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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.

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