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Arabs under Tsarist Rule

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The Russian Occupation of Beirut, 1773–1774

image of Russian History

The brief and little known Russian occupation of the Levantine port of Beirut in 1773–1774 reveals much about the nature of Russian engagement with the Arab Middle East. Rather than passing as an insignificant episode, it instead complemented a well documented Russian desire to play an expanded role in the Levant and take advantage of Catherine II’s first war with the Ottoman empire (1768–1774) to establish forward positions in the Mediterranean. Alongside the Russian naval victory at Chesme in July 1770, Russia accepted alliance overtures from Egypt’s Mameluk governor Ali Bey, who was in rebellion against the Ottoman Sultan. In a complicated series of diplomatic and military maneuvers, Russian forces offered to aid Ali and his allies. By 1773 this process came to involve an agreement with the Druze Emir Yusuf al-Shihab, who accepted Russian protection as part of a military alliance that called for a Russian attack on Beirut in exchange for tribute. Yusuf’s inability to pay the tribute led to a prolonged Russian presence in Beirut, but the situation’s eventual resolution and the Kücük Kainardja peace treaty of 1774 led to the Russians’ departure. Despite the episode’s brevity, it nevertheless allowed for the development of pronounced Russian intentions to create favorable relationships with the peoples and leaders of the Levant. The Russian relationship with Yusuf and other local potentates, moreover, mirrored Russia’s interactions with peoples and leaders on its vast steppe frontier, indicating another axis of imperial advance.

Affiliations: 1: The American University of Beirut,


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