Skip to main content
The Ottomans and Sacred Places in Jerusalem
Jan 1, 2007

There are close spiritual relations between the Cave of Hira in Mecca and the Aqsa Mosque, and between Mecca and Jerusalem. In Mecca- to be more specific, in the Cave of Hira-Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, devoted himself to worship, and the Revelation started there, while the Prophet’s journey from the Sacred Mosque (in Mecca) to the Aqsa Mosque ended in Jerusalem. The Aqsa Mosque was also the place from which the Prophet started his heavenly journey. In addition, the Aqsa Mosque was the first of the two qiblahs to which Muslims directed themselves in prayer, and it was the place where Prophet Muhammad led the other prophets in prayer. Mecca, on the other hand, is the place where the first of the Two Honorable Mosques lies, to which every Muslim pays a visit at least once in a lifetime if they can afford to do so. It is also the place where the Cave of Hira is located, where the Glorious Qur’an was revealed for the first time. This is why Muslims love and concern themselves with all these sacred places equally.

The Ottoman conquest

Jerusalem was under Mameluke rule before the Ottoman era, which lasted from 1517 until the downfall of the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In 1517, Sultan Selim I put an end to the reign of the Mamelukes in Egypt, and consequently the same in Jerusalem, which was also under the Mamelukes’ sovereignty.

Once Sultan Selim I had established authority over Syria, Egypt, including the Two Honorable Mosques (the Sacred Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina), and the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, he decreed that no new churches or places of worship were to be built in the cities, the towns, or the villages of these areas. However, the places of worship already built were to be maintained in order to ensure that they were used according to their original purposes. The old buildings could be demolished only if they were rebuilt in their original places and in the same style of construction. By making such a decree, Sultan Selim I followed the example of the Commander of the Faithful, Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab, who, in 15 AH (637), acknowledged the due rights of all non-Muslim sects in writing. This conduct was likewise repeated by Sultan Selim I when he conquered Jerusalem; he proclaimed a written decree (firman) stating that all the rights of the Christians and Jews were to be observed. He thus ensured for all the sects of non-Muslims the right to practice their rituals freely. This decree, which was penned by the then judge of Jerusalem, was copied out by the Armenian Sarkiz Karakoç, from the original copy, which is found in the State Archives of the Armenian Patriarchy in Jerusalem. It is also found in the Book of Churches in the Prime Ministerial Ottoman Archives in Ankara. In the abovementioned decree, Sultan Selim I defined the rights of the non-Muslims and forbade any violations of such rights.

The following is a translation of the Arabic text of the decree, which in turn has been translated from the Turkish version of the document.

The Text of the Decree of Jerusalem

“Let this decree be duly abided by.

This honorable decree, decreed by His Majesty, bearing the monogram of the Sultan, with God’s help, states that:

With God’s help, we have arrived in Jerusalem on 25 Safar (the second month of the Arabic lunar calendar) 923 AH (1517). In the company of the other priest, the Armenian Patriarch, Sarkiz, who came asking us to grant his followers favors, in which regard they requested us to let them keep under their control the churches and other places of worship which from ancient times have been under their administration, as well as to renew the covenant granted to them by Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab and Salahuddin al-Ayyubi. Thereupon, it has been decided that the Armenian priests will continue to be authorized to hold under their control-as they have been doing-the Church of Qiyamah, the Cave of Bethlehem, where Jesus Christ was born, the keys of the gate to the north, the two candle-sticks and their candles at the gate of Qiyamah, the great churches, Mar Yaqub, the Churches of Dayr Az-Zaytun, Habs al-Masih and Nablus, including the churches of the Abyssinians, Copts, and Assyrians.

This honorable decree states that nobody from other religions shall interfere with them. I have issued this decree ordering this: let it be duly abided by. The control and disposition of the abovementioned great churches are to be for their owners. Similarly, this applies to the churches located in the suburbs and inside the borders of the Armenian Patriarchate in Mar Yaqub. The same also applies to the places of worship of other sects, such as the Abyssinians, Copts, and Assyrians, i.e., they also have the right to practice their rituals therein, and control such places of worship themselves. Further, no one has the right to interfere in appointing or dismissing those who are in charge of religious affairs and those who supervise the monks, priests, metropolitans, and bishops. Again, all their religious affairs, their churches, temples, monasteries, and other sacred places are under their authority, and no one has the right to interfere.

People of all sects have the right to enter the Church of Qiyamah, to go to the center and the tomb of Virgin Mary in the suburbs of Jerusalem. They also have the right to visit the Cave where Jesus Christ was born, the keys of the gate in the north, the two candlesticks at the Church of Qiyamah, the lamps inside the cemetery, and the candles. This may be done by keeping the ceremonies and acts of worship in the church Qiyamah performed according to the agreed beliefs.

Thus, people of any nation have the right to enter the Church of Qiyamah, walk around it, visit its door, see the gold and the precious stones in its windows, watch and visit the temple inside, and to visit all the wells and the shrine of Mar Yuhanna in the yard of the Church of Qiyamah. People also have the right to visit Habs al-Masih, which is located near Mar Yaqub in the suburbs, visit the rooms of Yaqub, which is also located in the suburbs, and visit the rooms and the guesthouses near the Cave of Bethlehem.

Furthermore, the previously mentioned Armenian patriarchate has the right to manage all the gardens and olive farms, and in general their churches, temples, monasteries, and shrines. They also have full control over all their possessions, their endowments, and whatever they own. No one should obstruct any Armenian person who comes to visit the Church or the Well called “Zamzam.” Similarly, no one is to cause any harm to their farms, their place of worship, or their shrines; no one has the right to forbid them from reaching such places.

From now on, this decree of the sultanate is to be abided to according to the way explained. No one from any different religion should interfere in their affairs. Let my honorable children, viziers, pious tutors, judges, beylerbeyis (governor general), governors of sanjaks (i.e. subdivisions of a province), voyvodes (native princes; governor or mayor), subashis (policy superintendents), and the like act by this. Finally, no one should oppose any of them, whatever the case may be, and nothing of what has previously been stated is to be altered or changed. If any one interferes, changes, or alters something, they will be considered to be among the criminals and sinners in God’s sight.

All should know that my orders, and my decree which bears my monogram-I, the conqueror of the world-will be certified, and let the content of this decree be duly abided by.

This is written in 923 after Hijrah.”

From this we can see that Sultan Selim I, having arrived in Jerusalem, received the Armenian patriarch, the clergymen, and subjects; he granted them safety, treated them generously, and, further, renewed Umar’s covenant and Salahuddin’s treaty.

It is worth mentioning that such treatment was not restricted to Jerusalem alone, but rather was introduced in many other places. For instance, Sultan Selim I also issued a similar decree for the monks of Saint Catherine Monastery in Sinai once he settled in Cairo in 1517. In this decree, Sultan Selim granted the monks of Saint Catherine the same rights he had previously granted to the Armenian patriarchate, the Abyssinians, and the Assyrian Copts in Jerusalem.

It is noteworthy that throughout history there has been no single incident in which a Muslim leader has besieged a church or a place of worship, attacked it, or forbade water or food to be taken inside such a place of worship. Never has a Muslim army or security force pursued anyone sought refuge in a place of worship.

The document presented here and many other documents remained in force throughout the ages. Even the decree of Selim I to the monks of Saint Catherine Monastery was preserved there until the Israeli occupation of Sinai; its whereabouts are now unknown to the author.

The Golden Age: Suleyman the Magnificent

Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent (1520-1560) showed remarkable excellence in the field of construction after he had ascended the throne; he also excelled in the field of lawmaking. After 55 years, all the Arab lands, up until Telmisan in Morocco, were within the borders of the Ottoman Empire.

Sultan Suleyman bestowed much of the spoils he gained in wars on the Two Honorable Mosques, as well as the Aqsa Mosque. He covered the external walls of the Dome of the Rock Mosque with flagstones made of ceramics of superior quality instead of using mosaic, which would have needed to be repaired from time to time. The result of this process was that the mosque attained a blue ceramic covering, instead of a mixture of red and green; this tiling has given the mosque its magnificent appearance, which has remained for many centuries. Also, instead of mosaic, Sultan Suleyman had the lower part of the walls covered with marble and surrounded the building from above with a girdle of dark blue ceramic with inscriptions in white. He further ordered that colored glass be fixed in the windows, which were firmly placed within cavities in bright white gypsum and plaster.

In addition, Sultan Suleyman ordered that all the walls of Jerusalem be repaired, to give them the appearance they maintained until recent times.

It is worth mentioning that the Church of Marqad Isa had no bells until 1545, so he commanded that bells be hung there. In 1555 there was a small building over the shrine in the circular part of the Church of Qiyamah, so he commanded that another structure, which was to be well designed and suitable to the shrine, be built instead of the older one.

At this time, the church was divided between various discordant Christian denominations. Such discordance prevented the necessary restoration and reconstruction from being carried out and thus no bell tower had been constructed. This was the case until 1719. By a government order, all the drawings, figures, and styles had been preserved as they originally were when the tower was being built and during the necessary restoration work. In fear of changing the original appearance, renovation work that should have been done to the Church of Qiyamah was abandoned. In 1808, a fire broke out in the Armenian Church, which led to the destruction of its entire western section, and it was agreed that the Armenians themselves would handle the necessary restoration and renovation work, by virtue of a decree issued by Sultan Mahmud II (1808–1839). According to existing texts, the gilding of the Dome of the Rock Mosque was renewed and the Sultan ordered that the Mosque be restored from the outside. It was the Christian denominational differences that prevented the Church of Marqad Isa and its ornaments from being renovated, and it would have been possible to make use of the remaining places so that the church may be turned back to the state it had during the Crusades.

The nineteenth century witnessed many events that disrupted the peace and tranquility of Palestine, in general, and Jerusalem, in particular. For instance, Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), who was under siege in Egypt, attacked Palestine. As he set siege to Acre, he sent some French troops to attack Jerusalem. So the Turkish and French troops fought in front of Yisra’il; that is in front of Marj bin Amir, but the French troops were defeated. Then, in 1831, Palestine, in particular Jerusalem, was captured by the troops of Muhammad Ali Pasha, and this city came under Egyptian rule until the Egyptian issue was solved. Shortly after the enthronement of Sultan Abdulmecid I (1839-1861), the great powers at that time put pressure on the region. Eventually, France joined these nations and a treaty was convened in 1840 that forced Egypt to leave Palestine. After that, England and Austria exercised substantial pressure to restore Jerusalem to Ottoman rule. This continued until the end of World War I. However, during the last stage of the war, namely on December 8, 1917, Jerusalem was occupied by the British. Thus, this sacred city which had enjoyed an independent administration during the Turkish Ottoman era now was under British administration until 1948.

The story of Sultan `Abdulhamid II and what he did to protect Jerusalem is a long story that needs an entire article devoted to it.