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Under the Mamelukes 1250-1517, Teddy Kollek and Moshe Pearlman, Jerusalem: Sacred City of Mankind, Steimatzky Ltd., Jerusalem, 1991.

jerusalemJerusalem was now back under the control of the Egyptian court, but only for a little while longer under the Ayyubids. After the death of Ayyub in 1249, control was seized by Aybak, a Mameluke, and he started a line of sultans who were to rule the region for 267 years.

The Mamelukes were slaves—mamluk is Arabic for owned—and they were owned by a sovereign or emir, who was often himself a Mameluke. They were chiefly Turks and Circassians, from Russia, the Caucasus and central Asia, who were brought in by the caliphs of Baghdad to compensate for the military inadequacies of their own people. (The term “Turks” used here and earlier does not necessarily mean Turks in the ethnic sense, but Turkish-speaking soldier-slaves, which included Kurds, Mongols and others.) As commanders of armies, they wielded the real power, and, as we have seen in earlier instances, often overthrew their masters and usurped political power.

In previous cases, however, as for example with the Abbasids, the Seljuks and Saladin’s family, the commander who seized power founded a dynasty. The Mamelukes rejected hereditary succession. They followed a kind of “survival of the strongest or wiliest” doctrine, recognizing from the experience of their own previous masters that genius is not always hereditary.

The dilemma every Mameluke ruler faced was over the choice of commander to defend a distant region. An able man with an adequate army at his disposal would be tempted to rebel and threaten his master’s power. An inept commander might fail to repel an invasion. The problem was mostly resolved by appointing two commanders, one to be governor of a district and the other to command the citadel—and to change the governors frequently.

That is what happened to Jerusalem. Since the governor was insecure, and his term of office brief, he usually made the most of it, sometimes for his own pocket, sometimes for the city—and his own glory. Taxation was always heavy, but the proceeds were at times put to good purpose.

The Mamelukes were great builders and patrons of the arts, and though their architectural programs were applied largely to their main cities, Jerusalem too felt their influence. They rebuilt the walls of the city, which had been allowed to fall into disrepair, and from a map of 1321 in “The Book of Secrets for Crusaders concerning the Recovery and Preservation of the Holy Land” prepared by a Venetian, Marino Sanuto, and presented to the Pope, we see that the walls were allowed to crumble. They reconstructed the Citadel (on the site of the old Palace of Herod) in the form with which we are familiar today. And they expanded the city’s water supply, repairing an aqueduct which brought water from the Hebron hills, and adding pools.

Their main beautification work was directed to Moslem buildings. They built four handsome Madrasahs (a combination of mosque and school), hoping to turn Jerusalem into an important seat of Moslem learning, but though these produced a number of pious scholars, Jerusalem never became a center of Islamic theology. They greatly adorned the Haram esh-Sharif area, adding fountains, arcades, minarets, and small houses of prayer. Some of the present gates are Mameluke. So are several of the buildings at the western end of the area which now contain tombs of Moslem leaders and were originally schools. El-Aksa and the Dome of the Rock were kept in repair and embellished. The Mamelukes furnished the marble pulpit of the Dome, and the graceful arcades at the top of the steps giving entrance to the platform on which the Dome stands.

While Moslem building flourished, church building declined. To build new churches and repair the old required a permit, and bribes to acquire a permit were often beyond the purse of many Christian sects, particularly those belonging to the Eastern Church. In addition, several churches were converted into mosques, the most notable being the Church of St. Anne. (It was restored to the Christians in the nineteenth century.)

Nevertheless, the Mamelukes were by and large tolerant of other religions. They were not themselves religious fanatics. Christians and Jews were allowed freedom of worship, though they were subject to such restrictions as the payment of a poll tax and the wearing of distinctive dress—yellow turbans for Jews, blue ones for Christians. Life for them was far from ideal, but the Jews were better off than they had been under the Crusaders, and the Christians fared better than the Moslems had under them.

The Jewish experience during the Mameluke period was one of frequent pilgrimage and of continued settlement in Jerusalem, with the size of the community fluctuating from generation to generation.

The record left in 1331 by the pilgrim Isaac ben Joseph ibn Chelo speaks of a lively, learned and contented congregation.

“The Jewish community in Jerusalem is quite numerous. It is composted of fathers of families from all parts of the world, principally from France. The leading men of the community, as well as the principal rabbis, come from the latter kingdom…They live there in happiness and tranquility, each according to his condition and fortune, for the royal authority is just and great…
“Among the different members of the holy congregation are many who are engaged in handicrafts, such as dyers, tailors, shoemakers, etc. Others carry on a rich commerce in all sorts of things, and have fine shops. Some are devoted to science, as medicine, astronomy, and mathematics. But the greater number of their learned men are working day and night at the study of the Holy Law [the Torah and Talmud] and of the true wisdoms, which is the Kabbalah [Jewish oral tradition and mystic interpretation of the biblical texts]. These are maintained out of the coffers of the community, because the study of the law is their only calling.

“There are also at Jerusalem excellent calligraphists, and the copies are sought for by the strangers, who carry them away to their own countries. I have seen a Pentateuch written with so much art that several persons at once wanted to acquire it, and it was only for an excessive high price that the Chief of the Synagogues of Babylon carried it off with him to Baghdad.”

A Jewish pilgrim from Italy, Meshullam ben Menahem, found “about two hundred and fifty Jewish householders” when he visited Jerusalem in 1481. He lists the names of their notables, the rabbis, judges and warden, and describes how “all these go every year with the congregation behind them… on the ninth of Ab” to pray near the Temple. He then tells of their custom after that service to “descend to the valley of Jehoshaphat and go upon Mount Olivet, whence they see the whole of the Temple area and mourn for the destruction of the Temple.”

However, it was an impoverished congregation that Rabbi Obadiah da Bertinoro found when he arrived in Jerusalem in 1488, and he stayed to lead it and revive it. Obadiah was the most important Jewish pilgrim of the period, renowned for his great Commentary on the Mishna.

He came when the fortunes of the Mamelukes—and of the inhabitants of Jerusalem—were at a very low point.

“Jerusalem is for the most part desolate and in ruins…it is not surrounded by walls. Its inhabitants, I am told, number about four thousand families. As for Jews, about seventy families of the poorest class…there is scarcely a family that is not in want of the commonest necessaries; one who has bread for a year is called rich… When I came to Jerusalem there was a dreadful famine in the land…I was told that the famine was less severe than it was at the beginning of the year. Many Jews died of hunger… Many lived on grass, going out like stags to look for pasture… Now, the wheat harvest being over, the famine is at an end, and there is once more plenty…

“The synagogue here is built on columns; it is long, narrow and dark, the light entering only by the door. There is a fountain in the middle of it. In the court of the synagogue, quite close to it, stands a mosque. The court [also]…contains many houses, all of them buildings devoted by the Ashkenasim [the reference here is to western Jews] to charitable purposes, and inhabited by Ashkenasi widows…

“The Jews’ street and the houses are very large; some of them [Jews] dwell also on [Mount] Zion. At one time they had more houses, but these are now heaps of rubbish and cannot be rebuilt, for the law of the land is that a Jew may not rebuild his ruined house without permission, and the permission often costs more than the whole house is worth. The houses in Jerusalem are of stone, not wood or plaster.

This virtual ban on house-repair, with its obvious effects on the life of the community, was not their only hardship. Da Bertinoro mentions the special taxes-

“The Jews in Jerusalem have to pay down every year thirty-two pieces of silver per head. The poor man, as well as the rich, has to pay this tribute as soon as he comes to the age of manhood.

“Everyone is obliged to pay fifty ducats annually to the Niepo, i.e. the Governor of Jerusalem, for permission to make wine, a beverage which is an abomination to the Arabs.” (Ritual wine was required for Jewish services.)

He was much impressed by the piety of his fellow Jews-

“I have nowhere seen the daily service conducted in a better manner. The Jews rise an hour or two before day-break, even on the Sabbath, and recite psalms and other songs of praise till the day dawns. Then they repeat the Kaddish [prayer of Sanctification]; after which two of the Readers appointed for the purpose chant the Blessings of the Law…the “Hear, O Israel” being read on the appearance of the sun’s first rays…”

The Jews in early times chose a burial site as close as possible to the Temple. Da Bertinoro notes what happened when this was filled- “At the foot of the slope of the Temple Mount are Jewish graves. The new ones are at the foot of the Mount of Olives, and the valley [of Kidron] runs between the graveyards.” Over the centuries, the Jewish cemetery crept right up the slope of the Mount of Olives, and was the most revered burial site of Jewry. Many pious Jews overseas commanded in their wills that they be laid to rest on this Mount within sight of the Temple compound. Rabbi Obadiah da Bertinoro himself is buried there, having headed an enlarged and revived community in Jerusalem until his death in 1510. (After the Six Day War in June 1967, it was found that this ancient cemetery had been desecrated and the tombstones broken up and removed for use as building materials. Some were discovered in houses built for officers of the Jordan Arab Legion at a nearby camp.)
Such was Jerusalem at the end of the fifteenth century. There had been periods of active Mameluke interest in its welfare, but these had been followed by long periods of indifference and neglect. If conditions were harsh for Christians and Jews, it must not be thought that the lot of the Moslems was much better. The entire country and its people were in decline. Jerusalem became a backwater, with a power of attraction only for Jewish and Christian pilgrims.

Moreover, during the two and a half centuries of Mameluke rule, the country suffered an unusual incidence of natural disasters—famine, drought, plague, earthquake. The Black Death which smote Europe in the middle of the fourteenth century also ravaged Palestine. Buildings shattered by earthquakes remained in ruins. Houses collapsed in exceptionally heavy rains—the records show that more than three hundred tumbled in Jerusalem during the winter of 1473, and da Bertinoro mentions the famine.

With effective government, recovery would have been possible. Under later Mameluke maladministration and indifference, the population dwindled and became impoverished. It has been estimated that Jerusalem numbered forty thousand at the beginning of their rule. At the end, the population had shrunk to ten thousand.

Mameluke dominion over Jerusalem was swept away by the Ottoman Turks in the very last days of 1516, their conquest being marked by the entry into the city of the Turkish sultan, Selim I. For the next four hundred years, Jerusalem was to remain part of the Ottoman Empire.

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