The Ottoman Empire (1516-1917)

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The Ottoman Era (1516-1917)  
Under Ottoman rule, the disposition towards the Christian minority in the Holy Land improved, which was also reflected in the treatment of Nazareth. Christians were allowed to return, settle and build churches, and the city became once again a site of pilgrimage.
Rulers Fakr el-Din (1610-1635) and Daher el-Omar (1710-1750) are noteworthy for their benevolent attitude towards Christians. During the 19th century, Nazareth developed from a village into a well-established town. The revival of religious sentiment in Europe, and the increasing influence of the European powers in Palestine as the Ottoman Empire waned, encouraged the development of the town’s Christian institutes, especially in education and welfare.
The town’s improving condition benefited its Muslim population too. In 1811, the first mosque was completed and the Fahoum family was made trustee of its assets, a position it holds to this day.
Background to The Ottoman Era
Of the many Turkish tribes living in Central Asia, one leader, Ottoman I (1258-1326), established a particularly successful dynasty. His descendants established a great Muslim-Turkish empire that replaced the Byzantine Empire and conquered lands that included the Balkans, lands around the the Black Sea, the Middle East and North Africa. Considered God’s messenger on Earth, the sultan ruled over the Ottoman Empire with absolute authority – in spiritual, military, administrative, judicial and economic matters.
The Ottomans’ 400-year occupation brought many changes to the Holy Land. One of their first was to reverse the region’s decline under the Mamluks. A new, centrally organized administration was introduced, as well as safer roads, and agronomy and trade were developed.
Return of Christianity Nazereth
During the second half of the 16th century, three Christian families settled in Nazareth, the first Christian immigrants in 250 years. In the 17th century, a Druze emir, Fakr El-Din, became ruler of the Galilee and was known for his sympathy towards Christians. After conquering Nazareth, he asked only for a symbolic head tax. In 1620 he transferred the Cave of the Annunciation to the authority of Franciscan monks and granted them permission to build a church and a monastery there. The work lasted 30 years, during which the village slowly grew in stature and size.
In this period, Nazareth’s Christians applied to the Maronite Patriarch in Lebanon to ask him to send over several families to bolster Christian settlement in Nazareth. The Patriarch agreed, making the Maronites the first community of Christians to resettle Nazareth. Afterwards, a Greek-Orthodox family arrived with its own priest from the village of Zakhra in the Jordan Valley. The Franciscans welcomed the settling of local Christian communities in the town, allowing the Greek-Orthodox to pray in a cave by Mary’s Well (today’s the site of the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation). In 1635, Fakr El-Din was executed by the Turkish sultan. Nazareth returned to being a minor village, living in constant fear of attack from the Galilee’s Bedouin.
A major change in the history of Nazareth occurred when Daher el-Omar became ruler of Galilee nearly a century later. In 1730 he took over Nazareth and, considering the Christians to be loyal allies, encouraged their settlement. Under his rule, Nazareth became a town again: the number of residents increased, the economic condition improved and a Christian identity developed. The town witnessed the construction of new public buildings, monasteries and churches.
As part of his policy to improve relations with France, whose influence over the area was increasing, Omar supported the Franciscans and allowed them to rebuild the Basilica of the Annunciation over the Holy Cave. He also united the different Christian communities and made them agree to a division of churches between them, an arrangement still in evidence today. The Greek-Orthodox community was given Mary’s Well, where it built St. Gabriel’s Church (the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation today). Despite the Franciscans’ resistance, Omar granted a charter to Acre’s Greek-Orthodox Bishop, Zaphron, providing him with possession of the spring and the underground chapel located there. The construction of the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation was complete by 1763.
The Greek-Catholic community, also supported by Daher el-Omar, was given possession of the Synagogue Church. The permit is preserved in the archive of the Maronite Church in Nazareth, alongside the permit to establish a Maronite Church.
Daher el-Omar married a local woman and built the Seraya (“palace” in Turkish), which he used as his private home as well as a government center. He also built a luxurious summer villa where he stayed for a month each year. He cracked down on Bedouin attacks and protected Nazareth from looting forays by the inhabitants of the Nablus mountains. Omar refused to grant a permit for the Muslims to build a mosque in the town. Instead he provided them with a prayer room in the Seraya and allowed them to call their followers to prayer from the Seraya’s roof.
After Daher el-Omar, Nazareth went through a period of economic decline. At the end of the 18th century, the Galilee fell under the rule of El-Jazzar Pasha, known for his unfriendly attitude towards Christians. During his early years, Nazareth’s residents were not harmed. The Franciscans were given permission to levy taxes from the city and five additional villages, and in 1781 they built the Mensa Christi Church. However, following a conflict with French traders in Acre, the Pasha ordered the confiscation of all European property.
When a French ship anchored off Acre’s coast in a show of force, the confiscation order was cancelled. However, after the ship’s departure, El-Jazzar took his revenge on the Europeans, killing the Nazareth Monastery’s translator and deporting the French consulate from Sidon. The support of Nazareth’s residents for Napoleon, who had visited the town, infuriated El-Jazzar and after the French retreat he issued an order for their slaughter. However, a quick intervention by the British admiral Sir Sidney Smith, who was fighting Napoleon alongside El-Jazzar, ensured the order was not implemented. Smith threatened that, if any Christian under the Pasha’s authority was hurt, he would burn Acre to the ground.
Nonetheless, Pasha made things harder for the residents by increasing taxation tenfold. Many residents were forced to leave the city. El-Jazzar died in 1804 and his title passed to Pasha Ismail, who was ousted after only one year in a plot by his courtiers.
The new ruler, Suleiman el-Karghy, was known as “The Righteous”. His rule lasted until 1819, a period remembered as a time of peace and welfare. Like other towns under his rule, Nazareth enjoyed prosperity. Suleiman encouraged the citizens to work their farmlands, and the number of pilgrims increased. In 1816, a pilgrim described Nazareth as a thriving town.
In 1808, Suleiman appointed Sheikh Abdullah el-Fahoum as the town’s mufti and trustee of the town’s first mosque, the White Mosque. Fahoum started registering all judicial transactions and land deals in Nazareth in a book called “El Sejel el-Fahoumi”. The Fahoum family is one of the largest and most important in Nazareth today. Suleiman also protected Nazareth from external enemies. Many of the town’s lands in the Jezreel Valley were a target for raids by the inhabitants of nearby Na’in village. Suleiman invested much effort in restoring order and reached an agreement with the ruler of Na’in.
Suleiman’s reign ended in 1819, and he was replaced by Abdulla Pasha. The latter used a heavy hand against his Christian subjects. In 1823 he imposed a heavy tax on Christians, and in 1828, during the Greek War, he proposed that the Muslims kill the town’s Christians. The local Muslims’ response was reported to be: “Would a farmer slaughter his milking cow?” Changing his mind, Abdulla ordered that the Christians be robbed instead. This traumatic event – known as the “Easter pillage” – was remembered by the town’s Christians for many generations.
Prosperous Nazareth
During the 19th century, Nazareth became a modern city. Its population increased and its geographic limits extended beyond the Church of the Annunciation area. Several factors were at work: security had improved, the area’s economy had been revitalized by the industrial revolution, Christian immigration was on the rise and, above all, the Christian religious institutes had been able to increase their activities due to the growing influence of the European powers as Ottoman rule waned.
In this period 12 churches and several monasteries were built in Nazareth. Construction of the churches was accompanied by widespread missionary activity and the establishment of educational and welfare services for the local population. Seven new schools, two hospitals and three orphanages were set up. In addition, hotels and inns were built for the many pilgrims.
The city became an important crossroads. Between 1873 and 1875, German settlers paved the first modern road in the country’s north, between Haifa and Nazareth. As a result the number of merchants in the city increased and many camel convoys carrying grain and corn passed through Nazareth on their way from the Golan Heights to the coastal cities. Nazareth became a marketing center for the surrounding villages and supplied farmers with many services as well as workshops. At the start of the 19th century the city was home to 1,000 people; by the century’s end, the population had swelled to 8,000, making Nazareth one of the largest cities in the Galilee.
Nazareth remained, however, a rural city. In addition to the many farm laborers, there were “notable” families who leased their lands to peasant farmers to work. Typically these landlords provided the seeds, tools and cattle, and received 80% of the harvest in return. Their lands covered much of the Jezreel Valley, as well as a large area around Tiberias.
Like many other cities in the Middle East, Nazareth was divided into quarters, based on the main religious communities. There were at least three quarters in Nazareth: the Greek-Orthodox Quarter (Kharrat el-Rom) to the north; the Catholic Quarter (Kharrat el-Latin) to the south-west; and the Muslim Quarter (Kharrat el-Islam) to the east. The city had a dominant Christian population: of the 7,500 residents in 1890, only 1,825 were Muslims.
Source: Nazareth and sites, Eli Schieler Editor, published by “Ariel”, 1982.