In the mid-19th century, Jerusalem had a population that is said to have not exceeded 8,000. Jews were only about 5 percent of its population. Jewish migrants coming from Poland and Russia arrived in the 1880s, fleeing pogroms and harsh discrimination. Jews, running from anti-Semitism also came from other countries. There were indigenous Jews in Palestine and Jews who had arrived three centuries or so earlier, from Spain and Persia. By around the turn of the century the Zionist movement in Europe was helping Jews establish agricultural communities in Palestine, and there were many Jewish immigrants who preferred not to farm. By 1911, Jerusalem’s population was between 60,000 to 70,000 inhabitants. Something like 40,000 of the people in Jersusalem were Jews, and there were about 9,000 Christians and 7,000 Muslims.
Jerusalem was the largest city in Palestine, with holy places for Jews, Christians and Muslims but little else to match its reputation. T. E. Lawrence (to be known as Lawrence of Arabia) was to describe it as a “dirty town.” It streets have been described as largely unpaved, crooked and blind alleys.
Outside Palestine, in Syria, the city of Damascus in 1911 had a population estimated to be between 154,000 and 225,000. Christians and Jews together numbered between 35,000 and 55,000.
Another relatively large city in the region was Baghdad, in Mesopotamia, a city that had declined over centuries from its high of around 1,000,000 inhabitants to a population in 1907 recorded as 185,000.
Also in what was still being described as Syria was Beirut with a 1911 population of around 120,000, with something like 77,000 Christians, 36,000 Muslims, 4,100 foreigners, 2,500 Jews and 400 Druses.
Farther south, in that part of Arabia known as the Hejaz, along the coast of the Red Sea, was the holy city of Medina, the “City of the Prophet,” with a population in 1911 of between 15,000 and 20,000.
Farther south in the Hejaz was Mecca, or Makkah. It had a fixed population said to be between 50,000 and 60,000 in 1878. Also it had a large floating population fed by Muslims making their once in a lifetime pilgrimage.
All these cities, in what can be described as greater Arabia, were small compared to two of Egypt’s great cities. Cairo had a population of between 600,000 to 700,000 and, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, the city of Alexandria had a population that was close to 400,000.
Greater Arabia from Palestine and Syria as far south and including Yeman were part of the Ottoman Empire, as was Egypt nominally. Since 1882 the British had been in actual control of Egypt — seven years after Britons had purchased shares in the Suez Canal enterprise from the Ottoman Empire’s viceroy in Egypt and had begun to establish fiscal order in Egypt.
Meanwhile there was not yet a Saudi Arabia. By 1912 its founder-to-be, Ibn Saud, made himself a minor warlord of a kingdom that measured 700 by 700 yards. He was allied with Bedouin tribal warriors on camels who adhered to a conservative Islam: Wahabbism. With these tribesmen, Saud founded the Ikhwan, a military-religious brotherhood with the approval of local Salafi ulema. Saud also instituted an agrarian policy to settle the nomadic pastoralist bedouins into colonies, and to do this Saud made peace with the Ottoman Empire’s rulers. He agreed that he should have relations with no other foreign power and promised to join Turkish forces in resisting any foreign aggression in Arabia. Turkey recognized his position in Nejd and Hasa in exchange for nominal suzerainty.
Far more prestigious than Ibn Saud in Arabia was Hussein bin Ali, who ruled the Hejaz, including Mecca, as the Sharif of Mecca. He was of the Hashemite family that claimed direct descent from Muhammad the Prophet, a family that had ruled the Hejaz in unbroken succession since the Christian calendar year of 1201.
Since 1839, the Ottomans had been trying to modernize Arabia — a program called Tanzimat, continued by the reformist regime that took power in Turkey in 1908. The reforms attempted to integrate non-Muslims and non-Turks more thoroughly into Ottoman society by enhancing their civil liberties and granting them equality throughout the Empire.
The effort to integrate Turkey and Arabia was advanced by extending railways from Turkey. A railroad reached Jerusalem in 1892. The Hejaz railroad was begun in 1900 with the intention of running through Damascus, Medina and Mecca. And then there was the railway that was planned to reach Baghdad, a project funded and engineered mainly by Germans. The Turks wanted a rail line to Baghdad and the Germans wanted a transport connection to the Persian Gulf.
Against the integration impulse there were a few Western-educated Arab intellectuals and military officers who formed organizations supporting greater local autonomy in Arabia, and there were various tribes in Arabia who wanted to be left alone and to pursue their traditions.
The Outbreak of the Great War in August 1914 was a great disruption for developments within the Ottoman Empire. The Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), known collectively as the Young Turks, decied to enter the war on the side of Germany. The British responded in November by annexing Cyprus, and in December the British announced that Egypt was their protectorate. The pretence that it was still a part of the Ottoman Empire was dropped.
The British defeated a rump Ottoman force at Basra near the Persian Gulf in December, and its wartime enemies responed by attacking the British as the Suez Canal, and an Ottoman force invaded Egypt but was repelled.
The British took serious steps to win allies among the Arabs, and they succeeded. Between July 1915 and March 1916 there was correspondence between Sir Henry McMahon, British High Commissioner in Egypt, and the ruler of the Hejaz and Mecca, Hussein bin Ali. Basically, the British promised Hussein that their success against the Ottoman Turks would leave people in Arabia independent, and Hussein agreed to an alliance with Britain against Ottoman rule.
The British were also talking to Ibn Saud, who had been harboring some dislike toward the Turks. Saud abandoned his agreements with the Turks and in December, 1915, signed a treaty of “friendship and coooperation” with the British, and with this he began receiving monthly payments from his new ally.
With the war and the alliances, the Middle East would never be the same.