A Peaceful City of the Ottoman Empire: Jerusalem


The sensual explanation of Aykut İNCE, the artist doing the panel field work expresses much more than the title’s content:


“Of course, I did believe in what is told to be happened in the past, in St. Maria and in Christ and his exposure to tortures… and also believe in Muhammad’s ascension and in Moses passing the desert. But once I started to walk around the streets of Jerusalem, these “characters” and their narratives suddenly become a reality. All young women I came accross in the street were St. Mary. The children were Jesus. It was as if the Christ has just ascended into the sky. And then, I felt deeply the pride to be a Turk when one showed me a monument in a corner./He told me that you made it/Another one was telling me a story about a Turkish Ambassador who warned Israel when they occupied Jerusalem and hoisted the flag of Jews to Al Aqsa Mosque: “If you do not take down the flag, that would mean causus belli!”.


The Turkish legacy in Jerusalem has a past of a thousand year. 4th century of this history has passed under the rule of Ottomans. Ehud Barak, the former prime minister of Israel, had once confessed that the Ottoman Empire had provided peace and comfort in these lands with its just one corporal. What was the secret of Ottoman Empire? Neither Jerusalem nor local memory could not be perceived without understanding this 400-yeared past. Specially today, as the clashes between religions and cultures increase, the aspiration for the secure and peaceful period under the Ottoman government is awakening. So, the formula of Ottoman peace is being referred now as an alternative solution to the on-going bloody conflict.


The Ottoman multiculturalism in Jerusalem was based on the idea of unity. That is to say, an upper identity, here being Ottoman, was provided. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Turks, Circassians, Byzantine Greeks, Russians were all seen as subjects of Empire and were set free to live their micro-identities. The fountain in front of the Museum of Jerusalem history speaks for the inspiring mosaic of the Ottoman Jerusalem. Truly, it was usual to see a Jewish shoemaker, an Arabic villager, an Orthodox Russian pilgrim, and a European wealthy traveler together. One might say, you may see the same picture today but everyone knows that that does not coincide with the past. Unfortunately, the spirit of the very togetherness has gone. That spirit is needed to be analyzed.


Under Suleiman, the Magnificent, Jews were preferring to live in Taberiyye and Safed instead of Jerusalem. As the security was increased in the region, the population of Jews was raised as well as other populations, and there were not any seperate Jewish neighborhoods at that time. All communities were living together. Then, Jewish population started to concentrate in the southern parts of Jerusalem, mainly Risa, Saraf and Maslak and they were included in the administration of the city. The Jewish pilgrims coming from Europe had expressed their bewilderment as they observed the freedom of Jews living in Jerusalem. An Italian Jew, David de Dossi who had been to Jerusalem in 1535 noted with amazement that it was possible for Jews, here, to be appointed in state missions. And he added: “We are not in exile here. We are as if in our homeland. The customs and tax servants are Jews and there are not any special taxes for Jews.” That is very true. The Ottoman rulers loosened the taxes on non-muslims in Jeruslaem. Jews were paying taxes at minimum. Ottoman courts protected Jews and recognized their testimonies. The autonomy of the religious communities were both encouraged and maintained.


That tolerance for non-Muslims provided peace, as one can imagine. The uniqueness of the Ottoman peace rested on two administrative policy: One is millet(nation, though in religious sense)system and the other is separation and definition of groups.


According to millet system, religious communities were given an autonomous status and allowed to implement their religious law in their courts. Briefly, the rules that are binding all were minimized; the jurisdiction of the Empire was narrowed and diversified. Besides, since Muslim judges were sent from İstanbul, any possible discrimination and injustice against residential communities were avoided. Israel has also been continuing this policy solely on family and inheritance law.


The second policy aimed at preventing the border fights through separating influence areas and clearly defining control and authority zones which had been very successful in maintaining peace. The same policy is very likely to help solve today’s controversies.


Another factor that prevented conflicts was that the Ottoman Empire had never been a part of the discussion on the ownership of sovereignty in principle. For Ottoman Empire, any kind of sovereignty belonged to God and Sultan of the Empire who was the servant of God used the very right to rule in the name of him. So, the distribution of sovereignty rights was out of question. Besides, the Empire did not allow religious groups to divide their living spaces which needed strict borders. It is true that there had been Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim neighborhoods but these were not implying any geographical separation. That’s why today there occurs serious problems when Israel tries to separate the Old City into divided districts.


There are holy places for Jews in Muslim neighborhoods that are being discussed to be given to Palestine and also there are Muslim holy places in Jewish neighborhoods that are also being discussed to be ruled by Israel. This situation had never been a problem in the Empire, though.


To put it clearly, we need to underline the administration of the Church of Sepulchre which is highly important and symbolic for all Christians. The Church’s administration was in the hands of four churches: the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, the Armenian Church and Syrian Christian’s Church. The meaning of this cooperation implied division of labour regarding any kind of service of the Church. Issues regarding the church such as carrying out religious rituals or even the simplest staff like removing any decorative material, taking down lambs, cleaning, etc., were done according to a procedure. Nevertheless, there had generally been conflicts since all sects were competing for gaining more responsibilities to take care of the Church. Especially in restoration projects, the existing rivalry was turning into bloody conflicts. In 1757, the Ottoman Empire issued a firman defining the rules on Holy Places. However, there had been a serious conflict between Byzantine Greek’s Church and Catholic Church on cleaning the courtyard of the Church in 1852. The conflicted issue was that the last rung of the stairs binding the courtyard to the road seemed to be as rung when looked up from one side and seemed as the continuation of the courtyard when looked up on the other. The firman dated 1757 had given the right to clean the courtyard to the Orthodox Church and the right to clean the stairs to the Catholic Church. One day in 1852, as it is narrated, sects had quarreled about cleaning due to the reasons mentioned above and people were killed due to that quarrel. When İstanbul was informed about the situation, the Sultan declared a new firman saying: “I will come to the Holy Places and I will decide who will clean where. Before then, if anyone acts against my will, his head will be cut off. Everyone should be informed.” As soon as the firman delivered to the Church, it was read out in the square before the church. At the very moment, an Armenian priest who was trying to clean one of the windows of the church by using a wooden ladder was taken down by the members of the regarding sects. But the priest, though stopped cleaning, wanted to take back his ladder. Again he was restricted to do so. The servants sent from İstanbul partitioned the Church milimetrically, defined the duties and responsibilities of sects with details and decided that the right to clean the last rung was belonging to Catholics. This story clearly puts the political influence of the Ottoman Empire on the region. Even today, the very firman is being applied and that 150 year-old ladder is still there.  


To support it, we should mention what had happened when the sects had disagreements on an issue that lacked in the firman. In a fire in 1948, the roof of the Church collapsed. However, sects could not repair it since there was not any stated rule in the Ottoman’s firman about roof collapsing. Till 1967, the roof was kept unrepaired. In 1967, Israel occupied the entire city and enforced the sects to form an international committee to solve the problem. At last, the Committee made an addition to the Ottoman’s firman and than the Church was fixed.


Although there have been upsides and downs in Turkey’s Middle East policies, there is an unavoidable historical tie between Turkey and Jerusalem. Turkey, for instance, renews the porcelains of the Church since Suleiman the Magnificent. And also sends the blue porcelains of the Dome of Rock known to be one of the architectural masterpieces of Islamic world and sends Turkish carpets there which was first started by Sultan Abdul-Hamid the second.