Tuesday, July 23, 2024

April 13 ……A Date of Special Meaning

On the 13th of April 1635 Fakhreddin II Maan, the Druze Prince of Mount Lebanon, or Druze Mountain as it was called at the time, was decapitated in Istanbul, Turkey on charges of sedition against the Sublime Porte. As the ritual went, he was forced to kneel, and his blouse stripped open. At such moment, one of the executioners called the “Mutes” -because they were sworn to total silence- saw a necklace made of simple wool, with a wooden cross hanging from it. Sultan Murad IV reportedly shouted a ‘Disbeliever doubled by a Traitor’. The Prince was strangulated with a silk lace till his life left his body, and then he was decapitated, and his head displayed in the Hippodrome for all to see, over three days. All his wives were hanged and only his youngest son, Hussain survived and became a civil servant of the Sublime Porte, rising to become the Ottoman Ambassador to India.

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Legend has it that Fakhreddin was baptized when he was a child by Jesuit Priests in the town of Ballouneh where he spent his youth with his brother Younis, in the protection of the Khazen Sheiks, the feudal lords of Kesrwan. Untrue, since Fakhreddin was born and remained a Druze through and through. However, his gracious reign, his embrace of all non-Druze communities, and his unrivaled leadership made him the object of admiration of the people of Mount Lebanon. So, it was only natural for some Maronite chroniclers to want to appropriate this great man for their own. This is a case of Fake News even at such ancient times. 

Then, what about the cross around his neck?  This was not Fake News. It was worn by the young Fakhreddin as a Talisman, a lucky charm so to speak, because of a fortuitous incident that literally saved his life and that of his younger brother Younis.

Back in 1585, the Ottomans invaded the Shuf Mountain in a disciplinary expedition to chastise and bring to heel, the mountain people for allegedly attacking a tribute caravan in Akkar that belonged to Ibrahim Pasha, the governor of Egypt. The target of this war, for which Ibrahim Pasha marshaled 20,000 fighters including the Janissaries corps, was among others, Prince Qurqomaz the father of Fakhreddin II. Historical research show that the tribute caravan had arrived intact to Istanbul and that the raid on the Shuf was only the climax of Ottoman endeavors to subjugate the Druzes to the authority of the Sublime Porte, after having witnessed an unprecedented expansion of their territory and influence over the mountainous area. Already in 1523-1524, the Shuf villages were pillaged and destroyed by Khurram Pasha and hundreds of Druze fighters lost their lives on the battlefield. However, repeated military campaigns by the Ottomans failed to crush the Druzes’ ascendency or collect taxes in arrears dating back several years. Hence, Ibrahim Pasha used the pretext of the tribute caravan to wage a final war on the Druzes and finish with this unruly lot. In 1585, the Ottoman invasion was swift and devastating and as a result, Prince Qurqomaz died in hiding after refusing to surrender.

In that same year of 1585, a man by the name of Nehme El Merdini, who occupied the role of Kethuda (or in local vernacular ‘Kekhia’) basically the domestic manager of the House of Maan, came to the fore. After the death of Prince Qurqomaz the Janissaries were on the prowl looking to apprehend and kill the two sons of the late Emir. Nehme snapped into action, took hold of the boys Fakhreddin and Younis, and put them in the grain pouches that dangle from each side of a mule’s saddle. He left Deir El Qamar on foot and headed towards the farthest North of the country. Wanting to protect Fakhreddin by all means possible, Nehme, by precaution, took off his wooden cross and passed it around the boys’ neck. Once in Damour, they were apprehended by Janissaries searching for two young Druze boys. One of the soldiers grabbed Fakhreddin in an attempt to identify him and saw the neckless with the wooden cross attached. He disparagingly said to his Agha, his superior officer, these are ‘disbelievers going to the land of disbelievers’, meaning to the Northern part of Mount Lebanon. The troop of Janissaries let them through, and they escaped unscathed. Having saved his life by chance as a young boy, the wooden cross would remain around Fakhreddin’s neck till his execution in Istanbul.

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On the 13th of April 1635 an early version of (Mount) Lebanon was executed. A Prince who was born Druze but never ruled in a sectarian fashion, was beheaded. A local leader who was beloved by all communities, to the point of historical misappropriation, was no more. Granted, he was a mere tax farmer, an Ottoman subject, and never saw in the aggrandizement of his territory any sovereign project for an independent Lebanon, as modern legends would like to portray. But he, nonetheless, saw himself the chieftain of a united territory, of a common folk, without preferences or discrimination rooted in sectarian differences. As a pure Lebanese product, he fought with and against the Ottomans, courted and manipulated the Princes of Tuscany, imported modern techniques in construction and agriculture, invited Western scholars to study the ruins and the landscape of his beloved mountain, and died fighting for a version of a centralized authority over (Mount) Lebanon with all its shortcomings and complexities.

Every April 13th, on the anniversary of his execution one should remember that a cross worn is not a symbol of belief or disbelief, as we are all poised to carry each other’s crosses in a country still prone to the greed and cupidity of local lords and tax farmers, still subject to foreign invasions and intrigues, and still susceptible to divisions and sectarianism.

More so, on every April 13th one should ask whether there are any particles of a Fakhreddine or even fragments of a Nehme left in anyone of the country folks? 

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