Syria’s revolutionary heroes of the struggle against the Ottomans and the French in the first half of the 20th century have become national symbols for Syrians. Their names are used during the current Syrian revolution against the Assad regime as symbols of national unity and struggle for freedom. More than acts of bravery and leadership, the heroes of the past revolution were real people with families, homes, interests and quirks. I looked beyond the textbook tales to find out more about who these key figures really were. I profiled Sultan Basha al-Atrash, a revolutionist from Suweida.
Down From the Mountain
Sultan Basha al-Atrash was a serious leader from a patriotic place.
A simple farmer who loved working in the field is how the people of Al-Qrayya – a village 20km south of Suweida – remember Sultan Basha al-Atrash. He was a man who expressed his love for the land in all he did and said, in part by helping to lead the revolutions against the Ottomans and the French.
“The Basha used to criticise people who sit on rugs in the field. He always said: ‘Don’t put any barriers between you and your field,” said Maan al-Atrash, a 40-something grandson of Sultan Atrash’s nephew. He used the honourific term Basha, given to Atrash for his contribution to the revolt by King Faisal, the leader of the Arab revolt against the Ottomans.
It is his connection to his field and not to politics that led Atrash to fight against the Ottomans and the French, his relatives told Syria Today during a recent visit to the village. “He was not a politician, he did not understand politics,” Nadia al-Atrash, a 60-something granddaughter of Atrash’s cousin said. “He was a fighter who loved his land. He used to always say: ‘What was taken by the sword can only be retrieved by the sword’.”
Symbol of chivalry
In spite of his stern attitude, Atrash was popular among his community, Nadia Atrash said. People even consulted him about their personal problems.
“He was always very serious. No one ever heard him laughing. He used to say ‘men don’t laugh’,” she said. “Still, people respected him because he was honest and evenhanded. He had a down-to-earth manner, eating together with the workers on his farm.”
Today, photos of Atrash hang in houses throughout the Druze mountains, his statues dot its main squares and his name is mentioned in local folklore. Two years ago, a museum dedicated to his life opened in al-Qrayya.
Walking around al-Qrayya is like going back to the Middle Ages. People here still take pride in medieval knighthood and enjoy narrating old-fashioned myths about manhood and fighting. Words like “courage”, “honour” and “loyalty” are all that Maan Atrash and his friends talk about. He said he regrets that these principles are no longer valued.
“The chivalry of the fighters during the Great Syrian Revolution is out of fashion these days,” he said.
Fighting the Ottomans
Favourite among the tales is recounting the life story of the town’s most famous inhabitant. Basha Atrash’s military approach is attributed to his studies at the Ottoman Military Academy in Istanbul. The execution of his father by the Ottomans in 1913 for refusing to acknowledge their reign left deep resentment in Atrash, who joined the revolt against Ottoman rule as soon as he could.
That chance came in 1915 when Atrash, who was conscripted into the Ottoman army, defected and joined the Arab army of Sultan Husayn. The then 31-year-old Atrash served as commanding officer and roamed the villages of the Druze Mountains, encouraging men to fight.
Nadia Atrash pointed out proudly that it was women from the region who sewed the flag that the fighters raised in Damascus as a sign of liberation in 1918.
By 1920, France was in control of Syria. In 1925 Atrash was elected the leader of the Syrian Revolution, Omar Arnao’ut a 91-year-old companion of the Basha’s son Mansour, said.
“The National Revolution Assembly, consisting of prominent Damascene and Syrian revolutionary figures, selected Atrash to be their leader. They chose him because his soldiers played the biggest part in the fight against the Ottomans and the French,” Arnao’ut said.
The revolt was finally crushed in 1927 and Atrash was sentenced – together with many other rebels – to death. He fled to Jordan where he stayed until he was pardoned by the French in 1937. Following Syrian independence in 1946, Atrash declined political office.
“He said that politics has its men. He is a farmer and the son of a farmer. His place is in the fields,” Najeeb Atrash, brother of Maan Atrash said.
Historical facts are based on official documents from the Historical Documents Centre in Damascus and the book Steel and Silk by political analyst Sami Moubayed.
This article was published in Syria Today magazine.