Mameluke Overture (1291-1516)

The Mamelukes divided their Empire into the Kingdom (Mamlacha) of Egypt and the Kingdom of Syria. The Holy Land under the Mamelukes became a backwater region ruled from Cairo: Jerusalem was adorned by some beautiful structures, Nebi Musa [in honor of Moses] erected in the Judean desert, but Akko (Acre), Yafo (Jaffa) and other coastal towns were destroyed for fear of new crusades, and maritime as well as overland commerce came to a virtual end. By the end of the Middle Ages, the country's urban centers were virtually in ruins, and most of Jerusalem was abandoned. A small Jewish community lived there in abject poverty. The period of decline under Mameluke rule was marked not only by political and economic upheavals, but also by a series of plagues, locusts and devastating earthquakes. The Mamelukes also found themselves facing an internal Moslem rival in the Ottoman Turks, who put an end to the last vestiges of the Roman Empire, when they conquered Constantinople in 1453.

They stopped their advance into Europe when Shi'ism began to spread in Iran, preferring to take care of this 'heresy' in their back yard. While they were at it, they took all of the Middle East. The emergence of two major centers of Moslem power, one in the ancient Hittite center in Anatolia, one in Egypt, had made a clash inevitable. The final showdown took place in 1516 at Marj Dabik in Syria; the Turks used the new weapon of firearms, the Mamelukes claimed that men of honor do not kill their enemies at a distance; honor lost, gunpowder won, the world of Islam had a new center of power. Once more the Holy Land (a tiny, insignificant part of the Ottoman Empire) was ruled from Constantinople, now known as Istanbul.

Ottoman Rule (1517-1917)

Following the Ottoman conquest in 1517, five districts, under the jurisdiction of the province of Damascus until 1830, more or less comprised the Holy Land. Most of these then fell within the province of Sidon, then Akko (Acre), then Damascus again, and finally were incorporated in the province of Beirut – though the district of Jerusalem was (from 1887) run directly from Istanbul.

Suleiman the Magnificent had rebuilt Jerusalem [‘In the name of Allah the Merciful, the Great Sultan, King of the Turks, Arabs, and Persians, Suleiman son of Selim Khan — may Allah make His Kingdom eternal— gave the order to build this blessed Wall’ reads the inscription above Damascus Gate in ornate cursive Arabic] and restored its water supply, but after his death (in 1566) no Turkish ruler paid much attention to this unimportant part of the Ottoman Empire.

A prosperous 16th-century was followed by economic and political decline in the 17th century, when various local leaders tended to take control - sometimes formally endorsed, after the fact, by the administration in Istanbul. Thus the family of Fahr ad-din, from the Lebanon, extended their control first to the sea and then southwards over what is today’s Galilee. They maintained, amongst others, trading and political ties with the Medicis in Italy, and fled there for shelter when the Turks finally decided they were not acting in the interests of the Ottoman Empire. Most of the Druze villages in today’s Israel derive from this time.

In the 18th century Daher al-‘Omar, the mukhtar (chief) of a village in the middle of the Galilean mountains spread his influence from about 1730 eastwards to the Sea of Galilee, where he rebuilt the walls of Tiberias, and westwards to the Mediterranean where he rebuilt Akko. Officially the Sidonian governor’s tax-farmer, he dominated the political life of the Galilee and more in the third quarter of the 18th century; in the seventies he extended his control north to Sidon and south to Gaza and began to make contacts with rebel forces in Egypt. This was more than Istanbul could stomach and a substantial force was sent under the imperial fleet to take Akko; Daher fell in battle and by late August 1775, Ottoman control was reestablished

Ahmed Pasha (better known as al Jazzar – ‘the butcher’) who had previously proved his efficiency in establishing order in Beirut was appointed Vali (governor) of Sidon, a position he held until his death in 1804. His position was enhanced by an occasional appointment as Vali of Damascus as well, which gave him control over the pilgrim route to Mecca. Like Daher al-‘Omar before him, he ensured that all trade was centralized and taxed, giving him sufficient funds to build a considerable military force, and to keep sweet well-placed officials in the Turkish administration. Like Daher he was somewhat lax in forwarding the taxes due Istanbul, but he was careful never to provoke the Empire beyond breaking point. (These methods were fairly typical of the way the Turkish Empire was run in general.) In the desert regions (south of Beersheba and in the area of the Dead Sea) Bedouin tribes continued to do as they pleased. Akko became a major center: Ahmad Pasha built a magnificent mosque (standing today), decorated the town using Roman/Byzantine columns and capitals from Caesarea and Sidon ? and he rebuilt the town’s fortifications.

Akko’s enormous moat and 50 foot thick walls helped put the seal of failure on Napoleon’s eastern adventure. He had conquered Egypt and marched northward up the Mediterranean coast after the British destroyed his fleet. His defeat at the walls of Akko in 1799 led to his retreat southwards. Initially he dumped his arms into the sea (found recently by the underwater archeology department of Haifa University) so that the wagons could carry the wounded and ill. Later he abandoned his army, sneaking through the British fleet’s blockade on his way back to Paris. In 1801 he crowned himself Emperor.

Napoleon's invasion marked a turning point in the region’s history. The Turks now saw Egypt as an Achilles heel. Accordingly in 1805 the Turkish troops in Egypt were put under the command of a rising star, Muhammad Ali, who in 1811 overthrew the ruling caste of Egypt, the Mamelukes, and became the viceroy of the Ottoman sultan. Old familiar ways, however, soon reasserted themselves. Nominally the viceroy of the Ottoman sultan, he became effectively an independent ruler. He modernized Egypt, turning it into the leading power in the region until his death in 1849 (In 1841 his family became hereditary rulers of Egypt, and the dynasty survived until 1952, when Nasser overthrew King Farouk). After consolidating his hold on Egypt he embarked upon a program of expansion at the expense of his Ottoman overlord. In 1831 his armies followed in Napoleon’s footsteps up the Mediterranean coast. On the eve of his conquest, most of the Holy Land had been placed under the control of Sidon instead of Damascus. Muhammad Ali replaced Sidon with Akko. From his capital at Akko, his son Ibrahim Ali, backed by a strong army, centralized and modernized the local administration, as his father had done in Egypt. He put an end (or greatly limited) the influence of the local magnates who had managed to carve out de facto little independent sheikhdoms in different areas of the country. He also put a stop to the Bedouin raids from the eastern and southern deserts that had done so much to keep the Holy Land insecure and poor. Increased taxes and compulsory conscription, however, led to rebellion, which was suppressed with great brutality (e.g., just among the Druze, out of some ten villages on Mt. Carmel only two, there to this day, survived).

The order Egyptian rule imposed, together with the increasing use of steamships, opened the country to a regular flow of Christian pilgrims and Western influence, as Christian missionaries established schools. In 1840 the British and the Prussians, the Austrians and the Russians, forced the Egyptians to withdraw and restored Ottoman rule; nevertheless, to this day there are villages where family names betray their Egyptian origins, the new immigrants deriving not exclusively, but primarily, from this brief period of Egyptian control. (The protruding balconies supported by wooden beams, commonly seen in the Old City of Jerusalem, were also an import from Egypt.)

The return of the Turks in 1840 and the establishment of consulates by the Christian powers in Jerusalem (probably the main reason that the Jerusalem district was later transferred to direct rule from Istanbul) and in the ports, led to significant changes throughout the empire and in the Holy Land. Economic, administrative, legal, military and political reforms (tanzimat), backed by a newly organized, centralized government, aimed to promote efficiency and unity, both continuing the Egyptian improvements and counteracting potential insurrections. The Land Law of 1858 was meant to encourage the development of private property and consequently, better agricultural production. The decrees (firmans) of 1839 and, in particular, of 1856 equalized the status of Moslem and non-Moslem subjects. Town Councils were appointed to modernize the growing urban entities. Despite these wide-sweeping measures, the net result worked against Turkish intentions.

The new centralized, efficient taxation, impoverished the rural population who proved unable to modernize, and led to a population movement from the villages to the towns. Crippled by taxation, peasants’ (fallahin) lands were gradually taken over by notable urban families, as the fallah ran into debt. Some drifted into the towns, some remained; those who stayed farmed the land in return for a share of the produce. The village rulers or sheiks lost considerable authority as their role as tax-collectors for the central government passed into the hands of Ottoman officials and urban Arab notables. Turkish efforts to conscript villagers into the army, the return of the brigands to the roads, renewed Bedouin raids, all weakened the countryside.

In the towns, on the other hand, economic conditions, law and order, all vastly improved. The urban elite became wealthier and acquired more land. Turkish reforms of local government, both in the Holy Land and Syria, including the appointment of town councils, also resulted in increasing the power of the notables (the a`yan) and religious scholars/leaders (the ulema) at the expense of Ottoman officials.

Added to this shift in power from the countryside to a handful of wealthy urban families, religious tensions increased; the law equalizing the status of non-Moslems and Moslems led to Moslem resentment, expressed in massacres of Christian communities: in Aleppo in 1850, in Nablus in 1856, in Damascus and Lebanon in 1860.

On top of all these developments, in which they had played an indirect role, the Christian Powers began to intervene directly in Turkish affairs. Together with the new municipal, military, judicial, and educational systems, the Holy Land witnessed a marked increase in French, Russian, German, Italian, Austrian and British establishments.

In antiquity the Holy Land had been caught up in a neverending tug of war between a center in Egypt and a center to the north (in today’s Turkey) or the east (in today’s Iraq or Syria). This was a recurring pattern even when there was supposedly one ruling entity, which within itself tended to break down into the old patterns, as happened under the Greeks or the early Arab Empire. The Ottoman Empire initially was a single entity covering North Africa and all of the Middle East; but later, local rulers took matters into their own hands and by the 19th century Egypt ran her own affairs, and for a (short) while more than her own. From the mid-19th century on, it was the world powers that became involved leaving an enduring mark on the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish Empire separated Britain from her empire in the east and blocked Russia from both the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. Britain saw the Ottoman Empire as instrumental in keeping her Empire safe from Russian threats, but as the century progressed the French and then the Germans (initially just Prussia) challenged her status in the east. The building of the Suez Canal (which eventually landed in Britain’s lap) was part of this struggle. These big power games were further complicated by religion.

Old patterns reasserted themselves, but with a twist; a dormant Holy Land became part of a larger power struggle amongst European powers and Russia. Growing European interests led to the establishment of consulates by the powers in Jerusalem and in the ports. Though not directly in control, the consuls interfered in Turkish administration and justice, not only as regards their own nationals, whom they (and not Turkish officials) judged in cases of misdemeanors, felonies or other crimes; but they also sought to further their influence by finding outside interest groups to support. As Christian powers this was the first direction their activities took. The Russians established themselves as the protectors of the members of the Orthodox Church; the French as the overseers of Catholic rights; the Prussians looked after the (tiny) Protestant community; and the British kept an eye on the welfare of the minorities, such as the Druze and the Jews. The Holy Land was coming back to life.

Together with official and missionary establishments a number of tiny Christian groups, driven by Messianic stirrings (they hoped to promote, or at least be present for, the Second Coming of Jesus) began to settle in the Holy Land. In the 1850’s American Seventh Day Adventists, led by Clorinda Minor, settled, first in Artas, just south of Bethlehem, where they joined a small European group, and then a few kilometers north-east of Jaffa, at their own settlement of ‘Mount Hope’. Not familiar with their new environment, neither the physical nor the human, they soon found themselves subjected to Bedouin depredations, their possessions slowly disappearing, until eventually the enterprise was abandoned (the last man to leave was John Steinbeck’s grandfather). Nothing remains of this settlement apart from the memory (and perhaps the inspiration for Grapes of Wrath and/or East of Eden.).

A second group of Americans was led by George Adams from the Church of the Messiah. They too settled north-east of Jaffa, but this time right next door. They built themselves wooden houses with timber from Maine (genuine American log cabins in the Middle East, little houses off the prairie). Their leader, who made occasional trips with their money to buy and bring back supplies, served them poorly. He apparently liked to drink (and gamble?) and rarely returned with the full complement expected. On one trip he failed to return altogether and the group was left destitute. Salvation arrived in the form of a German group of similar settlers, who bought them out, enabling them to return home. They left just a little more than a faint memory; one of these homes has survived and been done up, and now houses the (nouvelle cuisine) Keren restaurant outside Jaffa.

The settlements established by the Germans were all offshoots of the Tempelgesellschaft (the Templers), founded by Christoph Hoffman. They too expected the return of Jesus but knew that this required an unblemished Christian lifestyle. Accordingly they wished to establish such pure Christian communities, but felt this was not possible in (a decadent) Europe. A number of outside possibilities were considered but the Holy Land (naturally) won out. They intended also to be an inspiration to the locals and to provide a model of perfect Christian life to the world of Christianity and the world in general; they hoped indeed to be a ‘light unto the nations.’ As their focus was on successful settlement in the here and now, they improved radically on their predecessors, and their settlements grew in number and prospered. (Their descendants however later became swept up by Nazi fervor and the British rulers deported most of them in World War II). Many of their homes remain (some are preserved as historic buildings), and their farming villages did in fact act as a model for the settlers who came after them, the Zionist settlers, who first arrived in 1882.

With the benefit of hindsight it is clear that, despite their humble beginnings, the Zionist agricultural settlements, which began with a mere handful of families (in the first ten years, by 1892, about 2,000 Jewish immigrants lived in 10 villages) , proved the most significant, starting a trend that led ultimately to the establishment of a Jewish state in 1948.