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The Great Syrian Revolt and the Rise of Arab Nationalism

The Great Syrian Revolt and the Rise of Arab Nationalism

A history of the largest and longest-lasting people’s revolt in the Arab East, which attempted to liberate Syria from French rule in 1925.

Series: No. 22

July 2005
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223 pages | 6 x 9 | 7 b&w illus., 2 maps |

The Great Syrian Revolt of 1925 was the largest and longest-lasting anti-colonial insurgency in the inter-war Arab East. Mobilizing peasants, workers, and army veterans, rather than urban elites and nationalist intellectuals, it was the first mass movement against colonial rule in the Middle East. The revolt failed to liberate Syria from French occupation, but it provided a model of popular nationalism and resistance that remains potent in the Middle East today. Each subsequent Arab uprising against foreign rule has repeated the language and tactics of the Great Syrian Revolt.

In this work, Michael Provence uses newly released secret colonial intelligence sources, neglected memoirs, and popular memory to tell the story of the revolt from the perspective of its participants. He shows how Ottoman-subsidized military education created a generation of leaders of modest background who came to rebel against both the French Mandate rulers of Syria and the Syrian intellectuals and landowners who helped the colonial regime to function. This new popular nationalism was unprecedented in the Arab world. Provence shows compellingly that the Great Syrian Revolt was a formative event in shaping the modern Middle East.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Abbreviations
  • Transliteration
  • 1. Introduction
    • Greater Syria and Ottoman Rule
    • Ottoman Reform
    • The Great Syrian Revolt
    • Contrasting Narratives
    • Theorizing Insurgent and National Consciousness
    • Sources
  • 2. The Hawrân Frontier
    • Settling the Frontier
    • Rural Autonomy and Commercial Integration
    • Assimilating the Countryside: Education and the Army
    • The Arab Revolt and the Hawrân Druze
  • 3. Mobilizing the Mountain
    • Claiming the Mandate
    • Governing Jabal Hawrân
    • Organizing for Resistance
  • 4. Mobilizing the City
    • Damascus
    • The People's Party
    • Making Contact with the Countryside
    • Hawrân Peace Negotiations
  • 5. The Spread of Rebellion
    • Urban Agitation
    • Rebellion in Hamâh
    • Rebellion in Damascus
  • 6. The Politics of Rebellion
    • Insurgents in the Countryside of Damascus
    • Elite Politics and Mandate Counterinsurgency
    • Military Suppression and Mandate Counterinsurgency
    • Debating Rebellion
  • 7. Epilogue and Conclusions
    • Epilogue
    • Conclusions
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Michael Provence is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, San Diego.


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[Note: Some diacritics are omitted from this web excerpt; they are present in the book.]

The Jebel Druse is a country of great feudal chiefs, whose efforts are directed to preserving the powers by which they live. What we call progress means in their eyes the loss of their privileges and later on perhaps the partition of their lands. With regard to the inhabitants, who are ignorant or unmindful of any better fate, they are deeply rooted in their serfdom and are as conservative as their masters. They have no aspirations for a system of greater social justice nor [sic] for a better communal life.

—Testimony to the League of Nations Permanent Mandates Commission investigating the Syrian Revolt, Geneva, 1926

Syrians, remember your forefathers, your history, your heroes, your martyrs, and your national honor. Remember that the hand of God is with us and that the will of the people is the will of God. Remember that civilized nations that are united cannot be destroyed.

The imperialists have stolen what is yours. They have laid hands on the very sources of your wealth and raised barriers and divided your indivisible homeland. They have separated the nation into religious sects and states. They have strangled freedom of religion, thought, conscience, speech, and action. We are no longer even allowed to move about freely in our own country.

To arms! Let us realize our national aspirations and sacred hopes.

To arms! Confirm the supremacy of the people and the freedom of the nation.

To arms! Let us free our country from bondage.

—Excerpt from a rebel manifesto signed by Sultân al Atrash and issued on 23 August 1925

In late July 1922 a small group of men waited in the shade of a tree alongside a lonely road in rural southern Syria. Syria was a new country in 1922. The victorious European powers had carved it out of the defeated Ottoman Empire in the wake of the First World War in 1918. Less than two years later, in 1920, France occupied the country against the wishes of most of its inhabitants, including the men under the tree by the road that day.

They sat above a gravel track which followed the curve of a gentle hill. The long hillside above the road was covered with old olive trees and jagged black basalt boulders. The hillside below the road descended to a plain spreading as far as the eye could see in the midsummer haze. It was carpeted by recently harvested wheat fields, now reduced to a golden stubble, dotted with grazing sheep. The men were armed with rifles and sabers and sat on horseback, waiting patiently, smoking and talking in low tones.

Soon a dust cloud on the horizon signaled the approach of vehicles. The conversation stopped; and one among them, a short young man with a huge mustache that spanned his face, began to issue curt directions. The man giving orders was thirty-one-year-old Sultân al-Atrash. He had piercing blue eyes and the short, powerful stature of a wrestler. He had gathered the men together to stop a convoy and free a prisoner that the convoy was expected to be transporting to Damascus, the capital, some 100 kilometers north.

The first of three vehicles rounded the corner and came into full view. The men waited anxiously for Sultân al-Atrash's signal to attack. The cars were armored wagons, each with a machine gun protruding from a small turret. As the cars presented themselves, the horsemen charged down the hill, splitting off to engage each vehicle and completely surprising the drivers. Sultân al-Atrash was said to have leapt from his horse onto one of the cars, lifting the hatch and killing the three French soldiers inside with his saber. The other cars responded with a panicked hail of gunfire; but the horsemen were too quick, and the other cars were immobilized too. Four soldiers were killed, including the convoy's commander, and five soldiers were captured. The armored wagons held only soldiers, and the prisoner that they had sought to free was nowhere to be found.

Unknown to the would-be rescuers, French authorities had taken the prisoner, Adham Khanjar, to Damascus by airplane that morning. The French had accused Khanjar of taking part in an assassination attempt against a French general in 1921, and he had escaped to the British League of Nations mandate of Transjordan. In July 1922 he and a band of guerrillas had tried to cross the border to sabotage the electrical generating station in Damascus. The band had been dispersed at the border. With the French authorities in pursuit, Adham Khanjar sought refuge at the house of Sultân al-Atrash, a Druze shaykh and well-known enemy of the French mandatory government.

Sultân al-Atrash was not in his village, and French officers captured and arrested Adham Khanjar. When Sultân al-Atrash learned that Khanjar had sought refuge at his house and was in French captivity, he went to the provincial capital at Suwaydâ' to protest the breach of customary law before the French authorities. According to customary law and Arab codes of honor, a guest who sought protection had to be welcomed and protected by his host. The prestige and honor of rural leaders was linked to their ability and willingness to uphold such customs of hospitality.

Sultân al-Atrash was already locally famous as a charismatic firebrand in the southern region of Hawrân and Jabal Hawrân. Jabal Hawrân was the mountain homeland of the Druze, a minority sect that had often been at odds with the Ottoman state. In 1910 the Ottoman government hanged Sultân al-Atrash's father for insurrection, while his son served in the Balkans as an Ottoman army conscript. Toward the end of the First World War he joined the British-supported Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. After 1920 he focused his opposition to French rule. While Sultân al-Atrash was a rural shaykh from a rebellious minority sect, he had also become a Syrian nationalist. He had been exposed to new nationalist ideas while in the army and during the war, when he sheltered fugitive Syrian nationalists on the run from the Ottoman authorities in Damascus. After the war, Sultân al-Atrash maintained his contacts with Syrian nationalists, including men like Adham Khanjar, a Shî`a from the west, who was suspected of ties to Amir `Abdallâh, Hashemite prince of Transjordan. They sought a unified Greater Syria, including the French and British mandates of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Transjordan, independent and undivided by borders.

While Adham Khanjar was imprisoned, Sultân al-Atrash sent a series of telegrams to the native and French authorities protesting the breach of customary law. To the native governor, his cousin Salim al-Atrash, he argued that the breach was an insult to the honor of the Druze and to Syria. To the French authorities he argued that the breach was in violation of previous agreements between the mandate government and the Druze. His relatives rejected his appeal, and the French argued that his protests were excuses for lawlessness and refused to release the prisoner. Sultân al-Atrash failed to rouse Jabal Hawrân, but he managed to gather his brothers and a few friends to launch an attack to free Khanjar. French forces responded to the destruction of the convoy by issuing warrants for the rebels, bombing their villages, and destroying their houses.

In 1922 French authorities considered Sultân al-Atrash a minor provincial outlaw in a country full of outlaws and rebels against the mandatory occupation. Many Druze of Jabal Hawrân considered him a hero; but the Druze had experienced many rebellions against the Ottoman government, and his call to revolt was not widely popular. Sultân al-Atrash hoped to spark a wider revolt that would provide the Druze with the greater autonomy that they had managed to wrest from the Ottoman state. Perhaps he hoped to lead the Druze and Syrians generally in a national uprising to expel France from the Middle East.

The uprising failed. Sultân al-Atrash and a few others fled over the border to Transjordan and launched periodic guerrilla raids against French forces. The mandate government executed Adham Khanj ar, but less than a year later the government pardoned Sultân al-Atrash and his comrades. French officials hoped that they would lay down their arms and return to lead quiet lives in their villages, isolated from the wider currents of nationalist politics. It was not to be.

Greater Syria and Ottoman Rule

Greater Syria, comprising the modern states of Syria, Jordan, Israel/Palestine, and Lebanon, became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1516. For the next four centuries the degree of control exerted by the central state in Istanbul waxed and waned. The agricultural lands, pasture, and trade routes of the region thrived when the state was strong. Agriculture contracted when the state was weak, and the zones of nomadic pasture increased. As trade and its revenue were lost to the state, powerful local families or outside powers filled the void left by state contraction. The principal cities—Damascus, Aleppo, Hamah, and Jerusalem—remained important and commanded their agricultural hinterlands and trade routes. Damascus and Jerusalem were also important pilgrimage stations and destinations, which added to their economies and their significance to the central government. In the late nineteenth century, after decades of administrative reform, the state haltingly renewed control and divided the region into the three Ottoman provinces (wilâyat) of Syria, Aleppo, and Beirut and the special administrative district (sanjaq) of Jerusalem and the separate governate (mutasarrifiyya) of Mount Lebanon. Coastal cities like Beirut, Haifa, and Tripoli became more important as the Ottoman Arab provinces were incorporated into world trade networks for the export of grain, oranges, and silks and the import of European manufactured goods.

The land was fertile, the cities rich and cultured. From Palestine in the south to the Taurus Mountains in the north, the eastern Mediterranean met the land along a well-watered coastal plain. In the south the plain was wide and ascended gradually to a plateau; higher mountains separated the zone of increasingly marginal agricultural land from the steppe and finally the Syrian desert. Farther north, in the present-day states of Lebanon and Syria, the edge of the plateau became a coastal mountain range, ascending from a narrow plain to sometimes snow-capped peaks in a few kilometers. Beyond the coastal or Mount Lebanon range lay the Biqâ`a (Bekaa) valley; while less well watered than the coastal zone, the valley was always fertile. Beyond it rose a second mountain range, the Anti-Lebanon, separating the fertile zone from the steppe and desert to the east.

Damascus nestled on the far slope of the eastern mountains, at the end of a small river that watered the city and made it an oasis on the edge of the desert. Vast and densely cultivated gardens surrounded Damascus at the foot of the mountain and produced much of the city's food. To the south of the city, and to the east of the Anti-Lebanon range, lay the plain of Hawrân, an area of rich volcanic steppe land that had produced vast wheat harvests in Roman times and had often reverted to nomadic pastureland in times of weak government control. To the east rose a remote volcanic spur called variously Jabal Hawrân, Jabal al-`Arab, or Jabal Druze, the final outpost of settled agriculture between Syria and the Euphrates in Iraq.

The human geography of Greater Syria was similarly rich. Arabic was the common language of the whole region, spoken by Jews, Muslims, and Christians of the various sects. Although some of the minorities retained separate liturgical languages, and a few villages of mixed Muslim and Christian habitation preserved spoken Aramaic, Arabic vastly prevailed in daily life. Literary Ottoman Turkish was the language of government, while literary Arabic was used for commercial records, religion, intellectual pursuits, and law.

The coastal regions were typically the home of Sunni Muslims, both merchants in the cities and peasants in the villages. The mountain areas were often home to the minority sects that sought refuge or isolation from the majority. Among them were the Maronite Christians, who maintained an indigenous rite in union with Rome, in the region of Mount Lebanon; the Druze, who derived their esoteric religion from certain elements of Ismâ'îlî Shî'îsm, also in Mount Lebanon and in a few other isolated areas; and the 'Alawî, who practiced an esoteric faith also derived from Shî'îsm, west of Hamâh and in the mountains in what became northern Syria and southern Turkey. Ismâ'îlî Shî'a lived in a few mountain villages west of Hamâh; and Imami or Twelver Shî'a lived in the gardens of Damascus and in what came to be southern Lebanon near Jabal al-`Âmil. Orthodox and Greek Catholic Christians lived in agricultural villages and in the cities, while Jews mostly lived in the cities. The nomads, who were divided by vocation and tribe between permanent nomads and semisedentary nomads, were mostly Sunni, though there were also Orthodox Christian nomads in the plain of Hawrân.

The hand of the state was necessarily light on the Arab provinces. The imperial center rarely had the resources or the will to impose direct rule on its distant possessions and ruled instead through local elites. The Ottoman provincial ruling classes were, like the ruling classes of the state center, primarily Sunni. The top political families of Damascus usually got their start in government service (either civil or, more likely, military) and later became tax brokers, government officials, and eventually big landlords. These families provided generations of sons for high positions in local government and religious/legal leadership. They served as mediators between the central state and local society. Albert Hourani famously sketched the outlines of their world in his article "Ottoman Reform and the Politics of Notables" in 1968.

The prominent position of the leading families depended both on access to state authority and on independent power rooted in the local society. The political behavior of such families was characterized by caution and ambiguity. They sought to maintain balance between both poles of their power and avoided appearing to be either enemies or mere instruments of state authority. Hourani's description of Ottoman provincial society emphasized three social groups, the State, the Notables, and, by implication, the ra'îya or state subjects. The notable class mediated between the vast majority considered ra'îya and the tiny minority that represented the state, in the form of a rotating elite of provincial governors and garrison commanders that Istanbul frequently reassigned.

Hourani described a negotiated and contested power relationship. Philip Khoury later demonstrated that the overarching role of the imperial power was eventually transferred to the civil and military functionaries of the French mandate after 1920. Under both Ottoman and French rule, the political notables struck a bargain in which they enjoyed variable and qualified access to political power and tremendous economic power in return for minimizing the political aspirations of the great mass of the subject population.

Local power was based on control of land and agricultural surpluses. Claims to represent a "natural leadership" were based on the ability to dispense patronage among the dependent subordinate classes, whether peasants or inhabitants of a given urban quarter dominated by a notable family. Families from Damascus and Hamâh owned entire villages in the surrounding regions. Single extended families controlled scores or even hundreds of villages comprising thousands of individuals. The share of agricultural produce retained by peasants often barely met the level of subsistence. Leading families usually lived in Damascus in grand houses that included multiple courtyards and scores of rooms on two or three levels. Dozens of family members might inhabit a single house, but leading families often owned several houses. The houses dominated the urban quarters in which they were situated, and the families supported all kinds of activities in the quarter from youth clubs to Sûfî orders to trade and craft guilds. The leading families also owned large areas of urban real estate, which they leased for commercial and residential purposes. Most merchants and traders in a given quarter might turn to the principal local notable as landlord, employer, protector, contract guarantor, moneylender, and dispute arbiter, among other things.

Seismic changes in late Ottoman provincial society had made such patronage networks less comprehensive than they had once been. Integration into world markets had made new mercantile families more prominent. In the Maydân neighborhood of southern Damascus in particular, grain merchants and exporters worked outside the system of patronage and protection, dealing directly with grain cultivators when they could and emphasizing commercial relations rather than government connections. Large areas of agricultural land were brought under the plow and were not subject to the old arrangements. Peasants migrated to areas where they could approach the status of independent proprietors rather than chattel. New educational institutions fostered the emergence of new classes.

The tremendous wave of social change finally crested and broke between 1918 and 1949, but the story of the old notables remained dominant. Scholars, and the members of the notable families themselves, continued to interpret history as the story of the scions of a dozen Damascus families. Arab nationalism was understood as the ideology of a tiny elite; and until the 1990s scholars focused obsessively on the writings of scarcely a score of extraordinarily privileged men. Few scholars explained how an elite ideology of intellectuals and wealthy landowners had suddenly burst forth in 1920 to fill the streets of Damascus with ordinary people protesting for national rights and an end to European occupation. The nationalist independence movement of the interwar period was broadly understood to be the political preserve of the same dozen families, and the elite emphasis of written history was undisturbed.

The great mass of the subject population remained silent and presumably supine. So while historians readily explained the bargains that the powerful made with the still more powerful, no one seemed to be able to explain the bargains made between the comparatively weak and numerous and the comparatively powerful and few. How, in other words, did the notable class deliver the tacit consent or at least grudging acquiescence of those it sought to dominate in concert with the imperial power? How did ordinary people feel about their peripheral role in politics? When uprisings emerged, who led and who followed? What did Syrian nationalism mean in 1925?

Ottoman Reform

The Ottoman reform movement emerged in the first half of the nineteenth century. Reformers worked to strengthen the military, extend central government control, and improve revenue collection. By the end of the century the cumulative results of reform had reached most Ottoman subjects. The hand of the state extended to social and geographical terrains that it had never before touched. The private ownership of state agricultural land became codified and legalized in 1858. State education was expanded first in military academies in the imperial capital, then in medical schools and civil service academies, and eventually in scores of provincial secondary and preparatory schools organized along similar lines as the central academies. Military and bureaucratic reform and the idea of Ottoman patriotism went together as the state's reformers helped to create an imperial elite of modern, educated Ottomans, with decreasing legal distinctions by religion or sect. Efforts at universal conscription and elite state education served these goals.

Legal reform of landholding was particularly important in the provincial regions. Legally speaking, most agricultural land had been the property of the state, while heritable cultivation rights lay with the peasants who worked it. The land law of 1858 was intended to insure tax revenues of agricultural lands and regulate an existing market in land. Lands that had been effectively, if not legally, under the control of peasants, however, often became the private property of urban notables. Peasants feared the extension of government control in taxation and military conscription and rarely registered their lands, while urban notables with greater resources and legal know-how manipulated the registration process to consolidate their holdings. Provincial elites had been tax collectors and brokers of agricultural lands, and the new laws made it possible for them to become landlords, drawing them and the lands they controlled more firmly into the embrace of the state but also bestowing new rights in return. Land reform measures were intended to bring peasants under state control. The law's intentions were mostly subverted by provincial elites. In the areas of Greater Syria long under intensive cultivation, urban absentee landlords became more powerful, while cultivators became weaker and probably poorer. Although the state sought to increase revenue, and provincial elites sought to increase their control of land, sometimes powerful forces pulled in other directions.

International trade increased tremendously in the nineteenth century. Cotton from India and Egypt fed the textile mills of Lancashire, and manufactured cloth and other goods were exported to the Ottoman Empire via its thriving Mediterranean ports. Wheat, cotton, silk, and other agricultural products became the major exports from Greater Syria. Sometimes the Ottoman state helped to facilitate the new trade, but more often it was the work of Ottoman subjects adjusting to and profiting from new realities. Enterprising peasants and merchants opened up new areas of the Arab Ottoman realms to settled agriculture and often staunchly resisted state attempts to levy taxes on their labor. Vast areas of rain-fed farmland were wrested from nomads and government neglect and brought under the plow.

The independent-minded people of these frontier regions felt that they had earned the right of relative independence from the state and deeply resented late nineteenth century efforts to conscript their sons and tax their agriculture. In Hawrân south of Damascus, in the Jazîra east of Aleppo in the middle Euphrates river valley, and elsewhere, such independent farmers regularly fought the bedouin and the state and developed a frontier warrior ethos that opposed the assertion of state or urban notable authority over their regions. Inhabitants of such regions resisted government registration of their land because they feared the extension of state authority; but, unlike peasants in longer-settled regions to the west, they also resisted efforts by urban notables to register land on their behalf. They sought to preserve their independence both from the state and from provincial elites and would-be landlords. Independent peasant proprietors forged commercial bonds with new mercantile classes in the cities, especially grain merchants.

The Ottoman state responded to centrifugal forces in the late nineteenth century with both threats and enticements. Rural rebellions were suppressed with military force, and urban schools were built to educate and indoctrinate subjects in the benefits of the Ottoman system. Urban elites were the first to experience modern education. They sent their sons and daughters to be educated in schools set up by French, British, and American missionaries. The Ottoman government responded by opening state preparatory schools in the imperial capital like the famous Galatasaray Lycée in Istanbul and eventually provincial preparatory or I'dâdiyya schools like Maktab 'Anbar in Damascus. More numerous secondary or Rushidiyya schools were opened in provincial cities all over the empire. State secondary and preparatory schools were intended to provide training and retain the loyalty of elites. It was only later educational efforts, particularly provincial military schools and other academies in the capital, that were intended to foster new provincial elites and to draw the sons of the frontier regions into the state system.

Decades of military repression preceded the policy of drawing rural inhabitants into the state's embrace through education and public works. By the final decade of the nineteenth century, however, Ottoman policy had turned more or less in the direction of enticement rather than punishment. The government built wagon roads and railways, opened telegraph offices, established mail service, opened local schools, and established special scholarships for young men from rural areas. The new institutions were widely mistrusted, since rural inhabitants correctly saw that telegraphs conveyed intelligence, roads brought government agents and police, and school rosters recorded names of children later to be taxed and perhaps conscripted for distant (and possibly fatal) military service. Still, education and the government jobs it often brought were increasingly attractive. By the first decade of the twentieth century there were secondary schools in Damascus for military service, civil service, and female students. Within a few years demand soared, and it was ever more difficult to secure a place in the government schools.

The final Ottoman decades were full of trauma and hope. In 1908 a revolution replaced the aging autocrat Abdülhamid II with a constitutional government. Elections were held, and all Ottoman provinces sent representatives to the reopened Parliament. Reform had touched everyone, but with reform came new internal pressures to match the crushing pressures from outside. Nationalist and separatist movements had emerged among the minority populations in the empire. Italy invaded and annexed Ottoman Libya. Balkan Christians fought devastating wars to achieve national independence. Armenian, Greek, and Arab populations in Anatolia and Greater Syria were alienated by the increasing ethnic Turkish orientation of state elites. The new constitutional government, besieged from all sides, became more dictatorial and less representative. The idea of a nation made up of all imperial Ottoman subjects was strained to the breaking point.

In 1914 a Serbian nationalist assassinated the heir to the throne of the Hapsburg Empire. The assassination, in the former Ottoman provincial capital of Sarajevo, led to the First World War and the destruction of the Ottoman Empire. The people of Ottoman Greater Syria suffered tremendously between 1914 and 1918. The government conscripted hundreds of thousands of men, and hundreds of thousands died in the famine that accompanied the war. A revolt against the Ottoman army and in support of the British emerged in Hijâz province of western Arabia. Arab rebels entered Damascus at the end of the war with British troops. The Amir Faysal, leader of the revolt and son of Sharif al-Husayn, the former Ottoman religious governor of Mecca in Hijâz, believed that Britain had promised the rebels an Arab kingdom stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean. Britain and France, however, had produced a series of secret and mutually contradictory agreements over the postwar disposition of the Ottoman realms. Their secret agreements with one another would take precedent over agreements with non-European wartime allies. The agreements led to the partition of the Arab Ottoman lands and most present-day borders. Borders and ruling arrangements were negotiated and casually drawn in London and Paris. Amir Faysal was crowned king of the new state of Syria in March 1920. The British had supported Faysal and his new kingdom; but in the face of French claims to Syria, Britain withdrew its support, Faysal fled to become British-supported king of the British mandate for Iraq, and France occupied Syria in July 1920. France's League of Nations mandate over Syria lasted twenty-six years, until 1946. Armed opposition to European occupation emerged immediately in Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and elsewhere. Men from what had been the unruly fringes of empire led resistance movements everywhere. Sultân al-Atrash was one of them.

The Great Syrian Revolt

In the summer Of 1925, five years after France occupied Syria, the largest, longest, and most destructive of the Arab Middle Eastern revolts began. It brought together veterans of the Great War and earlier postwar rebellions and served as a template for later revolts, such as the revolt in Palestine in 1936. Contrary to the expectations of the mandatory power, the uprising began in an apparently remote and supposedly backward rural region. It spread to Damascus and came to include most regions and social strata of mandate Syria, rural and urban. For more than two years a ragtag collection of farmers, urban tradesmen and workers, and former junior officers of the Ottoman and Arab armies managed to challenge, and often defeat, the colonial army of one of the most powerful countries in the world.

After five years of French military rule, the memories of war and famine and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire remained acute and bitter. Likewise, memories lingered of the British-supported Arab kingdom led by Amîr Faysal between the end of World War I and the imposition of the mandate under France. Syrians had watched with awe as irregular Turkish military units expelled would-be European occupiers by force of arms and the Turkish state emerged from the ashes, under the leadership of former Ottoman army officer Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk).

Like the Turkish war of independence, the Great Syrian revolt began away from the urban centers. But while the circumstances of occupation in Istanbul and the surrender of the last Ottoman Sultân to the French and British dictated resistance from distant central Anatolia, the rural origins of resistance in Syria were less clear. By 1925 the occupation and pacification of Syria was presumed complete. Mandate authorities considered the cities of Damascus, Aleppo, and Hamâh the likely hotbeds of anticolonial nationalist resistance and systematically denied the elite nationalist politicians of those cities any role in ruling mandate Syria. The French had intentionally separated sectarian groups from one another and separated the rural regions from the cities by the creation of internal borders and autonomous "statelets." They sought to limit intersectarian coalitions and to isolate the countryside from the urban contagion of nationalist agitation. Few imagined that nationalist resistance would emerge in the countryside and spread to the cities-yet this is precisely what happened.

The Great Revolt was a mass movement, and its tactics of armed revolt were far more radical than much of the elite leadership of Damascus was prepared to embrace. Its leaders were not members of the great landowning notable families who sought to become national leaders in an incremental process of negotiation with the French. The revolt was one of the signal events in the emergence of mass politics in the Arab world. It was a decisive breakdown of the elite-dominated system of the "politics of notables" (theorized by Albert Hourani and discussed above).

The axis of the revolt was the grain trade. Migrants from the minority Druze sect had settled and pacified the southern countryside in large numbers during the mid- and late nineteenth century. With the help of an emerging merchant class, mostly from the Maydan quarter of Damascus, they expanded the wide cultivation and export of Hawrânî grain. These relationships and tensions helped foster the Great Revolt. Preexisting trade networks were precisely the conduits through which rebellion and nationalist agitation flowed. Grain production was based on contractual agreements between each village leader and a Damascene merchant. Just as the village leaders were not great landlords or estate holders, the merchants were rarely from the great landowning families of Damascus, who usually had vast holdings in other parts of Syria.

The Ottoman state had played little role in pacifying the southern countryside but continually sought to exploit the agricultural surplus. The tension between the state and the rural inhabitants led to numerous re volts throughout the nineteenth century. Often Damascene merchants were aligned with the rebellious rural regions, while the great notables were aligned with the Ottoman state, since both the state and its highest local officials sought to profit from the agricultural surplus of the region. The 1925 revolt began in the southern grain-producing region of Jabal Hawrân and quickly spread to the Maydân quarter of Damascus. Many of the revolt's leaders emerged from the Hawrân or from the Maydân and had some connection to the grain trade. They were more militant in tactics and aims than the nationalist elite of Damascene notables, some of whom were eventually compelled to join the uprising in order to escape imprisonment and to preserve their political credibility. Several mandate and postindependence-era political leaders emphasized their role in the revolt. For example, future president Shukri al-Quwwatli escaped arrest and spent the revolt in Amman and Cairo, Jamil Mardam Bey spent the revolt in Haifa, and Fakhri al-Bârúdî was in jail after August 1925, to mention three of the most prominent. In later years, involvement in the revolt became a signifier of nationalist commitment, and these politicians and many others claimed a central role.

French mandate authorities failed to comprehend the significance of the relationships and the connections among regions, classes, and sectarian groups in Syria. They sought to divide and govern mandate Syria along a series of supposedly timeless sectarian and geographical divisions. Jabal Hawrân was one such division. The French identified all of Syrian rural society as feudal and exploitative, with resulting deep, but ill-defined, class cleavages. The notion of feudal domination in the Druze region fails to account for the rise of rebel solidarity between supposed lords and serfs and likewise fails to explain the revolt's urban appeal once it spread beyond their region. How and why did people whom the French viewed as exploited and exploiter join together to resist their self-appointed liberators? Economic relations that the French, and many subsequent scholars, believed separated rural people from one another and from urban populations actually brought them together. Ottoman secondary education forged links between people of diverse class, regional, and sectarian origins. When these groups joined together and began to articulate a nationalist vision, whose vision was it?

Contrasting Narratives

The Great Revolt was a seminal, albeit contested, event in the Syrian national narrative, and secondary works in Arabic are numerous. The revolt was represented as a heroic episode in the colonial history of Syria. Broad coalitions of Syrians from the inland southern heartland of Bilâd al-Shâm—the lands of Damascus-joined together to resist colonial oppression. Just as the 1960s were a heyday for nationalist politics in Syria, they were also a heyday for studies of the revolt. The correspondence between the revolt and an era of postindependence nationalist ferment was not coincidental.

Advocates of different Syrian national narratives incorporated the revolt into their visions of Syrian history as the postcolonial state took shape. They emphasized the nationalist, nonsectarian aspects of the revolt and tended to be less interested in the local aspects, as represented by the Druze and the beginnings of the uprising. Most secondary works were written by people who had some close, usually family, connection to the revolt. They brought a more or less critical gaze to an episode that showed how diverse regions and sectarian groups had united for a common goal in the formation of the Syrian Arab nation—a nation that all recognized was decidedly not homogenous. The revolt could serve as an example, a touchstone for unity, but also (in its sectarian, separatist, and regionalist aspects) as an example of how far the nation had progressed by the 1960s.

Books in this vein have disappeared since the early 1970s. The disappearance is a symptom of the political climate in modern Syria. The generation that fought the revolt is gone, and the memoirs that they left are often unavailable. Most such books are out of print and hard to find. Recent generations have sometimes been disappointed in their nationalist and anti-imperialist convictions by the state of political culture and discourse in modern Syria. There is some interest among younger Syrians in information about their modern history, but it is only satisfied by the innocuous productions of historical soap operas for television. The Syrian nationalist narrative has been codified, and there is little space in it for heroic narratives that compete with the dominant narrative of the late President Hâfiz al-Asad and the Bath Party. The Syrian revolt brought together the Hawrân Druze and the Damascene merchant community. Arguably, the potential challenge to the government from one, or both, of these groups since independence has resulted in a certain official reluctance to highlight their heroic collaboration in 1925.

Mandate officials claimed that the revolt was the response of retrograde Druze feudal lords who felt their power threatened by mandatory reforms. They argued relentlessly that the revolt was sectarian and not nationalist. The contemporary record indicates otherwise. Different sectarian groups, regions, and classes joined under the unifying banner, however variable, of Syrian patriotism and nationalism. Further, many among the rebels willingly took orders from leaders of different religions and geographical regions from their own. And while this is clear in the contemporary documents and memoirs, it is also clear in secondary works dealing with the revolt until the early 1970s.

During the 1970s, however, something changed. The revolt became recolonized; and as Damascus and Syria's ruling apparatus changed with the influence of `Alawi military officers and bureaucrats, Syria's colonial history changed too. Syria's military and then its government became the preserve of members of another formerly isolated rural sectarian minority, which had played no major role in the Great Revolt. The national narrative that privileged Damascus and the Druze was displaced by a narrative that included many revolts (in each region, all characterized by an immature political consciousness), eventually united for a final heroic march to true national consciousness and independence under the leadership of the Bath Party. The Great Revolt became one in a long line of revolts that included uprisings in the region of Aleppo under the leadership of Ibrâhîm Hanânû and uprisings in the `Alawi region east of the coastal city of Latakia under Sâlih al-Alî. The Great Revolt remains an episode that does not fit neatly into the post-1970 national narrative; therefore, it is usually simply ignored.

Nationalism is not the only motif of works dealing with the revolt. In the last fifteen years books have been published that stress the sectarian aspects of the uprising. The studies of Hasan al-Bi'aynî, a Lebanese Druze scholar, are foremost among these. While there is a hegemonic national narrative in Syria that forbids the public discussion of sectarian differences, in Lebanon the national narrative has been highly contested along sectarian lines. Indeed, the factions in the Lebanese civil war were often split by sect, and the war's central issue was arguably a contested vision of national identity. It is no accident that the generation shaped by the war has authored sectarian histories. This is not to say that Bi'aynî seeks to privilege the Druze narrative above the Arab or Syro-Lebanese narrative. Rather, he seeks to stress the important contribution of the Druze to the independence struggle against the French. His works attempt to show that the Druze minority has made a valuable contribution to the history of the Syrian-Arab nation. In making his argument, however, Bi'aynî sometimes makes the larger Syrian-Arab nation disappear. He seems to argue that the Druze are the Syrian-Arab nation. In foregrounding the heroic actions of the Druze, Bi'aynî obscures the connections that gave the revolt of 1925 its nationalist dimensions.

Another notable sectarian history is that of Kais Firro. Firro is an Israeli-Druze scholar. The Druze community in Israel is the main non-Jewish group not considered Arab by the government. Identity thus remains a contentious issue, particularly for Druze intellectuals like Firro. The Israeli state has largely succeeded in its Druze policy, while the French mandate failed. The French attempted to separate the Druze from the larger mandate Arab population, and the Great Revolt is proof that they failed. The Israeli state, by a more nuanced policy of enticements and a tacit, multitiered model of Israeli citizenship, succeeded in greater measure in separating the Druze from the larger Palestinian Arab population. Still, the question of identity is not settled, as Firro makes clear. Like Bi'aynî he considers the Druze part of the Arab nation. His detailed narrative history of the Druze is an impressive scholarly work. It chronicles the Druze in what became Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, from earliest times until the 1950s.

The emphasis on religious divisions and sectarian essentialism has a long history in much western scholarship on the Middle East. The earliest memoirs of the revolt, written as apologies by French officers who had been in volved, stressed the impenetrable and ageless mix of sectarian fanaticism and backward feudalism that they claimed was the defining characteristic of the rebels. These men saw their careers as colonial functionaries in dire jeopardy and desperately sought to justify the colonial role and their actions to a skeptical French public. In so doing, they utilized a whole palette of racist, orientalist, and essentialist stereotypes. They sought to destroy and discredit any rationally understandable explanation for the uprising and to portray themselves as the blameless couriers of civilization to uncomprehending and ungrateful savages. Sectarian conflict was a theoretical necessity for French colonialism in Syria, since the entire colonial mission was based on the idea of protecting one sectarian community, the Maronite Christians, from the predations of others. Without sectarian conflict, colonial justification evaporates.

The difference between the viewpoint of mandate officials and former mandate citizens reveals an interesting contrast. With few exceptions, Syrian writers on the Great Revolt have been self-conscious and forthright about the assumptions and political commitments that their work aims to advance. The European chroniclers of France's mandate spoke from a position of authority that required no justification or examination. They neither mentioned nor examined their assumptions and political commitments but usually veiled them behind a screen of self-described "objectivity." It should not be a surprise that the works of those who sought to advance a privileged argument for European supremacy over the rest of the world have worn less well over the decades than the works of those who spoke forthrightly for resistance against that same supremacy. It is deeply unfortunate, however, that the lesson has not been learned. Americans and Europeans still publish books and articles about postcolonial countries that advance the shopworn theories of their colonial forebears. Many still insist on their objectivity and fitness to define, and indeed to rule, the rest of the world.

Two texts in English stand above all others for the history of Syria during the mandate and beyond: the encyclopedic works of Philip Khoury and Hanna Batatu. Both of these books achieve a level of comprehensive narrative detail that will probably never be matched. They utilized a wide range of normative sources, including extensive interviews with elderly Syrians who played key roles in modern history. Many of these people have since died. Despite their richness of detail, both works are concerned ultimately with urban elite politics. Khoury makes a path-breaking contribution to understanding the machinations of traditional urban elites in interwar nationalist politics. Batatu, by contrast, seeks to explain how members of a rural sectarian community became the new postindependence urban elite and ruling class. Khoury devotes four chapters to the Great Revolt. He treats the mandate period from 1920 to 1945, and the revolt specifically, from the perspective of changes in the "politics of notables." Ultimately, Khoury accepts and reproduces the claims of hegemonic representation made by the mandate and postindependence nationalist elite, who viewed themselves as the uncontested representatives of the nation.

Batatu rightly seeks the roots of today's Syrian regime in the countryside. For Khoury, the rural-urban connection is fairly undefined, though he clearly acknowledges its importance, while Batatu subjects the relationship between urban and rural regions to broad thematic generalizations that cannot be sustained from region to region. He writes in detail about the origins and conditions of the various peasant communities in Syria, in explaining the rise of the Asad regime. He has little to say, however, about their historical relations with one another or with the cities. Batatu's analysis of the rise of Hâfiz al-Asad from a humble mountain village is unlikely to be matched. But when he generalizes about the condition of all Syrian mountain regions and the people who lived there, he is on shakier ground. For while the `Alawî sect (from which Asad came) and the Druze sect (from which many of the Great Revolt's fighters came) share apparently esoteric religious beliefs, mountainous native regions, and a tradition of rebellion, they share few other elements. There were vast differences in ownership of land, in social and economic relations, and particularly in commercial and social integration with the surrounding regions. The `Alawî mountains were historically far more isolated than the southern regions, and their development and social conditions reflect this difference.

The emergence of nationalism in Greater Syria has also received much scholarly attention. This is part of the aim of Khoury's book on the mandate and is central to his earlier book. Others have also devoted much attention to the rise of nationalism; while they have made unprecedented contributions, none has dealt with nationalism in the city and the countryside. Many other scholars have devoted the major part of their research to the rise of Arab nationalism, and yet they have all concentrated on urban nationalismusually among a narrow elite of notables and intellectuals-and ignored the countryside The gap is difficult to understand, since during the mandate the population of Syria's three biggest towns (Damascus, Aleppo, and Hums) was never more than 20 percent of the total population Additionally, there is no doubt that the countryside was always of supreme importance for urban dwellers, as a source of wealth for the notability and as the provider of food for the entire urban population. Until quite recently, agriculture and pastoralism were the bases of most of the country's wealth, whether in grain, woolen and cotton textiles, or olive oil and its products. Finally, as Hanna Batatu and others have noted, the entire government power structure of today's Syria is composed of people of rural origin. The late Syrian president Hâfiz al-Asad made frequent reference to his peasant background The dearth of studies on the rural regions is thus all the more inexplicable since, unlike most other examples of anticolonial nationalist struggles, the countryside ultimately prevailed over the urban leadership to dominate the postindependence government.

The existing histories reflect the deep misgivings and biases of urban dwellers regarding the countryside. Scholars, whatever their origin, are usually members of an urban elite and naturally focus their attention on people that they can identify with and relate to. The lack of rural studies also reflects the usual dearth and difficulty of access to sources for rural history and the comparative wealth and ease of access to sources for urban areas. Given the importance of the southern countryside in the economy of Damascus and the central position of the Great Revolt in modern Syrian history, neither of these problems applies. The local sources, the memoir accounts, and particularly the French archives are extraordinarily rich for the Great Revolt and southern Syria.

No study has traced the relationships between rural and urban regions and their influence on nationalist politics from the Ottoman period into the mandate. This book examines these relationships. It makes connections between events and social conditions that have not been made in print before. The political economy of grain production and the resultant social and commercial interactions made possible broad resistance to the colonial state and the rise of nationalism in the countryside. The spread of state-subsidized military education in the late Ottoman period likewise fostered popular nationalism and resistance. The uprising is thus illustrative of several previously neglected historical processes, including rural-urban integration, the rise of new merchant and professional military classes, and—related to both of these and perhaps most importantly—the emergence of popular Syrian-Arab nationalist identities.



“Anyone wishing to understand Syrian history or learn something of value about nascent Arab nationalism will profit from this book.”
The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences

“I am convinced that Provence’s book will be a significant contribution to the literature on popular rebellions in the Arab world.”
Philip S. Khoury, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, author of Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of Arab Nationalism, 1920–1945


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