PART IX: Some History of Zion, Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, and Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre
From the date of the first complete edition of the Hebrew Bible printed in Soncino, Italy [April 22, 1488] to the first small group of the new movement, known as Chibbat or Chovenei-Zion [Lovers of Zion]–numbering fourteen persons–including one woman–landed at Jaffa [July 7, 1882].
In the 15th century CE, instability plagued Mamluk rule: internal corruption, the continued Mongol threat, Bedouin incursions, and bad economic policies all combined to deliver a blow to the Mamluk economy and military, from which they were not able to recover. The Sephardic [Hebrew for Spain] Jews fled eastwards. In a short, severe war in 1516-1517, the Ottomans overthrew the tottering Mamluk sultanate which had dominated Egypt, Syria, and western Arabia for two and a half centuries and brought these lands under their rule. In 1517, the Ottomans won their final victory over the Mamluks; and for four hundred years, Syria and Egypt formed part of the Ottoman Empire.
It was not long before the Barbary States [Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli] as far as the frontiers of Morocco, accepted Ottoman suzerainty, and–with the Ottoman conquest of Iraq from Iran in 1534–almost the whole Arabic-speaking world was under Ottoman rule. Soon after the conquest, the Ottomans joined Palestine to the province of Syria, whose capital was Damascus. Palestine itself was divided into five districts, or Sanjaks, each named after its capital; the Sanjak of Gaza, which was the southernmost one, and to the north of it the Sanjaks of Jerusalem, Nablus, Lajjun, and Safed. A Turkish officer was placed at the head of each Sanjak.
In the last third of the 16th century, serious cracks began to appear in the structure of the Ottoman empire. The empire embarked on a retrogressive movement which was to continue for more than two centuries. The decline gained momentum towards the end of the 17th century and deepened in the 18th and 19th centuries. The feudal system–with the sipahi [pl. sipahis–two distinct types of cavalry–provincial rulers which formed most of the Ottoman army, and were the feudal landlords] as its prop–was gradually deteriorating. As the wars of expansion came to an end and spoils diminished, the sipahi turned with increasing interest to the land, and tried to recoup the loss of spoils by merciless exploitation of the peasants. This naturally led to a sharp drop in agricultural production and ushered in a crisis of the whole empire.
The famous Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha–governor of Egypt from 1805 to 1848–conducted a diplomatic and even military struggle against the Ottoman sultan and was prevented only by the intervention of the European powers from utterly defeating him. He was, however, able to make Egypt an autonomous and hereditary principality, and to launch it on the way to modernization.
Muhammad Ali and [his son] Ibrahim Pasha tried to win the support of the European powers for their control of Syria by a calculated policy of granting equality of status to members of religious minorities and by opening the country to European missionary and consular activities. This policy unleashed forces which were quickly to be felt in Jerusalem, when the Ottomans–upon their return to the city—failed to reverse the Egyptian measures. Before the Egyptian occupation, European consuls and Christian missions could not establish themselves in Jerusalem, and European pilgrims and visitors were not allowed to settle there permanently. The Ottomans had to continue the Egyptian open-door policy. The Jewish population of Jerusalem increased from around 5,000 in 1839 to about 10,000 by the late 1850s.
Under Sultan Abdul-Hamid II–who ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1876-1909–important changes took place in Palestine. Abdul-Hamid encouraged modernization in communications, education, and the military, in order to strengthen his control. When he began his rule, Palestine had no railroad, hardly any carriage roads, and no developed port. There were few medical services, and disease and illiteracy were widespread. Within a few years of Abdul-Hamid’s accession, new roads were opened, and European companies completed a railroad between Jerusalem and Jaffa in 1892 and another between Haifa and Deraa, Transjordan, in 1905. In reorganizing the Ottoman Empire and attempting to strengthen central control by using European engineers and investors, the sultans, paradoxically, encouraged the very European penetration of Palestine they were seeking to prevent.
The first small group of the new movement, known as Chibbat or Chovenei-Zion [Lovers of Zion]–numbering fourteen persons–including one woman–landed at Jaffa on July 7, 1882. Zionism is a religious and political effort that brought thousands of Jews from around the world back to their ancient homeland in the Middle East and reestablished Israel as the central location for Jewish identity. While some critics call Zionism an aggressive and discriminatory ideology, it cannot be denied that the Zionist movement has successfully established a Jewish homeland in the nation of Israel.
Modern Zionism was officially established as a political organization by Theodor Herzl in 1897. A Jewish journalist and political activist from Austria, Herzl believed that the Jewish population could not survive unless it had a nation of its own. After the Dreyfus Affair in France, Herzl wrote Der Judenstaat [The Jewish State], a pamphlet that called for political recognition of a Jewish homeland in the area then known as Palestine—no such entity as Israel existed at the time. Although Herzl died in 1904—years before Israel was officially declared a state—he is often considered the father of modern Zionism.
In 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour wrote a letter to Baron Rothschild, a wealthy and prominent leader in the British Jewish community. In the brief correspondence, Balfour expressed the British government’s support for the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine. This letter was published in the press one week later and eventually became known as the “Balfour Declaration.” The text was included in the Mandate for Palestine—a document issued by the League of Nations in 1923–that gave Great Britain the responsibility of establishing a Jewish national homeland in British-controlled Palestine. Two well-known Zionists, Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow, played important roles in obtaining the Balfour Declaration.