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Hamidi Jerusalem

Tumult, Turbulence, and Tribulations in Nineteenth-Century Palestine

By Ali Qleibo

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. . .”
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

One of the most famous engravings of British artist David Roberts. Jerusalem in 1939. Photo courtesy of Yasser Barakat Gallery.

In the discourse on Jerusalem, the nineteenth century is portrayed as a highly turbulent, profoundly transformative era that represents the dawn of modernity. In the interim period between Napoleon’s expedition and the Egyptian occupation, Palestine dissolved into a state of chaos and anarchy. The second half of the nineteenth century may be characterized by the infiltration of Western influences, modernity, a general optimism, relative economic prosperity, increased tourism, regional peace, the florescence of missionary presence, and colonial expansion. It boasted the introduction of technological, scientific, and cultural innovations, chief among which stands the steamship that transformed the Mediterranean Sea into a traversable lake and incorporated the Levant within the European classical tour.

Along with the overwhelming intellectual changes of European colonialism and missionary settlement of Palestine came a series of cultural and geographical changes. Among the most important historical processes was the pernicious concept of nationalism. To its supporters, nationalism was the embodiment of progress and modernity. To its detractors, nationalism was a dangerous force that threatened the existence of a particular way of life, ideology, and socioeconomic framework which the concept of cosmopolitanism represents. The forces of both cosmopolitanism and nationalism emerged as essential parts of “the paradox of modernity,” a paradox that survived the long nineteenth century and that persists to this day, disguised in the rhetoric of local/global dualities and its expression in Zionism, Palestinian nationalism, and neoliberalism.

Palestinian nationalism, Westernization, and the socioeconomic transition to modernity developed within complex historical, geopolitical circumstances. Throughout the first decades of nineteenth-century Jerusalem, traditional Islam and diverse Sufi schools were constitutive elements of individual identity. Almost each family had its Sufi affiliations and belonged to one zawiya or another. The honorific Sufi appellation Qleibo, a case in point, was a nickname attached to a social registry name, indicating a spiritual state of gnosis and the rank of descent from the Alkhalyly al-Tamimi al-Dary lineage and corollary endowments. My clan was affiliated with the Khalwati Sufi Tariqah and had a family banner that distinguished them from other Sufi patrician families, namely, the Abu Sa’ud, Alami’, Husseini, Qutob, and Daoudi-Dajani. Towards the end of the century, the epithet Qleibo was stripped of its symbolic, religious connotative value. The orthography in Arabic (Qulei’boh), which describes a heart brimming with divine love, was reduced to Qleibo. In the wake of Sultan Abdul Majid’s tanzimat, a series of reforms following the Crimean War (1853–56), a new socioeconomic order was inaugurated as well as an ethical system based on newly developed values in which religion became a constituent element of individual identity in lieu of its previous constitutive role, a fact observed in the newly forged four-name system.

Sultan Abdul Hamid II.

The Hamidi ethos, after the era of Sultan Abdul Hamid who reigned from 1876 to 1908, sought to modernize Arab Muslim culture and political structures without straying from traditional religious principles. The Hamidi discourse infused new values, precepts, and career possibilities throughout the Ottoman Empire that shook up the traditional social order. Into this Hamidi world view my father was born in 1892. My family reinvented itself. The Qleibo centuries-old close religious affiliations with Al-Aqsa’s imams, jurists, muftis, theologians, and sheikhs of the Sufi Khalwati order gave way to a new generation of lawyers, doctors, scholars, businessmen, and merchants. Abd al-Razzaq, my oldest uncle, born in 1884, trained in Istanbul as a lawyer in preparation to join in the political economic social order in the making, in lieu of Al-Azhar in Cairo, as was the family tradition. By the end of the nineteenth century, the process of the secularization and modernization of Palestine was well on its way.

To appreciate the totally Arab Muslim character of 1830 Jerusalem, i.e., before the restoration of the Latin Patriarchate circa 1840, prior to the 1854 entry of Western powers into the Crimean War and the consequent Ottoman sultan’s concessions to his French and British allies, we have to imagine an urban landscape that bears no resemblance to the present. Al-Quds al-Sharif in 1820 had neither the Lutheran nor the Franciscan belfry in its silhouette. Neither the Latin Patriarchate in the New Gate Quarter nor the Frères’ three-story edifice nor the Franciscan complex that included the first modern carpentry, the European blacksmith, and the print house would have existed. Imagine Al-Waad St. and the Via Dolorosa without the Austrian Hospice and without the immense edifice of Ecce Homo.

Outside the walls, olive groves, vineyards, and sesame and wheat fields covered the slopes from New Gate to Herod’s Gate and climbed up Mount Scopus. In these fields not a single trace of the Notre Dame compound, St. Louis Hospital, St. Etienne Monastery, or the Russian Compound could be discerned. A few manor houses dotted the landscape, chief among which stood Qasr al-Sheikh Alkhalyly, my family home built in 1714, outside Herod’s Gate, that of the Nuseibehs in Sheikh Jarrah, and on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, the Ansari homestead a few meters uphill, west of the Muwaqett castle.

Mohammad Ali, the viceroy of Egypt. Oil on canvas by Auguste Couder.

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, Ottoman hegemony over Palestine sustained two major challenges that compromised the traditional status quo and set the ground for European intervention in the shaping of Middle Eastern history. In the wake of Napoleon’s withdrawal from Palestine, the Palestinian countryside succumbed to a state of social political disorder, and the Palestinian villagers became victim to pilfering Bedouin tribes. Villages would be raided at harvest time, their produce stolen. Money was forcibly exacted from the poor, defenseless peasant, and once-thriving villages and towns became deserted ruins, with their populations forced to take shelter elsewhere. Al-Khudera and Al-Affula in the north and Beit Jibrin in the south were pilfered and destroyed by marauding Bedouin tribes. In Artas, the villagers took shelter in the Ottoman fortress adjacent to Solomon’s Pools out of fear for their lives!

The Palestinian countryside degenerated into a general state of anarchy and petty local wars. Rivalries and vendettas between Qaysi/Yamani Palestinian tribes flared up. These tribal ethnic social groupings conform to the pre-Islamic primordial tribal split that had provided a source of cultural identity and social solidarity as well as a point of social friction and conflict. Whereas the Yamani tribes trace themselves to an ancestral figure, Qahtan, the Qaysi tribes trace their descent to Adnan. These cultural ethnic divisions conform to ancient Semitic tribal settlements throughout the Fertile Crescent, maintaining thereby genealogical roots in the Arabian Peninsula. Whereas Yamani tribes trace their descent to southern Arabia, the Qaysi tribes trace their roots to northern Arabia.

Street scene through the stereoscope inside Jaffa Gate looking West.

Post–Napoleonic local turbulence in Palestine was compounded by the invasion of the Egyptian army led by Ibrahim Pasha, the son of Mohammad Ali, viceroy of Egypt. Mohammad Ali seceded from the Ottoman Empire and, under the command of Ibrahim Pasha, the Egyptian army swept over Palestine, occupied Greater Syria, and reached as far as Konya in Asia Minor. Through British intercession, the invading army was stalled, and a treaty sealed the end of the first Egyptian-Ottoman war in 1833. It was arranged that Ibrahim Pasha would stay in Palestine for a while. In 1839 the Ottoman army moved into Syria to recapture the lands seized by Ibrahim Pasha. The second Egyptian-Ottoman war ended in 1840, through British intervention on behalf of the Ottomans to negotiate a peace with Mohammad Ali, the viceroy of Egypt. The treaty guaranteed Mohammad Ali and his progeny sovereignty over Egypt. In return he pledged to evacuate Ibrahim’s beleaguered army back to Alexandria. Moreover, he renounced all claims to Syria, submitted to the sultan, and returned the Ottoman fleet. Ibrahim Pasha withdrew his army in 1841, having plunged the country into two rival camps, one supporting the caliphate in Istanbul and the other standing in defense of the occupying Egyptian army. Henceforth, culminating in the Crimean War, the sultanate came to depend on its Western allies to protect its sovereignty. It was a propitious moment in which European economic expansionism, colonialism, missionary work, and tourism conjoined to witness the development of a new social political Palestinian leadership.

The historical, cultural, political, and economic developments of the nineteenth century can be seen as both a reaction against the last vestiges of traditional Mamluk and Ottoman Muslim scholasticism as well as the laboratory for the European practical implementation of Enlightenment ideas in the form of the Ottoman tanzimat reforms.

The story of the rediscovery and Western exploration of the Holy Land in the nineteenth century is a fascinating chapter in the long history of religious and secular tourism and colonialism in Palestine. Napoleon may not have visited Jerusalem during his occupation of Palestine, but in his expedition a slew of scientists came along. Their documentation of Egypt and Palestine sparked the Western imagination and initiated great interest in the Ancient Near East and the Land of the Bible. Palestine had been terra incognita from a scientific point of view, but by the end of the century, the foundations for the scientific study of the country were firmly laid down. Surveys, maps, travelers’ sketches, guidebooks, and artists’ paintings and engravings brought the people and scenery of the land to the attention of the Western public.

Once steamships replaced the old sailboats, travel time across the Mediterranean was dramatically reduced and made easier. The three-week lengthy distance from London to Istanbul took less than a hundred hours. Various travel itineraries were developed by the 1830s, with steamboat stops in Napoli, Malta, Alexandria, Izmir, Salonika, Athens, Venice, and Constantinople. It is on one of these early steamships that the famous obelisk was transported from Luxor to its current position in Place de la Concorde in Paris! With the newly forged alliances with Turkey, the Mediterranean enjoyed an unprecedented state of safety. Shortly after the Egyptian campaign in Palestine and the Crimean War, the newly wedged alliances, and the corollary Ottoman concessions, the Near East became, on par with Italy and Greece, part of the classical European tour. By 1870, Egypt had become top choice as a winter-season resort, and Palestine had its share of enthusiastic visitors.

Sufi dervishes in the nineteenth century. Photograph by Félix Bonfils.

Nineteenth-century travelers – be they pious pilgrims or visionary poets, righteous missionaries or libertine dilettantes, Muslim, Christian, or Jew – had already experienced Jerusalem through sacred scripture, traditional religious narratives, and travelogues prior to their arrival in Palestine. Muslim literature has throughout the centuries deployed a special literary discourse extolling the virtues of Jerusalem and laying out the itinerary for Muslim pilgrims, outlining places of significance associated with Prophet Muhammad and Abraham. Christian and Jewish pilgrims were attracted by Biblical stories and by the scenes of the last days of Jesus in Jerusalem as described in the New and Old Testaments. The firsthand narratives of the Holy Land and the Near East by nineteenth-century authors, such as Herman Melville, Mark Twain, François-René de Chateaubriand, Alphonse de Lamartine, and Gustave Flaubert, further inflamed the European imagination about the Orient.

The publicity of various navigation companies to promote the new mode of travel included inviting great authors free of charge, provided they would write of the comfort of steamboat travel. The list of these illustrious guests – novelists, poets, travel writers, scholars, and journalists – is extensive. Travelers increased; the faithful and the nonconformist, the dilettante and the biblical scholar, the missionary and the debauched; all flocked from all the corners of the earth to Jerusalem. As early as 1869, the carriage road from Jaffa to Jerusalem was paved to accommodate royalty for a side trip to the Holy City after attending the opening of the Suez Canal and the grandiose opera house in Cairo.

Political and economic developments, improved standards of living and increased scientific discoveries, and massive literary output allowed for the tourist industry to thrive. By the early 1840s, foreign missions were established. The first, in 1839, was the British consulate on Melawiya Road in the heart of the Muslim Quarter. Germany came next in 1842, and soon after, France, Italy, Austria, and Russia followed suit.

Photo courtesy of the American Colony.

Numerous incipient discourses were forming along Orientalist colonialist lines (the analysis of which is beyond the scope of this article). The Ottomans astutely protected their hegemony over the many ethnic groups and maintained their Western alliances through the deployment of major series of reformations, initiated after the Crimean War and known as the Tanzimat Constitutional Reforms. In 1872, Sultan Abdulaziz was deposed by his ministers, killed, and replaced by Sultan Abdul Hamid II. Soon after, the second tanzimat were issued, whereby foreigners were given rights to purchase land in Palestine. The millet system granted the various ethnic groups in Jerusalem, and the empire at large, legal rights and protection by the law, including the right to purchase property. The first local newspaper, Filistin, in Turkish, was launched that year. Jerusalem was declared an independent mutasarrifia (a subdivision of the Ottoman Empire’s area) and encompassed all the provinces that constitute present-day Palestine. According to Baedeker, the total population was 24,000, of which 13,000 were Muslim, 7,000 Christian, and 4,000 Jewish. It was a period of prosperity, stability, and relative peace; elements that were propitious for the religious and secular tourism industry, a period in which the foreigners often outnumbered the local population.

Nineteenth-century travelers included writers, poets, and painters who toured with their Bibles in their hands to “read” the landscape and the realities of the Holy Land against a sacred text. Though the majority of voyagers were religious pilgrims inspired by the Holy Scripture, a substantial number of tourists, the secular literati, travelled to Jerusalem to identify with the universe through expatriation. They were not typical travelers. Rather literary tourists, they were seekers of textual evidence as they quested for meaning and identity, in search of a meaningful personal encounter with the Holy Land. It is one of the characteristics of Palestine that so many travelers “see” the place through the distorting lenses of their sacred texts, cultural myths, and national narratives.

Mark Twain, who visited Jerusalem in 1867, noted that all peoples, races, religions, and languages were there. In his book, Innocents Abroad, an edited compilation of his published newspaper articles and journal describing his travels to Palestine, he wrote, “It seems to me that all races and colors and tongues of the earth must be represented among the fourteen thousand souls that dwell in Jerusalem.”

The number of publications on the Holy Land by nineteenth-century Western writers is astounding. Handbooks for travelers, the precursor of modern guidebooks, provided extensive itineraries for foreign visitors. The first English-language guidebook was published in 1858 by John Murray, Handbook for Travelers in Syria and Palestine. A few years later, it was followed by Karl Baedeker’s Palestine and Syria, Handbook for Travelers. The guidebook first appeared in German in 1875 and in English in 1876.

The flood of travelers and itinerant tourists increased the demand for Murray’s guidebook that had many reprints. The author, Josias Leslie Porter, who described in the foreword the various motives underlying the rage to travel, wrote: “One is in pursuit of health, another of pleasure, another of fame, another of knowledge, another of adventure, while not a few travel for the mere sake of travel – to satisfy a restless and ‘truant’ disposition.”

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Jerusalem lived its golden age. Missionaries – Protestant, Catholic, and Greek Orthodox – flocked to the city: Germans, Swedes, Finns, and Swiss Lutherans found an embodiment of their faith. The Millennialists had started their mission in anticipation of the second coming of Jesus; they flocked to Jerusalem to convert the Jews to be ready for the Day of Judgment. Various missionary schools, clinics, and hotels were being built – the Zion Boys School headed by Bishop Gobat, the Schneller Vocational Training School, German Colony. The De La Salle Brothers had settled in Jerusalem and were to begin to build the Collège des Frères, the best school in Palestine. Augusta Victoria, the Dominican convent, and Dormition Abbey were in the making. This was an exciting moment.

In the travel books, Jerusalem was promoted as a marvelous city where peoples and cultures coexisted: a cosmopolitan city. Citadel Square within Jaffa Gate (Omar Ibn al-Khattab Square) was lined with Thomas Cook’s Travel Bureau, the American Colony Photography Shop, the Meo family souvenir shop, and the grandiose Mediterranean Hotel (now Petra Hotel) on the northern side, counterpoised by the American consulate and the post office on the eastern side. William Hepworth Dixon, in his travel book The Holy Land (1863), describes the spectacular comingling of whirling Sufi dervishes and Armenian monks with pointed hoods, the naked Nubian slave on sale, and the kavas (the ceremonial consular guards with their crimson jackets laced with golden thread and loose-fitting pantaloons), the colorful Moroccan mystics, Bedouin sheikhs clad in white, and Indian and Afghani Muslim pilgrims next to the German, Swiss, and American missionaries dressed in their national ethnic costumes. He writes of the magic of Jerusalem:

All centuries, all nations, seem to hustle each other in this open court under David’s tower. In pushing through the crowd of men, you may chance to run against a turbaned Turk, a gaudy Cavash, a naked Nubian, a shaven Carmelite, a bearded papa, a robed Armenian, an English sailor, a Circassian chief, a basha, and a converted Jew. In crossing from the gateway to the convent you may stumble on a dancing dervish; you may catch the glance of a veiled beauty; you may break a procession of Arab school-girls headed by a British headmistress. . .

The European rediscovery of Palestine in particular and the Levant as a whole, coupled with the rising concept of regional geopolitical nationalism was fueled by the international complicity against Ottoman hegemony over the Arabic-speaking world and catapulted Jerusalem into international prominence, a preamble to its future status as a contested city.

Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, described his experience in Jerusalem in the longest epic poem in Western history, Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land. The oeuvre is longer than Homer’s Iliad and Milton’s Paradise Lost, and in conjunction with the journal he had kept on his voyage, he proffers Jerusalem as a marvelous and mystical city. Melville’s descriptions and reflections, his spiritual longing and ultimate disenchantment punctuate the development of another remarkable narrative – that between the traveler and the Holy Land: namely the quest for identity through immersion in experiencing otherness.

The Pontifical Institute-Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center while being built in 1885. Photos courtesy of École Biblique – NDF Collection.

In his journal we glimpse a Jerusalem that is dynamic, vital, and energetic with things budding everywhere. It is the period when the city was teeming with all kinds of people, and dreams were in the making. Melville’s narrative underscores the global and plural character of Palestine, presenting it as a polyglot world where culture and peoples circulate and interact and where creeds dovetail into each other…

Hamidi Jerusalem is a microcosm, a context representative of the diversity of humanity and human visions of the world. Jerusalem and Palestine are the global contexts where multiple cultures come together in what constitutes a representative sample of humanity. Americans, Europeans, Asians, Africans; Muslims, Jews, Christians; Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Calvinists, Anglicans, Dominicans, Franciscans; atheists, devout believers, hedonists, and lunatics encounter one another in the emblematic city of Jerusalem which, in the twentieth century, was to become the core of tragic human collisions.

  • Dr. Ali Qleibo is an artist, author, and anthropologist. Born in Jerusalem and educated in the United States, his books and artwork have taken him all over the world. Dr. Qleibo has lectured and held senior positions at Al-Quds University, conducted a fellowship at Shalom Hartman Institute, and served as visiting professor at Tokyo University for Foreign Studies and Kyoto University in Japan. At The Jerusalem Research Center, Dr. Qleibo developed the Muslim tourism itinerary in Jerusalem, encompassing tangible and intangible heritage. A specialist in Palestinian social history, he has authored the books Surviving the Wall, Before the Mountains Disappear, Jerusalem in the Heart, and Mamluk Architectural Heritage in Jerusalem, and published a plethora of articles locally and internationally

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