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History of Middle East: Residential Space and Sectarian Boundaries in Ottoman Damascus

Ottoman Damascus had three major religious affiliations. Residents of this region were either Christians, Muslims, or Jews. It is presumed that these groups lived in seclusion according to their religious affinity. Most Christians are expected to have lived in the Christian quarters of ab-Sharqi and Tuma, while the Jews lived in the Jewish quarters in Mahallat al-Yahud. On the other hand, Muslims were expected to solely inhabit Qaymariyya, Kharab, and Maydan/Bab al-Musalla quarters (Al-Qattan 14). However, despite these distinct quarters with religious affiliations, the three religious groups crossed sectarian lines and lived in common areas, as evidenced by the laws they used and property transaction patterns.

The three religions in Ottoman Damascus used the same laws to make rulings on legal issues, implying that there were no strict segregations with religious affiliations. The Ottoman Tanzimat measures of administration of justice came into effect in the mid-1860s (Al-Qattan 16). Before these measures were established in Damascus, the only laws used by the Christians, Jews, and Muslims were the sharia, which originated from the Muslims. The courts deployed sharia laws to deal with all manner of cases, including disputes related to marriages and divorce contracts. Also, the law acted as notaries and depositaries for legal agreements and transactions involving properties such as land and residential houses. Therefore, different kinds of business transactions, agreements, deals, and disputes took place under these laws and were sought by all three religious affiliations. By using sharia laws across the three religions, it confirms that the Muslims, Jews, and Christians of the Ottoman Damascus co–existed and crossed sectarian lines previously assumed to be solely inhabited by different religions. If that had not been the case, records would have shown each religious group using a unique set of rules and a different court system.

Patterns of residential property transactions reveal significant transactions between members from different religious affiliations, implying that the Christians, Jews, and Muslims were not confined to sectarian lines in Ottoman Damascus. Under the sharia laws, the courts followed a consistent format in recording transactions involving residential properties. The documents, termed hujjas, recorded names of buyers and sellers, co–owners, witnesses, type of property, size, and whether the seller acquired it through purchase or inheritance. Also, the hujjas recorded the property’s location, capturing the quarter and zuqaq in which the property was located. In addition, neighbors’ names, any public institutions in the vicinity, streets, prices, and dates of the transactions were also captured. Lastly, the documents recorded whether the buyer and seller were single entities or did so as a group (Al-Qattan 16). These extensive entries provide adequate data to establish the location of properties under sale and the religious affiliations of the buyer, seller, and witnesses. From the retrieved records, it is determined that a significant number of the Christians purchased land from Muslim and Jewish sellers, confirming that the three religions were not completely segregated. Of the 637 Christian purchases recorded in the documents, about 22 percent were transacted by either Muslims or Jews (Al-Qattan 18). Even though most of these transactions (78%) occurred between fellow Christians, the 22 percent between Christians and Muslims or Christians and Jews indicate that many Christians moved to Jew or Muslim quarters, resulting in coexistence among the religions.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that Christians, Muslims, and Jews crossed sectarian lines to dwell in common quarters, there are indications that seclusions were highly practiced. Property transactional evidence cannot be used to confirm the lack of segregation because some of these transactions were done for business purposes, not permanent ownership and dwelling. From the records, a buyer in one document was recorded as a seller in another, with the two transactions happening quickly. That is the case of a Christian man, Yusuf Sawaya, who bought a property from three owners and sold it a month later, making an impressive capital gain (Al-Qattan 20). In such a transaction, it can be assumed that the buyer did not intend to dwell in the Muslim neighborhood of his new property but took part in the transaction for profitability.

To sum up, the Christians, Muslims, and Jews in Ottoman Damascus crossed sectarian lines and lived in common areas, enabling them to use sharia as common law. Also, records of property transactions show that the three religions traded residential properties, confirming that sectarian lines were not strictly followed. However, transactions taking place for business may misguide the belief that buyers intended to settle in neighborhoods of different religious affiliations.

Work Cited

Al-Qattan, Najwa. “Across the Courtyard: Residential Space and Sectarian Boundaries in Ottoman Damascus.” Minorities in the Ottoman Empire,


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