‘A man may find Naples or Palermo merely pretty,’ James Elroy Flecker, one-time British vice-consul in Beirut, wrote in October 1914, ‘but the deeper violet, the splendour and desolation of the Levant waters, is something that drives into the soul.’ A month later, Russia, Britain and France declared war on the Ottoman Empire in response to the Turkish fleet’s foolhardy bombardment of Odessa and Sevastopol. Throughout Ottoman lands, where they had for centuries exercised considerable influence, consular staff from the Allied states departed their posts. Flecker died of tuberculosis barely a year later, aged 30, in the Swiss Alps, leaving behind a few dreamy letters and poems like ‘The Golden Journey to Samarkand’. François Georges-Picot, a French consular officer in Beirut, also withdrew after war was declared. His legacy was a packet of letters implicating local notables in a conspiracy to detach Syria from the Ottoman Empire. Georges-Picot had lodged his papers at the American consulate and a dragoman there turned the evidence over to the new Turkish military governor, Jemal Pasha. Jemal had the 25 Christian and Muslim plotters tried for treason, found guilty, and hanged, some in Damascus and the rest in Beirut on the site of what would subsequently be called, in their honour, Martyrs’ Square.
LRB 8 March 2012 | PDF Download