of tolerance toward Christian religious interests in Palestine. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem was acknowledged in the sixteenth century as the custodian of the Christian holy places, and from about the same time France became the guardian of the Latin clergy. Like earlier Muslim powers, the Ottoman Empire opened its gates to hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Spain and other parts of Christendom. But the vast majority, as in the earlier centuries after the Crusades, did not choose to live in Palestine. Thus the number of Jews in Jerusalem in the first century after the Ottoman conquest dropped from 1,330 in 1525 to 980 in 1587. Even by the middle of the nineteenth century, only a few Jews had availed themselves of the opportunity to settle in the Holy Land. Those who did so lived in the four cities of special significance to Judaism: Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, and Tiberias. The Ottomans presided over a set of regulations and understandings, known as the “status quo”, that governed privileges and access rights of Jews and Christians at their respective religious sites and monuments. These regulations and understandings were based on customary practice as it had accumulated over the years. They included rights acknowledged by earlier Muslim rulers and the decisions of Muslim courts in support of these rights, as well as Christian and Jewish commitment to adhere to customary practice.
The activities of European merchants in the coastal towns of Palestine were unimpeded by the Ottomans. The agriculture and industrial products of the interior found their way to Europe via the ports of Gaza, Acre, and Jaffa. As before, the overland trade routes between Syria and Egypt passed through Palestine, while the pilgrimage routes to Mecca (whether from Cairo, Damascus or beyond) converged at the Palestinian port of Aqaba. By the mid-nineteenth century, many European powers had consulates in the country, and during the second half of the century Christian missions – Catholic, Protestant, and Greek Orthodox – proliferated along with their schools, hospitals, printing presses, and hostels. In 1892 a French company completed the building of a railroad connecting Jaffa and Jerusalem. Of all the Arab provinces in the Ottoman Empire, with the exception of the Maronite sections of Mount Lebanon, Palestine was the most exposed and accessible to Christian and European influences.
The exposure also had its disadvantages, particularly with the gradual decline of the Ottoman political and military power. The industrial revolution and the European economic penetration of the region dealt a severe blow to local crafts and industries, while increasing European political leverage against Constantinople. One much-abused avenue for such leverage was afforded by the so-called Capitulations – a system of extraterritorial privileges granted to nationals of European powers who resided in the Ottoman Empire. The early Zionist immigrants and settlers were to make full use of the Capitulations.
In 1887-88, the area that later became Mandatory Palestine was divided into three administrative units: the district (sanjak) of Jerusalem, comprising the southern half of the country, and the two northern districts of Nablus and Acre. The two northern districts were administratively attached to the province (vilayet) of Beirut, but because of its importance to the Ottomans, the district of Jerusalem was governed directly by Constantinople. The area across the Jordan River (Trans-Jordan or Jordan) was administratively separate from the Palestinian districts and formed part of the province of Syria, with Damascus as its capital. At this time the population of the three Palestinian districts was ca. 600,000, about 10 percent of whom were Christians and the rest mostly Sunnite Muslims. The Jews numbered about 25,000; the majority were deeply religious, devoting themselves to prayer and contemplation and deliberately eschewing employment or agricultural activity. Until the advent of Zionism, relations between Palestinians and Jews were stable and peaceful, mellowed by more than a millennium of coexistence and often shared adversity.
Contributing to the climate of tolerance was the reverence held by Islam for the Hebrew prophets, enhanced in the case of Palestine by the tradition of pilgrimage to biblical sites. Palestinian Muslims, more than any other Muslims, were particularly imbued with such reverence if only because they lived in continuous proximity to the sites associated with these prophets. The inscription of Jaffa Gate (the main western gate into the Old City of Jerusalem) reads: “There is no God but Allah, and Abraham is his friend.” Mosques and Muslim shrines honoring Hebrew prophets and bearing their names in Arabic were regular features of the Palestinian landscape. Perhaps unique among Muslims was the Palestinian practice of celebrating religious festivals in honor of Hebrew prophets. No less distinctive was the widespread use by Palestinians of Hebrew first names. The same tolerance is evident in the attitudes of Palestinian Muslims toward their Christian compatriots, relations with whom have been remarkably free of tension (unlike the situation in some neighboring Arab countries). It is no coincidence that the various Christian sects in Jerusalem have traditionally entrusted the keys of the Holy Sepulcher to a Palestinian Muslim family.
Although proud of their Arab heritage and ancestry, the Palestinians considered themselves to be descended not only from the Arab conquerors of the seventh century but also from indigenous peoples who had lived in the country since time immemorial, including the ancient Hebrews and the Canaanites before them. Acutely away of the distinctiveness of Palestinian history, the Palestinians saw themselves as the heirs of its rich associations. Politically their loyalty was to Constantinople, partly because the Ottoman sultan was also caliph and head of the Muslim community (ummah) and partly because they felt like citizens rather than subjects of the empire. Their feeling of citizenship derived from the fact that the Ottoman Turks had never colonized the Arab provinces in the sense of settling in them; thus among the Arabs Ottomanism had acquired the connotation of partnership between the peoples of the empire rather than that of domination by one ethnic group over another. Nevertheless, relations between the different ethnic groups within the empire became increasingly strained during the period from the turn of the century to World War I, largely under the influence of growing European nationalism. Both Arabs and Turks were affected by this climate, which strengthened the appeal of the specific ethnic and political identity of each. A powerful secondary influence in the same direction was the Arab intellectual and literary renaissance that crystallized toward the end of the nineteenth century and radiated its influence from Cairo, Damascus, and Beirut.
The promulgation of the new Ottoman Constitution in 1876 (short-lived as it was) enabled the first elections to be held to the Ottoman Parliament, in which many delegates from the Arab provinces, including Palestinians from Jerusalem, took their seats. (It is ironic that Palestinians were sitting in the Parliament in Constantinople twenty years before the Zionists held their first congress in Basel in 1897.) Arabs, including Palestinians, were appointed to high office not only in the civil service, the diplomatic corps, the judiciary, and the army, but also as ministers in the Ottoman cabinet. The “Young Turks” Revolution in 1908, which brought reformists to power, further raised Arab and Palestinian expectations, stimulating political debate and intellectual activity best exemplified in Palestine by the appearance of new journals and newspapers. Delegates from Jerusalem, Jaffa, Nablus, Acre, and Gaza were elected to the Ottoman Parliament in 1908 and 1912. But Ottoman reforms could not keep abreast of deteriorating Turkish-Arab relations. Many Arabs wanted a greater share in government. Some advocated decentralization; others spoke of Arab unity, revolt, and independence.
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For our March Special Focus - Ottoman Palestine, we are highlighting a series of articles from the Journal of Palestine Studies as well as from the Jerusalem Quarterly, the only journal exclusively dedicated to the city's history, political status, and future. Selected are contributions from, inter alia, Raja Shehadeh, Beshara B. Doumani, Salim Tamari, and Walid Khalidi on Palestine's centuries-old Ottoman past. All photographs alongside JPS and JQ titles are from Before Their Diaspora: A Photographic History of the Palestinians, 1876-1948. Furthermore, we feature an article from Palestine Square, the blog of the Institute for Palestine Studies. And, lastly, we highlight two of our books that survey the late Ottoman period: Turbulent Times In Palestine: The Diaries of Khalil Totah, 1886-1955, edited by Thomas M. Ricks, and Palestine in Transformation, 1856-1882: Studies in Social, Economic and Political Development, by Alexander Schölch.
Journal of Palestine Studies:
Nina Seferović, translated by Darryl Li
Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 45 No. 1 (Autumn 2015), pp. 76-83
The Journal of Palestine Studies presents an original translation of a 1981 article by Yugoslav anthropologist Nina Seferović (1947–1991) on “Bushnaqs”—Palestinians whose ancestors hail from the territory of present-day Bosnia-Herzegovina. Seferović describes the circumstances of the Bushnaqs’ departure in the late nineteenth century; the distinct community they founded in the village of Caesarea near Haifa; and their assimilation into the Palestinian nation. This study is a contribution to the social history of Palestine that raises productive questions about the legacies of the Non-Aligned Movement and about the role of race and temporality in framing such categories as settler and native in the broader examination of settler colonialism.
Grotto of the Nativity, Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem. Note the Ottoman gendarme standing guard to prevent intersectarian Christian conflict.
Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 41, No. 3 (Spring 2012), pp. 19-37
The imposition of British rule in Palestine following World War I did not immediately supplant one imperial system with another or Ottoman identities with national ones. Examining Palestinian responses to the Turkish war of independence, this article argues that the 1917–22 period should be seen as a “liminal” era suspended between imperial systems. Both Kemalists and Palestinians employed a discourse of loyalty to the Ottoman dynasty, Muslim identity, and resistance to European rule to frame their goals. It was only after the creation of the Turkish Republic and the promulgation of the British Mandate, the author argues, that nationalist identities displaced Ottoman ones for both Turks and Palestinians.
Aqaba, 1917: Troops of the Arab Revolt.
Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Summer 2011), pp. 82-93
In April 2011, Raja Shehadeh visited the United States to promote the U.S. edition of his new book, A Rift in Time: Travels with my Ottoman Uncle (OR Books, 2011). JPS heard several of his presentations, during which he read passages from his book and reflected on its genesis, major themes, and how writing it changed his thinking about the future of the region. In response to our request, he agreed to allow us to compile the typed notes for his various lectures into a single integrated essay, which he later edited and expanded with additional reflections and comments. A London-trained lawyer with numerous cases in Israel’s military courts to his credit, Shehadeh first gained prominence as a human rights advocate and cofounder (in 1979) of al-Haq—the West Bank affiliate of the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists and the first human rights organization in the occupied territories—and for his legal writings. He has written a number of memoirs, one of which—Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape—won the Orwell Prize, Britain’s top award for political writing, in 2008.
Faidi al-Alami, mayor of Jerusalem between 1906 and 1909, and Jerusalem representative in the Ottoman Parliament from 1914 to 1918. Alami was also a scholar, who published a concordance of the Koran. He was the father of Musa al-Alami, a distinguished Palestinian of the British Mandate period.
Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Spring 2005), pp. 6-22
This article details the unfolding of a crisis in late Ottoman Palestine where a countrywide mobilization, led by the notables, was triggered by the discovery of secret excavations directly under the Dome of the Rock by a British exploration team with the complicity of some Ottoman officials. All social classes, educated and non-educated, Christians and Muslims, were galvanized by the perceived violation of the Haram al-Sharif, a fact the author sees as indicative of the emergence of a distinct Palestinian (as opposed to Arab or Ottoman) identity. In addition to demonstrating the importance of the Haram and Jerusalem to Palestinians of all religions, the incident also highlights certain elements that are not absent from the present situation: the population’s deep mistrust of the West and its fears of Zionist-Western collusion and threats to religious integrity.
Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany at the Mosque of the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, 1898. The Kaiser's visit was meant to signal to other European powers Germany's interest in the Arab East, and to strengthen German-Ottoman ties.
Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 22, No. 2 (Winter, 1993), pp. 30-47
Some sixty years ago, as Appendix I of his magisterial Die Zionistische Bewegung (The Zionist Movement), Adolf Böhm, a leading authority on early Zionism, published the full text of a remarkable document from the Herzl Archives in Vienna. This is the draft of a proposed agreement (a “Charter”) between the World Zionist Organization (WZO) and the Ottoman government concerning the “privileges, rights, liabilities, and duties of the Jewish-Ottoman Land Company (JOLC) for the settlement of Palestine and Syria.” The document does not bear a date, but seems to have been drawn up sometime between the summer of 1901 and early 1902. Its authors seem to have been principally Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, and Arminius Vámbéry, a Hungarian Orientalist of Jewish descent. Vámbéry was not only close to Herzl (the latter fondly refers to him in his Diaries as “bácsikam” – “my little uncle”) but also to Abdul Hamid, the Ottoman Sultan.
Jewish women praying at the Wailing Wall, Jerusalem. Throughout the centuries of Arab and Muslim rule in Palestine, Jews had free access to the Wailing Wall. Access became an issue only after the 1948 War and the resultant Palestinian diaspora.
Beshara B. Doumani
Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Winter, 1992), pp. 5-28
A critical evaluation of historical works on Palestine and the Palestinians during the Ottoman period is a vast and varied topic. This essay does not attempt a comprehensive overview, nor does it provide the outline for such a project. Rather, it seeks to initiate a debate by making a number of tentative arguments in response to the following question: What are the underlying ideological assumptions and historical contingencies that have determined the contours of inquiry into the modern history of Palestine and the Palestinians, and what are the necessary first steps towards constructing an alternative history? In dealing with the first part of this question, I argue that the seemingly irreconcilable traditions of historical literature on Palestine – Zionist versus Arab nationalist, Orientalist versus Islamicist – actually operate within a single discourse.
The Dusturiyyah (Constitutional) School, Jerusalem, 1909; named after the Ottoman Constitution promulgated in 1908. Its founder and headmaster, Khalil Sakakini, was a distinguished Christian Orthodox Palestinian scholar and essayist.
Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 10, No. 4 (Summer, 1981), pp. 82-97
During the final seven decades of Ottoman rule in Palestine the country underwent significant changes. Urbanization, the growth of commerce with Europe and foreign colonization, phenomena which were interrelated, all left their mark. But alongside these changes there was one major constant from 1840’s till 1914: throughout these years the vast majority of Palestine’s people were Muslim Arab peasants living in villages. As late as 1922, when the country had come under British rule and urbanization had already become noticeable, the proportion of rural to urban inhabitants was nearly 2:1.
Horseman overlooking the village of Askar east of Nablus, central Palestine.
Samuel Dolbee & Shay Hazkani
Jerusalem Quarterly 63/64 (2015), pp. 24-39
In May of 1911 an Ottoman deputy from Thessaloniki, Dimitar Vlahov, interjected himself in a parliamentary debate about Zionism in Palestine with a question: “Are Arab peasants opposed to the Jews?” Answering himself, he declared that there was no enmity between Arab and Jewish peasants since, in his estimation, “They are brothers [onlar kardeştir], and like brothers they are trying to live.” Noting that in the past few weeks “antiSemitism” had appeared on the pages of newspapers, he reiterated his message of familial bonds: “Whatever happens, the truth is in the open. Among Jewish, Arab, and Turkish peasants, there is nothing that will cause conflict. They are brothers.”
Auja al-Hafir, near the Egyptian border; in the foreground is the central square. Note the Ottoman army camps on the outskirts.
Jerusalem Quarterly 63/64 (2015), pp. 72-86
These excerpts from Ahmad Joudah’s historical study of Zahir al-‘Umar, are taken from the second edition of his book Revolt in Palestine in the Eighteenth Century: The Era of Shaykh Zahir al-‘Umar (Gorgias Press 2014), and reprinted here by permission. The first (1987) edition was the first comprehensive history of this figure to be published. In a recent critical review of the new edition Dana Sajdi remarks “Joudah and the [German historian] Philipp mention the appropriation of al Umar as a Palestinian nationlist hero. Their claim notwithstanding, al Umar’s life and times have figured neither in the Palestinian collective memory nor in school curricula. That might change very soon.
Ramleh, from the west. Ramleh was founded by the Arabs in A.D. 716, and for some time thereafter it was the capital of the Arab province (djund) of Filastin (Palestine).
Jerusalem Quarterly 61 (2015), pp. 23-41
In his personal chronicle, The Storyteller of Jerusalem, Wasif Jawhariyyeh (1897–1972) opens his account by calling attention to a cherished portrait that was presented as a gift to his father by his own namesake Wasif Bey ‘Azim (‘Adhim). Wasif Bey was a close friend of the senior Jawhariyyeh. ‘Azim came from a prominent Damascene family and was a jurist appointed by Istanbul to the Ottoman criminal court of Jerusalem but also sent to establish the civil nizamiye court in which Jawhariyyeh and his father worked.
Theodore Baramki, a Christian Orthodox Jerusalem judge, in formal Ottoman dress.
Jerusalem Quarterly 60 (2014), pp. 92-109
Throughout the twentieth century and most of the nineteenth, the city of Nablus (“Little Damascus,” as coined by Maqdisi) evoked images of soap, knafeh, and tolerance of homosexuality. It was also a region of sporadic rebellions by its surrounding peasantry. The epitaph Jabal al-Nar, “the Mountain of Fire” (acquired during the 1936 Revolt), has become synonymous with the city of Nablus and its history, evoking the 1834 rebellion of Qasim al-Ahmad against the Egyptian armies of Ibrahim Pasha as well as a series of revolts that punctuated the Ottoman, Mandate, and Israeli periods after that. Ahmad’s peasant rebellion is often seen, with some exaggeration, as a turning point in the formation of Palestinian nationalism and a separatist Palestinian identity. Little is known however of the city as a bastion of conservatism and a center for counter-revolutionary activities.
The Grand Serai housing local government offices, Jaffa, July 1908: A large Palestinian crowd gathers to celebrate the revolution in Constantinople popularly known by the Arabs as al-Hurriyyah (Arabic for "liberty") and declared by the "Young Turks" against the despotic sultan Abdul Hamid. The revolution called for the restoration of the Constitution of 1876 and the holding of elections for a new Parliament. Both Arabs and Turks participated in the "Young Turks" movement but, as World War I approached, tensions between the two peoples mounted.
Jerusalem Quarterly 56/57 (2014), pp. 6-28
In the autumn of 1916, two years after the commencement of the Great War, the Ottoman leadership arranged to send an expedition of writers, journalists, and religious scholars from the Syrian provinces to visit the Dardanelles front. The purpose of the expedition was, according to the authors of the mission’s report, to examine at first hand the course of the military operations in Janaq Qal’a (Gallipoli), mobilize support for the Ottoman war effort in the Arab provinces of the Sultanate, and to strengthen Arab-Turkish solidarity. The last objective was an obvious reference to the rising tide of Arab separatist movements.
Jemal Pasha, a member of the "Young Turks" triumvirate, which ruled the Ottoman Empire during World War I, with his staff in Jerusalem. Jemal Pasha became governor general and commander of the Ottoman Fourth Army in Syria-Palestine in 1914. After the initial stirrings of the Arab Revolt against the Turks, and on the side of Britain and the Allies, Jemal Pasha initiated a policy of brutal repression against Arab nationalists in Syria and Palestine. On 21 August 1915 and 6 May 1916, he executed thirty-two leading Syrian and Palestinian intellectuals and professionals accused of being in favor of the Arab Revolt. The Arab Revolt aspired to the independence and political federation of the Arab countries, including Palestine, goals which the Arabs had been led to believe Britain and the Allies supported.
Beatrice St. Laurent, Himmet Tașkömür
Jerusalem Quarterly 55 (2013), pp. 6-45
The creation of the first Museum of Antiquities in Jerusalem during the late Ottoman period is a fascinating story of archaeological pursuits in the region by both Ottoman government officialdom in Istanbul and foreign archaeologists working in Palestine for the British Palestine Exploration Fund. The Ottoman Museum called the Müze-i Hümayun in Turkish or Imperial Museum (1901-1917) and its collection is continuous with the British Palestine Museum of Antiquities (1921-1930) and the Palestine Archaeological Museum. The construction of the last began in 1930 and was completed in 1935, but the museum, now known as the Rockefeller Museum, did not open until 1938.
A comer of the Khalidi Library, Bab al-Silsilah (Gate of the Chain), the Old City of Jerusalem, ca. 1914. The library was established in 1900 through an endowment provided by the mother of Haj Raghib al-Khalidi (seated second from right). It was open to the public, and housed probably the largest single collection of medieval Arabic manuscripts in Palestine.
Jerusalem Quarterly 47 (2011), pp. 28-38
Ahmad Qadri, the Arab physician who was a founder of the Literary Forum in Istanbul in 1909, (and later in 1911 of the Young Arab Society in Paris) records an episode, in his Istanbul diary, which shook his faith in the continued unity of the Ottoman regime and its ability to maintain the loyalty of its Syrian and Arab subjects. He was taking an evening stroll in the imperial capital with his schoolmate and friend Awni Abdul Hadi days after the proclamation of the new constitution of 1908. The city was teeming with excited crowds discussing the dawning of the new liberties, and the end of the Hamidian dictatorship. The two Arabs, a Damascene and a Nabulsi, both considered themselves loyal Ottoman citizens.
The Jerusalem railroad station, 1917: Jemal Pasha, Ottoman governor general in Syria-Palestine, and General Erich von Falkenhayn, chief of the German Military Mission to the Orient.
In July 1872, the Ottoman government carved out an independent administrative district based in Jerusalem subject to direct rule from Istanbul, elevating the status of the city to a provincial capital. “We do not know how the local population reacted,” wrote the historian Johann Büssow of the administrative change. “Documentation of local public opinion is only fragmentary,” he added. But amidst the 150 million some documents preserved in the Ottoman Archives in Istanbul lie a number of critical clues, including a July 1872 note signed by sixty of Jerusalem’s most prominent Muslim dignitaries.
Ed. Thomas M. Ricks
Institute for Palestine Studies, 2009
This captivating and richly detailed biography of one of mandate Palestine's best known educators draws on Totah's diaries, journals, letters, photos, testimonies, and published writings. Thomas Ricks' introduction provides a contextualized narrative to Totah's works that charts his journey from his childhood in Ottoman Ramallah, to his studies at Columbia University, and to his career as a principal of the Quaker Friends School in British-Mandate Ramallah.
Institute for Palestine Studies, 2006.
Available in English for the first time in its entirety, this seminal work by the late german historian is indispensable for understanding the history of Palestine in the decades following the introduction of Ottoman Tanzimat (reforms). Based on archival and consular materials, the studies show the extent to which the process of modernization and integration into the world economic system had already begun in the crucial period before the first wave of Jewish immigration in the early 1880s.