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The Meanings of Autonomy
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Boundaries in Time and Space

Compared to economic, social, and cultural processes which slowly undulate like hidden deep-sea currents, political developments move rapidly across the surface like weather fronts that have visible boundaries in time and space. Because political history is not the main concern of this book, it will be sufficient to briefly consider four turning points that introduced new political dynamics.[63] At the same time, we shall compare the Ottoman government’s bureaucratic and somewhat static construction of Jabal Nablus’s administrative boundaries with its actual and dynamic social space, especially as reflected in its relations with regional powers, particularly the rulers of Acre.

The first of the four dramatic and rather violent moments was the 1657 Ottoman military campaign, which sought to restore central control in southern Syria. This campaign introduced a new and stable group of ruling families to Jabal Nablus, families that came to dominate the region’s political life well into the nineteenth century. The second was the sieges of Nablus in 1771 and 1773 by Zahir al-Umar, which reflected the rise of Acre as the political capital of Palestine during a period of weak central control, on the one hand, and marked the beginning of the Tuqan household’s bid for hegemony over Jabal Nablus, on the other. The third was the military occupation of Greater Syria in 1831 by the forces of Muhammad Ali Pasha, the ruler of Egypt. Although of short duration (nine years), Egyptian rule accelerated ongoing socioeconomic trends and restructured the local and regional configurations of political power. It also brought to the fore a new leading family, Abd al-Hadi, after the failed 1834 revolt led by Nabulsi subdistrict chiefs. The fourth was the destruction in 1859 of the village of Arraba, headquarters of the Abd al-Hadi family, by a resurgent Ottoman government. This event marked the official end of rule by native sons and the fruition of a major Ottoman campaign of centralization and administrative reforms that was initiated in 1839.

The cumulative effect of these watershed events was twofold: it reduced the autonomy of the hinterland in relation to the city, as well as the autonomy of Jabal Nablus and of Palestine in general vis-à-vis the Ottoman state. Put differently, these turning points marked the temporal boundaries of a slow and multilayered process of political centralization on the local, regional, and international levels.

The 1657 Campaign

After their victory over the Mamluks in the battle of Marj Dabiq on August 23, 1516, the Ottoman rulers chose not to undertake a fundamental administrative and political reorganization of Greater Syria. Palestine was divided into five districts (sing. liwa, later called sanjaq) that closely reflected the administrative arrangement under the Mamluks: Safad, Nablus, Jerusalem (Quds al-Sharif), Gaza, Ajlun, and Lajjun. All were attached, as in Mamluk times, to the province (wilaya) of Damascus.[64] Nor did the Ottoman rulers attempt to restructure the political configuration on the local level. Jabal Nablus was divided into four subdistricts (sing. nahiya), in addition to the city itself: Jabal Qubla (south mountain), Jabal Shami (north mountain), Qaqun, and Bani Sa‘b—all of which reflected long-standing divisions.[65] For instance, the Jayyusi clan, which ruled the area of Bani Sa‘b in the fifteenth century, was reconfirmed in its position and further entrusted in the late sixteenth century with safeguarding the section of the Damascus–Cairo highway between the fortresses of Qaqun and Ras al-Ayn.[66] As these official administrative divisions on the local level suggest, political power in Jabal Nablus did not emanate solely from the city, nor was it centralized in the hands of one household. Rather, the city of Nablus was only one among a number of local centers of power within Jabal Nablus, and its relations with the surrounding villages were partially mediated by the rural-based subdistrict chiefs (sing. shaykh al-nahiya), such as the Jayyusis.

The power of rural chiefs was ultimately based on violence or the threat thereof. These chiefs lived in strategic fortresslike compounds located in seat (kursi) villages which served as their political and military headquarters.[67] Using their quickly mobilized peasant militia and their command of the hilly terrain, they could project their forces to control the villages in their area and the approaches to Nablus. In effect, they could restrict or relax the arteries of local and regional trade and, in the process, reward or punish particular clans and/or urban trading families. They rarely had to resort to force, however, because they operated tightly knit patronage networks in which peasants traded loyalty for protection. They also commanded allegiance by inserting themselves into the social fabric: they lived among the peasants, married into the key clans of their subdistricts, and transplanted their own clan members into a number of strategic villages. The subdistrict chiefs reinforced their authority by arbitrating disputes and dispensing justice according to the unwritten rules of customary law called urf. Their actions, therefore, were circumscribed by social and cultural boundaries that defined ideals for accepted behavior, notions of justice, and levels of accountability to the collective community. Developed over the centuries, it was this nexus of rural relations that constituted the building blocks of rural autonomy and accounted for the deeply rooted yet decentralized power relations.

The Ottoman bureaucracy, honed by generations of imperial expansion in Anatolia and eastern Europe, was both skillful and pragmatic in absorbing such semiautonomous regions. From the very beginning, local leaders were coopted into becoming the representatives of the Ottoman government. This is why the official administrative divisions constructed on the subdistrict level were not primarily meant to be effective grids for the organization of political hierarchies emanating from the center. Rather, they were flexible fiscal shells designed to maximize revenue at the least political cost. The government, in other words, read the existing local political map and then drew boundaries around the actual relations of power. In addition, the government did not attempt to rule the hinterland of Nablus through the city. Rather, each subdistrict chief wasdirectly appointed by the governor of Damascus and invested with the authority to collect taxes and to maintain law and order. These appointments, made annually, were largely ceremonial in nature: in practice, the post of shaykhal-nahiya became hereditary in each subdistrict as it was passed down within the same family for generations.[68]

Still, a certain level of control was exercised by playing local leaders off against each other and, when circumstance left no other choice, by punitive expeditions against the whole region. Such an expedition was sent in 1657 as part of a larger campaign by the Ottoman government to reassert central control after decades of social upheavals and economic crises that rocked the empire as a whole. Palestine was a key target because of its importance to land communications with Egypt as well as to the safety and financing of the Damascus pilgrimage caravan.

The Ottoman military expedition consisted primarily of Arab local militia (yerliyya) from central Syria.[69] In lieu of salaries for the pacification of Jabal Nablus and, subsequently, for annual military service as escorts for pilgrimage caravans, the cavalry officers (sipahis) were granted revenues of some agricultural lands. These land grants, called timar or za‘ama, depending on their size, were carved out from specific villages in Jabal Nablus.[70] To prevent grant holders from establishing independent bases of power, the Ottoman government dispersed the lands and villages of each holder to separate and distant parts of Jabal Nablus. They also assigned the key village of each za‘ama as a separate timar to another grant holder.[71] Furthermore, they made these grants subject to annual renewal in order to forestall privatization through inheritance.

The expedition succeeded in pacifying Jabal Nablus, but the Ottoman government failed in its efforts to prevent the military officers from establishing a strong local base of power. The expedition leaders settled in the city of Nablus and managed to pass their timar and za‘ama holdings on to their descendants.[72] They also consolidated local alliances by selling and renting their rights to these timars,[73] as well as by farming them out to middlemen who paid out the revenues in advance, then collected as much as they could from the peasants.[74] In addition to their control of village lands, they quickly diversified their material base by training their sons in a variety of occupations and by investing in manufacture, trade, and urban real estate. According to Ihsan Nimr, a local historian, “Their properties, of all different kinds, were the symbol of their power and princely status.…They were careful to acquire all types of properties so that they would need no one nor to purchase anything from others: theirs were the soap factor[ies], bath-house[s], vegetable gardens, pottery factories, mills, bakeries, olive and sesame presses, shops, and lands for planting various crops.”[75]

Over time the expedition leaders slowly melted into the local population[76] and became more concerned with running their business affairs than with military service to the Ottoman state.[77] The most powerful of them built large, fortresslike homes with high walls, within which there were stables, water wells, gardens, storage rooms, and quarters for armed retainers and servants. Many of these houses are still standing today. Of this group, the Nimrs, originally subdistrict chiefs in the hinterlands of Homs and Hama, north of Damascus, were the most important, for they received the lion’s share of the land grants. They quickly gained control of the posts of mutasallim and of miralay (or chief of the alay, as the company of local sipahis was called). They also intermarried with rich merchant and leading religious (ulama) families and entered into business partnerships with them.

Aside from the Nimrs, the two most important leading families to emerge soon after the 1657 campaign were the Tuqans and the Jarrars. The Jarrar clan moved from the al-Balqa region on the east bank of the River Jordan to the plain of Marj Ibn Amir in Lajjun district sometime around 1670.[78] The economic power of the Jarrars was based on their hold over what eventually became known as the Jenin district (sanjaq) around the turn of the nineteenth century. Their political power stemmed from their peasant militia and their possession of a formidable fortress in Sanur village, which controlled the access to the city from the north. They were the only subdistrict chiefs until the 1820s to achieve the post of mutasallim, albeit briefly.[79]

The Tuqans, originally from northern Syria,[80] emerged as strong competitors of the Nimrs around the turn of the eighteenth century. They were the only household that ever came close to centralizing all of Jabal Nablus under their rule, and their members held the post of mutasallim longer than did any other family in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, albeit inconsistently. Their most prominent member in the eighteenth century was Hajj Salih Pasha Tuqan (d. 1742). Descended from a family that was wealthy and politically prominent before it came to Jabal Nablus,[81] Salih Pasha began his political career by serving in the military contingent of the pilgrimage caravan. In 1709 he was appointed mutasallim of Jerusalem, and later on he filled the same post in the district of Tarabzon near the Black Sea. He returned to Jabal Nablus in 1723, when he was appointed governor of the districts of Gaza, Nablus, and Lajjun.[82] Salih Pasha and some of his descendants intermarried with the Nimrs,[83] but it was not long before internal competition, exacerbated by political interference from the governors of Damascus and the rulers of Acre, caused a serious rift between them that was not mended until the 1820s.

The 1657 expedition heralded a period of relative stability and prosperity for Jabal Nablus. The infusion of a powerful new urban elite also increased the authority and power of the city over its hinterland and reasserted the primacy of Ottoman rule. These developments, in turn, facilitated the expansion of the social space of Jabal Nablus. The earliest reference we have as to the official readjustment of administrative boundaries in response to this expansion is a report by the deputy (wakil) mutasallim of Nablus, Umar Agha Nimr, on the amounts of taxes collected from its subdistricts and the amounts still owed for the year 1723. This report, submitted to the representative of Salih Pasha Tuqan—then governor of Gaza, Nablus, and Lajjun districts—shows that the number of subdistricts of Jabal Nablus had increased from four to seven, not counting the city itself.[84] Of these, the subdistrict of Bani Sa‘b was the only one that retained its name—testimony to the continuity in leadership of the Jayyusi clan, whose preeminence in this area preceded the onset of Ottoman rule. The southern subdistrict, Jabal Qubla, had expanded south, east, and west to form three separate subdistricts: Jamma‘in, Jorat Amra, and Shaykh Mansur.[85] The former subdistricts of Jabal Shami and Qaqun expanded north, east, and west to form three separate subdistricts: Wadi al-Sha‘ir (valley of barley), Sha‘rawiyya, and Jarrar. The fact that two of the subdistricts, Jarrar and Shaykh Mansur, were named after the ruling clans in them reflected how local power formations often determined Ottoman administrative divisions from above.

The expansion of Jabal Nablus’s social space and administrative boundaries took place at the expense of the only new districts in Palestine that the Ottoman government established after it conquered the area in the sixteenth century: Ajlun and Lajjun. Unlike Palestine’s other districts, each of which had an ancient city as its capital, Ajlun and Lajjun were carved out primarily for political and strategic reasons. Through Ajlun district passed the first crucial leg of the Damascus contingent of the pilgrimage caravans. Because this area was dominated by bedouin tribes, the Ottoman government needed a strong hand, provided by the Qansuh, then Furaykh, households to make sure that the caravans proceeded smoothly.[86] Through Lajjun passed the Damascus–Cairo land highway; and this district was set aside for the Turabay household, which was charged with the task of protecting it.[87]

Lajjun and Ajlun formed an arc that capped Jabal Nablus on three sides like a hat. In the mid-eighteenth century they were combined into a single administrative unit, with the town of Jenin as their administrative capital. Officially this continued to be the case until the turn of the nineteenth century, when the western part of this combined unit (Lajjun) became the district of Jenin.[88] As indicated in the above report, however, Jenin was firmly and fully integrated into the social space of Jabal Nablus under the control of the Jarrars in the late 1600s, and it remained so throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For instance, the above report named the subdistricts of Sha‘rawiyya and Jarrar as part of Jabal Nablus even though together they covered much of the territories that were officially part of Lajjun district.[89] In fact, Nablus had all along been the key urban center for the villages of both Ajlun and Lajjun.[90] The formal administrative arrangements, in other words, concealed an ongoing economic and, to a lesser extent, political absorption by Nablus of these two adjacent districts, especially Lajjun. As we shall soon see, part of Ajlun was appended to Jabal Nablus, albeit briefly, in the nineteenth century; and what was left of Lajjun in the early eighteenth century was severely diminished, between the hammer of Acre’s political power and the anvil of Nablus’s economic muscle.

The administrative arrangement sketched out in the 1723 document remained essentially unchanged until the end of Ottoman rule in 1917. Just as important was the stability of the ruling families mentioned by name in this document, including the Nimrs, Tuqans, and Jarrars. Over the course of the eighteenth century, the Nimrs and Tuqans traded positions of leadership in the city of Nablus and occasionally ruled other regions in Palestine, especially Jerusalem and Jaffa (including Lydda and Ramla).[91] Meanwhile, the Jarrars were the undisputed leading clan among subdistrict chiefs.[92] Despite their internal differences, this triumvirate managed to maintain a relatively strong grip on power until the Egyptian invasion of 1831 and, more often than not, was united in defending Jabal Nablus against frontal attempts to conquer it by outside powers. The biggest challenge they faced came from the rulers of Acre.

The Rise of Acre

Officially, Jabal Nablus (that is, the districts of Nablus and Jenin) remained attached to the province of Damascus, albeit with brief interruptions, from 1516 until 1849/1850, after which it was attached to the province of Sidon, and then to the province of Beirut in 1887/1888.[93] In reality, the Damascus governors had only a tenuous hold over Jabal Nablus; during most of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries they exercised even less influence. Rather, it was the rulers of Acre—Zahir al-Umar (d. 1775), Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar (d. 1804), Sulayman Pasha al-Adil (d. 1819), and Abdullah Pasha (who died shortly after the surrender of Acre and his exile to Egypt in 1831)—who wielded real power in much of southern Syria.[94]

Briefly put, the Damascus governors, with some important exceptions,[95] were rotated annually, could not project their limited military resources as far as Jabal Nablus, and, in any case, were too busy arranging for and accompanying annual pilgrimage caravans to impose their will. The rulers of Acre, in contrast, were in a much better position to influence events in Jabal Nablus: Acre was adjacent to Nablus, and its leaders possessed a well-trained and capable military force. They also effectively controlled the governorship of Acre for life and appointed their successors.[96] In fact, they were often called on by the governors of Damascus to render assistance in both fiscal and administrative matters relating to Palestine in general and to Jabal Nablus in particular.[97] In the late 1820s, for example, the governor of Acre, Abdullah Pasha, convinced the central government to reassign the district of Nablus to the province of Sidon, whose de facto capital was Acre. This was after the Damascus governor argued that it would cost him more to force the rebellious people of Jabal Nablus to pay their arrears than the amount of taxes they actually owed.[98]

The rise of Acre must be seen within the larger context of the emergence of power centers within the body of the empire but outside its direct control. This phenomenon swept all through the Ottoman domains, including Anatolia, during the eighteenth century, which was a period of largely weak central control. The stage was set during the late seventeenth century after a series of disastrous defeats in wars with Europe that resulted in the humiliating Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699. During the first half of the eighteenth century the Ottoman government had partial success in recouping some of its losses and in reasserting its power internally.[99] Beginning in 1768, however, the Ottoman government suffered major territorial losses in several wars with Russia over a period of three decades and watched Napoleon take over Egypt in 1798. Most demoralizing of all was their utter military defeat by the forces of one of their own subjects, Muhammad Ali Pasha of Egypt, when he occupied Greater Syria in 1831.

What was bad for the Ottoman government during this period, however, was often good for regional forces, which took advantage of weakness in the center to negotiate virtually autonomous political enclaves and to keep most of the surplus collected as taxes to themselves. Often they ruled these enclaves for life and even passed them on to their descendants or hand-picked successors.[100] The Jalilis in Mosul, the Mamluks in Egypt, and the Shihabs in Mount Lebanon are but a few examples of increased autonomy under the umbrella of Ottoman rule. These ruling households differed substantially from each other in terms of when they came to power, how they held on to it, and the nature of their relationship to the central government. Four features were common to most, however: political centralization on the district and provincial level, sometimes with the help and blessing of the central government, which needed these strong households to maintain its grip, if only indirectly; greater urban access to the rural surplus at the expense of both the central government and local forces at the subdistrict level; the imposition of virtual monopolies on the movement of key agricultural commodities; and growing trade with and sometimes political and military dependence on an industrializing Europe.

These features lay behind the rise of the fortified city of Acre as the political and military center of Palestine and as the de facto capital of the province of Sidon, which was created in the 1660s. Strategically located and easily defended, this ancient port and one-time Crusader stronghold became the headquarters for Zahir al-Umar. A native of the Galilee, Zahir al-Umar began his career as a minor tax collector and, over a forty-five-year period (1730–1775), emerged as the most powerful leader in Palestine. The key economic backdrop to his success was his ability to (partially) monopolize the trade in cotton, grain, and olive oil destined for export to Europe. From the profits of this trade, Zahir al-Umar built a military force that allowed him to expand the territories under his control and to withstand repeated attacks by the governors of Damascus.

Initially, the Jarrar clan bore the brunt of the military and political pressures from Acre because their territories lay between northern and central Palestine. The first major armed confrontation was over control of Marj Ibn Amir and the market town of Nazareth. Through the fertile lands of the former passed one of the major routes of trade between Nablus and Damascus; and the latter was an important entrepôt for trade between Palestine and its northern regional markets. In 1735 the Jarrars were defeated by Zahir al-Umar, and their leader, Shaykh Ibrahim, was killed in the battle. Nazareth, which had previously paid taxes to the Jarrar clan, became part of Zahir al-Umar’s domains.[101]

Over the next three decades Zahir al-Umar’s stature became such that he found it possible to forge temporary alliances with the Russian government and to cooperate with the Mamluks in Egypt, who, with his help, invaded Greater Syria in 1771 and again in 1773. It was precisely in these two years that Zahir al-Umar twice laid siege to Nablus. The sieges threw into bold relief a century-long campaign (1730–1830) by the powerful rulers of Acre to contain and even partially reduce the social space of Jabal Nablus. From the military standpoint, these brief though bloody episodes ended in stalemates, but then Zahir al-Umar never intended to occupy the city and remove its local leadership. Rather, these sieges were meant as painful reminders to Nablus’s population and its leaders that Acre, not the Ottoman government, was the source of political authority.

During Zahir al-Umar’s long reign the leaders of Jabal Nablus learned to subtly maneuver between him and the Ottoman government (as represented by the governors of Damascus), with which he was constantly at odds. Struggles for power within Jabal Nablus, therefore, were often influenced and sometimes precipitated by the larger conflict between Zahir al-Umar and the Ottoman authorities. The former wielded real power in the region; the latter were key to securing political appointments and official legitimacy. Indeed, until the demise of Acre’s political clout in 1831, its governors’ primary mechanism for controlling Jabal Nablus was the time-honored strategy of divide and conquer, a task made easier by the Nabulsi leaders, who did not hesitate to enlist the help of the Acre rulers or of the governors of Damascus in order to gain advantage in their own internal struggles.[102]

In this respect, the sieges were also important in that they boosted the power of the Tuqan household which, just five years earlier, had embarked on a sustained campaign to centralize its control of Jabal Nablus as a whole. In 1766 Mustafa Beik Tuqan successfully maneuvered to have himself appointed as the subdistrict chief of Bani Sa‘b in place of the Jayyusi clan.[103] This was the first time that an urban household attempted to directly control a section of the hinterland by forcing out a rural clan, thereby seriously challenging the balance of power between the city and the countryside. This fateful move put the Tuqans on a collision course with both Zahir al-Umar and the Jarrars.

That Bani Sa‘b became the lightning rod of an escalating local and regional conflict was no accident. Its territories controlled a key section of the Damascus–Cairo highway as well the access of Nablus to its major sea outlet, the city of Jaffa. Bani Sa‘b was also a cotton-producing district, and this was a time of vigorous expansion in cotton trade. This political dispute, therefore, reflected the twin processes of urban political domination over the hinterland and the integration of Palestine into the world economy. The Jarrars opposed the first process, while Zahir al-Umar attempted to impose a monopoly on the trade generated by the latter. Of course, these two processes preceded 1760 and only fully matured a century later, but this dispute was a clear signal of the new times ahead. As we shall see in subsequent chapters, the process of urban control over the countryside was eventually completed by the merchant community, whose primary mechanisms of control were not military power and tax collection but moneylending and local trade networks.

The danger posed by the Tuqan’s bid for power was magnified in 1771, when the new governor of Damascus, Muhammad Pasha Azm, appointed Mustafa Beik Tuqan to the post of mutasallim of Nablus. The Jarrars’ fears induced them to let the forces of Zahir al-Umar pass unimpeded through their territories on their way to lay siege to Nablus. Meanwhile, Mustafa Beik Tuqan, with the help of the Nimrs, prepared the city’s defenses. This turn of events cast the Jarrars in the position of anti-Ottoman local forces, while the Tuqans represented themselves as the defenders of Jabal Nablus against Zahir al-Umar and his Mamluk allies, hence as loyal servants of the sultan.[104]

This political positioning proved to be crucial during the reign of Zahir al-Umar’s even more powerful successor, Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar (1775–1804). Unlike his predecessor, Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar maintained good relations with the Ottoman central government by paying taxes on time and making sure that he remained indispensable for their hold over southern Syria. Simultaneously, he steadily maneuvered to increase his power, eventually becoming the governor of both Sidon and Damascus provinces.[105] By and large, the well-connected Tuqans received his support,[106] while the Jarrars, unwilling to bow to this centralization effort, suffered two (unsuccessful) military campaigns against their fortress in Sanur village in 1790 and 1795.[107]

Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar’s weak successor, Sulayman Pasha al-Adil, made little effort to directly intervene in the affairs of Jabal Nablus. Rather, he parceled out his support to different factions at different times, alternating between the Jarrars, the Tuqans, and the Abd al-Hadis.[108] Meanwhile, the Tuqans, under the aggressive leadership of Musa Beik Tuqan (1801–1823), accelerated their drive for internal hegemony through violence and intimidation, eventually embroiling Jabal Nablus in a bloody civil war (1817–1823).[109] With the blessing of the Ottoman government, the Tuqans imported mercenary soldiers and stationed them in a hastily built fortress in the village of Junayd, on the outskirts of Nablus.[110] This move backfired, for it only served to increase local opposition. After a series of bloody clashes, some inside the city itself, the Tuqans were defeated and their leader poisoned on November 20, 1823.[111]

The anti-Tuqan coalition, led by the Jarrars and the Qasims (chiefs of the subdistrict of Jamma‘in) with occasional help from the Nimrs,[112] won the battles but lost the war. On one level, the entire struggle only served to enhance the growing importance of the city as the center of effective political power in Jabal Nablus. Henceforth, all struggles would revolve around securing the post of mutasallim, and all political contenders from the hinterland who managed to play a leading role in Jabal Nablus as a whole began by establishing residence in or near the city itself. On another level, the victorious Jarrars and Qasims were swimming against the tide of political centralization that was about to overwhelm Greater Syria. In 1825 the Jarrars’ power in Jabal Nablus was irreparably damaged when their formidable fortress in Sanur village was destroyed, with the blessing of the Ottoman government, by the combined forces of Abdullah Pasha, Sulayman Pasha’s successor in Acre, and of Amir Shihab, the powerful ruler of Mount Lebanon. Then, in 1831, all of Greater Syria fell under the rule of Muhammad Ali Pasha of Egypt, whose administration proved to be far more formidable and intrusive than that of the Ottoman government. Thus, when the Qasims led a revolt against the Egyptian forces in 1834, they were quickly defeated and their leaders beheaded.

Egyptian Rule, 1831–1840

The Egyptian military occupation of Greater Syria is the one dramatic moment in the nineteenth century that is most widely credited for causing a radical break with the past.[113] A more cautious assessment would view the brief period of Egyptian rule as having accelerated rather than precipitated ongoing trends, even though some important new dynamics were introduced, such as the establishment of city councils and the imposition of new controls on the peasantry through conscription and disarmament..

Undergirding Egypt’s emergence as the most formidable regional power during the reign of Muhammad Ali Pasha (1805–1848) were the expansion in agricultural production and trade with Europe and the creation of a large modern army that, along the French model, turned peasants into foot soldiers. The military institutions were Muhammad Ali’s primary vehicle for introducing wide-ranging administrative, fiscal, and economic structural changes in Egypt. The military also allowed him to project Egyptian power into the Sudan, into the Arabian Peninsula and, in 1831, into Greater Syria.

In a series of lightning battles beginning that year, the outnumbered Egyptian army, under the brilliant leadership of Muhammad Ali Pasha’s son, Ibrahim Pasha, soundly defeated the Ottoman forces, causing the sultan to seek the help of the empire’s nemesis, Russia. This move, in turn, brought the rest of the European states into the fray. Like the series of events triggered by Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, but on a much grander scale, the Egyptian invasion of Greater Syria firmly posed what became known as the Eastern Question; that is, how to integrate the Ottoman Empire and its far-flung domains into the European political and economic orbit without upsetting the balance of power in Europe and without igniting uncontrollable regional conflicts. The very question both assumed and reflected the existence of unprecedented opportunities for the European powers to increase their influence. In 1838 Great Britain negotiated the “free-trade” Anglo-Turkish Commercial Convention, which opened the Ottoman interior to European businesses. At the same time, indirect political incursions, under the cover of protecting religious minorities, were intensified.

The Egyptian authorities, for their part, heartily encouraged greater European involvement. Muhammad Ali Pasha, who had already oriented Egypt’s economy firmly toward Europe, sought to preempt any hostile actions by the European powers by reassuring them that Egyptian policies would facilitate rather than hinder their economic interests in Greater Syria. For example, permission was given for the establishment of European consulates in cities, such as Damascus and Jerusalem, which were considered off limits before, and commercial agriculture and overseas trade were vigorously promoted and protected through the imposition of a centralized political and legal infrastructure. For the first time in memory, Greater Syria was brought under a single administration backed by a powerful army. To standardize the wide diversity of political configurations, the Egyptian authorities channeled administrative control through a new urban institution: the Advisory Council (majlis al-shura). Based in key cities and staffed by religious leaders, rich merchants, and political figures, these councils accelerated yet another ongoing process (aside from the integration of Greater Syria in the European orbit): urban political control and economic domination of the hinterland.

Initially, the rural leaders of hill regions in Greater Syria, including Jabal Nablus, were awed by the overwhelming Egyptian military forces and cautiously welcomed Ibrahim Pasha. Soon, however, they beganto greatly resent their exclusion from the Advisory Councils, whichwere empowered by and answerable to the Egyptian authorities. This resentment turned to rebellion when they were ordered to implement the highly unpopular measures of disarming and conscripting the peasantry, as well as collecting a new head tax, the ferde, to be paid in cash by all adult males over the age of fifteen. All of these measures cut into their privileges and material base, and they undermined their hold over the peasantry.

Those rural leaders with the most to lose led revolts in Palestine, Mount Lebanon, and Jabal al-Druze (Hauran). The first of these revolts took place in Palestine in 1834.[114] Led by Qasim al-Ahmad, chief of the Jamma‘in subdistrict in Jabal Nablus, this revolt was crushed, like the others that followed, by the overwhelming military force of the Egyptian army. Qasim al-Ahmad and his two oldest sons were executed. Other leaders either met the same fate, were exiled, and/or were relieved of their positions. Thus the political autonomy of Jabal Nablus, weakened by the interventions of the rulers of Acre and by internal struggles, was dealt a major blow by the Egyptian forces.

At the same time, the Egyptian occupation marked the rise of a new ruling household in Jabal Nablus: the Abd al-Hadis. Based in the village of Arraba, the Abd al-Hadis were already an important force at the time of Napoleon’s siege of Acre, having been supported by the rulers of Acre (especially Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar and Sulayman Pasha) as well as by the Tuqans as a counterweight to the Jarrars. Because the Abd al-Hadis represented a relatively new and fresh political force, Ibrahim Pasha picked their leader, Shaykh Husayn, to be his right-hand man for southern Syria. Because Husayn Abd al-Hadi proved to be a loyal and effective servant, he was promoted to the governorship of Sidon province, which, in the 1830s, included almost all of Palestine.

For a while it seemed as though Nablus might become both the political and economic capital of southern Syria, due to the demise of Acre and the meteoric rise of the Abd al-Hadis. Indicative was the expansion of the social space of Jabal Nablus into domains long controlled by the rulers of Acre. In 1851, for instance, Mahmud Beik Abd al-Hadi, then the district-governor of Nablus, and his cousin, Salih Beik Abd al-Hadi, then thedistrict-governor of Haifa, appointed the shaykhs of seven villages in Bilad al-Haritha located between the towns of Bisan and Nazareth.[115] Furthermore, that same year Yusuf Abd al-Hadi, a rich tax farmer, invested large amounts of money to rebuild the villages of Shifa‘amr subdistrict (west of Haifa) as part of his iltizam (tax farm) holdings.[116]

Even the official administrative configuration of Jabal Nablus in the decade after the Egyptian occupation came closer than ever to reflecting its informal absorption of the former district of Lajjun. According to records of the Nablus Advisory Council, Jabal Nablus in the mid-nineteenth century formally consisted of the two districts (sanjaqs) of Nablus and Jenin (the former capital of the combined districts of Ajlun and Lajjun), plus nine subdistricts which contained a total of 213 villages, as shown in Table 1.

1. Administrative Composition of Jabal Nablus, 1850:
Districts (Sanjaqs) and subdistricts ( Nahiyas)[*]
Administrative Unit Head Number of Villages
Source: NMSR, pp. 76-77, 167.
Sanjaq Nablus Mahmud Beik Abd al-Hadi  
Sanjaq Jenin Yusuf Sulayman Abd al-Hadi 45
Mashariq al-Jarrar Ahmad al-Yusuf, Muhammad al-Hajj and Qasim al-Dawud (Jarrar) 28
Bani Sa‘b Yusuf Jayyusi 27
Jamma‘in (east) Mahmud al-Qasim 21
Jamma‘in (west) Muhammad al-Sadiq (Rayyan) 25
Sha‘rawiyya (east) Salih Beik Abd al-Hadi  
Sha‘rawiyya (west) Abd al-Rahman Husayn Abd al-Hadi 23
Wadi al-Sha‘ir (east) Abu Bakr Burqawi (Sayf clan)  
Wadi al-Sha‘ir (west) Musa al-Mir‘i (al-Ahfa clan) 24
Mashariq Nablus Shaykhs of Bayta and Aqraba villages (Hajj Muhammad clan) 20

This expansion of Jabal Nablus, however, proved to be temporary. The European powers that forced Ibrahim Pasha’s retreat in 1840 lavished their attention on Jerusalem instead. Because of its religious and symbolic significance, Jerusalem was the most suitable stepping-stone for increased European intervention through a process of redefining Palestine in Biblical terms as the Holy (as opposed to Ottoman or Arab) land. By the 1850s Jerusalem emerged as Palestine’s political and administrative center—a role it has yet to relinquish. At the same time, the coastal towns of Jaffa and Haifa, like Beirut and Alexandria, were transformed into large, modern cities as they became the economic beachheads for the growing trade with Europe.

The rise of Jerusalem and the gradual shifting of the economic center of gravity to the coast led many Nabulsi merchants to focus on the east bank of the River Jordan as the new frontier for the investment of merchant capital. The economic integration of the former district of Ajlun into Jabal Nablus’s sphere of influence had been going on since the early Ottoman period, but it proceeded apace with the extension of Ottoman central control into this bedouin-dominated environment during the second half of the nineteenth century. Many Nabulsi families, along with others from Jerusalem and Damascus, established households on the east bank, purchased lands, and extended credit to peasants.[117] Because Nabulsi merchants were historically the most active in this region, it was not surprising that in 1867 Jabal Nablus’s administrative boundaries were redrawn again as the Ottoman authorities appended the middle portion of Ajlun district, al-Balqa (with Salt as its central town), to Jabal Nablus. Until this new part was detached in 1888, Jabal Nablus became officially known as the district (mutasarrifiyya) of Jabal Nablus and al-Balqa.

Ottoman Centralization and the Fall of Arraba

Beset by external pressures, a fiscal crisis, and separatist nationalist movements in its remaining European domains, the Ottoman authorities unveiled in 1839 an ambitious program of reforms known as the Tanzimat. This program aimed at modernizing the armed forces, centralizing political power, and increasing revenues from agricultural production, trade, and manufacturing. All of this required more knowledge about and greater control of the subjects of the empire: population counts, conscription, direct collection of taxes, and the establishment of political institutions which could facilitate direct central control.

Because many elements of this program were similar to ones already taken by Muhammad Ali Pasha during the Egyptian occupation of Greater Syria, the way was already paved for the implementation of the Tanzimat. The Ottoman government, for example, regulated and expanded the Advisory Councils, tried to keep the population disarmed, revived the policy of conscription, and maintained the head tax. They also conducted population-count campaigns in Greater Syria during the late 1840s and, in 1856, initiated the second wave of reforms, including a new land code (1858). All of these measures were backed by an increased military presence and an active policy of wooing the urban elites, primarily through the Advisory Councils.

Still, the large power vacuum created by the Egyptian retreat in 1840 could not be quickly filled by the Ottoman government. For the next two decades the reconfiguration of political relations in Jabal Nablus was punctuated by internal upheavals and violent clashes. The escalating civil strife largely emanated from below as peasant clans, no longer under the watchful gaze of the Egyptian forces, competed vigorously for land and water resources in the context of expanding agricultural production, population growth, and increasing demands on their surplus by the Ottoman government, local leaders, and urban merchants. Meanwhile, the members of the Nablus Advisory Council negotiated their relations with a much more aggressive and intrusive Ottoman state one crisis at a time.

For example, on December 26, 1849, the council members[118] met to draft a letter of defiance in response to a number of impatient missives from the governor of Jerusalem concerning the composition of the council. The last of these letters, addressed to the qa’immaqam of Nablus, Sulayman Beik Tuqan, had been received just eight days earlier:

We have repeatedly requested that you quickly organize the draftingof a letter from the Nablus Advisory Council nominating ten Muslims and three for each of the remaining millets [non-Muslim religious communities], so that four…Muslims and one for each millet can be chosen in a lottery. [This is] aside from your person, the judge and the mufti—as was explained to you in a letter…from the Provincial Council [of Sidon]. Until now, we have not received any such list from you, and it is necessary that you send it as soon as possible…[119]

The Jerusalem governor and his superiors, who had been trying to nurture this fledgling institution over the past few years, were unhappy about their lack of control over the composition of its members and about the fact that its current configuration deviated in two important respects from the guidelines proclaimed in a January 1840 imperial edict.[120] First, all the members were Muslims, even though representatives from the Samaritan and the Christian Greek Orthodox communities were supposed to have been included.[121] Second, the council members recruited an additional member, the naqib al-ashraf (steward of the descendants of the Prophet), Muhammad Murtada Afandi Hanbali, despite the fact that all four slots for Muslims were already filled.

At the same time, however, the governor and his superiors knew that any effort to unilaterally impose new members would lead to a political cul-de-sac. The cooperation of the current members of the Nablus council, therefore, was indispensable; and this is why they were asked to nominate their successors. The Nablus council members, in turn, were aware of the government’s dilemma. In their reply they were neither humble nor shy about asserting their local will:

We have received your order…but there is no one in these parts who is qualified to run this institution other than the ones who are members of it at the present. The naqib…[whom we] appointed as head of the council…has the qualifications and experience in these matters and in running the affairs of the people.…Likewise, all the other members have the experience and commitment [to do the same]. We petition you…to keep them in their posts.[122]

The council members referred to themselves in the third person (“the ones who are members”) in order to highlight their claim, asserted in the title of their memo, that they had the full support of the city’s notables, religious figures, and neighborhood leaders. Their reply, in effect, denied the central authorities the right to choose the members of the council, justified the inclusion of naqib al-ashraf, and declared his appointment as head of the council, even though the rules clearly stipulated that the qa’immaqam was to hold this post.

This confrontation, like many others that took place between the council and the Ottoman authorities in the mid-nineteenth century, eventually resulted in a negotiated compromise. A list was submitted four months after the above letter was sent, and some new members were chosen.[123] Yet even though Muhammad Murtada Afandi Hanbali was specifically excluded, he continued to attend the council meetings and to sign his name along with the others on outgoing correspondence. The Ottoman authorities, for their part, turned a blind eye.[124]

The ability of the Nablus council to influence the composition of its own membership, and to do so in ways that contravened guidelines established at the highest levels, illustrates both the extent and the limits of Jabal Nablus’s autonomy within Ottoman rule during the mid-nineteenth century. On the one hand, it was clear that the Ottoman reforms were filtered and reshaped by a local ruling elite, a religious leadership, and a merchant community composed entirely of native sons. On the other hand, detailed supervision of the kind indicated by the letters from the governor of Jerusalem would have been unthinkable just few decades earlier, as would the restructuring of local political authority that made the Advisory Council the locus of local political power.

In this context, it is significant that none of the letters sent by the council members ever questioned the legitimacy of the Advisory Council even though this rather new institution was clearly designed to reinforce central control at the expense of local autonomy. Indeed, their letters emphasized their desire to be active participants in the molding of a new political landscape, along with the central government, and enthusiastically insisted that they possessed the three classic qualifications for political office: merit, commitment, and popular support. This is because the cooperative posture of the Nablus council members was more than just a bow to superior authority driven by an instinct for self-preservation; it was also internally driven. Although the members came from a heterogeneous group of traditionally prominent families—religious, ruling, and mercantile—collectively they represented the emergence of a new social group and a new type of local notable. All were actively involved in trade and soap manufacturing, and all had a stake in the success of an institution that provided them with an effective forum through which they could project their power locally.

Control of the post of mutasallim (and by extension over the Advisory Council) during this transitional period (1840–1860) shifted between the Tuqans and the Abd al-Hadis, whose camps had become the lightning rods of the escalating civil strife. When the Ottoman Empire was distracted by the outbreak of the Crimean War (1854–1858), the factional conflicts turned into a bloody conflagration that swept all corners of Jabal Nablus, leaving behind numerous casualties and extensive property damage. Soon after the Crimean War ended, the Ottoman government launched a military campaign that led to the destruction of Arraba, the fortified home village of the Abd al-Hadi clan, and the permanent reassertion of central control. After this date, the highest political office (mutasallim) would no longer be held by native sons, and the struggle for power would be limited to competition for positions in the Advisory Council under the direct control and supervision of a non-Nabulsi official.

The fact that the rather small-scale and brief Ottoman military campaign in 1859 proved so decisive in permanently asserting central Ottoman control indicates that the political and economic realities in Nablus were ripe for such a change. The ruling households that emerged in the seventeenth century had already been seriously weakened by internal struggles and repeated blows by the rulers of Acre, the Egyptian occupation, and Ottoman centralization. As shall be seen, their material base, predicated on the control of the peasantry and their surplus, was also undermined by merchants who, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, consolidated their rise from political obscurity and the confines of trade into the greener pastures of political office and control of the major means of production (land and soap factories).

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The Meanings of Autonomy
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