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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.

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