Fahreddin Pasha: Ottoman commander who refused to surrender Medina

HAMZA KARCIC
Published
Fahreddin Pasha inspects his troops during World War I.
Fahreddin Pasha inspects his troops during World War I.

It has been a century since the holy lands - Mecca and Medina - were lost by the Ottoman Empire but the Turks and the Islamic world have not forgotten the heroic commander who defended the city until the last minute, risking his life to protect the holy artifacts

With a single retweet in December 2017, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) did more than many to revive interest in a World War I-era Ottoman officer, Fahreddin Pasha. Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan retweeted a post that accused the Ottoman commander in Medina, Fahreddin Pasha, of stealing the city's property including manuscripts. "These are [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan's ancestors and their history with Arab Muslims" stated the post. This provoked a strong reaction from top Turkish officials including President Erdoğan. Subsequently, two streets around the UAE's embassy in Ankara were renamed "Defender of Medina Street" and "Fahreddin Pasha Street."

Fahreddin Pasha is a respected figure in Turkey. Following the Ottoman Empire's surrender with the Mudros Armistice on Oct. 30, 1918, the Hejaz region and other lands were to be handed over to the British. In 1916, appointed commander of Medina, Fahreddin Pasha, refused to surrender the city of the Prophet Muhammad. He held out until January 1919, becoming the last Ottoman commander to lose territory. He had previously managed to send to the capital sacred relics from the holy city.

This November marks the 100th anniversary of his defiant stand in Medina and the 70th anniversary of his death.

Born in 1868 in Rusçuk (Ruse on the Danube river in today's Bulgaria), Fahreddin Pasha graduated from the War Academy and served in a number of posts before being appointed to the Hejaz. He arrived in Medina when the Arab revolt in the summer of 1916 broke out. The revolt had been supported by the British who promised the rebels an independent Arab state. Capturing Mecca and Medina from the Ottoman authorities was exceptionally important for the rebels. The two holy cities had been in Ottoman hands since the early 16th century. Since then, Ottoman sultans had derived their authority as caliphs through the control and protection of Mecca and Medina.

It was also for this reason that Fahreddin Pasha was adamant about defending Medina. The city was the last stop on the Hejaz railway and managed to get logistical support by this means until early 1918. From then on, the situation in Medina became dire. Following the surrender of the Ottoman Empire in October 1918, the pressure from the British, the Istanbul government and internally in the city on Fahreddin Pasha to give up, piled on. The Ottoman pasha declared that he would hold out until he received a direct order from the sultan and caliph to surrender. The end came in January 1919 when Fahreddin Pasha was apprehended and the city of Medina fell.

Fahreddin Pasha's story is well-known in Turkey but much less abroad. Works about him published in English are rare. S. Tanvir Wasti, Martin Strohmeier and Alia El Bakri are authors that have published studies on Fahreddin Pasha's defense of Medina. A documentary in English on the pasha would go a long way toward making this chapter of Ottoman and Middle Eastern history reach a wider audience.

This November, I paid a visit to the tomb of Fahreddin Pasha. Located in the historical Aşiyan Cemetery overlooking the Bosporus; it is a short stroll from Boğaziçi University's south campus to the Bebek district. Employees of the cemetery eagerly showed Fahreddin Pasha's final resting place. Later in the day, I inquired in Beyazıt's Sahaflar Çarşısı about books on the commander of defense of Medina. The reactions from Aşiyan and Sahaflar Çarşısı were indicative of the respect that the pasha enjoys. His defiant act of 1918-1919 still resonates a hundred years later. For all his military career, it is this two month period of his life that marked him in history. Fahreddin Pasha's legacy is best summed up by the epitaph on his headstone: "Medinenin Kahraman Müdafii" - the Heroic Defender of Medina.

* Hamza Karcic is Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Sarajevo.

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