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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.

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