In preparation for my Turkish seminar, I am completing various assigned readings and writing responses. This is a response to a section of Donald Quataert’s The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922.
The increasing centralization of Ottoman control over its provinces in the 19th and 20th century goes against my stereotype of “the sick man” losing control. It does make sense, however, when one considers the long sweep of improving communications and transport across both the Ottoman Empire and the rest of the world. Having lived in Jerusalem, I find the degree and flavor of Ottoman control over its provinces to be fascinating. Some wish to use a particular read on this question to support the highly politicized claim that there is no true Palestinian identity. Thus I was particularly interested in Quataert’s brief discussion of Nablus as an example of “center-province relations.”
As he notes, Nablus was “not an important center but rather a hill town of modest regional significance” (p. 106). Thus it gives a fascinating model of how central influence waxed, waned and was amenable to negotiations. Local elite families got themselves appointed to ruling counsels, and those ruling counsels sometimes did and sometimes did not obey Ottoman commands. (To be clear, they were never in rebellion or even impolite, but sometimes they would just fail to do what was asked.) Arguments between the governor in Jerusalem and the local Nablusian counsel ensued. To collect taxes, the Empire could not rely on the tax farming system (which if I’m reading correctly, seemed to feed primarily to the local elites) but instead came with troops to collect the taxes directly. Even after the effort of centralization in 1840, it sounds like Nablus stayed fairly autonomous. Quataert’s final note on Nablus says that even in 1910 the residents were finally paying taxes correctly but still were not participating in the draft.
If I am reading this correctly, this narrative will satisfy neither those who wish to establish a 100% pure ethnonationalist Palestinian identity in the 19th century, nor those who wish to show that Palestinians were simply Ottomans who lived in a particular place and could live anywhere else with no ethical concerns.
Addendum to my post: a friend of mine who studies the Samaritans (who live near Nablus) and knows Nablus history well read this post. He characterizes the attitude of that city toward the Ottoman Empire of the late 19th and early 20th century as quite hostile. He argues they saw little benefit to being part of the empire. Also, specifically, the men were indeed drafted in WW I and many died. I wonder if this attitude was true across more of the provinces?