Special Report

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

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)
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As Daraoush and I walk across the battlefield, he laughs lightly. “Now that you are here, perhaps you can finally show us where the gold is buried.”

It is meant as a joke, but one with a slight edge to it. While a Turkish force often carried a small quantity of gold, during Lawrence’s two years at the battlefront, his caravans frequently included several camels used to haul nothing but gold coins to pay his recruits. As a result, the urban—or rather, rural—myth was spawned, holding that sacks of stashed gold are likely to be found wherever the two warring sides collided.

Aba el Lissan has been virtually stripped bare of any remnants of war by scavengers. In this impoverished corner of Jordan, the smallest piece of metal has value for scrap. In over an hour of scouring the land, I found only a Turkish bullet casing and the top of an old British Army rations can stenciled with the words, “punch here.”

Toward the end of our walk, Daraoush leads me to one particular gold-hunter hole set away from the others. With a tinge of embarrassment, he offers that “a neighbor” had dug the hole a year or two earlier in search of booty, but instead had found the skeleton of a buried Turkish soldier. “He had been placed on his side, with his hands folded under his head,” Daraoush says. “It was like he was sleeping.” He pointed to the hole. “So we just buried him back up. What else was there to do?”

While the Aqaba campaign is considered one of the greatest military feats of the early 20th century—it is still studied in military colleges today— Lawrence soon followed it with a masterstroke of even greater consequence. Racing to Cairo to inform the British high command of what he had achieved, he discovered that the previous British commander in chief, never a strong supporter of the Arab Revolt, had been dismissed following two failed frontal attacks against the Turks. His replacement, a mere two weeks into the job when an emaciated and barefoot Lawrence was summoned to his office, was a cavalry general named Edmund Allenby.

Rather lost in Lawrence’s electrifying news from Aqaba was any thought as to why the junior officer hadn’t informed his superiors of his scheme, let alone of its possible political consequences. Instead, with his newfound celebrity, Lawrence saw the opportunity to win over the green Allenby with a tantalizing prospect.

During their slog across the desert, Lawrence had, with only two escorts, conducted a remarkable reconnaissance mission across enemy-held Syria. There, he told Allenby, he had determined that huge numbers of Syrian Arabs were ready to join the rebels. Lawrence also vastly exaggerated both the strength and capability of those rebels already under arms to paint an enticing picture of a military juggernaut—the British advancing up the Palestine coast, as the Arabs took the fight to the Syrian interior. As Lawrence recounted in Seven Pillars: “Allenby could not make out how much [of me] was genuine performer and how much charlatan. The problem was working behind his eyes, and I left him unhelped to solve it.”

But Allenby bought it, promising to give the rebels all the aid he could and consider them equal partners. From now on, in Lawrence’s estimation, the British Army and Arab rebels would be joined at the hip, the French relegated to the margins. If the rebels reached Damascus first, they might be able to wrest Syria from the French altogether. Or so Lawrence hoped.


After our tea in his reception tent, Sheik al-Atoun takes me in his old four-wheel drive Toyota up to a promontory overlooking Mudowarra. Along for the adventure are five of his young sons and nephews, standing in the Toyota’s open bed and trying—with limited success—to avoid being pitched about during the bucking ride. Ringing the hilltop are remnants of the trenchworks from which the Turks had repeatedly repelled British attacks on the town. “Even with their armored cars and airplanes, they had great problems,” the sheik says. “The Turks here were very brave fighters.”

Al-Atoun’s words hint at the complicated emotions the legacy of World War I and the Arab Revolt stir in this part of the Arab world: pride at having cast off their Ottoman overseers after 400 years of rule, a lingering sadness at what took its place. The sheik points to a cluster of whitewashed homes perhaps ten miles away.

“That is Saudi Arabia. I have family and many friends there, but if I wish to visit them—or they to visit me—I must have a visa and go through customs. Why? We are one people, the Arabs, and we should be one nation, but instead we have been divided into—what, 22?—different countries. This is wrong. We should all be together.”

Quite understandably, Sheik al-Atoun blames the situation on the peace imposed by the European imperial powers at the end of World War I, a peace that T.E. Lawrence tried mightily to forestall.

Despite punching through the Turkish line in southern Palestine and taking Jerusalem in December 1917, the British Army ground to a halt as Allenby’s troops were siphoned off for the Western Front. Operating from the Arabs’ new headquarters in Aqaba, Lawrence continued to lead raids against the railway and into the hill country west of the Dead Sea, but this was hardly the grand, paralyzing offensive he had outlined to Allenby. The desultory nature of the war continued through the summer of 1918.

But something had happened to Lawrence in the interim. In November 1917, while conducting a secret reconnaissance mission into the strategic railway town of Deraa, he was briefly captured by the Turks, then subjected to torture—and, by most all evidence, rape—at the hands of the local Turkish governor. Managing to escape back to rebel lines, a far more hardened, even merciless, Lawrence began to emerge.

While Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia dealt obliquely with Lawrence’s Deraa ordeal, one aspect it captured exquisitely was his gradual unhinging in the field. In some battles, Lawrence ordered his followers to take no prisoners, or administered coups de grâce to men too badly wounded to be carried. In others, he took nearly suicidal risks. He attacked a Turkish troop train despite being so short of weapons that some of his men could only throw rocks at the enemy. If this was rooted in the trauma at Deraa, it seems he was at least as much driven by the desperate belief that if the Arabs could reach Damascus first, then the lies and guilty secrets he had harbored since coming to Arabia might somehow be set right.


On every road leading out of the ramshackle Jordanian border town of Ramtha there occurs a curious phenomenon: three- and four-story mansions set amid manicured and walled gardens. “The smugglers,” explains the owner of a tiny refreshment shop on Ramtha’s main street. He points down the road to the border crossing with Syria, a half-mile away. “The frontier has been officially closed for a year and a half now, so there’s a lot of money to be made. They move everything across—guns, drugs, cooking oil, whatever you can imagine.”

Six miles across that border stands the Syrian town of Deraa, the site where today’s Syrian civil war started and where Turkish forces briefly imprisoned Lawrence. Now, by all accounts, Deraa is a shattered shell of itself, its streets in ruins, the vast majority of its population gone. Many have ended up in the sprawling Jordanian refugee camp of Zaatari north of Amman—or here, in Ramtha.

“All the shops here are run by the Syrians now,” the Ramtha shopkeeper said, gesturing out at the commercial thoroughfare. “They have completely taken over.” His complaints about the newcomers echo those one hears about immigrants everywhere in the world: that they take away jobs from the locals, that they have caused rents to skyrocket. “I don’t know how much worse it can get,” he says with a long-suffering sigh, “but I know it won’t get better until the war there ends.”

Fifteen miles to the west of Ramtha lie the ancient Graeco-Roman ruins of Umm Qays, situated on a rocky promontory. On a clear day it is possible to see as far north as the Golan Heights and the Sea of Galilee. In the closing days of World War I, it was not these distant spots that made Umm Qays vitally strategic, but rather the sinuous Yarmouk Valley lying directly below.

When General Allenby launched his offensive against the Turks in Palestine in late September 1918, the engagement quickly turned into a rout. Virtually the only escape left open to the Turks was up through the Yarmouk, to the railway at Deraa. But awaiting the Turks once they climbed out of the valley were T.E. Lawrence and thousands of Arab rebel soldiers. One year after Deraa, Lawrence returned to the place of his torments and now he would exact a terrible revenge.


At one time, the 2,000-year-old stone fortress of Azraq rose out of the eastern Jordan desert like an apparition, a 60-foot-high monolith. The upper floors and battlements collapsed in a massive earthquake in 1927, but the structure is still impressive enough to draw the occasional tourist bus from Amman, 50 miles to the west. The first place these tourists are led is to a small garret above the still-intact south tower, a space that guides refer to simply as “the Lawrence room.”

It is a low-ceilinged chamber, cool and vaguely damp, with stone floors and narrow windows that give a view onto the surrounding desert. It has the feel of a place of refuge and, in fact, Lawrence recuperated here after his ordeal in Deraa, 60 miles northwest. It is also where, at the climactic moment of World War I in the Middle East, he plotted the Arab Army’s all-out assault on Turkish forces in inland Syria.


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