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Labib Mansour 15 Nov 2022

Historical Snapshot: The Second Time Russia Occupied Beirut

Another edition of our historical snapshot series, bringing you little-known stories from our history.

Russia occupied Beirut twice between 1772 and 1774, and while the first occupation was just for a mere 5 days, the second occupation lasted a little bit longer.

We continue our story with the rebel leader Ali Bey al Kabir. Having lost control of Egypt, he had joined his ally al-Umar in the Levant, pillaging and pleading with the Russians to return. After leaving Beirut to Emir Youssef Chehab, the Russians attempted to tactically withdraw from the rebellion, offering al Kabir gold, furs, and “support,” but no actual force. Al Kabir was not convinced, constantly urging the Russians to return and even supposedly offering Jerusalem and other holy sites to the Tsarita in exchange.

Russia was itself in a four month ceasefire with Istanbul, and continued to only support Ali Bey al Kabir symbolically. Still, the Russians would offer limited military support to the rebellion during 1772-1773, often ending up on the losing side.

In March of 1773, the Russians promised al Kabir that they would finally be sending a large fleet to support him, but he had become disillusioned with their promises. So Ali Bey al Kabir embarked to Egypt by himself, planning to recapture it and defeat the traitor Abu Dahahab. Having heard rumors of dissent and defection in the Egyptian army, al Kabir set out with a small force to convince them to join his side. The rumors turned out to be fake, planted to lure him in, and he was captured and eventually poisoned.

In June of 1773, the large fleet that was promised finally arrived at Acre, unaware of al Kabir’s demise. When they found out of the changes that occurred in the region, they were confused at what to do next. Despite al Kabir’s defeat, Zahir al Umar was still growing strong in the Levant.

In Beirut, Emir Youssef Chehab had placed the city under the administration of Ahmad al-Jazzar. But there had been a growing split between the two, with the relationship finally breaking down when al-Jazzar declared that he only recognised the Sultan as his ruler. This led Emir Chehab to go back to al-Umar and ask for an alliance, alongside the Russians, against al-Jazzar.

The Russian fleet, led by Kozhuchov, arrived in Beirut again, but this time on the side of the Druze emir. The fleet arrived at Beirut on July 6, 1773 but Kozhuchov demanded 300,000 qirsh from the emir for the capture of Beirut. He insisted that the payment be immediate, but the emir refused to pay the price until the city was delivered to him. In order to reach a resolution, the emir gave the Russians a hostage to satisfy their concerns.

On August 2, the Russians began bombing Beirut. The shelling was so intense some claimed they could hear it all the way to Damascus. The Russians also deployed artillery onto the land and managed to break the city’s walls, but the forces of Chehab refused to invade, citing how the Russians had to deliver the city themselves. So Kozhuchov decided to starve the city.

After two months of bombing and starvation, al-Jazzar surrendered. While the Russians had initially planned to hand the city back to the emir, payment was not received. Thus, a troop of 300 Albanian mercenaries were left in charge of the city in October 1773, with the Muscovite flag being raised above its walls. A portrait of empress Catherine was also erected, and passersby were forced to show reverence to it. The troops eventually left in February 1774 with payment finally received, and Russia would eventually make peace with the Ottomans in July 1774, abandoning its allies in the Levant.

So for a period of five months between October 1773 and February 1774, Beirut was ruled by Russia.