Speaker: Michael Korda, Novelist


A relatively small group of passionately self-contained Turks managed to hold together for several centuries one of the most improbable, ramshackle, poorly developed empires that the world has ever seen, in which the only uniting bond among citizens of the Ottoman Empire was a hatred for the Turks.

Armenians, Maronite Christians, Orthodox Jews, Zionists, Arabs both Shiite and Sunni—hardly any of the people who lived in the Turkish Empire wanted to be in it.

The Turks, very cleverly, divided and conquered people by favoring people. They even moved people into areas where they would be hated more than the Turks were hated to provide everybody with an object to hate that wasn't Turkish.

They did that with the survivors of the Armenian massacre. They killed 1,500,000 Armenians, but those Armenians who remained moved into places where the Armenians would be hated more than the Turks.

You have to picture the Turkish Army as having regiments that were essentially, as they were in the English Army, ethnic in characteristic. They didn't mix Arabs and Turks in the same regiment, but there were Arab regiments in the Turkish Army, there were Arab generals in the Turkish Army. You're right, the governor of Damascus was an Arab.

All of these people were in one way or another in communication with other Arabs about Arab independence. Anybody who lived in the Middle East could tell, as Lawrence could tell even as an undergraduate in 1911, that the whole thing was going to collapse.

So, it was instinctive in people to play both sides and to have a connection with both sides. As late as 1918, Faisal was still in correspondence with General Pasha, who was the Turk who had charge of all the Arab lands and who had killed tens of thousands of Arab nationalists.

Everybody knew that the Turkish Empire would come to an end, but whether it would come to an end in war or in negotiation remained to be seen. In addition to which, among the Arabs there was a passionate determination not to exchange being Turkish subjects in the Ottoman Empire for becoming British or French subjects in the French or the British colonial empires.

You have to imagine that there is a level of double-dealing present in the politics of the Turkish Empire that is almost unthinkable and that perhaps Lawrence understood better than anybody in the world. He had himself a most politically complicitous nature, a real ability to hide feelings and thoughts. He had a Machiavellian side to him which was almost as valuable as his genius for guerrilla warfare.

So yes, Arabs played very important roles in the Turkish Empire, and always had. But they always kept their options open in favor of Arab independence when the opportunity came.

Transcript of entire lecture

Lecture based on a discussion of Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia