Arab Rebellion

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Wars of Ill Bethisad
War logo2.gif
Name(s):Arab Rebellion
Start of hostilities:June 1916
End of hostilities:October 1918
Winning side:Losing side:
Hijaaz flag.gif
Arab rebels
Early ottoman flag.GIF
Ottoman Empire
Resulting treaty/treaties:
Major consequences:Independence of the Hashemite Kingdom of the Hijaaz, inspiration for the following rebellions against Ottoman rule


In the beginning of the 20th century the Ottoman Empire was in decay. Central power was getting weak while local and regional leaders combined with growing nationalisms were getting stronger.

In West Arabia the Hashemite noble family was for centuries the traditional keeper of the holy Muslim cities, Mecca and Medina. With the Ottoman conquest both shared the rule, the Hashemites were kept ruling over the Holy Cities while the Ottomans were supposed to protect the pilgrimage routes which also became important trade routes.

With the Ottoman decay and the need to send troops to the First Great War the routes tended to be neglected and soon they became rather unsafe. Every year the number of hajji, Muslim pilgrims, decreased and so did the trade. As a result the Holy Cities also entered into decay causing growing discontentment among the local powers and average population.

Hussayn bin Ali

By that time Hussayn bin Ali was the grand sherif, the keeper of the Holy Cities. In time his discontentment made him criticise openly the imperial power and, as the years went by, he even became quite hostile.

The Ottoman sultan, tired of Hussayn’s criticisms, sent General Ahmet Cemal Paşa who deposed, arrested and executed him on 8 June 1916. The general was put in the position of grand sherif, the first one neither an Arab nor a member of the Hashemite family.

Such a situation was much disliked by the local population which spontaneously started a riot. The general replied with brutal repression making things even worse. The Arab Rebellion had started.

Faisal bin Hussayn

Hussayn’s eldest son, Faisal, led the Hashemites, their private army and some followers out of Mecca to hide in the desert. From there they started guerrilla actions against the Ottomans and soon Faisal became the most wanted man in the empire, dead or alive.

In late June 1916 Faisal met the major Bedouin clan leaders in a secret location and they recognised him as the legitimate Grand Sherif and all agreed to start fighting against the Ottoman rule. At this point they were not intent on gaining independence, just restoring the Hashemites in the Holy Cities. Soon the rebellion spread all over the Hijaaz and also to parts of the present-day Bedouin Free State and Syria, where part of the Hashemite family lived.

Foreign support

At this time the Ottoman Empire was also at war with the Allied Powers in the First Great War. The Federated Kingdoms, especially, soon understood how important the Arab Rebellion was, since protecting the Suez Canal and keeping the Ottomans far from it was a major priority. Supporting the rebelling Arabs became logical.

The Federated Kingdoms immediately sent a young Kemrese officer who was very familiar with the Arab culture and territories, Captain Tomos Edwardd Llawrent, later known as Llawrent di Arabia.

Llawrent and Faisal were much impressed with each other and they became close friends. The rebellion leader even gave to Llawrent the command of an irregular army for fighting the Ottomans. This army proved to be extremely effective and Llawrent gained trust and admiration among the Arabs.

Theatre of operations

The guerrilla actions kept going with foreign support of weapons unloaded on west Arabian shores, replacing the Arabs’ outdated rifles and furnishing them also with cannons. The rebels were able to inflict many casualties among the Ottoman Turks resulting in consecutive military victories.

The Hijaaz railway, the major connection to the outside, became an important target of the rebels and was constantly attacked and damaged. The supplies to the Ottoman garrisons were often lost resulting in Ottoman military weakness.

Under the command of Faisal and Llawrent the rebels were able to expel the Ottomans from parts of present-day Bedouin Free State in 1917, although other areas were kept under Ottoman indirect domination, thanks to the actions of the pro-Ottoman Rashidi forces from Hail Oasis. The Ottoman forces replied often by brutality wiping out several Arab villages which were suspected of supporting the rebellion.

The Ottoman reaction was made known to the world by war correspondents who were following Llawrent’s army and gave the impression that the Arabs were victims of a genocide. But the correspondents often said nothing of how the Arab rebels persecuted the small Turkish community in Hijaaz. There also were no words about the massacre in Aqaba in July 1917, in which the rebels executed more than one thousand Ottoman unarmed war prisoners. A small group of rebels had conquered the port of Aqaba. The local garrison probably thought the attacking rebels had a much larger force than they did (there were only 100 rebels). They surrendered and were made war prisoners. When the Ottoman reinforcements besieged Aqaba, the Arab rebels were afraid their prisoners would start a rebellion and, as they could not control all of them they executed them with swords so as not to waste ammunition.

In September 1918, the Ottoman forces suffered a heavy defeat in the Battle of Megiddo, in the Levant, by a coalition of troops from the Federated Kingdoms and Egypt. This was a great help for the rebels commanded by Llawrent and Faisal who were able to overcome Damascus, Syria, on 30 September 1918.

Then the two commanders turned south to the Hijaaz, where they found just a small and unorganised Ottoman resistance because of their isolation from the outside. In October 1918 they entered Mecca while the Ottoman forces retreated. Faisal then proclaimed the independence of the Hashemite Kingdom of the Hijaaz with him as king and grand sherif. The Arab Rebellion was over.

Judea and Lebanon

While the rebels all belonged to a single nationality, the Arabs, the Ottoman forces were multinational. Beside Turks there was a great number of soldiers from other Ottoman-ruled nations, notably Judeans and Lebanese Druzes. For these there was a growing resentment that the Arab Rebellion (as well as the First Great War) was not their concern and that they were being used by the Ottoman rulers for purposes foreign to them. In fact in Judea and Lebanon most of the population was not Muslim so fighting to control the Holy Cities of Islam was something meaningless.

In the Levantine states there was still a certain national consciousness from their pre-Ottoman dominance period since Ottoman rule allowed them to keep some of the local infrastructures related to their own civil life. In fact these peoples never found themselves really "Ottomanized" as the Ottoman power usually used to respect the dominated nations' cultures. Judea and Lebanon (as well as Syria at a lower level) had an important well-educated urban class helped by a developed local press and by a reasonable economic stability and prosperity and so the nationalist idea easily spread. The local press, especially, made an important contribution to make the average people supporting claims in order to locals would rule their own affairs.

Judean and Lebanese nationalisms started to grow and soon voices appeared proclaiming the independence of Judea and Lebanon. As usual the imperial Ottoman power replied with repression which only gave more strength to their nationalist cause.

But Judeans and Lebanese did not rebel at that time. They continued to watch the rebellion to see how it would end so they could plan their own later.


The Hijaaz was the first Middle East state to split from the decaying Ottoman Empire. The Arab Rebellion was a major inspiration to the following rebellions in 1920-22 in which several of the Arab, as well as non-Arab, countries in the region became independent.

The Arab Rebellion flag, a red triangle with three horizontal bars (from top to bottom, black, white and green), became the flag of the Hijaaz and also the inspiration for several other Arab countries’ flags in the Middle East.

Faisal became recognised as the most important living Arab leader and still is considered to be one of the most important during the 20th century. He gave help to the other rebellions in Arab countries against Ottoman rule and attempted to unify those under the ideal of Pan-Arabism. He also intended to institute the Hashemite Caliphate which would be a new large country with him as caliph. This never happened as the Federated Kingdoms were afraid that a new large state in the Middle East would threaten its positions and interests in the region.

Faisal and the Hashemite family kept their good relations and their alliance with the Federated Kingdoms. When the Federated Kingdoms was forced to move away from the State of Iraaq, also known as the Mesopotamian Mandate, it gave to its greatest ally in the region, Faisal, the rule of the newly independent country on August 1921. Iraaq was joined in a personal union with the Hijaaz during the next 37 years as the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraaq. The alliance between the Federated Kingdoms and the Hijaaz still remains today.

Historians’ viewpoints

Most historians tend to consider the Arab Rebellion as one of the many chapters of the First Great War. But some, although recognising its connection with that larger conflict, consider that it was much more related to the long dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, which started in 1863 with the independence of Greece).

But they are all unanimous in considering the rebellion as the first great historical event of the 20th century in Arab history.

The Arab Rebellion in popular culture

War correspondents that followed the Arab Rebellion, most particularly Llawrent’s actions, made the Rebellion known worldwide. They also contributed to making Llawrent a national hero as well as popularising the romantic stereotype of the free, fearless and heroic Bedouin.

This influenced directly a new genre of literature and film making known as ffithiwn arab (brithenig for Arab fiction) which appeared first in Kemr during the 1920’s. It was a time when travelling to other continents was becoming popular and readers were becoming interested in exotic lands.

This genre remained popular until the 1950’s when a new generation of reforming Arab leaders, who were rather hostile to European countries (notably Gamal Abdel Nasser and Abdul Karim Qassim among others), appeared.

Novels and movies of this genre were divided mainly into war stories (directly influenced by the events of the Arab Rebellion) and romantic stories (the well known usual plot of the European or American woman who falls in love with a desert sheik).