Remembering Emir Abdelkader: A tale of heroism and tolerance

Feted by President Lincoln and Queen Victoria, the hero of Algeria and Damascus remains an important, resonant figure 140 years after his death.

Emir Abdelkader
Emir Abdelkader

Remembering Emir Abdelkader: A tale of heroism and tolerance

In the spring of 1861, a special envoy for Abraham Lincoln, the newly elected president of the United States, came to Damascus. He was carrying two revolvers as a present to the guest of honour—Emir Abdelkader, the Algerian religious and military leader—who had protected the lives of thousands of Christians during bloody sectarian violence in 1860.

Lincoln's gift wasn't the only one presented to Abdelkader that day. Other diplomats had preceded Lincoln to the mansion, perched behind the city’s historic Umayyad Mosque. A representative of Queen Victoria presented him with a priceless sword, and an envoy of the pope decorated him with the Vatican medal.

The honours he received continued well after his death. Many years after his passing, a city in Clayton County, Iowa, was named after him. A grant in Emir Abdelkader’s name was also launched at the University of Virginia, and his bust was erected at the United Nations, making him a timeless emblem of peace and co-existence.

He passed away on 26 May 1883, making this year the 141st anniversary of his death. Al Majalla now commemorates the life and times of the important historical figure.

From prison to Damascus

Emir Abdelkader was born in the town of Mascara in western Algeria in September 1808. He went on to take up arms to fight the invading French army, a long fight that would eventually establish the first Algerian state.

But for 17 years, his insurgency was an uphill battle. It led to his arrest in 1847 after a 17-year campaign of resistance. He was jailed at an infamous chateau in Amboise, central France, once home of the French royal court. Members of the emir’s family were subjected to severe torture. Many died and were buried in their prison cells before President Louis Napoleon, later Emperor Napoleon III, ordered his release in October 1852.

A picture shows a sculpture in tribute to Algerian national hero Abdelkader, titled "Passage Abdelkader", created by artist Michel Audiard, in Amboise, central France, on February 5, 2022.

Napoleon was then a relatively new president, having come to power with the revolution of 1848 during the emir’s imprisonment. Keen on breaking with the old regime, he personally set him free and treated him with respect, offering him an open exile with members of his family.

The emir chose Damascus as his new home, a city he had once visited with his father during his early teens when performing the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. He was given an annual stipend of 6,000 francs—an enormous amount for the nineteenth century—and settled in Damascus in 1855.

With him came hundreds of soldiers, servants, scribes, cooks, and accountants, who would all be called al-Jaza'iri (Algerian), although they were unrelated to the Emir Abdelkader, who was from the Jaza'iri family.

Warm welcome

In Damascus, Emir Abdelkader was welcomed by one of the city’s ranking clerics, Sheikh Mahmud al-Hamzawi, who sold him a string of homes near Bab al-Faradis, one of the city’s ancient gates, right behind the Umayyad Mosque.

The people of Damascus were in desperate need of a leader to elevate their dire economic conditions and help ward off local thugs who held them by the throat. They found what they were looking for in Emir Abdelkader, who distributed funds generously to the city's poor, hired hundreds to his encouragement for good money, and clipped the wings of the city’s armed militias.

The people of Damascus had followed his career with admiration from the early days of his uprising, which had inspired many, not only in Syria but throughout the Ottoman Empire.

Nicolas TUCAT / AFP
A visitor takes a picture of a painting of Emir Abdelkader during the exhibition "Abdelkader, a figure of the Algerian independence" at the Mucem Museum in Marseille, southern France, on April 5, 2022.

He was rich, well-groomed, and commanded an exceptional presence due to his mastery of religion, poetry, and the Sufi order of Islam. He was also a direct descendant of the prophet Mohammad, which touched a raw nerve in the conservative city of Damascus. Some called him the emir of ulema or religious scholars; others called him the “protector of the poor and weak.”

Maronite-Druze war erupts

Four years into his Damascus residency, a sectarian conflict erupted in Mount Lebanon between Maronite Christians and Druze, which, by the summer of 1860, had spilt into Damascus.

Lebanese Christians had fled their villages from Mount Lebanon to the Bekka Valley, where they were further persecuted and killed, rushing to Damascus for sanctuary. They were housed in the old homes and churches of Bab Tuma and the crooked alleys of al-Qaymariyya before a mob attacked them on 9 July 1860, torching homes and churches.

Approximately 5,000 Christians were killed, and the murder spree would last for an entire week, during which Ottoman authorities stood by and watched, either unwilling or unable to stop the bloodbath. Emir Abdelkader was travelling, and when hearing the news, he headed straight back to Damascus, taking the keys to the city’s citadels to house Christian refugees.

He also opened the doors of his family mansion with the help of his old friend Mahmud al-Hamzawi and a handful of Muslim notables. Thousands were brought in under the protection of his men, where they were housed and fed, with assurances that they would be saved with the Jaza'iri family.

The first to arrive were employees at the French consulate, followed by other European missions, along with monks, priests, ordinary Christians and students of the al-Asiyya Patriarchal School. Their teachers were slaughtered before making it to the emir’s home, and only one of them survived.

Abdelkader's bust was erected at the United Nations, making him a timeless emblem of peace and co-existence.

Facing down the mob

When the mob finally reached the emir's house, he saddled his horse and carried his sword, coming out to confront them in person. "Is this how you please your Prophet Mohammad?" he shouted. "You will not touch a single Christian here. They are my brothers!"

The mob backed down and retreated as hundreds of armed Algerian fighters emerged to surround the emir, signalling their readiness for battle. When European powers threatened to intervene militarily under the guise of protecting the lives of Syrian and Lebanese Christians, the Ottomans finally took action, sending a ranking minister named Fouad Pasha to save Damascus, or what remained of it.

The emir's troops continued to guard the Christian neighbourhoods until December 1860. When French warships came to the Lebanese coast, Emir Abdelkader met their commanding officers in the Bekka Valley, advising against any military action that could provoke another bloodbath.

The Ottomans then asked him to help train their own forces on how to deal with a similar sectarian conflict should it break out. Emir Abdelkader chose 400 of his best troops for the job, and they carried out joint drills in Damascus's countryside.

When ready to train Ottoman officers, Emir Abdelkader was invited to attend. However, he didn't show up and, when asked about his surprising absence, replied: "I have seen all of this before. I was confronting bullets with my bare chest, and I personally have no interest in seeing it being acted out again."

Aftershocks of 1860

Emir Abdelkader then took up the task of transferring Syrian Christians to Beirut, commanding his men to accompany the caravans. Fouad Pasha dismissed the city's entire police force and replaced them with newcomers who did not know Damascus and would show no sympathy towards its residents. He then ordered the dismissal of the city governor, Ahmad Izzat Pasha, a decorated Ottoman war hero who had led troops in wars with Russia.

He was accused of doing nothing to stop the bloodbath and, after a speedy interrogation in Istanbul, was sent back to Damascus and executed by firing squad on 9 September 1860. Fouad Pasha then ordered a manhunt, arresting hundreds of city notables and clerics who had either participated in the killing or done nothing to prevent it.

Some were executed by hanging; others were exiled or jailed, leaving behind a giant void in the city's social structure that needed to be filled. The Ottomans began to groom a new generation of leaders for Damascus, drawing from prominent families like the Kuzbaris, the Abeds, and the Mardam Beys.

A picture shows a view of the statue of Emir Abdelkader, a historic Algerian leader and hero of the independence war with France, at the square of the same name in the center of the capital Algiers, on December 28, 2022.

An exceptional role was reserved for the Jaza'iris, who would go on to play an important role for the next half-century. The emir's son, Mohammad Pasha, became a general in the Ottoman army and then director of Sultan Abdul Hamid II's royal guard.

His brother, Emir Ali, would be elected into the Ottoman parliament, although another sibling, Emir Omar, would be hanged in central Damascus in May 1916 on the accusation of high treason against the Ottoman sultan. He was believed to have received money from the French to topple the Ottoman order, but that was long after Emir Abdelkader had parted the scene.

Emir Abdelkader's grandson, Emir Sa'id, became the self-appointed governor of Damascus during the transition period between the Ottomans' withdrawal and the entry of Arab forces towards the end of World War 1.

His government would last from 26 September until 1 October 1018. Emir Sa'id was born the year his grandfather died, and Abdelkader called him "Mohammad Sa'id." He saw a great resemblance between what happened in Damascus in 1918 and what happened in 1860.

Trying to live up to his grandfather's legacy, he opened the gates of the family mansion again, offering to protect Damascus Christians from the mob. He also made sure to protect withdrawing Ottoman soldiers, seeing such chivalry as characteristic of the Jaza'iri family history.

Emir Sa'id would go on to co-found Syria's National Bloc, a coalition of urban notables working against the French Mandate in the country, even nominating him for the post of king of Syria in 1932, a project that never materialised.

No other member of the Jaza'iri family would go on to play a significant political role, apart from Emir Ja'afar, a grandson of the emir who became director of museums and antiquities and then governor of the Druze Mountain and co-founder of the People's Party in the 1950s.

The Jaza'iri family mansion behind the Umayyad Mosque remains standing as of 2024. Ten years ago, one of the emir's great-grandchildren turned it into a premises for cultural dialogue and coexistence, dedicated to the memory of his great-grandfather. 

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