One Giant Leap: February 29th History in the Middle East

"Congrès des Paris," depicting the end of the Crimean War

“Congrès des Paris,” depicting the end of the Crimean War

By Henry Lewis

Painting Congrès des Paris by Edouard Louis Dubufe

Like presidential elections and the World Cup, Leap Day’s quadrennial arrival provides cause for celebration. The date’s uniqueness means that, naturally, fewer historical events have occurred then on the calendar’s other days. Still, February 29th has had its share of milestones. The Middle East has experienced some noteworthy events on February 29th as well. While the day’s history lacks major transformative occasions, a discussion of Leap Day in the Middle East still seems festive and worthwhile.

The 1856 end of the Crimean War stands as the most important Leap Day event in the Middle East. The Crimean War had ravaged the Black Sea region for nearly three years, as France and Britain fought to prevent increased Russian influence over the decaying Ottoman Empire. Despite heavy bloodshed, by the start of 1856, the anti-Russian alliance had begun to clinch victory. The allied seizure of Sevastopol forced Czar Nicholas I into peace negotiations. Emissaries from France, Britain, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and the Piedmont gathered in the Tuileries to set terms. While the diplomats formally signed the Treaty of Paris on March 30, the combat ended on Leap Day. Certainly soldiers who had braved the war’s horrors greeted Leap Day 1856 with much relief. Unfortunately, it would not stand as the last time that Russia and Turkey met alongside Western powers searching for a settlement to a protracted Middle Eastern war.

Another violent Leap Day episode occurred in 1948, during the waning days of the British Mandate. The United Nations had passed a Partition plan to allocate British-held land between its Jewish and Arab residents. While the Jewish Yishuv approved partition, Arab leaders rejected the proposal. Naturally, this proved controversial, and bloodshed ensued even prior to the planned British departure in May 1948. Both Arab and Jewish communities faced major internal frictions. The Jewish residents stood divided over how to engage with the British authorities. The more conciliatory Haganah, backers of David Ben-Gurion, worked to cooperate with Britain. In contrast, the Irgun, led by Menachem Begin, took a more hard-line approach and had fraught relations with the British. Additionally, the Irgun itself had fractured, as its most virulently anti-British members split off to become the Lehi (known as the Stern Gang after its leader Yair Stern). Stern and his acolytes felt that Britain had not provided enough protection against Arab terrorism. In this context, Leap Day 1948 proved deadly. As a train of British soldiers chugged along near Rehovot, about 20 miles southeast of Tel Aviv, suddenly an explosion hit. Members of the Stern Gang, hiding out in an adjacent orange grove, had set off the bomb. Twenty-eight British soldiers died, although the bombing did not wound any civilians. The February 29th bombing typified the violence between Jews, Arabs, and British that began even prior to the 1948 invasion.

One of the region’s more tragic Leap Day events took place in 1960. A brief and viscous earthquake rocked the city of Agadir, Morocco. Violent but deadly, the earthquake lasted a mere 15 seconds. Nevertheless, the damage proved catastrophic. The quake barely made the cut for a leap-day appearance, ruining the city’s Ramadan iftar feast at 11:49 PM. After the initial burst, March came in like a lion when aftershocks further rattled Agadir. In the following days, Spanish, French, and American soldiers arrived to offer humanitarian aid. Refugees fled, seeking letters of transit to reach safety in Casablanca. King Mohammed V also worked to ease the extent of the trauma, personally visiting Agadir along with his Crown Prince and some cabinet ministers. Nevertheless, the damage proved astounding. On the whole, 12,000 people died due to the tremors. With the historic Casbah district in rubble, the city had to rebuild basically from scratch. Although Agadir has since reclaimed its status among Morocco’s top tourist destinations, the earthquake delivered horrendous damage to the tranquil coastal town.

Of course, Leap Day 2016 has little significance for many of the Middle East’s inhabitants. February 29th is not Leap Day for either the Jewish or Muslim lunar calendars. The Muslim calendar bans leap months and holds a tri-annual leap year. Meanwhile the Jewish calendar incorporates the confusing cycle of leap months, adding a Second Adar seven times every 19 years. Nevertheless, on the Gregorian February 29th, it seems fitting to remember events of previous Leap Days. We have four years until we get another chance.

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