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Emet m'Tsiyon

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Improvements in the Jews' Status in the Ottoman Period, Yet Continuing Exploitation, and Usurpation of a Jewish Holy Place [16th Century]

Things got better for Jews in Jerusalem in the early Ottoman period compared with the late Mamluk period described by Francesco Suriano in earlier posts. Of course, everything is relative.
The Jews continued to be inferior to Muslims by law, although within the law, some Muslim judges, qadis, could try to be fair to the Jews. This implies that other Muslims were trying to take advantage of the Jews' socially inferior status as dhimmis in order to usurp Jewish property, chisel money out of them, etc. This attempted usurpation sometimes focussed on Jewish holy places, such as the Tomb of Samuel near Jerusalem to the northwest. It was finally usurped from the Jews in the second half of the 16th century.

In the early Ottoman period, Amnon Cohen writes (in the English language summary published with his book):
Ottoman rule "brought increasing security and prosperity within the country [Israel] and better communications" within the empire. [Jewish] "Pilgrimage (ziyaret) was made primarily to Jerusalem, the Holy City, and thence to the Tombs of the Patriarchs in Hebron and the Tomb of Samuel the Prophet" near Jerusalem, now in a village called Nabi Samwil.

"A road-toll (ghafar)[called gafir in a previous blog entry] was levied at specific check points, and those paying it enjoyed the protection of the governor of Jerusalem while on the road. The governor, however, rather than honouring the rates as fixed by the Ottoman qanun, regarded pilgrims as an inexhaustible source of revenue. Upon reaching Jerusalem, pilgrims were forced to pay an extra toll . . . They were allowed neither to enter Hebron nor to leave it without paying an additional 5 paras. Having submitted to this extortion, the pilgrim was sometimes beaten, fined or even imprisoned. Instead of protecting and aiding the pilgrims, the governor of Jerusalem would attach at least one of his lackeys to those hiring out beasts to the pilgrims for transportation, thus adding a further financial burden. In the same spirit, the governor would send word to the main villages along the road, urging them to levy tolls of their own from the pilgrims. And as if this were insufficient; those pilgrims arriving from Egypt or Syria were accused of introducing diseases and, in order to avoid being shut out of the cities, were forced to pay various tolls." [Amnon Cohen, Ottoman Documents on the Jewish Community of Jerusalem in the Sixteenth Century (Jerusalem: Yad Ben Zvi, 1976), p xviii]
This is a heartwarming picture of what some today call traditional Muslim or Arab tolerance towards Jews, or towards dhimmis in general. True hospitality indeed.
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Coming soon: a sultan's order to leave Jews in possession of Samuel's Tomb, despite efforts to usurp it by local Muslims.

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