Friday, July 4, 2008

Ottoman Jerusalem 1517-1917

Jamal Pasha inspecting Austrian troops entering Jerusalem 1916


In 1453 the Ottoman sultan Mohammed II captured Constantinople after a fifty-three-day siege, ending the Byzantine Empire. The historic capital of Christian Orthodoxy became the capital of Islam under the name Istanbul. In 1514, Mohammed II's grandson, Selim "the Terrible" forcibly added parts of the Persian Empire to his domain, and in 1517 he ousted the Mamelukes from Jerusalem. When Selim triumphantly entered the city, he was given the keys to the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aksa Mosque, and a delegation of Christian monks presented him with the original writs of Omar guaranteeing the priests jurisdiction over the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and other Christian holy places. Salim kissed them and confirmed them by pressing them to his face and eyes in the Oriental manner. The fate of the Holy City was sealed for the next four hundred years.

But it was not Selim who impressed the Ottoman mark on Jerusalem, but his only son Suleiman (1520-1566)known in the West as "the Magnificent" and in the East as "the Lawgiver." Suleiman came to power at the age of twenty-six, an untried ruler in the age of giants Henry VII of England, Francis I of France and Charles V, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. It was also the time of Martin Luther and the Reformation.

Suleiman's artisans improved Jerusalem's water supply, constructing the Sultan's Pool and placing public fountains throughout the city. They also repaired the doors of the Dome of the Rock, added stained glass windows and covered it with mosaic tiles from Persia (those seen today are a restoration). Furthermore, it was Suleiman who refortified Jerusalem. His walls, completed in 1541, still encircle the Old City today and are very well-preserved.

Jerusalem's walled Old City, from the Mount of Olives

Through successive centuries of Ottoman rule, however, Jerusalem's fortunes declined with those of its masters, who took little interest. During the 17th and 18th centuries Jerusalem sunk to a low ebb. There were no roads to speak of and houses were ill-heated, ill-lit, decayed and crumbling, because their owners were burdened by oppressive taxes. Its maze of narrow streets became filled with sewage, rot and filth; cesspools bled into water cisterns, and hundreds died of disease. No one lived outside the walls. The deep valleys around the city and the stony hills beyond were haunted by wild animals and robbers. Memoirs of Western visitors reflect a deep disappointment over the city's fallen state. In 1838 Jerusalem had fewer than 16,000 inhabitants confined within Suleiman's massive walls. Of these, 5,000 were Muslim Arabs, 3,000 were Christian Arabs and 6,000 were Jews; there were also about 100 European missionaries and traders and 800 Turkish soldiers. By 1860 Jewish immigrants, mostly from Russia, turned the Jews into the largest single group in the city. By 1896 the population had risen to over 45,000, leading to the creation of housing and suburbs on the hills outside the walls.



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