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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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For his history thesis at Oxford, Lawrence resolved to study the Crusader castles of Syria, alone and on foot and at the height of the brutal Middle East summer. It was a 1,200-mile walk that carried him into villages that had never seen a European before—certainly not an unaccompanied European who, at 5-foot-4, looked to be all of 15—and it marked the beginning of his fascination with the East. “I will have such difficulty in becoming English again,” Lawrence wrote home amid his journey, sounding much like any modern college student on a junior year abroad; the difference in Lawrence’s case was that this appraisal proved quite accurate.

The transformation was confirmed when, after graduating from Oxford, he wheedled his way onto a British Museum-sponsored archaeological expedition decamping for Carchemish. As the junior assistant on that dig, and one of only two Westerners permanently on-site, Lawrence saw to his scientific duties—primarily photographing and inventorying the finds—but developed an even keener interest in understanding how Arab society worked.

Learning Arabic, he took to quizzing members of the local work crew on their family histories, on the region’s complex clan and tribal affiliations, and often visited the laborers in their homes to glimpse their lives up close. To the degree that these workmen had dealt with Westerners before, it had been in the master-servant form; to meet someone who took a genuine interest in their culture, joined to Lawrence’s very un-Western tolerance for hardship and hard work, drew them to the young Briton as a kindred spirit. “The foreigners come out here always to teach,” he wrote his parents from Carchemish, “whereas they had much better learn.”

The dig in northern Syria, originally funded for one year, stretched into four. He wrote a friend in 1913, extolling his comfortable life in Carchemish, that he intended to remain as long as the funding lasted and then go on to “another and another nice thing.” That plan abruptly ended with the onset of World War I in August 1914, and Lawrence, back in England on leave, was destined never to see Carchemish again.

From his time in Syria, Lawrence had developed a clear, if simplistic, view of the Ottoman Empire—admiration for the free-spirited Arab, disgust at the corruption and inefficiency of their Turkish overseers—and looked forward to the day when the Ottoman “yoke” might be cast aside. That opportunity, and the chance for Lawrence to play a role, arrived when Turkey entered the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Because of his experience in the region, Lawrence was dispatched to Egypt, the British base of operations for the upcoming campaign against the Turks, as a second lieutenant in military intelligence.

Despite the fact that he and other members of the intelligence branch urged that Britain forge alliances with Arab groups ready to revolt against the Turks, the generals in Cairo seemed intent on fighting the same conventional frontal assault war that had already proved so disastrous in Europe. The most immediate result was the Gallipoli fiasco of 1915, in which the British Commonwealth suffered nearly a quarter-million casualties before finally conceding failure. Making it all the more painful for the deskbound Lawrence was the death in quick succession of two of his brothers on the Western Front. “They were both younger than I am,” he wrote a friend, “and it doesn’t seem right, somehow, that I should go on living peacefully in Cairo.”

It wasn’t until October 1916, two years after his arrival in Egypt, that Lawrence would find himself catapulted to his destiny.

***

To approach the Arabian peninsula by sea is to invite one of the more unsettling of natural phenomena, that moment when the sea-cooled air abruptly collides with that coming off the desert, when the temperature can jump by 20, even 30, degrees in a matter of seconds. Probably no one described this better than T.E. Lawrence, who, when recounting his approach to the Red Sea port city of Jeddah on the morning of October 16, 1916, wrote, “the heat of Arabia came out like a drawn sword and struck us speechless.”

His presence there had come about almost by chance. Four months earlier, and after protracted secret negotiations with British authorities in Cairo, Emir Hussein, ruler of the Hejaz region of central Arabia, had launched an Arab revolt against the Turks. Initially matters had gone well. Catching the Turks by surprise, Hussein’s rebels seized the holy city of Mecca along with Jeddah, but there the rebellion had foundered. By October, the Turks remained in firm control of the Arabian interior, including the city of Medina, and appeared poised to crush the rebels. When Lawrence learned that a friend in Cairo was being dispatched to Arabia to gauge the crisis, he arranged a temporary leave from his desk job to tag along.

Over the course of that ten-day visit, Lawrence managed to fully insinuate himself in the Arab rebel cause, and to win the confidence of Hussein’s chief battlefield commander, his third son, Faisal. In short order, Lawrence was appointed the British Army’s temporary liaison to Faisal, a posting that soon became permanent.

Having used his time in Carchemish to study the clan and tribal structure of Arab society, Lawrence intuitively grasped the delicate negotiating process necessary to win tribal leaders over to the rebel cause. What’s more, waging war in early 20th-century Arabia revolved around the same primal issues—where an army on the move might find water and forage for its animals—as the wars of 14th-century Europe that Lawrence had so thoroughly studied at Oxford. Very quickly, Faisal came to regard the young British officer as one of his most trusted advisers, as Lawrence, donning the robes of an Arab sheik, assumed a position of honor in tribal strategy sessions. With British naval help, the Arabs captured a succession of Turkish-held towns along the Red Sea coast, while Lawrence organized guerrilla raids against the inland Hejaz Railway.

But Faisal’s young liaison officer also harbored a guilty secret. From his time in Cairo, Lawrence was aware of the extravagant promises the British government had made to Hussein in order to raise the Arab Revolt: full independence for virtually the entire Arab world. What Lawrence also knew was that just months after cementing that deal with Hussein, Britain had entered into a secret compact with its chief ally in the war, France. Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the future independent Arab nation was to be relegated to the wastelands of Arabia, while all the regions of value—Iraq, greater Syria—were to be allocated to the imperial spheres of Britain and France. As Lawrence recruited ever more tribes to the cause of future Arab independence, he became increasingly conscience-stricken by the “dead letter” promises he was making, and finally reached a breaking point. His first act of sedition—and by most any standards, a treasonous one—was to inform Faisal of the existence of Sykes-Picot. His second would lead to the greatest triumph of his career: the capture of Aqaba.

By the early spring of 1917, talk of a joint British-French amphibious landing at the small fishing port of Aqaba gained great currency among the Allied leadership in Cairo. Aqaba was both the Turkish enemy’s last outpost on the Red Sea and a natural gateway—at least so it appeared on a map—to the southern reaches of Syria, the heartland of the Arab world.

Modern Aqaba is a sprawling city of 140,000, its dense downtown giving way to new subdivisions, shopping malls and office complexes steadily expanding over its foothills. If King Abdullah II of Jordan has his way, the expansion won’t slow anytime soon. Reflecting the king’s vision for converting his nation’s only seaport into a world-class economic and tourist destination, the empty land south of town has been laced with modern roads. But those roads lead to nowhere in particular, while tattered billboards advertise the condominium complexes and industrial parks allegedly to come.

Those in search of “old Aqaba” will be disappointed. This consists of a tiny stone fort near the oceanfront promenade, and, next to it, a dusty four-room museum. Dominating the small plaza in front of the museum is perhaps Aqaba’s most peculiar landmark, a 430-foot flagpole—the second-highest free-standing flagpole in the world, according to the local tourism bureau. It was at just about this spot that, on the morning of July 6, 1917, Lawrence and his exultant rebel followers would sweep through the streets to take a “victory bath” in the sea.

By odd happenstance, Lawrence had visited Aqaba just a few months before the war began. From that firsthand experience, Lawrence knew that the “gateway” into Syria was actually through a winding, 20-mile-long mountain gorge that the Turks had laced with trenchworks and forts designed to annihilate any force advancing up from the coast.

Lawrence also perceived a political trap. If the British and French took control of Aqaba, they could effectively bottle up their Arab allies and contain their rebellion to Arabia. That done, whenever the two European imperial powers did manage to push into Syria—promised to the French under Sykes-Picot—they could renege on the promises made to Hussein with a clearer conscience.

Since any advance inland from Aqaba would be murderous, Lawrence’s solution was to first take the gorge and then the port. And to thwart his own nation’s imperial designs, he simply kept his plan to himself. On the day he set out from the Arabian coast, embarking on a 600-mile camel trek through the desert to fall on Aqaba from behind, not one of Lawrence’s fellow British officers knew where he was headed or what he intended to do when he got there. Accompanying him were a mere 45 rebels. On their journey, a two-month ordeal that would take them across one of the world’s harshest landscapes, each of the men started with only water and a 45-pound sack of flour as provisions.

Forming the dramatic centerpiece of Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is the moment when Lawrence and his rebel band launch their surprise attack on Aqaba from behind. Led by a triumphant white-robed Peter O’Toole, the rebels bear down on the stunned Turks.

In reality, the crucial battle for Aqaba occurred 40 miles to the north, in the “lost” wadi of Aba el Lissan. It was there, with the hellish two-month trek through the desert completed and Aqaba almost in his grasp, that Lawrence learned a Turkish relief force was marching in his direction. Even if his rebel army–swelled to nearly 1,000 with recruits—continued on to Aqaba, Lawrence reasoned, this enemy column would soon catch up; there was no choice but to destroy it first.

They found the Turks camping in Aba el Lissan on the night of July 1, 1917, and what ensued there was less a battle than a massacre. The Turkish force of 550 soldiers was virtually wiped out at the cost of two Arab dead. With the path cleared, Lawrence and his men rushed on for Aqaba, the Turkish garrison there surrendering after barely firing a shot.

***

Clad in worn sandals and lifting the hem of his robe to avoid the snag of thornbushes, Abu Enad Daraoush picks his way over the hillside. To the untrained eye, the wadi of Aba el Lissan is indistinguishable from a thousand other windswept valleys in southern Jordan, but Daraoush, a 48-year-old farmer and shepherd, knows its secrets. Reaching a rock outcropping, he points out a feature on the level ground below: five or six circles of cleared earth, each about ten feet across and delineated by rings of large boulders. Resembling oversized fire pits, the circles are the traces of a Turkish Army encampment, where soldiers had cleared the earth and pitched their distinctive round tents. In 2014, that camp is nearly a century old—97 years old, to be precise.

Daraoush and the other villagers of Aba el Lissan have collected military detritus here—bullets, uniform buttons, metal bits from horse harnesses—enough to know that the Turkish force was sizable. They also know it ended badly for the Turks. From the rock outcropping, Daraoush points to the wadi basin, perhaps 200 feet away. “Down there we found the bodies,” he says. “Not complete bodies, but bones. When I was a boy, I used to take them to school to show my friends.” Daraoush gazes up at the enclosing ridgelines. “This is a place where many, many Turks died.”

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