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Jerusalem under Turkish rule

What did the Ottoman Turks do in the “Holy Land”?

By the mid-12th Century, the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem controlled the territories of present-day Israel, western Jordan and southern Lebanon. In Jerusalem itself the Dome of the Rock was converted into a Church, the Templum Domini, with architectural changes inside and outside. The Al-Aqsa Mosque, by the Temple mount, was used as a residence, first for the Crusader Kings then the Templar Knights, a holy order later to become an elite fighting force. But this rule wasn't to last long. The sultan Saladin, who unified Egypt and Syria, attacked the Crusader kingdom from the north in 1187 AD and defeated the army of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem at the Horns of Hattin, west of the Sea of Galilee, and took control of Jerusalem and the whole country.

Crusader rule in Jerusalem had lasted a mere 90 years. This pleased the Crusaders not at all and they made a comeback in 1189 AD in the Third Crusade under Richard the Lion-Heart but never managed to extend further than the coastal regions, a thin strip along the Mediterranean. They signed a treaty with Saladin, which at least granted rights for pilgrims to visit Jerusalem. The city was finally retaken forty years later through the Sixth Crusade, resulting in a 15 year rule. This was ended by a Mongol invasion from Central Asia, which wreaked havoc in the city, destroying many of the Crusader buildings.

In the late 13th Century, a new force arose in Egypt, the Mamluks, fierce slave warriors who invaded the Holy Land, evicting the Mongols and regaining Crusader possessions. The last Crusader outpost, the city of Acre, fell in 1291, putting an end to the European presence in the land. The Mamluks began destroying every Crusader site that fell into their hands and managed to sustain a state that lasted for over 300 years, until 1560 AD. They destroyed all of the fortifications along the coast and much of the population moved to the mountain regions. The coastal plain remained desolate for centuries afterwards, with vegetation growing wild and swamp land a dominant feature.

Jerusalem was generally ignored and used as a place of exile for out-of-favour officials. These people started a building programme and the city began to take on a Muslim appearance though, at this time, the city was unwalled and vulnerable to attack. In fact it was attacked in 1219 and not rebuilt for three centuries. By the end of Mamluk rule there were barely 4,000 people living in Jerusalem. It was just as well that this was one of the more peaceful periods of its history. Yet during these uncertain times, the Jews still maintained a foothold in the Land, particularly in the Galilee. The town of Safed became, by the 15th Century the largest Jewish settlement in the whole country.

In 1517 AD yet another Gentile power came visiting; this time it was the turn of the Ottoman Turks. Although the heads of the Jewish community in Safed were massacred, this didn't lead to a widespread bloodbath and the occupation was generally a peaceful one. It started well for Jerusalem, with the city walls being rebuilt in 1537, but things went slowly downhill from then onwards. The key administrative centres were Nablus and Gaza, and Jerusalem was left to stagnate. Reports from pilgrims, diplomats and tourists bore evidence to this. George Sandys in 1611 found that 'much lies waste; the old buildings (except a few) all ruined, the new contemptible'. Constantin Volney, one of the most scientific of observers, noted in 1784 Jerusalem's 'destroyed walls, its debris-filled moat, its city circuit choked with ruins.' 'Hapless are the favourites of heaven,' commented Herman Melville in 1857.

The first couple of centuries of Ottoman rule were reasonably benevolent but, by the 17th Century, corruption had set in, with rulers often living vast distances from their regions of control. Local rulers rose up against the central government and created independent states for themselves, only to be ousted by the government. There were many such conflicts, too many to outline here. The effect of all of this misrule was that the land fell into ruin, with the neglect of agriculture. Yet during this time Safed's reputation grew, with Jews flocking there from Spain and Portugal. The town in time became a centre for mysticism, specifically Kabbalism. As for their predecessors, Jerusalem was of little importance to the Turks, though the walls were rebuilt and the Dome of the Rock renovated.

The Ottoman Empire began to crumble in the 19th Century, with a rise in the influence of European powers. In the 1840s there was an immigration of the Druze from Lebanon in the north, as a result of French meddling. There was also an immigration of Muslims from Bulgaria and Sudan into the Golan, to the north. There was a lot of European influence in the affairs of Jerusalem, responsible for new religious and government buildings. Protestant Christians also began arriving in increasing numbers. The Ottomans welcomed them all as it all meant extra taxes; money was, after all, their chief interest.

Also many other Arab workers were to migrate to the Holy Land later in the 19th Century. There is a common thread that ties together all of these influxes to the land because another group of people were beginning to return to the land of their forefathers and, more importantly, the land of their covenant with God. These were the Jews. Although they had always had a presence in the Land over the previous 17 centuries, their main concentration had been outside the land, in exile, or Galut. But there were now stirrings in the air and it seemed that the days were now numbered for the 'times of the Gentiles'.

Steve Maltz

(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book Outcast Nation)

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