That was the challenge levelled at historian Tom Holland on The...
Who lived in Palestine in the 19th Century?
(EXCITING NEWS: Have you heard our radio programme on PREMIER RADIO yet? You can hear past episodes here.)
Reminding ourselves of Isaiah 11:11-12, we read ‘In that day the Lord will extend His hand yet a second time to recover the remnant which is left of His people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea. He will raise an ensign for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.’
The first regathering had been from the Babylonian Empire around 2,500 years earlier. This was now the second regathering and God's prophetic timetable had kicked in after centuries of silence.
In the 19th Century, Palestine was a poor country, ruled by absentee Turkish landlords, as part of the crumbling and corrupt Ottoman Empire. By all accounts the land was largely barren and uninhabited, its population either nomadic or mainly involved with agriculture, despite the poor environment. Sir John William Dawson, writing in 1888, said, ‘No national union and no national spirit has prevailed there. The motley impoverished tribes which have occupied it have held it as mere tenants at will, temporary landowners, evidently waiting for those entitled to the permanent possession of the soil’. In 1835, Alphonse de Lamartine wrote, ‘Outside the gates of Jerusalem we saw indeed no living object, heard no living sound, we found the same void, the same silence …’
Thanks to the Turks, the land had been totally neglected. Hundreds of years of abuse had turned the country into a treeless waste, with malaria-ridden swamps, a sprinkling of towns and an unliveable desert in the south. This was the position in 1880, and this is incontestable fact.
But now we start to get discrepancies. How many people did live in the land at that time, and who were they? Jewish sources put the figure at between 100,000 and 250,000. Arab sources put the figure at about 480,000 (456,000 Arab, 24,000 Jewish). And who were these Arabs? Arab sources would simply say that these were indigenous people, Arabs who have lived in this land for generations. Jewish and independent sources say otherwise. They would point to immigrations from Egypt (to escape heavy taxes), Algeria, Turkey and elsewhere. There are suggestions that up to 25% of the Muslim population of Palestine in the 19th Century were immigrants.
A final word here from the author of ‘Tom Sawyer’ and ‘Huckleberry Finn’. According to the American author Mark Twain’s independent eye-witness account in 1867, ‘The Innocent’s Abroad’, the land was barely populated, just a collection of small villages in a dry, barren land. This complete book is available on the Internet, so you can check it for yourself. Here’s his summary.
‘Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince … It is a hopeless, dreary, heart-broken land … Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes. Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energies … Nazareth is forlorn; about that ford of Jordan where the hosts of Israel entered the Promised Land with songs of rejoicing, one finds only a squalid camp of fantastic Bedouins of the desert; Jericho the accursed, lies a moldering ruin, to-day, even as Joshua's miracle left it more than three thousand years ago … Renowned Jerusalem itself, the stateliest name in history, has lost all its ancient grandeur, and is become a pauper village … Capernaum is a shapeless ruin; Magdala is the home of beggared Arabs; Bethsaida and Chorazin have vanished from the earth … Palestine is desolate and unlovely. And why should it be otherwise? Can the curse of the Deity beautify a land? …’
Palestine was simply an outpost of the Ottoman Empire, a part of Greater Syria. It was not a country or a state in the manner of, say, England or Germany at that time. It was simply a collection of villages that happened to exist within the geographical region known as Palestine. Although many Arabs did own their own homes, the majority were the poor ‘fellahin’, who worked as hired hands for the landowners. There was no nationalism in the land, no feeling of belonging to a ‘people’, loyalty was to the local clan or village. Arabs did not see themselves as ‘Palestinians’ and often referred to their homeland as Southern Syria.
Jews had lived in the land right from Biblical times, though, in the 19th Century, they were very much the minority. The first major wave of Jewish immigration started in the 1880s and, by the end of the 19th Century, Jewish population had tripled to over 80,000 (Arab sources).
This included the foundation of the Jewish settlement of Rishon-le-Zion, where 40 Jewish families settled - followed later by more than 400 Arab families from Egypt and elsewhere. This was a community that worked and was at peace. The Arabs saw the benefits of what the Jews were doing to the land and joined them. Between 1882 and 1914 pioneering Jews started, slowly, to transform the land. They worked on the swamps and the undrained rivers. Life was tough; if you didn't die of malaria, you could be killed by Bedouins. Soon Jewish villages were springing up all over, and the towns of Jerusalem, Tiberias, Safed and Haifa started to grow. In 1909 they founded the first modern Jewish city, Tel Aviv. Life was still tough, although disease wasn't so much the problem. Attacks by Arab neighbours increased, even though, through the efforts of these Jewish pioneers, life for all in the land was improving - including for the Arab neighbours.