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Talking Turkey: The Ottoman Empire in the Holy Land

The rule of the Ottoman Empire in Israel, which began in the early 16th century, lasted until the end of World World I, after which Great Britain gained control of Palestine. During Ottoman rule, the religious minorities in Israel – Christians and Jews – lived through both periods of prosperity, and of persecution.


The Jews of Safed

The Jewish population thrived during the first part of Ottoman rule. Jews were allowed to practice their religion, and the city of Safed (Tsfat), in the Galilee, saw a rebirth of Jewish life. In the mid-16th century, Kabbalah was studied intensely, and the Oral Law was codified in the Shulkhan Arukh. From the institutions of learning in Safed, these texts were dispersed to Jews living in the Diaspora.
However, with the decline and decentralization of Ottoman rule, the lives of the Jews declined as well. Much of the land was in the hands of absentee landlords, and fell into disrepair. Taxes were crippling to the average farmer and landowner, and arable land became victim to swamps and desert. The decline continued until Western interest in Israel began in the 19th century, and then Jewish life began to flourish again. The last two decades of Ottoman rule witnessed the first waves of Jewish immigrants to Israel, emigrating mainly from Russia, who came to build a better life for themselves and fulfill their dreams of living in the Holy Land.
Tours to the Holy Land should not overlook Safed, a fascinating, quirky city. Visit the many art galleries, including The General Exhibition and the Dadon Gallery, as well as ancient synagogues. No visit to Safed would be complete without at least a little peek into the world of Kabbalah. Contact the International Center for Tzfat Kabbalah to find out information about courses. Vestiges of Safed’s Ottoman past remain as well. Visit the Red Mosque, which today is used as a wedding hall, and the Old Turkish Headquarters of Safed, now a community center.


The Hurva

A tourist on a Christian Holy Land Tour should visit the Hurva, an ancient synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem, in what is now called the Jewish Quarter. The history of the Hurva is inextricably linked to the rule of the Ottoman Empire. The site of the synagogue, according to one tradition, was a religious institution for Ashkenazi Jews in Israel from the time of the 13th century. Another tradition claims that a synagogue existed on the site from even earlier – from the time of the 2nd century sage Judah HaNasi. The Hurva (literally: The Ruins) gained prominence during Ottoman rule, as a group of Jews arrived from Poland in 1700 and attempted to rebuild the synagogue. However, they ran into many problems with taxes and fees owed to the Ottoman pashas; eventually, unable to repay their debt, the building was set on fire and the Jewish community exiled.
After nearly two centuries of attempts by Jewish groups to rebuild the synagogue, permission was finally granted, money raised, and, in 1864 the synagogue was rebuilt and dedicated. Sadly, it was destroyed again during the 1948 war, but is in the process of being, once again, reconstructed, this time by the Israeli government.


The Armenian Quarter

Christian Holy Land tours always include a visit to the famous Church of the Holy Sepulcher, but the history of the Armenians in Jerusalem is a long and fascinating one as well. During the Ottoman period, most of the Christians were living in communities around Jerusalem, near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. One particular group of Christians, the Armenians, grew in numbers, power, and prosperity and gained control over their own quarter in Jerusalem.
In the late 17th century, Armenians were the second largest Christian community, comprising over 20% of the Christian population in Jerusalem. Once again, though, history illustrates for us how the decline of the Ottoman rulers led to a decline in the living standards of its subjects. Over the next two hundred years, there were many incidents of massacres instigated by the Ottoman rulers against the Armenians, all over the Ottoman Empire. Toward the end of World War I, the Ottoman war minister, out of fear the Armenians would side with the Russians, began a systematic destruction of Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire. Their homes and property were confiscated; many Armenians were forced on a death march to a town in Syria. In total, between one and one-and-a-half million Armenians were systematically murdered worldwide during and just after World War I.
Today, the Armenian Quarter is small, but thriving. The centerpiece of a large cemetery located in the Armenian Quarter is a monument to fallen warriors of the Armenian Legion in 1917, and to the victims of the Armenian Genocide. Christian tours to the Holy Land should also stop by the Cathedral of St. James, the Church of the Holy Arch Angels, and St. Savior’s Monastery. Be sure to also check out the Sandrouni Workshop, where you can learn firsthand how to create beautiful Armenian ceramic pieces.


The White Mosque

In Nazareth, located in the Galilee, there are also some interesting sites for the Christian Holy Land tourist which date back to the Ottoman Empire. Most prominent among these are the Saraya, the Government House, built by the governor of the Galilee in the 18th Century, as well as the famous White Mosque. The Mosque today combines a house of prayer, a cultural center, and a museum which takes the visitor on a tour of Nazareth’s history.
Subjects under the Ottoman Empire in Israel enjoyed years of freedom and prosperity, but unfortunately also suffered greatly. It is important to remember both aspects of Christian life during that time, to commemorate the unbearable genocide, as well as to visit the beautiful places of worship – everlasting symbols of hope and redemption – that flourished during that time.