After the withdrawal of Muhammad Ali’s army from the Syrian territory back to Egypt at the end of 1840, the Ottomans embarked on a series of administrative reorganization measures that had an important impact on the status of what became Palestine after World War I and shaped its boundaries. In particular, the enlargement of the district of Jerusalem and its raising to a separate status helped to lay the foundations for the emergence of the territory defined in the 1920s as Mandate Palestine. Additionally, the boundaries assigned to the district of Jerusalem to the southwest, the district of Acre to the north, and the district of Nablus at the center left their mark on the frontiers of Mandate Palestine.
The Administrative Division
For administrative purposes, the Ottoman Empire was divided into provinces (called eyalets until 1864 and vilayets afterwards, each under a vali), which were in turn divided into sanjaqs (districts, each governed by a mutasarrif); sanjaqs were divided into qadas (subdistricts, each governed by a qa'im maqam). Before the occupation of Muhammad Ali, what became Palestine after World War I was administratively divided as follows: the three Sanjaqs of Jerusalem, Jaffa-Gaza, and Nablus were part of the Province of Damascus (Sham), while Acre was the seat of the Province of Saida.
Administrative Reorganization in the Aftermath of Egyptian Withdrawal
After the withdrawal of Muhammad Ali's army back to Egypt at the end of 1840, the Sublime Porte decided to unite the Sanjaq of Jerusalem with the Sanjaq of Jaffa-Gaza to form one sanjaq that carried the name of Jerusalem. This decision effectively transformed Jaffa and Gaza into subdistricts that were subordinate to Jerusalem. It remained so until World War I. The enlarged Sanjaq of Jerusalem remained part of the province of Damascus.
In early 1842, the Sanjaq of Nablus was joined to that of Jerusalem. The resulting administrative unit extended from the Jezreel Valley (also known as the plain of Esdraelon or Marj Ibn 'Amir) in the north to the Negev desert in the south. However, this measure turned out to be temporary: in 1858 the Sanjaq of Nablus was severed from Jerusalem and put directly under Damascus, as it had been before the Egyptian occupation.
After the withdrawal of Muhammad Ali's forces, the seat of the Province of Saida was transferred from Acre to Beirut (though the province continued to carry the name of Saida). The city of Acre was demoted to become the center of a Sanjaq of Acre, which encompassed the district of Galilee.
Thus, after 1841 Jerusalem became the major administrative center in southern Syria, taking the place of Acre before it and of Nablus (which had acquired a temporary primacy in the eighteenth century). This was an important contribution to its future development. An argument can be made that with the rise of Jerusalem, the modern history of Palestine began.
Administrative Reorganization after the Enactment of the 1864 Vilayet Law
In 1864, the Ottomans enacted the Vilayet Law (Law of the Provinces) as a step toward applying the Tanzimat reforms with regard to the administration of the provinces. A year after enacting the law, the Sublime Porte decided to join the Province of Damascus to that of Saida to form a large province, which was called the Province of Syria (Suriye Vilayeti). Damascus became the capital of the new province.
But the formation of this province did not gain unanimous approval at the Porte. Thus, following the death of Grand Vizier Ali Pasha in September 1871, Mahmud Nedim Pasha who replaced him decided in May 1872 to separate the three sanjaqs of Acre, Nablus, and Jerusalem from the Province of Syria and to form a new province called Quds-i Sherif Vilayeti, with Jerusalem as its capital. This “Province of Jerusalem,” which prefigured to a large extent the future boundaries of Palestine, lasted only two months (until July 1872), as Nedim was dismissed from his position and the new Grand Vizier, Midhat Pasha, reversed part of Nedim’s administrative decision. Midhat rejoined the Sanjaqs of Acre and Nablus to the province of Syria; however, he bestowed upon the Sanjaq of Jerusalem an independent (mustaqil) status subordinated directly to the Ministry of the Interior at the Porte. Jerusalem kept its status as an “independent” sanjaq until the outbreak of World War I.
Another change was made in March 1888 when the Porte decided to separate the Province of Syria into two provinces: a reduced Province of Syria and a new Province of Beirut. Both the Sanjaq of Acre and the Sanjaq of Nablus were to be part of the Province of Beirut.
The Formation of the Boundaries
The boundaries among the sanjaqs that afterwards formed Palestine—namely Acre in the north, Nablus at the center, and Jerusalem in the center-south—were administrative and not natural or geographical.
The Sanjaq of Acre
The Sanjaq of Acre was bordered to the north by the Qada (subdistrict) of Sur (Tyre) in the Sanjaq of Saida, which covered Southern Lebanon. The northeastern part of the Sanjaq of Acre included the subdistrict of Safad. The boundary between the Sanjaq of Acre and the subdistrict of Sur in the late Ottoman period was a line between Ras al-Naqura on the Mediterranean sea and a point on the western coast of the Lake Hula.
The Sanjaq of Nablus
South of Acre, the Sanjaq of Nablus and Balqa extended from south of Jezreel Valley to a point north of Jaffa and from there eastward to the north of Jericho. When the Province of Syria was divided into that of Syria and of Beirut in 1888, Balqa (a subdistrict within the Sanjaq of Nablus to the east of the Jordan River) was appended to the Province of Syria. Since then and until the fall of the empire, the boundary of the Sanjaq of Nablus in the east was the Jordan River. It extended west to the Mediterranean Sea and north of Jaffa and Netanya.
The Sanjaq of Jerusalem
The sanjaq was bordered by the Sanjaq of Nablus to the north and the Mediterranean Sea to the west. Its eastern boundaries started from the north of Jericho through the Dead Sea down to the Gulf of Aqaba. The south and southwest boundaries were less clear-cut, however. Due to continued strife among the Bedouin tribes in the Negev, the Ottomans founded in 1900 the township of Bir al-Sabi’ in the northern Negev desert and subordinated it to Jerusalem. They gave it the status of a Qada (subdistrict), thus extending the boundaries of the Sanjaq of Jerusalem further to the south. Following an agreement concluded in 1906 between the Ottomans and the British (who controlled Egypt at the time), the southwestern boundaries between the Sanjaq of Jerusalem and Egypt were defined as a line between Rafah in the north and a point between Aqaba and Taba on the Gulf of Aqaba. Consequently, the authority of the governor of Jerusalem extended to Aqaba—an area that included the entire Negev down to Aqaba.
The administrative division implemented by the Sublime Porte strengthened its control over a sensitive region. The most sensitive district of this region was perhaps Jerusalem in part because of its location and in part because of the growing interests of the European powers in the Christian holy places. Due to these factors, it was given a special status by the Sublime Porte in 1872. Moreover, in order to have all the Christian holy places controlled by one governor, the Ottomans separated in 1906 the Qada (subdistrict) of Nazareth from the Sanjaq of Acre and appended it to the Sanjaq of Jerusalem. This arrangement lasted only for two years and in 1908 Nazareth was rejoined to Acre. Finally, the three Sanjaqs of Jerusalem, Nablus, and Acre were united at the end of World War I to constitute Palestine under the British Mandate.
Abu-Manneh, Butrus. “The Establishment and Dismantling of the Province of Syria.” In John Spagnolo, ed., Problems of the Modern Middle East in Historical Perspective Essays in Honour of Albert Hourani, 7–27. Reading: Ithaca Press, 1992.
Abu-Manneh, Butrus. “The Rise of the Sanjak of Jerusalem in the Late 19th Century.” In Gabriel Ben-Dor, ed., The Palestinians and the Middle East Conflict, 21–32. Ramat Gan: Turtledove Press, 1978.
Al-‘Arif, ‘Arif, Tarikh Bi'r al-Sab'i wa qaba'iluha. Jerusalem, 1934. [in Arabic]
Bailey, Clinton. “The Negev in the Nineteenth Century: Reconstructing History From Bedouin Oral Traditions.” Asian and African Studies 14 (March 1980): 35–80.
Brawer, Moshe. Israel Boundaries Past, Present and Future. Tel Aviv: Yavneh, 1988 [in Hebrew].
Doumani, Beshara. Rediscovering Palestine Merchants and Peasants in Jabal Nablus, 1700-1900. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
Heyd, Uriel. “ha-Mashber shel Mifrats- Eilat bi-Shnat 1906” [in Hebrew]. Eilat (The Society for Researching Eretz-Israel and its Antiquities) (1960): 194–206.
Rushdi, Mirliva. Akabe Meselesi. Istanbul, 1326/ 1910-1 [in Ottoman Turkish].
Salnameyi Vilayet-i Beirut A.H. 1311-12 (Vilayet Matbaasi) [in Ottoman Turkish].
Shuqair, Na'um. Tarikh Sina. Cairo, 1916.