In the mid-nineteenth century, Syria (which then included much of modern Lebanon) was under Ottoman rule, and it was a troublesome province with a restless population that did not always embrace Turkish dominance and taxes. The hinterlands of Ansyria were crucial for trade routes and the prosperity of coastal cities such as Tripoli, and so the region attracted the attention of the European powers as well as the Turkish overlords. Along with political and economic discontent, there was also a combustible mix of religions including substantial populations of Druze, Christians, and Muslims. There had been rebellions before and there would be massacres later. Our tale takes place in late 1858, not long after the end of the Crimean War.
Khairi Bey was a local chieftain in the Ansyrian mountains, ruler of Safita. He had annoyed the Turkish authorities by insufficient tribute and they stirred up the local Muslim population against him, while invading his territory from two directions. This minor footnote in history is partially illuminated by some British diplomatic correspondence. We begin with a letter from Cavalié Alexander Mercer, British Vice-Consul in Tripoli to his superior, Consul-General Moore in Beirut.
October 26, 1858.
I have the honour to inclose a communication which I have just received from Ismael Khairi bey, and shall await your decision before I venture to return any answer… He is in a scrape certainly; the Turkish troops are preparing to attack him from all sides, and all the Moslem population is against him. The Christians speak well of him, and he appears to have governed his district comparatively well, and always paid the miri, &c. He wishes for support at this juncture, to insure his meeting with justice from the Government, and offers to proceed to Beyrout [Beirut] and abide the issue of his trial, if his enemies will do the same. He has great influence over the whole Ansyrié population. As the troops are soon about to invade his territory, and time is precious, I am anxious for your orders as soon as possible, to know what to say or do.
Khairi Bey was in trouble, and he turned to the British to use their influence to guarantee him a safe passage, and a fair trial. Moore took the request to the local Turkish rule, Khorsheed Pasha, who “promised that Khairi Bey should have a fair trial if he surrendered himself to the Turkish military authorities”. The following day, Moore wrote back to Mercer with the news and told Mercer to impress upon Khairi Bey that a) the British had intervened diplomatically on his behalf, and b) they were offering no guarantees:
You will give Khairi Bey to understand that this is the result of the representations made by me on his behalf. At the same time he must be made to understand that no guarantee is given either on my part, or on that of any other British officer, in regard to the fulfillment of the Pasha’s promises. It would be right that you should impress on Khairi Bey the risk he runs either in defying the Turkish authorities or in countenancing others of his countrymen in doing so.
Perhaps Khairi Bey found these assurances inadequate, or needed more time, or hadn’t reckoned on the intransigence of Tahir Pasha. At any rate, he sought safety with family. On November 22, 1858, Mercer again wrote to Moore:
Sir, I have the honour to inform you that Ismail Khair Bey, of Safita, was murdered last week at Karm-el-Aiounh, the residence of Aly Shallal, his uncle, with whom he had taken refuge on the approach of the troops under the command of Tahir Pasha. Aly Shallal was outlawed by the Ottoman Government and agreed to put Ismael Bey to death for a free pardon and the possession of the treasure this last had accumulated. When this agreement took place Aly Shallal’s house was surrounded by the Turkish soldiers, who feared to attack it as the position is very strong. Ismael Bey was informed by his uncle that his brother was dead; while under the influence of this intelligence Aly Shallal shot him in the side, and one of his men dispatched him, blowing his brains out. Hi sons (quite children) were being led off to Tahir Pasha as prisoners, when Aly Shallal, remembering that if they grew up there would be a blood feud between them, had them recalled and also put to death. The heads of Ismael Bey and his brother have been sent, I hear, to Damascus, while their wives have been shared between Aly Shallal and others of his gang.