By Zeina M. Barakat
Bayt al-Dajani (the House of Dajani) is a prominent Jerusalem family historically estimated to be the largest in Palestine. It has deep roots in the country’s history, especially that of Jerusalem. In Sacred Law in the Holy City: The Khedival Challenge to the Ottomans as Seen from Jerusalem, 1829–1841 (Ottoman Empire and Its Heritage),*1 Judith Mendelsohn Rood describes the Dajani family as members of Jerusalem’s ashraf (اشراف, supervisor) class. She explains that the ashraf and the ‘ulama’ (علماء, scholars) in Jerusalem and the surrounding towns made up the afandiyyat (الافندية), an Ottoman term for the clerical class that “included the Husaynis (الحسيني), the ‘Alamis (العلمي), the Khalidis (الخالدي), the Abu Sa’uds (ابو السعود), and the Daoudi-Dajanis (الداودي الدجاني).” In his book, The Notables of Palestine at the End of the Ottoman Period (1800–1918), Adel Manna’ states: “The Dajani family in Jerusalem was one of the largest families in number and wealth.”*2
The family carries the double name Dajani Daoudi, where Dajani refers to the extended family, whereas Daoudi*3 alludes to the family’s role as custodians and caretakers of King David’s tomb on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.*4
In the fifteenth century, the Dajani family – originally from Saudi Arabia – settled in Morocco, where Sheikh Ahmad Shihab Din Dajani (1480–1562) established himself as a renowned Sufi leader. When in a waking vision, Al-Dajani saw the spirit of God’s messenger David who pleaded, “Save me, oh Ahmad, for my rescue will be at your hands,” he understood that David’s tomb at Mount Zion was not well taken care of by the Christian monks. The latter were denying access to any other sect or faith. He led a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and worked hard to control David’s tomb.*5 When bloody riots had repeatedly broken out between Christians and Jews over control of this site, the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman (ruled 1521–1566) issued a decree that appointed Sheikh Ahmed Dajani and his family as the site’s hereditary guardians, custodians, and caretakers,*6 a position they held until the end of the British Mandate in May 1948 when Israel seized the site.*7 Having become the head of the Sufis in Palestine and Jerusalem, Sheikh Ahmad al-Dajani died in 1561 and was buried at Mamilla Cemetery in Jerusalem, where his shrine still can be found.
Highly esteemed and pious, the family’s founding head became a role model for his community and descendants. By the nineteenth century, many family members were serving as spiritual leaders in the Jerusalem community (some issued fatwas). Others became muftis, judges, lawyers, administrators, doctors, teachers, businesspeople, etc., holding important functional, political, social, and educational roles in their communities and serving, for example, in various administrative, judicial, and religious posts. They steered away from day-to-day politics even though the family exercised much power and influence within the Jerusalem community and Palestinian society. The following highlights some of the family’s more prominent members.
When the Ottomans began to establish municipal councils, they instated the first municipality in Istanbul in 1858 and inaugurated their second municipal council in Jerusalem in 1863, completing actions the Egyptians had undertaken while ruling Jerusalem during the era of Ibrahim Basha (1831–1840). As part of administrative reforms, the newly appointed wali (governor) formed an advisory board, a consultative council, to help and advise him in the management of city affairs*8 that included five appointed members: three Muslims, one Jew, and one Christian, whereas Abdul Rahman Afandi Dajani was chosen to serve as the first mayor of Jerusalem, 1863–1867.*9 Mustafa Murad al-Dabbagh in his book Our Homeland Palestine, points out that Palestine “was a small entity with limited authorities, minimum revenues that did not exceed 500 gold liras, and without a bylaw.”*10 The municipality provided services for residents, such as constructing and maintaining public buildings, roads, and markets, supplied residents with water, registered births and deaths, and provided security. Returns of the municipality came from municipal taxes and funds provided by the central government.
Haj Yusuf Wafa al-Dajani (1840–1950) was one of the most prominent merchants in Jerusalem, known as Bandar al-Tujar (بندر التجار, head of traders). He imported goods and distributed them to other merchants in the city, helped merchants solve their problems, and was known for his honesty and piety.
Politician (Mohammed Aref) Baker Pasha al-Dajani (1856–1930) was born in Jerusalem to a father who was a well-known jurist in the city and who taught him religion. Baker was fluent in Arabic, Turkish, and French, studied law in Istanbul, and after his graduation, was appointed to various official posts by the Ottomans, including as the governor of Yemen. He served as mayor of Jerusalem from 1917 to 1918, was active in the Arab nationalist movement in Palestine, presided over the Islamic-Christian Association in Jerusalem (1919–1920), and was elected president of the First Palestinian Conference that convened in Jerusalem in 1919. As dean of the Dajani family, he also held high status in the local community. He died in 1930 in his home in the Nabi Daoud neighborhood and was buried in the family cemetery.*11
Abdel Mutaleb Abdel Mu’ti al-Dajani (1877–1945) was born and lived in the Nabi Daoud Dajani neighborhood. He worked as a money changer and in the silver trade and promoted cultural and artistic events in the Old City.
Major Khalil Zaki al-Dajani (1878–1957) was born, raised, and educated in Jerusalem. He joined the Ottoman army and was appointed governor of Jericho and transferred to Yemen before returning to Palestine to be the Ottoman legion commander. The German government granted him the Medal of Courage for his bravery.
Judge Ra’fat Baker al-Dajani (1886–1959) was born in Jerusalem and studied law in Istanbul. Upon graduation, he worked as a lawyer in Jerusalem, was appointed to various administrative posts during the Ottoman era, and later became a judge. He published and translated several books.
Jawdat Said Bakr al-Dajani (1888–1930) was born and raised in Jerusalem. Initially, he worked in the Ottoman government, and after the First World War became one of Jerusalem’s most prominent merchants. He was known for his boldness, courage, and generosity towards the poor and needy.
Hasan Sidqi al-Dajani (1890–1938) graduated from the University of Cambridge with a law degree and became a leading lawyer, politician, journalist, and thinker. He established Al-Muntada al-Adabi (The Cultural Forum) in 1919 and launched the newspaper Al-Quds al-Sherif (Holy Jerusalem) in 1920. Having joined the Hizb al-Difa’ al-Watani (National Defense Party), he was also one of the leading figures of the Dajani-Nashashibi faction that opposed the Husseini clan in the struggle for Palestinian politics. In 1930, he helped found Hizb al-Ahrar (Liberal Party). In 1936, he published the newspaper Al-Liwa’ (The Standard). He is the author of two books in Arabic, Fi Sabil al-Islam wa al-Arab (For the Sake of Islam and the Arabs) and Tafsil Zalamat Filastin (Explaining the Case of Palestine), and translated into Arabic Hizar (Beware), a novel by Turkish novelist Nameq Kamal.*12 His assassination in mid-October of 1938 left a considerable impact on the family and the community. It signified the escalating terror employed by extremists to silence the moderates. His funeral demonstrated his popularity; among the many attendees were representatives of all Jerusalem’s leading families.
As is the case for all Palestinians, the 1948 Nakba was a significant setback for the Dajani family, dispersing many family members in Arab countries and elsewhere throughout the world. Moreover, when the Arab-Israeli war broke out in 1948, Israel took control of the Nabi Daoud neighborhood’s Dajani homes.*13 The mosque where the Last Supper was held, and King David’s tomb area are now under Israeli control.*14 The Dajani family sought a restoration of their rights but without any success.*15
King David’s tomb and the walls of the Last Supper room were decorated with exquisite ceramic tiles before Jewish extremists vandalized them. A few years ago, the Israel Antiquities Authority carried out restoration and preservation work at the site. Layers of paint were removed in the original building and original ceramic tiles were uncovered. The original ablaq (red or black-and-white Mamluk architectural ornamentation) was revealed. When vandals destroyed these restorations, the Dajani family unsuccessfully called upon those in charge to renovate and redecorate the walls with its original ceramic tiles. The two Dajani cemeteries located in the Nabi Daoud neighborhood were also vandalized and the grave markers were broken and destroyed to wipe out the Dajani family’s cultural heritage. Though the physical property has been damaged and the rightful residents are evicted and gone, the intangible heritage remains. The memory lives on; a day will come when justice prevails.
*1 Judith Mendelsohn Rood, Sacred Law in the Holy City: The Khedival Challenge to the Ottomans as Seen from Jerusalem, 1829–1841, Volume 32 in the series Ottoman Empire and Its Heritage, Boston: Brill Leiden, 2004, p. 172, p. 58. Quoted from Linda Schilcher, Families in Politics, 1985, p. 379.
*2 Adel Manna’, The Notables of Palestine at the End of the Ottoman Period (1800–1918), Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1986, 1995, p. 174.
*3 Daoud is the Arabic name for David, sometimes spelled Dawud or Dahud.
*4 Arnold H. Green, “Family Trees and Archival Documents: A Case Study of Jerusalem’s Bayt al-Dajani,” Arab and Islamic Studies, Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1997, p. 97.
*5 Al-Nabahani, Jaami’ Karaamaat al-Awliyaa’, on Ahmad al-Dajani.
*6 Aharon Layish. “Waqfs’ and Sufi Monasteries in the Ottoman Policy of Colonization,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 50, No. 1. (1987), p. 69; and U. Heid, Ottoman Documents on Palestine, 1552–1615, Oxford, 1960, 149, no. 97.
*7 Ibid; see also: Amnon Cohen, “The Expulsion of the Franciscans from Mt. Zion,” Turcica 18 (1986): 147–57.
*8 Mu’tasem Hasan Ahmed Naser, “Jerusalem Municipality and Political Conflict: 1918-1942,” International Journal of History and Philosophical Research, Vol. 4, No. 1 (March 2016), p. 1; see also: Ablah El-Muhtadi, “Jerusalem and the British Military Ruling (1917–1920),” (in Arabic) Ramallah: Dar as-Shorouq, 2003, p. 91; Osama Halabi, Arab Jerusalem Municipality, Jerusalem: The Palestinian Academic Association for International Affairs, 1993, p. 7.
*9 The Israeli Municipality of Jerusalem named a side street in Beit Hanina after him, which is not entirely appropriate for his status.
*10 Mustafa Murad al-Dabbagh, Palestine, Our Homeland, Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, Volume 15, Section II, Edition I, 1976, p. 201.
*11 Translated from the book Beit Al-Dajani, compiled and edited by Samer W. Dajani and others, Dubai, UAE, 2018.
*12 B. Barakat, Shakhsiat al-Quds fi al-Qrn al-Ishrin (The Twentieth-Century Celebrities of Jerusalem), Jerusalem: Dar el-Tifl el-Arabi, 2010, p. 99.
*13 Amos Elon, Jerusalem: Battlegrounds of Memory, New York: Kodansha International, 1989, p. 208.
*14 John N. Tleel, I Am Jerusalem, 2nd ed., Jerusalem: Author, 2007, p. 228.
*15 Michael Dumper, The Politics of Jerusalem since 1967, New York: Columbia University Press, 1997, p. 303.