Ali Bey el Abbassi’s Visit to Jerusalem in 1807 (Part Two)

Ali Bey el Abbassi’s Visit to Jerusalem in 1807 (Part One)

In the second part, the remaining three aspects of Ali Bey’s visit to Jerusalem are analysed: Jerusalem as a melting pot of different faiths; Was Ali Bey inclined to antisemitism?; Ali Bey's disdain for the Ottomans as the torchbearers of Islamic civilization. Indeed, these three aspects are most critical, and it was there that some of Ali Bey's true colours were shown.

Third: Jerusalem as a melting pot of different faiths

According to Ali Bey, in 1807, there lived nearly thirty thousand people in Jerusalem, without including the population of some small suburbs. There were more than seven thousand Muslims and more than twenty thousand Christians. The latter were divided into different rites:

Maronites, United Greeks, Schismatic Greeks, Roman or Latin Catholics, Armenians, etc.

However, there were but few Jews.

The Muslim jurisprudential or madhhab differences were also distinctly pronounced, so much so that inside the al-Aqsa mosque there were designated places for congregational prayers that followed different madhhabs. One and the same prayers were performed by different congregations, at different times and with slightly different, albeit minor, details.

Though these jurisprudential differences were not as serious as those of the Christians, they nevertheless were uncalled for at the pilgrimage sites and, if wrongly conceived and observed, could lead to a more serious type of schism. A similar trend persisted in the holy mosque (al-masjid al-haram) of Makkah as well, which was truly unfortunate.

What was needed, instead, was to transform the places like the holy mosques of Makkah, Madinah and Jerusalem into places of unity, co-ordination and coherence, rather than places of disagreement and friction, however insignificant they might have been.

As the sites of pilgrimages targeted by Muslims from all corners of the globe, those places and their holy mosques were supposed to be converted into universal spiritual signposts, transcending all human-generated hurdles. They furthermore were supposed to be the adverts of what Islam strictly was, not what some human beings wanted or caused it to be.

On the other hand, the differences among the Christians were more profound, affecting their core beliefs. This played a crucial role in shaping the perception, planning, construction and operation of the institutionalized holy places in Palestine. If Palestine was the origin and focus of attention for Christianity, it also became a reflection of what Christianity has evolved into over the ages.

For instance, the principal body of the structure containing the tomb of Jesus Christ was the church of the Greeks, however, there were several other churches and chapels in the area. The church of the Roman Catholics was to the right of the tomb’s rotunda (a roofed, often domed, building with a circular ground plan) upon entering, that of the Armenians upon the left, and that of the Syrians behind.

The Copts also had their little chapel placed against the small house of the sepulchre. The Abyssinians had also their church, “but it was reported that it would be suppressed, because there were only two monks remaining.”

In essence, the site of the tomb of Jesus Christ was a complex of Christian religious buildings, each representing a different belief system related to Jesus Christ and the events of his life and death. Those were not surface-level, but essential differences, resulting in the presence of different churches and chapels, which formed a sizable religious facility.

With no group and its version of a man, his teachings and history willing to be left behind, they had no choice but to constitute an ideologically heterogenous cluster.

This was unlike the differences of Muslims which were inconsequential and not more than jurisprudentially interpretative, due to which there were mere indications of different congregations inside the al-Aqsa mosque, whose essential philosophy and purpose, standing for the philosophy and purpose of Islam, they all embraced. The differences reflected what could be dubbed the idea of canonical unity in functional diversity.

For that reason, as the variations in Christianity continued to grow, those in Islam were stagnant and even kept decreasing, to the point where they were eventually eliminated in the three holiest mosques: in al-masjid al-haram in Makkah, the Prophet’s mosque in Madinah, and the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.

This exclusive Muslim outlook Ali Bey had in mind when he said that the Muslims said prayers in all the holy places consecrated to the memory of Jesus Christ and the Virgin, except the tomb of the former, which they – all of them - do not acknowledge.

They believe that Jesus Christ did not die, but that he ascended alive into heaven, leaving the likeness of his face to Judas, who was condemned to die for him, and that in consequence Judas having been crucified, his body might have been contained in that particular sepulchre, but not that of Jesus Christ. “It is for this reason that the Mussulmen do not perform any act of devotion at this monument, and that they ridicule the Christians who go to revere it.”

There were about forty Christian monks in total. Ali Bey clearly stated that they were all divided, with each party or sect believing they were right and representing the Christian orthodoxy, while viewing the rest as deviated. Ali Bey elaborated:

“The Armenians were at a certain period united to the Catholics, but they separated in consequence of some discussion which arose between them. It appears that the Greeks are very proud of a sort of superiority which they have over the other rites, either on account of the place which they occupy in the edifice, which indeed is the place of honour, or of the magnificence of their choir, and their sanctum sanctorum; or of their respectable chapter, among which they reckon three or four bishops; or lastly, of the numerous Greek population which inhabit the country. The monks of the different rites are in general disunited, because each looks upon his rite as being exclusively orthodox, and believes the others to be schismatics. I was assured that the whole number of all the monks of the different rites rarely exceeded forty.”

That there were only a few Jews in Jerusalem was not a surprise. Historically, such was always the case. After the second destruction of the Temple in the year 70, the Jews were exiled from the area and most of the surrounding regions. If some Jews managed to return during the early Muslim rule, the Christian vendetta against them and their association with the locations where they were seen as causing unforgivable troubles, including the mistreatment and "killing" of Jesus Christ, persisted during the Crusades.

For centuries, Palestine remained inhospitable and unaccommodating towards the Jews. Even when the country was under Muslim rule, the Christian population, which always fuelled religious, racial, and later political antisemitism, was predominant. In theory, the Muslim rule didn't oppose the Jews, but in practice, the majority Christian population especially in Jerusalem thought otherwise. The ever-unstable political state of the region fostered a climate of insecurity and apprehension.

Thus, by way of illustration, when a German rabbi, Petachia of Ratisbon (Regensburg in Eastern Bavaria), travelled to Jerusalem somewhere between 1170 and 1187 - the holy city being part of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem as a result of the first Crusade - he found that there was only one Jew in the city. The person was also a rabbi and was called Abraham the dyer. But to be permitted to live in Jerusalem, he had to pay a heavy tax to the Christian king (Rabbi Petachia of Ratisbon, Travels of Rabbi Petachia of Ratisbon).

That there was only one Jew in Jerusalem at the time could be an exaggeration, indicating the small size of the Jewish population. This can be validated by the following. When Benjamin of Tuleda - a “rabbi who was the first known European traveller to approach the frontiers of China and whose account of his journey illuminates the situation of Jews in Europe and Asia in the 12th century (Benjamin of Tudela, Encyclopaedia Britannica) – visited Jerusalem slightly before Rabbi Petachia of Ratisbon, as part of his travels that lasted from 1159 to 1173, he said that there were as many as 200 Jews in Jerusalem.

He wrote: “(Jerusalem) is a small city, fortified by three walls. It is full of people whom the Mohammedans call Jacobites, Syrians, Greeks, Georgians and Franks, and of people of all tongues. It contains a dyeing-house, for which the Jews pay a small rent annually to the king, on condition that besides the Jews no other dyers be allowed in Jerusalem.

There are about 200 Jews who dwell under the Tower of David in one corner of the city. The lower portion of the wall of the Tower of David, to the extent of about ten cubits, is part of the ancient foundation set up by our ancestors, the remaining portion having been built by the Mohammedans. There is no structure in the whole city stronger than the Tower of David” (Benjamin of Tudela, The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela).

In any event, it is undeniable that the Jewish community in Jerusalem was very small. Their extreme minority status was the norm and was not changed until the implementation of the nationalist ideology of Zionism gained momentum at the beginning of the 20th century.

Accordingly, Ali Bey remarked that, in all likelihood, there was only one synagogue in Jerusalem, whereas there were many mosques and churches. As for the latter, Ali Bey wrote that the Christians of the city had several churches and communities of monks. “The Roman Catholics have two monasteries, one called St. Saviour and the other St. John, besides the convents of Mount Calvary, and the Tomb.”

Despite serving as a fusion of different beliefs and religious practices, the holy city of Jerusalem was a peaceful and tolerant urban environment. In spite of holding contempt for each other and considering one another misguided and deviant, Muslims, Christians and Jews all reached a point of not only tolerating, but also accepting one another. They knew that there was no other way.

In order to survive, coexisting was the only option, even if it meant making compromises on minor religious and national matters. The bond they shared was not merely one of convenience, but rather a necessary religious-cum-civilizational symbiosis. Keeping only what was necessary was a better option than facing the possibility of losing everything.

The state of interfaith coexistence in Jerusalem left a strong impression on Ali Bey, who – after being heavily influenced by the ideals of the French Revolution - saw it as a guarantee of societal and religious liberty. He explained:

“Although the inhabitants of Jerusalem are composed of people of different nations and different religions, who inwardly despise each other on account of their various opinions, yet as the Christians are the most numerous, there reigns a good deal of social intercourse among them in their affairs and amusements. The followers of Jesus Christ mix indiscriminately with the disciples of Mahomet, and this amalgamation produces a much more extended degree of liberty at Jerusalem than in any other country subjugated to Islamism. I saw several respectable Mussulmen, who did not make any scruple to look a woman in the face, and even to stop and speak to her publicly, which would be a subject of scandal in any other Mahometan place.”

Certainly, the credit for this should be attributed to both Muslims and Christians, who made up the largest demographic groups in Jerusalem: to the Christians because, as the most populous community, they did not become unscrupulous, nor acquisitive, and did not wish in any way to upset the established socio-political-religious equilibrium; and to the Muslims because, as the ruling group which nevertheless was a minority, the Christians' majority status did not cause any feeling of paranoia, allowing the Muslims to enact policies that could potentially disrupt the current harmony.

Both Muslims and Christians were content with their situations because they understood the value of mutual relationships.

It appears that the city of Jerusalem has grown accustomed to these arrangements, fully embracing them and transforming them into an exceptional legacy for which, as a matter of fact, Palestine was renowned until the emergence of the Western nationalism-Zionism axis of evil.

Such was the case as early as in the 10th century. As a native of Jerusalem and an eyewitness, Muhammad bin Ahmad al-Maqdisi, who died in 990, said that in Jerusalem the Christians and the Jews were predominant and the holy mosque devoid of congregations and assemblies. He additionally said that, generally, few were the learned there, many were the Christians.

One may wonder why Muhammad bin Ahmad al-Maqdisi mentioned the Jews as a dominant demographic factor. The reason could be either because of a hyperbole, where it was intended to be conveyed that Muslims were such a minority that non-Muslims - whoever they might have been, including the Jews - greatly outnumbered them, or because the Jews really played a significant demographic role before the Crusades, after which their fortunes were reversed.

The peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Christians in Palestine was an extraordinary occurrence, occasionally reaching miraculous levels. Ibn Jubayr, an Andalusian geographer and traveller, who traversed much of the Muslim world, including Palestine, between 1183 and 1185 when Palestine was under the rule of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem, was impressed how even during the years of war peaceful Muslim-Christian interactions did not cease.

Ibn Jubayr concluded his exposition of this somewhat miraculous phenomenon by stating in his book of travels “Travels of Ibn Jubayr”: “The soldiers engage themselves in their war, while the people are at peace and the world goes to him who conquers…Security never leaves them (the residents of Palestine) in any circumstance, neither in peace nor in war. The state of these countries in this regard is truly more astonishing than our story can fully convey.”

Ibn Jubayr elaborated on the “peaceful” state of affairs in the Palestinian warzone: “One of the astonishing things that is talked of is that though the fires of discord burn between the two parties, Muslim and Christian, two armies of them may meet and dispose themselves in battle array, and yet Muslim and Christian travellers will come and go between them without interference.

In this connection we saw at this time the departure of Saladin with all the Muslims troops to lay siege to the fortress of Kerak, one of the greatest of the Christian strongholds lying astride the Hejaz road and hindering the overland passage of the Muslims. Between it and Jerusalem lies a day's journey or a little more. It occupies the choicest part of the land in Palestine, and has a very wide dominion with continuous settlements, it being said that the number of villages reaches four hundred.

This Sultan invested it, and put it to sore straits, and long the siege lasted, but still the caravans passed successively from Egypt to Damascus, going through the lands of the Franks without impediment from them. In the same way the Muslims continuously journeyed from Damascus to Acre (through Frankish territory), and likewise not one of the Christian merchants was stopped or hindered (in Muslim territories).

The Christians impose a tax on the Muslims in their land which gives them full security; and likewise the Christian merchants pay a tax upon their goods in Muslim lands. Agreement exists between them, and there is equal treatment in all cases. The soldiers engage themselves in their war, while the people are at peace and the world goes to him who conquers.

Such is the usage in war of the people of these lands; and in the dispute existing between the Muslim Emirs and their kings it is the same, the subjects and the merchants interfering not” (Ibn Jubayr, Travels of Ibn Jubayr).

These amazing interreligious sentiments persisted well into the phase of the occupation of Palestine by Britain, a phase called the Mandate period, culminating into the formation of the state of Israel which immediately following its illegitimate creation became the antithesis of all positivises in the region.

Kark Ruth said in his book “Jerusalem and Its Environs: Quarters, Neighbourhoods, Villages, 1800-1948” that, with regard to architecture as a specimen, as late as during the British Mandate period “most of the architects and engineers of the Arab houses were GreekOrthodox Christian Arabs. A minority were Muslims who specialized more in practical building-management, and in the craftsmanship of stone-cutting, building, and stone-masonry.

Noted architects of the Arab neighbourhoods included Spyro Houris, Nikephoros Petassis, Antonio Baramki, and George Anastas. Houris was the foremost of these, and judging from his style, it is likely that he - like Baramki - studied architecture in Athens. Houris built most of the houses with decorative Jerusalem ceramic tiling.”

In order to manage the intricacies of power and demographics, some specific guidelines were established for individuals seeking to visit Jerusalem or undertake a pilgrimage. One of such guidelines espoused by the Ottoman rulers was the collection of taxes from Jewish and Christian pilgrims.

This allowed only genuine cases to enter, making it easy to monitor their activities and the actual length of their stay. It was important to have a working mechanism in place because, as mentioned earlier, Muslims, even though the rulers and at home, represented a minority.

Ali Bey had the chance to experience the said rule firsthand. Before entering the territory of Jerusalem, Ali Bey and his entourage were stopped. They were asked to pay a tribute of fifteen piastres each, which was to be “received for the Sultan of Constantinople”, as they were suspected of being Christians.

Finally, after a lengthy conversation and persistent efforts to convince the law enforcement personnel, the latter were convinced that Ali Bey and his company were indeed Muslims. Afterwards, Ali Bey and his group were allowed to proceed into the holy city.

Ali Bey's uncomfortable encounter with the law enforcement agents, during which he had to recite the shahadah (testimony of faith) and had to remind them that, as a Muslim, he was returning from the hajj pilgrimage in Makkah, convinced him that the government was very serious about enforcing the regulations related to the peace, demographics and economy of Jerusalem. There was so much at stake, so the only way was to be strictly just and justly strict.

Fourth: Was Ali Bey inclined to antisemitism?

After the emergence of Christianity following the turbulent relations between the Jews and their prophet Jesus, the origins of anti-Jewish bias were firmly established. As the pagan Roman Empire embraced Christianity, it also adopted a role as its guardian and stronghold, leading to the Western Christian world becoming a breeding ground for antisemitism. The more the West identified with Christianity, the more pronounced its antisemitism became. The evolution of the predicament was intensified and reached unbearable thresholds once the West began embracing nationalism as its socio-political ideology.

All of a sudden, the religious differences and undesirability of the Jews were compounded with the newly created social estrangement and political isolation. The Jews were unwelcome not only as followers of a religion, but also as members of an ethnicity and a social group. Indeed, the future of the Jews looked bleak and uncertain.

The earlier attempts to isolate and marginalize the Jews failed to produce the desired result of making the Jews simply fade away and disappear from the scene, empowering antisemitism to come up with some drastically better and more effective measures to deal with the Jewish problem.

As a result, the stereotypes of the Jews as “aliens” and “perpetual wanderers” were to be transformed into the new realities of the “dispensed with” and “extinct” Jews. As rebels against God, murderers of the Lord, companions of the Devil, and a race of vipers (Anti-Semitism, Encyclopaedia Britannica), they were not worthy of anything better.

The term “antisemitism” was coined in 1879 by the German activist Wilhelm Marr to designate the anti-Jewish campaigns underway in central Europe at that time (Anti-Semitism, Encyclopaedia Britannica). Before that, there were several predominantly religious and socio-cultural variants of anti-Jewish prejudices. However, in light of the emergence of Western nationalism and the ideal of one nation-one state, the former began to take on radical national and political dimensions as well.

Ali Bey could not be inclined towards antisemitism per se, in that the term was yet to be coined in 1807. However, as an ardent supporter of the latest socio-political and scientific trends in Europe which were associated with the enlightenment, nationalism and imperialism - yet epitomizing them and operating on their behalf - Ali Bey was unable to steer away from the rampant anti-Jewish biases. This is evident from his opinionated, at least, and bigoted, at most, description of the only synagogue in Jerusalem.

Ali Bey wrote: “Poor people (the Jews)! a wretched building, or rather barrack composed of three or four rooms, the ceilings of which may be touched with the hand; a court-yard still smaller, the whole covered with cobwebs and filth, constitutes the present Temple of the children of Jacob, the heirs and descendants of Solomon!! I found there some Jews who were reciting prayers in the different corners of this hovel, but the whole was so miserable, melancholy, dirty and disgusting, that I hastily withdrew.”

The vocabulary of Ali Bey says it all. The labels of “poor people”, “wretched”, “filth”, “miserable”, “dirty”, “disgusting” and having to hastily withdraw from the synagogue, all in a relatively small paragraph, are indicators of a deeply embedded prejudice, intolerance and hate. Calling the Jews “the children of (illustrious) Jacob, the heirs and descendants of (mighty) Solomon” was a way to ridicule their status and the non-existent future prospects.

They missed all the opportunities to become a great nation with a glorious history, leading to their eternal condemnation and liability to punishments in both worlds. Christianity was the only answer to restoring order and fulfilling the covenants and potential that the Jews both neglected and were incapable of achieving.

It is therefore said that “Christianity was intent on replacing Judaism by making its own particular message universal. The New Testament was seen as fulfilling the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible); Christians were the new Israel, both in flesh and in spirit. The God of justice had been replaced by the God of love.

Thus, some early Church Fathers taught that God had finished with the Jews, whose only purpose in history was to prepare for the arrival of his Son. According to this view, the Jews should have left the scene. Their continued survival seemed to be an act of stubborn defiance. Exile was taken as a sign of divine disfavour incurred by the Jews’ denial that Jesus was the Messiah and by their role in his crucifixion” (Anti-Semitism, Encyclopaedia Britannica).

At long last, Ali Bey’s words that he, disgusted, hastily withdrew from the synagogue perfectly symbolized the latest aspect of the Western attitude towards the Jews and everything that was theirs. They were unwanted and unsuitable. There was nothing valuable they could offer to the dynamic and forward-thinking Western civilization. They were treated as an enduring hurdle and an unavoidable evil. They were the source of all awkwardness and discomfort.

Therefore, the ideal course of action would be to get rid of them and free the world from its biggest inconvenience. Indeed, the sooner that happened, the better. Ali Bey's swift departure from the synagogue should have served as a model for the urgency and determination of the action taken.

It was clear - as the final point - that the deplorable condition of the synagogue and the plight of its Jewish attendees were just the surface of a larger issue. Jerusalem and Palestine as a whole, as symbols of religious universalism and socio-historical internationalism, were not conducive to any form of religious exclusivity or elitism. Palestine was larger than that, and anyone living there with such conflicting tendencies was bound to be rejected, defeated and buried under the weight of the ongoing historical events.

The Jews who may have arrived with the ambitious goal of privatizing Palestine, so to speak, were unwelcome primarily due to the inherent nature of Palestine itself, and then by those who cherished Palestine and its special status. The Jews – and anyone of a similar religious or nationalist ilk – were destined to face failure and misery in the sacred land of Palestine, which does not match up with evil intentions and malevolent designs. Palestine is a place where happiness and vice cannot exist together.

That could be a reason why – as documented by John Lewis Burckhardt in his travelogue “Travels in Syria and the Holy Land” – many of the Palestinian Jews of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were dissatisfied with their condition. They were there not because they wanted, or because they wished to fulfil some religious obligations, but because they were misguided and duped into believing that Palestine, as their promised land, was the pivot of their religious and biological existence.

John Lewis Burckhardt (d. 1817), who met and talked to those Jews inside their houses, revealed:

“It may easily be supposed that many of these Jews are discontented with their lot. Led by the stories of the missionaries to conceive the most exalted ideas of the land of promise, as they still call it, several of them have absconded from their parents, to beg their way to Palestine, but no sooner do they arrive in one or other of the four holy cities, than they find by the aspect of all around them, that they have been deceived. A few find their way back to their native country, but the greater number remain, and (thus deceived) look forward to the inestimable advantage of having their bones laid in the holy land.”

The situation seems to have started to change shortly thereafter, most likely because of the increase in European nationalism, which in turn, sparked the first signs of Jewish nationalist thought. It was reported by Edward Robinson (d. 1863) in his magnum opus “Biblical Researches in Palestine, Mount Sinai and Arabia Petraea, A Journal of Travels in the Year 1838” that the existing Jews in Palestine in 1838 were for the most part not native to the country, and spoke a corrupt medley of tongues among themselves.

They lived in poverty and filth, and were the most prejudiced of all, making them the least open to the efforts of Christian missionaries. However, many were there solely for religious reasons.

Edward Robinson elaborated: “Of the Jews now (in 1838) resident in Palestine, the greater number are such as have come up to the land of their fathers, in order to spend the remainder of their lives and die in one of the four holy places: Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberias, or Safed. Those in Jerusalem desire to lay their bones in the Valley of Jehoshaphat.

They come hither from all parts of the Levant, and especially from Smyrna, Constantinople, and Salonika, in which cities there are many thousands of this people. Two years before our visit, the Jews were said to have flocked in great numbers to Syria, and particularly to Damascus and Tyre, where formerly they were not permitted to reside.

But subsequently, as the high prices of provisions and of living in general increased, this circumstance prevented the coming of more, and compelled the return of many; so that the number of Jews in Jerusalem had been much diminished. They live here, for the most part, in poverty and filth.

A considerable amount. of money is collected for them by their emissaries in different countries; but as it comes into the hands of the Rabbins, and is managed by them without responsibility, it is understood to be administered without much regard to honesty; and serves chiefly as a means of increasing their own influence and control over the conduct and consciences of their poorer brethren. Most of the Jews now in Palestine appear to be of Spanish or Polish origin; very few are from Germany, or are able to speak the German language.”

Thus, putting an end to this subtly configured situation in Palestine and replacing it with a vile and artificial alternative required an unprecedented and almost otherworldly evil enterprise. And that is exactly what Zionism, as a nationalist political ideology, sustained by its equally devilish Western counterparts, is, and that is exactly the reason why the Zionist state of Israel was able to be created and could live on. In brief, Israel's inception and existence have been defined by a backdrop of terror, chaos and bloodbath, as evidenced by history.

Furthermore, only by incapacitating Palestine was Israel able to come into being, with the ultimate intention of eliminating Palestine and its people completely. Which nevertheless will never happen because, in the end, the truth and its boundless quality will always prevail, outshining its overzealous, but counterfeit, adversaries. It is not a matter of if, but when, this will come to pass. While Palestine is itemized as a revered heavenly cause, Israel is viewed as a debased and very limited earthly endeavour.

As early as in the 15th century was Nicholas of Cusa (d. 1464), a German Catholic cardinal and scholar, able to foresee the impossibility of this and other similar scenarios involving the Jews. Nicholas of Cusa acknowledged the relative powerlessness of European Jewry saying “that their refusal to recognize Christ’s divinity will not impede world interreligious harmony, since the Jews are few in number and will not be able to trouble the whole world by force of arms” (Rita George-Tvrtković, A Christian Pilgrim in Medieval Iraq).

Fifth: Ali Bey's disdain for the Ottomans as the torchbearers of Islamic civilization

In his role as a covert operative for the French government, Ali Bey served as a crucial asset to the "mission to civilize" project. In line with his clandestine undertaking, Ali Bey was able to travel like a prince with a troop of servants, scientific instruments and “such other apparatus of learning as recalled the liberal days of the Moors.”

Everything about him was extravagant and pompous. His wealth seemed unlimited, ego oversized, inquisitiveness unmatched, and passion unrestrained. His name, status and reputation were illusory; nonetheless, he was always able to generate an aura of respect, exhilaration and trust. It was extremely rare that he did not impose himself on situations and their proceedings.

This begs the question of how a hitherto anonymous person could suddenly emerge on the scene of history and gain fame and recognition, with the sources of his princely wealth and prominence, accompanied by incredible flairs and talents, all being unaccounted for. The likely answer is that everything was staged and fully sponsored, and was part of an intricate espionage affair at the centre of which stood the personality of Ali Bey.

There were not many people who could traverse the world for about four years as immoderately and bigheartedly as Ali Bey did. He was trained for the purpose. His extensive studies, comprising the study of Arabic and Islamic subjects, both in Spain and Morocco, were part of the process.

Definitely, as it could be deduced from the content of his book, Ali Bey was a master of his trade and his performances were flawless, with his diplomatic executions and such as were correlated to practicing Islam, standing out. He must have been a top gun. Following his first journeys, he embarked eleven years later in 1818 on a second follow-up round.

Under the assumed name of Ali Uthman and accredited as a political agent by the French government, he first set out for Syria. However, he only reached Aleppo, where he died on 30th August 1818 as mysteriously as he had once surfaced and had lived his personal enigma. Many suspected he had been poisoned. It stands to reason that a number of issues – and secrets – should have perished with his abrupt death.

Ali Bey's task was to gain access to the upper echelons of the most influential regions in the Muslim world and gain insight into people's attitudes and actions towards current political events both domestically and internationally.

The Ottomans were the primary focus, with the added consequence of impacting the British's function. Ali Bey was also keen on delving into the case of the Wahhabi movement and its potential as a tool for advancing French interests in the region.

The fact that the common enemy of both the French and the Wahhabis was the Ottomans spelled a good foundation to try to bring the two closer to each other and lay the groundwork for future collaboration. Because of that, Ali Bey was known for his tendency to criticize the Ottomans and display a more accommodating attitude towards the Wahhabis, making overtures, as it were, to the latter.

Ali Bey was a product - and agent - of this European mentality, as well as scheme. To that mentality, the Muslim world signified nothing but a trophy to be won. The times were turbulent and dynamic. They were murky, enticing in particular such as were morally questionable and had entertained murky ends. Novel changes and conditions, occasioning exciting opportunities, were taking place on a regular basis.

The developments in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in the Hijaz as the spiritual midpoint of the Muslim world were encouraging. They were thought of being able to offer a new dimension. The objective was to utilize the newly-emerged protagonists, in the shape of the uncultivated and austere, albeit highly motivated and auspicious, Wahhabis, for the sake of discrediting and destabilizing the ideological, together with functional, legitimacy of the Ottomans.

The Ottomans at the time were displaying signs of some serious weaknesses, above all on military front, hence it was appropriate to try to undermine their potency from within. Due to all this, the Ottomans always stood at the receiving end of Ali Bey’s harsh criticism. Consistent with the “mission to civilize” enterprise, he portrayed them in the worst possible way. To him, they were the most uncivilized and backward group.

Ali Bey was fixed upon painting the Ottomans as the most responsible party for all the predicaments the Muslims and Islamic culture were facing. Their name and legacy had to be tarnished, prompting people to start questioning their legitimacy and suitability to carry on as the standard-bearers of the Islamic cultural consciousness.

A degree of scepticism and qualm had thereby to be created in the Muslim mind, which was to be followed by a sense of insecurity and disorientation, leading in turn to the construction of not just political and religious, but also completely existential, a vacuum. Not many would have been able to fill the vacuum.

The Wahhabis were a leading contender – in the eyes of Ali Bey, and France, at least – because they showed a potential and were the people most susceptible to “civilization”, on condition that they were pacified and were targeted with proper instruction (education).

In addition, Ali Bey saw the Ottoman Empire as a perplexing blend of diverse and conflicting elements. The Ottomans have always been – and will always be - strangers to the customs of Europe, implying that their conquests in Europe were neither heaven-sent nor welcome, and that their end might be nigh.

Ali Bey then declared that the Ottomans had nothing to do with civilization and were still barbarians. He even asked pardon of those who, deceived, begged to differ. Exuding the mind of the European Enlightenment and the spirit of the French Revolution, Ali Bey listed the causes and symptoms of the Turkish prevalent barbarism.

They centred on the Ottoman Empire being a nation that enjoyed not the slightest idea of public right, or of the rights of man; a nation in which there was hardly one individual in a thousand who knew how to read and write; a nation with whom there was no guarantee for private property, and where the blood of man was ever liable to be shed for the least cause, and upon the slightest pretext, without any form of trial.

In short, the Ottoman Empire was a nation resolved to shut its eyes to the lights of reason, and to repel far from it the torch of civilization which was presented to it in all its brilliancy.

In his description of Jerusalem and the surrounding areas, Ali Bey refrained from making any significant comments about the Ottoman rulers. Nevertheless, his consistent negative remarks in connection with the city's religious and urban aspects can be interpreted as a subtle disapproval and a veiled critique of the Ottoman government. His comments were in agreement with his unreservedly critical views on the Ottomans elsewhere.

For illustrative purposes, Ali Bey claimed that there were no Muslims qualified to give a detailed scientific description of the al-Aqsa mosque complex. This was the outcome of a generally inadequate Muslim educational system and intellectual culture, with Jerusalem serving as a typical example. Ali Bey alleged that, as was the case with Makkah, so in Jerusalem, the sciences have entirely disappeared.

There existed formerly large schools belonging to the sanctuary of the al-Aqsa mosque, but during Ali Bey’s visit there were hardly any traces of them left. There were only a few small schools, where children of every form of worship: Muslims, Christians and Jews, learned to write and read the code of their respective religion.

The grossest ignorance prevailed even among persons of high rank (many of whom were Turks), who seemed on the first interview to have received a distinguished education. The Arabic language was generally spoken at Jerusalem, and the Turkish was much used. But the Arabic spoken there differed a little from that of Arabia in the pronunciation, which partook too much of the Turkish accent.

To Ali Bey, in addition, the streets of Jerusalem were narrow and dull, and the fronts of the houses were quite plain, simply constructed of stone and without the least ornament, so that in walking the streets, one might fancy one’s self in the galleries or corridors of a vast prison.

Not even the centuries-old presence of Christians in the city was able to modify that distasteful image of Jerusalem: “I never expected to find this disadvantage in a city inhabited for so many ages by Christians; but facta est quasi vidua, domina gentium (How like a widow has she become, she who was great among the nations!).”

By quoting the last words from the biblical prophet Jeremiah’s “Book of Lamentations” - wherein the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE has been grieved over - Ali Bey suggested that the current state of Jerusalem under the Ottomans was a mere shadow of its former self during the Christian rule, and what it could be if the city's majority Christian population were allowed to live freely and unleash their remarkable talents and abilities.

Based on Ali Bey’s estimations, Jerusalem was poorly protected; there were only a few Turkish soldiers. The arts made little progress, resulting in only a few well-finished local works and products. The city was so densely populated that there was no considerable vacant space in it, so that Jerusalem, which occupied a much less extent of ground than Makkah, contained nearly thirty thousand souls. No public squares were available, so the shops and markets were in the public streets.

Ali Bey insisted that, just like their Christian and Jewish counterparts, the Muslim residents of Jerusalem were also superstitious and predisposed to nurturing religious innovations. There were Sufis whom Ali Bey described as “a community of Mussulman monks” residing in a hospice, people who venerated saints, and those who, due to their poor religious knowledge and guidance, would venerate and pray at any place of noteworthy historical and religious importance.

The Ottoman religious and political leaders were responsible for these controversial practices, which were heavily enforced and deemed a significant aspect of the Muslim pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It was the Ottomans who, as was the case throughout the Ottoman Empire, established themselves as some of the greatest supporters of Sufism, saint-worship, and the idea of architecturally glorifying the dead. So much so that a number of unsolicited religious innovations were not just tolerated, but also were encouraged and even institutionalized.

Ali Bey said: “The Mussulmen at Jerusalem revere the remains, or the tombs, of a great number of Saints, which form a branch of speculation to many individuals, either by the administration of the funds, or pious foundations annexed to each tomb; or by the collection of the alms, which ought indispensably to accompany each visit.”

Also: “The Mussulmen say prayers in all the holy places consecrated to the memory of Jesus Christ and the Virgin, except this (Jesus Christ’s) tomb.”


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