‘I meant to make a new nation, to restore a lost influence, to give twenty millions of Semites [Arabs] the foundation on which to build an inspired dream-palace of their national thoughts.’
- Excerpt from ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ (1926) by T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935)
'We are obviously only meant as red herrings [...] to give an archaeological colour to a political job.'
- Excerpt from a letter by T.E. Lawrence to his parents (1914)
A photo of my old school in Britain, where one out of five students who fought in the First World War would perish in the conflict. Its alumni includes the celebrated war poet Robert Graves, whose common experience at school and at the battlefields of WWI made him Lawrence's personal friend. He would become the only person ever allowed by Lawrence to publish a biography of him during his lifetime. (1912)
Hogarth: 'You will want a guide and servants to carry your tent and baggage.'
Lawrence: 'I am going to walk.'
Hogarth: 'Europeans don’t walk in Syria, it isn’t safe or pleasant.'
Lawrence: 'Well, I do.'
- Between D.G. Hogarth (British archaeologist) and T.E. Lawrence prior to his walk (1909 )
Medieval History would serve as the catalyst behind our first encounter with the Middle East. When I was still in university in 2011, I took a 3 months long journey across the Levant for the first time. Lawrence's own journey however, was a much more ambitious one: he was going to walk a 1,000 miles across Turkey to Syria to study the Crusader castles for his thesis.
He was already showing an extraordinary feat of endurance as a reckless traveller. These were the gruelling conditions that Lawrence had to be contend with later in the Arab Revolt, as he was now: for up to thirteen hours a day he was on rough and rocky paths, he was shot at and beaten up. He was badly burnt by the hot and dry wind, covered in insect bites and often got sick with malaria and other diseases, but the young undergraduate just didn't care.
Finally in one letter the young undergraduate mentioned that he had been 'robbed and rather smashed up'. What he really meant was that a beggar had just bashed him twice in the head with a rock, tried to shoot him with his pistol but failed to operate it - had left him for dead. It was only then that he was robbed of his possession and after being severely wounded that he realised it was time to return home.
Although I didn't have to go through what Lawrence had endured, I nonetheless witnessed the brutal oppression of the Syrian people by their government and was at one point stuck in the city of Hama - by then besieged by government forces. My time in Syria would ignite my own interests in the geopolitics of the region in years to come. In Lawrence's time however it was another regime's oppression that he witnessed. He wrote that 'their [the Arabs] spirits were shrivelled under the numbing breath of a military government': he was describing the repressive Ottoman regime in Syria.
This would have a profound impact on him, and he was to realise that ultimately it was not the history and the ruins - but the people that he was interested in. He would later devote his life to free them from the oppression he so vividly saw. The Arab Revolt (1916-1918) during the First World War provided him with the perfect opportunity to achieve that.
'Few people have risen so high so quickly, or have voluntarily given up not only honours but power, and done so without regret or bitterness.
Fewer still have been so famous and tried so hard to live obscurely.'
- Excerpt from 'Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia' (2010) by Michael Korda
But yet in the most curious episode, after the war and having achieved global fame - Lawrence, by then promoted to the rank of a colonel, would relinquished all his fame and power.
'...in the distant future, if the distant future deigns to consider my insignificance, I shall be appraised rather as a man of letters than a man of action.'
- Letter from T. E. Lawrence to Edward Garnett, 23rd December 1927
It was through Lawrence's writings that I have discovered he was more than just an action hero - but a visionary of modern Arabia. By 1920, nationwide rebellion against British rule in Iraq had cost the lives of more than 2,000 British soldiers. Not knowing what to do next, the British mercilessly bombarded Iraqi towns and villages to bring the people into submission, which only served to deepen their hatred.
Lawrence had already warned that '...the people of England had been led in Iraq into a trap from which it would be hard to escape with dignity and honour. It is a disgrace to our Imperial record, we are today not far from disaster'. Yet in our own time in 2003, British soldiers would land in Basra once again to embark on yet another ultimately disastrous occupation with devastating consequences.
An RAF airplane above Baghdad and the river Tigris in the 1920s. The term 'aerial policing' was coined by Winston Churchill, in which aerial bombings would be used against rebellious tribesmen in order to lower military expenditure and casualties from a ground invasion. (Photo from the Imperial War Museum)
Amongst many other things, Lawrence also wrote about the importance of supporting a moderate Islamic regime in the Hejaz against a particularly violent branch of Islam known as Wahhabism. By 1923, Abdelaziz Ibn-Saud would harness the strength of the disciplined Wahhabi warriors and used them to conquer the rest of the Arabian Peninsula for himself. Britain turned a blind eye on the affair and as Lawrence had predicted meanwhile 'the fanaticism of Nejd [...] intensified and swollen by success.'
Lawrence’s advice fell onto deaf ears as western powers were unaware of the long-term consequences and dangers posed by the expansion of this kind of intolerant Islamic fundamentalism. A deal forged with the Saudis after WW2 had concluded our relationship with the kingdom which essentially lasted until today: the West would provide financial and technological support to the Saudis in exchange for the oil they possessed. The West would also promise not to intervene in the kingdom's religious affairs.
The Saudi rulers however were unable to control the fanatical Wahhabists who had helped found their very own dynasty. They would therefore buy them off with their new oil wealth on condition that they redirect their jihadist activities abroad to places such as Afghanistan. Eventually these battle-hardened jihadists, with their activities indirectly funded by the oil money from the West - would reorganised themselves into Al-Qaeda and ISIS, militant groups which we are familiar with today.
In his time, Lawrence was one of the few who saw how a vast, powerful and independent Arab nation would not only have been beneficial to the Arabs - but also to the rest of the world. On the contrary, he also understood how foreign attempts to meddle in the Middle East could only lead to disasters.
And yet, the carving up of the Middle East in the 1920s - which Lawrence felt so passionately against - would leave behind a number of unstable states deliberately sabotaged by an inefficient colonial administration. These state were vulnerable to military coups, and coupled with a population tired of insecurity they would eventually gave rise to young army officers such as Saddam Hussein and Hefaz Al-Assad - paving the way for the present conflicts in both Iraq and Syria.
In my next journey, I want to go back to the places related to the creation of modern Arab states and followed the footsteps of some of the key people involved. The Hashemite leaders, who were supposed to rule a vast and independent Arab kingdom, today had only survived as the ruling dynasty in the small country of Jordan. Fittingly therefore, Jordan should be the core of my travel.
By the end of this year, as church bells ring across Europe, with minutes of silence we shall mark that it was exactly a hundred years ago when four years of killings on an industrial-scale was finally over. Countries like Poland would celebrate their hundredth anniversary of reappearance on the world map. But yet it is in the Middle East - more than any other part in the world - that the legacies of the Great War continue to be felt down to the present day.
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I like to travel, and I like to find out about things so I have created this blog to share what I saw on my journeys.
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