As I wrote in my story “Bewitched by the Syrian Desert” in The Last Colonial, until 2009 I had never visited Syria – where the great and scandalous Sir Richard Burton spent two intense years as Her Majesty’s Consul from 1869-1871 with his adoring wife Isabel. Eventually the allure of Syria was too much for [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

When the lines in the sand were drawn

Christopher Ondaatje recalls Lawrence of Arabia as the crisis in Syria threatens to spill over to the rest of the Middle East

As I wrote in my story “Bewitched by the Syrian Desert” in The Last Colonial, until 2009 I had never visited Syria – where the great and scandalous Sir Richard Burton spent two intense years as Her Majesty’s Consul from 1869-1871 with his adoring wife Isabel. Eventually the allure of Syria was too much for me and I mounted an expedition following the 150 mile Burton journey from Damascus to Palmyra; then through empty desert via Homs and Hama to Aleppo. It was an extraordinary adventure – steeped in history. But I was lucky to get out in time.

Portrait of Thomas Edward Lawrence known as Lawrence of Arabia by Augustus John

Today, almost four years later, Syria is a disastrous scene which started with public demonstrations in 2011 and developed into a nationwide uprising demanding the resignation of President Assad, and an end to nearly five decades of Ba’ath Party rule. The uprising has sectarian undertones. The opposition is dominated by Sunni Muslims, whereas the leading government figures are Alawites, loosely affiliated with Shia Islam. As a result, the opposition is winning support from the Sunni Muslim states and the government is publicly supported by the Shia dominated Iran and Hezbollah.

Some 100,000 people have been killed, many more injured, and tens of thousands imprisoned. Thousands of Syrian refugees have fled to neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Bloodshed continues on a shocking scale, and there is a real possibility that the civil war in Syria, which has already affected the neighbouring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, could somehow drag them down.

Curiously, another brilliant eccentric Englishman, almost half a century later, found himself in Northern Syria: Thomas Edward Lawrence. He was to personify events which have changed Middle Eastern history forever and lie beneath many of the problems of the Middle East today. He foresaw some of what could be and I was determined to follow the last part of his 1917 journey in the country now known as Jordan.

The expedition was organised but then disappointingly cancelled as being too dangerous because of the real possibility that Syrian unrest might spread. Two jeep drivers from Amman, two guides with camping equipment, a cook, and a history professor from Amman simply refused to take me down the old Hejaz railway and inland to Azrak, Bair, Wadi Rumm, and then into Aqaba. We had planned to camp where we could at various oases, sometimes journeying on camels as Lawrence had and photographing battle sites. Although I had a writing assignment it was a journey I was never allowed to make.

T.E. Lawrence was an Oxford scholar and archaeologist – one of five illegitimate sons of Sir Thomas Chapman and his family’s governess Sarah Junner. Chapman left his wife and family in Ireland, assumed the name of Lawrence, and moved to Oxford in 1896 where the young T.E. Lawrence studied history at Jesus College. While there, from 1907 to 1910, despite his short stature (he was only 5′5″ tall) he set out alone on a three month walking tour of the crusader castles in Ottoman Syria. With amazing stamina and an extraordinary ability to withstand pain and discomfort, he travelled over a thousand miles on foot and wrote his thesis The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture – to the end of the Twelfth Century. This won him his first class honours and after completing his degree in 1910 he became a practising archaeologist working first on the excavations at Carchemish in northern Syria.

Lawrence continued making trips to the Middle East as a field archaeologist until the outbreak of the First World War. He met Gertrude Bell, the English writer and traveller while excavating ancient Mesopotamia sites. Deeply involved in imperial policy making, she was to be an important influence on Lawrence. She urged him to study the people, and to learn their language, which he did. In 1914 he was co-opted by the British military to survey the Negev Desert – of strategic importance as it would have to be crossed by any Ottoman army attacking Egypt. His mapping of the area was of vital military assistance, particularly as to water sources. Soon after the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914 the British, recognising his curious intellect and knowledge of the area, gave him a commission and posted him to the intelligence staff in Cairo.

Ambitiously the Arab Bureau of Britain’s Foreign Office had conceived a campaign of internal insurgency against the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. Lawrence was sent to work with the Hashemite forces in the Arabian Hejaz in October 1916 and became totally involved in fighting with Arab irregular troops under Emir Faisal in outlandish guerrilla operations against the Turks. Thus started a curious war pitting Muslim Arabs and Christian English against Muslim Turks and Christian Germans. He played an important role in preventing the Arab leaders from attacking the Ottoman stronghold in Medina and siding with British strategy.

The Arabs then, together with Lawrence, with whom they had developed a strangely close relationship, continuously attacked the Hejaz railway which was of vital transport importance to the Turks. This extraordinary guerrilla operation forced the Turks to deploy their troops to protect and repair the constant damage caused by Lawrence and the Arabs.

By now Lawrence had developed a powerful position not only as an advisor to Faisal but a full confidant of Sir Edmund Allenby the commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force. Then Lawrence, in 1917, made the historical journey I was desperate to duplicate. From Dera’a, down to Umtaiye, Abu Sawana, Azrak, Bair, Rumm and through Wadi Itm to Aqaba. Coordinating a joint offensive with the Arab irregulars he teamed up with Auda ibu Tayi (leader of the Northern Howeitat tribe of Bedouins) and led a hazardous overland attack across the vast seemingly impassable Nefud desert, the Hejaz mountains, and through the narrow steep gorge of the Wadi Itm. The actual battle for Aqaba took place at Abu el Lesan about half way between Aqaba and Maan on 6 July 1917 where the Arabs brutally massacred the Turks. Lawrence himself was nearly killed. But then with little resistance they took the strategically important port of Aqaba on the Red Sea which had been part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries. In an outlandish gesture, Lawrence then rode his camel into the sea. The impossible had been accomplished.

Now a Major, Lawrence involved himself in the successful battle of Tafileh, and then in the capture of Damascus in October 1918, which he had hoped would become the capital of the promised independent Arab state under Faisal. Sadly however this dream was short-lived when French forces under General Gourad took away Faisal’s power in the 1920 Battle of Maysaloun. Lawrence battled on politically, but the secret Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France countermanded any possibility of an independent Arabia. 

It was never to be.

A dejected Lawrence, now a full Colonel, returned to the UK after the war, and worked for the Foreign Office attending the Paris Peace Conference as a member of Faisal’s delegation. His continued arguments for the creation of an independent Arab state fell on deaf ears. Contradictory promises which had been made were ignored. The agreement with the French gave Britain a free hand in Palestine, Trans Jordan and Iraq; while the French got a free hand in Syria and Lebanon. The agreement was later translated by the League of Nations into formal mandates to Britain and France. In the end the Treaty of Versailles created a new set of boundaries on the map which owed as much to the interests of the mandatory powers – the imperialists – as to geography, history and the nature and interests of the local population.

The lines in the sand had been drawn.

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