Martyrs' Day (Lebanon and Syria)

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Martyrs' Day
عيد الشهداء
The Tomb of the Unknown SoldierDam.jpg
Observed by Syrians and Lebanese
Type National
Significance Syrian and Lebanese nationalists executed in Damascus and Beirut by the Ottomans
Observances Flowers, moment of silence
Date May 6
Next time 6 May 2015 (2015-05-06)
Frequency annual

Martyrs' Day (Arabic: عيد الشهداء‎) is a Syrian and Lebanese national holiday commemorating the Syrian and Lebanese nationalists executed in Damascus and Beirut on May 6, 1916 by Jamal Pasha, also known as 'Al Jazzar' or 'The Butcher', the Ottoman wāli of Greater Syria. They were executed in both the Marjeh Square in Damascus and Burj Square in Beirut. Both plazas have since been renamed Martyrs' Square.

History: The Rise of Nationalism in the Beginning of the 20th Century[edit]

The Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey) ruled over Lebanon and Syria from its conquest in the sixteenth century, year 1516, until the end of World War I in 1918. It was during Ottoman rule that the term "Greater Syria" was coined to designate the approximate area included in present-day Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories and Israel.

Turkish Nationalism[edit]

In the beginning of the 20th century, a new wave of Turkish nationalism started seething in Istanbul. It came to be known as Jön Türkler, from French "Les Jeunes Turcs" (The Young Turks) where for the first time Turks spoke of specific Turkish nationalism against the generalized Islamic Ottoman Empire. The movement resulted in an unlikely union of reform-minded pluralists, Turkish nationalists, Western-oriented secularists, and indeed anyone who accorded the Sultan political blame for the harried state of the Empire. The movement grew and resulted in the Young Turk Revolution, which began on 3 July 1908 and quickly spread throughout the Empire.

Arab Nationalism[edit]

Inspired by the Young Turk Revolution, Arab delegates and political figures of the Empire started speaking of the Western notion of Arab nationalism (Arabic: القومية العربية‎) as well. The Arabs' demands were of a reformist nature, limited in general to 'autonomy', 'greater use of Arabic in education', and 'changes in conscription in the Ottoman Empire in peacetime for Arab conscripts' that allowed local service in the Ottoman army. At this stage Arab nationalism was not yet a mass movement, even in Syria where it was strongest. Many Arabs gave their primary loyalty to their religion or sect, their tribe, or their own particular governments. The ideologies of Ottomanism and Pan-Islamism were strong competitors of Arab nationalism.

Yet as the Turkish nationalism grew, discussion of Arab cultural identity and demands for greater autonomy for Greater Syria grew. These demands had been predominantly taken up by Christian Arabs for years but were now joined by some Syrian Muslim Arabs. Various public or secret societies (the Beirut Reform Society led by [Salim Ali Salam], 1912; the Ottoman Administrative Decentralization Party, 1912; al-Qahtaniyya, 1909; al-Fatat, 1911; and al-Ahd, 1912) were formed to advance demands ranging from autonomy to independence for the Ottoman Arab provinces. Members of some of these groups came together at the request of al-Fatat to form the Arab Congress of 1913. The dissolution of the Ottoman Empire had begun.

Resultantly, in 1913, intellectuals and politicians from the Arab Mashreq met in Paris at the first Arab Congress where desired reforms were discussed. They produced a set of demands for greater autonomy within the Ottoman Empire. They again demanded that Arab conscripts to the Ottoman army should not be required to serve in other regions except in time of war.

The Fall of Arab Nationalism[edit]

World War I & the Ascent of Jamal Pasha "The Butcher"[edit]

The situation, however, lost momentum and took a blow with the events that unfolded next. In 1914, the Ottoman Empire allied itself with the German Empire and formed the Ottoman–German Alliance. It was this binding alliance that ultimately led the Ottoman Empire to enter the First World War in August 1914 on the side of the Central Powers (composed of the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Kingdom of Bulgaria) in battling the Triple Entente or the Allied Forces of Britain, France and Russia later joined by the United States.

The outbreak of World War I brought Greater Syria further problems. The Turkish government abolished Lebanon's semi-autonomous status and appointed Jamal Pasha, then minister of the navy, as the commander in chief of the Turkish forces in Greater Syria, with discretionary powers. Known for his harshness, Jamal Pasha was nicknamed "Al Jazzar", or "The Butcher." He militarily occupied Lebanon and indirectly killed a quarter of its population by starvation.

Indeed, in February 1915, frustrated by his unsuccessful attack on the British forces protecting the Suez Canal, Jamal Pasha initiated a blockade of the entire eastern Mediterranean coast to prevent supplies from reaching his enemies. Lebanon suffered more than any other Ottoman province. The blockade resulted in a grave food shortage with swarms of locust invading Lebanon. The result was famine, followed by plague, which killed more than a quarter of the population.

Arab Nationalists Resort to French and British Support[edit]

Because of the growing dissent against Jamal Pasha and the Ottoman Empire, there was a movement on behalf of the Arab Nationalists within Greater Syria in favor of an alliance with France and Great Britain. Resultantly, the French and the Brits took advantage of the opportunity to support the Arab Nationalists in order to weaken the Ottoman Empire.

The Arab nationalists in Greater Syria, thus, started secretly corresponding with the French Consul in Beirut explicitly asking the Allies for support. The French Consul in accordance with the British authorities promised support, ammunition and future sovereignty to the Arab nationalists, provided they revolt.

In the meanwhile, the British authorities were also secretly corresponding with the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali. In those correspondences, the British encouraged the Arabs to revolt in the Ottoman Empire, and promised in return the recognition of Arab independence upon the Allies' victory. See Hussein-McMahon Correspondence.

French and British Betrayal[edit]

At the same time, collusion was happening across the borders. A secret agreement was struck between the governments of the United Kingdom and France where they agreed to subdivide the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire (excluding the Arabian peninsula) into areas of future British and French control or influence. This agreement came to be known as the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement should the Triple Entente succeed in defeating the Ottoman Empire during World War I. The terms were negotiated by the French diplomat François Georges-Picot and British Sir Mark Sykes. Nothing in the plan precluded rule through an Arab suzerainty in the areas.

In a devious scheme, when the French consul had to flee Beirut to escape Beirut which was Ottoman territory, it is said that the French purposely left behind evidence of the Arab Nationalists' correspondence with the French Consulate in order for the Turkish authorities to find them. The French Consulate burned all diplomatic papers except the specific letters of the Arab Nationalists. The purpose is proclaimed to be the premise of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Should the allies win the war, the Arab nationalists will never let them divide their lands and "rule" over them since the promise was to help them gain autonomy.

The Public Execution of Arab Nationalists: May 6, 1916[edit]

The Turkish authorities found the evidence of the Arab-French correspondence which incriminated the Arab nationalists as "traitors" to the Ottoman Empire.

On May 6, 1916, Jamal Pasha publicly executed twenty-one Arabs simultaneously in Damascus and Beirut for alleged anti-Turkish activities. The date, May 6, is commemorated annually in both countries as Martyrs' Day, and the site in Beirut has come to be known as Martyrs' Square.

Nationalists executed in Damascus[edit]

The following nationalists were executed in Marjeh Square, which came to be known as Martyrs' Square, in Damascus on May 6, 1916:

Nationalists executed in Beirut[edit]

The following nationalists were executed in "Place des Canons" or Burj Square, which later came to be known as Martyrs' Square, in Beirut on May 6, 1916:

  • Said akl, note the difference between the martyr and the modern-day poet
  • Father Joseph Hayek
  • Abdul Karim al-Khalil
  • Abdelwahab al-Inglizi
  • Joseph Bshara Hani
  • Mohammad Mahmassani
  • Mahmoud Mahmassani
  • Omar Ali Nashashibi
  • Omar Hamad
  • Philip el-Khazen, Journalist from Jounie, Lebanon
  • Farid el-Khazen, brother of Philippe and also a journalist & editor from Jounie, Lebanon[1]
  • Sheikh Ahmad Tabbara
  • Petro Paoli


The martyrs of May 6, 1916 have been immortalized in Lebanese history textbooks, and historical events leading to their hanging are often compulsively memorized by school children.

Martyrs' Square in Beirut has become an even more pivotal landmark for Lebanese people for it held the famous 2005 Cedar Revolution following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.

Consequences of the War[edit]

The periphery of the Empire started to splinter under the pressures of local revolutions and Allies' victories. The Ottomans eventually lost the war and the Ottoman Empire was dissolved. The Arabs' were given none of the things that were promised by the Allies.

The Sykes-Picot agreement is seen by many as a turning point in Western/Arab relations. It negated the promises made to Arabs through T. E. Lawrence for a national Arab homeland in the area of Greater Syria, in exchange for their siding with British forces against the Ottoman Empire. The agreement's principal terms were reaffirmed by the inter-Allied San Remo conference of 19–26 April 1920 and the ratification of the resulting League of Nations mandates by the Council of the League of Nations on 24 July 1922.

It is impossible to say what directions the proposed Arab Nationalistic reforms of 1913 would have taken if the war, the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Balfour Declaration didn't happen. It is clear, however, that the Arabs never gained the freedoms they sought from the Ottomans, or from the Allies. The different form of Arab nationalism that came about after World War II is attributable to other factors such as the decline of colonial influence, rather than the constructive hopes of reforms which debate back in 1913.

Current day[edit]

The Martyrs' Square in 2008 after the reconstruction
The Martyrs' Statue in 1982 during the civil war

Some remains of the old Cinema Opera building (now a Virgin Megastore) and the bronze Martyrs statue are the only features left of the Martyrs' Square. The statue, which was inaugurated on March 6, 1960, is the work of Italian sculptor Renato Marino Mazzacurati.[2] The statue, riddled with bullet holes, has become a symbol for all that was destroyed during the Lebanese Civil War.

The Martyrs' Square is a common location for protests and demonstrations, among the more notable demonstrations were the 2005 anti-Syrian protests of the Cedar Revolution and 2007 anti-government opposition protests led by Hezbollah and The Free Patriotic Movement.[citation needed]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Kissed from a Distance, 2007, Chapter 9
  2. ^ Mattiti, F.: Mazzacurati, Renato Marino, Italian Biographical Dictionary. URL retrieved 2011-08-23.

Commemoration[edit]

Traditionally, on this day the presidents of both countries pay their respect by visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.