Category Archives: Research Notes

Notes from our ongoing research

Jericho (Ariha): A case of a diverse rural settlement in late Ottoman Palestine

Part 3: Migration into Jericho around 1900: Ottoman imperial traditions and modern trends

Sarah Büssow

In this blog post, I present some observations on the way Ottoman census records reflected migration to the village of Jericho, which started to assume the trappings of a small urban center around 1900.[1] The biographical details of the migrants listed in the census records reflect traditions as well as later social developments and historical events in the Empire at that time. Essentially, migration to Jericho was the result of disruptions in various provinces of the Ottoman Empire, leading very different types of people to search for new opportunities in this small village on the Jordan River.

Though a small village, Jericho was attractive for immigrants. This aerial photo shows Jericho in 1918. Note the densely built village center and the outspread agricultural oasis.
Source: “Neu-Jericho (Eriha) und nächste südwestliche Umgebung.” BayHStA, BS Pal. 1028/b, March 28, 1918.[2]
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Esas defterleri: What information do the ‘basic registers’ of the Ottoman census contain and what research questions do they raise?

Soad Kilinc

The insights that we can gain from the transcription of late 19th and early 20th century Ottoman esas defterleri or ‘basic registers’ of Palestinian towns and cities provide a far more profound impression of the historical circumstances at the time than what a first glance at the listing of households and individuals might suggest. Reading between the lines, questions about social composition, inter-generational patterns and gender structures quickly arise. Taking the esas defterleri from three Muslim villages as examples, Isdud and Bani Suhayla in the Gaza subdistrict, Zayta in the Hebron subdistrict,[1] I will demonstrate the depth of information these population registers provide. Based on close reading and statistical analysis of the basic registers, new research questions can be developed.

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The potential of digital tools for the study of historical census data: report about the LOOP project’s international kick-off workshop at Ruhr-Universität Bochum, 9-10 March 2023

Soad Kilinç

The workshop, titled Combining Social and Cultural with Digital History: Methodological Challenges and Practical Strategies, was planned to serve three goals: introducing the LOOP project to a wider audience, connecting to fellow researchers in the field of Digital History, and examining the possibilities for digital analysis in the project. The two-day conference highlighted new methodological possibilities for research within the project and brought together international experts who are developing innovative ways to explore past social and cultural dynamics in the Middle East and beyond.

Michelle Campos, Pennsylvania State University/ Source: Moritz Böing
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The Arabic periodical press: A rich source of information on late Ottoman Palestine

Emanuel Beška, Institute of Oriental Studies, Slovak Academy of Sciences

Newspapers are among the most comprehensive textual records from late Ottoman Palestine that were produced by the inhabitants of the region themselves. When subjected to ‘close reading,’ they can provide additional information about individual people and places named in Ottoman census registers.

Masthead of the newspaper Al-Quds, no. 365, 10 October 1913, p. 1.
Source: al-Quds Archive, Center for Palestine Studies, Columbia University
(online: http://palestine.mei.columbia.edu/alquds-issues/)

As elsewhere in the world, the editorial offices of Palestinian-Arab newspapers and magazines were mainly located in the big cities and most of the contributors were city dwellers. The content of the newspapers and magazines largely reflects this reality. For instance, the editors of Filasṭīn displayed an earlier and more profound understanding of the intricacies of Jewish immigration’s effect on their hometown, compared to its impact on the adjacent rural areas.[i] However, many journalists considered the situation in the countryside and ways to improve the peasants’ situation to be important topics, so rural population groups and rural areas were frequently discussed in the periodical press as well.

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What is in a (family) name?

Nils Riecken

Beginning with its census campaigns in the late nineteenth century, the Ottomans sought to identify all subjects of the Sultan, males, females, and children. In contrast, earlier imperial surveys only registered adult males for the purpose of military conscription and taxation. This shift had a global dimension, occurring in several empires after 1850. Around this time, modernizing states began to measure a new object of analysis and intervention: their population.[1] Individuals came to be construed as numbers within this unit and were thus transformed into material for statistical analysis. This new will to render their subjects legible in this way was grounded in the newly configured concerns with progress, public welfare, and order.[2]

A key marker for all subjects counted were their names. They are the smallest unit within the machinery of state control.[3] In combination with the other data gathered for each individual, the registration of each one’s name was enough for the purpose of making each individual traceable by linking it to a specific place and administrative unit (such as the subdistrict of Gaza within the district of Jerusalem).

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Common terminologies or individual judgement? Registering skin colours in the Ottoman census

Katharina Krause

In addition to height, eye colour, and permanent physical markers, skin colour was among the attributes registered in the early twentieth century Ottoman census. Most commonly, it was recorded with one of the following four terminologies: esmer (dark), buğday (light brown), aşkar (ruddy-skinned), and beyaz (white).

In a study on domestic workers and slaves in Late Ottoman Palestine, Sarah and Johann Buessow question whether registering skin colours in the context of the census was an entirely neutral process since other contemporary sources display a striking racial bias, particularly against darker skin tones. They find that elite families in Gaza were indeed more frequently registered as beyaz or aşkar while individuals described as esmer or buğday were predominantly peasants or low-skilled laborers (Buessow & Buessow 2020, 403). While this could indicate a racial bias, they acknowledge that since farmers’ and manual laborers’ increased exposure to the sun was a daily reality, such statements in the census might not always hint at someone’s ethnicity. In addition, not all men and women working as domestic servants were classified as being dark-skinned (Buessow & Buessow 2020, 404).

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The ISA corpus of Ottoman census registers, or: what sorts of demographic information did the Ottoman Empire collect in Palestine?

Johann Buessow and Olaf Berg (published on 18 October 2023, updated on 24 May 2024)

In this post, we describe the ISA corpus of census registers, the LOOP project’s main source of data. Before we go into detail, however, let us briefly place this source in the larger context of historiography on the modern Middle East and explain why it is so significant.

The historiography of the modern Middle East: Methodological advances in tandem with new sources

Middle Eastern historical scholarship until the 1970s primarily had to rely on literary texts and European archives. This resulted in a strong bias toward the cultural and political elite, as it was they who created the bulk of these texts and who received the most attention from European observers. As historian James Gelvin has shown, this often went along with specific conceptions of collective identities and ideologies, such as nationalism, that were based mainly on a particular intellectual history. This historical perspective often took proponents’ claims at face value, thereby neglecting other relevant factors such as material interests and political imperatives (Gelvin 1998). One major reason for these deficits was the inaccessibility and/or lack of systematic use of alternative sources.

Figure 1: “Head” of a late Ottoman census register on the printed form of a Preliminary Register (Müsvedde Defteri). The handwritten heading reads “The Zenci [i.e., African] community of Jericho” (Ariha’da bulunan Zencilerin cemaatı). Source: ISA, Zenci community of Jericho, 1905-1917, Nüfus book 73, p. 158.

This situation changed considerably from the 1970s onwards, with the emergence of new historical paradigms and the exploration of previously ignored sources. In particular, the systematic mining of Shariʿa court documents as a local archival source has thoroughly transformed the field (Rafeq 1980; Doumani 1995, 2017; Yazbak 1998; Agmon 2006; Reilly 2012).

Additional insights have resulted from the increasing accessibility of Ottoman archival material, including

  • “Ego documents”: i.e., biographical and autobiographical works (Mannaʿ 1995; Tamari 2011; Jacobson 2001; Mazza 2009; Rioli 2018),
  • Petitions (Ben-Bassat 2013; Avcı, Lemire, and Özdemir 2018; Sievert 2014, 2020),
  • Local press reports (Ayalon 1995; Beška 2017; Gribetz 2018; Dierauff 2020),
  • Reports by Ottoman officials (Tamari 2017),
  • Maps (Arnaud 2001; Ben-Bassat and Ben-Artzi 2018),
  • Objects of material culture (Kark 1990; Sharon 1997ff; Meier 2016).

Numerous recent studies have also shed light on subaltern experiences in the late Ottoman world. Examples of these include

  • Studies on women, class, and gender (Agmon 1998, 2006),
  • Social protest (Cronin 2008),
  • Historical anthropologies of rural societies (Mundy and Saumarez Smith 2007; Naïli 2007).

Other sources highly relevant for our concerns are social histories of space-making (Hanssen 2005; Arnaud 2008; Grallert 2014), and of the careers of Ottoman administrators (Kırmızı 2007, 2014).

Despite these advances, most of these studies remain fairly “insular,” insofar as they focus on only one location or category of people at a time – mainly because there was a lack of sources that would make it possible to look at wider cross-sections of the population.

The Ottoman census as a potential game changer

The detailed late-Ottoman population records may be another game-changer in this regard. However, due to the political sensitivity of demography in Southeast Europe and the Middle East, censuses for most parts of the late Ottoman world are not currently available. The main exceptions are

  • The 1849 and 1868 censuses of Egypt (Cuno and Reimer 1997; Alleaume and Fargues 1998a; Saleh 2013, 2015),
  • Select census registers of the Muslim and Armenian populations of Istanbul (Duben and Behar 1991; Ohanian, Başkurt, and Kabadayı 2020).

Fortunately, extensive series of census registers are available for many locations in what later became Mandate Palestine, but the analysis of these records has barely begun (Arnon 1978; Pagis 1997; Buessow 2011a; Campos 2018; Buessow and Buessow 2020; Buessow 2023). Since 2016, these records have been available online through the website of the Israel State Archives (ISA).

Can Ottoman population counts be called a “census”?

From the 1870s onwards, the Ottoman administration systematically compiled population registers (Ottoman Turkish sicill-i nüfus defterleri) on an empire-wide scale, particularly during two waves in the 1880s and after 1902 (Karpat 1978, 1985; Shaw 1978). These waves of population counts were initiated by the promulgation of a Census Law (Sicil-i Nüfus Nizamnamesi)in 1881 and of an updated version of this law in 1902. These major undertakings were backed up by the establishment of an imperial census system, for which the term Nüfus, “population” was used as a shorthand.

Although these counts did not fully conform to today’s standard definition of a census − the entire population was not counted at the same time and registers were constantly amended and updated – the forms conformed to the era’s state of the art (McCarthy 1984; on the Russian census of 1897, Schwartz 1986) and they conformed to the basic dynamics of modern censuses, especially the quantification of ethnic and religious classifications.[1]

Figure 2: Footer (known as a “trailer” by the TEI) of the same register. A short narrative summarizes the numbers of people counted. Officials and representatives of the local population confirm the accuracy of the count with their signature and the stamp from their respective signet rings. Source: ISA, Zenci community of Jericho, 1905-1917, Nüfus book 73, p. 162.

A proposal on terminology and citation standards

Previous research on late Ottoman censuses has paid little attention to the textual formats in which the census authorities collected the information. Here, for the first time, we propose a description of these text formats.

The basic unit of our corpus is the physical book, or defter in Ottoman Turkish, in which the census-takers wrote down the data for a particular section of the population count. We call this a “Nüfus book.” The ISA has assigned numbers to these books, which are a basic reference when citing them. 

In contrast to a “Nüfus book,” we use the term “register” for a particular collection of census data that is defined by a topic, be it the kind of people that was counted (for example a specific religious community in a specific place), a specific lifecycle event (e.g., marriages) or an administrative act (e.g., military conscription). A Nüfus book may be synonymous with a single register, e.g., the register of marriages in a particular administrative district. Often, however, one Nüfus book contained several different “registers.”

Registers usually start with a handwritten title. Often, but not always, they end with a final note. In accordance with the standards of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), we call the title “register head” and the final notes a “trailer.”[2]

Good examples for a register head and trailer can be found in the register of the African or “Zenci” community of Jericho, which was compiled separately from the other inhabitants of the village of Jericho (Figures 1 and 2).[3]

How many registers are there?

The history of the corpus still needs to be written. Apparently, the Ottomans left large numbers of records behind when they evacuated the Palestinian region at the end of World War One. The British Mandate authorities collected them for their own administrative purposes. When they left, they then handed these records over to Israeli authorities, who finally passed the Nüfus books over to the Israeli State Archives (ISA).

Jonathan Pagis, the archivist at ISA, who prepared a comprehensive Hebrew-language search aid and introduction to the collection (Pagis 1997), presented a statistical summary of the Nüfus books, i.e., the volumes that are housed in the archive. These volumes have been numbered by the ISA. A total of 465 Nüfus books are listed in the holdings of the ISA.[4] The ISA collection of Ottoman population registers was microfilmed in the 1960s and 1970s. Most microfilms seem to date from the years 1978 and 1979. Part of the microfilm collection is a typewritten search aid. It briefly describes the history of the corpus and lists the Nüfus books according to the 10 Ottoman sub-districts they cover. In the appendix, there are photocopies of the English title pages that the archive has attached to most of the books.[5]

Unfortunately, some of the holdings are currently not accessible. On the microfilms, we have so far identified three Nüfus books that were considered “missing” during the microfilm campaign. After 2012, as part of the ISA’s “Documentation on the Web” initiative,[6] these microfilms were digitized and made freely available on the ISA website. For unknown reasons, the microfilms of 64 Nüfus books were not available when we downloaded the digitized records from the ISA website. In 1997, Pagis wrote that microfilms 65 to 74, which showed a copy of these records, were not available when he created his search aid (Pagis 1997, 243). However, an article by Philip Trauring on the website of the Israel Genealogy Research Association listed the contents of these microfilms, with the exception of number 71, along with links to the ISA online holdings (Trauring 2019).  Based on this list, only 6 of the 64 Nüfus books mentioned above are still missing. Unfortunately, the ISA website was recently hacked and online services are still restricted, so we do not have access to these digitized microfilms.

Figure 3 shows the approximate numbers of registers according to our definition, i.e., the available data collections on specific population groups that we have identified thus far. Our list is based on an initial tabulation of the currently available registers. The number of specimens will grow when we examine them one by one, since, in our first count, some registers of separate communities (Christian confessional communities in particular) were counted as a single register. Furthermore, this list is based on the available digitized microfilms, and we still hope to close the gap of the missing microfilms with the help of the ISA.

Type of RegisterOttoman Turkish name of the register typeEnglish name used by the ISA*Probable date of census form usedPeriod of use according to the ISA collectionNumber of specimens in the ISA collectionNotes
Early Basic RegisterEsas Nüfus Defteri, or Sicil-i Nüfus DefteriEarly Population Register, or Births, Deaths, Men of Military Age and Corrected RegistrationBefore 1876[7]1876-1905168Sometimes only adult men are registered; sometimes, women and children are included.
Early Population Register 1Defter-i NüfusAtypical Early Population RegisterBefore 18811881-191876Same title and similar content as in Early population Register 2. There are two main differences: The forms differ; in Type 1 only adult men are registered. Jonathan Pagis, in his search aid, uses the Hebrew term rishum for this register type.
Early Multipurpose RegisterDefter-i Yevmi-yi NüfusBirths, Deaths, Marriages, Changes of Address18811883-19055 
Early Population Register 2Defter-i NüfusOld Population Register18811884-190415Same title and similar content as in Early population Register 2. See note above.
Muhtar RegisterNo titleMukhtar’s Register18811884-191717 
Multipurpose RegisterSicill-i VukuatChanges of Addressbefore 18931893-19106 
Preliminary RegisterMüsvedde DefteriPreliminary Register19021904-1918203 
Basic RegisterEsas DefteriBasic Register19021905-1917382 
Birth RegisterTevelludat DefteriBirth Register19021905-19179 
Correction RegisterTeshih DefteriCorrection of Registers19021905-19184 
Death RegisterVefayat-ı Mahsus Vukuat DefteriDeath Register19021905-19187 
Divorce RegisterTalak-i Mahsus Vukuat DefteriDivorce Register19021905-19173 
Foreigner RegisterYabancı DefteriForeigners; Foreigners in Religious Institutions19021905-19188 
Marriage RegisterMünekahat-i Mahsus Vukuat DefteriMarriage Register  19021905-19176 
Military Conscription RegisterMuamalat-i AskeriyesiMen of Military Age  19021905-19071 
New Registration RegisterMüceddeden Kayd-ı Mahsus Vukuat DefteriNew Registration19021905-19174 
Military Conscription Verification RegisterTarik-i Nüfus Mukallefesine Mahsus Tahakkuk DefteriMen of Military Age  19091914-191889 
Sum    1003 
Figure 3: Table of the types of Ottoman census registers in the ISA collection, in chronological order.
* According to the table of contents that the ISA added to the Nüfus books.

So far, we have identified 17 types of registers within the ISA collection. They reflect three waves of census-taking in late Ottoman Palestine:

  • A first wave started in the 1870s, in the context of the general expansion of Ottoman state institutions in Palestine under Sultan Abdülhamid II (1876-1909), and officially formalized by the census law of 1881. Registration was slow, however, and the populations of different locations were counted in different years, generally from 1884 onwards. In some locations, only the male population was counted.[8] In others, entire households, including the female population and other relatives as well as domestic workers were included.
  • The second wave was initiated in 1905. Census-taking was based on the new census law of 1902. This time, the registration process was organized in a much faster and more uniform manner. Women, children, and other household members were included. The general registration was accompanied by specialized registers, many of which document life events such as births, marriages, and divorces.
  • A third wave of population counts occurred between 1914 and 1918. This was mainly driven by military conscription and security concerns in the context of WWI.

The whole process was complicated by the fact that the Palestinian region was divided among various Ottoman administrative districts. Most importantly, the count in the northern districts of Nablus and Acre was organized in Beirut, while the southern part was managed from Jerusalem. At this point, of course, there is still much more to say about the way these registers were recorded, and the terminology the census-takers used. However, this must be left to later blog entries.

For the moment, Figure 4 gives a good initial overview of the numbers of the Ottoman census books from different periods that are accessible in the Israeli State Archives.

Figure 4: Ottoman census register types in the ISA collection, in chronological order. The bar chart reflects the three waves of census-taking in late Ottoman Palestine.

Figure 5, on the other hand, shows the relative distribution of the material among certain genres of registers. This is of particular practical importance for us in the LOOP team, because it also allows us to gauge where we have a particularly large amount of text to work on. At these points, the use of technology for automatic handwritten text recognition (HTR) is likely to be particularly worthwhile.

Figure 5: Treemap showing the relative frequency of specific Ottoman census register types in the ISA corpus.

Digitization allows new access to the corpus

The freely available digitized microfilms, to which we have had access since 2016, are a major step forward. However, since the black and white scans from the microfilms are sometimes difficult to work with, the LOOP team asked the ISA in 2023 if they could prepare high-resolution, color scans from the original books. To the great delight of the interested community, the archive complied with this request and put such scans online as an alternative to the old scans. So far, about 60 percent of the corpus is available in HD. Moreover, we have hope that the previously mentioned gap of missing microfilms can be replaced by HD scans of the original Nüfus books as well. The high-quality color scans allow for better reading and transcription, and most notably enable us to develop an automated text-recognition pipeline that will be sufficiently accurate. The first experiments with our partners from the eLijah-Lab at the University of Haifa and the French service provider Teklia are very promising in that direction. We will share our experience with Handwritten Text Recognition (HTR) in a later blog post.

Our subsample of HD scans consists of 285 Nüfus books between archive number 2 and 288 with some minor lacunae in between. Since we do not know when the ISA will have the time and resources to scan the remaining Nüfus books, this sample will serve as the basis for our work in the coming months.

Let’s have a closer look at this sample. The HD scans can be downloaded as PDF files for each Nüfus book. Most of the registers run across a double page, and most of the scan images follow this by capturing a double page in one image that is stored as one page in the PDF. By counting the pages of these PDF files and combining the result with our list of register types, we can get a clearer impression of the actual amount of text in the different population registers and the distribution of our sample in relation to the whole collection of the Nüfus books at ISA (Figure 6).

Type of RegisterNüfus book HDRegister HDPages in HDPages per Nüfus bookTotal no. of Nüfus booksTotal no. of registersEstimated no. of total pages*Percentage in  HD
Basic Register155287217361401963822748579%
Early Basic Register391319961255551681404771%
Preliminary Register431048115188822031547552%
Early Population Register 167622103686762210100%
Military Conscription Verification Register75018052571089257870%
Birth Register66157426289209875%
Death Register55138227677193471%
Marriage Register6686214366862100%
Foreigner Register377332444897775%
Muhtar Register33605201717141143%
Multipurpose Register445131286676967%
New Registration Register224712354494250%
Divorce Register3333511133335100%
Correction Register223061534461250%
Military Conscription Register1131311131100%
Early Population Register 2000 3155340%
Early Multipurpose Register000 355340%
Nüfus Books not available000 62154**110360%
All Nüfus books2856875063917846710658387061%
Figure 6: Table of Nüfus books and registers available in HD scan relative to the total collection at the ISA.
* Estimation of total pages is based on average pages per Nüfus book for each type of register. Where no page value for a register of that type exists, the average pages per Nüfus book of all counted Nüfus books is used instead.
** Estimate based on the average number of registers per Nüfus book for the available books multiplied by the number of unavailable Nüfus books.

We can see in the table that our sample covers around 60 percent of the whole collection and encompasses almost all types of registers. Furthermore, the registers in the available Nüfus books that have major importance for the three waves of census-taking mentioned above have digitization levels of 70 percent or more. However, a preliminary look at the geographical coverage shows a significant bias toward the regions of Gaza, Hebron, Jerusalem, and Nazareth, while places like Nablus, Safed, Tiberias, Jaffa, Haifa and Acre are only present in Nüfus books with archive numbers above 285. We plan to geocode the data and report on that in a later blog post.

The table is also helpful to focus our HTR efforts on the most relevant types of registers. For a meaningful HTR result, it is not only important to train a recognition model on the highly compact rika-style Arabic handwriting, but also to train the layout recognition on the specific table structure of the document itself. The written entries need to be placed in the correct cell of the table. Each type of register has its own type of form. The initial costs of training a good model pays off later, because we can then process more documents with that model. This is one of the reasons why we have started exploring the possibilities of HTR with the basic registers, where we have over 20,000 pages of scans in HD at hand, and can expect up to 30,000 images if ISA can provide us with HD scans of the remaining Nüfus books in the future.

Questions that arise

This new, wider view of the corpus that we are currently gaining has lent new urgency to questions that have accompanied us from the beginning of the project. For example, how complete – or incomplete – is the corpus with regard to its coverage of locations and communities in late Ottoman Palestine? The geographical and temporal distribution of the registers could be informative in general. For example, the considerable number of registers from the first wave of the census is surprising. It is also striking that we only have one register of military conscription in our corpus before 1914. This register recorded the military draft in the Gaza district between 1905 and 1907. It is likely that this draft had a direct connection with a simultaneously running Ottoman military campaign in Yemen, where we know that many recruits from Palestine were used. In a later blog post, we hope to discuss the nature of various specific registers and their potential for social and cultural history analyses.


References

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[1] For examples illustrating the basic dynamics of modern censuses, see Anderson 2006; Göderle 2016a, 2016b; Dirks 2001; Cohn 1988, 1996.

[2] See the TEI guidelines at https://www.tei-c.org/release/doc/tei-p5-doc/en/html/ref-trailer.html (accessed 12 October 2023).

[3] For more information on this extraordinary community see the blog post by Sarah Buessow (2023, 11 November).

[4] In addition, ISA holds, with archival number 466, a book of excerpts from Nüfus books concerning a neighborhood of Hebron made in 1945 by a local judge. Number 467, the final number in this collection, is the above-mentioned book from Pagis.

[5] Israel State Archives, “Catalog: Nüfus Registers, Ottoman Census and Population registers of Palestine” available on the ISA website https://www.archives.gov.il/archives/Archive/0b0717068002269e/File/0b071706809dbd1b (accessed 15 October 2023).

[6] For an excerpt from an announcement on the new policy by the Israeli Prime Minister’s office, see Israel State Archives (2012, 15 February).

[7] There is evidence of an Esas Nüfus Defteri from 1870 (1286 Hicri). See Güzel (2018, p. 56).

[8] We use the vague term “male population” as we still do not know whether male children were counted. If only adults were counted, we do not know from what age.

Losing count of one’s age? Surprising age statements in Ottoman census registers

Sarah Büssow

When the census officials came to the city of Gaza in 1909 (1325 according to the Ottoman state or Rumi calendar), they also recorded the small household of Abd al-Rahim al-Maqar, who lived together with his mother Mahbuba and his sister Laqiya (Fig. 1). Abd al-Rahim, it is stated, was 35 years old at the time of registration, his sister 20, and their mother already 80. Thus, she must have given birth to Laqiya at the age of 60.

Image from nüfus register form with the column for age marked in red

Fig. 1. ISA, Nüfus, Reg. 266, p. 237, mesken 980.
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