May 6 is a public holiday called “Martyrs’ Day” in Lebanon, as well as in neighbouring Syria. It solemnly commemorates the execution of Lebanese and Syrian nationalists by Ottoman Empire authorities in the year 1916.
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Beginning in the early 1500’s, the Ottoman Turks took control of Lebanon and kept their hold on it for over 400 years. The Ottomans also ruled Syria and combined both Syria and Lebanon in a single province called “Greater Syria”.
Beginning in 1908, nationalist leaders in Lebanon and Syria began to be active and push for independence. It was a part of the Arab nationalist movement that was sweeping the whole Mideast at the time.
But when governor Jamal Pasha, affectionately nicknamed “The Butcher”, decided to crack down on “anti-Turkish” meetings and activities in Greater Syria, he arrested 21 Arabs and had them summarily executed in Beirut and Damascus simultaneously. They were the martyrs of “Martyrs’ Day”.
But these first 21 martyrs inspired others to become martyrs for freedom too, for it sparked a revolt in 1916 that led to independence for both Lebanon and Syria in 1918.
The site of the execution in Beirut, Burj Square, was renamed Martyrs’ Square, and the execution site in Damascus was correspondingly renamed Martyrs’ Square. Both countries celebrate the holiday at the same time, with each country’s president overseeing a ceremony at a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.