I. Ottoman Rule

I. Ottoman Rule


"Jerusalem ." Hand-colored lithograph, Nathaniel Currier publishing house, New York , 1846.

Popular graphic art print filing series, Library of Congress

In 1516, the Ottoman Empire—founded by Turkic tribesmen in Anatolia, who then established their capital on the ruins of the Byzantine Empire in Constantinople—moved against the Mamluk rule in the Levant. The Ottoman forces defeated the Mamluk armies and conquered Bilad al-Sham, including Palestine. This marked the beginning of four centuries of nearly uninterrupted Ottoman rule over Palestine. This rule was marked by the integration of local elites into networks of state power (particularly taxation) as well as the state’s establishment and support of religious and charitable institutions.

Sovereignty over Jerusalem held special significance for the Muslim empire, which early on embarked on projects to rebuild the city’s walls and to renovate the Dome of the Rock (1537-1540). At the same time, the Ottomans acknowledged Christian and Jewish rights to sites of religious significance, managing a complex arrangement of privileges and access rights to these sites through a system known as the status quo. These regulations and understandings were based on accumulated customary practice and included rights acknowledged by earlier Muslim rulers and the decisions of Muslim courts in support of these rights, as well as Christian and Jewish commitments to adhere to customary practice.

Yet despite relative calm in religious matters, Palestine was also periodically the site of local, regional, and global political struggles. In the early eighteenth century, for example, a local uprising against the Ottoman governor of Jerusalem—known as the Naqib al-Ashraf rebellion—was triggered by repressive policies and taxation. Later in the eighteenth century, local notable Zahir al-Umar al-Zaydani carved out a sphere of local autonomy in the Galilee. In 1799, French forces led by Napoleon Bonaparte, having recently invaded Egypt, stormed up the coast of Palestine, conquering Gaza, Jaffa, and Haifa before launching an unsuccessful siege of Acre. Another locally led uprising against taxation in 1825 was put down by the Ottomans shortly before Ibrahim Pasha, the son of Egypt’s ruler Muhammad Ali Pasha, launched another invasion of Palestine from the south in 1831. For the next ten years, Palestine (and the greater Levant) was the site of struggle between the Ottoman Empire, its rebellious Egyptian vassal, and local Palestinian factions before an alliance of empires—Ottoman, British, Russian, and Austrian—managed to expel the Egyptian army.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, a number of processes unfolding both regionally and globally shaped the development of events in Palestine. Three processes had particular impact: a series of Ottoman administrative reforms that sought to fundamentally reshape the relationship between the state and its subjects; global dynamics that gave European powers increasing influence over a weakening Ottoman state; and the rise of nationalist movements, including the development of Zionism in Europe and Arab and Palestinian nationalisms in the Ottoman Empire's Arab provinces.

The year 1876 marked the beginning of both the reign of Sultan Abd al-Hamid II and the First Constitutional Era, launched with the promulgation of the Ottoman Basic Law. The Basic Law sought to reconfigure the relationship between the Ottoman state and its subjects by crafting a single Ottoman political identity applied equally to all the empire's subjects. It also established an Ottoman parliament, in which Yusuf Diya-uddin Pasha al-Khalidi represented Jerusalem. After just two years, however, Sultan Abd al-Hamid II suspended the Basic Law, ending the First Constitutional Era. Over the next thirty years, Abd al-Hamid ruled as an absolute monarch, presiding over some successful projects of modernization (e.g., bureaucratic reforms, the establishment of a population registry, construction of the Hijaz railway) as the empire lost control over numerous territories (particularly in Europe) to a combination of local independence movements and foreign powers.

Beyond these losses, foreign powers exploited the Ottoman Empire's relative weakness to impose economic and political concessions upon it under the framework of capitulations, which gave foreign subjects in Ottoman lands privileged status—exempting them, for example, from taxation or local prosecution. Although capitulations had been in place since the Ottoman conquest of the Levant, European powers expanded their privileges as the empire faltered and extended them to local clients. The Zionist movement and its European supporters were no exception, exploiting this system to foster Jewish immigration to Palestine despite local opposition.

Although Palestine did not exist as an administrative unit in this period, the term was used to describe a geographic area. After administrative reorganizations in the 1870s and 1880s, the area that later became Mandatory Palestine was divided into three administrative units: the district of Jerusalem, governed directly by Istanbul, and the two northern districts of Nablus and Acre, attached to the province of Beirut. According to Ottoman records, the population of these three districts in 1878 was 462,465: 403,795 Muslims, 43,659 Christians, and 15,011 Jews. (This figure did not include some 10,000 Jews with foreign citizenship, several thousand Bedouin, and foreign Christian residents of Palestine.) Jaffa and Nablus were Palestine's largest and most economically vibrant cities, while most Jews in Palestine—observant orthodox communities minimally engaged with Zionism—lived in four cities of religious importance: Jerusalem, Hebron, Safad, and Tiberias. 

The Zionist movement, meanwhile, was taking shape in Europe, particularly in Eastern Europe. Driven by the colonial expansion outside Europe, motivated by ideological currents of nationalism and the oppressive conditions facing European Jewry, Zionist thinkers sought the acquisition of territory where a Jewish sovereign state could be established as the means of national fulfilment and salvation. Palestine seemed to them the logical and optimal place because it was the site of Jewish origin, though some early Zionists were willing to consider alternative sites.

The first Zionist colony in Palestine was founded in 1878, and the first wave of Zionist immigrants arrived in 1882. European Jewish millionaires Baron Edmond de Rothschild and Baron Maurice de Hirsch funded early colonization efforts, while Theodor Herzl, a Hungarian Jew, published Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), a treatise integrating prevailing Zionist ideas and outlining a program of implementation. In 1897, Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, which established the Zionist Organization, the institutional framework of subsequent Zionist diplomacy and operations. In 1901, the Jewish National Fund was founded to acquire land in Palestine for further Jewish colonies. By 1914, some thirty Zionist colonies had been set up, and the total Jewish population in Palestine had reached about sixty thousand, more than half of them recent immigrants.

At the same time, Arab and Palestinian nationalist sentiments were emerging in Palestine in conjunction with growing anti-Zionism. Palestinian-Zionist disputes occurred frequently over land ownership and tenancy. In 1908, the Young Turk Revolution led to the restoration of the Ottoman constitution and ushered in an era of press freedoms. Delegates from Jerusalem, Jaffa, Nablus, Acre, and Gaza were elected to the reconstituted Ottoman Parliament in 1908 and 1912, and a Palestinian press blossomed, articulating growing concern about Zionist designs on Palestine and giving voice to various visions of Arab, Ottoman, Greater Syrian, and Palestinian nationalisms. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 and the occupation of Palestine by British forces in 1917 curtailed many of the possibilities envisioned by Palestinians, wrested from them any control of their political future, and, with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, ensured that the Zionist project would proceed against the will of the indigenous Palestinian population. 

Selected Bibliography: 

Büssow, Johann. Hamidian Palestine: Politics and Society in the District of Jerusalem, 1872–1908. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2011.

Campos, Michelle. Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Early Twentieth-Century Palestine. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010.

Doumani, Beshara. Rediscovering Palestine: Merchants and Peasants in Jabal Nablus, 1700–1900. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Schölch, Alexander. Palestine in Transformation, 1856–1882: Studies in Social, Economic, and Political Development. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 2006.

Singer, Amy. Palestinian Peasants and Ottoman Officials: Rural Administration around Sixteenth-Century Jerusalem. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994