Zāhir al-‘Umar Creates a Stronghold in Galilee Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Zāhir al-ՙUmar seized the Crusader city of Acre, resurrecting and fortifying it against Ottoman forces. With Ottoman leaders facing external threats from Russia, they were unable to defeat Zāhir and reconquer Acre.

Summary of Event

When the Ottoman Empire incorporated the area east of the Mediterranean Sea as Syria Syria in the early sixteenth century, it had three main administrative centers. Damascus Damascus, Syria served as the primary administrative center, since the main route for pilgrims to Mecca passed through this ancient city, which controlled all the territory east of the Rift (Jordan River) Valley, as well as southern Palestine. Tripoli, the second center, governed the northern coastal plain. The central coastal region, from just north of Haifa to Beirut, was governed by the coastal city of Sidon. This included the entire area of Galilee, from Acre east to Tiberias and Safed. Galilee was a relatively insignificant area with a few small villages and various Bedouin tribes roaming through the hills. Even the once-important Crusader port of Acre had been reduced to a small fishing village of about three hundred. [kw]Z{amacr}hir al-{ayn}Umar Creates a Stronghold in Galilee (1746) [kw]Galilee, Z{amacr}hir al-{ayn}Umar Creates a Stronghold in (1746) [kw]Stronghold in Galilee, Z{amacr}hir al-{ayn}Umar Creates a (1746) [kw]{ayn}Umar Creates a Stronghold in Galilee, Z{amacr}hir al- (1746)[Umar Creates a St] Galilee Palestine Ottoman Empire [g]Ottoman Empire;1746: Z{amacr}hir al-{ayn}Umar Creates a Stronghold in Galilee[1160] [g]Syria;1746: Z{amacr}hir al-{ayn}Umar Creates a Stronghold in Galilee[1160] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;1746: Z{amacr}hir al-{ayn}Umar Creates a Stronghold in Galilee[1160] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1746: Z{amacr}hir al-{ayn}Umar Creates a Stronghold in Galilee[1160] [c]Government and politics;1746: Z{amacr}hir al-{ayn}Umar Creates a Stronghold in Galilee[1160] Z{amacr}hir al-{ayn}Umar Ibr{amacr}h{imacr}m al-{Ssubdot}abb{amacr}gh Süleyman Paşa Esad Pa{scedil}a Mu{hsubdot}ammad Bey

Among the various Bedouin tribes, the Zaydan clan inhabited the region between Tiberias and Safed on the eastern side of Galilee. In the seventeenth century, they began coming into prominence through their trade relations with Damascus. The Druze had served the governor of Sidon as tax farmers for Galilee, but Zāhir al-ՙUmar’s grandfather and father, members of the Zaydan clan, were appointed to the roll of multazims (tax farmers) of Tiberias.

When Zāhir al-ՙUmar was born around 1690, he was not destined for leadership. His older brother Saՙd was expected to take over as head of the clan. However, at the death of his father in 1706, Zāhir received authority over the tax farms. This was a clever ploy on the part of his brother: It meant that Saՙd could not be held accountable to Sidon should the clan default on payments. Besides, Zāhir was still a teenager. Over the next several decades he became something of a folk hero, proving himself a strong fighter and a defender of justice.

Through his continued trade contacts, Zāhir married the daughter of a leading figure of Damascus and settled in Nazareth. There, the Saqr tribe called upon him to represent them to the Ottoman administration. The governor of Sidon himself appointed Zāhir as the tax farmer of both Tiberias and ՙArraba, a town located farther west, near Acre. He then married the daughter of the ruler of Baՙna, gaining control of the northeast portion of Galilee. With the help of the mercenary Aḥmad Āghā al-Dinkizli and more than one thousand of his troops, Zāhir next turned south to challenge the al-Jarrar clan from Janīn, who controlled access to Nābulus from the north.

The governor of Damascus, Süleyman Paṣa, realized the threat of Zāhir’s growing power base and attempted to take Tiberias from him in a series of attacks from 1738 to 1743, but Zāhir was able to withstand him. In 1743, Süleyman was succeeded as governor of Damascus by Esad Paṣa. Esad Paṣa was less aggressive than his predecessor had been, and there was peace between Damascus and Galilee for the next fourteen years.

Zāhir had already been developing a trading base in Acre for some time, especially by building relationships with the French merchants of the city. He appointed Yūsuf al-Qāssis, a Melkite Christian, as his agent in Acre. The governor of Sidon was aware of Zāhir’s interests and rejected his request to obtain rights for the tax farm of Acre. Zāhir was determined, however. In 1746, he took the city by force, killed the local multazim, and took his place. While the French recognized him with the title of governor of Acre, he was officially only the multazim, living in a nearby castle at Dayr Hana.

From 1746 on, Zāhir made it a priority to raise the status of Acre. He built a wall around the city and added fortifications and other buildings. Most of all, he encouraged new residents to develop the city in order to help it regain the status it had achieved during the Crusades. Jews and Christians flocked to Zāhir’s territory, where they found both religious tolerance and favorable economic conditions. Acre soon became the leading exporter of cotton to Europe.

Zāhir was successful in keeping Damascus at bay and expanding his influence to Haifa and Tantura. By 1768, the Ottomans had granted him the titles shaykh of Acre; amir of Nazareth, Tiberias, and Safed; and shaykh of all of Galilee. Istanbul was occupied at this time with a war against Russia (1768-1774) and seemed willing to let Zāhir rule as long as there was a balance of power in Syria. The Turks encouraged the new governor of Damascus, Uthman Paṣa al-Kurji, to play a stronger role in the region, appointing his two sons Muḥammad and Darwish as governors of Tripoli and Sidon respectively.

Zāhir’s political adviser, Ibrāhīm al-Ṣabbāgh, urged him to seek an alliance with Ali Bey al-Kabir of Egypt. In 1770, Ali Bey dispatched troops to Gaza and Jaffa. The following year, he added another thirty-five thousand troops and marched to Damascus. When Ali Bey then suddenly reversed positions, Uthman Paṣa of Damascus marched against Zāhir. Once again, Zāhir prevailed in battle at the Daughters of Jacob Bridge on the upper Jordan River. He then took advantage of retreating Egyptian forces and conquered the coastal city of Jaffa. Ali Bey, in turn, was defeated by Muḥammad Bey, who took over Egyptian rule and became a new threat to Zāhir.

Uthman Paṣa had become much more conciliatory toward Zāhir after his defeat at Zāhir’s hands and lobbied with Istanbul for Zāhir to be named as the new governor of Sidon. Istanbul was ready to make this appointment but hesitated as it awaited payment of back taxes from Galilee. In the meantime, Zāhir restored relationships with the Druze, Metualis, and his other traditional rivals on the edge of Galilee. When Istanbul signed a peace treaty with Russia in 1774, it was able to turn its attention to the internal issues of the empire. It recalled Uthman, who had become allied to Zāhir, and appointed Muḥammad Bey as the new governor of Damascus.

Istanbul also encouraged Egypt to invade Palestine. Muḥammad Bey took Jaffa on May 20, 1775, and threatened Acre to the north. With all the inhabitants fleeing the capital city, Zāhir himself, now a man in his middle eighties, left the city on May 24. Zāhir’s own son Ali, an opportunist, announced that he was taking over his father’s rule, but he disappeared after one week. Muḥammad entered Acre, seeming to bring Zāhir’s rule to an end.

To Zāhir’s good fortune, the Egyptian ruler became ill and died in Acre within two weeks. His troops retreated to Egypt, and Zāhir returned to Acre on June 12, with al-Dinkizli mobilizing Zāhir’s royal troops. Istanbul was determined not to allow Zāhir to reassert his rule, however. Hasan Kapudan Paṣa, the admiral of the Ottoman navy, was dispatched to Acre with instructions to collect back taxes from Zāhir. The shayk of Galilee seemed willing to pay off his debts and to compromise with the Ottoman powers. However, the demand resulted in a power struggle between two of Zāhir’s advisers, Ibrāhīm al-Ṣabbāgh and Aḥmad Āghā al-Dinkizli. Caught in the crossfire between these two, Zāhir died violently in 1775.


Galilee in the eighteenth century was a political force to be reckoned with. At other times, it may have been considered a kingdom or a province in its own right. However, as a border region, it remained a part of the province of Sidon even though it encroached upon the rule of Damascus. Eventually, Zāhir al-ՙUmar controlled most of Sidon, although he was never recognized by Ottoman authorities as its governor. Zāhir’s longevity alone is impressive, as he amassed and retained power in Galilee from 1706 to 1775. His true uniqueness, though, lies in the fact that he was primarily a trader who used political skills to control and influence the region within which he sought to trade. Economic development was his first concern, and conquering Acre was merely a means to an end. So successful was Zāhir in his economic projects that Acre increased from a village of three hundred to a city of twenty-five thousand under his control.

For many of those who swelled the population of the city, Acre’s attraction lay in Zāhir’s moderate tax policy, his reasonable enforcement, and the tax breaks he gave to newcomers. Zāhir obtained a monopoly of the Galilee cotton trade, achieving high prices so that Acre soon became the major exporter of cotton to Europe. This brought further improvements and prosperity to Acre, and all of Galilee enjoyed economic success unparalleled in the four centuries of Ottoman rule.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Zāhir’s accomplishments is that they were made independently of Ottoman rule. With Istanbul facing external threats from Russia, it had no choice but to allow Galilee some degree of autonomy. Following the death of Zāhir, both the thriving city of Acre and the role of Galilee in trade would continue. However, local leadership waned. In Zāhir’s place, Ahmad Paṣa al-Jazzar, a trained Mamlūk, was installed at Acre to do the bidding of his Ottoman masters.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barbir, Karl. Ottoman Rule in Damascus, 1708-1758. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980. A study of Zāhir’s principal rival at the time of his ascendancy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Joudah, Ahmad Hasan. Revolt in Palestine in the Eighteenth Century. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987. A detailed scholarly study based on Arabic sources and unpublished archives.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Philipp, Thomas. Acre: The Rise and Fall of a Palestinian City, 1730-1831. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. Study of the city that Zāhir made his capital.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Quataert, Donald. The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Survey of the Ottoman Empire that treats social, economic, and political history.

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