Yusuf Diya’ al-Khalidi (b. 1842 in Jerusalem) was a prominent Ottoman politician who served three times as mayor of Jerusalem. He was the only Palestinian elected member of the first Ottoman parliament, and he represented Jerusalem. He was also a governor, translator, professor, and prolific writer. He authored several major scholarly works, including the first Kurdish-Arabic dictionary.
Yusuf Diya’ al-Khalidi
Al-Khalidi came from a well-established Jerusalemite family whose influence is still recognized in the city and worldwide to this day. In the 14th century, his great-grandfather was a high court judge. Meanwhile, his father had served for decades as a senior local official in Jerusalem’s sharia court. The Khalidi family—namely through Haj Ragheb al-Khalidi—founded the country’s first private library and archive in the Old City of Jerusalem around 1900. The Khalidi Library remains the largest private library of its kind in historic Palestine. It houses precious manuscripts, both handwritten and printed, including some of Yusuf Diya’ al-Khalidi’s valuable contributions.
Al-Khalidi was the only one of eight siblings to study abroad. He was also the only one who did not follow his father’s footsteps and study religion. At first, he received a traditional Islamic education in al-Fakhriyya School, an Islamic madrassa (now largely demolished by Israel) at the al-Aqsa Mosque. He then received Western schooling at the British Diocesan Boys’ School—founded in Jerusalem by Anglican Bishop Samuel Gobat. Contrary to his father’s wish, which was for him to study in Egypt, al-Khalidi had set his mind to study in Europe. He ran away from home with his cousin Husayn, and they managed to go as far as Malta.
Through the mediation of Bishop Gobat, al-Khalidi was admitted to the Protestant college in Malta. He stayed there for two years and studied foreign languages, including English and French. He then went to Istanbul and stayed there for nearly three years. In the first year, he attended the Imperial Medical School. Dissatisfied, he transferred to engineering at the American Robert College of Istanbul. As a student, he lived in a Greek monastery, which may have piqued his interest in Christianity. During his studies in Istanbul, he (and his brother Yasin) developed close links with influential reformist (Tanzimat) statesmen. Already at a young age, al-Khalidi was leaning toward reformist thinking. However, his education was interrupted in 1865 when his father passed away. He thus had to return to Jerusalem, the place he “continuously refers to as his homeland (watani).”1
Mayor of Jerusalem
The high-level family connections, class background, and his aptitude for foreign languages were all instrumental in shaping opportunities for al-Khalidi. Upon returning to Jerusalem, his first activity was founding a school. Strongly convinced of the importance of education, he made every effort to establish a middle school. He managed to establish al-Rashidiyya School in Jerusalem. However, he was disappointed that he found no financial support for his plan, and that he was not appointed director or administrator of the school. Instead, the Ottomans granted the post to a Turk from Istanbul.
Al-Khalidi may not have been appointed director of the school he established, but that did not curtail his career. In September 1865, at the age of 23, he was appointed mayor of Jerusalem. This was at a time in the development of the city when it was mostly contained within the Old City walls, with just the earliest stirrings of movement outside the walls. In this office, al-Khalidi had a great role in improving the city’s streets and constructing the water main from Solomon’s Pools to the city. He also helped initiate the construction of the first carriage road from Jaffa to Jerusalem. He headed the municipality for nine years. (Later, he would serve as mayor for two more terms.)
Languages and Translation
In 1874, the grand vizier and newly appointed minister of foreign affairs for the Ottoman Empire, Mehmed Reshid Pasha, assigned al-Khalidi as translator to the ministry’s translation bureau. After six months, he was appointed Ottoman vice-consul at the Russian Black Sea port of Poti. When Reshid Pasha was no longer foreign affairs minister, al-Khalidi lost his job. Once again, he was disappointed to have been replaced by a Turk. Nevertheless, he spent time exploring Russia and the area. Soon enough, in 1875, through the mediation of Reshid Pasha, he set off to Vienna.
In Vienna, al-Khalidi obtained a post as an instructor of Arabic and Ottoman Turkish at the Oriental Academy. After eight months, he had to return to Jerusalem for a family visit, and this delayed his return to Vienna. In this period, he took up his duties as mayor of Jerusalem for the second time.
In early 1877, the Administrative Council of the Jerusalem province (Mutasarrifate) named al-Khalidi as parliamentary representative for the province in the Ottoman Empire’s Chamber of Deputies, which convened in Constantinople. This followed the promulgation of the first Ottoman constitution (of 1876). With progressive thinking in mind, the first general elections in the history of the Ottoman Empire were held in 1877, and al-Khalidi was elected member in the Chamber. He was the only member representing Palestine, and, at the time, was 35 years old.
As deputy member, al-Khalidi did not shy away from expressing his stances vis-à-vis the violations of the constitution, corrupt Turkish employees, and autocratic predilections of Sultan Abdul Hamid II. His daring remarks and passion for reform led to his being regarded as one of the leaders of the opposition in the Chamber. The sultan could not tolerate the open criticisms of the parliament, military policies, and inefficiencies of his reign. Therefore, he dissolved the parliament and suspended the short-lived constitution in 1878 (thereby restoring his despotism). Al-Khalidi was one of the 10 opposition members who were immediately expelled from Istanbul.
Al-Khalidi returned to Jerusalem and resumed his work as head of the municipality—for the third time. However, he did not remain in this role for long, as he was not reappointed. The post went to al-Husseini instead. Not only was al-Khalidi removed from his post but—as Sultan Abdul Hamid II often did to his opponents—he was also sent into exile. During that time, al-Khalidi traveled to Vienna. He eventually returned to Palestine in 1881. There, he was appointed deputy governor of the Jaffa district. He was also governor in Marjayoun (in Lebanon), as well as governor of Motki, a Kurdish district of Bitlis province in Turkey.
Language Proficiency and Publications
As a language connoisseur with a passion for linguistics, al-Khalidi undoubtedly excelled in communication. Many notable figures sang the praises of his adeptness in English and French. He was also fluent in German and Ottoman Turkish, not to mention Arabic—a language he revived and taught. He proceeded to study Semitic languages (including Hebrew) at the Oriental Academy of Vienna. Later in his life, when he lived in the Kurdish province of Motki, Turkey, he learned Kurdish.
In fact, al-Khalidi not only studied the Kurdish language but he actually wrote the first Kurdish-Arabic dictionary. The dictionary was published in Istanbul in 1893. It consists of 5,452 words, with a valuable introduction to the structure and grammar of Kurdish. (The original copy of the dictionary is housed at the Khalidi Library in the Old City of Jerusalem.)
Furthermore, al-Khalidi also wrote poems. In 1880, he published his edition of the poetry of Labid (ibn Rabi‘a al-‘Amiri)—one of the noble pre-Islamic writers of elegies (mu‘allaqat). A man of refreshing candor, al-Khalidi was quite productive both as a scholar and as a writer. He also authored an autobiography.
Foresightedness about Zionism and Letters about Palestine
As a reformist and progressive intellectual, al-Khalidi essentially championed for inclusion, regardless of one’s ethnic background or religious belonging. He was particularly interested in the issue of minorities in Jerusalem, such as the Palestinian Jewish community. During his visit to Vienna in 1875, The Jewish Chronicle published two of al-Khalidi’s letters on the issue of Jews living in Palestine. He supported the Jewish people and defended their presence in Palestine. With that said, al-Khalidi was critical of Zionism. He was one of the first Arab intellectuals who confronted the formation of political Zionism.
Of particular historic importance was al-Khalidi’s letter sent to Theodore Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, in 1899. In fact, it could well be the earliest recorded Palestinian reaction to Zionism. This document demonstrates al-Khalidi’s foresight and his prophetic recognition of the perils that the colonialist establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine would bring to Palestinians.
The letter, written on March 1, 1899, was addressed to the Chief Rabbi of France, Zadok Kahn, and it was aimed at Herzl. Notwithstanding al-Khalidi’s deep empathy expressed in the letter for the Jewish rights to Palestine, he candidly proclaimed that the Zionists should find another place to implement their political goals. Clearly, al-Khalidi had recognized the final objective of the Zionist agenda. He feared that this movement would jeopardize the friendly associations among the other groups. He stressed that Palestine cannot be the solution to the Jewish problem. He urged the Jews to “in the name of God, let Palestine be left alone.”
Herzl quickly sent a letter back to al-Khalidi on March 19, 1899. In his reply, Herzl acknowledged the sentiments of al-Khalidi toward the Jewish people and asked for sympathy for the Zionist movement. He emphasized the solid connection and friendship between the Jewish people and the Ottomans. “There is absolutely nothing to fear from their [the Jews’] immigration,” Herzl assured the Jerusalemite leader. He also noted that the holy places (of Palestine) are “not exclusive to one faith, one race, or one people. The holy places are and will remain holy for the entire world.” The presence of the Jewish people, he promised, will be an asset for the Ottomans and the Palestinian people, as it will—among other things—increase property values. Finally, Herzl noted that if the Zionists were not welcome in Palestine, then “we will search and, believe me, we will find elsewhere what we need.”2
Al-Khalidi spent his last years in enforced residence in Istanbul in an attempt by the sultan (Abdul Hamid II) to keep him under control and prevent him from going abroad. During the last few years of his life, he did manage to visit Jerusalem from time to time. He also went to Cairo once. Otherwise, however, he was kept from traveling abroad. This was largely due to his liberal thinking and expressive opinions. After a long and varied career, al-Khalidi died in Istanbul on January 25, 1906.
By and large, al-Khalidi was one of the 19th century’s most enlightened leaders of Jerusalem. He was praised unanimously for his linguistic and literary knowledge and abilities, political adeptness, and liberal thinking. With his continuous thirst for knowledge and personal initiative, the Jerusalemite effendi received prestigious medals from various European countries. He was one of the few Palestinians on whom the Ottoman state bestowed the title of “pasha” while he was alive.
There is a vast array of historic documentation that sheds light on al-Khalidi’s philosophical-humanist ideology. Some historians noted that his legacy has not been esteemed enough; others have reflected on the many errors made in the information. His openness and enlightened philosophy may have been discouraged by some European contemporaries, who instead preferred to stereotype Arab thinkers as Muslim fanatics. Meanwhile, it could well be that the Ottoman Empire banned the publication of his writings at the time—something that would certainly explain their notable absence.
Above all, al-Khalidi personified the spirit of education, tolerance, and enlightenment. In his autobiography, he shared that when he was 17, he had pondered the state of the world and human dignity. He had reached the conclusion that humans were born free and must see themselves as free. He had also recognized at an early age that the Middle East was lagging behind, while Europeans were marching ahead. For the region to move forward, he discerned, it must develop scientific knowledge. He thus called for the revival of culture and aspired for a new political philosophy, in which scientific knowledge and personal freedom are the basis for happiness. Of all matters, it could be said that one thing he could not tolerate was ignorance.
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Beska, Emanuel. “Responses of Prominent Arabs towards Zionist Aspirations and Colonization Prior to 1908.” Asian and African Studies 16, no. 1 (January 2007): 22–44.
Kayali, Hasan. Arabs and Young Turks: Ottomanism, Arabism, and Islamism in the Ottoman Empire, 1908–1918. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.
Khalidi, Rashid. Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
Khalidi, Rashid. The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917–2017. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2020.
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Palestinian Journeys. “Yusuf Diya-uddin Pasha al-Khalidi.” Accessed February 28, 2021.
Salem, Walid. “Yusuf Dia al-Khalidi and Ruhi al-Khalidi: The Ottoman Thinkers,” in Modernity Thinking in Arabic: On the History of Culture [in Arabic], edited by Walid Salem (Jerusalem: The Center for Democracy and Community Development, 2011), 91–122.
Schölch, Alexander. Palestine in Transformation 1856–1882: Studies in Social, Economic and Political Development. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1993.
Schölch, Alexander. “An Ottoman Bismarck from Jerusalem: Yusuf Diya’ al-Khalidi (1842–1906).” Jerusalem Quarterly 24 (Summer 2005): 65–76.
Tamari, Salim, and Issam Nassar, eds. The Storyteller of Jerusalem: The Life and Times of Wasif Jawhariyyeh, 1904–1948. Translated by Nada Elzeer. Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2014.
Wikipedia. s.v. “Chamber of Deputies (Ottoman Empire).” Last modified November 3, 2019, 21:21.
Wikipedia. s.v. “Yousef al-Khalidi.” Last modified February 10, 2021, 01:46.
Yadura [The official website of the Jerusalemite Khalidi family]. “Yusuf Diya’ Pasha Critiques the Sultan and Corrupt Staff at the Turkish Parliament in 1877.” [In Arabic.] Accessed February 28, 2021.
Alexander Scholch, “An Ottoman Bismarck from Jerusalem: Yusuf Diya’ al-Khalidi (1842–1906),” Jerusalem Quarterly 24 (Summer 2005): 66.
Letter of Dr. Theodore Herzl to Monsieur Youssuf Zia al-Khalidi, Constantinople, Pera, Khedivial Hotel. Written in Vienna. March 19, 1899.