1916: Syrian and Lebanese nationalists, who christen “Martyr’s Day”

On this date in 1916, a landmark and a holiday — and a founding story of national betrayal — were born with the Ottoman Empire’s hanging separatist nationalists simultaneously in Damascus and Beirut.

The lightning-rod British journalist Robert Fisk has referenced this event numerous times. Here’s his description, focusing on the Beirut location:

Prior to the First World War, 33 Arabs in what is now Lebanon and was then Syria had appealed to the French consul in Beirut to help them to gain independence from the Turks – or at least offer French protection.

The letters — from both Muslims and Christians, one from a Palestinian and another from a senior officer in the Ottoman army — were written in secret and duly reached the consul. But when France broke off relations with the Sublime Porte on the outbreak of war, the diplomat — rather than pack those subversive letters off to his new residence in Egypt — hid them in the abandoned consulate.

And so it came to pass that the local French-language interpreter at the consulate, imprisoned in Damascus, sought to gain his freedom with Ahmed Jemal Pasha, commander of the Turkish Fourth Army in Syria, by betraying to him the exact location where the consul had hidden the documents. Ottoman security agents then broke into the consulate — which was supposed to be under the protection of the still-neutral United States — and found the incriminating letters. Jemal Pasha’s fury was now directed against these treacherous letter writers with Saddam-like fury.

They were dragged from their homes, taken to the hill town of Aley, brutally tortured and sentenced to be hanged by a drum-head military court. And hanged they duly were, only a few feet from the spot where the sea will now wash up to the square and scarcely 50 metres from the tomb where Rafiq Hariri now lies. A priest was hanged in his robes. The Ottoman officer went to his death in full military uniform.

And three days after the last batch of Lebanese patriots were hanged in 1916, François Georges Picot signed his infamous secret agreement with Sir Mark Sykes to divide up the Middle East, taking Syria for France — and Palestine for the Brits — which would ensure that the French government rather than an independent Lebanese government took over Lebanon.

Now here’s the rub. Not only had every leading Lebanese patriot been liquidated just before the Sykes-Picot agreement. But the French diplomat who had shamefully left those fatal letters behind in his consulate in Beirut was – wait for it – the very same François Georges Picot.


It is as martyrs that this day’s victims are best known, rather than their particular individual achievements. But Abdul-Karim al-Khalil had the day’s picturesque exit; just before he kicked away his own ladder, denying the executioner the pleasure, he declared:

O paradise of my country, carry our feelings of brotherly love to every Lebanese, to every Syrian, to every Arab, tell them of our tragic end and tell them: “For your freedom we have lived and for your independence we are dying!”

As a result of this day’s dealings, May 6 is known in both countries as Martyrs’ Day — an apt occasion for renewing the two states’ ties — and both Beirut and Damascus have a Martyrs’ Square. This is the monument in Beirut:

On this day..