The Muslim-Christian Riots of 1860 Damascus

Dr Rana Abu-Mounes
University of Aberdeen

On 9 July 1860 CE, an outbreak of violence occurred in Damascus that focused the attention of the whole world on that city. Damascus, the multi-religious and multi-ethnic city, witnessed unprecedented bloody riots between its locals. A crowd which consisted of Druzes, Bedouins, the lower class people of the city, and Kurdish auxiliaries attacked Bab Tuma, the inner-city Christian quarter in Damascus. In the course of a few days, thousands of Christians were killed. That riot was a big shock to the Ottoman authority, the foreign powers, and the Damascene society.

Each of these groups tried to look for answers to discover what had happened, why it had happened, who had done it and how things had led up to that bloody ending. It is perhaps easy to explain the 1860 riot of Damascus as religious fanaticism since the aggressors were Muslims and the victims Christians. However, it is a noteworthy fact that the Christians of Damascus lived in two main quarters inside the wall which surrounded the city: Bab Tuma and Bab Sharqi. They also used to live outside the wall, in the southern quarter, Al-Midan, and in its sub-quarters where Muslims were the majority. The 1860 riot was restricted to only one quarter: Bab Tuma. If the riot of 1860 was anti-Christian in nature, as many tend to believe, one would expect the Muslim rioters to have attacked all Christians in the vicinity. The question that begs to be asked then is why did the crowd not attack the Christians in Bab Sharqi or those living in Al-Midan? In other words, why did the Muslims direct their anger mainly towards the Christians of Bab Tuma and not towards any other Christians in other parts of the city?

A critical study of how the rioters proceeded and of the selective nature of the choice of victims warrants a critical reconsideration of the underlying factors. This study deconstructs the multiple layers of this particular conflict that had a radical impact on the multi-ethnic and multi-religious society of Damascus. It provides a step-by-step presentation and reproduction of the facts to assess the true role of all the players and shapers of events. It gives much attention to the role of both Ottoman and local authorities in Damascus throughout the development of the riot. It critically examines the internal and external politico-socio-economic factors involved. This research argues that economic interests rather than religious fanaticism were the main causes for the riot of 1860. Furthermore, it argues that the riot was not a sudden eruption but rather a planned and organised affair.