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Deir Gassaneh
Ottoman Rule in the Hills of Rural Palestine

In the middle of the twentieth century, a man named Omar es-Salah al Barghouti, son of the last feudal lord of Deir Ghassaneh, cast his memory back to the village of his childhood, as it had been in the twilight years of the Ottoman Empire:

A village like no other. A city that is not urban...a feudal family that has no rural traditions. Castles and fortifications and mansions that rise high above the peasant dwellings...Men and women attired in a manner that is at odds with their neighbors. Foods that transcend the local cuisine. A town that is an oasis in a desert, and a family that is uprooted from its urbane roots and replanted in this remote mountainous range...The visitor to this town is astounded by his encounter with these great mansions and its fortifications. He wonders whether he is in a village or in a city. He is further perplexed as to why these constructions appear in this particular place and not in neighboring villages.

In the years since Barghouti wrote this memoir, the world he described has vanished. Neglect and dilapidation have aged the mansions of Deir Ghassaneh. But the same sense of bewilderment still confronts the traveler who stands in the square. Who built such grand houses in the hills of rural Palestine? Why here, in this village, and nowhere else? Who lived inside these walls, and what happened to them?

Origins of Deir Ghassaneh

The origins of the town, together with its name, probably go back to the Ghassanids – a Christian tribe from the Arabian Peninsula who moved north in the 3rd Century C.E., settling in these hills and merging with the Greek-speaking Christian communities of the highlands. The Ghassanids formed a semi-independent client state of the Byzantine Empire, ruling over an area of land that stretched across parts of modern Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. The name also suggests the presence of a monastery (Deir in Arabic) in the village.

In the seventh century the whole of modern Palestine came under the control of the Umayyads, the first great Islamic dynasty. Deir Ghassaneh remains unmentioned in the historical record, but we can assume that the majority of the population was still Christian, and that by the end of the eleventh century the town formed part of the Latin kingdom established here by the Crusaders.

Two hundred years later, shortly after Salaheddin defeated the Crusaders, these hills seems to have been settled by a new tribe, the Beni Zaid - Arabs from the Hejaz who had served in Salaheddin’s army. Beni Zaid is the name still used to refer to the cluster of villages that surround Deir Ghassaneh.

The Throne Village

Deir Ghassaneh reappears in the records in the early years of the Ottoman Empire, when it became the seat of power for a feudal family that was to rule over some 20 highland villages for the next four hundred years.

The sheikhs of Deir Ghassaneh were multazims – tax farmers who had paid money to the Ottoman authorities in Istanbul and who, in return, were granted the right to extract taxes from the peasants of the surrounding lands. In Deir Ghasseneh the money came from olive oil. From the trees around this village, then, and from the labor of the peasants who planted and harvested those trees, came the money to build these fine Ottoman palaces.

For generation after generation, the sheikhs of Deir Ghassaneh ruled these hills as feudal lords – guarding the trade routes, defending their lands, raising armies, taxing the fellahin (peasants), and administering justice. By the nineteenth century the Barghouti family, a sub-clan of the Beni Zaid, had emerged as the holders of this position, in all probability by a process of marriage and inheritance.

Around the same time, it seems that the remaining Christian families of Deir Ghassaneh left the village, swapping their homes with the Muslim minority of nearby Aboud and making Deir Ghassaneh a wholly Islamic town.

A window into life in Ottoman Deir Ghassaneh

The diaries of Omar es-Saleh offer an extraordinarily vivid glimpse into the life of Deir Ghassaneh at the end of the Ottoman period.

The mansion in which he was born was divided into three compounds: the salamlek, with its guestrooms and dining halls; the haremlek, guarding the privacy of the women; and the khazeen, where the servants manned workshops, stables, and food stores. In the upper rooms of the house the women of the Barghuouti clan sat at the mashrabiyyat – laced windows that prevented them being seen from the streets. Above that was the eliyyeh, a private retreat where the Sheikh could recline and look out over his estates.

Inside the haremlek, the Barghouti women were dressed in the finery of the Ottoman aristocratic style: the Sheikha’s headdress embroidered with gold coins and pearls, her eyes lined with kohl, and her ankles circled with silver khilkhal bracelets. Beyond these rooms, however, the Barghouti women were heavily veiled in the black abayeh and allowed out only on rare occasions - always after darkness and accompanied by blood kin.

Omar contrasts the near total confinement of his aunts and sisters with the freedom of Deir Ghassaneh’s peasant women: “They moved and roamed unveiled and seen by all. They worked in the fields with their men folk and with strangers. They collected water from the spring and wood on their own. They harvested and slept under the trees, and guarded the vineyards. Men would walk in on women in the cottages without knocking, and guests would sleep in the same dwellings as the women.”

Deir Ghassaneh and the birth of modern Palestine

Having been born into a life of aristocratic privilege, in a mountain village little changed since the seventeenth century, Omar es-Saleh went on to become of Palestine’s great twentieth century reformers.

He was educated in Jerusalem and later in Beirut, where his sheltered, Ottoman view of the world was shattered by the encounter with modernity. In Lebanon he found street lights and motor cars, newspapers and cinemas, gramophones and music, restaurants and licensed bordellos. He met sophisticated, unveiled women, and was drawn into the growing political movement of Arab nationalism.

At the end of the First World War, Omar brought his political ideas and modernist aspirations to the work of building a new state from the ruins of Ottoman Palestine. He was exiled by the British to Acca for agitating against the Zionist project, served as a cabinet minister during Jordanian rule, and campaigned for an end to the feudal system into which he had been born. He also became a prominent lawyer, and wrote a number of books on the history and folklore of Palestine, together with his own unique memoirs of a vanished world.

His most lasting legacy, though, is here in his hometown. Before the war, and against the wishes of the village elders, he negotiated with an English missionary, Miss Nicholson, to open a school for girls in Deir Ghassaneh. He persuaded his father to donate rooms for the schools, and pressed the local mukhtars (village headmen) to pay the salaries of the teachers. A hundred years later, Deir Ghassaneh maintains an exceptionally high level of education for boys and girls alike. 

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