Greater Damascus under the French Mandate: Maaloula

Dr. Hayssam Kadah | Originally published in Born in Damascus

Maaloula is a small town located 56 kilometers northeast of Damascus. As is the case with almost every human settlement in the Qalamoun region, two factors determined the choice of its position: a geographical one (the presence of fresh water) and a historical one (the search for security).

Christianity remained the dominant faith of the Qalamoun until the 18th century while 80% of the neighboring populations had by that time converted to Islam: Homs (north), Baalbak (west), and Damascus (south). In fact, important Christian communities were to remain in the Qalamoun area right until the 20th century as is the case in Yabrood, Saydnaya, Maaloula, and few others. There also exists another peculiarity that few places have maintained: Maaloula in particular has kept a Syriac dialect though the overwhelming majority of Syria has converted to Arabic. The inhabitants of Saydnaya still pronounce Arabic with a Syriac accent.

Both Saydnaya and Maaloula have the aspect of citadel-village. In the case of the former, the lofty Our Lady of Saydnaya Monastery dominates its surrounding from a height of 60 meters. For its part, Maaloula occupies a strategic place on the slopes of the Third Qalamoun Mountain Chain as to make it possible for a handful of defenders to repulse the attacks of hundreds of armed men. this was demonstrated in the events of 1925-1926 (the author here makes a not-so-subtle reference to the Great Syrian Revolution implying that Muslims attacked or at least contemplated attacking France’s Christian protégés).

Maaloula counted about 1500 inhabitants in the early 1930’s, all Christians with the exception of few Muslim families. The town is quite old and its earliest dwellings were situated at the very crest of the mountain chain. Under the Romans,  its residents dug caves into the rock to create rooms and storage places. Those caves often communicated, and were sometimes superimposed one on top of the other as to create multi-level homes. The settlement gradually extended down the slope of the mountain to accommodate its increasing population and get closer to the irrigated land. The constructions had to follow the rugged landscape and make use of every single space amenable to human use. The outcome was a labyrinth of dwellings and alleys and the only street worthy of the name was (at about 1930)  the automobile road leading to the Mar Takla Monastery. It was developed in 1928.

For foreign visitors, the town of Maaloula represents a maze of narrow alleys and dead-ends. For its residents, getting from one path to another is quite easy as they enter the court of a house to climb the stairs of another then emerge onto the terrace of a third, to finally land at their destination. Women are seen twice daily descending or climbing steep declivities, carrying their jars on their shoulders, heading to the spring to fetch fresh water for domestic use.

Maaloula was an isolated and withdrawn town at the time, trying as best it could to secure its own needs. The animals necessary for the daily milk supply were kept near the inhabitants despite the limited space. The sheep were even lodged on the balconies along with their fodder.


Dr. Hayssam Kadah is a medical doctor and a Damascus University graduate. He resides in Crown Point, Indiana.

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Carbon nanotechnology in an 17th century Damascus sword

Originally published in National Geographic

In medieval times, crusading Christian knights cut a swathe through the Middle East in an attempt to reclaim Jerusalem from the Muslims. The Muslims in turn cut through the invaders using a very special type of sword, which quickly gained a mythical reputation among the Europeans. These “Damascus blades” were extraordinarily strong, but still flexible enough to bend from hilt to tip. And they were reputedly so sharp that they could cleave a silk scarf floating to the ground, just as readily as a knight’s body.

657px-types_of_carbon_nanot.jpgThey were superlative weapons that gave the Muslims a great advantage, and their blacksmiths carefully guarded the secret to their manufacture. The secret eventually died out in the eighteenth century and no European smith was able to fully reproduce their method.

Two years ago, Marianne Reibold and colleagues from the University of Dresden uncovered the extraordinary secret of Damascus steel – carbon nanotubes. The smiths of old were inadvertently using nanotechnology.

Damascus blades were forged from small cakes of steel from India called ‘wootz’. All steel is made by allowing iron with carbon to harden the resulting metal. The problem with steel manufacture is that high carbon contents of 1-2% certainly make the material harder, but also render it brittle. This is useless for sword steel since the blade would shatter upon impact with a shield or another sword. Wootz, with its especially high carbon content of about 1.5%, should have been useless for sword-making. Nonetheless, the resulting sabres showed a seemingly impossible combination of hardness and malleability.

img_1564.jpgReibold’s team solved this paradox by analysing a Damascus sabre created by the famous blacksmith Assad Ullah in the seventeenth century, and graciously donated by the Berne Historical Museum in Switzerland. They dissolved part of the weapon in hydrochloric acid and studied it under an electron microscope. Amazingly, they found that the steel contained carbon nanotubes, each one just slightly larger than half a nanometre. Ten million could fit side by side on the head of a thumbtack.

Carbon nanotubes are cylinders made of hexagonally-arranged carbon atoms. They are among the strongest materials known and have great elasticity and tensile strength. In Reibold’s analysis, the nanotubes were protecting nanowires of cementite (Fe3C), a hard and brittle compound formed by the iron and carbon of the steel. That is the answer to the steel’s special properties – it is a composite material at a nanometre level. The malleability of the carbon nanotubes makes up for the brittle nature of the cementite formed by the high-carbon wootz cakes.

It isn’t clear how ancient blacksmiths produced these nanotubes, but the researchers believe that the key to this process lay with small traces of metals in the wootz including vanadium, chromium, manganese, cobalt and nickel. Alternating hot and cold phases during manufacture caused these impurities to segregate out into planes. From there, they would have acted as catalysts for the formation of the carbon nanotubes, which in turn would have promoted the formation of the cementite nanowires. These structures formed along the planes set out by the impurities, explaining the characteristic wavy bands, or damask (see image at top), that patterns Damascus blades.

By gradually refining their blade-making skills, these blacksmiths of centuries past were using nanotechnology at least 400 years before it became the scientific buzzword of the twenty-first century. The ore used to produce wootz came from Indian mines that were depleted in the eighteenth century. As the particular combination of metal impurities became unavailable, the ability to manufacture Damascus swords was lost. Now, thanks to modern science, we may eventually be able how to replicate these superb weapons and more importantly, the unique steel they were shaped from.


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Damascus During World War II

Episode Seven: The Rise of the National Party

Dimashq Blog | Fadi Esber

Six months before Election Day of 1943, the National Bloc was disbanded and renamed the National Party, at the orders of Shukri al-Quwatli (FO 226/240/9/4/180, Memorandum to FO, 29 April 1943). It was an audacious decision and earnest attempt at breaking with the older generation of veteran politicians, creating a new movement for the Damascus political class. The city was in dire need of change, and so was Syria. Shahbandar’s People’s Party of 1925 had been torn apart and was never allowed to re-emerge. A monarchical party had briefly emerged in the early 1930s, calling for the restoration of the Hashemite crown to Damascus, but it too faded away with King Faisal’s death in 1933. The League of National Action had been formally dead since 1939. As an older generation of nationalists departed the scene, young politicians from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and the Syrian Communist Party burst onto the scene at the expense of the National Bloc’s electoral base throughout Syria.

Unlike the new ideological parties, the National Party had no ideology and no official platform, apart from seeking to achieve Syria’s independence and to ensure the unity of its lands. Although outspokenly anti-colonial, the new party did not tackle any of the big issues of the Arab World and had no ambitions outside of the Syrian Republic. Its founding documents said nothing about socialism, liberalism, Islam, or Arabism. It did not strive to restore Lebanon to Syria, for example, or to bring down the pro-British monarchies in Baghdad and Amman. The National Party was, put simply, a ‘Syria First’ party. Independence came first, its founders argued, Arab affairs second. Only when free and united can Syria strive to achieve Arab unity.

The National Party was backed financially by the Damascus merchant class. It was perceived as being “close” to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, due to Quwatli’s old alliance with Ibn Saud and King Farouk. This put the new party at odds with Iraq and Jordan, whose Hashemite rulers had uneasy relations with Cairo and Riyadh. The National Party originally relied on many of the old faces of Syrian politics, such as Saadallah al-Jabiri, Lutfi al-Haffar, Fares al-Khoury, Jamil Mardam Bey, and Fakhri al-Barudi. These men banked on their credentials in leading the the anti-French struggle since 1920. The majority of Syrians were, however, below the age of 25. Many had not even been born when these elders started their political careers during World War I. They were looking for a different kind of leaders, certainly younger ones. Many of these politicians were already in their mid-fifties by now, while Fares al-Khoury and Hashem al-Atasi were past retirement age, now in their early seventies. Some like Jamil Mardam Bey had suffered critical character assassination during their tenure in government and were becoming more of a liability than an asset for the newly born party.

Shukri al-Quwatli argued that leading the nation with the same faces of the 1920s would spell out disaster for Syria. He decided to usher in a new generation of politicians into the National Party, namely the sons of his former colleagues who had been raised in political families. He had watched these men closely for years and hand-picked them to be his allies in the elections of 1943. Asaad Haroun, the son of the Latakia notable Abdulwahid Haroun was one of them, and so was Zuheir the son of Jamil Mardam Bey, and Suheil, the son of Fares al-Khoury. Quwatli saw them as natural continuations of their fathers. The National Party succeeded in heralding a smooth transfer of power within the nationalist movement. Quwatli personally never became president of the National Party but positioned himself as a father figure of the nation as a whole, more of an arbitrator than a partisan, as he had been during his youthful days in the National Bloc. He appointed Sabri al-Assali and Lutfi al-Haffar to head the party branch in Damascus, while Saadallah al-Jabiri and the AUB-trained medical doctor Abdul Rahman Kayyali chaired its offices in Aleppo. In addition to handling party affairs, Sabri al-Assali also became Shukri al-Quwatli’s campaign manager in the summer of 1943, charged with handling his entire list of candidates in the upcoming elections.

Quwatli’s investment in young people paid off immediately. On 13 June 1943 a declaration was published in the Damascus daily, al-Qabas, signed by 20 self-proclaimed “Damascus Intellectuals,” all in their late 20s and early-30s (Al-Qabas, 13 June 1943). They articulated full support for Quwatli’s presidential bid. Among the signatories were the Oxford-trained AUB professor Adib Nassour and two Sorbonne-educated schoolteachers from the Tajheez High School, Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Bitar. Aflaq and Bitar were middle class working professionals who were traditionally critical of the Damascus landowning notability. Aflaq was a Greek Orthodox and Bitar a Sunni Muslim; Adib Nassour was an Alawite. All of them had been staunch Shahbandarists in their teens. Dhouqan Karkout, a Druze schoolteacher and early founder of the Baath Party, recalls how he approached Quwatli’s campaign office that summer, on the behalf of Michel Aflaq. The future Baathist wanted to join the National Party. Also lobbying on Aflaq’s behalf was Nizar Qabbani, a young poet and son of Quwatli’s long-time ally, Tawfiq Qabbani (Interview with Dhouqan Karkout by Sami Moubayed, Damascus, 11 April 2004). Lutfi al-Haffar politely turned them down, saying: “Shukri Bey apologizes. The list is closed!” Four years later, Aflaq and Bitar were to become Quwatli’s loudest critics after they founded the Baath Party in 1947.

For starters, Quwatli wanted a floor nomination from the Damascus Street before officially declaring his candidacy for the vacant Presidency. Accompanied by his entire entourage, he headed to Danqiz Mosque for Friday Prayer in late January 1943. He introduced his allies to the crowd, one after another, describing each as a “noble patriot and brother,” while omitting his name on purpose (FO 226/240/9/4/180, Memorandum to FO, 1 February 1943). Lutfi al-Haffar climbed the podium to declare: “The people of Damascus will never recognize a parliament that does not include Shukri al-Quwatli!” The overwhelmed crowd was worked into a frenzy and began to passionately call Quwatli’s name. Quwatli feigned surprise, and then waved to the crowd, in a commanding gesture. The mosque went mute. He rose to podium once again to deliver a supposedly impromptu speech about how important it was to re-unite the nationalist leadership to drive the French out of Syria, once and for all. “If this is the desire of Damascus, I will never turn it down!” He made reference to the Holy Quran and to ancient Muslim history, then said, “I am willing to move heaven and earth to see Syria independent.” Speaking clearly to articulate every word, he added, “I announce from this mosque, at the request of the noble people of Damascus, my nomination for Parliament and for the upcoming presidential elections next August.” The crowd broke into jubilant applause. They escorted him from the mosque to the Ministry of Interior at the Grand Serail, where he submitted his full list of candidates.

The National Party’s election campaign was blessed by a sharp increase in bread prices, from 8 to 8.5 piasters per kilo (Philip Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate, p. 599). Wheat on the black market rose to four times its controlled price, leading to widespread riots against the French and acting president Jamil al-Ulshi, the last embodiment of the Sheikh Taj era. In addition to the bread crisis, Ulshi, a committed Francophile, was faced with an economy already reeling from 6 million Syrian Pounds in deficit (Philip Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate, p. 599). As a result, the French ordered a tax hike, hoping to raise 15 million Syrian Pounds in order to deal with the crisis and to bankroll the French war effort in the Middle East. The bread crisis was excellent campaigning material for Quwatli and his friends, who promised to resolve it immediately if they won the elections. On 7 February 1943, they brought Damascus to a complete standstill (Al-Ayyam newspaper, 8 February 1943). Waving a large Syrian Flag, the National Party politicians staged a massive demonstration at the arched Hamidieh Bazaar, shutting down shops, markets, schools, and banks. Bakeries were stormed and French flags were pulled down in public squares. They organised another demonstration in early March. General Catroux responded with a violent crackdown on young members of the National Party (FO 371/35175, Spears to FO, 9 February 1943). Catroux eventually found himself forced to bend to pressure from the Syrian nationalists, just like his predecessors during the great Syrian strike of 1935.  Prices were slashed, arrested nationalists were released, and Jamil al-Ulshi was relieved of his duties in late May, replaced with the Nationa Party-backed statesman Ata al-Ayyubi, as interim Prime Minister to supervise the upcoming elections. 


Fadi Esber is the editor of Dimashq Journal

Follow us on Twitter @DimashqJournal



Dr. Hayssam Kadah | Originally published in Born in Damascus

The first systematic exploration of Damascus is credited to the German archaeologists and historians Carl Watzinger (1877-1948) and Karl Wulzinger (1886-1949) who devotedly and rigorously researched and described the city’s monuments  attempting in the process a restitution of its ancient urban fabric.

Their field work was started in January 1917 and continued until December of the same year. Its publication had to await the conclusion of the Great War (WWI). The end result was two priceless books: Damaskus, die antike Stadt (Damascus, the Old City) published in 1921 and Damaskus, die islamische Stadt (Damascus, the Islamic City) published in 1924.

Much has been written about the Syrian capital since and quite few of Watzinger & Wulzinger’s conclusions challenged. Still, their work is so frequently quoted that it may not be an exaggeration to consider it the “reference standard” as far as the archaeology and history of Damascus are concerned.

One would think that a seminal and meticulously researched work such as this would be widely translated but this is hardly the case. The sole translation (German to Arabic: to my knowledge the work is not available in any other language) that I am aware of is of only part two (the Islamic City) and a copy of it is quite difficult to procure. It was performed by Mr. Qasim Tweir and commented by Dr. Abdul Qadir Rihawi.

It is my hope to see the day when a professional translation of part one (the Old City) takes place and the two volumes of this precious study published in Arabic along with their numerous maps, diagrams, and historical photos in an attractive edition worthy of our Eternal City.

Dr. Hayssam Kadah is a medical doctor and a Damascus University graduate. He resides in Crown Point, Indiana.

Follow us on Twitter @DimashJournal

Preserving the Past in Damascus Builds Hope for the Future

Historian and political analyst Sami Moubayed discusses his efforts to preserve the Syrian capital’s archives and cultural history and the war’s impact on the country’s many ancient sites and artifacts.

By Alessandria Masri | Originally published in Syria Deeply

Long before Damascus became Syria’s capital, the city was conquered by Alexander the Great, redesigned by ancient Roman architects and established as the capital of the Umayyad caliphate. Each civilization left its mark on the city, giving it an unparalleled cultural, political, social, economic and architectural history that has survived since the third millennium B.C.

However, after six years of war in Syria, many of the city’s ancient palaces, historical homes, museums, artifacts and government documents have fallen into disrepair, been destroyed, stolen or even abandoned as people flee the conflict.

Today, a “high priority” for historians is saving city’s archives from the 19th and 20th centuries, which are “on the verge of extinction,” according to Sami Moubayed, founder of The Damascus History Foundation, a volunteer-based organization dedicated to finding and preserving the capital’s archives – from old scrolls, judicial records, government correspondence and land registry documents to books, newspapers, movie reels and music archives.

However, according to Moubayed, also a historian and political analyst, “Damascus has suffered the least destruction when compared with other ancient cities like Aleppo, al-Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and Palmyra.” All six of Syria’s UNESCO world heritage sites have been damaged or destroyed since 2011, according to the U.N. agency. Among them is Palmyra’s 2,000-year-old Arch of Triumph, “a tourist attraction and source of pride” for the Syrian people that ISIS destroyed last October, he added.

Syria Deeply spoke with Moubayed about the scale of destruction at Syria’s ancient sites and his efforts to find and preserve Damascus’ archives while building a community around the city’s rich history.

Syria Deeply: Palmyra survived two ISIS occupations, the latest one ending following a pro-government offensive earlier this month. Is there any way to measure or quantify the destruction at Palmyra?

Sami Moubayed: There is no final figure on the cost or time it would take to rebuild Palmyra; estimates range between three to 10 years. Five major sites have been destroyed during ISIS’s first 10-month rule: the temples of Bel and Baalshamin, the Arch of Triumph, the Valley of Tombs and the Palmyra Museum. During the second brief siege, from December 2016 to this March, ISIS destroyed parts of Palmyra’s famous amphitheater, which the militants used to film the execution of 280 civilians in May 2015.

The two temples are not beyond repair, but the same cannot be said of the city’s museum that was destroyed by mortars, smashed and looted. It currently stands beneath a pile of garbage and debris and more than 200 artifacts have been completely destroyed with hard tools and sledgehammers. Many of the statues were decapitated and their hands were chopped off. Major damage – the collapse of the staircase to the main entrance and the eastern tower – was also found at the Fakhr al-Din al-Maani Castle, a Mamluk-era fortress overlooking the city that ISIS used in battles because of its high walls.

Two Polish experts from the University of Warsaw are working on reconstruction of the Lion of Lat, a 15-ton statue at the entrance of the Palmyra Museum that ISIS destroyed in June 2015. The tiny fragments and large stone slabs are collected from all over the city, inventoried, boxed and shipped to Damascus for restoration. Much of the statue’s previous shape is restorable, but heavy work will be required around its nostrils.

Syria Deeply: How does this compare to the destruction in other areas of Syria?

Moubayed: Despite the horror of what happened in Palmyra, only 20 percent of the city’s archaeological treasures have been destroyed, according to the Syrian Directorate of Antiquities. The situation is far worse in Aleppo, where the old markets have been torched, the divine eighth-century Grand Umayyad Mosque completely destroyed, as was an ancient Maronite church, located 25 miles (40km) north of the city.

In Deir Ezzor, the bridge crossing the Euphrates has collapsed. It was built by the French in 1927 and destroyed by the fighting in 2014. In September 2014, ISIS shattered the Armenian Genocide Memorial Church in Deir Ezzor. The marvelous Khaled Ibn Al-Walid Mosque of Homs in central Syria has also been ravaged.

The list is long and goes on and on.

Syria Deeply: Can you describe the process of documentation and preservation in Damascus today?

Moubayed: Even before this war started, the process of documentation was horrible in Damascus. For example, the bulk of Syrian television’s black-and-white classics dating between 1960 and 1978, were left in a storehouse in Ghouta, in very poor conditions, exposed to dampness, rain and heat. What survived the negligence was destroyed in battles in Ghouta ongoing since 2012 – 15 black-and-white works survive until present.

The same applies to the archives of the Syrian Parliament, which were bundled into boxes and shipped to Ghouta shortly before the conflict started. They have been lost along with the audio recordings of all sessions from 1947-1967. So have the splendid rugs and ancient chandeliers of the Grand Umayyad Mosque of Damascus. Some were stolen by the Ottoman Turks when they left the city in 1918, others by consecutive governments ever since.

The archives of Damascus are divided chaotically between the National Museum, the Assad Library, the al-Zahiriya Library, the Arab Language Assembly, the Museum of Historical Documents, Damascus University, Damascus Radio and Syrian Television. The al-Zahiriya Library is extremely well-preserved and so are Damascus Radio and the Assad Library. The Damascus Museum of Historical Documents is in bad shape, with ancient manuscripts either stolen or damaged by negligence of mediocre employees.

Government agencies vary with regard to their archives. I have been through those of Syrian Parliament, the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Close to nothing survives until present at all three. There is a wealth of documents at private homes, tucked in attics and basements. Many of those homes are now abandoned because of the ongoing violence, or have been looted if they are located in war-torn territories.

Syria Deeply: Can you walk us through the process of locating and preserving an archive?

Moubayed: Our job is to find and preserve what is left. This is done through field work, personal visits to these sites and agreements to digitize and scan what we come across. We will then be creating an online museum for all that we find, and hopefully transform it into a real-life museum once the guns go silent in Syria.

We also hope to train a new generation of Damascus historians in critical thinking and analysis, rather than an ideological old-school Baathist approach to their contemporary past. We hope to launch Dimashq, an academic peer-reviewed journal, republish out-of-print books, translate classics and put unpublished documents and papers into books.

Syria Deeply: Damascus’ ancient architecture and historical sites are also under threat, what can be done to preserve these larger pieces of history?

Moubayed: When you are as old as Damascus – 11,000 years old – you need daily maintenance of just about everything. Unfortunately, this has not happened since 2011, because government priorities have changed, funds are unavailable and the city has bloated in size, because so many Syrians are coming here for safety and work. Before the war, Damascus’ population was approximately 5 million – today the number is between 9 and 13 million, although there is no official estimate.

This has further drained the city’s resources, which spells out disaster for the Syrian capital and reduced basic services like garbage collection, gardening, water, electricity and the maintenance of sidewalks, gardens and streets. Museums, old palaces and homes, churches and mosques, cobbled streets and schools have all been affected by this shortage of funds and shift in state priorities.

Some of the ancient homes have been abandoned and others are being rented out to tenants fleeing the violence in the Damascus countryside. The task of preserving these old homes and palaces is huge and it cannot be handled by the private individuals or Syrian academics. It needs governments and UNESCO.

Syria Deeply: Is any work being done to preserve the most recent government documents and records that may contain vital information for those living through the current conflict, such as information on detainees, birth and death certificates and medical records?

Moubayed: Our scope starts with 1860, the date of civil disturbances spilling into Damascus from Mount Lebanon, and ends with the late 20th century, where the archives are more endangered than more recent periods of Syrian history. Once we handle what is on the verge of extinction, we will turn to more recent archives.

Syria Deeply: In the brutality of war, the importance of preserving history often gets overlooked by civilians who are struggling just to feed their families and survive. How would you explain the necessity of preserving historical artifacts in Damascus to those who may not understand?

Moubayed: You are absolutely right. When people are dying, when cities are being pounded – or when children go to bed hungry – what we are doing looks cosmetic, niche and very distanced from the agony of day-to-day Syrians. The Damascenes saw what happened to their twin city, Aleppo, and were absolutely horrified. They shivered at the thought of the same nightmare scenario being repeated in their city – which was so close on several occasions of the past five years.

A closer look, however, reveals one very important reality: With the present being so painful and the future so bleak, most people are finding remedy in bygone eras of their city’s history. They are romanticizing how things once were in Damascus – their memories give them a sense of belonging and help solidify roots. Families were close, homes were spacious, pollution was less, good citizenship was high and so was good governance. The more we are able to rescue what remains of that not-too-distant history and remind people of it, the better this serves their defense mechanism and ability to survive – emotionally at least – in wartime Damascus. The era we are preserving reminds people of social peace, economic stability, democracy and nationalistic chapters of Syrian history, related to anti-colonialism and nation-building.

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Damascus During World War II

Episode Six: The Presidency of Sheikh Taj

Dimashq Blog | Fadi Esber

Under pressure from Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle decided to restore a limited form of self-rule to Syria. There was only one politician in Damascus who still had power and presidential ambitions. His name was Taj al-Din al-Hasani. Approaching his sixtieth birthday, the ex-Prime Minister had first surfaced on the Syrian stage back in the mid-1920s. Back then, served as Prime Minister in 1928, when there was no presidential office in Syria, ruling for three years with no parliament or constitution. He returned to the job for a two-year tenure during the presidency of Mohammad Ali al-Abed, from 1934 until 1936. Al-Hasani was a turbaned cleric, he returned to Damascus from Paris after the 1940 occupation of France. His comeback, after an absence of nearly five years, created a buzz in political circles. Politicians and community leaders showed up at his mansion in al-Halbuni quarter of Damascus to welcome him back home. Given his well-known connection to French intelligence it was generally assumed that his views reflected those of policy-makers in Paris. General Dentz was automatically suspicious of Sheikh Taj, accusing him of being a puppet for the Free French and the British. He stationed troops around al-Hasani’s residence, keeping tabs on all of his visitors. It was a dramatic change for someone who, a few years back, had been tainted as France’s strongest supporter in Syria. The siege was eventually lifted after the Vichy force were defeated in Syria during the summer of 1941 (Inaam Taj al-Din al-Hasani, interviewed by Sami Moubayed in Beirut, 10 September 1999).

During de Gaulle’s Damascus visit, he met with Sheikh Taj for three hours. The Syrian statesman said that running Syria strictly through French proxies will never work anymore. If he were to return to office, it would have to be through some kind of pairing with the National Bloc (Mounir al-Ajlani, interviewed by Sami Moubayed, 20 August 1999). He advised that a partnership be made, under French auspices, between him and Jamil Mardam Bey. Several back-to-back meetings took place between Sheikh Taj and Jamil Mardam Bey; archenemies of the past, potential allies of the present. Mardam Bey carried out the talks with Sheikh Taj behind the back of what remained of the National Bloc leadership (Mounir al-Ajlani, interviewed by Sami Moubayed, 20 August 1999). The two men shook hands on a verbal deal: if either of them were called upon to become president, he would appoint the other prime minister (Babil, Sahafa wa Siyasa, p. 155). In a fury of diplomatic activity, Sheikh Taj informed the US and the British consuls of his agreement with Mardam Bey (Babil, Sahafa wa Siyasa, p. 155).

Shukri al-Quwatli, of course, was left in the dark on this agreement. He would have never approved it, having set his sight, by now, on the Syrian presidency. When de Gaulle consulted with Syrian politicians, the supporters of Abdel Rahman al-Shahbandar put forward Sheikh Taj’s name for the presidency, simply to prevent the return of a National Bloc figure (The Hasan al-Hakim Papers, Hakim to Fares al-Khoury, 1 September 1941). The National Bloc once suggested making Hashem al-Atasi president although they knew that the aging Atasi would refuse the job. Quwatli knew that this would never pass since the French were also not interested in exploring such a comeback. The only two Bloc members who openly refused to endorse Atasi were Fares al-Khoury, and not surprisingly, Jamil Mardam Bey (The Hasan al-Hakim Papers, Hakim to Fares al-Khoury, 1 September 1941). De Gaulle finally concluded that the man best fit for the presidential office in Syria was Sheikh Taj. He was reliable, tough, and well experienced in Syrian politics and international affairs. General Catroux was tasked with informing Sheikh Taj that he would become the new president of Syria. However, and to avoid the accusation of being appointed directly by the French, al-Hasani suggested being officially asked by France to assume the job the way the British Faysal to assume the throne in Baghdad in the early 1920s (Inaam Taj al-Din al-Hasani, interviewed by Sami Moubayed in Beirut, 10 September 1999). Catroux agreed, sending an official letter asking him to assume the presidency on 12 September 1941. The letter started out addressing Sheikh Taj as “Your Excellency” and ended with “Respectfully yours, Mr. President.” The very same day, Sheikh Taj responded with a written acceptance, thus becoming the third president of the Syrian Republic (The Hasan al-Hakim Papers, working with Taj al-Din, 15 September 1941).

Sheikh Taj immediately called upon Jamil Mardam Bey to become prime minister, but this was categorically vetoed by both Shukri al-Quwatli and General Catroux. Neither the Free French nor the National Bloc would ever hear of it, putting a damper on Mardam Bey’s ambitions. Instead, Sheikh Taj invited Abdul Rahman Shahbandar’s former right-hand man, Hasan al-Hakim, to fill the position. Shahbandar’s followers, frantically trying to salvage what could be saved of their careers, accepted the nomination. Sheikh Taj also called on Zaki al-Khatib, another of Shahbandar’s men, to act as Minister of Justice. Sheikh Taj also appointed an Alawite and Druze as cabinet ministers, for the first time since 1918. Munir al-Abbas, a politician from the Syrian coast, was made Minister of Public Works. He was charged with building roads and improving irrigation and the infrastructure in the towns and villages of the State of Lattakia, which was soon going to be re-incorporated into Syria. Abdul Ghaffar Pasha al-Atrash, uncle of Sultan Pasha, was made Minister of Defense.

On 12 January 1942, the Alawite and Durze statelets were finally and permanently returned to Syria (The Hasan al-Hakim Papers, Unity of Syrian lands, 12 January 1942). One week later, Sheikh Taj hosted a grand reception at the Grand Serail, celebrating the victory that the National Bloc had failed to achieve between the years 1936 to 1939. Nationalist leaders, Alawite and Druze notables, and French officials mingled together in the main reception hall, all showering the new Syrian President with homage. In celebration of the event Sheikh Taj issued a collection of postal stamps, carrying his picture and the Syrian flag.

On 27 April 1942, Foreign Minister Fayez al-Khoury sent a cable to world capitals, announcing that, in accordance with General de Gaulle’s pledge, Syria was finally declared independent (al-Ayyam newspaper, 28 April 1942). The French and British armies would remain stationed in Syria until the end of the war in Europe, he added. Letters of recognition flooded the Syrian Presidential Palace. The first to write to Sheikh Taj was King Farouk of Egypt, followed by Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia and King George VI of Great Britain. Belgium, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia all followed suit (al-Ayyam newspaper, 29 April 1942). King George II of Greece made a state visit to Damascus, followed by the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Iraq refused to recognize Sheikh Taj, furious that the job had not gone to a Hashemite royal. When the new President wrote to the Regent Prince Abdul-Illah, he got a brief and very impolite response from Baghdad (Arab Foundation, Emir Abdul-Illah, 306).

The success was short-lived, however. Sheikh Taj died while in office on 17 January 1943. He was 58. His funeral was attended by General Spears, General Catroux, the President and Prime Minister of Lebanon, and the entire National Bloc command (Mounir al-Ajlani, interviewed by Sami Moubayed, 20 August 1999). His sudden demise, however, put everybody in Syria in a difficult position. Neither the French nor the British were ready for the power vacuum, and nor were leaders of the National Bloc. In March 1943, Ata al-Ayyubi was called upon to supervise parliamentary and presidential elections. They were set to take place in July.


Fadi Esber is the editor of Dimashq Journal

Follow us on Twitter @DimashqJournal

Damascus During World War II

Epsidode 5: Churchill’s Man in Damascus

Dimashq Blog | Fadi Esber

The new Syria that emerged in the midst of World War II was now run not by a Frenchman but an Englishman named Edward Spears. He was Great Britain’s new ambassador to Syria and Lebanon, handpicked for the job by Churchill. Spears knew almost nothing about Syria when first setting foot in the country in the spring of 1941. He was a close Churchill protégé, and this gave him direct access to the British Prime Minister, often over the head of his superiors at the Foreign Office. He was fluent in French, knew French society inside out, and had served as a liaison between the intelligence services of Paris and London during World War II. After the occupation of Paris, he masterminded the escape of Charles de Gaulle to London, right under the nose of Marshal Petain.

Shortly after his arrival to Syria, General Spears argued that winning Syrian support at this stage of the war was more important for Great Britain than pleasing the Free French. “De Gaulle will require most careful handling. If he were given a free hand in Syria in the mood in which he now is, the country would be out of hand within a fortnight. Spears added, “Success difficult to achieve. Disaster possible” (FO 371/31481, File 292, Spears to Hamilton, 9 March 1942). Something different had to be done in Damascus to prevent the country from falling apart, on the contrary it had to be strengthened, which would provide a safe base for British armed forces to operate from. He knew that the French were viewed with resentment and hatred throughout Syria. Trying to re-legitimize them would be a waste of time, he argued. The population was restless and an armed insurgency was brewing. The British needed to prevent a spill over of violence from Syria to neighbouring Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan. Otherwise, Spears cautioned, Britain would have to use force “against those very Arabs whose goodwill we are so anxious to cultivate (Seale, The Struggle for Arab Nationalism, 437).

General Spears disliked the manner in which the mandate had been run since 1920. He argued that the Third Republic had created a weak government in Damascus based on a colonial mentality from a bygone era. The Syrian state’s foundations were too feeble, he said, for Syria to stand alone and serve as a proper cornerstone for London’s future schemes in the Arab world. Spears was unwilling to expend efforts to craft the Syria he desired. To do so, he argued, power had to go to the nationalists who truly represented Syrian popular opinion. Men like Shukri al-Quwatli suddenly became the focal point of Britain’s interests in the Middle East. Instead of driving them into the underground and sending them off into jail or exile, Spears pushed for engagement and empowerment. He wrote to the Foreign Office, warning that Catroux “will turn Shukri back at the border if he attempts to cross (from Iraq).” He warned that such action would do British interests great harm and noted, “my impression is that Shukri al-Quwatli is a sincere patriot who wishes to cooperate with us.” Another British report tells more: “Shukri has been lying low for the past six months. There is no evidence that he has been in touch with the Axis during this period” (FO 371/31481, File 292, Spears to Hamilton, 9 March 1942).

Charles De Gaulle and Edward Spears

Charles De Gaulle and Edward Spears

That same month, Charles de Gaulle arrived in Syria. From his office in al-Muhajreen, which later became the French Embassy, he received 112 top politicians of different parties, including Shukri al-Quwatli, who would shortly afterwards rise to become the new president of Syria, with the initial backing of Great Britain. In a remarkable communication campaign, de Gaulle toured every single Syrian town and city, polishing his image and that of the Free French after so much damage had been inflicted upon them by Vichy propaganda. In Homs he took photos with children, who presented him with flower necklaces. In Deir ez-Zour he had lunch with the city’s notables. In Damascus he gave a speech at the main auditorium of the Syrian University, attended by all the notables of the Syrian capital. The mood was highly anticipatory, and Syrians were waiting to hear a major policy shift from the leader of Free France. Instead, de Gaulle poured quashed the aspirations of the Syrian nationalists. In his speech, he announced that he had no intention whatsoever of ending the Mandate. Far from it, he was working on re-asserting French control of the Levant. The time for Syrian independence had yet to come, he boldly asserted.

De Gaulle watched the rising influence of Spears in Syria and Lebanon with displeasure. Edward Spears was becoming too independent, too immersed in local politics, and too sympathetic with the nationalists, to the extent that he now represented a threat to Free French interests in the Levant. In March he was knighted by the King of England, making him more powerful than ever before. He had also been promoted to “minister” of Great Britain to Syria and Lebanon, no longer a mere envoy to the Free French. Upon his return to Damascus, he called on Syrian officials to present him with his new title and credentials, but completely ignored General Catroux, acting as though the French officer, and the entire mandate, no longer existed. When Catroux appointed Alfred Naccache as president of Lebanon against the will of Lebanese nationalists, Spears commented, “as if we were holding down the Lebanon to be raped by the Free French” (Gaunson, The Anglo-French Clash, 80).

On 14 April 1942, de Gaulle sent a note to Churchill protesting the current situation in the Middle East. The sad deterioration, de Gaulle noted, was due to Spears’ misdealing in Syria. De Gaulle recommended that he be dismissed at once. Churchill brushed aside the advice, reminding the French leader instead of his earlier pledge to grant Syria its independence. Great Britain, he added, could not turn away from the pledge it had made before the entire world to give Arabs their independence. In September, Churchill went a step further, instructing the British Treasury not to pay a penny to de Gaulle. Until then, London was paying £300,000 to the Free French on the ninth of every month, followed by another £200,000-300,000 for affairs of the Levant (Seale, The Struggle for Arab Independence, 454). On 30 September 1942, the two leaders met in London. They both lost their tempers and a harsh exchange of words followed as they argued about Spears and Syria. De Gaulle clearly saw him as a threat to France’s interests. Churchill reminded him of Catroux’s pledge, dropped in leaflets over Damascus and Beirut few months earlier. De Gaulle said that this did not affect the legality of the Mandate. It only meant that the process ought to start now, but not necessarily end in the near future. Churchill firmly stood by his Minister to Syria, saying: “Spears has certainly defended, with great energy and ability, British rights in Syria” (Seale, The Struggle for Arab Independence, 454).


Fadi Esber is the editor of Dimashq Journal

Follow us on Twitter @DimashqJournal

Damascus During World War II

Episode 4: The Allies Take Damascus

Dimashq Blog | Fadi Esber

On 29 May 1941, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden walked into Mansion House, the official residence of the Lord Mayor of the City of London. He was expected to address the major developments of Syria. Damascus was all ears. Reflecting the thoughts of Prime Minister Churchill, Eden boomed: “Many Arab thinkers desire for the Arab people a greater degree of unity than they now enjoy. His Majesty’s Government would give full support for any scheme that commands general approval” (Al-Qabas newspaper, 1 June 1941). He was cautious, deliberately ambiguous, and brief. This carefully crafted statement was intended to win over doubters and anti-British politicians in Syria. A similar declaration followed, this time from Winston Churchill to Charles de Gaulle: “You know that we have sought no special advantage over the Free French and have no intention of exploiting the tragic position of France for our own good.  I welcome therefore your decision to promise independence to Syria and Lebanon, and as you know, I think it is essential that we should lend to this promise the full weight of our guarantee” (A.B. Gaunson, The Anglo-French Clash, 41). Churchill then gave instructions to his Minister of State Oliver Lyttelton that Great Britain’s objective was “to gain the Arab world by establishing at the earliest Syrian independence in whatever form is most acceptable. Our policy is to give the Syrian Arabs independence!” (A.B. Gaunson, The Anglo-French Clash, 53-54). The British were making a point, it was of no use for the French to try and hold on to their mandates in the Middle East.

On 8 June 1941, a joint Anglo-French force arrived in Syria headed by General Henry Wilson. They had one objective: driving Vichy forces out of Syria. The 5th Indian Brigade would enter Syria from the south via Daraa, a town on the Syrian-Jordanian border, and al-Quneitra, the principal town of the Golan Heights. Their entry would be facilitated by Druze warriors, brought into the deal by the Cairo-based Syrian singer Asmahan, a member of the powerful Atrash clan. They would open the way for the Free French forces to march on Damascus and liberate it from Vichy rule. Meanwhile, the 7th Australian Division would march into Syria via Haifa in Palestine, while the 10th Indian Brigade would come through Iraq up the Euphrates River towards Deir ez-Zour, al-Raqqa, and Aleppo (Patrick Seale, The Struggle for Arab Nationalism, 429).

British Commonwealth Troops entering Palmyra, 1 July 1941.

British Commonwealth Troops entering Palmyra, 1 July 1941.

Their task would be to seize all of Northern Syria and cut off Vichy lines of communication. World War II has reached Syria’s fertile plains. De Gaulle commanded six thousand troops into Syria, along with 12 planes and ten tanks. Vichy France, under the command of General Dentz, stood at 35,000 troops, including four battalions of the highly trained Foreign Legion and seven thousand recruits from North Africa. General Dentz also had 14 battalions with 90 tanks, 70 armoured cars, and 250 airplanes, most of which were destroyed on the ground by the British Royal Air Force. He had enough petrol and munitions to last six-weeks Aleppo (Seale, The Struggle for Arab Nationalism, 429).

The first battle took place near the Litani River in South Lebanon on 9 June, followed by other engagements in Sidon and Jezzine. On 15 June, the allied forces reached al-Kisweh, on the southern outskirts of Damascus, where they were met with fierce resistance from the Vichy garrison. On 21 June 1941 the Allies took Damascus, following a three-day battle. It was their first real victory, and the first Nazi defeat of the war, long before el-Alamein and Stalingrad. Vichy troops put up a fierce resistance in the ancient city of Palmyra on 1 July and in Deir ez-Zour three days later, but were soundly defeated. General Catroux drove into the Syrian capital like a war hero, accompanied by Paul Legentilhomme, commander of the 1st Division of the Free French Army. They were escorted by Circassian cavalry. Syrians came out to watch the procession, quite indifferent at what has just unfolded.

Free French Circassian Cavalry outside the railway station in Damascus, 26 June 1941.

The Allied war in Syria cost Dentz six thousand troops. Five thousand were arrested and one thousand were killed in the Syrian battlefield (Seale, The Struggle for Arab Nationalism, 429). On 12 July he approached the British pleading for an armistice, which was signed between him and General Catroux in Acre, Palestine on 14 July. Dentz returned to Paris afterwards. The Acre Agreement, to de Gaulle’s horror, made no reference whatsoever to the Free French, it also failed to mention Syrian independence. The British had lied once again.

De Gaulle was furious, feeling betrayed by his British allies. He landed in Cairo on 20 July to negotiate amendments to the Acre Agreement. De Gaulle made such a fuss that the British briefly toyed with the idea of keeping him out of Syria altogether (Seale, The Struggle for Arab Nationalism, 431). One suggestion was to stage a coup and replace him with General Catroux. Fearing a crack in Allied ranks, however, Churchill eventually agreed to co-administer Syria with Charles de Gaulle (Francois Kersaudy, Churchill and De Gaulle, 192-210). The British would control military affairs, while Free France would be left in charge of politics and government. At Churchill’s advice, de Gaulle agreed to abolish the title of “High Commissioner” and replace it with that of “Delegate General” in Syria. It was merely a cosmetic change; the French were still in control of Syria.

Allied leaders meet in Syria. Left to right: Air Chief Marshal Longmore, General Wavell, General de Gaulle, General Catroux.

Allied leaders meet in Syria. Left to right: Air Chief Marshal Longmore, General Wavell, General de Gaulle, General Catroux.

De Gaulle appointed Catroux as his proxy in Damascus and Beirut, charged with negotiating a treaty with the locals based on the foundations of the 1936 agreement. De Gaulle explained, “The Mandate entrusted to France by the League of Nations has to run its full term.” (Kersuady, Churchill and De Gaulle, 432). In a bid to rally the Syrians, Free French warplanes dropped coloured yellow and pink leaflets on the Syrian and Lebanese capitals on 28 September 1941, signed by General Catroux. They read:

Syrians and Lebanese, I come to put an end to the Mandate and proclaim you free and independent. A treaty in which our mutual relations will be defined will guarantee your independent and sovereign status. This treaty will be negotiated as soon as possible between your representatives and myself. Meanwhile, our mutual situation will be that of close alliance united in the pursuit of common ideas and objectives (Albert Hourani, Syria and Lebanon, 241).

In an exchange of letters with the British Minister of State to the Middle East, de Gaulle was informed that London “has no interest in Syria and Lebanon, except to win the war.” Churchill added, “Our policies towards the Arabs must run on parallel lines. We must not in any settlement of the Syrian Question endanger the stability of the Middle East” (FO 371, 27323, Political Report, 6 June 1941). Britain and Free France were clearly suspicious of one another. The French had hardly forgotten how Britain allowed Syrians to receive money and arms from British-mandate Jordan and Palestine during the 1925 Great Syrian Revolt against French colonials. They now felt that they owed them everything in Syria, and this made De Gaulle uneasy. Shortly after the Anglo-French invasion, Winston Churchill spoke to the House of Commons saying: “We have no ambitions in Syria. We do not seek to replace or supplant France, or substitute British for French interests in any part of Syria. We are only in Syria in order to win the war…Syria shall be handed back to the Syrians, who will assume at the earliest possible moment their independent sovereign rights (Edward Spears, Fulfillment of a Mission, 1).


Fadi Esber is the editor of Dimashq Journal

Follow us on Twitter @DimashqJournal

Syrian Oral History: Racing against time and war

Dimashq Blog | Fadi Esber

In the late 1960s the American University of Beirut launched the first project of its kind in the Middle East on Oral History. The pioneering endeavor continued up until the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in the mid-1970s, with only a handful of Lebanese and Syrian notables interviewed. It remains as the only institutional effort to delved into the oral history of Syria. The audio recordings were transcribed by the AUB’s Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies (CAMES), and both audio and written materials are available online. Of those interviewed was Aref al-Nakadi, a Syrian judge and leading linguistic and legal scholar. Nakadi was born in Lebanon in 1887 to a prominent Druze family. He was a member of the Arabic Language League in Damascus, a leading academic authority on the Arabic language composed of twenty members. Nakadi’s testimony as recorded by AUB includes a wealth of information on the development of both the judicial system in Syria and Lebanon, and the Arabic Language League. His comments on political life in the Levant in the early and mid-twentieth century also offer valuable insights.

AUB also interviewed Husni al-Barazi, a former prime minister of Syria. He was born in 1895 in the city of Hama into a prominent landowning family of Kurdish origin. He was educated in Istanbul and received a degree from the Istanbul School of Law. During the French Mandate of Syria, Al-Barazi joined the national opposition to French rule, but in 1926 he was arrested and exiled to Lebanon. Upon returning to Syria in 1928, Al-Barazi ran for parliamentary elections and was elected a Member of the Syrian Parliament. He was appointed Minister of Culture from 1934 till 1936, then Governor of Alexandretta (Iskandaroun) from 1936 to 1938, before France split the province from the Syrian motherland and handed it over to Kemalist Turkey. In April 1942, al-Barazi was appointed prime minister, but was removed from his position and isolated by the Free French authorities in January 1943, following which he again moved to Lebanon. Al-Barazi returned to Syria in 1946 and remained in his position as Member of Parliament during all the military coups that took place from the late 1940s until the mid-1950s. He went into final exile in 1954, when, while a trip to Turkey, he was accused of plotting and conspiring against Syria, and was sentenced to death in absentia. In the late 1960’s, al-Barazi was pardoned on account of his old age but never returned to Syria; he remained in exile between Lebanon and Turkey, where he died in 1975, the same year Nakadi passed away.

Listening to the oral testimony of Husni al-Barazi, one can’t help but detect flagrant self-aggrandizement on the one hand, and blatant false accusations levied at political opponents on the other (a problem not uncommon in written accounts too, especially in Syria). What should any historian working with such material do in this case? He or she would have two options. Either remain uninvolved and simply transcribe the testimony into a memoir, or fact-check the text and place it into its proper context(s) to produce a balanced objective biography of the subject. In case the subject of the study waived his right to the material, there would be little impediment to both options. However, if the interviewed is long gone, and had not given specific instructions on how his testimony should be handled by future scholars, this would present any historian with an ethical problem. Such a problem could, and should be avoided by having a clear methodology for recording oral testimonies set out by the institution conducting the project. If a historian is taking up the task on his own, he should make it very clear to the subject what he intends to do with the material. Preferably, and even though this way of conducting affairs is anathema to many Syrians, the historian (or research institution) should seek a signed agreement based on clear terms with the subject.

Another important factor to consider when recoding oral testimony is old age. Both Barazi and Nakadi were in their late 80s when they gave their testimonies, and we cannot ascertain the status of their memory and overall mental health at the time. Unlike documents, memoirs and other written material, the human brain, to put it crudely, has an expiry date, and it is therefore the duty of historians to seek out those willing to give a testimony about their life and work, and to record it before it is too late. However, and notwithstanding certain distortions, oral testimonies are a great resource for historians. If investigated thoroughly, contrasted with other testimonies, and placed within their historical, cultural, and socio-political contexts they are a necessary supplement to any research effort. This is especially true in the case of Syria, where most notable decision-makers, trend-setters, and witnesses to historical events have left no memoirs or personal accounts.

The third and final Syrian interviewed was prominent Damascene poet Nizar Kabbani, who was at the apex of his career at the time. This last account is perhaps one of the least complete ones, since Kabbani was in mid-career when he was interviewed, and unlike Nakadi and Barazi who were in their late 80s and reflecting on their entire lifetime, he would live another eventful three decades after the interview. This latter case highlights the many uses of oral history. It could function as a means to gather a biography on important people who failed or declined to write a memoir. Or, it could simply record the testimony of a key person at a certain historical juncture to supplement a specific research project. Kabbani’s testimony could not function as a memoir or be used as a biography of him, but it would be a necessary reference to any future discussions of his controversial life and literary work. Many Syrian and foreign historians have conducted such research-specific interviews with Syrian politicians and other witnesses to historical events to supplement their works. However, and unlike what we have with the AUB project, these interviews remain in the bibliographies of books, and are not gathered in one data-base for future use.

Oral history in Damascus, Syria, and the Middle East remains an untapped wealth, not only when it comes to politicians, intellectuals, and artists but also ordinary people in an area known for its longstanding oral tradition of passing culture, knowledge and wisdom from one generation to another, in addition to its rich and diverse religious, ethnic, and cultural composition. The AUB’s oral history project, small as it was, remains an inspiration for future projects, and for an expanded effort on preserving an important part of our national heritage and the testimonies of our city’s and our country’s leading women and men. The vicious ongoing war in Syria, and the widespread destruction of historical heritage and the displacement of millions from their homes, makes this endeavor even more urgent and necessary.


Fadi Esber is the editor of Dimashq Journal

Follow us on Twitter @DimashqJournal

Damascus During World War II

Episode 3: Trouble in Vichy Damascus


Dimashq Blog | Fadi Esber

Furious with the flurry of Nazi diplomatic activity in Syria and Lebanon, General de Gaulle, commander of the Free French Forces, dispatched General George Catroux to Cairo on 27 September 1940. He came from Algeria disguised as a French-speaking Canadian businessman, with a fake passport under the name, “Monsieur Chartier.” Catroux knew the Arabs well and understood and spoke good Arabic since he had served twice in the Middle East. From 1919 to 1920, he had been his government’s representative in the Hejaz, and four years later, director of intelligence in French Mandate Syria. Catroux’s tour of the Middle East had one purpose: to challenge Nazi promises and assert that should France be liberated, it would not hold on to its colonies in Syria and Lebanon. Catroux faced fierce resistance from the new pro-Hitler High Commissioner of Syria, General Henri Dentz.

General Georges Catroux

General Georges Catroux

An ardent collaborator, Dentz came to the region to promote loyalty to Nazi Germany and stamp out any sympathy locals may have for General de Gaulle. His first task was to offer Syrian airbases for German use. On 28 February 1941, he was welcomed by striking shopkeepers protesting an increase in the price of bread in Damascus, led by the National Bloc chief Shukri al-Quwatli (Patrick Seale, The Struggle for Arab Nationalism, 117). Grain was scarce due to the poor crop that winter, and merchants were hoarding their stocks, causing prices to soar (Salma Mardam Bey. Syria’s Quest for Independence, 30). The strike quickly spread to Homs and Hama, and by March had reached Beirut, Tripoli, and Sidon. The strike reminded both the Syrians and the French of 1925 and 1936. In his memoirs, Dentz wrote, “I must absolutely win the battle of wheat, and I have everybody against me; the people, the merchants, the English!”  (Salma Mardam Bey. Syria’s Quest for Independence, 30).

In one of his reports to the National Bloc, Shukri al-Quwatli commented:

Arrests are in the hundreds and the number of people searched for in their homes, causing them to flee, is over five hundred. The prisoners like Subhi al-Qudmani (a Bloc patron) and our agents in the various quarters are being forced to do hard labour. There is much oppression and injustice knows no bounds. Despite all of this, the nation is standing firm. The Senegalese are everywhere. The strike is general. The army and its tanks are in the streets. Yesterday, there were casualties. All the Syrian towns are on strike. We have not yet seen any results from our pressure on Vichy. (Salma Mardam Bey. Syria’s Quest for Independence, 30).

General Henri Dentz

General Henri Dentz

Dentz responded with brute force. Public meetings were banned, and private ones required written approval from the hated Deuxieme Bureau, the French military intelligence office (Munir al-Ajlani, National Bloc member, Minister, MP, interviewed by Sami Moubayed on 5-13 September 1999). Street gatherings of more than five people were prohibited and cafes were forced to close by 8:00 PM. All telegram and trunk lines to and from Damascus were cut off, and the city’s main entrances and exits were sealed off by armoured cars (Munir al-Ajlani, 5-13 September 1999). At street corners, French troops were stationed with submachine gun in hand, ready to shoot at anybody breaking the curfew. On the night of 25 March, no less than 80 local strongmen were taken from their homes and sent to jail. They were accused of working with the Free French. The Vichy officers in Damascus also banned the Aleppo leader Saadallah al-Jabiri from entering Syria from Iraq, and ordered the arrest of Shukri al-Quwatli and Lutfi al-Haffar, the deputy president of the Damascus Chamber of Commerce. The arrests only sparked more violence throughout Damascus. Their supporters unleashed hell on the French in the Syrian capital, beating French soldiers with clubs, smashing the windows of French institutions, and closing down entire markets. Soon afterward, Mount Lebanon joined the bread-strike, taking its lead from the leader of the Phalange Party Pierre Gemayel, an ally of the Syrian National Bloc. Gemayel, Haffar, and Quwatli were all deemed pro-Nazi earlier in the war, but were now seen as potential troublemakers because of their nationalist aspirations. Under popular pressure, General Dentz was forced to release Quwatli and Haffar a few days later, summoning them for a cordial meeting in Beirut. Dentz suggested restoring parliament if Syrian nationalists promised to call off the strike. He went as far as to promise complete independence “once the international situation stabilizes” ((Munir al-Ajlani, 5-13 September 1999). He even pledged to restore Hashem al-Atasi to the presidency should the nationalists agree to rule with a “moderate” (meaning pro-French) prime minister (Munir al-Ajlani, 5-13 September 1999).

Hashem al-Atasi, however, was unwilling to return to politics, having suffered enough at the hands of the French after their failure to ratify the 1936 treaty. He didn’t seem to care if they were pro-Nazi or Free French, seeing both as two sides of the same coin. Dentz then suggested calling on Damad Ahmad Nami, Sultan Abdulhamid’s in-law who had served as head of state during the Great Syrian Revolt, to assume the presidency. A voluble Circassian aristocrat, he was an urbane gentleman of Egyptian origins, whose family came to the Levant with Ibrahim Pasha in the mid-1880s. Ahmad Nami’s name was associated with the Great Syrian Revolt and many blamed him for accepting to hold office while French troops were burning the Damascus countryside. None of the country’s frontline nationalists would ever accept Damad, who they considered a staunch French collaborator (Hashem Atasi, Hashem al-Atasi, 254). Quwatli and Haffar then made a counter proposal: making the independent Ata al-Ayyubi head of state, with Atasi as president, overpassing the Damad completely. Ayyubi, a mild-mannered civil servant, had briefly served as premier in 1936. He would preside over another cabinet, and supervise parliamentary and presidential elections under the monitoring of Vichy France. But the French did not trust Ayyubi due to his Bloc sympathies, judging that a Bloc partisan at the premiership and a Bloc leader at the presidency would prove too much to handle for Vichy France. Instead, the French appointed Khaled al-Azm, another independent, as head of state, to rule for the remainder of the war with limited presidential powers.

Khaled al-Azm grew up in extravagant wealth and comfort. His father, Mohammad Fawzi Pasha al-Azm, was a senior advisor to the Ottoman Sultan and had served as Minister of Religious Endowments prior to the Great War. Trained at the Damascus University Faculty of Law, Azm was fluent French and English, and had spent his early adulthood traveling European capitals. He returned to Damascus to lead a lifestyle very different from that of his countrymen, hosting concerts and parties at his grand mansion in Souq Saruja, an 800-year old neighbourhood constructed by the Mamluk Dynasty outside the great wall of Old Damascus.

President Khaled al-Azm

President Khaled al-Azm

He was also the founder and president of the Damascus Chamber of Industry and a main shareholder in several Syrian and Lebanese banks. Al-Azm was a friend of the National Bloc, but never an official member. He compensated not joining by donating generously to Bloc activities whenever fundraisers came knocking on his doors. Azm believed that military confrontation with the French was suicidal, insisting on diplomacy and statesmanship, rather than bullets. On 5 April 1941, Azm announced his cabinet formation. It included the Bloc chief Nasib al-Bakri as minister of agriculture and the Montpellier University-educated Muhsen al-Barazi as minister of education. Azm appointed himself minister of interior, in addition to the premiership. On the same day, 40 Bloc partisans were shot dead by French police in Damascus during a stampede of the bread riots. The National Bloc agreed to call off the strike, wanting to give Azm the benefit of the doubt.


Fadi Esber is the editor of Dimashq Journal

Follow us on Twitter @DimashqJournal