The Origins of Modern Palestine in Ottoman Documents

Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivi (BOA) HR/SYS/1956/29/3. Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivi (BOA) HR/SYS/1956/29/3.

In July 1872, the Ottoman government carved out an independent administrative district based in Jerusalem subject to direct rule from Istanbul, elevating the status of the city to a provincial capital.

“We do not know how the local population reacted,” wrote the historian Johann Büssow of the administrative change. “Documentation of local public opinion is only fragmentary,” he added.

But amidst the 150 million some documents preserved in the Ottoman Archives in Istanbul lie a number of critical clues, including a July 1872 note signed by sixty of Jerusalem’s most prominent Muslim dignitaries.

This document will help historians piece together the fragments. It represents a rare glimpse into the prevailing sentiments at a time when historians have long struggled to find sources that speak to popular attitudes, identities and loyalties in the city.

“The separation of the district of Jerusalem from Syria [Suriya] was among the greatest projects” undertaken by the Ottoman government, the notables of Jerusalem proclaimed in the 1872 thank you note addressed to the “the protector of the protected and defender of humanity,” the Sultan himself.

“We cannot express how thankful we are regarding the separation of Jerusalem,” emphasized Jerusalem’s notables in beautiful Arabic calligraphy, “which has been object of hope for a long time for the benefit of all.”

Jerusalem had not played such an important political role in the Empire since it was conquered in the early 16th century. The Jerusalemite elites were poised to occupy one step higher on the imperial pecking order and were enthused to fill the bureaucratic positions that would accompany the city’s elevated status.

But why did the Ottomans elevate the status of Jerusalem? Recall that the lands of the Ottoman Empire had shrunk considerably in the 19th century as a result of national independence movements in Greece and the Balkans, ambitious local upstarts in Egypt, and foreign occupation in the Caucuses. This made the peripheral lands of the Empire such as Palestine more important than ever, and thus essential to keep under the close scrutiny of imperial capital.

Ottoman District of Palestine?

The decree also placed the sub-districts of Nablus and Acre under Jerusalem’s authority rather than Damascus’s. A unified Holy Land subject to direct rule from an Istanbul-appointed governor, so the Ottoman logic went, would impede Western penetration into imperial lands.

Interestingly, the boundaries of the new district were remarkably similar to the Government of Palestine established by the British in the wake of the First World War, a point not lost on many scholars (here, here and here). In fact, the Ottomans even discussed re-naming the district to “Palestine” in the 1880s, but decided against it (here).

That did not prevent the region’s inhabitants from conflating the “District of Jerusalem” and “Palestine.” I am aware of a dozen some instances in the historical record of prominent intellectuals, politicians and educators –Arabs, Zionists and Ottomans alike – who confused the two terms or used them interchangeably, including the great scholar Butrus al-Bustani, the editor and publisher Sa’id Jarallah, the Gazan politician Sa’id Abu Khadra, the Zionist agronomist Menashe Meirovitch and the Ottoman governor, Cevdet Bey.

In the latter case, the governor of the District of Jerusalem in 1911-1912, Cevdet Bey, wrote a letter to the popular Jaffa-based bi-weekly newspaper, Filastin, calling himself the “governor of Palestine.”

No Title,' Mekatib-i Ibtida'iye, Juğrafiya-i Osmani (Matbaa-i 'Amire, 1332[19131914]), 193
No Title, Mekatib-i Ibtida’iye, Juğrafiya-i Osmani (Matbaa-i ‘Amire, 1332[1913/1914]), 193.
In another instance, this Ottoman geography textbook produced by the state prominently displayed the word Filistin over the region corresponding to the District of Jerusalem.

A Short-lived History

The Jewish and Christian residents of city also championed the decision to subject Acre and Nablus to rule from Jerusalem, while the European consuls celebrated “Palestine’s” administrative unification, as they called it.

This vindicated the Ottoman bureaucrats opposed to the reshuffle, who claimed that uniting all of the holy places into a single administrative unit would not impede European penetration of the Empire but attract unwanted foreign interest.

And so, just like that, the decree was rescinded only a few weeks later. By late July 1872, Acre and Nablus were returned to Damascus—while Jerusalem would keep its elevated status subject to Istanbul’s authority rather than Damascus’s.

Document 2-IMG_5808 copy
BOA H.R.T.O/550/54 (27 July 1872).

The reversal was expectedly unpopular in Jerusalem. A number of notables and merchants of the city sent yet another petition to the central government decrying the change. The move to subject Nablus and Acre to Jerusalem (rather than Damascus) was set to improve commerce in the Empire and strengthen the already strong trade ties the Jerusalemites had with Nablus, or so the Jerusalemites claimed.

Just two days later a dozen some Jaffans sent another note of protest to the Sultan on 29 July 1872, similarly criticizing the decision.

“The people of Jaffa, who belong to the District of Jerusalem, agree that our city is the commercial capital of Jerusalem and the Balqa’ [Nablus].” The return of the Nablus sub-district to Damascus, they claimed, would hinder their business opportunities with the northern lands of Acre and Nablus, while it would simultaneously have had negative financial consequences for the Ottoman treasury.

Document 3-IMG_5806 copy
BOA H.R. TO 550/53 (29 July 1872).

The people of Nablus apparently saw things differently, though. When news came on 23 July 1872 that their district was once again returned to Syria, a group of “notables, dignitaries and merchants of Nablus” sent a telegram the very same day to Istanbul praising the government’s decision.

They had stronger ties to the metropoles further north and therefore preferred to remain subject to rule from their intellectual, cultural and commercial capital in Damascus rather than the small and peripheral Jerusalem.

The jockeying and petitioning that followed the 1872 establishment of the District of Jerusalem did not revolve around inchoate nationalist desires for a united Palestine.  These thank you notes and protest notes were about political influence and commercial interests.

So what did people in Palestine think about Palestine during the critical decades of the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s—the decades leading up the emergence of a Palestinian identity in the first decade and a half of the 20th century?

Read Part 2Who Was the First Palestinian in Modern History?

Zachary Foster is a Ph.D. student at the Department of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University.

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