Memories and commemorations of World War I (1914-1918) in the Middle East provide case studies of the productive tension between memory and the state. Is memory different from the official versions of history constructed by states? A refuge for personal experience that offers an antidote to totalitarian propaganda? Or, do states and political forces structure individual acts of remembrance? Pierre Nora has famously characterized memory as “remnants of experience” that have been displaced by modern states, which “ceaselessly reinvent tradition” in their efforts to commemorate national history.[1] But while Nora sees memory and official history as opposing concepts, Amos Funkenstein argues that the two are structurally interrelated. For Funkenstein, the individual’s act of remembrance draws its meaning from a whole pre-existing system of signs, symbols, and practices; including memorial dates, place names, monuments, museums, flags, and even language itself.[2] Funkenstein calls this broader material system “collective memory.” According to this line of thinking, memory is not opposed to the totalizing discourses of the state, but is instead structured by, while itself structuring, the evolution of state institutions and social practices.[3]

In the Middle East, memories of World War I have been instrumentalized both by established states and by social movements seeking to oppose them. The war marked a watershed moment, as the Ottoman Empire that had dominated the region politically for centuries was dismantled and replaced by a new order. Diplomatic agreements and treaties from this period set the geographic boundaries of states we still recognize today. New national governments worked to construct collective memories of the war in order to build collective identities around new political entities. However, these official war memories were contested when social movements seeking to challenge the new political order produced counter-narratives from a variety of media that preserved non-official forms of war memory. This entry highlights the competition between official and non-official war memories in the former Ottoman Empire. It offers a general overview, surveying the secondary literature to focus on common themes in different states that emerged in the aftermath of World War I.


The years 1908-1923 were a tumultuous period in Ottoman/Turkish history. Although the War of Independence (1919-1922) was more important as a founding myth for the Turkish Republic, the new government also commemorated the World War I victory at Gallipoli.[4] Meanwhile, Turkish authorities went to great lengths to suppress the memory of the genocide the Ottomans had perpetrated against Armenians and Assyrian Christians. Witnesses to and victims of these violent campaigns kept memories of their experiences alive through oral culture and non-official media—memories that were later invoked by social movements seeking to challenge the Turkish state and build collective identities for diaspora communities.


Commemorating the victory at Gallipoli (Çanakkale) became important for constructing the cult of personality around Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938). In the Republican era Kemal became known for leading troops into battle at Suvla Bay (Anafartalar) in August 1915. The Committee for Cemetery Restoration (Şehitlikleri Īmar Cemiyeti) hired a boat called the Gülcemal and organized pilgrimages for Turks from Istanbul to the peninsula from 1930 onwards. Until his death in 1938, it was customary to send Kemal special celebratory telegrams during these commemorative events.[5] Since the 1980s, public memory of Gallipoli has been re-articulated to a broader national audience in a new “Turkish-Islamic synthesis,” and the battle of Gallipoli has been narrated as a defense of the faith against infidel invaders who sought to invade Islamic territory.[6] This oscillation between seeing the battle as the first victory of the nascent Turkish Republic and its national hero Mustafa Kemal on the one hand, and the last victory accomplished by the Muslim Ottomans against infidel western powers on the other hand, shows how public memory of the Battle of Gallipoli has been instrumentalized by state and social forces in contentious politics.[7]

Remembering and Forgetting the Armenian/Syriac Genocide

Whereas the victory at Çanakkale was commemorated, the Turkish government went to great lengths to suppress memories of the genocide it perpetrated during World War I. The Kemalist regime continued the CUP policy of effacing physical traces of Armenian and Syriac existence.[8] Kemal established the Turkish Historical Association (Türk Tarih Kurumu) in 1930, which propagated a new Turkish historiography while ignoring the multi-ethnic Ottoman past. Part of this project included a relative ignorance of World War I.[9] Memoirs and history books written by Armenian and Assyrian authors, as well as books covering the genocide in any way, were prohibited from entering Turkey.[10]

While the Turkish government has undertaken efforts to suppress memories of the genocide, witnesses to the campaigns have preserved their experiences through various non-official media. Historian Uğur Ümit Üngör has found that elderly Turks and Kurds in Eastern Turkey often hold vivid memories passed on orally by family members or fellow villagers who witnessed or participated in the genocide.[11] Furthermore, collective memory of the genocide among Armenian-Americans has been crucial in providing a cohesive group identity for ethnic interest groups like the Armenian Assembly of America and the Armenian National Committee of America, which have organized diaspora efforts at lobbying the international community to pressure the Turkish state to recognize the genocide.[12] Compared to Armenians, Syriac Christians have been relatively less successful at drawing international attention to the commemoration of their genocide. However, Assyrian activists—especially those in Western diaspora communities—have kept alive the memory of the genocide through the signing of songs, recitation of poems, and lamentations performed in public spaces or online.[13] By the time of the centennial anniversary, the Turkish and Armenian states backed competing narratives of the war in large, public commemorations.

Martyrs’ Day and the “Great Arab Revolt”

World War I saw a spike in anti-Ottoman agitation in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire, and many of these events were later seized upon as founding myths by the Arab nation-states that arose in the wake of the war. Ahmet Jamal Pasha’s (1872-1922) blockade of the Eastern Mediterranean resulted in a famine and plague that killed more than a quarter of the population in Syria and Lebanon.[14] Efforts by Arab nationalists to break the blockade led to public executions on 6 May 1916, when twenty-one Arabs—fourteen in Beirut and seven in Damascus—were killed. After the war, several Arab nation-states would commemorate 6 May as “Martyrs’ Day.”

At the same time, Husayn ibn ‘Ali al-Hashimi (1853-1931), the emir of Mecca, was leading a revolt against the Ottoman Empire with British assistance and encouragement. In what would come to be known as the “Great Arab Revolt,” Husayn’s third son, Faysal I, King of Iraq (1885-1933), led a contingent of Arabs against Jamal Pasha, linking up with the British in Palestine and taking Damascus on 1 October 1918. Faysal would rule as King of Greater Syria until the Franco-Syrian War (1920). At the Cairo Conference (1921), the British offered Faysal the Kingdom of Iraq in consolation for his defeat by the French and gave his older brother Abdullah, King of Jordan (1882-1951) the Kingdom of Jordan. All of these states commemorated the revolt in different ways and all adopted certain aspects of the battle flag of the revolt into their own national flags.[15]


During the short-lived reign of Faysal ibn Husayn in Greater Syria, he declared four national holidays, including the anniversary of the Arab Revolt (‘id al-thawra) on 27 April and Martyr’s Day (‘id al-shuhada’) on 6 May.[16] He also adopted the flag of the Great Arab Revolt as the new Syrian flag, adding a star in what would become a persistent feature of the national flag of Syria up to the present day.[17] To celebrate the Arab Revolt, official activity was suspended, public spaces were decorated with electric lights and national flags, and both military men and schoolchildren paraded through Damascus.[18] To celebrate Martyrs’ Day, Faysal renamed the execution sites in both Beirut and Damascus to “Martyrs’ Square” (sāḥat al-shuhada’) and held ceremonies at both places with eulogies for the martyrs and processions to lay wreaths on their graves.[19] In August 1920, Faysal was expelled from Damascus and the French Empire established their mandate over Syria and Lebanon, putting an end to the Hashemite calendar of official holidays in Syria. Historian Fruma Zachs has documented how, after the short-lived government of King Faysal in Syria, collective memory of the public executions at the hands of Jamal Pasha “gradually lost its specific reference to the victims of his rule, and has merged into a state discourse on martyrdom” during the French Mandate (1920-46) and the regime of Hafiz al-Assad (1930-2000).[20]


French authorities, in linking the formerly autonomous region of Mt. Lebanon with Ottoman territories to the east and west, created an entirely new political entity in Lebanon, and they established new official versions of war memory and commemoration as part of that process. They adopted 2 September as Martyrs’ Day, honoring “the memory of the French and Lebanese soldiers who died in World War I for the sake of Lebanon.”[21] But most Lebanese did not celebrate this “fake” holiday, instead considering 6 May as the “real” Martyrs’ Day, which was commemorated in an unofficial ceremony organized by a group called the Association for Honoring the Martyrs.[22] French and Lebanese forces continued to struggle over the commemoration until 1936, when the Lebanese interior minister was allowed to officially declare 6 May as Martyrs’ Day—an event that foreshadowed the conclusion of the Franco-Lebanese treaty later that year.[23] The struggle over Martyrs’ Day in Lebanon thus provides another example of social movements using unofficial versions of war memory to challenge the state, and in this instance, links the anti-colonial project of Lebanese nationalism to the larger discourse of Arab nationalism as it developed in the interwar period.


In 1921, Faysal ibn Husayn was established as the King of Iraq at the historic Cairo Conference. The following year, on 7 April 1922, corresponding to 9 Sha‘ban 1340 on the Islamic calendar, the new Iraqi state officially celebrated the anniversary of the Great Arab Revolt as “Independence Day” (‘id al-istiqlāl). By commemorating this event, Faysal created a historical link between the Hashemite Arab Revolt and the Iraqi state, and by adhering to the hijri calendar, Faysal continued the Hashemite tradition of cloaking their political project of Arab nationalism in religious language.[24] Despite its status as an official holiday, Independence Day was never celebrated outside of Baghdad, and never took root in Iraqi society—in contrast to Jordan (see below). Historian Elie Podeh attributes this to a combination of Faysal’s lack of effort to promote national holidays, the fact that Arab collaboration with the British in the Great Revolt ran counter to the emerging nationalist struggle in Iraq—which developed with the British as an enemy—and the declining prestige and legitimacy of the Iraqi Hashemite dynasty.[25] In 1958, when a group of military officers headed by ‘Abd al-Karim Qassem (1914-1963) undertook the first coup d’etat of many in Iraqi history, the new regime initiated a campaign of delegitimizing the Hashemites, including the abandonment of Independence Day commemorations.[26]


In 1920, ‘Abdallah ibn Husayn, Faysal’s older brother, headed north and set up camp in the southern part of the region to the east of the Jordan River. Ostensibly, he was heading to Damascus in an effort to avenge his brother’s expulsion by the French, but he settled in this sparsely populated area and was empowered at the Cairo Conference (1921) to rule over the newly-established mandate of Transjordan. From the beginning, ‘Abdallah celebrated “Arab Renaissance Day,” (‘id al-nahḍa al-‘arabiyya) on 9 Sha‘ban of the Islamic calendar to cement the link between the new Jordanian state and the Great Arab Revolt in the public consciousness.[27] Although the Jordanians attempted to portray the holiday as a Pan-Arab event (‘id qawmi), the Iraqi Hashemites, as we have seen, did not promote the holiday, while the other Arab states ignored it completely.

In later years, King Husayn ibn Talal (1935-1999) would continue celebrating Arab Renaissance Day, also known as the Great Arab Revolt Day (‘id al-thawra al-‘arabiyya al-kubra). In 1977, Husayn inaugurated the Martyr’s Memorial (ṣariḥ al-shahīd) on the eve of Arab revolt day, linking the struggles of the Hashemites during World War I with Jordanian military operations against Israel in the 1948, 1967, and 1973 wars. In 1984, Husayn decided to merge Arab Revolt Day and Army Day, and observe them on 10 June, the equivalent date of 9 Sha ‘ban 1334 (AH)/1916 (CE).[28]


From 1918 to 1920, during Faysal’s reign in Syria, Palestinian elites attempted to show their solidarity with the project of “Greater Syria” by celebrating the Arab Revolt as “Independence Day” (‘id al-istiqlāl) on 9 Sha‘aban, and by celebrating Martyrs’ Day on 6 May.[29] In March 1919, Jaffa’s Arab Club sponsored a play about the tyranny of Jamal Pasha, which ended with an ode to the “1916 martyrs.”[30] As intercommunal violence between Arabs and Jews increased after the violent clashes at Jaffa and Tulkarm in May 1921, new, more localized figures and events would emerge to replace World War I, but memories of the war provided the fodder for early Palestinian elites to build their own collective identity through commemorative practices like establishing a political calendar and celebrating martyrs.

Balfour Day

World War I was a significant moment in the history of Israel/Palestine, with the British wresting control of the land from the Ottomans. Both the Jewish and Arab populations of the country commemorated the Balfour Declaration, the British Foreign Secretary’s vague commitment to a Jewish homeland in Palestine on 2 November 1917, although the period from 1939-1948—including World War II, the holocaust, and the nakba— is by far more significant in the collective memory of Israel/Palestine.


The contested commemorations of the Balfour Declaration in Israel provide a clear example of how collective memory can be structured by political considerations, as each Israeli political faction has their own take on how to remember this event. On the first anniversary of the Declaration, the Zionist Commission (va’ad hatzirim) organized events and parades in Jerusalem, and thereafter Jews in Palestine typically observed “Balfour Day” in ceremonies and assemblies in schools and government institutions.[31] But leading Zionists were ambivalent about the Declaration. The Yishuv viewed British policy during the mandate era—especially after the 1939 White Paper that put limits on Jewish immigration and rights to buy land—as a gradual retreat from the Declaration, and thus celebrated Balfour Day to remind the British Mandatory authorities that they had yet to fulfill their promises. Meanwhile, right-wing revisionist Zionists and religious parties viewed the Jews’ right to the Land of Israel as a divine promise and saw the British authorities as imperialist usurpers who displayed their pretentions when they granted the holy land to the Jews in the Declaration.[32] It was primarily the allies of Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952) in the Zionist Labor Movement who kept the tradition of celebrating Balfour Day alive throughout the British mandate period, providing further evidence of the ways political rivalries shaped war memory in the Middle East and the former Ottoman Empire.[33]


As for the Palestinians, in 1921 the Executive Committee of the Palestinian Arab Congress (al-mu’tamar al-‘arabi al-filastīni) formalized an annual protest on 2 November. The holiday was fixed according to the Gregorian calendar, and because it lacked religious significance, it fit well with the cross-sectarian ideology of the early Palestinian nationalist movement. From 1921 to 1947, 2 November was marked by a general strike in Palestine, and newspapers were printed with black borders.[34] Balfour Day was also observed in neighboring Arab countries, with Syrians, Lebanese, Jordanians, and Egyptians striking and demonstrating in solidarity with Palestinians.[35] Delegations from Transjordan and Syria were invited to the first Balfour Day ceremony organized by Palestinian activists of the Independence Party (ḥizb al-istiqlāl) in Nablus in 1932.[36] But British authorities cracked down on Palestinian activism after the 1936-39 Arab Revolt and especially during World War II. After the nakba, the political relevance of the Balfour Declaration declined, and new dates took the place of 2 November in the collective memory of Palestinians. Balfour day has only been celebrated by Jewish Israelis twice since 1948: during the 50th anniversary “jubilee” in 1967 and the centennial anniversary in 2017.[37]


During the period from 1914 to 1923 Egypt transitioned from de jure Ottoman sovereignty, to a British protectorate, to a nationalist revolution and a subsequent constitutional monarchy in a quasi-colonial relationship with Great Britain. The nationalist movement sought to dissociate Egypt from its Ottoman and colonial past, and World War I was commemorated primarily as a precursor to the 1919 revolution—if it was remembered at all. But official ignorance of the war coexisted with the persistence of war memory in popular culture.

Official Ignorance

State efforts to suppress information about the war in the public sphere started as soon as 1914, with British military authorities placing the press under heavy censorship. During the constitutional monarchy that emerged after the war, historiographical debates focused on the years from 1798/1805 to 1882.[38] As for the war, monarchist historians ignored it almost completely, while nationalist historians focused on 1914-1918 primarily to provide context to the 1919 Egyptian revolution.[39] When the military government came to power, the nationalist historiography won the day, and in history writing, public memory, and official commemorations, the war was generally ignored in favor of figures in the early nationalist struggle and the “July Revolution” of 1952.[40]

Popular Remembrance

Official ignorance of the war contrasted with the persistence of war memories for Egyptians, especially the hundreds of thousands Egyptians who served in the war as part of the Egyptian Labor Corps (ELC) and their families.[41] In 1921, the government issued a decree promising to pay a pension to each Egyptian who had been disabled by the war, and to the families of those who had died. But as late as 1933, Egyptians were sending petitions to the government asking for their promised pensions, which had gone unpaid.[42] Thus, memories of the war, which were sometimes embodied in the physical wounds and disabilities of those who had served, were mobilized in the face of official ignorance to secure what had been promised by the state.

Outside of petitions on the basis of war memory, representations of the Egyptians who had been conscripted to serve in the war abounded in popular culture. Novels like Nagib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk (Bayn al-Qaṣrayn, 1956) and films like Ahmad Badrakhan’s Sayyid Darwish (1966) depicted scenes of the ELC being conscripted by the British. Popular songs like Na‘ima al-Misriyya’s “Oh, Apple of My Eye” (Ya ‘Aziz ‘Ayni) and Sayyid Darwish’s “Safe and Sound” (Salma Ya Salama) focused on experiences of the laborers, and popular stories called ḥuwādīt (sing. ḥadūta) were repeated throughout the countryside and in popular quarters of the city that narrated the experiences of the ELC.[43] These war memories were preserved despite official efforts to forget the war, primarily in oral forms of popular culture.


Faced with the task of building new collective identities in the wake of Ottoman collapse, states in the Middle East structured collective memories of the war that served as a death knell for the old order. Key victories in the war were celebrated to build up support of the leaders who participated in them, such as Mustafa Kemal’s victory at Gallipoli, the Hashemite victory against the Ottomans, and Chaim Weizmann’s negotiation of the Balfour Declaration. States built monuments, sponsored official histories, and organized commemorative celebrations as part of these efforts. But stories like the official denial of the Armenian and Syriac Christian genocide or the alterations of the political calendar by ‘Abd al-Karim Qassem in Iraq show us that the power of the state is not only in the ability to remember, but also in a kind of forced amnesia.

However, these official versions of war memory have always coexisted with unofficial memories. Stories of the horrors of the Armenian and Syriac Christian genocide or of the British campaign to forcibly recruit Egyptian laborers have been passed down generation to generation, often far from the prying eye of the state in rural areas and diaspora communities. While the state dominates the realm of high culture, including published literature and official history, unofficial memories persist in popular culture, such as plays, songs, and films. This dichotomy maps onto the often-discussed split between “oral-aural” and “visual” culture analyzed by sensory historians.[44] These unofficial memories have gained currency when they have been mobilized by social movements looking to challenge the state, or even to establish an entirely new state—as in the Armenian, Lebanese, and Palestinian cases.

The relationship between memory and the state is therefore fundamentally unstable. At times, states can use their power in the public sphere to structure collective memories. But unofficial memories continue to persist in alternative media, and with the rise of the internet and social media, suppressing them will only become harder for states to manage. Future research could focus on the impact of the internet in the persistence and proliferation of unofficial forms of war memory. It should also shift away from strict understandings of memory and official history as opposing concepts and towards a more nuanced analysis of the key role played by powerful political actors—be they states or social movements—in structuring war memory.

Kyle J. Anderson, State University of New York

Section Editors: Melanie Schulze-Tanielian; Yiğit Akin