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Bethlehem in the Last Century of Ottoman Rule

By Khalil Shokeh

Throughout the ages, the Canaanite dwelling of Bethlehem has held a prominent place in the politics, religion, and archaeology of the Levant region. Best known for being the cradle of the birth of love and peace, incarnated in Jesus Christ, Bethlehem is holy for Christians, Muslims, and Jews, the followers of the three monotheistic religions. Thousands of pilgrims have visited Bethlehem since the fourth century. Historical Christian chronicles cite Bethlehem as one of the oldest religious sites, in existence since the second century. The history of the city’s churches – particularly the Church of the Nativity, one of the oldest in Palestine and the entire Christian world – as well as its monasteries and religious literature have attracted the interest of countless studious researchers.

View of Bethlehem from the mountains above David’s Well. Photograph by Félix Bonfils.

Bethlehem also has a rich cultural history. Its houses have been destroyed time and again as a result of invasions, wars, and natural disasters. But they have been reconstructed, and today’s city has maintained its natural landscape with deep valleys and ravines in the north, east, and south, and has preserved its sacred twinning with the Holy of Holies, Jerusalem. But detailed information on Bethlehem’s economic and social life – the relations between the various population segments and their diverse religious, professional, and family affiliations – is generally lacking. This article aims to present an overview of the major events that took place in Bethlehem in the nineteenth century, under Ottoman rule, based on the accounts and diaries of visiting travelers who were eyewitnesses of critical events as well as on the information contained in Ottoman Shari’a documents. Back then, Bethlehem was a small town located on a hill, looking like a fortress surrounded by olive groves and vineyards, by almond, fig, and pomegranate trees, and by fields of grain, corn, and other crops. Travelers were enthralled by the beautiful natural landscape.

During the sixteenth century, Bethlehem had prospered like all other towns in Palestine at the time. In the seventeenth century, however, and until Napoleon’s invasion of the town at the end of the eighteenth century, the kasaba of Bethlehem (an Ottoman term for a medina [town] that is larger than a village and smaller than a city) and its population were adversely affected by a sequence of dramatic events and circumstances that included the tyranny of Ottoman rulers, the forceful imposition of high taxes, gruesome treatment by the authorities, bribery and corruption of authority officials and feudal lords, banditry, and Bedouin invasions. These practices had a deleterious effect on the population, and many people were compelled to leave Bethlehem.

In 1806, François de Chateaubriand wrote in his travelogue that Bethlehem was an isolated town with houses that were in miserable condition. He describes the topography and lists the agricultural products, also mentioning the dilapidated tower of Saint Paula of which no traces exist today* and disclosing that the Armenian Church had custody over the Church of the Nativity. When Chateaubriand left the town, he was escorted by six guards armed with daggers and rifles. He lauded the courage of Bethlehem’s men and denigrated the Bedouins who stopped him on his way to Mar Saba Monastery and forced him to pay entry tax to the monastery.

Bethlehem in the nineteenth century.

Ali Bey visited Bethlehem in 1807 and in his travelogue relates his meeting with shepherds who were on their way to Jerusalem to lodge a complaint at the court against shepherds from Hebron who had attacked their cattle and stolen two camels. William Turner in 1819 talks about highwaymen who threatened to attack the monasteries for refusing to pay taxes. Had it not been for the intervention of Jerusalem’s ruler, the monasteries of Bethlehem would have been pillaged and destroyed. Turner also speaks about crosses made of beads and mother-of-pearl by local craftsmen.

The refusal of Bethlehem’s residents to pay the unbearable impositions of taxes led to years of disobedience and conflict with the Ottoman Empire. From 1802 to 1803, the mutasallem (Ottoman-appointed administrator) of the Jerusalem sanjak (district) was Mohammad Al-Maraq, a despot who oppressed not only Bethlehem’s population but also Christian pilgrims. He imposed heavy taxes that burdened the population, and thus the people of Bethlehem revolted and brought their complaints to the governor of the Levant. The imposition of taxes that amounted to ten times what the population could afford also caused the Al-Quds Revolution, when from 1825 to 1826, the people of Bethlehem rebelled against the Ottoman authorities – which made it more difficult for the mutasallem to collect taxes. Peasants and farmers, headed by sheikhs from the Bani Malik tribe, the Abu Gosh family, and the sheikhs of Bethlehem, eventually managed to overthrow both the mutasallem and his successor, which prompted the governor of al-Sham (Greater Syria) to order his army to head to Bethlehem and levy the taxes. Fearful of the governor’s vengeance and wrath, the population, leaders, and farmers of Bethlehem took refuge in the monasteries and refused to surrender, whereupon the governor of al-Sham threatened to blow up the monasteries. The monks acted as mediators – and the population was forced to pay taxes as usual. However, no sooner had the governor left the area than the rebels resumed their disobedience and occupied Jerusalem’s citadel, as Bethlehem’s community leaders again refused to pay the tithes. This time, the Ottoman authorities subdued the rebels, hitting Jerusalem with artillery from the Mount of Olives.

In 1853, the Crimean War broke out between Russia on one side and an alliance of European countries and the Ottoman Empire on the other. One of the direct causes of the war was the theft of the Nativity Star from the Church of the Nativity. When in 1856, the alliance forces won the war, a new star was made to replace the one that had been stolen.

Taxes also played a major role in conflicts during Egyptian rule. In 1831, the Egyptian forces of Mohammad Ali, led by Ibrahim Pasha, took control of Palestine and Syria. Ibrahim Pasha introduced reforms in the administrative system, cancelled some taxes, and engaged the population in the government by appointing local leaders as administrative rulers. On April 25, 1834, he issued orders to recruit one out of five young men for the Ottoman army and sent out instructions to collect all weapons in order to limit the authority of sheikhs and local leaders. Lastly, he imposed new taxes. In the ensuing discontent of the population, village leaders and sheikhs held a meeting and decided to revolt against Ibrahim Pasha and his army and to refuse, again, to pay taxes. The revolution broke out on April 28, 1834. The rebels surrounded Jerusalem and asked the Egyptian guards of the citadel to leave; but the guards refused, and a battle ensued that went on for several days. The rebels were victorious, entered Jerusalem, and looted the barracks of the Egyptian army after fierce street fights. When Ibrahim Pasha returned to Jerusalem, the revolution had already spread throughout Palestine. He hit the rebels in the north with artillery and defeated them in the area of Mikhmas; then he moved on to Beit Jala, where the rebels were barricaded among olive trees. But the Egyptian army broke through the barricades. Next, the rebels pulled the army of Ibrahim Pasha to the area of Artas, where rebels were hiding around Solomon’s Pools, camouflaged. The Egyptian soldiers were resting near the lower pool, when all of a sudden and out of nowhere the rebels attacked, killing around 600 soldiers. Initially, Ibrahim Pasha was forced to retreat, but when the Egyptian army received new supplies, he proceeded to Hebron, Bethlehem, and Beit Jala and quelled the rebellion. Pasha ordered Bethlehem’s community leaders to collect all arms, and he completely destroyed the Fawaghreh Quarter from where the rebellion’s leaders had come. Nevertheless, as James Finn writes in his travelogue, the people of Bethlehem were a strong match for Pasha, and he himself described them as unyielding.

A girl from Bethlehem. Photograph by Félix Bonfils.

Edward Robinson reports that the number of weapons that Ibrahim Pasha had asked Bethlehem’s population to submit far exceeded the number of weapons the people actually had. As a result, they were forced to buy additional weapons to hand over lest they be imprisoned, banished to Egypt, or have their property confiscated. Robinson also relates that Pasha ordered ten elders and notables of Bethlehem to appear before him bound in chains. He rebuked them and imposed a fine of one hundred piasters. Titus Tobler writes that Pasha succeeded in quelling the revolution by using merciless power. He adds that at this time, the population of Bethlehem dropped dramatically as a result of wars, exile, and diseases (cholera broke out in Bethlehem in 1839).

But Bethlehem suffered not only from man-made destruction. On the morning of May 13, 1834, during the revolution against Ibrahim Pasha, an earthquake hit Palestine and caused severe damage to buildings, houses, churches, and monasteries. The belfry (al-rasas) of Bethlehem was entirely destroyed, and houses were made unfit for residence. Hundreds were killed. Aftershocks lasted for ten days. Carl Ritter relates that the people of Bethlehem suffered much from earthquakes that devastated the town, and Tobler writes that many people died as a result of the earthquake.

But the Bethlehemites managed to recover their town from hardship. In 1839, according to Robinson, Bethlehem’s economy was thriving, the town had several narrow entry points, and its houses were strong. He added that Bethlehem’s population worked mainly in agriculture but also made beads, crosses, and other artifacts from olive wood and mother-of-pearl. “The people of Bethlehem are restless,” Robinson concluded. In 1850, Reverend Jesse Ames Spencer expresses astonishment about the quality, solidity, and size of Bethlehem’s houses. And in 1858, Joseph Arezzo describes the people of Bethlehem as “simple, committed to Sunday service, and some of them go barefoot. The women of Bethlehem cover their chests and heads with a scarf, and the men wear a coarse garment.” He adds, “Probably, tailors in Bethlehem have very little work to do.” According to Arezzo, Bethlehem had a boys’ school that also served meals and a girls’ school, both overseen and funded by the Custodian of the Holy Land. Victor Guérin writes that Bethlehem was divided into eight quarters: Al-Farahiyye, Al-Najareh, Al-Qawawse, Al-Tarajme, Al-Hreizat, Al-Deir, Al-Anatra, and Al-Fawaghreh, whereas most sources cite seven quarters, based on the various Christian denominations, combining Al-Anatra with Al-Deir, and noting that Al-Fawagreh was inhabited by the town’s Muslim residents.

It had been foretold that Bethlehem would be great among the nations, and it has proven so, if not in size then in the wealth of its history and culture.

When in 1840, after the Egyptian withdrawal, the Ottomans returned, they were so impressed by the reforms Egypt had implemented that they introduced their own reforms that historically became known as the Ottoman Charitable Organization, or Islahat (Reforms). Furthermore, the Ottoman authorities issued law reforms and edicts that included the Provincial Administrative Regulations of 1864, the Land Act of 1867, the Land Registry Law of 1868, and the Law of Proprietorship for Foreigners of 1868, all of which regulated ownership of land for individuals and the state.

In addition, the Ottoman authorities introduced procedures and administrative regulations into the government, such as establishing local and regional councils and initiating the election of elders’ councils. In fact, the election of the first council in Bethlehem – consisting of elders from the three main religious communities: Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Muslims – took place in 1876. But in the same year, the Ottoman authorities prohibited the public assemblies that elders had held in the public squares that existed in each quarter in order to discuss matters pertaining to each quarter. Another main development took place in 1888, when Bethlehem became a directorate (nahiya) ruled by a director. At that time, Bethlehem comprised the villages of Beit Sahour, Beit Safafa, Beit Jala, Artas, and Sur Baher, as well as the tribes in the suburbs. Because their town was the center of a district and expanding in construction, the dignitaries and mukhtars of Bethlehem had started a petition to establish a Bethlehem municipality. As they were supported by recommendations of representatives of Jerusalem District, the state council, and the judiciary as well as the Ministry of Interior, the grand vizier raised this petition to His Majesty the Sultan who issued an edict approving the establishment of the Bethlehem municipality, instructing the Ministry of Interior to carry out the necessary procedures. Bethlehem Municipality was formally established in 1894. Its first elected mayor was Hanna Mansour Abu-Khalil, and the second elected mayor was the famous Suleiman Jacir who was elected for two consecutive terms. The first municipal council in Bethlehem was formed in 1895 and numbered seven members.

Nativity Square, 1895, with a view of the old government buildings, saraya, and the Omar Mosque. The old houses were demolished in the 1960s.

During the 1850s, an Ottoman reform movement encouraged Western religious and civil organizations to build monasteries, schools, and hospitals in Palestine. Some permits were given even before the law allowing foreigners to own property in the empire was issued in the mid-1860s. Thus, St. Joseph’s School was founded in 1853, the Salesian School in 1863 and its church in 1877, the Omari Mosque in 1864, the Carmelite Sisters Convent in 1876, the English School in 1886, the French Hospital in 1891, La Salle Christian School in 1892, the Lutheran Christmas Church in 1898, and the Casa Nova Guesthouse in 1906. The Saraya, or Government House, was renovated in 1897 and included the police station and the headquarters of Bethlehem’s municipality. Furthermore, the Ottoman authorities established a post office in 1899 and constructed new roads in Bethlehem and Hebron. Around 50 vehicles carried passengers and the luggage of merchants to Bethlehem’s train station from where trains commuted to Jerusalem and back.

Looking back to sociopolitical developments in the middle of the nineteenth century, we can observe a strengthening of the phenomenon of partisanship. Villages were traditionally divided into two major organizations that reflected the power of tribes and their elders, the strongest of which lived in Hebron (the Qais) and in and around Jerusalem (the Yemen). Lack of road security, weak authorities in the countryside, and Bedouin invasions were among the main reasons for the emergence of a tribal system that was characterized by frequent battles and conflicts. Bethlehem’s inhabitants, like the people of Abu Ghosh, belonged to the Yemen tribe. Count De Volney discusses tribal disputes in the Bethlehem area at the end of the nineteenth century and mentions that around 600 men in Bethlehem were fully armed in order to resist the tyranny and despotism of belligerent villages. He adds that common security interests among the people were more important than the religious differences between Christians and Muslims. Even James Finn, the British consul, intervened as a mediator in one of these disputes.

Rachel’s Tomb, sometime between 1898 and 1905.

When in the middle of the century, the Ottoman Empire gradually became more cooperative and appeasing, and European countries began to intervene in the internal affairs of the Holy Land, imposing themselves as protectors of Christian communities, the question of the holy places was removed from the Ottoman divan and carried into the international arena. The issue became an instrument of political power that first involved France and England, then Tzarist Russia; Prussia and Austria followed suit, and Germany and Italy soon entered the picture.

Competition and frequent disputes and conflicts characterized not only secular concerns but also the relations among the various Christian denominations, as each sought custody of the holy places and strove to have exclusive rights to the renovation of existing holy sites and the construction of new monasteries and churches. Conflicts over control of the holy places had steadily increased between the Franciscan Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Armenians. Whichever party, according to its influence, enjoyed preference at the Sublime Porte (central government of the Ottoman Empire) was able to get full access to and control over the various churches. Such differences persisted over more than two centuries. But in the late eighteenth century, after painstaking negotiations, France obtained the right to protect Catholics in Palestine from Ottoman power, whereas Russia was granted the right to protect the Greek Orthodox and in 1808 gained the right to protect the holy places in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The Armenians were able to establish their ownership of parts of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and of the Church of the Nativity between 1810 and 1829.

Bethlehem became a city in 1894, when the Ottomans established a municipality.

After 1841, however, hostilities were renewed mainly between notables of the Orthodox and Catholic faiths. Russia began to rebel against the Ottoman state when the Franciscans accused the Greek Orthodox (protected by Russia) of having stolen the Nativity Star, which led to the Crimean War (1853–1856). Attempts to reign in such disputes were made in 1852 and 1853, when the Treaty of Paris stipulated that no changes could be made to holy sites without the consent of all denominations – affirming a firman (decree) issued in 1757 by the Ottoman sultan Osman III to determine the ownership and responsibilities of the various Christian denominations regarding the holy sites.

But conflicts continued to arise. In 1873, Greek Orthodox monks attacked Catholic priests, and both the local authorities and the French consul had to intervene to put an end to the fight. In 1869, a fire broke out in the Church of the Nativity, and the curtains were burnt, causing serious disputes between Greek Orthodox and Catholic priests as to which party had the right to buy new curtains. In 1877, Armenian and Greek Orthodox priests engaged in conflicts over who would clean the church walls and over putting a carpet on the floor. From M. Russel and De Vogue we know about conflicts that took place during Christmas celebrations in 1860, leading to the canceling of the Christmas Eve midnight mass due to a physical fight. The 1878 Treaty of Berlin (that reconstructed the regional map after Russia had won the Russo-Turkish war) mentions for the first time what has become known as the Status Quo arrangement that outlines rights and responsibilities over Christian holy sites in Palestine.

Many travelers, including A. Tristram (1857), S. Munk (1863), Qasatli (1874), Thomson (1875), T. Dumas (1880), and Bazelaire (1894), wrote about the manufacture of religious relics such as crosses and beads, made by skillful Bethlehem artisans and sold to pilgrims and tourists in souvenir shops. Some merchants displayed their goods in Manger Square in front of the Church of the Nativity, and some participated in international exhibits such as the Vienna Exhibit of 1873. The brothers Michael and Gabriel Dabdoub took part in the Chicago Exhibit in 1893, the Handal brothers exhibited in Philadelphia in 1896 and in Saint Louis in 1904, and Suleiman Jacir and partners in Paris in 1913. Moreover, merchants from Bethlehem opened commercial stores in European cities such as Paris and Rome, and in New York, with some going as far as the Philippines.

A family wedding in front of the Church of the Nativity. Photograph believed to be taken in the 1940s.

When in the late nineteenth century, the political situation had stabilized and Bethlehem showed signs of prosperity, people started to move outside the old town’s historical boundaries, expanding Bethlehem first towards Ras Fteis Road (today Star Street) to the south, then also to the north and east. Families successful in making and trading religious relics left for the United States and Europe to do business, among them the Dabdoub, Handal, Jacir, Michael, Jaar, and Abu Khalil families. Many had done well and become wealthy, and some returned to Bethlehem for investment purposes, building extravagant houses and palaces in the early twentieth century.

Alexander Schölch asserts that Bethlehem was prosperous late in the nineteenth century, explaining that the city was changing and developing constantly as a result of European influx, the marketing of religious goods, construction activities, and the arrival of pilgrims and tourists. In 1894, Schölch cites Palmer in the following categorization of professions in Bethlehem:

 

Profession Number of Professionals in 1894 Ratio
Farming 300 27%
Constructors 333 30%
Craftsmen 213 19%
Services and Trade 256 23%
Food Producers 11 1%

 

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Church of the Nativity and local monasteries were the only large buildings that existed in and around Bethlehem. When the town’s citizens gained in prosperity and even wealth, they renovated and expanded their homes. While families such as the Ghazawi, Sabbagh, and Qattan families built and expanded their large houses inside the old city, others built outside the town’s traditional center, which changed the urban landscape. The following palaces have become landmarks around Bethlehem: Jacir Palace, built in 1914; Hermas Sons Palace, 1912; Saleh Giacaman Palace, 1908; Suleiman Handal Palace, 1912; and Anton Jaar Palace, 1914.

Bethlehem in 1839 as seen by British artist David Roberts.

*At the time of Saint Jerome, Paula was a wealthy woman who built this tower to have a place to live and pray near the birthplace of Jesus, since at that time women were not allowed to live in monasteries.


Selected sources that offer a glimpse into the rich history of literature on Palestine
François-René de Chateaubriand, Travels in Greece, Palestine, Egypt, and Barbary during the Years 1806 and 1807, Vols. 1 and 2.

Joseph Arezzo, Les lieux saints et les missions, Paris, 1862.

Leonie De Bazelaire, Chevauchée en Palestine, Tours: Mame, 1890.

T. R. Dumas, Nouvelle guide de voyage en Palestine: Syrie et Arabie– illustrée de 24 photographies, Beirut, 1880. 

James Finn, Stirring Times; or Record from Jerusalem Consular Chronicle of 1853–1856, London, 1878.

M. V. Guérin, Description Géographique, Geologique et Archéologique de la Palestine, Paris: L’Imprimerie Imperiale, 1868.

Moshe Ma’oz, ed., Studies on Palestine During the Ottoman Perio, Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1975.

S. Munk, Palestine: Description Géographique, Geologique et Archéologique, Paris: Firmin Didot Frères, 1845.

C. Ritter, William Leonard Gage, The comparative geography of Palestine and the Sinaitic Peninsula, New York: D. Appleton, 1866. 

Edward Robinson, and Eli Smith, Biblical Research in Palestine: A Journal of Travels in the Years 1838-1852, Vols. 1 and 2, Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1856.

Alexander Schölch, “The Demographic Development of Palestine, 1850–1882,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 17, no. 4 (1985): 485–505.

J. A. Spencer, The East: Sketches of Travel in Egypt and the Holy Land, New York: Putnam, 1850.

W. M. Thomson, The Land and the Book; or Biblical Illustrations Drawn from the Manners and Customs, the Scenes and Scenery of the Holy Land, London: T. Nelson & Sons, 1876.

Titus Tobler, Descriptiones Terrae Sanctae ex saeculo VIII. IX. XII. et XV, Leipzig, 1874.

William Turner, Esq., Journal of a Tour in the Levant (in three volumes), London, 1820.

Melchior de Vogüé, Les Eglises de la Terre-Sainte, Paris: Librarie de Victor Didron, 1860.

Voyages d’Ali Bey El Abbassi (Domingo Badia y Leyblich) en Afrique et en Asie pendant les années 1803, 1804, 1805, 1806 et 1807. 

C. F. Volney, Travels through Syria and Egypt in the years 1783,1784, and 1785, London 1878.

  • Khalil Shokeh received a bachelor of arts degree in social science (history was not yet offered) from Bethlehem University, a master’s degree in academic administration from Southern Illinois University, and a diploma in management from Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne in England. He held numerous academic and administrative positions at Bethlehem University before being appointed director general of the first Palestinian Ministry of Higher Education and then director general of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Mr. Shokeh archived the relevant materials in the Bethlehem municipality in preparation for digitizing the archives. He has published several social historical books and articles, most notably The History of Bethlehem during the Ottoman Period, 1517–1917 (in Arabic, 2000), A Tour of Battir Village (in Arabic); A Tour of Beit Jala’s History (in Arabic and Spanish); Picturesque Bethlehem, Bethlehem: Origin and Development of Bethlehem Municipality, 1880–1967 (in Arabic and English); Bethlehem and Record 366, Palaces and Mansions in Bethlehem; and 115 Bethlehemite Personalities (in Arabic, 2020). Currently, he is the director of Dar al-Sabagh Diaspora Studies and Research Center.

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