Modernization, Communal Space and Inter-confessional Conflicts in 19th century Damascus

anais massot


 ‘Communal conflicts’ in the mid-19th century Ottoman Arab provinces have often been considered as set backs on the way to modernization, as outbursts of primordial inter-religious hatred demonstrating the pressing need for reforms and legitimizing the Ottoman Tanzimat. The need to reestablish order after violence has then been used to reinforce the state’s monopoly over power and the use of force. In order to question this modernizing discourse of the state, I will consider how Ottoman “modern” reforms contributed to inter-group conflicts through instituting a language of rights that came to regulate inter-group relation and identifications. How were Muslim and Christian identifications shaped by the Ottoman modernity? How was ‘communal space’ constructed through the inherent tension between equality and differentiation in the Ottoman process of ‘modernization’?

I will look more specifically at reforms and conflicts over space in the first part of the 19th century culminating in the 1860 Damascus destruction of a Christian neighborhood. Indeed in the first part of the 19th century, before the great urban changes of the end of the century, the urban fabric of Damascus was already undergoing important modifications due to economic, societal and political changes. In this process the societal importance of religious borders increased. Through the interaction of symbolic displays, international relations and local dynamics, Mahallat al Nasara, the main Christian neighborhood, was shaped into a symbolic space that came to represent spatially the inherent contradictions of the Ottoman modernizing reforms. It became a highly contested space and a specific spatial focus of inter-group conflicts, facilitating the transition from everyday tensions to violence. 

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