The Ottomans in Jerusalem

As a child I remember the city gates being closed at sunset every evening by city officials—mainly because there was fear of night raids by Bedouins. Whenever I would forget myself playing with my mates outside the walls, coming back we would find the gates closed. We would re-enter through a broken alcove located by Damascus gate and keep climbing until we reached the ramparts. We would then descend into the city at the place where Jabsheh building is located today.”

Jiryis Jawhariyyeh’s memories of a childhood in Jerusalem in the 1840s could be nice material for the old story of the Ottoman empire: the sick man of Europe unable to enforce law and order and lax enough that a group of boys could breach a city’s defences. It is easy to fit these recollections into that story: no local dared build outside the city walls for fear of the raids of nomadic tribespeople; the Europeans arrived, started building outside the walls and dragged Jerusalem into the nineteenth century.

The Europeans who travelled to Jerusalem helped create this story. Travel books and artwork popularised a caricature of Jerusalem unchanged and unimproved since biblical times, neglected by the Ottomans shoring up the northern borders of their crumbling empire. Modern 19th century cities were meant to have city newspapers, literary societies, public buildings, common marketplaces, a city council providing sewage, electricity, quality roads. Yet the Europeans did not furnish Jerusalem with these modern trappings. The justification of their presence in Jerusalem was to look after this or that religious community. They built buildings to educate or worship in their tradition. Their consulates protected their citizens. Their vision of a modern Jerusalem was one of grand European-style buildings, each outdoing the next. Jerusalem was not to be Manchester or Lyons. Of course the British, the French, the Russians, the Germans did not govern Jerusalem but they did not bring Jerusalem into the 19th century either. There was still life in the sick man of Europe: enough life to get the Bedouin under control and so modernise Jerusalem.


More recent developments distract from the efforts of the Ottomans. The tram and shops on Jaffa street snatch your attention away from the municipal hospital, converted from a residential building in 1891. First Station was the first railway station in Jerusalem, built in 1892, connecting Jerusalem with the port of Jaffa to the west. It is now full of fashionable restaurants, with the odd wooden rail carriage making a halfhearted attempt to claim its heritage. Other developments are admittedly harder to spot: the sewage system was installed in the 1870s along with telegraph lines connecting to Egypt and Beirut, roads suitable for carriages were completed by the 1890s, rubbish collection, police force and the fire department also date back to the 1890s.

All these developments are quite late in the century and so could verify a variation on the sick man of Europe story: the arrival of the Europeans forced the Ottomans to pull their finger out. Nevertheless the groundwork was laid before the arrival of the Europeans. These mod-cons are symbols of the more important development that characterises a modern city: a unified urban elite who have control over the countryside. The owner of urban mills and factories had replaced the feudal baron in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, to varying extents by the 19th century. You had to control the countryside in order to install mod-cons in the city. The great rural families, such as Abu Ghosh and Ibn Simhan, could each call on the services of several hundred armed men and they made their living, in part, by making life difficult for those travelling from the ports to Jerusalem and to Nablus, the trading capital of the region.

The shift came in the 1830s, when the only Europeans in Jerusalem were a few oddball travellers. Mehmet Ali rebelled against the Ottoman government in Istanbul and sent his son, Ibrahim Pasha to occupy Jerusalem with the Egyptian army. Ibrahim established a city council that included non-Muslims and merchants as well as the usual suspects of Muslim religious leaders and historic families. The Ottomans found the council useful and so kept it, after they recaptured the city in 1840. The council began forging a unified urban elite because the members could plot to gain control of the council, and so forge alliances. The council had direct access to the central government in Istanbul through the mutesarrif (the sultan’s representative in the city). This sort of access trumped controlling the local countryside and so the great rural families began allying themselves with factions in the city. Soon they found themselves borrowing money from these factions and so power shifted from the countryside to the city. This council was responsible for tax collection, the allocation of funds, law enforcement, regulating building and it was the council that installed the mod-cons in the city. It was also members of these families on the council- the Husseinis, Khalidis, Nusseibehs, Dajanis- who founded literary societies, newspapers and other elements of a common urban culture.


The sick man of Europe did not then need the help of Europeans to modernise Jerusalem. It would be premature though to give the empire a clean bill of health. It did need the stimulus of an Egyptian rebellion and the Europeans did own the Ottoman government’s debt. These two things would take this story away from Jerusalem.The houses of the members of the council keep the story focused on Jerusalem and also demonstrate the Ottoman empire’s not sick, not healthy position. For the members of the council did not spend all the money on public services. They began building outside the walls of the city as well, predominantly along Nablus road and Prophets’ street. The American Colony Hotel is the outstanding example of the pleasures houses that they built for themselves. Now favoured by Tony Blair, it was built in the late 1860s by a member of the Husseini family. The gilded dome, the marble floors, the metre-thick walls, the interior courtyard garden convey luxury, utilising Arab and Ottoman architectural elements. This luxury was based on their control over the countryside and their access to central government through the council. They wanted luxury palaces because they were local and they wanted somewhere to escape from the heat of the walled city in Summer. The Ottoman government had modernised the city through its most historic families but it had also empowered these families. The government had demonstrated its vitality through modernising the city but also its weakness through altering the local power dynamics.



This elite did not make any attempts to rebel against the hand that had fed it. It did though begin developing its own Jerusalem-based, Palestinian culture and identity. Jiryis Jawhariyyeh’s memories were recorded by his son, Wasif Jawhariyyeh. Wasif was a musician at what had effectively become the courts of the notable families. These families lived like rulers and the British treated them as such, when they captured Jerusalem from the Ottomans during World War One. Counterfactuals are a tricky business but it is easy to wonder if the modern history of the Palestinians would have been different if the Ottomans had found another way to modernise Jerusalem. The Jerusalem elite families had been modern in the nineteenth century but appeared outdated and out of touch with the pressures on the city and the Palestinian people in the twentieth century. If the Ottomans had tried to modernise Jerusalem through sending a crowd of Turkish administrators, it is feasible that these families would have rebelled against such heavy-handed imperial rule. Then there might have been a more usual story of local revolt against an imperial power. Instead the Ottomans created a local elite, an elite that did not seem to be interested in telling its story of Jerusalem, leaving us with the faulty story of how those kind Europeans modernised Jerusalem.