Currently, tens, if not hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria have or are travelling to Greece, in order to seek refuge from the brutal war that has blighted their homeland, a war that has arguably been fomented by some Western Powers. Two hundred years previously, it was the Greek freedom fighters who sought to enlist the assistance of Syria in their quest for independence, through an ill-fated campaign that had unforeseen consequences in the Levant.
As Islam tended only to distinguish between religions, nationality being an irrelevant concept in its world view, the Ottomans considered all followers of the Greek Orthodox Church to form a homogenous unit. As such, with the onset of the Greek Revolution, all Greek Orthodox Christians were considered as potentially disloyal and the province of Syria, containing modern day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, did not escape Ottoman punitive measures. Fearing that the Orthodox (known as the ‘Rum’ or Romioi) of Syria might rise up to join the Greek Revolution, the Sublime Porte issued an order that all Christians should be disarmed. In Jerusalem, the city’s Christian population, who were estimated to make up around 20 per cent of the city’s total, were also forced by the Ottoman authorities to relinquish their weapons, wear black, and help improve the city’s fortifications. Just as the Ecumenical Patriarch Gregorios V was executed in Constantinople, so too did the Ottomans order the execution of the Patriarch of Antioch as well. However, local officials neglected to carry out these orders.
Finally, in the aftermath of a daring Greek landing in Beirut, various Greek Orthodox holy sites, such as the Monastery of the Panagia of Balamand, located just south of the city of Tripoli in Lebanon, an important centre of Orthodox spirituality, were subjected to vandalism and revenge attacks, and the monks of Balamand were forced to abandon their monastery until 1830.
The inspiration for a Greek landing in Syria supposedly came from a Lebanese monk who met with Montenegrin freedom fighter Vasos Mavrovouniotis, one of the few guerilla fighters not to be defeated by Ibrahim’s Egyptian forces that nearly destroyed the Greek forces in the Peloponnese and imperilled the Greek Revolution. Tearfully, the monk outlined the various outrages committed against the Syrian Christians by the Ottomans and begged Mavrovouniotis to liberate them. The leader of Free Greece, Ioannis Kolettis, believed that, given the parlous state of the Revolution in Greece, a successful uprising in Syria could divert troops away from the Greek mainland and ultimately save the revolution. Consequently, he approved of the expedition, sending to accompany him the Epirot captain Hatzimhihalis Dalianis, who was already in secret correspondence with the Emir of Lebanon, Bashir Shihab.
Bashir Shihab was remarkable in that he was a Muslim convert to Maronite Christianity. Already a seasoned and wily diplomat, he had refused to aid Napoleon during his siege of Acre, and was the ultimate cause of his failure to capture Syria. A year prior to the Greek expedition, he had collaborated with the Ottomans in removing the rival Druze Jumblatt family from Mount Lebanon. Being beholden to the Ottomans for his position, it is unclear what if any advantage a Greek rebellion in his territory would be to him, with scholars speculating that he possibly hoped that such a landing would grant him further aid against his Druze rivals.
On 18 March 1826, after first having landed in Cyprus in order to loot and pillage, so as to pay their troops, a flotilla of around fifteen Greek ships, led by Mavrvouniotis and Dalianis, landed in Beirut. Their exploits were documented by the Smyrna-born British Consul John Barker, stationed in Aleppo, in a memo to British Ambassador Stratford Canning in Constantinople. Barker viewed the landing more as an act of piracy given that Greek pirates were renowned for such types of raids in the Mediterranean. He reported that the Greek “assailants scaled part of the defence walls, while ships cannonaded the town”. Caught off guard, “in the absence of all regular military force” and with “a very scanty supply of firearms and ammunition”, the fort that was supposed to secure the town from sea invasion “was as ill provided as the inhabitants”. Resistance surfaced, however, thanks to a local mufti who “distinguished himself in instructing and animating the townspeople” to defend Beirut. The fighting resulted in casualties (“the loss sustained by the besiegers was in all 40 or so persons”) while the besieged suffered “14 killed and 20 wounded”. The town incurred damage “from 500 cannon balls, of which two struck the French consular house and three that of the Austrian agent”. Although rebuffed, Greek invaders did not immediately depart but took refuge near the seashore, occupying “a number of detached houses in the silk grounds, but that being chiefly inhabited by Christians”, the Greeks “did not injure them”. The attackers, according to one of Barker’s sources, appealed to the Christians “to rise and join them”. He opined: “If so, they must have entertained a most erroneous idea of the number and power of the Christians in Beirut. It is also said they sent an invitation to the chief of the Druzes to unite his forces to the Christian standard.”
Seeking help from Bashir Shihab’s rivals seems to have fatally compromised the expedition. He immediately mobilised troops to dislodge the Greeks from their positions and they, having received no aid, retreated back into their ships. The landing, however, had serious repercussions for the Christians of the region. A few days after the Greek withdrawal, on 23 March 1826, after the departure of the Greeks, an Ottoman lieutenant arrived with nearly 500 Albanian irregular forces and wreaked havoc among Beiruti Christians. According to Barker: “The inhabitants suffered more in their property from these undisciplined troops than the invasion of the Greeks had inflicted upon them, and the Christian part of the population, without distinction of Latin, Maronite, or Greek, was pursued and persecuted in a most merciless manner by the established authorities, while the Europeans themselves were not secure as well from the effects of the insolence and rapacity of the soldiery … “
A French merchant and an American missionary under British protection felt the direct impact of random violence when local troops forcibly entered their dwellings – “these gentlemen and their families were put in fear of their lives, maltreated, and robbed”. Only with great difficulty did European consuls “repel” the “insolent attempts” of the attackers and “protect the rayahs in their service from sharing the fate of the other Christians, whose houses and silk plantations were confiscated, and all that could be seized were reduced to beggary after having been tortured for the purpose of extorting from them sums, which it was impossible for them to raise by the immediate sale of all their effects.”
The arbitrary and unwarranted acts of reprisal against the Christians by the Ottomans as a result of the Greek landing destroyed the hitherto largely peaceful equilibrium existing between the various denominations in western Syria. As people of the region of long memories (the Shihab and Jumblatt families are still major players in the politics of Lebanon today), some have argued that this singular attempt to bring Syria into the Greek War of Independence sparked off a chain of events that led ultimately to the Lebanese Civil War, and possibly, the present conflict.
* Dean Kalymniou is a Melbourne-based solicitor and freelance journalist.