Abd el-Kader (1808-1883) was an Algerian religious and military leader, a sharif (noble) and Sufi, elected Emir, or Commander of the Faithful, who led an unsuccessful revolt in Algeria against the French colonial invasion of the mid-nineteenth century. Imprisoned in France, he was then exiled along with many of his Algerian followers to Damascus, Syria, where tensions were at a boiling point between Maronite Christians and the Druze and Muslim communities….
This was the time in his life that Abd el-Kader had intended to devote to peaceful pursuits such as prayer, teaching, and charitable deeds. He might have turned his back on the growing tensions in Damascus: It would not have been unreasonable. Yet he could not escape the world around him, or the role that fate seemed to have cut out for him. Nor did he choose to.
In March 1860, he picked up alarming rumors. It looked like the governor of Damascus, Ahmad Pasha, along with some leaders from the city’s Muslims and Druze villages nearby, were plotting to “correct” the arrogant Christians of Damascus. “Correcting,” in that sense, typically included bloodshed.
Fortunately, Abd el-Kader had a strong ally in the French consul, Monsieur Lanusse. He went directly to Lanusse with this information, hoping that the European consuls would confront Ahmad Pasha and persuade him to cancel the plot. Lanusse found the other consuls—from Britain, Russia, Austria, Greece, and Prussia (Germany)—highly skeptical. Nonetheless they designated the Greek consul, who knew Turkish, to talk with the governor. Ahmad Pasha denied the rumors and assured the consuls that there was no cause for concern.
The conspirators laid low for a while. In the meantime, Abd el-Kader instructed his Algerians to be alert and try to stop any talk they heard against the Christians. When Abd el-Kader himself tried to talk with the mufti and other religious leaders, he was rebuffed. Many were envious of this much-admired newcomer and had no interest in cooperating with him.
By early May, aware that Christians were going into hiding or leaving the city, Abd el-Kader was sure that the plot was still alive. Again he went to see Lanusse. Again Lanusse appealed to the other consuls, and this time they all went—although reluctantly—to see Ahmad Pasha. Again the governor denied any problem. He did remark, however, that the Christians were acting rebelliously. He would do what he could, but if there should be a large outbreak of violence, his troops would not be able to control it. The consuls were apparently satisfied with this run-around.
Then came the massacres in Mount Lebanon and the flood of terrified Christian refugees—topped off by wild rumors about Christians planning to attack the Muslims! In June, at Abd el-Kader’s urging, Lanusse again talked with the consuls, but this time they simply laughed at his fears.
Now Abd el-Kader took a more active role. He went several times to see Ahmad Pasha, arguing that an attack on the Christians would not only be cowardly but against the laws of both Islam and humanity. The Christians had no arms, no military experience, no way to defend themselves. Abd el-Kader declared, “I will go and put myself with the cavalry in the midst of the Christian quarter, and there I will fight as long as I have breath. I will die, if necessary, for the honor of Islam, whose law forbids crimes of this nature.”1
The Emir also reached out to the Druze—who had given him such a warm welcome five years earlier but now appeared to be part of the plot. He sent the Druze leaders a firm but careful letter saying, “Some of your horsemen have already been pillaging in the vicinity of Damascus. Such actions are unworthy of a community distinguished for its good sense and sound policy.”2
At the same time, Abd el-Kader decided to be prepared for trouble. He asked Lanusse to use his special diplomatic privileges to buy all the arms and ammunition he could; the French consul promptly did so and turned them over to the Algerians. The Emir told his men who lived outside Damascus to come into the city, in groups small enough to avoid notice. He urged them to keep trying to persuade people in the city to keep the peace. He talked with every leader he could, from the municipal council of Damascus to village shaykhs. Again he tried to reason with the religious leaders, only to get another cold shoulder.
By now the governor, Ahmad Pasha, was growing nervous. The European powers would hold him responsible, Lanusse had warned him, if harm came to the Christians. He moved his family to the citadel, a large fortified area near the center of the city. Then as he had promised Abd el-Kader, he sent troops to the Christian quarter—but they turned their guns on the Christians, rather than the direction from which attacks might come. Some of the Christians tried to appease the soldiers with food and gifts, and others wisely made their escape from Damascus. Finally Ahmad Pasha tried to persuade the Druze leaders outside the city to hold off. But it was too late. All of Damascus was waiting for an incident to light the fuse.
That incident started on Sunday, July 8, 1860, when a few Muslim boys drew crosses on the pavement in the Christian quarter, then spat and scattered trash on them and forced passing Christians to stamp on them. (Accounts vary as to details.) The Christians complained to the governor, and he—suspiciously ready to cooperate—had the culprits arrested and beaten. The next day the boys were publicly take to the spot and forced to clean the pavement. An outraged mob quickly formed, ready for action. The whole incident was apparently contrived to look as though Ahmad Pasha was trying to protect the Christians, while actually enraging the Muslims
And it worked. It touched off one of the most infamous events of modern Middle Eastern history, a week-long nightmare of destruction, looting, and wholesale murder. While Abd el-Kader’s role in trying to avert trouble was vital, his actions in the midst of the conflagration made an even more remarkable story.
Knowing that the international representatives would be prime targets of a mob enraged against Western influences, Abd el-Kader sent messengers to the consuls who lived or had offices in the Christian quarter, urging them to come immediately to his house. In person he went to the French consulate, which was already surrounded by a mob, and took Lanusse back with him. The British consul, thinking his house safe, stayed until he received a warning; then he got a message delivered to Abd el-Kader, who promptly sent out another rescue mission.
The Russian consulate had already been looted when Abd el-Kader and two of his sons reached it, and the people either murdered or vanished. At the Greek consulate, the Algerians found some three hundred refugees and escorted them all to Abd el-Kader’s house. A French doctor with them later wrote, “In those indescribable moments of anguish, heaven, however, sent us a savior! Abd el-Kader appeared, surrounded by his Algerians, around forty of them. He was on horseback and without arms, his handsome figure calm and imposing.”3
The American vice-consul, Dr. Michael Mishaqa, had a drama of his own. When a mob came to his house, he escaped by the garden, scattering gold coins to distract his pursuers as he ran through the streets. Disguised as a North African, but beaten and bloody, he was finally brought to Abd el-Kader’s house and reunited with his family. He recorded his experiences in a lively history of the area, a book that he entitled Murder, Mayhem, Pillage, and Plunder.
RESCUING THE CHRISTIANS
Abd el-Kader had about a thousand of his own men, many of them former fighters, armed and ready. Now they gave top priority to rescuing the Christians.
Horrendous destruction had already swept through the Christian quarter. The Damascus mob—which had started as rabble mostly from the lowest classes—was soon joined by Muslims and Druze from outside the city, crazy with excitement and greedy for the spoils. The rioters first targeted the houses of rich Christians, seizing everything that could be carried away, down to the woodwork and tiles. Before long the whole Christian quarter was burning. Some women and children tried to escape the flames by running across the flat housetops, leaping over spaces between them. Churches, houses, and shops were all looted, and many people murdered.
In the midst of the chaos, Abd el-Kader himself went hurrying through the streets, calling to the Christians to follow him to safety. He described his actions in a letter written on July 18, 1860, which was eventually translated from the Arabic and published by the New York Times. “Seeing matters were so desperate,” he wrote, “I lost no time in taking under my protection these unfortunate Christians. I sallied forth, taking my Algerians with me, and we were able to save the lives of men, women, and children, and bring them home with us.”4 He also sent groups of his armed men to search through the Christian quarter, shouting, “We are Abd el-Kader’s men, don’t be afraid! We’ve come to save you.” People emerged from wherever they had tried to find shelter, many filthy from having hidden in drains and wells. A stream of refugees began to find their way to Abd el-Kader’s huge house.
A few incidents stand out in the often confused descriptions of those days of violence. On one of his missions Abd el-Kader went to a Franciscan monastery and urged the monks to come with him. Afraid of treachery, they refused—only to die a little later when their house was torched by the mob. Another rescue attempt had a much better outcome. At an orphanage, fortunately outside the Christian quarter, the Sisters of Charity nuns and Lazarist fathers quickly marshaled their students, many barefoot but in uniform. Abd el-Kader and his sons, with armed Algerians on each side, led a procession of a few hundred children, pus the nuns and monks, to safety in the Emir’s house.
What about the forces of law and order, while all this was going on? Abd el-Kader found no help from the religious leaders. When he hurried to the home of the mufti, early in the outbreak of violence, he was told firmly that the mufti was having his nap and could not be disturbed. Worse still, the Ottoman governor took no action. On that point, individuals who survived and described the riots were in total agreement. Some of the governor’s soldiers joined in the looting and even turned their guns and bayonets on people trying to escape the fires. As the governor had warned Abd el-Kader, these troops were hardly the cream of the Ottoman army; but clearly, neither were they under any instructions to restore order. One Turkish commander who did try to stop the rioters was charged with insubordination.
For several nights Abd el-Kader slept on a mat at the entrance to his house, so that no one seeking refuge would be turned away. At dawn on the third day of the riots, July 11, he confronted a large mob who knew that he was sheltering Christians and had come to his house demanding blood. According to the reports of this scene, the Emir stood before the men and waited until they finally quieted down. He appealed to the “law of God” and their own sense of humanity. Had they sunk so low
in honor, he argued, that they wanted to slaughter defenseless women and children?
The mob still shouted for the Christians and even mocked Abd el-Kader saying that he himself had been a “great killer of Christians.”
“If I slew Christians,” the Emir answered, “it was in accordance with law. They were invading our land and fighting against our faith. If you won’t listen to me, then you are like beasts in the field, caring only for your food.”
Still the crowd yelled for blood, until Abd el-Kader said, “These Christians are my guests. Try to take one of them, and you’ll learn how well my soldiers fight. We will fight for a just cause, just as we did before!”5
He called for his horse and weapons. As he mounted, his men surrounded him, brandishing their own rifles and shouting “Allahu akbar! God is the greatest!” Intimidated, the mob gradually gave up and melted away. Abd el-Kader must have felt both relief and bitter disappointment, as he saw his threat of force win out over his appeal to reason and mercy.
TO THE CITADEL
All this while, Abd el-Kader’s men kept patrolling the Christian quarter and bringing more people to his house. Although the refugees were now safe, they were suffering in the midsummer heat. Nobody kept track of numbers, but there may have been as many as four thousand men, women, and children by that time, packed into the Emir’s house and courtyard without food and water, let alone sanitation. Abd el-Kader sent some to the homes of his brothers and friends, but conditions were still intolerable.
Finally he made a difficult decision: he appealed to Ahmad Pasha. The governor, by now fully aware of the horrors he had unleashed and the price he might personally have to pay later, offered to let the Christians come to the citadel. They would not be protected by Turkish soldiers, he promised, but by Abd el-Kader’s Algerians.
The Christians, however, were horrified at the very thought of leaving their haven and begged Abd el-Kader not to send them out into the streets again. Abd el-Kader swore that he would defend them with his own life. Two of the consuls staying in the Emir’s house volunteered to accompany the first group, and an armed Algerian guard was ready. Although many of the refugees still had to be dragged, they did reach the citadel in safety, and thereafter the Christians went with more confidence. Before long the citadel’s large open courtyard was full of people, safe but suffering, as there was no shelter from the sun and very little food or water.
With his spacious house mostly emptied, Abd el-Kader went right back to rescuing more Christians. This time he used a different strategy, spreading word that anyone who brought a Christian refugee safely to his house would receive a monetary award. It worked, and for a few more days Abd el-Kader stayed close to his entrance, handing out coins to those who cooperated. Whenever a group of a hundred refugees had been gathered, they were taken to the citadel.
By the week’s end, the fires of mass hysteria were burning out. The violent phase of this event—the worst sectarian conflict that Damascus or any other Arab city had experienced—was almost over. Accurate numbers of those killed could not be determined, but estimates of several thousand dead were probably reasonable, including people who later died of wounds and sickness. Unquestionably, the numbers would have been much, much higher without the efforts of Abd el-Kader and his Algerians. A common estimate is that eleven or twelve thousand Christians were saved in this way from almost certain death. ♦
For his heroism, Abd el-Kader became an international icon of courage and service. The French bestowed upon him the Grand Cross of the Légion d’honneur; the Turks, the Order of the Medjidie, First Class; and the Vatican, the Order of Pius IX. Abraham Lincoln sent him a pair of inlaid pistols and the town of Elkader, Iowa, was named after him in his honor.
1 Ahmed Bouyerdene, Emir Abd el-Kader (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, Inc., 2012), 108.
2 Vista Clayton, The Phantom Caravan, (Hicksville, NY: Exposition Press, 1975), 283.
3 Bouyerdene, p.111.
4 The New York Times archive, August 20, 1860.“The Damascus Massacres: Letters from Abd-el-Kader,”
5 Because Abd el-Kader spoke in Arabic, which was then usually translated into French and later into English, it is impossible to have completely accurate records of what he said. This is true for the quotations attributed to him throughout this book. In this particular scene of confrontation—at which no one was taking notes, of course!—we can have only the gist of what was said. The dialogue appears in three or four different books, all varying slightly but agreeing on the general idea.
6 Leila Tarazi Fawaz, An Occasion for War: Civil Conflict in Lebanon and Damascus in 1860 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 97.