A typically Lebanese story of betrayal at the hands of so-called civilised nations

Many believe the name Martyrs' Square refers to the victims of the 15-year civil war. Not so

Robert Fisk

The Independent

21 May 2005

In Beirut last week, they announced the winners of a competition to redevelop Martyrs' Square, which had once been Lebanon's civil war front line and on the edge of which the tomb of the murdered ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri now stands.

There were two remarkable things about this event. The first was the brilliant decision by the redevelopment firm Solidere - in which Hariri held 10 per cent of the shares - to announce the results not in one of Beirut's swank hotels but in a war-ruined shopping centre and cinema complex that still lies next to the square.

The great cone-shaped wreckage - known as the "egg" to Beirutis - was washed out, shored up and carpeted so that when we arrived to hear the winners, we had to walk between walls torn up by so many bullets that they looked like Irish lace. Amid the literal ruins of war, we were invited to contemplate a new future.

The second extraordinary development was the winning design by two Greek companies. Their plans called for the sea - at present a quarter of a mile away beyond a landfill - to be brought, via tunnels and bridges, right up to the archaeological remains at the edge of the square. Thus would the Mediterranean be returned to the Roman city of Berytus where it originally lapped, washing steadily past the ancient Ottoman tower which once guarded Beirut port. The old world would come to the rescue of the new.

But history cannot be "rescued", and even today many Lebanese - preparing for national elections in a few days' time which will once again emphasise the respective Christian and Muslim religion of the voters - believe the name Martyrs' Square refers to the victims of the country's 15-year civil war.

Not so. In 1773, the Russians stormed into Beirut to humiliate the Ottomans and placed a massive portrait of Catherine the Great on the city gates. All who entered were forced to bow before the picture or, at the least, dismount from their horses. And the biggest naval gun aboard their offshore fleet was then set down in the middle of the city square. So for almost a century and a half, it became the Place du Canon.

But under Ottoman rule in 1915 and 1916, the square acquired a grim new history as a place of gallows. The story is dark enough - and laced with enough foreign betrayal to make it truly Lebanese. Prior to the First World War, 33 Arabs in what is now Lebanon and was then Syria had appealed to the French consul in Beirut to help them to gain independence from the Turks - or at least offer French protection.

The letters - from both Muslims and Christians, one from a Palestinian and another from a senior officer in the Ottoman army - were written in secret and duly reached the consul. But when France broke off relations with the Sublime Porte on the outbreak of war, the diplomat - rather than pack those subversive letters off to his new residence in Egypt - hid them in the abandoned consulate.

And so it came to pass that the local French-language interpreter at the consulate, imprisoned in Damascus, sought to gain his freedom with Ahmed Jemal Pasha, commander of the Turkish Fourth Army in Syria, by betraying to him the exact location where the consul had hidden the documents. Ottoman security agents then broke into the consulate - which was supposed to be under the protection of the still-neutral United States - and found the incriminating letters. Jemal Pasha's fury was now directed against these treacherous letter writers with Saddam-like fury.

They were dragged from their homes, taken to the hill town of Aley, brutally tortured and sentenced to be hanged by a drum-head military court. And hanged they duly were, only a few feet from the spot where the sea will now wash up to the square and scarcely 50 metres from the tomb where Rafiq Hariri now lies. A priest was hanged in his robes. The Ottoman officer went to his death in full military uniform.

And three days after the last batch of Lebanese patriots were hanged in 1916, François Georges Picot signed his infamous secret agreement with Sir Mark Sykes to divide up the Middle East, taking Syria for France - and Palestine for the Brits - which would ensure that the French government rather than an independent Lebanese government took over Lebanon.

Now here's the rub. Not only had every leading Lebanese patriot been liquidated just before the Sykes-Picot agreement. But the French diplomat who had shamefully left those fatal letters behind in his consulate in Beirut was - wait for it - the very same François Georges Picot.

His reaction to the hangings remains unknown, but the condemned men at least let the world know what they thought about their fate. Unusually for the Turks, they allowed the men to speak briefly from the scaffold and their words were printed in a book published in Cairo in 1922 which, 60 years later, I discovered in an Egyptian antiquarian bookshop.

With the rope round his neck, Abdul-Karim al-Khalil - his surviving Muslim family is well known in modern-day Lebanon - cursed the Turks and asked "the civilised nations of the world for our independence and freedom. O paradise of my country, carry our feelings of brotherly love to every Lebanese, to every Syrian, to every Arab, tell them of our tragic end and tell them: 'For your freedom we have lived and for your independence we are dying!'".

Then he kicked away the step ladder to the gallows, effectively hanging himself.

For a quarter of an hour, two brothers, Mohamed and Mahmoud Mahmessani, stood on the gallows, Mohamed holding Mahmoud in his arms, all the while trying to comfort him. He asked the executioner that they should be hanged at the same moment and his wish was granted. Joseph Bishara Hani, a Christian, cried out that "I have lived a blameless life and I die without fear". Then the hangman kicked the ladder from beneath Hani's feet. All were dumped in a mass grave on the beach.

But the records show that the sectarian tensions between pro-French Christians and Arab nationalists which boiled over in the 1975-90 civil war were present even then; before the executions, most of the Muslims shouted a blessing to their "fellow Arabs" while most of the Christians shouted "Vive la France!".

When the Emir Feisel heard of their deaths in Damascus, he leapt to his feet and shouted: "Arabs! Death will now be a pleasure for us." Sound familiar? Let the waters of the Mediterranean now wash into the square where their gallows stood.