The modern Middle East was born when the European powers exploited the declining Ottoman Empire's entry into World War I to gobble up its lands. They did so by duping naive Arab nationalists to rise against their Ottoman suzerain and then cheated the Arabs of the fruits of their uprising.
So goes the popular narrative about the origins of the region's troubles. It's an emotionally gripping tale, but it's also the inverse of truth. It wasn't British officials but a Meccan potentate, Sharif Hussein ibn Ali of the Hashemite family, who in the summer of 1915 hatched the idea of overthrowing the Ottoman Empire. Impressed by Hussein's promises to raise the Ottomans' Arab subjects in revolt, Sir Arthur Henry McMahon, the British high commissioner in Egypt, tentatively accepted Hussein's vision of an Arab successor empire and facilitated the revolt that began in June 1916.
Hussein never came close to fulfilling his end of the bargain. Most of the Arabic-speaking population remained loyal to the Turks until the bitter end, viewing the Hashemite insurrection with disdain. Even in his hometown of Mecca the sharif didn't command absolute loyalty. Had he not been armed and fed by Britain (and, to a lesser extent, France) and provided with troops, military guidance and lavish shipments of gold to buy Bedouin loyalty, Hussein would have never been able to launch his uprising, let alone sustain it.
This act of insubordination in a secondary theater of the Great War played a negligible part in the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Yet it was instantly immortalized as the "Great Arab Revolt," winning the Hashemites territories several times the size of the British Isles after the war: The emirate of Transjordan (later to be known as the Kingdom of Jordan) was established in 1921 to satisfy the ambitions of Hussein's second son, Abdullah, while in the same year the modern state of Iraq was created at the instigation of Abdullah's younger brother Faisal. Hussein himself became king of the Hijaz, Islam's birthplace, only to be evicted a few years later by Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the founding father of Saudi Arabia.
It was a young British participant, Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888-1935), who single-handedly produced this extraordinary feat of historical deception. Though aware that the revolt was but "a sideshow of a sideshow," as he wrote in his cleverly titled 1922 memoir, "Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph," Lawrence had no qualms about mythologizing it in grand style. In the process he catapulted himself to fame as "Lawrence of Arabia" and became perhaps the first mega-celebrity of modern times. His legend was amplified by generations of acolytes, including Lowell Thomas, whose "The Last Crusade" lectures about Lawrence played to full houses in New York and London in 1919; the British director David Lean, who gave us the Oscar-winning 1962 epic "Lawrence of Arabia"; and a lengthy string of fawning biographers.
The illegitimate son of a disgraced Anglo-Irish aristocrat and his children's governess, Lawrence studied archaeology at Oxford and spent the prewar years working on digs in Syria and Palestine. When the Ottomans made their catastrophic decision to enter World War I on the side of the Triple Alliance in November 1914, Lawrence was recruited to a new intelligence unit in Cairo, the headquarters of Britain's war effort in the Middle East. Two years later, in October 1916, he accompanied a senior British official to the Hijaz to inspect the state of the Hashemite insurrection that had begun a few months earlier. Staying behind to report on the situation, he endeared himself to Faisal, and the road from there to his creation of the myth of the revolt was short.
How did an archaeologist with no military education successfully brand himself a world authority on guerrilla warfare with considerable impact on the future shape of the Middle East? The answer offered by Scott Anderson's beautifully crafted but ultimately flawed account of the desert revolt is that "Lawrence was able to become 'Lawrence of Arabia' because no one was paying much attention." As Lawrence's superiors saw it, the author says, permitting a daring young operator to lead the Arabs in distracting the Turks from the much bloodier and consequential European front was a low-cost, high-return investment.
The problem with this theory is that London did actually commit massive resources and serious efforts to the Middle East during the war. These ranged from the disastrous 1915 Gallipoli landing, to the tortuous but successful Mesopotamian campaign (1915-16), to the conquest of the Levant (1917-18) by the Egyptian Expeditionary Force headed by Gen. Edmund Allenby. By the time fighting came to an end in 1918, no fewer than one million British and Commonwealth troops had been deployed in the region—hardly a reflection of "the low regard with which British war strategists viewed events in the Middle East," as Mr. Anderson claims.
The Hashemite uprising was indeed a minor sideshow in the grand order of things, yet it was never the free-ranging operation suggested by the author. Rather it was an integral part of the Anglo-French war effort—Paris sent a military mission to the revolt commanded by a colonel—that was led by a string of seasoned officers, such as Col. Cyril Wilson and Lt. Col. Pierce Joyce, but never by Lawrence. As Lawrence himself put it, "I never had any office among the Arabs: was never in charge of the British mission with them. Wilson, Joyce, Newcombe, Dawnay and Davenport were all over my head."
Mr. Anderson recounts Lawrence's life in chronological fashion, drawing on some contemporary sources, official correspondence and the like. Yet he is too willing to take his subject at his word, even as he acknowledges that "earlier than most, Lawrence seemed to embrace the modern concept that history was malleable, that truth was what people were willing to believe."
To substantiate Lawrence's largely fictionalized version of his exploits, Mr. Anderson juxtaposes them with those of three contemporaries, freelancers who the author thinks lived parallel lives to Lawrence's. Throughout the book, the stories of these other men are interwoven with the central narrative concerning Lawrence: William Yale, a young oil man "who, as the only American field intelligence officer in the Middle East during World War I, would strongly influence his nation's postwar policy in the region"; Curt Prüfer, a German antiquities scholar "who, donning the camouflage of Arab robes, would seek to foment an Islamic jihad against the Western colonial powers"; and Aaron Aaronsohn, "a Jewish scientist who, under the cover of working for the Ottoman government, would establish an elaborate anti-Ottoman spy ring and play a crucial role in creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine."
Putting a human face on historical events is an appealing technique that makes "Lawrence in Arabia" a gripping read. Yet eloquence and color can't authenticate a flawed historical argument. Prüfer is little more than a curiosity, notable only for his future Nazi sympathies. Yale was in no position to affect the outcome of a war that his country joined at the 12th hour and even then took no part in the Middle Eastern fighting. Yale's minor advisory role at the postwar Paris conference made no difference whatsoever and, as Mr. Anderson writes, he "resigned from the American peace delegation in disgust and sailed back to New York." As for Aaronsohn, he did indeed provide vital intelligence that facilitated Allenby's rout of the Ottoman armies in Palestine, but he played no "crucial role" in the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. If anything, the exposure of his spy ring in autumn 1917 triggered a draconian Turkish retribution, with the Levant's Ottoman master, Djemal Pasha, warning Zionist leaders that should the Turks be driven out of Palestine, there would be no surviving Jews to welcome the British forces.
Lawrence did indeed have a considerable impact on the creation of the modern Middle East, but this had nothing to do with his real war record. The revolt had been a complete fiasco. For all the British and French efforts, the Bedouins remained hopelessly immune to any concept of orderly warfare. They would break for coffee in the middle of the fighting and drop off occasionally to see their families; often a whole clan would tire of fighting and take a rest. They would attack small and lightly armed Turkish garrisons but would disperse in panic when confronted with a significant force, or even upon hearing artillery. Small wonder that they failed to vanquish the debilitated Ottoman forces in the Hijaz, with the strategic (and holy) city of Medina holding out to the end of the war. It was only in July 1917, more than a year after the start of the revolt, that the rebels managed to overcome the meager Ottoman resistance and capture the small port town of Aqaba, in the extreme northwest of the Arabian Peninsula. Their subsequent advances, which would carry them to Damascus at the war's end, were but a corollary of Allenby's Palestine offensive, and even these were achieved by the semiregular forces built by the British from among the prisoners of war shipped to Arabia.
How Lawrence managed to pass off this sordid power-grab by a local potentate as a heroic national revolt against an imperial oppressor Mr. Anderson doesn't tell. He describes Lawrence as a "painfully shy" and "supremely private and hidden man" with a "craving for anonymity." But painfully shy men, especially in the lowest rungs of strict, disciplinarian hierarchies like the military, don't treat their superiors as equal or engage in high-level political machinations, let alone make their inner feelings known to the entire world via international best sellers—egomaniacs and compulsive attention-seekers do.
Lawrence was an exceptionally gifted charlatan with a keen eye to networking and self-promotion, who successfully cast his spell on far more senior and accomplished contemporaries, such as Allenby and Winston Churchill, who in his capacity as colonial secretary put the final touches to the post-Ottoman state system. As Lawrence admitted, tongue in cheek, in a rare moment of candor in "Seven Pillars": "My proper share was a minor one, but because of a fluent pen, a free speech, and a certain adroitness of brain, I took upon myself, as I describe it, a mock primacy."
Mr. Karsh is a professor of Middle East and Mediterranean studies at King's College London and a senior researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and at the Middle East Forum. He is co-author of "Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East 1789-1923."
Related Topics: History | Efraim Karsh
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