Syria’s Druze Mountain has long been a graveyard for empires

For big-name leaders from Ibrahim Pasha to Adib Al-Shishakli, the highland redoubt has been a hotbed of resistance.

Now known as the Sweida Governorate, it has a unique history, steeped in resistance to empires and colonialists. This is its story of the mountain, dating back to a flight from the Levant.
Eduardo Ramon
Now known as the Sweida Governorate, it has a unique history, steeped in resistance to empires and colonialists. This is its story of the mountain, dating back to a flight from the Levant.

Syria’s Druze Mountain has long been a graveyard for empires

Mount Hawran in the southernmost part of Syria, is better known as the Druze Mountain, after the name of the community who call the region home.

The Druze – an Arabic people named after their non-Islamic religion – did not live there before the 18th century, and have deeper historical roots across the Levant. But as the Ottomans controlled that part of the world, the empire’s opponents from there fled and set up homes in this highland stronghold in Syria.

Their rebellion was to last for more than two centuries and made the mountain ready for more resistance later in its history.

It went on to stand against the French Mandate, which set up control of Syria and Lebanon after the partition of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War I. The region was a direct factor in ending the rule of Colonel Adib Al-Shishakli, one of the Sunni army officers who turned against democracy in the 1950s.

Adib Al-Shishakli

On gaining independence from the French Mandate, the Druze community of Mount Hawran became the Sweida Governorate. It is made up of three main groups associated with three regions of the Levant, which stood firm against the Ottomans for so long.

Three groups, one identity

The first group – from Mount Shouf (Al-Shawafinah) – reached Mount Hawran in two major migrations. One came after the famous Battle of Ain Dara between the Qaysi and Yamani tribal-political factions in 1711. The other followed the events of the civil Christian Druze in Mount Lebanon in 1860.

The second group – known as the Safadiyah – came from Palestinian Galilee. Their migration to Mount Hawran began with the expansion of Sheikh Zaher Al-Omar Al-Zaydani (1695 - 1775) in the Galilee region from Safad to Acre. The Druze of those areas rebelled against him. He initially tried to appease them, but then he cracked down and drove them out after committing several massacres, including in Tarbikha in 1721.

The third collective migration took place after 1810 from Mount Al Summaq in what is now Idlib Governorate. This community – the Aleppo group – is fewer in number, but significant in terms of leadership. The Al-Atrash family, one of the Aleppo families, ruled the mountain from 1876, after wresting leadership from the Hamdan family, originally from the Shouf.

Sultan Al-Atrash

Knocking out the Mohammad Ali dynasty

After the army of Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt (1789 - 1848) took control of the Levant in 1831, the new ruler issued a decree enforcing conscription.

This led to an uprising among the people of the mountainous regions of the northern and southern Levant. The largest and most significant rebellion took place in Mount Hawran. It exhausted the Egyptian forces, inflicted significant losses, and marked the decline of the influence of the Mohammad Ali dynasty in the Levant.

After Ibrahim Pasha's army took control of the Levant in 1831, he issued a decree enforcing conscription. This led to an uprising in the Levant mountains. The largest and most significant rebellion took place in Mount Hawran.

There is a refined and literary eyewitness account of these events from the Russian diplomat Konstantin Bazili. It shows how the rebellion weakened the army of Ibrahim Pasha (Pasha being a high rank in the Ottoman military) and shattered the legend over the man who had shaken the thrones of sultans.

Bazili writes: "In 1837, the government demanded 72 conscripts from the Druze of Hawran, and their old sheikh was summoned to Damascus."

"He unsuccessfully attempted to exempt his people from conscription and was insulted brazenly by the Pasha's entourage. Enraged by this, he intended to seek revenge on the Egyptian soldiers and make them pay dearly for the humiliation they had inflicted."

"The sheikh said he was ready to help the government round up conscripts but asked to be accompanied by as many troops as possible for this purpose. Ibrahim Pasha sent with him 400 irregular cavalrymen to Hawran, who were warmly and hospitably received there."

 "However, on the first night, they were all killed, and only the commander of the detachment survived, who, in his sleep, heard the moans of dying. He managed to escape and reported the incident to the Pasha in Damascus. Subsequently, the Druze started to migrate to the fortified Lajat area."

Fierce battles in rugged terrain

Bazili recounts the fierce battles in the rugged terrain of this volcanic region of Al-Lajat. They cost Ibrahim Pasha more than 15,000 men from his regular army, a senior officer with the title of Pasha, four officers of the rank of brigadier general, and 16 commanders of regiments and battalions.

Bazili's account reads like an excerpt from a novel by the renowned Russian author Leo Tolstoy: "The war dragged on and Mustafa Pasha, governor of Candia (Crete) rushed to Syria on the orders of Muhammad Ali to help Ibrahim Pasha with two infantry regiments and three thousand Albanians. These Albanians, who experienced guerilla warfare in Rumelia (the Balkans), were the only ones capable of fighting the Druze."

"However, after failing to defeat them at Al Lajat, Ibrahim Pasha decided to besiege the area from all sides and starve the rebels into submission, but this failed. Small groups of Druze who seized the clothing of the slain Egyptians acted in a coordinated manner and deceived the army despite its vigilance, seizing their supplies."

"Ibrahim Pasha then resorted to another method: during one of his campaigns in the dangerous area, he blocked the only source of water in the entire region with rocks and gunpowder explosions. Then under the cover of powerful artillery, he approached the edges of the pools and filled them with the corpses of people and horses."

"This happened in the hot summer of 1838. The water stank, but the Druze continued to quench their thirst and were not bothered by the unpleasant taste of the water. Ibrahim Pasha found a way to poison the water by pouring several jars of mercury into the pools, which caused horror among the Druze as they witnessed the sudden deaths of those who continued to drink from the poisoned pools."

The end of Midhat Pasha

During the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1842-1918), the Druze of Mount Hawran repeatedly rebelled against the Ottoman Empire.

The most violent uprising took place under the reformist governor Midhat Pasha (1822-1884). The Pasha documented these events in a report sent to Sultan Abdul Hamid: "The year before (1879) there was an uprising on the Druze Mountain. I took advantage of the Druze defeat to reorganise the administration of the Druze Mountain under the Hawran district and lay its foundations and regulations."

"I appointed a deputy governor, established a city council, a court, a police force, and suspended the salaries of some Druze leaders and allocated them to newly appointed officials. I submitted the relevant records and documents … but received no response."

Midhat Pasha miscalculated when he decided to replace the traditional leadership of the mountain with government officials, many of whom may not be fluent in Arabic.

It was difficult for a close-knit sect like the Druze to trust the Ottomans and accept the reforms of the ambitious Pasha, who wanted to enforce laws similar to those in modern European countries in a traditional Eastern societies and establish a new hierarchy not based on religious or tribal influence.

As a result, they rebelled against him and blocked the mountain for his soldiers and officials. This forced him to resort to a military action, which eventually exhausted him and tarnished his reputation as a reformer.  This turn of events was a bad omen for him. He left his seat of power in Damascus, while the mountain blazed with revolution.

The rebellion against the Ottomans continued until World War I, during which the mountain became a refuge for Arab revolutionaries escaping the tyranny of Jamal Pasha, known as the Butcher.

The rebellion against the Ottomans continued until World War I, during which the mountain became a refuge for Arab revolutionaries escaping the tyranny of Jamal Pasha, known as the Butcher.

A sultan's revolution

The French were to have no better luck in the mountain than the Ottomans.

The spark of the Great Syrian Revolution against them was ignited in the village of Al-Qurayya, the stronghold of Sultan Pasha Al-Atrash, the prince of the mountain and the general commander of the revolution. In July 1925, he delivered his famous speech calling for the taking up of arms against the French to drive them out of the country: "To arms, to arms, oh sons of the glorious Arabs. This is a day that will make the mujahideen's struggle worthwhile, and the efforts of those seeking freedom and independence will bear fruit."

Getty Images
Sheikh Sultan Al-Atrash, leader of the Druze revolution in October 1925.

"This is a day of awakening for nations and peoples. Let us awaken from our slumber and banish from the skies the darkness of foreign control over our land. We have fought for freedom and independence for decades. Let us resume our legitimate jihad with the sword after the pen has fallen silent, and we will not lose our right if we claim it."

The mountain became the scene of the fiercest battles against the French. The most violent was the Battle of Al-Mazra'a, which inflicted the greatest losses on the French during their rule in Syria. This battle boosted the morale of the Syrians and expanded the scope of the revolution to the heart of Damascus.

The French suffered unexpected losses, prompting them to exact revenge on the Umayyad capital. They bombarded the city with artillery and obliterated entire historic neighbourhoods.

The Druze revolution in Mount Hawran determined the fate of the French mandate in Syria for the next two decades. It marked the first sign of the end of the French mandate in Syria, and its memories haunted French generals who had anticipated a picnic rather than a bloodbath.

Shishakli's error

Ibrahim Pasha, Midhat Pasha, and General Gouraud, all failed to take the strength of the Druze community's social traditions seriously.

So did Colonel Adib Al-Shishakli, who had the political activist Mansour Al-Atrash, arrested – the son of Sultan Al-Atrash, the commander of the Great Syrian Revolt.

Adib Al-Shishakli with officers of the Syrian army in 1953.

Mansour Al-Atrash had led protests in the mountain against the changes the colonel introduced to the school curriculum.

After Shishakli used armed force against demonstrators protesting his policies, riots broke out across the mountain. Protests had escalated into armed confrontations and they continued with the 10,000 soldiers the colonel deployed to quell the mountain's uprising. Meanwhile, warplanes bombarded villages in the mountains and districts of Sweida city, killing many civilians.

Al-Shishakli justified his army's action against the people of the mountain by claiming the discovery of large quantities of weapons and accusing the Druze of aiding foreign plots.

An assassin from the mountain

This led to the declaration of a state of emergency in five out of nine Syrian directorates: Damascus, Aleppo, Sweida, Homs, and Hama. He arrested prominent opposition figures, including Rushdi Al-Kikhia, Adnan Al-Atassi, Sabri Al-Asali, Akram Al-Hourani, Michel Aflek, Ihsan Al-Jabri, and Hassan Al-Atrash, who was one of the mountain's leaders at the time.

These measures quickly led to a military coup in Aleppo against Colonel Al-Shishakli. This forced him to resign on February 25, 1954, after which he fled to Beirut and then to Brazil.

Ten years later he was assassinated by a young man named Nawaf Ghazala, who came from the Druze Mountain.

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