Academic journal article Jerusalem Quarterly

Publishing Jerusalem's Ottoman Municipal Archives (1892-1917): A Turning Point for the City's Historiography

Academic journal article Jerusalem Quarterly

Publishing Jerusalem's Ottoman Municipal Archives (1892-1917): A Turning Point for the City's Historiography

Article excerpt

This article intends to provide a description of the archives of the Ottoman municipality of Jerusalem (1892-1917) and point to some of the main benefits that can be derived from this little known source for the historiography of Jerusalem. The archives of the Ottoman municipality are part of the Historical Archives of the Jerusalem Municipality, kept in the municipality building at Safra Square in the Musrara neighborhood.

The municipal council (majlis baladiyya, meclis-i belediye) of Jerusalem came into existence in the beginning of the 1860s.1 Jerusalem was in fact one of the very first cities within the Ottoman Empire to form a municipality, which was further consolidated after the Ottoman law on municipalities in 1877.2 From the 1880s onward, the municipal council was composed of nine to twelve members elected for a renewable mandate of four years: there were generally six Muslims, two Christians, and one or two Jews on the council (depending on the period), in addition to a maximum of four ex officio members. These were drawn from the city's professional ranks, and including such trades as engineer, doctor, and veterinarian, as well as the head of police. The Ottoman government chose the council president from among the elected members.3

The municipality thus differed in its composition from the administrative council (majlis idarat al-liwa', meclis-i idare-i liva), which was mostly constituted of ex officio members and counted only four elected members.4 The governor (mutasarrif) was one of the ex officio members of the administrative council, which supervised all government activities in the district and was the "most important decision-making body" on that level.5

The archives of the Ottoman municipality of Jerusalem offer a unique perspective into the urban development of Jerusalem and the workings of the administration in the last decades of Ottoman rule. Founded in the spirit of the centralizing reforms known as the Tanzimat, the municipality applied measures decided on the imperial level, but also responded to local needs and demands in a continuous tension between autonomy and dependence. The municipal archives thus provide a great wealth of information about social, economic, cultural, and political life during that crucial period of the city's history and offer many glimpses of daily life issues in late Ottoman Jerusalem.

Aside from a few notable exceptions, these archives have not received much attention from historians. These include: Yasemin Avci's work on the transformation of Jerusalem between 1890 and 1914, published in Turkish in 2004;6 a brief study by the Jordanian historian Mahmud al-Shunaq, published in Arabic in 2010;7 and a long article by Vincent Lemire and Yasemin Avci, published in French in 2005.8 For a long time, the only English-language article available about the Jerusalem municipality was Ruth Kark's essay published in 1980.9 Recently, Johann Büssow published an important article re-situating this Ottoman municipal institution within the overall framework of urban government in the district of Jerusalem but, as he wrote, he himself "was unable to access the minutes of Jerusalem's Municipal Council."10

A Historiographic Turning Point

In the last few years, numerous historians have become adamant about the necessity of developing and deepening our understanding of the history of Jerusalem during the late Ottoman period. The hope is to avail ourselves of a "trivialized" history of the city, a history of the endogenous social and political dynamics of an urban system, that is not necessarily magnetized or oriented toward today's great geopolitical and religious conflicts alone. In 1998, Michael Dumper pointed out that "the widest hole in the literature on Jerusalem is on how it is governed."11 Writing of the post-1967 period, Dumper's observation was just as applicable to the centuries preceding Israel's occupation. In just over ten years, however, research has evolved and things have changed. …

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