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Jabal Nablus as a Social Space

Ever since its origins as a Canaanite settlement, the city of Nablus has been locked into a permanent embrace with its hinterland. Over the centuries the multilayered and complex interactions between these two organically linked but distinct parts generated a cohesive and dynamic social space: Jabal Nablus. The material foundations of the autonomy of Jabal Nablus were the deeply rooted economic networks between the city and its surrounding villages; and the cultural fountains of its identity were the social and political dynamics of urban-rural relations, especially between merchants and peasants. It was this combination of material and cultural transactions that made Jabal Nablus recognizable to outsiders as a discrete entity and, more important, made it feel like home to its residents by inculcating in them a sense of regional loyalty. In the words of Reverend John Mills, “The inhabitants [of Nablus] are most proud of it, and think there is no place in the world equal to it.”[15]

In this general sense, Jabal Nablus was similar to many others that existed under the umbrella of Ottoman rule, and the centuries-long existence of these social spaces explains the strong regional identifications that are still an important part of popular culture in Greater Syria.[16] For example, one can talk about Jabal Lubnan (Mount Lebanon), Jabal Amil (also known as Bilad Bishara), in what is today southern Lebanon; Jabal al-Druze (Hauran), in today’s Syria; and Jabal al-Khalil and Jabal al-Quds, whose urban centers were Hebron and Jerusalem, respectively.

This is not to say that these social spaces had clear and unchanging borders, nor that the nature of interaction between city and hinterland was everywhere the same. For instance, the urban centers of Jabal Nablus, Jabal al-Quds, and Jabal al-Khalil occupied different points along the spectrum of possibilities during the Ottoman period. Hebron was largely an extension of its hinterland, its economic life for the most part focused on agricultural pursuits and on providing essential services to the surrounding villages. Jerusalem, in contrast, stood somewhat aloof from its hinterland primarily because of the external infusions of economic and political capital that its religious, symbolic, and administrative significance attracted. Nablus lay somewhere between the two: its connections to the hinterland were absolutely vital, but it also contained a large manufacturing base and was a nexus for substantial networks of regional trade. Its hinterland, moreover, contained some of the richest agricultural lands in Palestine, as well as the largest and most stable concentration of villages and people. The city of Nablus did not possess the glamour or drama of Jerusalem; nor did it suffer from the relative sleepiness and obscurity of Hebron. Rather, it served, at least during much of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century, as the economic and, occasionally, political center of Palestine. Not surprisingly, Jabal Nablus—often referred to as jabal al-nar (mountain of fire)—played a leading role in the 1834 revolt against the Egyptian forces, in the 1936–1939 rebellion against British rule, and in the Palestinian uprising (intifada) against Israeli occupation that exploded in 1987.

The City of Nablus

“The immediate vicinity of Nabloos is remarkable for the number of its trees, and its luxuriant vegetation; it is, indeed, one of the most beautiful and fertile spots in all Palestine.”[17] Practically every visitor to Nablus—from Muslim travelers in the Middle Ages to young Englishmen in search of adventure in the nineteenth century—described the appearance of the city in similarly flattering terms.[18] Embedded between two steep mountains in a narrow but lush valley and surrounded by a wide belt of olive groves, vineyards, fruit orchards, and a sprinkle of palm trees, the ancient city of Nablus has long been described as resembling, in the words of Shams al-Din al-Ansari (d. A.H. 727, A.D. 1326–1327), a “palace in a garden” (see Plates 1–3).[19]

The secret was water—the primary reason why Nablus was able to support a large population and a wide range of manufacturing establishments. Its twenty-two gushing springs were channeled into the city’s public fountains, mosque courtyards, gardens, tanneries, and dye and pottery establishments, as well as the private homes of the rich.[20] Water was also carried down into the 1,220-meter-long valley that widened westward via aqueducts that fed irrigation canals and powered the large, round stones of grain mills. In the summer heat, evaporated water formed a thin blue mist that enveloped the city and accentuated its charms: “Its beauty can hardly be exaggerated.…Clusters of white-roofed houses nestling in the bosom of a mass of trees, olive, palm, orange, apricot, and many another varying the carpet with every shade of green.…Everything fresh, green, soft, and picturesque, with verdure, shade, and water everywhere. There is a softness in the colouring, a rich blue haze from the many springs and streamlets, which mellows every hard outline.”[21]

The phrase “Little Damascus,” which its inhabitants commonly use to describe Nablus, sums up the look, feel, and essence of the city. The similarities between the two were, in fact, striking. Both were blessed with water and surrounded by greenery, both were “dry ports” located in the interior of Greater Syria, both had strong manufacturing sectors, and both functioned as the commercial hubs for numerous surrounding villages. Finally, in both cities cultural life was dominated by conservative and entrenched merchant communities and characterized by the persistence of family politics.

Of course, Nablus differed from Damascus in some important respects. In contrast to the religious and ethnic diversity of the latter’s population, that of Nablus, like that of Hebron, was homogeneous. Except for the small Christian and Samaritan communities, which together numbered no more than a few hundred, virtually all the inhabitants were Sunni Muslims.[22] The largest minority were Christians; most worked as artisans and merchants.[23] Most of the Christians were Greek Orthodox. The rest became Protestants around the mid-nineteenth century in response to the evangelical activities of Reverend Bowen from the Church Missionary Society, who, over a twelve-month period, opened a day school and initiated a number of other projects, such as the purchase of a modern loom and an iron oil press.[24]

The Samaritans numbered 150 to 200 throughout the nineteenth century. Unlike the Christians, they were a tightly knit community living in their own neighborhood in the Yasmina quarter. A few worked as scribes and accountants to the governors of Nablus and some of its rich merchants, but most were relatively poor retailers or artisans.[25] Because the Samaritan community was virtually nonexistent outside Nablus, it became an object of great curiosity for European visitors and scholars, especially during the nineteenth century.

Also unlike Damascus, Nablus was neither a large metropole nor the administrative capital of a province. The difficult, hilly terrain and its geographical location helped preserve its autonomy and protect it from imperial armies, but at the expense of making it unsuitable for international trade.[26] Historically, however, intraregional and interregional trade were far more important to the economy of Palestine, and Nablus was ideally situated for both. The narrow valley which bisects the central highlands and connects the desert with the fertile western plains was a natural corridor for goods heading in all four directions. Droves of Nabulsi merchants regularly traveled to nearby localities such as Jaffa, Haifa, Acre, and Gaza along the coast; to southern Lebanon, Nazareth, Safad, Jerusalem, and Hebron in the hill areas; and to Salt, Jabal Ajlun, and Hauran to the east and northeast.[27]

As for interregional trade, Cairo and Damascus were by far the most important destinations for Nabulsi merchants. This trade involved mostly bulk goods, not luxury items. During the Ottoman period, roughly three-quarters of Nablus’s soap was shipped to Cairo overland through Gaza and the Sinai Desert and by sea through the ports of Jaffa and Gaza (see Chapter 5). From Egypt, especially Cairo and Damietta (Dimyat), Nabulsi merchants imported, among other things, rice, sugar, and spices, as well as linen, cotton, and woolen textiles.[28] To Damascus they exported a large variety of products, the most important of which were cotton, soap, olive oil, and medium-grade textiles. From Damascus, they mostly imported silks, textiles of all kinds, copper, and some luxury items (see Chapter 2).

The longevity and relative stability of Ottoman rule, as well as the large political space it created, enhanced the advantages of Nablus’s fortuitous geographical location. Beginning in the early sixteenth century, the networks connecting Nablus to Damascus and Cairo were supplemented by the establishment of secure trading posts in the Hijaz and Gulf regions to the south and east, as well as in the Anatolian Peninsula and the Mediterranean islands to the north and west. Nablus also developed steady trade relations with Aleppo, Mosul, and Baghdad (see Chapter 3).

Closer to home, the constant and vigorous efforts by the Ottoman government to ensure adequate safety and funding for the annual pilgrimage caravan (qafilat al-hajj) from Damascus to the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina also benefited Nablus politically and economically.[29] Almost from the very beginning of Ottoman rule, pilgrimage caravans became the key variable in the fiscal and political relationship between Jabal Nablus and the central government. Indeed, for a brief period in the early seventeenth century, the governor of Nablus, Farrukh Pasha Ibn Abdullah, was appointed leader of the pilgrimage caravan (amir al-hajj).[30] He built an impressive commercial compound in Nablus for that purpose. The Wikala al-Farrukhiyya, as it was still called in the mid-nineteenth century, became one of the city’s prime commercial properties (see Map 1).[31]

More important, the taxes levied on Jabal Nablus and on most of Palestine were specifically earmarked for meeting the costs of the caravans.[32] Jabal Nablus, for example, contributed more than did any other Palestinian region to the financing of pilgrimage caravans during the first half of the eighteenth century.[33] These moneys filtered back to the merchants and artisans of Nablus in the form of payments for locally produced provisions for the pilgrims, as well as for armed escorts and transport. Part of the taxes from the peasants of Jabal Nablus, therefore, never left the city’s treasury. Instead, as receipts registered in the Islamic court show, these moneys were used to pay the leaders of the various artisan guilds who produced provisions on commission.[34] From this perspective, Nablus’s relationship with pilgrimage caravans established a fairly routine transfer of rural surplus into the city’s manufacturing, trade, and transportation sectors.

For example, the leather water-pouch makers (qirabiyyin) of Nablus and Hebron received commissions for thousands of leather pouches (qirab) annually from the water officer (saqa bashi) of the caravan.[35] These pouches, like the other types of supplies, were purchased, not collected as taxes-in-kind. That this business was fully subject to market forces is demonstrated by an exchange in 1853. At that time, the Nablus Advisory Council, in a letter to the governor of Jerusalem, noted that the qirabiyyin of Nablus were united in their demands that the price of each pouch be raised from 16 to 21 piasters. The reason, they continued, was that “there was heavy demand from Egypt for leather pouches, causing a healthy rise in the price of leather in these territories.”[36]

The advantages of Ottoman rule—an enlarged regional trading area and consistent attention to the pilgrimage caravan—were never wholly contingent on the strength of the central Ottoman government. Nablus was ruled by a relatively stable group of leading families from the late seventeenth century to the late nineteenth century, and it was home to an entrenched and influential merchant community that was reinforced by a strong socioreligious leadership. All were native sons.[37] This autonomy, when combined with the weakness of the central government (especially during the eighteenth century), probably encouraged rather than hindered economic growth because much of the surplus was reinvested into the local economy. In fact, it was precisely during the period of so-called Ottoman decline—that is, from the late sixteenth century to the early nineteenth century—that Nablus emerged as Palestine’s key center for regional trade, manufacturing, and the local organization of commercial agriculture. It also played a leading role in the growing trade with Europe, especially the export of cotton.

The city’s economic growth was most evident in the impressive increase of its population. According to Ottoman population counts (which constitute the best evidence available), the inhabitants of this ancient city multiplied from approximately 5,000–7,000 people in the mid-sixteenth century to more than 20,000 in 1850, making it the possibly the largest city in Palestine at the time.[38] The size of the city’s population during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is not known, but it is almost certain that growth took place steadily rather than in dramatic waves. This is because the demographic pattern of the hill regions, especially Jabal Nablus, was one of stability and of only incremental and sluggish response to the more volatile regional trends.[39]

Even more important than intraregional and interregional trade for the prosperity of Nablus was the core area of local trade and manufacturing. The essential character of Nablus remains defined by its role as the commercial, manufacturing, administrative, and cultural capital of the surrounding villages, and its economic health depended largely on its access to the rural surplus. Nablus’s dependence on its hinterland for most of its needs was most eloquently symbolized by the city’s vulnerable physical position. It lay at the mercy of two imposing mountains that pressed on either side, and it had no natural defenses to speak of. Its simple wall provided less protection than did the compact buildings and the large compounds of the leading families. Most often, it was the armed peasants and the fortified villages of powerful rural clans that bore the brunt of the fighting whenever the Nablus region was invaded by an external force or became mired in internal conflict.

The rhythms of urban life reflected the agricultural calendar of the peasant community. The hustle and bustle of tons of oil being deposited in the underground wells of huge soap-factory buildings after the olive harvest in the fall, for instance, were perhaps only surpassed by the commotion of raw cotton arriving in the city to be ginned and spun in the summer. Thus there were no sharp dividing lines between city and country. Indeed, Nablus was, in some ways, akin to a very large village: at sunrise many Nabulsis exited the city gates to work on the extensive olive groves, vineyards, and orchards that covered the terraced slopes, as well as in the fields, vegetable gardens, and grain mills that were scattered across the valley.

In a reverse flow, peasants poured into the city to sell their goods and to search for wedding clothes, work tools, cooking utensils, rice, coffee, and a host of other items.[40] For them, as for their urban counterparts, Nablus was (to use a common metaphor) the beating heart of the surrounding hinterland. Monitored by customs officials during the day and closed at night, the two largest “valves” were the eastern and western gates, through which long lines of peasants and traveling merchants entered, along with their pack animals. Many remained in the city for a few days and used the extra time to become further acquainted with the city. Most likely, visitors first walked along one of the two roughly parallel thoroughfares that stretched east–west (see Map 1). Hundreds of shops lined each artery and spilled over into smaller streets and alleys, which connected them with each other and with the six major quarters of the city: Yasmina, Gharb, Qaryun, Aqaba, Qaysariyya and Habala.[41] In the southern thoroughfare were the covered market of textile merchants (Khan al-Tujjar) and the Wikala al-Farrukhiyya, which constituted the key commercial spaces of the city. Interspersed throughout were the five central mosques; the large, fortresslike compounds of the ruling urban households, such as those of the Nimrs, Tuqans, and Abd al-Hadis; as well as the numerous soap factories, baths, leather tanneries, and pottery and textile workshops.

Most peasants must have also been impressed by the tall three- and four-storied residential buildings, if only because they reminded themof the grand compounds of their subdistrict chiefs. As Suad Amiry has shown, the dwellings of subdistrict chiefs—usually built in the seat (kursi) village of each subdistrict—were arranged in such a way that they created distance from the normal peasant quarters in the rest of the village, both spatially and aesthetically.[42] These dwellings, constructed by master-builders from Nablus, consciously imitated urban architectural forms in order to project the status and power of these chiefs, to allow them to lead an urban lifestyle even in the village, and to reinforce their image as the natural bridge for urban-rural interaction. The difference, of course, was that of scale: Nablus’s massive stone buildings—tightly packed and looming large above the heads of pedestrians—were the norm, not the exception, hence adding immensely to the city’s authority and grandeur.

The Hinterland of Nablus

Palestine’s small size, remarkably diverse geographical terrain, and dependence on rain-fed agriculture precluded large-scale farming and the development of a monocrop economy. Peasants, approximately 80 percent of the total population, developed varied sources of income by learning how to utilize every topographical feature. Fields were sown with grains, legumes, and vegetables; hills were terraced and planted with trees; and higher-up stony lands were used for grazing. Until the last decades of Ottoman rule, most peasants were small landholders concentrated in the interior hill regions where horticulture, especially the tending of olive groves, was a way of life.

The peasants of the hill regions lived in close-knit village communities that varied in size from a few dozen to a few hundred inhabitants. Most had an average of two to four constituent clans and some large extended families. The basis of collective solidarity was the organization of peasant society into clans (hamulas): patrilineal descent groups related by the fifth degree from a common ancestor. The clan system provided a safety net which supported individual families at times of difficulty, and it was well suited to the vagaries of rain-fed agriculture and the poor soil of hill regions. Clans were also responsible for defending their members in times of trouble, negotiating settlements or taking revenge for bodily harm. These duties were organized and directed mostly by the clan elders. They settled internal disputes according to commonly accepted legal and cultural norms embodied in a deeply rooted system of unwritten customary practices, known as urf, which spelled out rights and responsibilities and elucidated the mechanisms for conflict resolution, compensation, and punishment.[43]

This set of norms differed significantly from the application of Islamic law (shari‘a) that was prevalent in the urban centers and reflected the “tribalization” of peasant society, in that urf drew a great deal on concepts originally articulated in bedouin communities. In this respect, therefore, peasant society had its own internal cultural and legal autonomy. Consequently, and as detailed in Chapter 5, before the mid-nineteenth century peasants rarely went to the urban-based Islamic court to settle disputes, form partnerships, buy property, contract loans, or conduct a host of matters relating to personal status, such as marriage, divorce, or inheritance.[44]

This relative autonomy even extended to criminal matters as late as the mid-nineteenth century. In a revealing letter to the governor of Sidon province dated February 18, 1853, the Nablus council members cited peasant urf traditions and what they called “stupid customs” to explain why some suspects from Jamma‘in village could not be released from prison despite a lack of proof of their guilt. Briefly, the council members emphasized that the obstacle to the extension of the state’s legal codes to individual peasants was that they were not simply individuals but members of clans that insisted on overall collective rights. Until the real culprits could be identified, they argued, the release of the suspects would only inflame the situation and cause problems on an even wider scale.[45]

Clans varied in size and power. The number of adult males in each clan, the internal cohesion in their ranks, the size of the lands they controlled, and the efficacy of their political alliances determined their overall power and prestige. Because each village was usually home for the same clans for generations, Palestinian peasants—like their counterparts in Syria, Lebanon, and communities all over the rim of the Mediterranean Basin—developed a strong sense of local identification, which still survives.[46] Communal belonging and solidarity were expressed in a variety of cultural, social, and economic ways. For example, the peasants of each village usually paid their taxes and even contracted their loans on a collective basis (see Chapter 4). It was also common practice to build new homes collectively and to render mutual assistance during the harvest season.

Wedding rituals included all of these elements of village solidarity. It was not unusual for the elders of a village’s various clans to be consulted prior to a village member’s marriage to an outsider (meaning someone from another village). Once their blessing was obtained, the village elders could receive gifts, and they, in turn, were expected to mobilize their constituents to participate fully in the preparations. Some wedding practices combined local identification with the patriarchal character of clan organization in strikingly revealing ways. Certain villages in the Galilee, for example, had a heavy rock which was set aside for the purpose of competition prior to marriage ceremonies. For an outsider to be allowed to marry one of the village women, the strongest man in the groom-to-be’s village had to be able to lift the host village’s “marriage rock”—assuming that the host village had someone who could lift this rock also.[47] This ritual carried within it a gendered symbolism of power relations between villages and clans: the bride’s village agreed to submit—or, more accurately, to lose one of its women because the wife relocated to the husband’s home—on the condition that the groom’s village passed a test of virility (physical strength).

This is not to say that each village constituted an autonomous and self-sufficient community. Villages were knit together into a variety of economic, political, social, and cultural networks (see Chapter 2).[48] The larger and more powerful clans, for example, had branches in a number of villages, and many clans were connected to each other through marriage, political alliance, and patronage networks. Many villages specialized in particular varieties of sought-after crops and artisanal products, such as watermelon, pottery, or baskets. Urban merchants, meanwhile, carved geographical spheres of influence in the hinterland through social connections that were passed from father to son. Religious Sufi orders, such as the Qadriyya order, also had branches in some of the larger villages. Furthermore, each village was part of a larger cluster of neighboring villages, and several of these constituted a subdistrict (nahiya). Each subdistrict had one or more central villages, larger in population size as well as landholdings—which functioned as political, economic, and social hubs of smaller villages. These central villages were often the administrative headquarters (seat or kursi) for the dominant clan of each subdistrict.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the social space of Jabal Nablus encompassed close to 300 villages, whose economic, social and, to a lesser extent, political life was more closely tied to the city of Nablus than to other urban centers. These villages filled a space stretching along the coastal plains from Haifa and Jaffa in the west to the Ajlun and Balqa regions beyond the River Jordan in the east and from the Galilee in the north to the hills of Ramallah and al-Bireh in the south (see Map 2).[49] The peasants of these villages farmed some of the richest agricultural lands in Palestine.

Not all of Jabal Nablus is equally well endowed, however. Rather, one can speak of three discrete zones: the western slopes, the central highlands, and the eastern slopes. The eastern slopes descend rapidly to below sea level, have precipitous crags, very narrow valleys, and little topsoil, and catch less of the rain that blows in from the Mediterranean Sea. Still, this zone receives adequate rain for the cultivation of wheat and barley, and it enjoys the advantage of a hotter climate and lower altitude, which allow agricultural crops to mature approximately a month earlier than they do in the rest of the region. In addition, Palestinian peasants and urban entrepreneurs have taken advantage of the steeply sloped eastern hills by channeling the rushing streams to power grain mills and to irrigate large parcels of land in valleys of Wadi al-Badhan and Wadi al-Far‘a.[50] Beginning in the 1820s, this region witnessed large investments by merchants and leading families who were eager to acquire mills and lands in order to meet the increased demand for grain.[51]

The eastern slopes contained the smallest number of villages because the terrain, on the whole, lent itself more to the raising of livestock than to cultivation. As a transitional zone between nomadic and settled life, its inhabitants, both villagers and bedouins, led a hybrid existence: many bedouins engaged in seasonal agriculture, and many peasants left their homes for long periods of time as they led their livestock through the surrounding grazing lands. For example, most of the men in the northeastern village of Tammun, one of the largest villages in the subdistrict of Mashariq al-Jarrar, moved around the grazing lands in the Ghur (Jordan Valley), while the women made cheese, clarified butter, woolen rugs, tents, ropes, and cloth bags.[52] That their primary source of income was livestock, not agriculture, was indicated in a petition addressed to the Nablus Advisory Council, in which they asked for relief from the collection of clarified butter (samn) as taxes-in-kind.[53]

The most fertile lands in Jabal Nablus tend to be concentrated in the western slopes. This zone receives much of the rainfall coming in from the Mediterranean because the clouds are trapped by the hills that divide the coast from the desert. The low angle of gradations makes for a thicker and less stony topsoil, especially where the hills give way to large fertile plains. Well suited for the planting of grain, legumes, cotton, fruits and vegetables—the best of these plains are concentrated in what is known today as the Jenin–Tulkarem–Qalqilya triangle. Consequently, this zone contained some of the largest villages in Jabal Nablus.

The best lands in this triangle are the hinterland of the town of Jenin (including the Marj Ibn Amir plain); the plain of Arraba; and the area southwest of the latter where the villages of Dayr al-Ghusun, Attil, Quffin, Shwayka, Bal‘a, and Anabta are located. Marj Ibn Amir, the most fertile plain in all of Palestine, was famous for its plentiful grain harvests as well as for the quality of its tobacco, watermelons, and cotton. This wide plain also had a strategic importance: it constituted the broadest expanse connecting the coast with the interior, and astride it ran one of the main trade routes to Damascus. On its soil numerous famous battles were fought from the time of the pharaohs to World War I, including the battle of Hitten (1187), during which Salah al-Din dealt a decisive blow to the Crusader armies. In the eighteenth century this plain became a bone of contention between the rulers of Jabal Nablus and Zahir al-Umar, the strong man of the Galilee; and in the nineteenth century its wide stretches of land not only produced large amounts of grains for the world market but also became concentrated in the hands of a few large landowners.[54]

The market town of Jenin, which guards the entrance to this large plain, was and remains one whose economy is predominantly agricultural. The storehouses for taxes collected in kind, for example, were located both in Nablus and in Jenin.[55] It is no coincidence that the Jarrar clan, long the most powerful of the subdistrict chiefs, was based in this area. The smaller Arraba plain (11 kilometers long and 4 kilometers wide) contained some of the largest villages in Jabal Nablus, including Arraba, Qabatya, and Ya‘bad. Parts of this area were forests, which were ideal for livestock and were an important source of charcoal. The most prized cheese in Jabal Nablus, for example, came from the village of Ya‘bad. The village of Arraba, it is worth noting, was home to the most important leading family in Jabal Nablus to emerge during the nineteenth century: the Abd al-Hadis.

Closer to the coast, the seasonally alternating humid and hot weather allowed intensive cotton cultivation. The commercial production of this commodity helped pave the way for the eventual integration of Palestine into the capitalist world economy. Jabal Nablus played a leading role in this trade: its cotton was considered the best in Greater Syria, and it was this region’s largest producer. The amount of production far exceeded local demand, and most of the cotton was exported to France, Egypt, or Damascus (see Chapter 3). Consequently, this zone was the first to experience the socioeconomic changes associated with the intensification of commercial agriculture: peasant differentiation, commoditization of land, and expansion of moneylending practices, among other things (see Chapter 4).

Even though the coastal plains had greater agricultural potential than did the hill areas, most peasants were partial to life in the highland villages. The coastal areas were more vulnerable to attack and within easy reach of the government tax collector. They were also exposed to malaria and other diseases: much of the water that streamed from the hills failed to reach the sea, forming swamps instead. The hill villages, in contrast, provided protection from both political and physical dangers: the mountain air was healthier, and the rugged hills formed a natural barrier because the complexity of the folds allowed easy escape from and attack on conventional military forces. This zone included the largest number of villages and exhibited the steadiest level of population density in Palestine over the centuries, and its rough terrain and entrenched peasantry made it the backbone of Nablus’s autonomy.

The central zone was also home to the oldest continuously inhabited settlements. Due to population growth and increased pressure on the land, especially during the nineteenth century, it was quite common for “mother” villages in the hills to spawn “daughter” villages in the plains.[56] Peasants built temporary structures on the farthest lands under their control so that they would not have to travel back to the village during the harvest season. Called khirba (ruins), they were often mistaken by western travelers as remnants of once prosperous villages and cited as examples of agricultural decline in Palestine. In fact, the opposite was true, for many of these satellite settlements or offshoots became permanent villages in the nineteenth century.[57]

Interspersed among the hill villages were many small but fertile valleys, in which a variety of rain-fed crops, especially wheat, was grown.[58] Horticulture, however, was the most important agricultural pursuit in terms of time, effort, and income. The limited agricultural potential of the hill areas was conserved through the centuries by terracing, whichprotected the thin topsoil from erosion. Terracing is a strenuous, time-consuming task because the walls, made out of loosely stacked stones, have to be repaired annually after the winter rains. Even now the prosperity of a village is most easily judged by how well its terraces are maintained.

Most of the terraced hills were and still are covered with a variety of fruit-bearing trees and vines, mainly olives. Olive trees are especially well suited to the Mediterranean climate and, more important, to the high limestone base that is inhospitable to a wide variety of plant life. This is why olive trees and vines dominate the hill areas along most of the Mediterranean Basin from Spain, Italy, and Greece to the Syrian highlands and to parts of North Africa.[59] In the words of Fernand Braudel, “Everywhere [in the Mediterranean rim] can be found the same eternal trinity: wheat, olives, and vines, born of the climate and history; in other words an identical agricultural civilization, identical ways of dominating the environment” (see Plate 4).[60]

Nowhere in Palestine was the centrality of the olive tree more in evidence than in Jabal Nablus. Since ancient times this area has produced the largest olive-oil harvests in Palestine, a significant proportion of which, as in North Africa, was exported both regionally and internationally (see Chapter 4).[61] This tree’s central importance was evident in the manyways it was used. Its wood became fuel and was carved into small implements and decorative items. Its fruit was cracked, pickled, and eaten or pressed for oil. The oil remains a staple item in Palestinian cuisine. Olive oil was also used to make soap at home and in large factories and as fuel for lamps. In addition, olive oil has a variety of special purposes suchas medicinal ointments. The dried, crushed pits of pressed olives (jift), when burned, proved ideal as a long-lasting source of heat. Large amounts of jift were consumed every winter as fuel for braziers, and it was used throughout the year as fuel for cooking the large vats of soap in factories.

Olive oil was literally liquid capital, and it often served in lieu of money. Because it could easily be stored for at least one year, it was “deposited” in oil wells dug deep into the ground, both in the city and in many of the villages. Peasants, merchants, and others could then “draw” on these accounts or take money instead. Its status as a marker of wealth is the subtext of stories about how rich rural shaykhs supposedly used olive oil instead of water to mix the mortar which held together the stones of their fortresslike residential compounds.[62]

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