Speaker: Scott Anderson, Author


Where everything changed was with the start of the Arab Revolt in the summer of 1916. The revolt was started by Emir Hussein of the Hejaz, the Hejaz being a region of west-central Arabia. But more significant, Hussein was the spiritual guardian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

It was a very important alliance for the British to make because it inoculated them against the charge raised by the Turks and by the Germans that they were coming into the Middle East as Christian crusaders. To have an alliance with Hussein very much inoculated them from that.

In return for Hussein raising the revolt, the British had made a secret deal with him, giving the Arabs sweeping independence, for virtually the entire Arab world, with the exception of one small area around Basra, in present-day southern Iraq, where oil had been discovered and the British were exploiting it. They wanted a 10-year or 20-year—it was left vague how long—but basically a lease-holding of that region of Iraq. Then there was a small corner of what at the time was northwestern Greater Syria—Lebanon and just above it—that they wanted to exclude because the French were interested in having it.

The revolt started in June of 1916. Hussein's forces, mainly led by his four sons, who were the battlefield commanders, seized Mecca, seized the Red Sea port of Jeddah. But then it largely foundered. They had caught the Turks by surprise, so in the first few days they had taken a couple of cities, but then it foundered.

Lawrence first went to Arabia in October, five months later. He went pretty much as a lark. He took time off from his desk job in Cairo to accompany a friend who was going over to see if there was some way to jump-start the revolt. Lawrence, on his first trip, was only there for 10 days, and it was really 10 days that changed history.

He managed to meet all four of Hussein's sons, the battlefield commanders, and probably most significantly—he was 28 years old at this point, and a very, very junior officer—he decided that what the revolt needed was an animating personality; what he called a "prophet of war." He decided that prophet of war was Hussein's third son, Faisal. He was one of the very first British officers to meet Faisal, and he was the first British officer to be allowed to travel inland in Arabia, in the Holy Land.

Lawrence went back to Cairo, but very quickly he was sent back over to act as temporary liaison to Faisal, and that posting then became permanent.

Lawrence was a man just born to this unique environment and this unique moment. I think it really comes down to two things, one being what I had mentioned before about him having studied the clan and tribal structure in Syria. Arabia, certainly the Hejaz being that much more conservative at the time, those ties were even more important in a place like the Hejaz than they had been in Syria. He understood the way you had to knit together a rebel fighting force—and it was not at all the way a Western officer trained in conventional ideas of how you raise an army would have thought.

It's a complicated process of sitting down with tribal elders and sheiks, and forging alliances, solving blood feuds that had been going on, in some cases, for centuries. It was a very labor-intensive, very slow process. Certainly, Faisal was the main person doing this, but Lawrence was very much his trusted lieutenant.

I think the other thing was that he had studied medieval military history, and war in early 20th century Arabia looked a lot like war in 14th century Europe. It revolved around these primal issues of an army on the move—where does it get water? Where does it get forage for its animals? Again, a classically trained British officer, I think would have been—in fact, proved to be—quite at sea, the people who had preceded Lawrence.

Full transcript of lecture

Lecture based off a discussion of Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East