Travels in Syria and the Holy Land, by John Lewis Burckhardt

Appendix. No. II.

On the Political Division of Syria, and the recent Changes in the Govern­ment of Aleppo.

THE political division of Syria has not undergone any changes, since the time of Volney.

The Pashaliks are five in number. To the pashalik of Aleppo belongs the government of Aintab, Badjazze, Alexandretta, and Antakia. Damascus comprehends Hebron, Jerusa­lem, Nablous, Bostra, Hums, and Hama. The Pashalik of Tripoli extends along the sea­coast from Djebail to Latikia; that of Seide or Akka, from Djebail nearly to Jaffa, inclu­ding the mountains inhabited by the Druses. The Pasha of Gaza governs in Jaffa and Gaza, and in the adjacent plains. The present Pasha of Damascus is at the same time Pasha of Tripoli, and therefore in possession of the greater half of Syria. The Pashalik of Gaza is at present annexed to that of Akka.

Such is the nominal division of Syria. But the power of the Porte in this country has been so much upon the decline, particularly since the time of Djezzar Pasha of Akka, that a number of petty independent chiefs have sprung up, who defy their sovereign. Ba­djazze, Alexandretta, and Antakia have each an independent Aga. Aintab, to the north of Aleppo, Edlip and Shogre, on the way from Aleppo to Latikia, have their own chiefs, and it was but last year that the Pasha of Damascus succeeded in subduing Berber, a formidable rebel, who had fixed his seat at Tripoli, and had maintained himself there for the last six years. The Pashas themselves follow the same practice; it is true that neither the Pasha of Damascus nor that of Akka has yet dared openly to erect the standard of rebellion; they enjoy all the benefits of the protection of the supreme government, but depend much more upon their own strength, than on the caprice of the Sultan, or on their intrigues in the seraglio for the continuance of their power. The policy of the Porte is to flatter and load with honours those whom she cannot ruin, and to wait for some lucky accident by which she may regain her power; but, above all, to avoid a formal rupture, which would only serve to expose her own weakness and to familiarize the Pashas and their subjects with the ideas of rebellion. The Pashas of Damascus and of Akka continue to be dutiful subjects of the Grand Signior in appear­ance; and they even send considerable sums of money to Constantinople, to ensure the yearly renewal of their offices. (The Pashaliks all over the Turkish dominions are given for the term of one year only, and at the beginning of the Mohammedan year, the Pashas receive their confirmation or dismissal) The Agas of Aintab, Antakia, Alexandretta, Edlip, and Shogre, pay also for the renewal of their offices. There are a few chiefs who have completely thrown off the mask of subjection; Kutshuk Ali, the Lord of Badjazze openly declares his contempt of all orders from the Porte, plunders and insults the Sultan’s officers, as well as all strangers passing through his mountains, and with a force of less than two hundred men, and a territory confined to the half ruined town of Badjazze, in the gulf of Alexandretta, and a few miles of the surrounding mountains, his father and himself have for the last thirty years defied all the attempts of the neighbouring Pashas to subdue them.

THE inhabitants of Aleppo have been for several years past divided into two parties; the Sherifs (the real or pretended descendants of the Prophet), and the Janissaries. The former distinguish themselves by twisting a green turban round a small red cap, the latter wear high Barbary caps, with a turban of shawl, or white muslin, and a Khandjar, or long crooked knife in their girdles. There are few Turks in the city who have been able to keep aloof from both parties.

The Sherifs first showed their strength about forty years ago, during a tumult excited by their chiefs in consequence of a supposed insult received by Mr. Clarke, the then British Consul. Aleppo was governed by them in a disorderly manner for several years without a Pasha, until the Bey of Alexandretta, being appointed to the Pashalik, surprised the town and ordered all the chief Sherifs to be strangled[.] The Pasha however, found his authority greatly limited by the influence which Tshelebi Effendi, an independent Aleppine grandee, had gained over his countrymen. The immense property of Tshelebi’s family added to his personal qualities, rendered his influence and power so great that during twenty years he obliged several Pashas who would not yield to his counsels and designs to quit the town. He never would accept of the repeated offers made by the Porte to raise him to the Pashalik. His interests were in some measure supported by the corps of Janissaries; who in Aleppo, as in other Turkish towns, constitute the regular military force of the Porte; but until that period their chiefs had been without the smallest weight in the management of public affairs. One of Tshelebi’s household officers, Ibrahim Beg, had meanwhile been promoted, through the friends of his patron at Constantinople, to the first dignities in the town. He was made Mut­sellim (vice governor), and Mohassel (chief custom house officer), and after the death of Tshelebi, his power devolved upon Ibrahim. This was in 1786.

Kussa Pasha, a man of probity and talents, was sent at that time as Pasha to Aleppo. Being naturally jealous of Ibrahim Beg’s influence, he endeavoured to get possession of his person, by ordering him to be detained during a visit, made by Ibrahim to compliment the Pasha upon his arrival, for a debt which Ibrahim owed to a foreign merchant, who had preferred his complaints to the Pasha’s tribunal. Ibrahim paid the debt, and was no sooner out of the Pasha’s immediate reach, than he engaged Ahmed Aga (one of the present Janissary chiefs), to enter with him into a formal league against Kussa. The Janissaries, together with Ibrahim’s party, attacked the Pasha’s troops; who after several days fighting, were driven out of the town, and Ibrahim was soon afterwards named Pasha of three tails, and for the first time Pasha of Aleppo. From that period (1788-89) may be dated the power of the Janissaries. Ibrahim had been the cause of their rising into consideration, but he soon found that their party was acquiring too much strength; he therefore deemed it necessary to countenance the Sherifs, and being a man of great talents, he governed and plundered the town, by art­fully opposing the two parties to each other. In the year 1789, Ibrahim was nominated to the Pashalik of Damascus. Sherif Pasha, a man of ordinary capacity, being sent to Aleppo, the Janissaries soon usurped the powers of government.

At the time of the French invasion of Egypt, the intrigues of Djezzar Pasha of Akka drove Ibrahim from his post at Damascus, and he was obliged to follow the Grand Vizir’s army into Egypt. When after the campaign of Egypt the Grand Vizir with the remains of his army, was approaching Aleppo upon his return to Constantinople, Ibrahim conceived hopes of regaining his lost seat at Aleppo. Through the means of his son Mohammed Beg, then Mobassei, the Janissaries were persuaded that the Vizir had evil intentions against them, forged letters were produced to that effect, and the whole body of Janissaries left the town before the Vizir’s arrival in its neighbourhood. Their flight gave Ibrahim the sought for opportunity to represent the fugitives to the Vizir as rebels afraid to meet their master’s pre­sence; they were shortly afterwards, by a Firmahn from the Porte, formally proscribed as rebels, and the killing of any of them who should enter the territory of Aleppo was declared lawful. They had retired to Damascus, Latikia, Tripoli, and the mountains of the Druses, and they spared no money to get the edict of their exile rescinded. After a tedious bargain for the price of their pardon, they succeeded at last in obtaining it, on condition of paying one hundred thousand piastres into the Sultan’s treasury. Ibrahim Pasha, who had in the meanwhile regained the Pashalik of Aleppo, was to receive that sum from them, and he had so well played his game, that the Janissaries still thought him their secret friend. The principal chiefs, trusting to Ibrahim’s assurances, came to the town for the purpose of paying down the money; they were a few days afterwards arrested, and it was generally believed that Ibrahim would order them the same night to be strangled. In Turkey however, there are always hopes as long as the purse is not exhausted. The prisoners en­gaged Mohammed, Ibrahim’s beloved son, to intercede in their favour; they paid him for that service one thousand zequins in advance, and promised as much more: and he effectually extorted from his father a promise not to kill any of them. It is said that Ibrahim foretold his son that the time would come when he would repent of his intercession. A short time afterwards Ibrahim was nominated a second time to the Pashalik of Damascus, which became vacant by Djezzar’s death, in 1804. His prisoners were obliged to follow him to Da­mascus; from whence they found means to open a correspondence with the Emir Beshir, the chief of the Druses, and to prevail upon him to use all his interest with Ibrahim to effect their deliverance. Ibrahim stood at that time in need of the Emir’s friendship; he had received orders from the Porte to seize upon Djezzar’s treasures at Akka, and to effect this the co-operation of the Druse chief was absolutely necessary. Upon the Emir’s reiterated applications, the prisoners were at last liberated.

When Ibrahim Pasha removed to Damascus, he procured the Pashalik of Aleppo for his son Mohammed Pasha, a man who possesses in a high degree the qualification so necessary in a delegate of the Porte, of understanding how to plunder his subjects. The chief of a Sherif family, Ibn Hassan Aga Khalas (who has since entered into the corps of the Janissaries, and is now one of their principal men), was the first who resolved to oppose open force to his mea­sures; he engaged at first only seven or eight other families to join him, and it was with this feeble force that the rebellion broke out which put an end to the Pasha’s government. The confederates began by knocking down the Pasha’s men in the streets wherever they met them, Janissaries soon assembled from all quarters to join Hassan’s party; and between two or three hundred Deli Bashi or regular troops of the Pasha were massacred in the night in their own habitations, to which the rebels found access from the neighbouring ter­races or flat roofs. Still the Pasha’s troops would have subdued the insurgents had it not been for the desperate bravery of Hassan Aga. After several months daily fighting in the streets, in which the Pasha’s troops had thrown up entrenchments, want of food began to be sensibly felt in the part of the city which his adherents occupied near the Serai, a very spa­cious building now in ruins. He came therefore to the resolution of abandoning the city. At Mohammed’s request a Tartar was sent, from Constantinople, with orders enjoining him to march against Berber, governor of Tripoli, who had been declared a rebel. Having thus co­vered the disgrace of his defeat, he marched out of Aleppo in the end of 1804, but instead of proceeding to Tripoli, he established his head quarters at Sheikh Abou Beker, a monastery of Derwishes situated upon an elevation only at one mile’s distance from Aleppo, where he recruited his troops and prepared himself to besiege the town. His affairs, however, took a more favourable turn upon the arrival of a Kapidgi Bashi or officer of the Porte from Constantinople, who carried with him the most positive orders that Mohammed Pasha should remain governor of Aleppo, and be acknowledged as such by the inhabitants, The Kapidgi’s persuasions, as well as the Sultan’s commands, which the Janissaries did not dare openly to disobey, brought on a compromise, in consequence of which the Pasha re-entered the city. So far he had gained his point, but he soon found himself in his palace without friends or influence; the Janissaries were heard to declare that every body who should visit him would be looked upon as a spy; on Fridays alone, the great people paid him their visit in a body. The place meanwhile was governed by the chiefs of the Janissaries and the Sherifs. At length the Pasha succeeded, by a secret nightly correspondence, to detach the latter from the Janissaries, who were gaining the ascendancy. The Sherifs are the natural supporters of government in this country; most of the villages round Aleppo were then in their posses­sion, they command the landed interests, all the Aleppo grandees of ancient families, and all the Ulemas and Effendis belong to their body, and the generality of them have received some education, while out of one hundred Janissaries, there are scarcely five who know how to read or to write their own names. The civil war now broke out afresh, and Mohammed had again the worst of it. After remaining three months in the town, he returned to his former encampment at Sheikh Abou Beker, from whence he assisted his party in the town who had taken possession of the castle and several mosques. This warfare lasted nearly two years without any considerable losses on either side. The Sherifs were driven out of the mosques, but defended themselves in the castle.

Generally, the people of Aleppo, Janissaries as well as Sherifs, are a cowardly race. The former never ventured to meet the Pasha’s troops on the outside of their walls, the latter did not once sally forth from the castle, but contented themselves with firing into the town, and principally against Bankousa, a quarter exclusively inhabited by Janissaries. The Pasha on his side would have ordered his Arnaouts to take the town by assault, had not his own party been jealous of his military power, and apprehensive of the fury of an assaulting army, for which reason they constantly endeavoured to prevent any vigorous attack, promising that they would alone bring the enemy to terms. After nearly two years fighting, during which time a considerable part of the town was laid in ruins, the Pasha with the Sherifs were on the point of succeeding, and compelling the Janissaries to surrender. The chiefs of the Ja­nissaries had applied to the European Consuls for their mediation between them and the Pasha, the conditions of their surrender were already drawn up, and in a few days more their power in Aleppo would probably have been for ever annihilated by a treacherous infraction of the capitulation, when, by a fortunate mistake, a Tartar, sent from Constantinople to Mohammed, entered the town, instead of taking his packet to Sheikh Abou Beker; the Janissaries opened the dispatches, and found them to contain a Firmahn, by which Mohammed Pasha was recalled from his Pashalik of Aleppo. This put an end to the war; Mohammed dismissed the greater part of his troops and retired: the Janissaries came to a compromise with the Sherifs in the castle, and have since that time been absolute masters of the city.

I cannot omit mentioning that during the whole of the civil war, the persons and pro­perty of the Franks were rigidly respected. It sometimes happened that parties of Sherifs and Janissaries skirmishing in the Bazars, left off firing by common consent, when a Frank was seen passing, and that the firing from the Minarets ceased, when Franks passed over their flat roofs from one house to another. The Janissaries have this virtue in the eyes of the Franks, that they are not in the smallest degree fanatical; the character of a Sherif is quite the contrary, and whenever religious disputes happen, they are always excited and sup­ported by some greenhead.

Since the removal of Mohammed Pasha the Porte has continued to nominate his succes­sors; but the name of Pasha of Aleppo is now nothing more than a vain title. His first successor was Alla eddin Pasha, a near relation of Sultan Selim: then Waledin Pasha, Othman Pasha Darukly, Ibrahim Pasha, a third time, and the present governor Seruri Moham­med Pasha. Except the last, who is now in the Grand Vizir’s camp near Constantinople they have all resided at Aleppo, but they occupied the Serai more like state prisoners than governors. They never were able to carry the most trifling orders into effect, without feeing in some way or other the chiefs of the Ja[n]issaries to grant their consent.

The corps of Janissaries, or the Odjak of Aleppo, was formerly divided, as in other Turkish towns, into companies or Ortas, but since the time of their getting into power, they have ceased to submit to any regular discipline: they form a disorderly body of from three to four thousand men, and daily increase their strength and number by recruits from the Sherifs. Those who possess the greatest riches, and whose family and friends are the most numerous, are looked upon as their chiefs, though they are unable to exercise any kind of discipline. Of these chiefs there are at present six principal ones, who have succeeded in sharing the most lucrative branches of the revenue, and what seems almost incredible, they have for the last six years preserved harmony amongst themselves; Hadji Ibrahim Ibn Herbely is at this moment the richest and most potent of them all.

The legal forms of Government have not been changed, and the Janissaries outwardly profess to be the dutiful subjects of the Porte. The civil administration is nominally in the hands of the Mutsellim, who is named by the Pasha and confirmed by the Porte. the Kadhi presides in the court of justice, and the Mohassel or chief custom house officer is [a]llowed to perform his functions in the name of his master, but the Mutsellim dares not en­force any orders from the Porte nor the Kadhi decide any law suit of importance, without being previously sure of the consent of some of the chief Janissaries. The revenue which the grand Signior receives at this moment from Aleppo is limited to the Miri, or general land­tax, which the Janissaries themselves pay, the Kharatsh or tribute of the Christians and Jews, and the income of the custom house, which is now rented at the yearly rate of eighty thou­sand piastres. Besides these there are several civil appointments in the town, which are sold every year at Constantinople to the highest bidder: the Janissaries are in the possession of the most lucrative of them, and remit regularly to the Porte the purchase money. The outward decorum which the Janissaries have never ceased to observe towards the Porte is owing to their fear of offending public opinion, so as to endanger their own security. The Porte, on the other hand, has not the means of subduing these rebels, established as their power now is, without calling forth all her resources and ordering an army to march against them, from Constantinople. The expense of such an enterprize would hardly be counter­balanced by the profits of its success; for the Janissaries, pushed to extremities, would leave the town and find a secure retreat for themselves and their treasures in the mountains of the Druses: both parties therefore endeavour to avoid an open rupture; it is well known that the chief Janissaries send considerable presents to Constantinople to appease their master’s anger, and provided the latter draws supplies for his pressing wants, no matter how or from whence, the insults offered to his supreme authority are easily overlooked.

The Janissaries chiefly exercise their power with a view to the filling of their purses. Every inhabitant of Aleppo, whether Turk or Christian, provided he be not himself a Janis­sary, is obliged to have a protector among them to whom he applies in case of need, to arrange his litigations, to enforce payment from his creditors, and to protect him from the vexations and exactions of other Janissaries. Each protector receives from his client a sum proportionate to the circumstances of the client’s affairs. It varies from twenty to two thousand piastres a year, besides which, whenever the protector terminates an im­portant business to the client’s wishes, he expects some extraordinary reward. If two pro­tectors happen to be opposed to each other on account of their clients, the more powerful of the two sometimes carries the point, or if they are equal in influence, they endeavour to settle the business by compromise, in such a way as to give to justice only half its due. Those Janissaries, who have the greatest number of clients are of course the richest, and command the greatest influence. But these are not the only means which the Janissaries employ to extort money. They monopolize the trade of most of the articles of consump­tion, (which have risen in consequence, to nearly double the price which they bore six years ago), as well as of several of the manufactures of Aleppo; upon others they levy heavy taxes; in short their power is despotic and oppressive; yet they have hitherto abstained from making, like the Pashas, avanies upon individuals by open force, and it is for that reason that the greater part of the Aleppines do not wish for the return of a Pasha. Though the Janissaries extort from the public, by direct and indirect means, more than the Pashas ever did by their avanies, each individual discharges the burthen imposed upon him more rea­dily, because he is confident that it insures the remainder of his fortune; in the Pasha’s time, living was cheaper, and regular taxes not oppressive; but the Pasha would upon the most frivolous pretexts order a man of property to be thrown into prison and demand the sacrifice of one fourth of his fortune to grant him his deliverance. Notwithstanding the immense income of the chief Janissaries, they live poorly, without indulging themselves in the usual luxuries of Turks-women and horses. Their gains are hoarded in gold coin, and it is easy to calculate, such is the publicity with which all sort of business is conducted, that the yearly income of several of them cannot amount to less than thirty or forty thousand pounds sterling.

It is necessary to have lived for some time among the Turks, and to have experienced the mildness and peacefulness of their character, and the sobriety and regularity of their habits, to conceive it possible that the inhabitants of a town like Aleppo, should continue to live for years without any legal master, or administration of justice, protected only by a miserable guard of police, and yet that the town should be a safe and quiet residence. No disorders, or nightly tumults occur; and instances of murder and robbery are extremely rare. If serious quarrels sometimes happen, it is chiefly among the young Janissaries heated with brandy and amorous passion, who after sunset fight their rivals at the door of some prostitute. This precarious security is however enjoyed only within the walls of the city; the whole neighbourhood of Aleppo is infested by obscure tribes of Arab and Kurdine robbers, who through the negligence of the Janissaries, acquire every day more insolence and more confidence in the success of their enterprises. Caravans of forty or fifty camels have in the course of last win­ter been several times attacked and plundered at five hundred yards from the city gate, not a week passes without somebody being ill-treated and stripped in the gardens near the town; and the robbers have even sometimes taken their night’s rest in one of the suburbs of the city, and there sold their cheaply acquired booty. In the time of Ibrahim Pasha, the neigh­bourhood of Aleppo to the distance of four or five hours, was kept in perfect security from all hostile inroads of the Arabs, by the Pasha’s cavalry guard of Deli Bashi. But the Janis­saries are very averse from exposing themselves to danger; there is moreover no head among them to command, no common purse to pay the necessary expences, nor any individual to whose hands the public money might be trusted.

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:56