Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies
Bar-Ilan University Ramat-Gan, Israel

Jerusalem: Life Throughout the Ages in a Holy City

Internet Educational Activities <>
March 1997
David Eisenstadt     10/12

Happy Passover!

Mamluke and Early Ottoman Jerusalem


The Crusaders were driven from Jerusalem by Moslem Ayyubid troops in 1244. Less than a decade later a political assasination in the Nile Delta brought to power a military caste of freed slaves, who became known as the Mamlukes. They were to rule the Middle East for over 250 years (1250-1517). The Mamlukes were of diverse ethnic stock, Turks, Tartars, Kurds, Armenians and even some West Europeans. They were also usually converts of to Islam, as a result of their initial enslavery as children.Their caste was not hereditary, but rather perpetuated by recruitment. The descendants of the Mamlukes generally took civilian positions in the Egyptian bureaucracy. Mamluke politics were, frequently, violent. Many Mamluke officers experienced periods of disgrace (sometimes punished by, perish the thought, 'exile' to Jerusalem) and imprisonment, although it did not necessarily end their careers; few Mamluke rulers died in their beds. The center of Mamluke rule became the citadel of Cairo.

Jerusalem under the Mamlukes had the paradoxical position of being politically and economically neglected, while being religiously revered and even glorified.

The Political Status of Mamluke Jerusalem - Decline and Neglect

The Political status of Jerusalem declined sharply under Mamluke rule. Jerusalem had been the capital of the country under the Crusaders - The Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. Under the Mamlukes Jerusalem was not even a provincial capital and, in fact became subject to two other cities, Cairo and Damascus. Cairo was the seat of the sultan and as such capital of the empire. 'Greater Syria', subject to Cairo, was divided into seven mamlakas or regions; the largest of which was the mamlaka of Damascus; Jerusalem was a minor subdistrict (wilaya) in this mamlaka.

The lower political status of was also reflected in the military rank of the city's governor. His rank was 'commander of forty' (from 1376 onwards - previously it had been lower); the governors of Gaza and Safed (Tzfat) were 'commanders of 1000). The lower rank of the governor also meant that the city was 'protected' by only a small garrison of troops.

Another reflection of Jerusalem's lack of political/military importance may be seen in the fact that the city was not connected to the imperial communications network. This system of roads, constucted by the Sultan Baybars in the mid-13th century was meant to connect the cities of 'Greater Syria' with Cairo and fascilitate the efficient passage of goverment communications. These roads extended as far as the Euphrates, but never included Jerusalem.

Disgraced Officers Build Ornate Madrassas Forsake me not!

The forsaken nature of the city was further amplified by the fact that disgraced officers were sometimes 'exiled' to Jerusalem for the period of their suspension. These exiles produced some of Mamluke Jerusalem's most ornate buildings. Apparently various disgraced officers were concerned about how history would remember them. Consequently, they constructed religious academies (madrassas) with ornate facades.

One such building is the Tashtimurya at 106 Street of the Chain in the Moslem Quarter. The Tashtimurya was built in 1382 by the Emir Tashtimur, a former governor of Damascus. It contains the tombs of Tashtimur and his son, which are visible beyond the barred window. The buildings entrance stands out for its decorative niche high above the doorway. Another nearby madrassa, the Tazya, (111 Street of the Chain) was built by the exiled Emir Taz in 1362. His former position as court cupbearer is indicated by two goblets, carved on either side of an ornate Arabic inscription above a window. Above this incription are interlocking, clover shaped stones, typical of Mamluke period architecture in Jerusalem - Worth coming to see!

'Jerusalem has no wall, much to our distress'

The Mamluke period stands out as one of the few times in Jerusalem's history that the city had no wall. This too reflected the reduced political status of the city. Its previous wall had been destroyed in 1219 by the Ayyubid ruler of Damascus El Malik El Muathim Isa and there exists no archeological evidence of a city wall until the present walls were constructed by Suleiman the Magnificent in the mid-16th century. Apparently no Mamluke ruler had ever considered their reconstruction sufficiently important. In addition to the city's declined prestige this probably also reflected the geo-political/military reality at the time. All the serious external military threats to the Mamlukes were far from Jerusalem's ruined ramparts. In 1310 the Sultan El Nasir Muhamed bin Qala'un ordered that the citadel be rebuilt. It provided a line defense for Jerusalem's governor and the small Mamluke garrison stationed there, but afforded little protection for the rest of the city's inhabitiants.

The lack of a wall was a source of great distress to Jerusalem's Jewish visitors, who saw this as a sign of the city's desolation. In 1481 Meshullam of Voltera wrote: 'Jerusalem has no wall, much to our distress, except for a bit on the side from which I entered'. (Apparently the area of today's Jaffa Gate next to the reconstructed citadel). Like in 1488 another visitor to the city, Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura wrote: 'Jerusalem is almost desolated and it goes without saying that it has no wall around it'.

'El Quds El Sharif' - Continued Religious Prestige

Despite its political decline, Jerusalem flourished as an Islamic religious center during the Mamluke period. A body of Moslem religioous writings, known as Fadail El Quds (Praises of Jerusalem) proved an important force in convincing wealthy, influential Moslems to rehabilitate the city after years of 'infidel' Crusader rule. Jerusalem was described as the 'first of two qiblas'. Qibla - the direction of prayer in Islam. In the early days of Islam Moslems faced Jerusalem, not Mecca during prayer. This fact was now used by Jerusalem's rulers to 'advertise' the city's religious virtues, the 'third Haram' (religious territory - after Mecca and Medina), recently liberated from the infidels.

The fact that the Mamlukes were ruling the city after such a long period of Christian domination caused them to launch a massive wave of building to 're-islamize' the city. 'Re-islamizing' the city took the form of a massive wave of religious building on the Temple Mount and in the areas west and north of it. Particularly prominent among these buildings were madrassas (religious academies), zawiyas (monasteries for Moslem mystics) and ribats (hospices).

The Temple Mount -Haram Esh Sharif - The Noble Sanctuary

The site which most demonstratively emphasizes the Islamic identity of the city is the Temple Mount, or as it is known to Moslems as Haram Esh Sharif - the Noble Sanctuary. As a result various Mamluke rulers devoted great efforts to decorate and 'glorify' this area of the city. In the mid 13th century, the Sultan Baybars renovated the wall mosaic on the exterior of the Dome of the Rock. (The colorful tiles were added to the stucture by Suleiman the Magnificent in the mid 16th century). The Sultan Al Nasir Muhamed bin Qala'un did even more to 'glorify' the Temple Mount: He renovated the southern wall of the Haram; resurfaced the domes of Al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock with Gold; erected the colonade on the western side of the Haram; and built El Qanatir (the decorative arches at the top of the stairs leading to the elevated platform of the Dome of the Rock). In 1320 Emir Tankiz, governor of Damascus, donated El Kas (the Cup) - the magnificent washing station north of the Al Aqsa Mosque.

Madrassa, Zawiyas and Ribats

Three major functions of Mamluke buildings were as madrassas - religious academies; zawiyas - monasteries for Moslem mystics (sufis); and ribats - hostels for visting Moslem pilgrims. The largest concentration of these buildings is in the Moslem Quarter, west and north of the Temple Mount. Particularly fine examples of Mamluke architecture can be found on the Street of the Chain and the Street of the Iron Gate. These buildings are characterized by arches composed of pillow-shaped stones; niches over gates filled with 'dangling stalactites'. Another major characteristic is an alternating color pattern of building stones lining windows and doors; black and white; brown and white; red and white. Frequently plaques with elegantly carved Arabic insriptions are found over doors and windows. These inscriptions frequently inform us of the name of the buildings' sponsor; the date it was built; and other information about the sponsor (i.e. rank, city of origin, etc.).

The Re-establishment of Jerusalem's Jewish Community

The Crusaders formerly banned Jews (and Moslems) from entering the city of Jerusalem. The ban was apparently effective because Rabbi Benjamin of Tudella reports finding only three Jews (cloth dyers) in the city in the mid-12th century. In 1267 Nachmanides came to Jerusalem and delivered a remarkably similar report to his son, with an interesting contradiction; he tells of finding only two Jews in the city, but claims a minyan meets in their home on Sabbaths - Did Jerusalem have a weekend Jewish community? Nachmanides goes on to tell us that: '...we have taken an old delapidated house, buit on marble pillars, with a beautiful dome, and taken it as a synogoue, for the city is derelict and whoever desires to take possesion of its ruins may do so. We have...sent to Nablus to bring back Torah Scrolls which used to be in Jerusalem'. This building still exists in the heart of the Jewish quarter and is known as the Ramban (Nachmanides) Synagoue. The building's interior is remarkably similar to the desciption of it in Nachmanides' letter to his son. The establishment of the synagogue on this location, together with the community which grew up around it ultimately determined the location of Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter - to this day!

A Mosque in the Jewish Quarter

The re-established Jewish community had a tumultuous first few hundred years. On several occasions various Moslem groups tried to sieze the synagogue, especially after a mosque was established next door. The mosque itself was erected as a result of a dispute within the minute Jewish community. Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura (1488) tells us that the mosque next to the Ramban Synagogue was built by the mother of a man who converted to Islam as a result with fellow members of the Jewish community. The mosque also still exists next to the Ramban Synagogue.

The expulsion from Spain in 1492 brought a minor (numerically) wave of immigration to the Land of Israel, includung Jerusalem. After Moslems successfully siezed the Ramban Synagogue in 1586, the Eliahu Hanavi (Prophet Elijah) Synagogue was erected to the southeast. The 'new' arrivals from Iberia were instrumental in constructing the new synagogue. Later this grew into a complex known today as the 'Four Sephardi Synagogues'. It still exists and may be visited it is located next ot the northeast corner of the Jewish Quarter's parking lot.

The Turks Arrive - Jerusalem Gets A New Wall

In 1516 the Ottoman Turks defeated the Mamluke army near Aleppo, Syria. At year's end the Sultan Selim the Grim (alternately 'the Conqueror') entered Jerusalem beginning 400 years of Turkish rule. Initially Turkish rule brought splendor and development to the city. In the mid 16th century Selim's son Suleiman the Magnificent executed several major projects: He built the city's walls. The same walls which surround the Old City today. At this time he also resurfaced the exterior of the Dome of the Rock with blue-green tiles - what we see today. The city's water system was also repaired at this time and a series of fountains (sabils) were installed at various locations in the city, including Jaffa Gate and the bridge/dam of Sultan's pool.

Turkish rule didn't remain enlightened for long. Corruption, neglect, rebellious governors/warlords and the general disintegration of law and order in the Ottoman Near East was to rapidly turn the Land of Israel and Jerusalem into the backwater of a dying empire. This however is a prelude of big things to come.

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