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The Middle East’s austere terrain lured Lawrence: “The abstraction of the desert landscape,” he wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, “cleansed me.” (Ivor Prickett/Panos Pictures)

The True Story of Lawrence of Arabia

His daring raids in World War I made him a legend. But in the Middle East today, the desert warrior’s legacy is written in sand

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Sipping tea and chain-smoking L&M cigarettes in his reception tent in Mudowarra, Sheik Khaled Suleiman al-Atoun waves a hand to the outside, in a generally northern direction. “Lawrence came here, you know?” he says. “Several times. The biggest time was in January of 1918. He and other British soldiers came in armored cars and attacked the Turkish garrison here, but the Turks were too strong and they had to retreat.” He pulls on his cigarette, before adding with a tinge of civic pride: “Yes, the British had a very hard time here.”

While the sheik was quite correct about the resiliency of the Turkish garrison in Mudowarra—the isolated outpost held out until the final days of World War I—the legendary T.E. Lawrence’s “biggest time” there was open to debate. In Lawrence’s own telling, that incident occurred in September 1917, when he and his Arab followers attacked a troop train just south of town, destroying a locomotive and killing some 70 Turkish soldiers.

The southernmost town in Jordan, Mudowarra was once connected to the outside world by means of that railroad. One of the great civil-engineering projects of the early 20th century, the Hejaz Railway was an attempt by the Ottoman sultan to propel his empire into modernity and knit together his far-flung realm.

By 1914, the only remaining gap in the line was located in the mountains of southern Turkey. When that tunneling work was finished, it would have been theoretically possible to travel from the Ottoman capital of Constantinople all the way to the Arabian city of Medina, 1,800 miles distant, without ever touching the ground. Instead, the Hejaz Railway fell victim to World War I. For nearly two years, British demolition teams, working with their Arab rebel allies, methodically attacked its bridges and isolated depots, quite rightly perceiving the railroad as the Achilles’ heel of the Ottoman enemy, the supply line linking its isolated garrisons to the Turkish heartland.

In desert war, Lawrence advised, get to know “clans and tribes, friends and enemies, wells, hills and roads” (Turkish fort ruins in Jordan). (Ivor Prickett)
Sheik al-Atoun recalls family tales of Lawrence’s exploits. “He was an expert in demolitions,” al-Atoun says, “and taught my grandfather how it was done.” (Ivor Prickett)
Capturing Aqaba was Lawrence’s great triumph: “The enemy,” he wrote, “had never imagined attack from the interior” (above, Aqaba today, the Red Sea port in Jordan). (Ivor Prickett)
Lawrence (in traditional garb, 1919) was caught between rebels seeking pan-Arab independence and Western powers’ designs on the Mideast. (Private Collection / Peter Newark Military Pictures / Bridgeman Images)
After Lawrence’s crash 200 yards from his cottage (above), the surgeon who tried to save his life, Hugh Cairns, developed crash helmets for motorcyclists. (Alex Masi)
A swimmer finds relief from the stifling Arabian heat in the Red Sea in the coastal city of Aqaba, Jordan. (Ivor Prickett)
The only seaport of Jordan, Aqaba, on the northeastern tip of the Red Sea, is known today for its beaches and commercial activities. (Ivor Prickett)
A shopper examines produce at a market in Aqaba. Lawrence’s crucial battle for Aqaba occurred 40 miles north of the city. (Ivor Prickett)
Tourists snap photos of “Lawrence’s camp,” in Wadi Rum, which the British officer passed through during World War I. (Ivor Prickett/Panos Pictures)
A Bedouin man herds tourist camels across the desert through Wadi Rum, site of the Arab Revolt of 1917-18. (Ivor Prickett/Panos Pictures)
Storm clouds roll into the Dead Sea valley near the city of Wadi Musa. (Ivor Prickett/Panos Pictures)
As a boy, Abu Enad Daraoush and his friends found remains of Turkish forces at Aba el Lissan—“Bones everywhere,” he recalls, “skulls and ribs and spines.” (Ivor Prickett)
Storm clouds roll into the Dead Sea valley near the city of Wadi Musa. (Ivor Prickett/Panos Pictures)
Once the site of bloodshed, Aba el Lissan, Jordan, saw T.E .Lawrence and his rebel fighters slaughter hundreds of Turkish soldiers in 1917. (Ivor Prickett)
Writer Scott Anderson explores the crumbling ruins of southern Jordan’s Turkish forts. (Ivor Prickett/Panos Pictures)
Ottoman forts and outposts have fallen to ruin in southern Jordan near the route of the old Hejaz Railway. (Ivor Prickett/Panos Pictures)
A window in what was once a Turkish fort overlooks a desolate desert landscape near the Hejaz Railway. (Ivor Prickett/Panos Pictures)
T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) is immortalized in a portrait at Clouds Hill, his former home near Wool, Dorset County, England. (Alex Masi)
Turkish trenches, remembrances of the war, scar the landscape in Jordan. (Ivor Prickett/Panos Pictures)
A life catalogued in pictures: T.E. Lawrence’s career is captured in photographs on display in Clouds Hill. (Alex Masi)
“There is no other man I know who could have achieved what Lawrence did.” Echoing Gen. Edmund Allenby’s sentiments, pictures pay homage to the life of “Lawrence of Arabia” at Clouds Hill. (Alex Masi)
Before his death, Lawrence retreated to Clouds Hill, a simple cottage in the foothills of southwest England, now open to the public. (Alex Masi)
Clouds Hill holds many artifacts from Lawrence’s life, including a gramophone and a painting that once belonged to him. (Alex Masi)

One of the most prolific of the British attackers was a young army officer named T.E. Lawrence. By his count, Lawrence personally blew up 79 bridges along the railway, becoming so adept that he perfected a technique of leaving a bridge “scientifically shattered”—ruined but still standing. Turkish crews then faced the time-consuming task of dismantling the wreckage before repairs could begin.

By war’s end, damage to the railway was so extensive that much of it was abandoned. In Jordan today, the line runs only from the capital city of Amman to a point 40 miles north of Mudowarra, where a modern spur veers off to the west. Around Mudowarra, all that is left is the raised berm and gravel of the rail bed, along with remnants of culverts and station houses destroyed nearly a century ago. This trail of desolation stretches south 600 miles to the Saudi Arabian city of Medina; in the Arabian Desert there still sit several of the war-mangled train cars, stranded and slowly rusting away.

One who laments the loss is Sheik al-Atoun, Mudowarra’s leading citizen and a tribal leader in southern Jordan. As one of his sons, a boy of about 10, constantly refills our teacups in the reception tent, the sheik describes Mudowarra as a poor and remote area. “If the railway still existed,” he says, “it would be very different. We would be connected, both economically and politically to north and south. Instead, there is no development here, and Mudowarra has always stayed a small place.”

The sheik was aware of a certain irony in his complaint, given that his grandfather worked alongside T.E. Lawrence in sabotaging the railroad. “Of course, at that time,” al-Atoun says ruefully, “my grandfather thought that these destructions were a temporary matter because of the war. But they actually became permanent.”

Today, T.E. Lawrence remains one of the most iconic figures of the early 20th century. His life has been the subject of at least three movies—including one considered a masterpiece—over 70 biographies, several plays and innumerable articles, monographs and dissertations. His wartime memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, translated into more than a dozen languages, remains in print nearly a full century after its first publication. As Gen. Edmund Allenby, chief British commander in the Middle East during World War I, noted, Lawrence was first among equals: “There is no other man I know,” he asserted, “who could have achieved what Lawrence did.”

Part of the enduring fascination has to do with the sheer improbability of Lawrence’s tale, of an unassuming young Briton who found himself the champion of a downtrodden people, thrust into events that changed the course of history. Added to this is the poignancy of his journey, so masterfully rendered in David Lean’s 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia, of a man trapped by divided loyalties, torn between serving the empire whose uniform he wore and being true to those fighting and dying alongside him. It is this struggle that raises the Lawrence saga to the level of Shakespearean tragedy, as it ultimately ended badly for all concerned: for Lawrence, for the Arabs, for Britain, in the slow uncoiling of history, for the Western world at large. Loosely cloaked about the figure of T.E. Lawrence there lingers the wistful specter of what might have been if only he had been listened to.

***

For the past several years, Sheik al-Atoun has assisted archaeologists from Bristol University in England who are conducting an extensive survey of the war in Jordan, the Great Arab Revolt Project (GARP). One of the Bristol researchers, John Winterburn, recently discovered a forgotten British Army camp in the desert 18 miles from Mudowarra; untouched for nearly a century—Winterburn even collected old gin bottles—the find was touted in the British press as the discovery of “Lawrence’s Lost Camp.”

“We do know that Lawrence was at that camp,” Winterburn says, sitting at a Bristol University café. “But, as best we can tell, he probably stayed only a day or two. But all the men who were there much longer, none of them were Lawrence, so it becomes ‘Lawrence’s camp.’”

For most travelers, Highway 15, Jordan’s main north-south thoroughfare, offers a dull drive through a largely featureless desert connecting Amman to more interesting places: the ruins at Petra, the Red Sea beaches of Aqaba.

To GARP co-director Nicholas Saunders, however, Highway 15 is a treasure trove. “Most people have no idea that they’re traveling through one of the best-preserved battlefields in the world,” he explains, “that all around them are reminders of the pivotal role this region played in World War I.”

Saunders is at his desk in his cluttered office at Bristol, where scattered amid the stacks of papers and books are relics from his own explorations along Highway 15: bullet casings, cast-iron tent rings. Since 2006, Saunders has headed up some 20 GARP digs in southern Jordan, excavating everything from Turkish Army encampments and trenchworks, to Arab rebel campsites and old British Royal Flying Corps airstrips. What unites these disparate sites—indeed what led to their creation—is the single-track railway that runs alongside Highway 15 for some 250 miles: the old Hejaz Railway.

As first articulated by T.E. Lawrence, the goal wasn’t to permanently sever the Turks’ southern lifeline, but rather to keep it barely functioning. The Turks would have to constantly devote resources to its repair, while their garrisons, receiving just enough supplies to survive, would be stranded. Indications of this strategy are everywhere evident along Highway 15; while many of the original small bridges and culverts that the Ottomans constructed to navigate the region’s seasonal waterways are still in place—instantly recognizable by their ornate stonework arches—many more are of modern, steel-beam construction, denoting where the originals were blown up during the war.

The GARP expeditions have produced an unintended consequence. Jordan’s archaeological sites have long been plundered by looters—and this has now extended to World War I sites. Fueled by the folkloric memory of how Turkish forces and Arab rebels often traveled with large amounts of gold coins—Lawrence himself doled out tens of thousands of English pounds’ worth of gold in payments to his followers—locals quickly descend on any newly discovered Arab Revolt site with spades in hand to start digging.

“So of course, we’re part of the problem,” Saunders says. “The locals see all these rich foreigners digging away,” Saunders adds wryly, “on our hands and knees all day in the hot sun, and they think to themselves, ‘No way. No way are they doing this for some old bits of metal; they’re here to find the gold.’”

As a result, GARP archaeologists remain on a site until satisfied that they’ve found everything of interest, and then, with the Jordanian government’s permission, take everything with them when closing down the site. From past experience, they know they’re likely to discover only mounds of turned earth upon their return.

***

Set amid rolling brown hills given over to groves of orange and pistachio trees, the village of Karkamis has the soporific feel of many rural towns in southern Turkey. On its slightly rundown main street, shopkeepers gaze vacantly out at deserted sidewalks, while in a tiny, tree-shaded plaza, idled men play dominoes or cards.

If this seems a peculiar setting for the place where a young Lawrence first came to his appreciation of the Arab world, the answer actually lies about a mile east of the village. There, on a promontory above a ford of the Euphrates sits the ruins of the ancient city of Carchemish. While human habitation on that hilltop dates back at least 5,000 years, it was a desire to unlock the secrets of the Hittites, a civilization that reached its apogee in the 11th century B.C., that first brought a 22-year-old Lawrence here in 1911.

Even before Carchemish, there were signs that the world might well hear of T.E. Lawrence in some capacity. Born in 1888, the second of five boys in an upper-middle-class British family, his almost-paralyzing shyness masked a brilliant mind and a ferocious independent streak.

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