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.

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.


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.


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 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.


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 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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.