Peaceful coexistence: how the Ottomans ruled Jerusalem

I am obliged to write this column due to a report published in Israeli media a few days ago. According to the report, new meetings have been launched between Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Jordan about the future of Jerusalem. Considering the situation that has emerged in recent years and especially the normalization policy led by Mohammed bin Salman regarding relations between Israel and Gulf countries, this report has no value. However, attempts made during the same period by Israel, a state whose legitimacy is controversial, to annex the West Bank with U.S. President Donald Trump’s support, affords significant weight to this article. This is the case as Palestine must first be wiped off the map on the road to “Great Israel.” Since Israel is incapable of achieving this alone, it needs partners. Therefore, Tel Aviv is recruiting partners for its actual aim and using Jerusalem as a veil.

The initiative taken by Turkey after Jerusalem was declared as the so-called capital of Israel disturbed those serving Israel’s goals. These countries are criticizing Turkey’s Palestine and Jerusalem policies at every opportunity to fool their own public. In the messages given through media programs featuring certain discredited figures and through the social media grapevine, they claim that Turkey is not sincere and is exploiting the Palestinian issue. They thus distance Turkey from the Jerusalem matter and serve Israel’s aims.

While the issue of Jerusalem, which has been on the agenda for a century, is the pain and grief of all Muslims, it is also the most fundamental issue of the Jewish-Christian conflict. As a matter of fact, this second dimension has delayed Muslims in terms of developing policies and producing strategies regarding Jerusalem. The most important piece of evidence in this regard is that the vast majority of studies on Jerusalem have been conducted by Christians and Jews. The quantitative excess of the studies I mentioned in some of my previous articles cannot even be compared to those produced in the Muslim world. Jerusalem, which is almost never on the agenda of Central Asia and Far East Muslims, is also a taboo topic in some Arab countries.

In this context, the number of studies conducted in Turkey in recent years has increased, though they are nowhere near satisfactory. The fact that we have limited studies on the subject, despite being in possession of one of the main resources on the history of Jerusalem, and especially all resources from the 400-year Ottoman period, needs to be questioned. However, the production of more quality works compared to the past is also a source of consolation. Thus, there has been a noteworthy increase in studies conducted at universities since 2017, both in terms of quantity and quality.

One of these studies is the book titled, “Osmanlı Kudüs’ü: Kent Kimliği, Nüfuz ve Meşruiyet” (Ottoman Jerusalem: City Identity, Influence and Legitimacy), which was prepared by Kastamonu University faculty member Alaattin Dolu as a doctoral dissertation and published in February 2020 (Küre Publications). In his study, which is based completely on archives and original resources, Dolu presents numerous new findings by focusing on the years between 1703 and 1789, when Jerusalem was under Ottoman rule.

The study, consisting of four parts, has saved us from reading about this era from Jewish and Christian researchers alone. The fact is that, besides one other study conducted in Turkey, and some local studies by Palestinians, there is no other serious research that approaches this era in the Islamic world. This book, which is already a candidate to fill a significant void, deserves to be published first in Arabic and then in other languages.

This book also indirectly reveals the mentality from which Turkey inherited its stance on Jerusalem. The author, who masterfully presents only a segment – as a matter of fact, a problematic segment – of centuries, additionally provides several historical examples for those seeking a formula in Jerusalem. The book is far from including excerpts presenting positive events alone. On the contrary, it holds a mirror to everything that was experienced in Jerusalem as an Ottoman city, thus revealing how academic and realistic it is. The mirror held to Ottoman Jerusalem with its location, social structure, politics, economy, and law, essentially sheds light on many problems today and their solutions.

Let us remember the city of Jerusalem, which has been banned for Muslims today, with a couple of passages from the book.

“Non-Muslims were free to perform their worship in accordance with their own beliefs; they were also able to act in accordance with the sect they pleased. Attempts to provoke one another, which caused major problems among non-Muslims, was particularly effective on Greek villagers (p. 255).”

In addition to this passage, which explains the Orthodox-Catholic conflict, Dolu has made the following observations about how Jews lighting the candle at night and reading the Torah aloud would disturb some Christians and Muslims:

“These prayer ceremonies performed in Jewish neighborhoods disturbed ahl al-‘urf [Ottoman merchants and scholarly elite equated with “the governor's men]; and in order to prevent their harassment, the Jews had applied to the court. These personal attempts preventing the religious freedom of non-Muslims classified under the status of dhimma [a historical term referring to non-Muslims living in an Islamic state with legal protection], were rejected by the sultan, and the judge of Jerusalem was asked to provide a solution to the matter to prevent the oppression of ahl al-‘urf (pp 255-256).”

There is not much more to say. The rest will be understood upon reading the book. Those who want to keep Turkey away from Jerusalem are those who are afraid of this heritage.

#Ottoman Empire
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