By May 7, 2008 Read More →

Ottoman Jerusalem 1517-1917, Teddy Kollek and Moshe Pearlman, Jerusalem: Sacred City of Mankind, Steimatzky Ltd., Jerusalem, 1991.

The Ottoman star was very much in the ascendant by the time Selim I reached the throne. (“Ottoman” is a corruption of “Osmanli,” the name of the Turkish dynasty founded by the sultan Osman I at the end of the thirteenth century.) Constantinople had fallen to the Ottomans in 1453, and they had overrun what was left of the former great Byzantine Empire. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, they already controlled Asia Minor and parts of Europe and the Balkans. Selim I, who reigned from 1512 to 1520, added Syria and Egypt to the Ottoman Empire in 1516 and 1517.

Jerusalem—and the rest of the country—fell to him almost without a battle. Selim occupied himself little with the Holy City; he lived only three years after its conquest, and in that time was busy elsewhere on campaigns. The sultan who did, and who left an impressive mark on Jerusalem, was his son, Suleiman I—the Magnificent as he became known in the west, and as the Lawgiver in Turkey. He reigned from 1520 to 1566.

Last of the great sultans, Suleiman was probably the ablest leader of his time, controlling an empire, which he had vastly expanded, with an extremely well-ordered administration. Parts of that empire were given a large measure of self-government; some were allowed semi-independent governors; the rest were ruled from the imperial capital. These latter consisted of twenty-four provinces, called vilayets, four in Europe and twenty in Asia and Africa. One of these was the vilayet of Damascus, which included the territory that had been called Palestine.

The governor of a vilayet was a senior ranking pasha who was appointed by the sultan. Each vilayet was subdivided into several districts, called sanjaks. The city of Jerusalem was part of a sanjak. To the sultan in Constantinople, therefore, it was a distant place belonging to a district administered by a junior pasha who was answerable to a senior pasha in charge of one of the many vilayets in one of the empire’s many territories. Quite unremarkable except that it was one of the places which had become holy to Islam. However, once his interest had been stimulated by the religious associations of Jerusalem, Suleiman the soldier also considered its military value, and he thought it might be useful to have a strong fortress in the south of Syria. It is this which caused him to restore its ramparts.

The walls surrounding the “Old City” of Jerusalem which we see today are the very walls, unchanged, which Suleiman rebuilt. Like Hadrian’s Aelia Capitolina, the southern wall runs just north of, and thus excludes, Mount Zion. Suleiman’s walls have a clean-lined beauty, reflecting artistic taste and fine craftsmanship. They are given a special quality—which must also have been true of the ancient walls—by the natural rose-color or the local stone. At sunset, the ramparts glow.

Pride of Suleiman’s wall structures was the Damascus Gate, which he built anew. (Archaeological excavations brought to light parts of the second century gate on this site, no doubt the one which appears so prominently on the sixth century Madeba map.) This gate, in the center of the north wall of the city, was—and still is—one of the riches examples of early Ottoman architecture in the region, massive-looking yet graceful. The arched portal is set in a broad façade flanked on each side by a great tower, the entire building topped by pinnacled battlements. The staggered entrance is handsomely vaulted. It all looks powerful enough. Yet the Damascus Gate is more decorative than defensive and seems to have been designed as much to impress the distinguished visitor as the enemy. One curious feature is the rows of bosses above the portal, the lower one adorned with reliefs of flowers and geometric patterns. They appear to be the protruding ends of binding columns running through the wall to strengthen the structure. But they are fake. There are no such columns.

For long, the Damascus Gate was where foreign dignitaries were received, such as the crown prince of Prussia and the emperor Franz Joseph of Austria in 1869. Later the Jaffa Gate was used; it was through here that the German Kaiser in 1898 and General Allenby in December 1917 entered the city.

Work on the walls took three years and was completed in about 1540. Earlier, Suleiman had added decorative adornments to the Dome of the Rock, which have been described earlier, and to the Hara mesh-Sharif generally. He also improved the water services of the city, repairing the aqueducts, building a number of public fountains (sabils), and restoring the dam which forms the ancient Sultan’s Pool at the western foot of Mount Zion.

(The aqueducts repaired by the early Ottomans brought water from the “Pools of Solomon” near Bethlehem. These are three large reservoirs terraced one above the other, and water was carried to the Temple area along an ancient Low Level aqueduct and to the Upper City along another ancient High Level aqueduct. When these structures were built, additional channels were cut from springs in the Hebron hills to the Pools to increase their supply. They were built because over the centuries, with the city’s expansion, the waters of the Gihon spring and wells of En-Rogel and others proved insufficient. Scholars disagree on the exact dates of these two aqueducts, but all agree that the High Level is the older, that Herod built one of them in the 1st century AD, having raided the Temple funds to finance the project. But many scholars consider that the first aqueduct was built by the Hasmoneans in the 2nd century BC. It is thus most probable that the High Level aqueduct was indeed constructed by the Hasmoneans and repaired by Pilate, while Herod built the newer one. Not many scholars credit Solomon with any of this work, despite the name of the Pools. Josephus says that Solomon used to visit the Pools and enjoy the gardens nearby, and this association may have given rise to the name.)

Under Suleiman’s efficient rule, Jerusalem prospered modestly. Christians and Jews were subject to the special poll tax which all non-Moslems had to pay, but both were left free to manage their own communal affairs. The Franciscans suffered a blow when in 1551 they were expelled from their church and monastery on Mount Zion adjoining the Coenaculum, traditional site of the Last Supper, but they were provided with alternative ground in the Christian Quarter inside the city walls, where they built the monastery of St. Saviour’s. It still stands as their headquarters.

Pilgrimage continued, yet visits to the holy sites were as irksome as ever. A Spanish Franciscan friar wrote in 1553-

“Before the entrance to the Holy Sepulchre each pilgrim pays nine castellani… (the fee extortionate). Then come four or five Turkish officials to open the gate, together with their scribe; and, when they have taken the names of the pilgrims and the countries from which they hail and have increased the amount of the fee, they open the gate with much to do with their keys, taking away the seal. Having entered, we saluted the religious who live therein… The Turks then closed and sealed the gate and went away, not returning until the next day or two days after. In the meantime the pilgrims consoled themselves with many visits to the holy places [within this sanctuary].”

Under Suleiman, the Jewish community of Jerusalem fared reasonably well. Indeed, within the wide area of Ottoman rule, they suffered little of the persecution that was their lot notably in Spain, Portugal, Germany and central Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In 1492 had come the great expulsion from Spain and four years later from Portugal. With the French frontier closed, they fled by sea to the nearest refuge, Italy and North Africa, or further, to the Levant. Then came persecution in Italy. But in Palestine under the Ottomans they could practice their religion freely. Many reached the Holy Land in this period, and while most flocked to Safad and Tiberias, centers of Jewish study in Galilee, the community in Jerusalem grew both in numbers and learning.

Decline set in only a few decades after Suleiman’s death, and from then until the end of the Ottoman Empire more than three centuries later, Palestine was a land in decay, neglected, impoverished, lawless, corrupt.

Jerusalem and Palestine could never mean as much to a distant imperial emperor as they did to the local population, and his concern for their welfare could be, at best, only secondary. Where it was virtually non-existent and local administration was left to an imperial representative whose sole task was the collection of taxes, the people suffered and any attempt at development was stifled. This is what began to happen to Ottoman Jerusalem and Palestine towards the end of the sixteenth century. It continued to the beginning to the twentieth.

The corruption that crept into Ottoman rule led to the breakdown of a remarkable system of administration which worked brilliantly only so long as the sultan was strong and gifted, like Suleiman and some of his predecessors. When, however, as in the time of Suleiman’s grandson, Murad III (1574-95), one of his counselors could boast openly that he had made a sultan take a bribe for the first time, it was the beginning of the end. Bribery became usual in both the administration and the army. Soon, it was said every office in the empire was open to the highest bidder.

The impact on Jerusalem and the rest of the country—indeed of the region—was ruinous. Governorships of vilayets and sanjaks were sought after for the revenues they could bring to the pockets of the pashas. All Constantinople demanded of them was that they secure the frontiers, suppress possible rebellion, maintain themselves and the forces allocated to them, and collect the taxes due from their provinces. If they collected more, that was their affair. They could do as little or as much as they wished for their subjects. One or two tried to introduce honest and progressive administration into Palestine, notably Mohammed Pasha during his five-year governorship (1620-5). The rest cared fro themselves alone. The pasha would tour his province once a year to collect the annual tax. If a farmer was unable to pay, his trees were cut down. Villagers in the same position faced the destruction of their village. The fact that this permanently disabled them from paying taxes did not ruffle the pasha. Over the years, cultivated areas went to waste, attracting the Bedouin whose goats further ravaged the land, while soil erosion completed the process. The settle agricultural population dwindled. The successive pashas remained indifferent.

Jerusalem could not but be affected by the desolation of its hinterland. It was affected more directly by the get-rich-quick aim of its own local ruler. Urban society offered him countless opportunities. A permit to build was a double source of revenue- the bribe extorted to secure the permit, and the official cost of the permit. So was a permit to carry out repairs, or to acquire land. Moreover, a newly installed pasha could repeat the process of double extortion which the victim might already have gone through with his predecessor. The possibilities were endless.

The Christians in Jerusalem were well aware of them, yet their bitter internal rivalries greatly stimulated the practice of extortion. There was the centuries’ old hatred between the western and eastern Churches and conflict among the eastern sects themselves. Since each sought to increase its rights in the Holy Places, the Turks were happy to sit back and await the highest bids.

The Latins had achieved supremacy over the Holy Places during the Crusades. The Greek Orthodox now tried to get their own back. They had more followers among Ottoman subjects than did the westerners, and Greek interpreters at the sultan’s court pressed their interests. They soon retrieved rights in Jerusalem’s Christian shrines which had hitherto been the exclusive possession of the Roman Catholics. That the Latins were not ousted completely was due to their wealth and political influence. They were protected by European powers with whom the Ottomans wished to remain friendly, notably France. (Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the Greek Orthodox Church countered this by securing the protection of the Russian Czars.)

At the Easter service in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1757, there were clashes between the Greek Orthodox and the Franciscans, and the sultan issued an edict giving the Greeks, among other rights, joint possession with the Latins of parts of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. Despite western appeals, this edict stood. Later, the rights of each community were carefully recorded and have changed little over the years. Even so, as Professor Avi-Yonah points out in The Saga of Jerusalem,

“there remained ample cause for fresh disputes. Thus the Franciscans had the right to clean the steps of the Golgotha Chapel, which descends to the courtyard of the Holy Sepulchre; but the courtyard itself was not included in that right. Now the last riser of the steps was no more than one centimeter high. Was it to be regarded as part of the staircase or as part of the paving of the court? Such and similar problems led to frequent disputes, and sometimes even to bloodshed.”

The British pilgrim Henry Maundrell, who visited Jerualem in 1697, was scathing about the “unchristian fury and animosity, especially between the Greeks and Latins,” over which “the several sects [contend for] the command and appropriation of the Holy Sepulchre.” So much so that

“in disputing which party should go into it to celebrate their mass, they have sometimes proceeded to blows and wounds even at the very door of the sepulchre, mingling their own blood with their sacrifices, in evidence of which fury the father guardian showed us a great scar upon his arm, which he told us was the mark of a wound given him by a sturdy Greek priest in one of these unholy wars.”

Maundrell also mentions the loss of rights of the poorer denominations.

“Almost every Christian nation anciently maintained a small society of monk, each society having its proper quarter [in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre] assigned to it by the appointment of the Turks, such as the Latins, Greeks, Syrians, Armenians, Abyssinians, Georgians, Nestorians, Copts, Maronites… but these have all, except four, forsaken their quarters, not being able to sustain the severe rents and extortions which their Turkish landlords impose upon them.”

No traveler’s report during the eighteenth century is free of its reflections upon the run-down state of the country, the indifference of the officials, the widespread corruption. This was the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, which brought a decline in western pilgrimage—and a more rationalist outlook in those who did come. We know from other sources too that Christian pilgrims were now drawn largely from members of the Eastern Church. Jewish pilgrimage—and Jewish settlement—was on the increase. All brought enrichment to the Turkish officials.

A Swedish botanist and doctor, Frederick Hasselquist, left these figures after a visit in 1751. On his arrival, he was visited by

“a clerk of the customs who…came to receive the twenty-tow piastres which every Frank is obliged to pay…for the privilege of coming on shore and traveling in the country… As 4,000 persons arrive yearly, besides as many Jews, who come from all quarters of the world, this may be esteemed a considerable revenue for the Turks; and indeed they receive no other from this uncultivated and almost uninhabited country.”

Uncultivated and almost uninhabited—this is what the “land flowing with milk and honey” had come to.

It grew worse; and with the country impoverished, the local Ottoman administrators exploited the religious communities even more. Instead of uniting them, it had the reverse effect. Writing thirty-four years later, the Comte de Volney observed that while the most important source of Turkish income was still “the visits of the pilgrims,” the Turks gained extra sums through “the follies of the Christian inhabitants.” He explained these “follies-”

“The different communions…Greeks, Armenians, Copts, Abyssinians and Franks, mutually envying each other the possessions of the holy places, are continually endeavoring to outbid one another in the price they offer for them to the Turkish Governors. They are constantly aiming to obtain some privilege for themselves, or to take it from their rivals; and each sect is perpetually informing against the other for irregularities.”

Incidentally, it was during the Ottoman period that the tradition of the Stations of the Cross developed, the path of the Via Dolorosa running to Calvary (in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.) from the northwest of the Temple esplanade, site of the Antonia fortress. This was based on the belief that the Antonia, and not Herod’s palace, was the Praetorium, where Jesus was condemned. The tradition of the Stations is thus a comparatively recent one. It owes its full development largely to pilgrims.

From faint beginnings at the end of the thirteenth and beginning of the fourteenth centuries—when pilgrims would be led along the “Way of the Cross”—the custom of marking specific events associated with Jesus’ progress from the Praetorium to Golgotha became firmly established by the end of the sixteenth century. (It was in the middle of that century that the term Via Dolorosa came into use.) But the events selected for commemoration, and the locations where they were believed to have happened, varied from period to period. In the fifteenth century, for example, the scene of today’s Third Station was located somewhere near the end of the route, and in the same century pilgrims record only seven Stations. Only as late as the second half of the sixteenth century are there records of fourteen Stations, not necessarily the ones now familiar to us. Indeed, not until the middle of the nineteenth century, more than eighteen hundred years after the crucifixion, were the subjects and sites standardized into the Fourteen Stations commemorated today.

Nine of the incidents are referred to in the Gospels; five have been handed down by tradition. The first two are placed in Antonia, the next seven along the route, and the last five within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Each is now marked by a church, a chapel, a piece of column, or just a sign, and today one moves from one to the other through the narrow, winding, cobbled alleyways of the markets in the Old City, whose present level is very much higher than the pavement level in the time of Jesus. (Incidentally, the term “Station” is ascribed to an English pilgrim, William Wey, said to have been one of the original fellows of Eton, who was in Jerusalem in the 1450s and recorded the list of what he called “Stations” visited on the “Holy Circuit.”)

The First marks the spot where Jesus was sentenced to death. By relatively recent custom, this Station is the site of the hall inside Antonia where the private part of the trial took place, and upon it stands the courtyard of a Turkish barracks, now serving as the Umariya boys’ school, about 300 yards from the Lions’ Gate. Actually, if Antonia was the Praetorium, sentence would have been passed by Pilate in the open court below the place known as the Lithostrotos (which means “paved” in Greek) or Gabbatha (which means “raised” in Aramaic). Parts of what are believed to be the Lithostrotos may be seen in the nearby Chapel of the Condemnation and the Convent of the Sisters of Zion. The paving is striated, and carved on the flagstones are traces of games played by the Roman soldiers.

The Franciscan Order, which did much to promote the tradition of the Stations of the Cross, has a fine museum in the neighboring Convent of the Flagellation, which also stands on part of the Antonia fortress.

The second station, in the street outside the Chapel of the Condemnation, marks the spot where Jesus is said to have received the Cross.

The Third, commemoration Jesus’ first fall—not mentioned in the Gospels—is reached after passing under the arch built by Hadrian which has been known since the sixteenth century as the “Ecce Homo” Arch. This Station is shown by a broken column, now part of a renovated chapel which was formerly the entrance to a bath-house.

The Via Dolorosa then turns sharp left, or south, for a short distance, and a few yards from the corner is the Fourth Station, the traditional site where Jesus met his fainting mother. It is marked by a small oratory over the door of the Armenian Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Spasm.

Some twenty yards beyond, the Via turns sharply right, or west, and leads uphill to Calvary. An oratory at the first building on the left marks the Fifth Station, where the Cross was laid upon Simon of Cyrene.

The Sixth Station, where Veronica wiped the face of Jesus, is indicated by a fragment of a column inserted into the wall on the traditional site of her house. A Greek Orthodox chapel leads to an ancient grotto, about ten feet below the level of the road. It was part of a pre-Roman Jewish building.

The Seventh, where Jesus fell the second time, is now a Franciscan chapel. It is said to be close to the old gate through which Jesus passed to reach the crucifixion site which was then outside the city walls.

The Eighth Station, where Jesus spoke to the compassionate daughters of Jerusalem, is marked by a cross set in the wall of the Greek Orthodox convent of St. Charalambos, adjoining the German Lutheran Hospice of St. John.

The Via Dolorosa ends here as a street; the rest of the original route is now enclosed by buildings, so that the Ninth Station, where Jesus fell the third time, is reached by retracing one’s steps and proceeding up a long flight of steps to the Coptic Church. It is marked by a pillar in the door. The nearby terrace, which is level with the ground of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, is actually the roof of the Chapel of St. Helen, commemorating the “Finding of the Cross.”

The remaining five Stations are within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Tenth, where Jesus was stripped of his garments, is the Latin chapel on Calvary, to the immediate right, through the main entrance on the Basilica. The Eleventh, where Jesus was nailed to the cross, is the altar of that chapel. The Twelfth, where the cross was fixed and where Jesus died, is the altar in the Greek Orthodox chapel, adjoining the Latin chapel. The Thirteenth, commemorating the taking down of the body from the cross is marked by the Latin “altar of the Stabat Mater,” between the Eleventh and Twelfth Stations. The Fourteenth, where Jesus was laid to rest, is the Holy Sepulchre itself.

One of the most remarkable phenomena of Ottoman Jerusalem was the survival—and eventual growth—of the Jewish community. We have seen how the Jews, in common with all the inhabitants of the city, fared quite well under Suleiman I at the beginning of Ottoman rule. We have also seen what started happening to the land and the people later in the sixteenth century, and how it kept growing worse. Once the administration started to decay, all suffered. The Jews fared worst of all. The Christians had their protectors—the Latins in the west, the Greeks in Constantinople and Moscow. The Jews had none. Their fate was determined by the whim of the pasha—or of his underlings, or of the Moslem in the street. Persecution was their normal lot—disabilities, restrictions, extortion, humiliation; murder or physical injury were frequent hazards. But still they came, as pilgrims and as settlers, to their beloved Jerusalem.

Gone were the days when Ottoman tolerance could attract to its provinces Jews fleeing from Christian persecution in Europe. In the 1580s, the local pasha could seize the chief synagogue in Jerusalem of the Sephardim (Spanish Jews), the thirteenth-century synagogue of Nachmanides (the Ramban), and declare that it would be used as a mosque—thereby making it inalienable Moslem religious property and denying it permanently to Jews. (During the recent Mandatory and Jordanian periods it was used as a food-processing factory.) Still, the Jews could, and did, with painful effort and bribery, establish another synagogue shortly afterwards—on the traditional site of the synagogue of the first century’s celebrated Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai. This in our own day was the oldest synagogue in Jerusalem, and in continuous use from the sixteenth century until 1948 when it was destroyed by the Jordanians.

Jerusalem had a brief spell of fair administration from 1620 to 1625 under the governorship of Mohammed Pasha, and this is reflected in the following record written a few years later by a Jerusalem Jew who had lived through the period-

“The City of God contained more of our people than at any time since the Jews were banished from their country. Many Jews came daily to live in the City, apart from those coming to pray at the Western Wall… Moreover, they brought with them bountiful gifts of money to strengthen the Jews of Jerusalem. It was reported in all countries that we were dwelling in peace and security. Many of us bought houses and fields and rebuilt the ruins, and aged men and women sat in the streets of Jerusalem, and the thoroughfares of the City were thronged with boys and girls… The teaching of the Holy Law (the Torah) prospered, and many houses of study stood open to all who sought to engage in the labour of Heaven. The leaders of the community provided the students with their daily needs. All the poor were relieved of their wants…”

The idyll was short-lived. The next pasha of Jerusalem, Mohammed ibn-Farouk, who had bought the governorship from the senior pasha in control of the vilayet of Damascus, arrived in the city with three hundred mercenaries intent on multiplying his investment. One method was to surround the synagogues on the Sabbath, seize the leading figures among the worshippers, and hold them for high ransom. When this was paid, and the community was just about recovering from the financial blow, the pasha would order a synagogue to be impounded and converted to stores—unless a large payment was forthcoming to prevent the sacrilege. On one occasion, when two congregants were grabbed and the impoverished community was finding it difficult to raise the money for their release, the victims were brought to the synagogue and torture before the eyes of the congregation. Household chattels were sold or pledged to speed the payment.

The day after ibn-Farouk completed his term and left the city, the Jews “assembled and rendered thanks to the Almighty in the synagogue, and we praised His name…for all His goodness to us in removing strange worship from our land and driving away from us the wicked foe, ibn-Farouk. Some of the sages and leaders of the community went round the city and collected food and gifts for the poor; and there was light and joy for the Jews.” But they had been reduced to penury, and most of their possessions had been pledged to meet the arbitrary extortions of the ruler. “Today,” says the narrator of this record, “we are mortgaged—men, women, and children—to the Ishmaelite dwellers of this land.”

The city “contained more of our people,” the Jerusalem Jew had written, than at any time since the exile. He was writing in the early part of the seventeenth century when the total population of Jerusalem was about ten thousand and the Jews numbered only a few hundred. Two hundred years later, the general population still stood at the same figure, but the Jewish community had grown to three thousand. Despite the misery and the suffering, there were always groups in the Diaspora who were prepared to brave life, however hard, in the Holy Land. By the third quarter of the nineteenth century, the Jewish population of Jerusalem had grown to some eleven thousand and they constituted the majority—for the first time since their independence—a majority they were to retain to this day, when they number nearly two hundred thousand.

They showed an astonishing persistence in the days when they were a very small minority, considering how fragile was their shell of security. It could be punctured at any time by the pasha and his officials, and also, in the general atmosphere of lawlessness, by hooligans, robbers or more dangerous criminals. Moreover, any Moslem could make sport of them, attack, rob or simply dun them for money. They had no redress. If they were unwise enough to dispute a Moslem claim for a non-existent debt, their testimony could never stand up to the word of a True Believer.

But it was from the local administration that the community as a whole had most to fear. In 1720, twenty years after the arrival of Rabbi Yehuda He’Hassid with a thousand Jews from Poland and their erection of an Ashkenasi synagogue, “the Ishmaelites [Arabs or Moslems] suddenly came and burned down the large synagogue with fire…and they drove out the Ashkenasim.” (Ashkenasi means a Jew from central or eastern Europe.)

Rabbi Yehuda had come with his large group during a brief period of lenient administration “and bought a house in the holy enclosure of the synagogue of the Ashkenasi community… The enclosure had several buildings within it, about forty houses and also a study hall…a ritual bath…and a house for the poor.” (The quotation is from the record left by Rabbi Gedalia, one of Rabbi Yehuda’s immigrant companions.) The site was in the Jewish Quarter not far from the Western Wall, and it had been Rabbi Yehuda’s plan to enlarge the synagogue and study hall and settle his group in and around the compound. He himself died shortly after his arrival, but his friends proceeded with his plan, “and very large sums have been spent on the synagogue with the holy enclosure and all the living quarters within it. And many bribes as well…For such are the ways of the kingdom of the Ishmaelites.”

But shortly afterwards, “the leaders of the Ishmaelites imposed on the members of the group heavy taxes which they could not pay,” and so they set the synagogue on fire, looted the silver vessels, and tore up adjoining buildings in the search for hidden treasure. The shell of the synagogue remained, for it was built of stone, and it was known ever after as the Hurva Synagogue—“Hurva” is Hebrew for “ruin”—or, by its full title, “Hurvat Rabbi Yehuda He’Hassid.” (He’Hassid means “the Pious.”)

The Ashkenasim were expelled from Jerusalem, both the new arrivals and the few hundred who had been living there before, and most of them took refuge in Safed, Tiberias or Hebron, the three other “holy cities” of learned Jewish communities in Palestine. Some managed to remain in Jerusalem by disguising themselves as Sephardi Jews. Though Sephardi means Spanish—Spain was one of the early centers of exile from Palestine—the term covers Jews from southern Europe and the Near East to which the Jews fled from Spanish persecution. They wore distinctive eastern dress. The Ashkenasim wore the familiar dress of the Jews of Eastern Europe, which may still be seen in the ultra-orthodox quarter of Jerusalem known as Mea She’arim. The Turks, after destroying the synagogue for non-payment of “debt,” held all Ashkenasim responsible, and would not allow them to return until extortionate sums of money were forthcoming. This was the official reason. The real reason was probably the almost continuous military conflict between Constantinople and the countries from which the Ashkenasim came.

While there were Ashkenasi communities elsewhere in the country, they were kept out of Jerusalem for about a century, though overseas pilgrims still came in openly. Ashkenasim from other cities in Palestine who venture in on pilgrimage thought it safest to be attired as Sephardim. For Sephardi Jews were allowed stay. The Ashkenasi community re-established itself in Jerusalem in the 1820s, and from then on their numbers kept growing. Their restoration followed an Ottoman decree of remission of old debts. They soon set about preparing a temporary house of prayer and religious school from some of the buildings of the Hurva compound, but the local Turkish administration was in on mood to give up so valuable a source of extortion. It took years of steady pressure, the expenditure of large sums, and finally the intercession by various Jewish and Gentile European dignitaries in Constantinople, before the property was turned over to the community and they were able to re-establish their theological seminary, religious schools, religious court, ritual bath and study hall. The rebuilding of the synagogue itself was completed in 1864, and a most handsome edifice it was, its dome rising above the rooftops of the city. This Hurva synagogue “the glory of the Old City” as it was called, was destroyed the Jordanian Arab Legion in 1948.

That some progress, however plodding, was made during the nineteenth century in the protection of Christian and Jewish rights in Jerusalem, was due largely to the renewed interest in Palestine by the western powers. This interest was prompted only slightly by sentiment and religion—though religion was often the official reason for intervention. Their primary purpose was to safeguard and develop their political and commercial interests with India, China, and other parts of the Far East and Australasia which had been vastly expanded in the eighteenth century by conquest and colonization. The bridge to these regions was the area of Palestine.

Napoleon had tried to wrest it from the Ottomans, capturing Egypt in 1798 and moving into Palestine in 1799. He proceeded right up the coastal plain, by-passing Jerusalem, and encamping outside Acre. But he failed to take it. The British navy came to Turkey’s rescue, and Napoleon eventually withdrew. From then on, while France and Britain continued their rivalry, each seeking to extend its influence in Palestine, both joined in preventing the third great interested power, Russia, from toppling Turkey, though they were unable to stem Russia’s considerable expansion southwards. The result was a growing presence in Jerusalem of Britain, France and Russia and, towards the end of the century, Germany.

This process was aided, because it shook and weakened local Turkish rule, by the capture of Jerusalem and the whole of Palestine by the pasha of Egypt, Mohamed Ali, who rebelled against the sultan in 1831 and sent an army under his son, Ibrahim, to take the country. For the next ten years, Jerusalem was governed by Ibrahim, but in 1841, again with naval help from Britain, Ottoman rule was restored and Mohammed Ali had to content himself with the hereidary pashalik of Egypt.

The ten years of Ibrahim’s rule saw a great improvement in the lost of Jerusalemites. True, there was grumbling at his introduction of conscription and high taxation. But his administration was reasonably efficient, and at least in the beginning, there was security. He “wrought fearful judgments upon all wicked men,” wrote Yaacov Shaul Eliashar, who later became Sephardi Chief Rabbi, “and caused such fear and trembling that a small girl could walk in the streets carrying gold coins in her hand and no one would molest her.” It was possible, indeed, to travel throughout the land in comparative safety, and the country was opened to western visitors.

It was during this period, in 1838, that the first consulate was opened in Jerusalem—the consulate of Great Britain. This set the pattern. Five years later, two years after the Ottoman return, France and Prussia sent a consul, and they were followed a few years later by Austria and Spain. Russia had a consul in Beirut and sent an agent to Jerusalem. By agreement worked out in Constantinople, these consuls in Jerusalem were given special rights and privileges, such as the running of their own postal services; but most important was the right to extend their protection to certain minority communities. The Christians turned for aid to the French or Russian officials—though in the 1840s an English bishop and a Latin patriarch were allowed to be installed in Jerusalem, just as a rabbi was given authority over Jews who were Austrian or Russian subjects. The other Jews came under the protection of the British—Jews who were Ottoman subjects and Jewish residents who had no other protector.

The British consul was in fact specifically instructed by his government to make it his official duty to care for the welfare of the Jews, and this delicate task occupied much of the energies of the first two consuls. The second, James Finn, who served from 1845 to 1862, was a most remarkable man who did a great deal to benefit the Jewish community in Jerusalem. The return of Turkish rule had brought with it a return to corrupt and extortionate practice, and recourse to the protection of the British consul was unfortunately frequent.

James Finn was an outstanding member of a rising group of English intellectuals who believed in Zionism, though that term did not come into popular use until several decades later. They were appalled by the persecution of the Jews in so many countries, and felt that this was the result of their long exile, their homelessness. They were particularly saddened by the Christian role in Jewish suffering, Christians oppressing them in the name of Christianity, and they thought it a Christian duty to help in the restoration of Palestine to the Jews. There were others in England who were equally concerned in helping the Jews—but in a different way. They thought persecution was due to the Jews’ unwillingness to adopt Christianity, and they conceived it their mission to bring salvation to them by converting those who lived at the fount of Jewry, Jerusalem.

One of these was Lady Egerton, who came out in 1840. Arrived in Jerusalem, she made straight for the Jewish Quarter, first visiting the Western Wall with its

“prodigious stones and beauty of chiseling, [where] every Friday, the Jews come and weep for the desolation of their people and city, as of old… Being the Jewish Sabbath, they were all in their best attire, and their houses are luxurious, clean and even comfortable to a great degree, their rooms are fitted round with divans of a pleasant shape, and they possess the most agreeable studies, well filled with books. The women, too, unlike the natives of the Mohammedan persuasion, live together with their male relatives…They received us admirably, insisting upon our partaking of sherbet and sweetmeats. We went into several synagogues… The appearance of these Jews certainly does not yield an impression of decadence…”

There is a good picture of the Jewish mood of the period in the record of an American traveler, John Lloyd Stephens, who visited Jerusalem in 1835, after seeing something of Jewish persecution in other lands-

“I had already seen a great deal of the Jews. I had seen them in the cities of Italy, everywhere more or less oppressed; at Rome, shut up every night in their miserable quarters as if they were noxious beast; in Turkey, persecuted and oppressed; along the shores of the Black Sea in the heart of Russia, looked down upon by the serfs of that great empire of vassalage; and, for the climax of misery, I had seen them contemned and spat upon even by the ignorant and enslaved boors of Poland. I had seen them scattered abroad among all the nations…everywhere a separate and peculiar people; and everywhere under poverty, wretchedness and oppression, waiting for, and anxiously expecting, the coming of the Messiah, to call together their scattered tribes, and restore them to the kingdom of their fathers; and all this the better fitted me for the more interesting spectacle of the Jews in the holy city.

“In all changes and revolutions, from the day when the kingdom of Solomon passed into the hands of strangers, under the Assyrian, the Roman, the Arab and the Turk, a remnant of that once-favored people has always hovered around the holy city; and now, as in the days of David, old men may be seen at the foot of Mount Zion, teaching their children to read from that mysterious book on which they have ever fondly built their hopes of a temporal and eternal kingdom…

“They took me to what they call a part of the wall of Solomon’s Temple. It forms part of the …wall of the mosque of Omar, and is evidently older than the rest, the stones being much larger…And I saw that day, as other travelers may still see every Friday in the year, all the Jews clothed in their best raiment, winding through the narrow streets of their quarter; and under this hallowed wall, with the sacred volume in their hands, singing in the language in which they were written, the Songs of Solomon and the Psalms of David. White-bearded old men and smooth-cheeked boys were leaning over the same book; and Jewish maidens, in their long white robes, were standing with their faces against the wall, and praying through cracks and crevices…

“Now, as the Moslem lords it over the place where the Temple stood, and the Jews are not permitted to enter, they endeavor to insinuate their prayers through the crevices in the wall, that thus they may rise from the interior to the Throne of Grace. The tradition is characteristic, and serves to illustrate the devoted constancy with which the Israelites adhere to the externals of their faith.”

The Temple Mount was, as Stephens wrote, out of bounds to Jews. The Moslems also barred it to Christians, but midway through the century when European influence was more marked, the heir to the Belgian throne on a visit to Jerusalem was given special permission to enter the area with his party. Thereafter the ban was less harshly enforced and it was eventually abolished—as far as Christians were concerned. But it continued to be rigidly applied to Jews—even after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and its supersession by the British Mandatory Administration. Only after its capture on 7 June 1967 were Jews once again, after many centuries, freely able to visit their Temple Mount.

Up to 1860, almost no one lived outside the walls of the city, because it was too dangerous. In the desolate and neglected countryside, particularly at night, the robber and marauder were king. The Turkish garrison closed the gates at eventide and opened them in the morning. No citizen went out in the dark.

Up to then, the bulk of the Jewish community lived their lives at Jerusalem in study and learning, and were supported by the philanthropy of Jews from overseas. But there were a few Jews, particularly Yosef Rivlin and David Yellin, who dreamed of establishing Jewish quarters outside the walls, and encouraging the training of Jewish artisans who would live there. This idea was given practical realization by the renowned Anglo-Jewish benefactor, Sir Moses Montefiore, who began visiting Jerusalem in 1836 and made seven extended trips in his lifetime, the last, in 1875, at the age of ninety-one! In 1855, en route to the Holy Land, he stopped off in Constantinople, saw the sultan, and received from him the right to acquire land outside the walls of Jerusalem, as well as the right to repair the Tomb of Rachel, the Jewish holy place in Bethlehem. Two years later, he built the windmill which still stands (although without its head which was blown off by a Jordanian shell in 1948) just south of the King David Hotel, and in 1860 he started construction of the nearby Yemin Moshe quarter to house Jewish artisans. The buildings were first used as a weaving factory. But this project failed, and a hospital was established instead. This, too, was unsuccessful, since the site was considered unsafe for helpless patients. The houses were then used as small workshops during the day, the artisans returning to the Old City each night. It was another fifteen years, during which time the Jewish population doubled, before Yemin Moshe was lived in.

The first Jew who is credited with settling—and actually spending the night!—outside Jerusalem’s walls was Yosef Rivlin, whose obsession to found a new quarter pre-dated Montefiore’s project. However, it took him several years to achieve his plan, and not until 1869 were the first two houses completed. Though his friends thought him mad, Rivlin resolved to move into one of them immediately, without waiting until homes were ready for all the members of the founding group. As related by his distant cousin, the noted orientalist, Professor Yosef Yoel Rivlin, his relatives would anxiously rush through the city gate each morning as soon as it was opened to find out if Yosef was still alive! Eventually, his group being reassured by his survival, Nachlat Shiva, as this quarter was later called, became the first settle Jewish outpost in the New City of Jerusalem. It was followed shortly afterwards by Mea She’arim, still the suburb of the ultra-orthodox community.

By now, with Jews already a majority in the city and beginning to extend their settlement outside and to the west of the walls, they began to receive a fresh influx of immigrants. This was the period of the spirited resurgence of the “Return to Zion” movement in central and eastern Europe. Throughout their nineteen centuries of exile, there had always been some Jews from some community somewhere in the world who, as we have seen, not only made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem but went there to settle. The bulk, however, remained where they were, most of them too impoverished to journey even beyond their village, and having to content themselves with the regular synagogue prayer “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

Now, however, that prayer was taking on the urgent validity of a travel directive. In eastern Europe the Jews were living in abject condition, the target of severe persecution. And these were the very times when intellectuals and writers and social reformers were uttering the great cry for liberty. Among the Jews, this theme emerged in an outpouring of Hebrew prose and poetry filled with the “Love of Zion,” and “Lovers of Zion” societies sprang up in town and ghetto devoted to the revival of Jewish nationhood in its own land. Jews had had enough of wandering, enough of persecution, enough of escaping from one hell to a new land, only to find themselves confronted there by a new tyranny ten, fifty or one hundred years later. They would go to Palestine, desolate after centuries of neglect, and rebuild it with their own hands.

And so, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, they began coming. The pioneers, of course, went out to clear swamp and revive desert. But the center of their movement was Jerusalem. And many others, unfit for hard physical labor, settled in the city. By 1897, the resurgent mood among the Jews was such that they could hold an international conference in Basle, that turned out to be historic, and create the World Zionist Movement which gave a political and organized shape to their yearnings for independence. The key figure at the conference was Theodor Herzl, father of modern political Zionism. Fifty-one years later, the Jewish State was established.

While the Jewish population grew, the Christian community in Jerusalem remained relatively static. But with the sustained interest in Palestine of the western powers, and the presence in Jerusalem of their protective consuls, Christian interests were advanced, each denomination secure in its political backing. France was still behind the Latin Church, Russia the Orthodox, their conflicts over the Holy Places being settled by the Turkish sultan in a status quo edict issued in 1852. Despite the defeat of Russia by England, France and Turkey in the Crimean war, Russian influence in Jerusalem remained unaffected, and in the latter part of the century, the huge Russian compound was erected outside the city walls consisting of a cathedral, hospital and hostels for pilgrims. It is still known as the Russian compound today.

Germany appeared as a fourth political influence on the religious scene of Jerusalem at the end of the century, the sultan, Abdul Hamid, grasping the friendship of this new European great power to check the influence in his empire of the other three. When Kaiser Wilhelm II paid a state visit to the Holy Land in 1898, the walls of Jerusalem were breached at the Jaffa Gate to make possible his entry in mounted procession. Almost immediately the Germans started working on buildings, some of which dominate the skyline today. On the nearest available site to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre rose a German Lutheran church. On Mount Zion, above the old Franciscan buildings, was erected the German Benedictine Abbey of the Dormition. And between the Mount of Olives and Mount Scopus rose the castle-like palace, hostel and hospital which was named after the Empress Augusta Victoria.

Incidentally, as a result of the increasing European interest and the increasing flow of European Jewish immigrants, Jerusalem in 1889 was designated an independent sanjak with a pasha appointed directly by Constantinople, and outside the control of the Syrian vilayet. The Jerusalem sanjak covered the city and a considerable area around it.

Ottoman control of Jerusalem came to an end in 1917 when the city fell without resistance to the British commander, General Allenby, Turkey had joined Germany against the Allied Powers a month after the outbreak of World War One, and her army in Palestine had been seriously engaged by British forces two and a half years later. After being routed in the south in November 1917, the Turks retired to a line from Jerusalem westwards to Jaffa. Allenby took Jaffa and then marched on Jerusalem. He captured the nearby height of Nebi Samuel on 21 November, thus threatening the Jerusalem-Nablus highway north of the city, the main line of communications left to the Turks, and hoping thereby to avoid combat in Jerusalem itself. The plan worked. On 9 December, the city surrendered.

Some five weeks earlier, on 2 November 1917, the British Government had issued the “Balfour Declaration,” viewing “with favor the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people…,” and this was incorporated into a League of Nations Mandate in 1922 which was vested in Britain. For the first time since the Crusades, the country was to be governed by a Christian power. And, also for the first time since then, its seat of local administration was to be Jerusalem. Britain was to remain in control until 14 May 1948 when the State of Israel was proclaimed.

Posted in: Ottoman Period

Comments are closed.