Economic Life in Ottoman Jerusalem

Economic Life in Ottoman Jerusalem

Economic Life in Ottoman Jerusalem

Economic Life in Ottoman Jerusalem


Jerusalem was never just another Ottoman town, but in the heyday of the Ottoman Empire it displayed many of the characteristics of a Muslim traditional society. Professor Cohen makes full use of the rich and hitherto unexplored Arabic and Turkish archives relating to this period to reconstruct a vivid and detailed picture of everyday life in this lively urban centre. His study focuses on the major guilds of sixteenth-century Jerusalem - butchers, soap-producers and dealers, millers and bakers, describing and analysing their production methods, prices and measures, and the services they provided for the local population. In addition, their economic ties with neighbouring villages, as well as their social background and inter-relations are discussed. The author shows how this detailed knowledge can lead to a better understanding of the longer-term changes in the economy of the city and of the Empire as a whole.


Every town is and wants to be a world apart […] all or nearly all of them between
the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries had ramparts.

Where there is a town, there will be a division of labour.

(F. Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism 15th–18th Century
(New York, 1979), Vol. 1. The Structures of Everyday Life, pp. 491, 479.)

Jerusalem became part of the Ottoman empire, as did most of the Arabicspeaking provinces, during the last months of 1516. These major political developments came in the wake of a military campaign that put an end to three centuries of Mamluk rule in Syria, Palestine and Egypt. Covering an area that had never been regarded as militarily threatening or economically attractive, neither Damascus nor Cairo were originally considered by the Ottomans as important objectives. Jerusalem, much smaller in size and of minimal administrative consequence, was even less significant – its religious history notwithstanding.

Once these cities were incorporated into the Ottoman body politic, the rulers’ initial lack of interest became irrelevant. They were the masters and acted accordingly. The first years of rule in the newly acquired territories must have been uneasy for both governor and subjects. The death of Sultan Selim and the succession of his son, Suleiman, in 1520, did not alleviate the situation. The governor of Syria, a former Mamluk officer who had crossed the lines and joined the Ottoman camp at the crucial stage of their takeover, took advantage of what seemed to him, prematurely, to be the demise of the new rulers. He rebelled against the state and its newly established sultan in the hope that this time too, he was betting on the right horse. To his surprise, the central government overcame him easily, but from the administration’s perspective the episode must have complicated matters even further; it would now take longer to impose Ottoman rule definitively. The first Ottoman land and population census (taḥrīr) was not carried out until 1525–6, and it took the Jerusalem kadi another five years to establish a functioning court system. The earliest court records (sijill), still messy in form . . .

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