Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia, myth and history

Lawrence d’Arabia, il mito e la storia (Leggi versione in italiano)

Diplomat and spy of the British, he became Arab among the Arabs. He distinguished himself, alongside Faysal, son of the sheriff of Mecca and direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, in the mythical crossing of the Nefud desert and in the conquest of Aqaba, the door to Arabia.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the situation in the Middle East was extremely confusing. The Ottoman empire had been crumbling even if nominally still controlled the Arabian Peninsula, Syria, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq. A few years ago it had lost control over the states of Mediterranean Africa. In fact the effective power was in the hands of many local authorities in these countries, causing a political and administrative chaos in which the two major European powers were inserted: the British Empire and France.

England and France divided the territory under sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire into two zones of influence. Already by the end of the nineteenth century France had put Algeria and Tunisia under its control while England had the protectorate over Egypt, which had become autonomous from the Ottoman Empire. In 1911 Italy also went to North Africa invading Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, expelling the Turks (Ottomans), who, however, in the peace treaty of Lausanne, obtained to retain the power of appointment of Islamic religious authorities in the two regions passed under Italian control. Morocco was a special case because the control of it was disputed by various European states: Spain, France and Germany. This was the reason why Casablanca, the historical capital of Morocco, became a den of spies.

Meanwhile, during the First World War, the Young Turks movement arose in Turkey, which aimed to undermine the political and administrative structures of the Ottoman empire to create a modern state. In 1922 the Young Turks drove out the Sultan Mehemed VI constituting the Turkish Republic, whose first president was Kemal Ataturk.

The Middle East was also subdivided into zones of influence under the control of England and France. It was not yet an economic power, since the exploitation of the oil fields, of which the region is very rich, was still to come. In 1916 there was a secret agreement between France and the United Kingdom with which the borders of the new states in the region were designed, determining the respective areas of competence. France had Lebanon, Syria and some areas of southern Turkey. Under the British protectorate were Palestine, Jordan, Iraq and a general control over Saudi Arabia. The biggest problem that the British had to face in their zone of influence came from the Jewish Zionist movement which, as the first objective, had the creation of an Israeli state and the return of the Jews to their homeland, Palestine. The Zionists’ desire to re-establish their old state clashed with the Palestinians did not look favorably at the settlements that Jewish settlers built on those lands. The British, who were initially favorable to Jewish settlements, later, with the lighting up of armed clashes between Palestinian Arabs and Jewish settlers, a maximum entry fee of 75,000 immigrants per year was established. The British tried to maintain this quota with rigidity until after World War II, impeding the docking, in Palestinian ports, of ships loaded with migrants coming mostly from Europe.

In 1914, Thomas Edward Lawrence was sent to Cairo as a cartographic officer of the British army. Lawrence was soon enlisted by the London secret services for his experience in Syria and Turkey, where he had been sent by the British Museum to research the ancient crusaders’ castles, and for his analysis of environmental conditions. Enlistment in secret services was also aided by the friendships made within the Jesus College of the University of Oxford.

Thomas Edward Lawrence was born in 1888 in Tremadog (Wales, Great Britain). He was the son of Thomas Chapman, an Anglo-Irish nobleman who had abandoned his wife and his four daughters, fleeing with the housekeeper, Sarah Madden, with whom he had five children. Thomas was the second child. The family moved to Oxford where the young Thomas was able to attend high school and finally enrolled in the archeology department of the University of Oxford with the help of the secret Round Table association to which Thomas had joined. He was a member of the exclusive Jesus College where he made important friendships. After completing his studies, he was sent from the university to the Middle East for field research aimed at the rediscovery and study of medieval castles that had been built by the ancient crusaders to assist and defend Christian pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. These castles also served to the Crusaders to impose their power on those territories.

England, involved in the First World War, found itself opposing the Ottoman Empire also in the Middle East. The Ottomans, with their decaying empire, had lost control of most of the Arab territories, where they commanded a myriad of local leaders who, according to convenience, allotment with each other, with the Ottomans, with the British or with The French. England made contact with Al-Husayn Ibn Ali, sheriff of Mecca and direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. Al-Husayn enjoyed profound respect among the Arabs and he had a large following, for this reason he had been chosen by the British as a unifying figure of Arab nationalism. England entered into an agreement with Al-Husayn that provided for the independence of the Arab nation of which the British did not want to specify the physical boundaries, while Al-Husain intended, as an Arab nation, all the territory in which there was the presence of that people. In this regard, England and France had signed a secret treaty with the Tsar of Russia in which their supremacy was recognized on the area in question. This agreement was denounced and announced by the new Russian government after the Soviet revolution.

Faysal I King of Iraq
Faysal I King of Iraq

Thomas Lawrence was the responsible for links with the sheriff. In this regard Thomas became friends with Al-Husain’s son, Faysal. Already during the First World War the clashes between formations loyal to the English and Ottoman troops began, to expel the latter occupying the main cities of Jordan. The allied troops with the British were formed by Arab desert tribes. They were organized by Faysal and commanded by Thomas Lawrence, who was dubbed Lawrence of Arabia for his habit of dressing up in the Arabian and living in close contact with his warriors. Lawrence, who knew the Arabic language well, embraced the traditions and customs of those peoples. Aware of the numerical inferiority and artillery of his troops he used the tactics of the guerrilla, carried on by blitz and small attacks, to wear down the sides of the Ottoman forces.

Faysal and Lawrence went to conquer the city of Aqaba, a port on the Red Sea that was decisive for the landing of British troops in the region. The city was defended by possible attacks from the sea. There was a Turkish fortress with numerous cannons pointing towards the Red Sea. The Royal Navy had twice tried to conquer the city but, pressed by the fire of the artillery, had to give up. A ground attack was not considered possible since Aqaba was surrounded by the Nefud desert, an infernal place impossible to cross, especially by large groups like Lawrence’s troops. In 1917 Lawrence, flanked by his friend Faysal in command of the Arabian war tribes, faced the terrible desert, to attack the city by surprise.

After long days, during which the men suffered the suffocating heat and the thirst, the Arab troops arrived behind the fortress of Aqaba, which had all its pieces of artillery pointed towards the sea. It was the most important victory of Lawrence of Arabia. The conquest of the port determined the opening of an gateway for the English troops that could reach Aqaba through the Strait of Suez, owned by a French-English company and under the control of the two European states. The doors were opened for the British army to reach Jerusalem and invade Iraq, ancient Mesopotamia, through Aqaba.

Lawrence and Faysal continued their action by aiming for Damascus the following year. The entry into the city of the two friends was the prologue of the final defeat of the Ottomans. The British seized Jerusalem and Palestine, Syria and Iraq.

At this point the British should have put into practice the agreements made with Al-Husain, Faysal’s father, to whom the British had promised an Arab state. The ambiguity of that treaty prevented the realization of the dream of a great Arab nation. The two European countries that dominated the area, France and England, divided the Middle East into numerous state entities, tracing artificial boundaries. Lawrence spent all his authority to respect the agreements earlier in the Paris conference and then in the Cairo meetings. He almost came to a fight with Churchill. In the end, the two sons of al-Husain had to give in to the will of the two European countries. Faysal was named King of Iraq while his brother, Abdullah, was appointed ruler of Jordan. Both kingdoms, however, remained under the strict control of the British, to whom the most important decisions were reserved. The division into various Middle Eastern states, made by France and England on a geographical map without taking into account the history of the region and the various tribes-nations that inhabited it, led in the following decades and until today instability of the region, which still suffers from the ongoing conflicts due to those artificial borders.

On 17 May 1919, in one of the last transfers to Egypt, the plane carrying Thomas Lawrence, a Handley Page type O, had a serious accident. During the landing at the Rome-Centocelle airport, the pilot, due to lack of visibility, was 9:00 P.M., he tried to resume. In the maneuver he hit a tree with the wing of plane. The two pilots died in the accident, while Lawrence and two mechanics who were on board were seriously injured. He was hospitalized in the military hospital of the Celio in Rome with various fractures, and he received the visit of the King of Italy Vittorio Emanuele III. The attention of the Italian sovereign to the English hero was also justified by the fact that Thomas Lawrence had declared himself in favor of the Italian conquest of Libya. He contrasted the Italian adventure in Africa which he considered as “civilizing” colonialism of the fascist regime, to the British presence in the Middle East that he defined “exploiter” colonialism.

After the disillusionment caused by European nations: England, France and Russia, in dividing the zones of influence in the Middle East and in the Arabian Peninsula, trampling on the expectations of the peoples of those territories, Lawrence resigned as political advisor to the affairs of that region. He was nominated as a colonel of the British army. The British government offered him the office of viceroy of the Indies, aware of the great notoriety that the legendary Lawrence of Arabia had at home and in the rest of the world, and grateful because he had been able, with his strategies, to defeat the Ottoman empire with the help of only warriors Arabs. But Lawrence refused, returning home. He also renounced the highest decoration of the kingdom, the Victoria Cross, granted to him by the King of England, George V, for the services rendered to his country, because of the bitterness accumulated in these vicissitudes.

In 1922, he enlisted as a simple airman in the Royal Air Force under the name of John Hume Ross because of his complicated personality and his ambiguous desire to belittle. When his true identity was discovered he was routed from the RAF. He did not give up and succeeded in becoming a tank gunner, in the Royal Tanks Corp, under the new identity of T. E. Shaw. However he insistently requested to be readmitted to the RAF. He was re-accepted as an airman and sent to an air base in India in 1926.

During this period his intense literary activity began. He wrote the novel “Seven Pillars of Wisdom“, where he told his adventure in the Arab land. Lawrence rewrote the book several times. Each of the editions presented considerable differences from the previous ones. In 1927 he published a reduced version of the same, “Revolt in the desert“. The almost complete edition of the book was published only after his death in 1936. In 1997 the complete version of the work was printed and published. In 1955 his book “The Mint” was published, in which Lawrence recounted his experiences of simple tank gunner and airman. His graduation thesis “Crusader castles” was also published, which he had written following the experience of archaeological research with the object of medieval castles in the Middle East. In his intense life he also had time to take care of the English translation of the Homer’s Odyssey, starting from the Greek version and the translation of the French novel “Le Gigantesque“, “The Forest Giant” in English, by Adrien Le Corbeau.

In 1935 Lawrence left his military life to retire to his country house in Dorset, in Clouds Hill. His stay in England was marked by suspicions about his private life. Lawrence was considered gay by public opinion because of the events reported in his book, which told his life as an Arab at the time of the war against the Ottomans. He was also suspected of strong sympathies towards Nazism and, for this reason, he was under good control of the British secret services.

Lawrence of Arabia on Brough Superior bike
Lawrence of Arabia on Brough Superior bike

The British hero, now known all over the world as Lawrence of Arabia, owned a motorcycle, the Brough Superior, considered the Rolls Royce of motorcycles, given to him by his friends Charlotte and George Bernard Shaw, on which he ran quite reckless in the lanes of country that surrounded his residence. On May 13, in one of his laps on the bike, he had a serious accident. He went off the road to avoid two children on a bicycle. He had very serious wounds. He died on May 19, 1935 at his home. The circumstances of death raised some doubts. Someone suspected that the incident had been induced due to his adherence to the Nazi ideology.

After his death, it was discovered that Lawrence, in the last nine years of his life, had regularly sent money to two women. With one of the two, Ruby Bryant, it seems that he had contracted marriage.

In 1962 his adventurous and mysterious life was told in the film “Lawrence of Arabia”. The part of the English hero was played by Peter O’Toole and that of Faysal by Alec Guinness. His biographer was the American journalist Lowell Thomas who in 1924 wrote “With Lawrence in Arabia“.

Thomas Lawrence was awarded several official honors and awards: Companion of the Order of the Bath, Distingued Service Order and in France the “Legion of Honor”.

Cino Boccazzi, Lawrence d’Arabia. L’Avventuriero dell’Assoluto, Bompiani, 1980/2001.
Fabio Amodeo Mario José Cereghino, Lawrence d’Arabia e l’invenzione del Medio Oriente, Feltrinelli , 2016
Thomas Lawrence, I sette pilastri della saggezza, Barney, Siena, 2014 E. Lawrence