Mamluk Egypt and its possessions fell to the Ottoman sultan, Selim I, in 1517. The Jordan region, however, stagnated under Ottoman rule. Although the pilgrim caravans to Mecca continued to be an important source of income, the East Bank was largely forgotten by the outside world for more than 300 years until European travelers "rediscovered" it in the nineteenth century.
For administrative purposes Ottoman domains were divided into provinces (vilayets) that were presided over by governors (pashas). The governors ruled with absolute authority, but at the pleasure of the sultan in Constantinople. Palestine was part of the vilayet of Beirut, and Jerusalem was administered as a separate district (sanjak) that reported directly to the sultan. The East Bank comprised parts of the vilayets of Beirut and Damascus. The latter was subdivided into four sanjaks: Hama, Damascus, Hawran, and Al Karak. Hawran included Ajlun and As Salt and Al Karak comprised the area mostly south of Amman. The territory south of the Az Zarqa River down to Wadi al Mawjib was under the control of the pasha of Nabulus, who was under the vilayet of Beirut.
From 1831 until 1839, Ottoman rule was displaced by that of Muhammad Ali--pasha of Egypt and nominally subject to the sultan-- when his troops occupied the region during a revolt against the Sublime Porte, as the Ottoman government came to be known. Britain and Russia compelled Muhammad Ali to withdraw and they restored the Ottoman governors.
The Ottomans enforced sharia in the towns and settled countryside, but in the desert customary tribal law also was recognized. Because of the unitary nature of Islamic law-- encompassing religious, social, civil, and economic life--it was inconceivable that it could be applied to non-Muslims. The Ottoman regime used the millet system, which accorded non-Muslim communities the right to manage their personal affairs according to their own religious laws. The European powers also concluded separate treaties (capitulations) with the Porte whereby their consuls received extraterritorial legal jurisdiction over their citizens and clients in the Ottoman Empire. In addition, France claimed the special right to protect the sultan's Roman Catholic subjects, and Russia to protect the sultan's more numerous Orthodox subjects.
At every level of the Ottoman system, administration was essentially military in character. On the East Bank, however, Ottoman rule was lax and garrisons were small. Ottoman officials were satisfied as long as order was preserved, military levies were provided when called for, and taxes were paid. These goals, however, were not easily achieved. To stabilize the population, in the late 1800s the Ottomans established several small colonies of Circassians--Sunni Muslims who had fled from the Caucasus region of Russia in the 1860s and 1870s. Although the Ottoman sultan in Constantinople was the caliph, Ottoman officials and soldiers were despised by the Arabs, who viewed them as foreign oppressors. Truculent shaykhs regularly disrupted the peace, and the fiercely independent beduins revolted frequently. In 1905 and again in 1910, serious uprisings were suppressed only with considerable difficulty.
In 1900 the Porte, with German assistance, began construction of the Hijaz Railway. By 1908 the railroad linked Damascus with the holy city of Medina. Its purpose was to transport Muslim pilgrims to Mecca and to facilitate military control of the strategic Arabian Peninsula. To protect the railroad, the Porte increased its Ottoman military presence along the route and, as it had done earlier to safeguard caravan traffic, subsidized rival Arab tribal shaykhs in the region.
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