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Some comments on
"Lawrence of Arabia"
in south Jordan


T. E. Lawrence with his camel "Jedha" ("a splendid beast")

I am told that this photo is a fake! A great pity, but there it is!!!

T. E. Lawrence was born in  1888. He spent most of his youth in Oxford, and read history at Jesus College. It is fairly well known that he studied military history and wrote his thesis on the medieval military architecture of the Middle East - in other words on the Crusader Castles - which he compared to the medieval military and secular architecture which he had studied in France the previous year.

When he "came down" from Oxford in 1910, he was engaged in an archaeological dig in Carchemish in Syria where he worked with Leonard Woolley on a Hittite site. At this time, he thought of himself as an archaeologist. In 1914 he was quickly taken up by the Intelligence Service, and was based in Cairo where he seems to have made an excellent impression on his superiors. In 1916 he was sent to Jeddah to liaise with the Sharif Hussein who had launched the Arab Revolt on June 10th. He was later detached as permanent liaison, and subsequently at Prince Faisal's request was named "advisor" to Faisal. He spent the remainder of the Arab Revolt in this capacity, entered Damascus with the Arab tribesmen to prepare the way for Faisal and later attended the Peace Conference at Versailles with the Arab delegation.

Disillusioned with the decisions taken there, he retired from any public activity and was killed in a motor cycle accident in 1935.

The Princes

Prince Abdullah
"Round and jolly"

Prince Faisal
The "noble Arab"

Abdullah was the second of the four sons of the Sharif Hussein. He was his father's right-hand man, and popular among the Arabs. Lawrence took an immediate dislike to him. He considered him "too clever".  He was of strong character and highly intelligent, a good judge of men and of situations. He would not be likely to accept British "guidance", and in addition Lawrence considered him an unromantic figure, "round and jolly". He returned a very negative report on him, as he did on the eldest brother, Ali. The fourth brother, Zaid, he considered negligible. You might like to look at the page "The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan - the beginning" for a quite different picture of Abdullah.

When Lawrence met Faisal, the third son, his reaction was very different. Tall and hawk faced, Faisal fitted the stereotype portrait of a Bedouin chief perfectly (although he and his brothers spent their formative years in Istanbul as hostages for their father). Also highly intelligent, Faisal was by nature cautious and a weaker character than his brother Abdullah. Faisal was susceptible to advice, whereas Abdullah was not; in fact Faisal tended to listen to advice from any passer-by. Again and again, returning from a mission, Lawrence had to deal with some "decision" of Faisal's to do the opposite of whatever had previously been agreed. But the British had found the figurehead they needed, and Lawrence's report came down heavily in favour of backing Faisal as the chief of the Arab Revolt.

In advice written for others liaising with the Hashemites, Lawrence described his way of guiding Faisal. He would try to ensure that Faisal put his plans before him privately, would always praise them and then try to draw suggestions and amendments from Faisal himself, until the plans accorded with Lawrence's opinions. In council he remained silent and deferential towards Faisal. He was constantly in Faisal's company, ensuring that the plans were adhered to, and dropping ideas into casual conversation that could be picked up by others. When tribal sheikhs came to discuss joining Faisal, Lawrence was nowhere to be seen, realising that the sight of foreigners present at these negotiations could only give a bad first impression.

Lawrence and Faisal seem to have formed a genuine if superficial friendship (they were much the same age, Faisal being thirty one years old at the time) and although at first Lawrence disliked intensely the mission he had been given, he gradually came to realise that he had a unique opportunity to influence events which he could never have had as a "desk man" in Cairo - the role that he had resigned himself to filling.

The Tribes and Tribesmen

Mahmas Matar Mohammed el Sheheri

These are some of the tribesmen who fought with Faisal and Lawrence, for anybody wondering what an "Arab warrior" looked like

It is often said that a hundred thousand Bedouin fought in the Arab Revolt, and that over ten thousand of them were killed. What is frequently forgotten, or not realised, is that the tribesmen only fought in their own territories. Once the action moved out of their tribal lands, the Bedouin left, either openly or drifting away discreetly, battles elsewhere being none of their business. They also fought for pay, and when the pay was late, tended to drift away as well. Thus, the "battles" were seldom more than skirmishes with a few hundred men involved at most, usually less. The only real "battle" fought by Lawrence was at Tafila.

Lawrence and Faisal were constantly obliged to treat with different chiefs, and to remember the limits of what they could ask the Bedouin to do. Reading "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" one easily gets lost in the list of names. The Bani  Salem in the Hejaz gave place to the Juhayna, who in turn were replaced by the Bani Atiya, the Howeitat, the Ruwallah and the Bani Sakher. All of these major tribes had septs, clans and sub-clans, and all of these had chiefs who had to be met, welcomed, negotiated with, and - frequently - appeased. They also had to be paid.

Aouda Abu Tayi and his son Mohammed.
The latter photo was taken in 1930

 

The Howeitat are one of the most conspicuous of the tribes to have fought in the Arab Revolt. This is partly, of course, because of the film "Lawrence of Arabia" and the character of Aouda Abu Tayi as portrayed there by Anthony Quinn, and partly because they controlled the strategic area around Aqaba and the land north of it.

Aouda was a notorious raider, and during his leadership the fighting men of his Towaiha section of the Howeitat had been reduced from over 1000 to less than half of this. His temper was legendary, as was his hospitality, his cruelty and his generosity. He was rarely parted from his only surviving son, Mohammed, 11 years old at the time of the Arab Revolt, and brought him with him when he first sought out Faisal in Wejd (now Saudi Arabia).

Lawrence was either very brave or very incautious when he jeered at Aouda "the Howeitat shoot a lot but hit very little".  Aouda, furious, launched himself at the Turks (at Abu el Lissan), calling on his men to follow him. There was a distinct risk that he take his fury out on Lawrence!

At the time of the Revolt, Aouda was conducting a bitter feud with his chief Hamid bin Jazi.  This explains why the bin Jazi were almost unnoticed in the attack on Aqaba, but once the fighting passed out of Abu Tayi territory, Hamid was active in calling in the rest of the Howeitat, and the tribes that were semi-dependent on them, just as Aouda had called up the Zilabia of Wadi Rum and the Zuweida of Dissieh.

Incidentally, not everybody listened to the call to arms. It was by no means unknown for a clan to refuse, saying that they had nothing in particular against the Turks. This was their absolute right as "free men".

Aqaba
Photos taken by T. E. Lawrence at the time of the capture of Aqaba

Aqaba was at that time the only port on the Gulf of Aqaba. It represented not only a way into the interior, but (for the British) a potential way to threaten the Suez Canal. It has been said many times that Aqaba was "impregnable" from the sea. Not so : the problem was not so much to take the port - but where to go next.

The only way inland possible for an army was (and is) through Wadi Itms, which takes some 25kms to drop nearly 1000 meters. Anyone who has come down it on the modern highway, and who has seen all the notices like "Engage low gear" and "Escape road ahead" begins to have an idea of what an army would face in fighting its way up, on the track that existed in 1917 and past forts heavily defended by the Turks. To help matters, the bed of the valley becomes a torrent after any rain since all the water falling south of Ras an Naqb finds its way down here, carrying boulders and any uprooted trees along with it. It was this that brought the British to refuse a seaborn landing, and which Lawrence and Prince Faisal avoided by attacking DOWN it.

To do this, they had to have the help of the Howeitat Bedouin who controlled all of this territory (see map of Bedouin tribes). The paramount chieftainship of the Howeitat was (and is) held by the bin Jazi sept, but the Eastern Howeitat, whose territory includes the Aqaba area, are led by the Abu Tayi chiefs. Aouda Abu Tayi, the chief at the time, was a redoubtable raider and fighter, and Lawrence was delighted when Aouda came to Wejd to meet Faisal. Suddenly the attack on Aqaba became a possibility.

The campaign

Aqaba was not in fact the first episode in the campaign as the Arabs fought their way northwards. The capture of Aqaba would surely have been far more difficult if it were not for the victory over the Turks at Abu el Lissan shortly after Lawrence and 300 men had joined Aouda at Jefe (Aouda's headquarters).

Abu el Lissan, high above the Qweirah plain, is a small village, virtually indefensible, and Aouda and his men swept over the Turks there. In itself the victory was unimportant, but it was the first time the Turks had been beaten by the Arabs.

News of this quickly got around, and tribe after tribe joined them until they were marching with over a thousand men, instead of the three hundred who had attacked Abu el Lissan.

As they advanced down Wadi Itms, they found one Turkish strongpoint after another, either abandoned or surrendered without a fight, far more than they had ever dared to hope for.

Aqaba town was deserted and in ruins after the bombardment by the British warships. After all the effort expended, on the 6th July 1917 Lawrence and the aRab forces took the fort without a single shot fired in anger.

This victory was hugely important from a psychological point of view, and the British finally began to take the Arab Revolt seriously.

They produced the sum of £200,000 in gold, 20,000 rifles, 20 Lewis machineguns, 8 mortars, 50 tons of gun cotton for demolitions and a squadron of armoured cars. Aouda Abu Tayi was delighted!

A footnote : a number of the rifles distributed by the British after the capture of Aqaba are still being used by the Arabs in south Jordan. I have seen several of them, seemingly longer than I am tall (OK, so I am not so very tall!) and all of them  beautifully looked after, both the metal and the stock gleaming. They are much appreciated apparently because of their long range.

The Raid on Mudawarra

Lawrence had realised that in fact it was far better for the British to leave the Turks in firm possession of Medina, but to harass their supply lines (which meant the Hejaz railway line). This tied up, not only the occupying force in Medina, but also large numbers of men to protect the railway.

The most spectacular of the raids he led personally was the attack on Mudawarra. This railway station south of Ma'an and some 80kms from Wadi Rum was important because it controlled the only source of water for some distance along the line.

Accompanied by 116 Bedouin and two British sergeants, he made his way on camelback from Wadi Rum to Mudawarra. After seeing the terrain, he decided not to attack the station itself but to mine a small culvert a little distance away. He managed to do this successfully, the British sergeants opened up with their Lewis guns and the Bedouin looted the train very thoroughly. (This was the part of the operation that was always the most popular - and was the reason most of the Bedouin had come).

When they returned to Rum, they found that they had only lost one Arab killed and two wounded, and had killed 70 Turks, wounded 30 and taken 90 prisoners - the actual fighting had lasted only for ten minutes.

The Mudawarra raid was the first of a number of determined raids on the railway. The British Army, fighting its way north from Gaza needed as many Turkish troops as possible pinned down, and while they were needed to protect the railway, they weren't in the front line fighting the British. They therefore actively encouraged and supported the tribesmen - who were happy to blow up trains and collect loot!

On to Damascus

It is easy to forget that without the British Army, the Arab Revolt was most unlikely to succeed. As Lawrence and his men occupied Tafileh (with considerable help from Aouda who rode up to the recalcitrant villagers there and shouted "Dogs! do you not know that I am Aouda Abu Tayi?") General Allenby and his men were advancing on Haifa, Jerusalem and Jericho. For Allenby, the Arabs in the east secured his right flank and were a most welcome support.

In September 1918, Lawrence and the Bedouin chiefs advanced in parallel, along what is now called the Kings' Highway and which was at that time the only north-south road in the country. Ma'an proved too tough a nut to crack (not the last time this town was to trouble the Hashemites!) and the tribes gathered at Azraq, in Ruwallah territory to plan the assault on Dera'a. The British at that time were advancing on Amman but had to retire momentarily.

The Arabs here were something of a motley force. As well as riders from the Howeitat, the Ruwallah, the Bani Sakher, the Arab regulars under Nuri as-Said,  various clans and villagers from Syria, there were gunners from Algeria under Pisani, demolition men from the Camel Corps under Peake, and even a Gurkha section under Scott-Higgins. In all they numbered nearly a thousand men. Everybody wanted to be included in the entry to Damascus!

The plan was to encircle Dera'a and force its surrender. However, after their initial retreat, the British broke through the Turkish forces to the west, and the Turks were in full retreat - towards Dera'a. Armies in retreat are prone to atrocities, and the Turks committed their share at Tafas, provoking the fury of the tribesmen, who were pursuing them hotly. This resulted in the notorious "No prisoners" battle, which is the subject of so much dissension among Lawrence experts. Did Lawrence give the actual order or did he simply accept responsibility for his men's actions? The debate is unlikely to be resolved now.

Whatever the truth, after the battle, the road to Damascus was open.

Lawrence headed briskly for the city, determined that the Arabs should arrive there too before the British.  Representatives from many of the tribes were with him: Aouda Abu Tayi brought 100 men from the Howeitat, Nuri ash-Shallah brought the Ruwallah, Nuri as-Said (Faisal's future Prime Minister in Iraq) was there with the official Arab army. Faisal arrived two days later, just after the British.

General Allenby met Faisal at the Victoria Hotel and gave him the bad news. Faisal was to have control of Syria, with the exception of Palestine and Lebanon, but under the control of the French. A French liaison officer was shortly to be attached to him. Faisal objected strongly saying that he recognised no French authority in Lebanon and would accept no control from the French in Syria. Allenby asked Lawrence if he had explained to Faisal the implications of the Sykes-Picot agreement. Lawrence replied (untruthfully) that he had not. Allenby informed Faisal that this was the way things were going to be, and Faisal, unsurprisingly, departed fuming.


Prince Faisal in Paris, 1919, with T. E.. Lawrence and Nuni Al-Sa'id.
Source: LTA

Lawrence returned to England, bitterly unhappy at the outcome of all the fighting, and the efforts of all of the Arab people. The only hope of the Arabs now lay in the Peace Conference at Versailles in 1919. Faisal had high hopes of this, the American president, Woodrow Wilson, placed a great importance on the wishes of the people, and there was no doubt that the people of Syria and northern Palestine were determined to finish with foreign domination. But the French were just as determined to make no concession over Syria and when Wilson fell ill, the British had no intention of arguing.

The embers were laid to heat the cauldron of unrest that the Middle East has been ever since.

This is a detail of the portrait of Lawrence painted by Augustus John at the time of the peace conference at Versailles. Click on it for the full length version.

Although Lawrence was the subject of a great deal of adulation after the war when the story of "Lawrence of Arabia" became known, he remained miserable at the measures taken, when he had sincerely believed, at least at the beginning of the Revolt, that the promises made to Faisal and to his father Hussein could be kept.

The Arabs have always remained sceptical about this, and besides denigrating - perhaps correctly - the popular conception of his contribution to the Revolt, accuse him of misleading them from the very beginning. Indeed, in the "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" he accepts the truth of this accusation.

Reproach made twenty years later to an admirer of Lawrence :

"Money is not like land; it vanishes, passes away and we become poor. Lawrence gave our fathers money: much gold but no land and not even the freedom he promised us. He knew that the English would not stand by their promises. I tell you he knew, he misled us; fooled us into fighting for the English when we thought we were fighting for our own freedom and independence".

Extract from the introductory chapter of "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom" 

"The Cabinet raised the Arabs to fight for us by definite promises of self-government afterwards. Arabs believe in persons, not in institutions. They saw in me a free agent of the British Government, and demanded from me an endorsement of its written promises. So I had to join the conspiracy, and for what my word was worth, assured the men of their reward. In our two years' partnership under fire they grew accustomed to believing me and to think my Government, like myself, sincere. In this hope they performed some fine things, but, of course, instead of being proud of what we did together, I was continually and bitterly ashamed.

It was evident from the beginning that if we won the war these promises would be dead paper, and had I been an honest adviser of the Arabs I would have advised them to go home and not risk their lives fighting for such stuff; but I salved myself with the hope that, by leading these Arabs madly in the final victory I would establish them, with arms in their hands, in a position so assured that expediency would counsel to the Great Powers a fair settlement of their claims."

The rest of Lawrence's life can only be seen as that of a very troubled man. One does not have the impression that he was ever truly at ease with himself - and after the conference held by Winston Churchill in Jerusalem in 1921 he never returned to the Middle East. He evaded any further responsibility in any domain whatsoever, although he had shown that he had great skills in organisation and managing men.

He had fought with the Arabs without ever being really one of them, perhaps without ever understanding them. It is true that they are not easy to understand!

Putting a few facts straight

David Lean's film has led to several misconceptions of history. Just to disillusion you, here are a few corrections :

"Wadi Rum was Aouda Abu Tayi's headquarters". No, Wadi Rum is not really Howeitat territory at all. Aouda's main camp was at Jefe, further to the north (see map higher up), and Lawrence met up with him there after a march, that however arduous, was less so than that shown in the film. Lawrence came to Wadi Rum for the first time AFTER the capture of Aqaba. Aouda had previously come to Wejd in Saudi Arabia to meet Faisal (and Lawrence).

"Lawrence attacked Aqaba by taking the road over the mountains." No, this road is absolutely not practicable for an army. As described above, he attacked Aqaba down Wadi Itms. He did, however, approach Aqaba by this road several months later, riding alone and getting thoroughly lost!

"Lawrence met Faisal for the first time in the Barragh Canyon." This is the purest fantasy, not even the film claimed this. There is no evidence that Lawrence ever visited the Barragh Canyon and most certainly Faisal was never anywhere near it. However, the Barragh Canyon was the location used in the film to shoot the scene where Lawrence met Faisal, which took place, in reality, in Saudi Arabia.

"Lawrence came to Wadi Rum very often because he loved it so much". Well strictly no, he came to Wadi Rum six times altogether in two years, each time to meet up with the army. Wadi Rum is thirty kilometers from the main road after all, and on camelback this is a normal day's ride. Yes, a good camel can do far more, but not all of the army, not even all of Lawrence's usual bodyguard, were riding good camels. The logistics make it difficult to get away "for a few hours" as publicity will have it. This said, Lawrence thought Wadi Rum very beautiful, and his description of it in one of his letters is often quoted, "...echoing, spacious and godlike...".

In the "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" he also wrote : "my mind used to turn me from the direct road, to clear my senses by a night in [Rum] and by the ride down its dawn-lit valley towards the shining plains, or up its valley in the sunset to that glowing square which my anticipation would never let me reach. I would say, shall I ride on this time, beyond the Khazali and know it all?" In other words he came as often as he could - in a day dream...

To put it another way, as a visitor to Jordan said to me : "Wadi Rum gets under your skin". Yes, absolutely right!

The title, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, comes from the Book of Proverbs 9:1 where Wisdom is personified as a good woman enlightening mankind (the whole of Proverbs is a 'wisdom-book'): 'Wisdom hath builded a house: she hath hewn out her seven pillars. Give instruction to the wise man, and he will yet be wiser: teach a just man, and he will increase in learning.'

Acknowledgements and links

I owe thanks to Michael Green who has been kind enough to correct several mistakes I originally made.

There have been a great number of books on T. E. Lawrence, one is tempted to say "hundreds". One recent one, written by a man who spent some time in Wadi Rum researching is "Lawrence : the Uncrowned King of Arabia" by Michael Asher, published by Viking Press in 1998. This is also available in a paperback edition from Penguin.

The real 'Bible' of biographies is Jeremy Wilson's Lawrence of Arabia: The authorised biography of T E Lawrence, Heinemann 1989 which at over 1,000 pages is heavy going, but is extremely well researched (he had a team of PhD students to help him), the notes alone are 200 pages long.

Another good shorter biography is Malcolm Brown  T E Lawrence   pub. by the British Library 2003 and John Mack A Prince of Our Disorder 1976 A very good psychological study.

Websites, amateur and professional are also numerous. Among the more serious Lawrence of Arabia Factfile or  info@telstudies.org, not forgetting the T.E. Lawrence Society.  You might also like to try Denis McDonnell, Bookseller, specializing in T.E. Lawrence, with links to Lawrence websites.

This is perhaps the proper place for an apology for adding to the number. I am fully aware that I have only touched the surface and a few of the "high points" of the Arab Revolt. I have approached the subject from a very particular point of view and while I don't claim to have added anything to the wealth of material available, I hope this will interest visitors to Jordan who, like myself, knew very little about this complicated person before coming across his name there so many times.

The portraits shown above are from the website http://www.castlehillpress.com/ I fully realise they are copyright the Seven Pillars of Wisdom Trust, and I have twice written to the webmaster asking for permission to use them here. Since I have received no answer, I must suppose that they don't care. If they do have any objection and email me, I will delete the portraits (but I hope that they won't!)

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©Ruth Caswell 2002