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Emet m'Tsiyon

Friday, September 23, 2005

Sultan Temporarily Thwarts Effort to Usurp Jewish Holy Place [16th century]

Sometimes, Muslim rulers or judges tried to be fair to Jews within the framework of Muslim law, which placed the Jew --as an individual and as a communty-- in a far inferior position compared to the Muslim. This is important, since often, local rulers, local strong men, notables, and tribal chiefs, as well as central government representatives in local districts, etc., went beyond Muslim law [the Shari`ah] in their treatment of Jews and other dhimmis [in Israel, this meant Christians]. Local Muslims in the Jerusalem area had their eyes for a long time on the Tomb of Samuel the Prophet, an ancient Jewish holy site northwest of the city, on a hilltop or low mountain, sometimes identified with the Biblical Ramah [= height]. These efforts eventually succeeded but on the way, one sultan, around the 1550s, defended the Jewish rights against zealous local Muslims who coveted the holy place and the ancient synagogue next to it, which was eventually converted into a mosque.

Document no. 13
. . . to the Sanjaq Bey of Jerusalem {governor of Jerusalem sanjaq (= district)} . . . and to the qadi of Jerusalem . . . the Jewish community which dwells in Jerusalem [and] possesses by exalted decree, sent a man to to my Sublime Court {the Sublime Porte?} (saying): In the village of Jib {the Biblical Gib`on, near the Tomb of Samuel} near Jerusalem, they had before the [Ottoman] conquest and after the conquest a synagogue (knisah) which is known by the name of Sid Samuw'il. This is an ancient building and they were accustomed to make a pilgrimage (ziyaret) (to there) according to their customs. While they were doing this, some Muslims recently prevented them from entering their synagogue, and outlined the form of a mihrab on the wall of the synagogue mentioned above, and were doing wrong to them, saying: "This is needed by us."

I have decreed that when my exalted decree --according to which one must conduct oneself-- arrives, you shall examine [the matter]. Is the problem as it has been described: the abovementioned synagogue is their synagogue and has been used by them since ancient days; while they were accustomed to making pilgrimage [there] from olden days until now, whereas recently the abovementioned Muslims harassed them contrary to the Shari`ah, to the qanun, and to custom [and prevented them from doing so]. [If this is so], prevent and stop [this]. The Jewish community pay my head tax {= jizyah}, like the rest of my head tax payers. My mind is not comfortable over this, that at the time of my sultanic happiness someone is oppressing and doing wrong to anyone. Do not make it possible for anyone to act against the shari`ah and the qanun. Reprimand those who show rebelliousness and [here are the names and descriptions of the offenders] who stand and raise up, write and inform [me]. Don't allow a reason for [this] complaint to be repeated. Know this and after scrutiny {of the matter}, leave my sultanic decree in their hands [of the Jews]. Rely upon the exalted insignia. Registered in Aw'il, month of Muharram, year 963 [AH = November 1555] in fortified Constantinople.
A mihrab is a standard part of a mosque. It is a niche built into a wall of the mosque which indicates the direction toward Mecca, the direction of Muslim prayer. By making a mihrab on the wall of a synagogue, even in the form of an outline, as at the synagogue adjacent to the Tomb of Samuel, local Muslims believed that they were making the synagogue into a mosque which meant that Jews could no longer have possession of it or even enter it. However, in this case, the sultan intervened against the attempted usurpation by local Muslims.

This shows that an Ottoman sultan could sometimes take the side of the Jews against Muslims. But it also shows that local Muslims coveted Jewish holy places, synagogues, etc. And sometimes they succeeded in usurping them from the Jews. Amnon Cohen gives some more details about the history of disputes over the Tomb of Samuel. [A. Cohen, Ottoman Documents on the Jewish Community of Jerusalem in the Sixteenth Century (Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi 1976; in Hebrew with English summary), p 26; see Document no. 13, p 49; see p XVIII for Engish summary of this matter].

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