Palestine and the Otoman Empire – 400 years of Rule (1517 – 1917)

PALESTINE was the name applied by Herodotus and other Greek and Latin writers to the Philistine coastland, and sometimes also to the territory between it and the Jordan Valley. Early in the Roman Empire the name Palaestina was given to the region around Jerusalem. The Byzantines in turn named the province west of the Jordan River, stretching from Mount Carmel in the north to Gaza in the south, Palaestina Prima.


The clock tower stands as one of the most important historical Ottoman landmarks in the Old City of Nablus, Nov. 14, 2013. (photo by FACEBOOK/Beam Engineering Technology)

The Ottoman legacy in Palestine

RAMALLAH, West Bank — In 1901, to commemorate the 25th year of enthronement of Sultan Abdul Hamid II in the Ottoman Empire, the sultan gifted 30 clock towers to the regions under the Ottoman state’s control. Palestine received seven of these, including the clock tower at the entrance to the Old City in Nablus, north of the West Bank.

Summary⎙ Print In the historical Old City of Nablus in the West Bank, buildings from the days of the Ottoman Empire stand tall.


TranslatorPascale Menassa

The clock tower stands today as one of the most important touristic and historical sites in the city. It still functions, and it represents the central landmark of Nablus.

The sultan’s gift was considered the city’s guiding light and time reference for a long time. Even now, citizens set their watches according to the clock tower. The tower has stood its ground, like the others in Jaffa, Acre, Haifa, Nazareth and Safed. The seventh, which was erected in Jerusalem, was destroyed in 1922 during the days of the British occupation.

Clock towers — like some other historical Ottoman landmarks in Palestine such as schools, mosques and prisons — preserve the Ottoman architectural character. The Nablus clock tower is the only one of its kind in the West Bank, but it isn’t the only Ottoman building in the city.

The Old City is a small geographic area, with no new buildings or structures. Nablus’ urbanization has only affected the Old City’s surroundings, in the north and east.

Naseer Arafat, an engineer and member of the Reconstruction Committee of the Old City of Nablus, said all the buildings are Ottoman except for two shrines that date back to the Mamluk period (1250-1517).

He further explained that there are underground constructions in the Old City, such as water and oil wells and water tunnels. He said, “These buildings were not affected by earthquakes, and some of them are still intact.”

The Old City suffered several earthquakes throughout history, the last of which struck in 1927. Most buildings that were erected before the Ottoman rule, during the Mamluk and Byzantine periods, were destroyed by earthquakes and rebuilt under the Ottoman rule.

Arafat distinguished between Ottoman governmental buildings that were built with purely Ottoman planning, funding and engineering and are still used for their original purposes, and buildings that the local citizens built at their own expense and used for civilian purposes during the Ottoman era. All of the civilian buildings were residential, and most remain such today, aside from 91 historical sites visited by tourists.

However, Arafat told Al-Monitor, “The [remaining] governmental buildings that were completely financed by the Ottoman government at the time included only two schools and the clock tower. One of the schools was destroyed by an earthquake that hit in 1927, while the Rashidiya School and the clock tower remain.”

Khaldoun Bechara, head of the Riwaq Center for Architectural Conservation, said, “The Ottoman buildings in the Old City — which was a central city during the Ottoman era, just like Jerusalem — are part of the Ottoman buildings erected in historical Palestine.” Bechara was speaking of the Palestine that was under Ottoman rule and is now considered the 1948 territories: Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. The Ottoman buildings in Nablus’ Old City constitute more than 95% of the Palestinian historical construction, he said.

Bechara said that Ottoman architecture is the traditional architecture in historical Palestine. This style of architecture started emerging in the 16th century and continued until the beginning of the British occupation in 1917. The architecture is characterized by the use of stones, thick walls, arches in doors and windows, and Crusader arches and domes in which the ceiling’s main column has the cross sign.

Bechara added, “Although this architecture has an Ottoman character, it still has a local aspect. For instance, clock towers in Palestine were different from those in Istanbul and the Balkans; they differed between cities depending on the influence of the local surroundings.”

Moreover, Ottoman governmental buildings that were built under the supervision and planning of Turkish engineers were different from the civil buildings that were overseen by local engineers.

According to Bechara, the Ottoman construction was modern and influenced by the West, but some oriental touches of local construction remained.

Ottoman architecture influenced Palestine more than any other occupational eras for two reasons. First, the Ottoman Empire ruled in Palestine for 400 years (1516-1915), and Palestine and Istanbul had a strong relationship. Some religious cities in Palestine, such as Jerusalem, Jaffa, Acre and Nablus, were administratively subordinated to the leadership in Istanbul, given its religious and geographical importance, as well as its central location between the eastern and western worlds.

Second, the cultural exchange between Palestine and Turkey was huge back then, and it could be seen in citizens’ taste in architecture. According to Bechara, 300 Palestinian students studied in Istanbul at the time.

According to Riwaq, 50,320 historical buildings were identified in 1994 in Palestine. Bechara said that only a few of those were built before the Ottoman era. This is because Palestine was rebuilt in the last 500 years according to Ottoman architecture based on the existing infrastructure from previous eras. For instance, the architecture in the Old City of Nablus was mostly Byzantine, but the buildings were destroyed due to the 1927 earthquake and rebuilt with an Ottoman character.

Bechara believes it is very important to preserve these buildings and restore them, as they constitute a historical reflection of civilizations that left their mark on Palestine. The Ottoman era was perhaps the most influential era regarding architecture.

According to Rami Sab Laban, deputy coordinator of Turkey’s development aid program, the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA), funded by the Turkish government in Palestine is conducting restoration activities to preserve the Ottoman heritage in Palestine, especially the historical public buildings. The Nablus clock tower was renovated in December 2012 with funding from TIKA, as well as the Rashidiya School in May 2015, which was reopened thanks to the Turkish government’s efforts.

In addition to restoration activities, the agency supports student and cultural exchange between Turkey and Palestine and builds health- and education-related facilities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Sab Laban told Al-Monitor that his agency accepts restoration applications for all historical buildings that have public use. However, more attention is given to historical Ottoman buildings specifically, and 10 have been restored so far in the West Bank.

According to Sab Laban, municipalities in the West Bank submit restoration applications to TIKA, which studies the application, then accepts or rejects them. Most restoration activities are executed by these municipalities through foreign funding, as the Palestinian government can’t finance them.

In addition to the clock tower and the Rashidiya School in Nablus, Sab Laban said, the restoration activities include the Educational Directorate in Qalqilya; the Wall of Jerusalem near the Chain Gate or Bab al-Silsila; Sabil al-Sultan Abdul Hamid in Gaza, which is built on a water source that passers-by drink from for free; and the historical Ottoman building in Salfit that is currently used as a women’s center. The Bab al-Silsila minaret in Al-Aqsa Mosque was also restored, as well as Prophet Moses’ building in Jericho.

Perhaps this interest in restoring Turkish buildings in Palestine reflects the Ottoman era’s influence on Palestinians, not only in terms of construction, but in all aspects of life. The Turkish influence spans to food, habits and words that entered their language and are still spoken today.

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From 1516 until the end of World War I, the whole region of western Asia was part of the Ottoman Empire. The majestic superstructure of the walls encircling the Old City of Jerusalem, built by the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-66), attests to Jerusalems’s standing in Ottoman eyes. Equally revealing is the endowment made in 1552 by Khasseki Sultan (known in Europe as Roxelana), the favorite and queen of Suleiman. Seeking “the pleasure of Allah,” she built a complex in Jerusalem “for the poor and the needy, the weak and the distressed” that included a monastery “with fifty-five doors” and an inn together with a public kitchen, bakery, stables, and storerooms. The endowment deed specified the range of employees required to run this institution – stewards, clerks, master cooks (and apprentices), food inspectors, dishwashers, millers, handymen, and garbage collectors. It described in detail the menus to be served, the ingredients to be used, and the quantities to be cooked. For the maintenance of the establishment, it set aside the revenues from twenty-three Palestinian villages as well as those from a village in northern Lebanon, and shops and soap factories in Tripoli. Khasseki Sultan’s public kitchen and bakery were still functioning under the British Mandate.

The Ottomans scrupulously continued the Muslim tradition of tolerance toward Christian religious interests in Palestine. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem was acknowledged in the sixteenth century as the custodian of the Christian holy places, and from about the same time France became the guardian of the Latin clergy. Like earlier Muslim powers, the Ottoman Empire opened its gates to hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Spain and other parts of Christendom. But the vast majority, as in the earlier centuries after the Crusades, did not choose to live in Palestine. Thus the number of Jews in Jerusalem in the first century after the Ottoman conquest dropped from 1,330 in 1525 to 980 in 1587. Even by the middle of the nineteenth century, only a few Jews had availed themselves of the opportunity to settle in the Holy Land. Those who did so lived in the four cities of special significance to Judaism: Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, and Tiberias. The Ottomans presided over a set of regulations and understandings, known as the “status quo”, that governed privileges and access rights of Jews and Christians at their respective religious sites and monuments. These regulations and understandings were based on customary practice as it had accumulated over the years. They included rights acknowledged by earlier Muslim rulers and the decisions of Muslim courts in support of these rights, as well as Christian and Jewish commitment to adhere to customary practice.

The activities of European merchants in the coastal towns of Palestine were unimpeded by the Ottomans. The agriculture and industrial products of the interior found their way to Europe via the ports of Gaza, Acre, and Jaffa. As before, the overland trade routes between Syria and Egypt passed through Palestine, while the pilgrimage routes to Mecca (whether from Cairo, Damascus or beyond) converged at the Palestinian port of Aqaba. By the mid-nineteenth century, many European powers had consulates in the country, and during the second half of the century Christian missions – Catholic, Protestant, and Greek Orthodox – proliferated along with their schools, hospitals, printing presses, and hostels. In 1892 a French company completed the building of a railroad connecting Jaffa and Jerusalem. Of all the Arab provinces in the Ottoman Empire, with the exception of the Maronite sections of Mount Lebanon, Palestine was the most exposed and accessible to Christian and European influences.

The exposure also had its disadvantages, particularly with the gradual decline of the Ottoman political and military power. The industrial revolution and the European economic penetration of the region dealt a severe blow to local crafts and industries, while increasing European political leverage against Constantinople. One much-abused avenue for such leverage was afforded by the so-called Capitulations – a system of extraterritorial privileges granted to nationals of European powers who resided in the Ottoman Empire. The early Zionist immigrants and settlers were to make full use of the Capitulations.

In 1887-88, the area that later became Mandatory Palestine was divided into three administrative units: the district (sanjak) of Jerusalem, comprising the southern half of the country, and the two northern districts of Nablus and Acre. The two northern districts were administratively attached to the province (vilayet) of Beirut, but because of its importance to the Ottomans, the district of Jerusalem was governed directly by Constantinople. The area across the Jordan River (Trans-Jordan or Jordan) was administratively separate from the Palestinian districts and formed part of the province of Syria, with Damascus as its capital. At this time the population of the three Palestinian districts was ca. 600,000, about 10 percent of whom were Christians and the rest mostly Sunnite Muslims. The Jews numbered about 25,000; the majority were deeply religious, devoting themselves to prayer and contemplation and deliberately eschewing employment or agricultural activity. Until the advent of Zionism, relations between Palestinians and Jews were stable and peaceful, mellowed by more than a millennium of coexistence and often shared adversity.

Contributing to the climate of tolerance was the reverence held by Islam for the Hebrew prophets, enhanced in the case of Palestine by the tradition of pilgrimage to biblical sites. Palestinian Muslims, more than any other Muslims, were particularly imbued with such reverence if only because they lived in continuous proximity to the sites associated with these prophets. The inscription of Jaffa Gate (the main western gate into the Old City of Jerusalem) reads: “There is no God but Allah, and Abraham is his friend.” Mosques and Muslim shrines honoring Hebrew prophets and bearing their names in Arabic were regular features of the Palestinian landscape. Perhaps unique among Muslims was the Palestinian practice of celebrating religious festivals in honor of Hebrew prophets. No less distinctive was the widespread use by Palestinians of Hebrew first names. The same tolerance is evident in the attitudes of Palestinian Muslims toward their Christian compatriots, relations with whom have been remarkably free of tension (unlike the situation in some neighboring Arab countries). It is no coincidence that the various Christian sects in Jerusalem have traditionally entrusted the keys of the Holy Sepulcher to a Palestinian Muslim family.

Although proud of their Arab heritage and ancestry, the Palestinians considered themselves to be descended not only from the Arab conquerors of the seventh century but also from indigenous peoples who had lived in the country since time immemorial, including the ancient Hebrews and the Canaanites before them. Acutely away of the distinctiveness of Palestinian history, the Palestinians saw themselves as the heirs of its rich associations. Politically their loyalty was to Constantinople, partly because the Ottoman sultan was also caliph and head of the Muslim community (ummah) and partly because they felt like citizens rather than subjects of the empire. Their feeling of citizenship derived from the fact that the Ottoman Turks had never colonized the Arab provinces in the sense of settling in them; thus among the Arabs Ottomanism had acquired the connotation of partnership between the peoples of the empire rather than that of domination by one ethnic group over another. Nevertheless, relations between the different ethnic groups within the empire became increasingly strained during the period from the turn of the century to World War I, largely under the influence of growing European nationalism. Both Arabs and Turks were affected by this climate, which strengthened the appeal of the specific ethnic and political identity of each. A powerful secondary influence in the same direction was the Arab intellectual and literary renaissance that crystallized toward the end of the nineteenth century and radiated its influence from Cairo, Damascus, and Beirut.

The promulgation of the new Ottoman Constitution in 1876 (short-lived as it was) enabled the first elections to be held to the Ottoman Parliament, in which many delegates from the Arab provinces, including Palestinians from Jerusalem, took their seats. (It is ironic that Palestinians were sitting in the Parliament in Constantinople twenty years before the Zionists held their first congress in Basel in 1897.) Arabs, including Palestinians, were appointed to high office not only in the civil service, the diplomatic corps, the judiciary, and the army, but also as ministers in the Ottoman cabinet. The “Young Turks” Revolution in 1908, which brought reformists to power, further raised Arab and Palestinian expectations, stimulating political debate and intellectual activity best exemplified in Palestine by the appearance of new journals and newspapers. Delegates from Jerusalem, Jaffa, Nablus, Acre, and Gaza were elected to the Ottoman Parliament in 1908 and 1912. But Ottoman reforms could not keep abreast of deteriorating Turkish-Arab relations. Many Arabs wanted a greater share in government. Some advocated decentralization; others spoke of Arab unity, revolt, and independence.


Meanwhile, during the 1880s an important development in Eastern Europe began to cast its lengthening shadow on the future of the Palestinians. The phenomena of European nationalism and colonialism had inspired a national political movement known as Zionism among a growing number of East European Jewish intellectuals. The Zionists yearned to escape from Jewish minority status and the twin threats of assimilation and persecution. They saw the acquisition of territory where a Jewish sovereign state could be established as the means of national fulfillment and salvation. The ancient Jewish association with and religious attachment to Palestine were regarded as justifying its choice as the site for such a state, though some early Zionists were willing to consider alternative sites.

The Zionist decision, late in the nineteenth century, to colonize Palestine with a view to turning it into a Jewish state irrespective of the existence and wishes of its indigenous population ushered in the turbulent modern phase of Palestinian history, whose consequences are with us today. The course set by the Zionists was bound to lead to conflict and tragedy, an outcome foreseen by some Zionists leaders themselves. For Palestine, as we have seen, was not an empty land. Its inhabitants lived in a score of cities and towns, and some eight hundred villages and hamlets, built of stone. While the bulk of the population gained their living from agriculture, the townspeople engaged in commerce and the traditional crafts; some were in the civil service, others in the professions. Many of the urban rich were landlords, but members of the older families were also in the upper echelons of the civil service, the judiciary, and the professions. The Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, formed a proud and vibrant community that had already crossed the threshold of an intellectual and national renaissance. They shared and reflected the cultural and political values of the neighboring Arab metropolitan centers. For centuries they had had trade links with Europe and contact with Europeans who came as Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. For decades they had been exposed to modernizing influences as a result of the educational and medical work of European and American Christian missions. Service in the European and Asian provinces of the Ottoman Empire had widened their horizons.

The Palestinians were as deeply entrenched in their country on the eve of the Zionist venture as any citizenry or peasantry anywhere. The contemporaneous photographic collection of Félix Bonfils (1831-85) and his son Adrien (1860-1929) is visual testimony to this fact. No less telling is the evidence of the many European artists and painters who visited Palestine before the advent of Zionism, e.g., William Henry Bartlett (1809-54), David Roberts (1796-1864), Edward Lear (1812-88), and William Holman Hunt (1827-1910). After all, the Palestinians’ main grievance against Constantinople was that they wanted greater recognition of their rights and more responsibility in government; they were altogether unlikely to acquiesce in the Zionist political program, which challenged their very title to their land.

The first Zionist colony in Palestine was founded in 1878, and the first wave of Zionist immigrants arrived in 1882. In the same year a French Jewish millionaire, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, began his support of Jewish colonization in Palestine. In 1896 a German Jewish millionaire, Baron Maurice de Hirsch, established a branch of his Jewish Colonization Association in Palestine, while Theodor Herzl, a Hungarian Jew, published Der Judenstaat – a treatise that integrated prevailing Zionist ideas and outlined a program of implementation. The following year in Basel, Switzerland, Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress, which created the World Zionist Organization, the insitutional framework of subsequent Zionist diplomacy and operations. In 1901 the Keren Kayemeth (Jewish National Fund) was established in London to acquire land in Palestine that would remain inalienably Jewish and on which only Jewish labor would be employed. Between the 1880s and 1914 some thirty Zionist colonies were founded, and by 1914 the total Jewish population in Palestine had reached about eighty thousand, although the majority retained their European nationalities.

The initial phases of Zionist activity in Palestine took place in spite of the mounting alarm and opposition of the Palestinians. The Ottoman authorities repeatedly tried to legislate controls on Zionist mass immigration and land acquisition only to be frustrated by the pressure of European powers, the corruption of their own local officials, the greed of individual landowners, and Zionist ingenuity in exploiting the Capitulations system. The earliest tensions between Palestinians and Jews developed as a result of the colonizing program and declared political purposes of European Zionist immigrants. Vast estates were purchased by the central Zionist institutions from feudal absentee landlords in Beirut, over the heads of Palestinian tenants and sharecroppers.

World War I brought Britain and those Arabs who were dissatisfied with Ottoman rule into an alliance with each other. Sharif Hussein of Mecca hoped, by siding with Britain and the Western Allies against Constantinople, to win unity and independence for the Arabs at the end of the war. In July 1915 Hussein undertook a correspondence in good faith with Sir Henry McMahon, the British high commissioner of Egypt. Concluded in 1916, the Hussein-McMahon correspondence was interpreted by the Arabs to mean that, in the post-war settlement, the British would recognize the independence of a united Arab state comprising the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire, including Palestine. By May 1916, however, Britain, France, and Russia had reached a secret agreement according to which the bulk of Palestine was to be internationalized. Most significant for future developments was a secret letter addressed in November 1917 by Arthur James Balfour, British secretary of state for foreign affairs, to Baron Lionel Walter de Rothschild, a British Zionist, promising British support for the establishment in Palestine for a national home for the Jewish people. This document marked the historic watershed in the fortunes of Zionism. Jerusalem was captured by British and Dominion forces under the command of General Sir Edmund Allenby in December 1917. The rest of the country was occupied by October 1918. The road to the realization of Zionism lay wide open.


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