Vincent Lemire and Jerusalem’s ‘age des possibles’

lemireBy Claire Gallien

French historian Vincent Lemire, well-known for his work on hydropolitics in Jerusalem, published  a book last year on the history of Jerusalem in the late Ottoman period (1860-1930). The book entitled, Jérusalem, 1900. La Ville sainte à l’age des possibles, has lately been reviewed on the French website ‘La Vie des Idées’ by Dominique Trimbur.

The book ties up with the secondary literature on archiving Jerusalem and Ottoman Palestinian life, which we read for our first workshop. The review also has a note with recent historiography on Jerusalem published in English, including the works of David Kushner, Roberto Mazza, Michelle Campos, Abigail Jacobson, Tom Segev, and Henry Laurens.

Most importantly, as highlighted in Trimbur’s review, the book provides new perspectives on a history of the city ‘from below’ and questions slanted views regarding the various Jerusalemite communities and the relations between local and central authority in the late Ottoman period.

I have put together a very brief summary in English of the review’s most salient points.

First of all, Trimbur reminds his readers that Lemire’s book is part and parcel of a late development in the historiography of the Middle East and that it contributes to a ‘pacified’ history (histoire apaisée) of the region – by which he means a history that is not ideologically or politically freighted. He adds that Lemire succeeds in foregrounding the contributions of actors, namely the inhabitants of the city of Jerusalem and its administrators, who had until then been largely neglected by historians.

Borrowing from British and Israeli historians and their use of the concept of ‘transition’ to refer to the late Ottoman period, Lemire rejects the idea of a brutal shift from an ‘Ottoman dark age’ to an ‘Anglo-Zionist modernity’ and prefers to use the concept of âge des possibles (‘the age of possibilities’) which he characterises as a rare moment of cohesion. This notion of âge des possibles prevents him from falling into the trap of a teleological reinterpretation of the period leading up to the breaking-up of Palestine, which he attributes to exogenous factors, such as British colonial intervention, rather than to a problem of cohesion and governance amongst local communities.

Lemire based his research on a study of the Ottoman archives and censuses which enables him to redress some of the most opinionated representations of the city as given in European travel narratives and memoirs. For instance, he demonstrates how and why the division of the Old City into four neighbourhoods corresponded to an outside view of the city and that the reality of everyday life in Jerusalem did not quite tally with these neat divisions.

For one thing, each neighbourhood included people from various denominations, and second the homogeneity of each community was far from evident; instead, it corresponds to a later imperial reconstruction which aimed to pit one community against the other. Far from being self-contained and coherent entities, Lemire highlights that the communities were divided along linguistic, cultural, and political lines. He further argued that this diversity was eclipsed during the Mandate period as a result of a divide and rule policy put in place by British authorities. Thus, the âge des possibles gradually faded away in the 1920s.

Lemire also opposes what he calls the ‘folklorising reflex’ in the historiography of the city, which prevents us from grasping the various programmes of modernizing the city put in place by the Ottomans and supported by the local population. He again attributes this blind spot to the reliance of historiography on European actors attached to a museified vision of the city of Jerusalem, as both eternal and immutable. Archaeology was put to the service of faith in order to reconstruct a fossilized Jerusalem.

Finally, his focus on Ottoman actors allows Lemire to demonstrate that the Porte (the Jerusalem government) cared more about its Palestinian fringe and about Jerusalem than historians have up until now been prepared to accept. Lemire shows how local governors, far from being indolent pashas, were really committed to the modern development of the city with programmes of water distribution and schools. Public opinion was vibrant and accounted for the emergence of influential political figures, such as Albert Antébi and Yussuf Ziya al-Khalidi. A thirst for modernity was there but has been largely buried in histories of Jerusalem under the Orientalist paradigm of the dormant and indolent East waiting for European colonial intervention.

Trimbur concludes his review on a couple of points which he considers problematic in Lemire’s book:

– an oversight of important archives.
– a simplistic view of European attempts to map Jerusalem – what Lemire describes as the uncertainty of the various communities related to the location of Biblical sites only appears to us now but was not evident at the time.
– Lemire is not the first one to write an histoire des possibles and Trimbur believes that Lemire fails to chart the field and clearly position himself in relation to it.
– Lemire’s relentless efforts to highlight Ottoman plans of modernisation of the city, though laudable, tend to dilute the perspective needed to evaluate these attempts; for instance, Trimbur remarks that Ottoman’s attempts to modernise the education system were largely ineffective.

Both the book and the debate it triggered are highly stimulating and are indicative of the current trend in European historiographical debates on Jerusalem in the late Ottoman period and before the British Mandate. I believe Lemire’s attempt to write a ‘pacified’ history of the city is in this respect quite remarkable.

Further listening and reading:

Vincent Lemire was interviewed on France Culture for the ‘Questions d’Islam’ and ‘Concordances des Temps’ programmes, in which he talks about Jerusalem and modernity at the beginning of the 20th century.

For a more descriptive review, I recommend Falestin Naili in la Revue des Mondes Musulmans et de la Méditerranée (REMM). 

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