Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East

by Scott Anderson


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Finalist for the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography

One of the Best Books of the Year:
The Christian Science Monitor
The Seattle Times 
St. Louis Post-Dispatch 
Chicago Tribune

A New York Times Notable Book

The Arab Revolt against the Turks in World War I was, in the words of T. E. Lawrence, “a sideshow of a sideshow.” As a result, the conflict was shaped to a remarkable degree by a small handful of adventurers and low-level officers far removed from the corridors of power.

At the center of it all was Lawrence himself. In early 1914 he was an archaeologist excavating ruins in Syria; by 1917 he was riding into legend at the head of an Arab army as he fought a rearguard action against his own government and its imperial ambitions. Based on four years of intensive primary document research, Lawrence in Arabia definitively overturns received wisdom on how the modern Middle East was formed.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385532921
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/06/2013
Pages: 592
Sales rank: 1,233,738
Product dimensions: 6.56(w) x 9.34(h) x 1.54(d)

About the Author

Scott Anderson is a veteran war correspondent who has reported from Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Northern Ireland, Chechnya, Sudan, Bosnia, El Salvador and many other strife-torn countries. A frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine, his work has also appeared in Vanity Fair, Esquire, Harper’s and Outside. He is the author of novels Moonlight Hotel and Triage and of non-fiction books The Man Who Tried to Save the World and The 4 O’Clock Murders, and co-author of War Zones and Inside The League with his brother Jon Lee Anderson.

Read an Excerpt

On the morning of October 30, 1918, Colonel Thomas Edward Law- rence received a summons to Buckingham Palace.  The  king had requested his presence.

The collective mood in London that day was euphoric. For the past four years and three months, Great Britain and much of the rest of the world had been consumed by the bloodiest conflict in recorded history, one that had claimed the lives of some sixteen million people across three continents. Now, with a speed that scarcely could have been imagined mere weeks earlier, it was all coming to an end. On that same day, one of Great Britain’s three principal foes, the Ottoman Empire, was accept- ing peace terms, and the remaining two, Germany and Austria-Hungary, would shortly follow suit. Colonel Lawrence’s contribution  to that war effort had been in its Middle  Eastern theater,  and he too was caught quite off guard by its rapid close. At the beginning of that month, he had still been in the field assisting in the capture of Damascus, an event that heralded the collapse of the Ottoman army. Back in England for less than a week, he was already consulting with those senior British statesmen and generals tasked with mapping out the postwar borders of the Middle East, a once-fanciful endeavor that had now become quite urgent. Lawrence was apparently under the impression that his audience with King George V that morning was to discuss those ongoing deliberations.

He was mistaken. Once at the palace, the thirty-year-old  colonel was ushered into a ballroom where, flanked by a half dozen dignitaries and a coterie of costumed courtiers, the king and queen soon entered. A low cushioned stool had been placed just before the king’s raised dais, while to the monarch’s immediate right, the lord chamberlain held a velvet pillow on which an array of medals rested. After introductions were made, George V fixed his guest with a smile: “I have some presents for you.”

As a student  of British history, Colonel  Lawrence knew precisely what was about to occur.  The  pedestal was an investiture  stool, upon which he was to kneel as the king performed the elaborate, centuries-old ceremony—the conferring of a sash and the medals on the pillow, the tap- ping with a sword and the intoning of an oath—that would make him a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

It was a moment T. E. Lawrence had long dreamed of. As a boy, he was obsessed with medieval history and the tales of King Arthur’s court, and his greatest ambition, he once wrote, was to be knighted by the age of thirty. On that morning, his youthful aspiration was about to be fulfilled.

A couple of details added to the honor. Over the past four years, King George had given out so many commendations and medals to his nation’s soldiers that even knighthoods were now generally bestowed en masse; in the autumn of 1918, a private investiture like Lawrence’s was practically unheard of. Also unusual was the presence of Queen Mary. She normally eschewed these sorts of ceremonies, but she had been so stirred by the accounts of T. E. Lawrence’s wartime deeds as to make an exception in his case.
Except Lawrence didn’t kneel. Instead, just as the ceremony got under way, he quietly informed the king that he was refusing the honor.

There followed a moment of confusion. Over the nine-hundred-year history of the monarchy, the refusal of knighthood was such an extraor- dinary event that there was no protocol for how to handle it. Eventually, King George returned to the lord chamberlain’s pillow the medal he had been awkwardly holding, and under the baleful gaze of a furious Queen Mary, Colonel Lawrence turned and walked away.

TODAY,  MORE  THAN  seven  decades  after  his death,  and  nearly  a century since the exploits that made him famous, Thomas Edward Lawrence—“Lawrence of Arabia,” as he is better known—remains one of the most enigmatic and controversial figures of the twentieth century. Despite scores of biographies, countless scholarly studies, and at least three  movies, including one considered a masterpiece, historians have never quite decided what to make of the young, bashful Oxford scholar who rode into battle at the head of an Arab army and changed history.

One reason for the contentiousness over his memory has to do with the terrain he traversed. Lawrence was both eyewitness to and partici- pant in some of the most pivotal events leading to the creation of the modern Middle East, and this is a corner of the earth where even the simplest assertion is dissected and parsed and argued over. In the unend- ing debates over the roots of that region’s myriad fault lines, Lawrence has been alternately extolled and pilloried, sanctified, demonized, even diminished to a footnote, as political goals require.

Then there was Lawrence’s own personality. A supremely private and hidden man, he seemed intent on baffling all those who would try to know him. A natural leader of men, or a charlatan? A man without fear, or both a moral and physical coward? Long before any of his biographers, it was Lawrence who first attached these contradictory characteristics—and many others—to himself. Joined to this was a mischievous streak, a story- teller’s delight in twitting those who believed in and insisted on “facts.” The episode at Buckingham Palace is a case in point. In subsequent years, Lawrence offered several accounts of what had transpired in the ballroom, each at slight variance with the others and at even greater variance to the recollections of eyewitnesses. Earlier than most, Lawrence seemed to embrace the modern concept that history was malleable, that truth was what people were willing to believe.

Among writers on Lawrence, these contradictions have often spurred descents into minutiae, arcane squabbles between those seeking to tarnish his reputation  and those seeking to defend it. Did he truly make a par- ticular desert crossing in forty-nine hours, as he claimed, or might it have taken a day longer? Did he really play such a signal role in Battle X, or does more credit belong to British officer Y or to Arab chieftain Z? Only slightly less tedious are those polemicists wishing to pigeonhole him for ideological ends. Lawrence, the great defender of the Jewish people or the raging anti-Semite? The enlightened progressive striving for Arab inde- pendence or the crypto-imperialist? Lawrence left behind such a large body of writing, and his views altered so dramatically over the course of his life, that it’s possible with careful cherry-picking to both confirm and refute most every accolade and accusation made of him.

Beyond being tiresome, the cardinal sin of these debates is that they obscure the most beguiling riddle of Lawrence’s story: How did he do it? How did a painfully shy Oxford archaeologist without a single day of military training become the battlefield commander of a foreign revolu- tionary army, the political master strategist who foretold so many of the Middle Eastern calamities to come?
The short answer might seem somewhat anticlimactic: Lawrence was able to become “Lawrence of Arabia” because no one was paying much attention.

Amid the vast slaughter occurring across the breadth of Europe in World War I, the Middle Eastern theater  of that war was of markedly secondary importance. Within that theater, the Arab Revolt to which Lawrence became affiliated was, to use his own words, “a sideshow of a sideshow.” In terms of lives and money and matériel expended, in terms of the thousands of hours spent in weighty consultation between gener- als and kings and prime ministers, the imperial plotters of Europe were infinitely more concerned over the future status of Belgium, for example, than with what might happen in the impoverished and distant regions of the Middle East. Consequently, in the view of British war planners, if a young army officer left largely to his own devices could sufficiently organize the fractious Arab tribes to harass their Turkish enemy, all to the good. Of course, it wouldn’t be very long before both the Arab Revolt and the Middle East became vastly more important to the rest of the world, but this was a possibility barely considered—indeed, it could hardly have been imagined—at the time.

But this isn’t the whole story either. That’s because the low regard with which British war strategists viewed events in the Middle East found reflection in the other great warring powers. As a result, these powers, too, relegated their military efforts in the region to whatever could be spared from the more important  battlefields elsewhere, consigning the task of intelligence gathering and fomenting rebellion and forging alli- ances to men with résumés just as modest and unlikely as Lawrence’s.
As with Lawrence, these other competitors in the field tended to be young, wholly untrained  for the missions they were given, and largely unsupervised. And just as with their more famous British counterpart, to capitalize on their extraordinary freedom of action, these men drew upon a very particular set of personality traits—cleverness, bravery, a talent for treachery—to both forge their own destiny and alter the course of history.

Among them was a fallen American aristocrat in his twenties who, as the only American field intelligence officer in the Middle East during World War I, would strongly influence his nation’s postwar policy in the region, even as he remained on the payroll of Standard Oil of New York. There  was the young German scholar who, donning the camouflage of Arab robes, would seek to foment an Islamic jihad against the Western colonial powers, and who would carry his “war by revolution” ideas into the Nazi era. Along with them was a Jewish scientist who, under the cover of working for the Ottoman  government, would establish an elaborate anti-Ottoman spy ring and play a crucial role in creating a Jewish home- land in Palestine.

If little remembered  today, these men shared something else with their British counterpart. Like Lawrence, they were not the senior gener- als who charted battlefield campaigns in the Middle East, nor the elder statesmen who drew lines on maps in the war’s aftermath. Instead, their roles were perhaps even more profound: it was they who created the con- ditions on the ground that brought those campaigns to fruition, who made those postwar policies and boundaries possible. History is always a collab- orative effort, and in the case of World War I an effort that involved liter- ally millions of players, but to a surprising degree, the subterranean and complex game these four men played, their hidden loyalties and personal duels, helped create the modern Middle East and, by inevitable extension, the world we live in today.

Yet within this small galaxy of personalities there remain at least two compelling reasons why T. E. Lawrence and his story should reside firmly at its center. The  modern Middle East was largely created by the British. It was they who carried the Allied war effort in the region during World War I and who, at its close, principally fashioned its peace. It was a peace pre- saged by the nickname given the region by covetous Allied leaders in war- time: “the Great Loot.” As one of Britain’s most important and influential agents in that arena, Lawrence was intimately connected to all, good and bad, that was to come.

Second, and as the episode at Buckingham Palace attests, this was an experience that left him utterly  changed, unrecognizable in certain respects even to himself. Victory carries a moral burden the vanquished never know, and as an architect of momentous events, Lawrence would be uniquely haunted by what he saw and did during the Great Loot.

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Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 58 reviews.
Jason_A_Greer More than 1 year ago
Lawrence in Arabia, the Making of the Modern Middle East is an outstanding attempt of popular history of the middle east during World War I. By focusing on four men: T.E. Lawrence of the British, Curt Prufer of the Germans, the Zionist Aaron Aaronsohn and the American oil manager, William Yale, the reader is taken down a path that is at once extremely complex, yet because this book is personality driven, made more simpler for contemporary readers. Scott Anderson, a veteran American war correspondent, aims to take away the veneer of myth from this time period, and instead is able to illustrate the double dealing, the folly and the destructive social, moral, military, and political forces unleashed by many who did not at all understand the consequences of their actions. Most of this work does focus on T.E. Lawrence, and especially how this scholar archeologist was able to see and comprehend the forces of early 20th century Ottoman Empire better than just about anyone else from Britain, France or Germany, in WWI. By focusing almost exclusively on Lawrence and three other interested parties, men who were some of the least likely persons to be involved in war and dismemberment of the corrupt Ottoman Empire. I suppose due to Hollywood, Lawrence has entered the popular mind as an idealist, and to a large extent, this book presents him as such, especially in regards to his relations with his superior officers, whom he did not regard highly. But Lawrence also is presented here as someone greatly willing to contribute to Britain's victory. Yale, the standard Oil manager, and later US Army Captain and liaison to British forces in Palestine, is in many ways, the surprise of this work, as he was the most unlikely member of our quartet, yet perhaps the most significant in regards to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, which really did change everything for the modern Middle East. Yale's influence on this work cannot be understated, for he was the only one of the four who lived to old age, and was able to write, teach and influence western policy (especially the US and Britain) in regards to the Middle East for decades, though he is largely unknown to the public. The only real critique I have here is that the writing could have been condensed some, but the author has dealt with a mountain of material. Also, the author does not go into great detail about the differences between the various Arab and Palestinian groups fighting the Ottomans. with the Otherwise this is an outstanding work that should be essential reading for understanding how the western world dealt with and helped to create the modern Middle East.
VladamirR More than 1 year ago
Scott Anderson shows off a clear, definitive voice in his new book Lawrence in Arabia. The writing is crisp and clear. The research is impecable. I not only enjoyed the book, I learned a lot about the Middle East in the process. High marks for this enjoyable account.
Peter2016 More than 1 year ago
It's telling that Lawrence's stomping grounds were what is now Syria. This book isn't just an eye-opening way to look at the Middle East, but also a page-turner filled with spies, battles and titanic personalities.
Joe-B More than 1 year ago
There is a lot out there about Lawrence and not all of it good! This book is "different." It approaches Lawrence's work in Arabia against a background of other "spies" who worked the "neighborhood." Anderson is a very good writer; he can't help himself with his comments relating to how much better we all were when the British ruled the world and how American understanding just never quite gets there...wherever there is! But that's a debate for another day. Let me just say that it's a good read and well worth the time.
StephWard More than 1 year ago
'Lawrence in Arabia' is an intense and highly informative nonfiction book that follows the Arab Revolt and the following quest to control the Middle East. The book tells the story of four different men who were integral in the volatile times and actions that happened during the twentieth-century in the Middle East, as well as the consequences of these actions. The book is written in a somewhat relaxed narrative that comes off as fascinating rather than dry, but parts of the book were boring for me as a reader. This is most likely due to the fact that I'm not a huge history buff or highly interested in the Middle East. The book was expertly written with tons of information, facts, and images that backed the author's ideas and claims. The book was well written and does a good job of not dragging the reader down with too much information at once or overly boring narrative. Definitely recommended for fans of history nonfiction as well as those interested in the Middle East and it's history. Disclosure: I received a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you are interested in how the world situation today in the Middle East developed, and why we are in the situation we have been for over ten years, this book will really illuminate your understanding. It has just over 600 pages of reading material, which could probably have been edited by 75 pages. Still for the time, I feel I have a much better understanding of how we got where we are...
Brenda_Fulbright More than 1 year ago
Very educational. I enjoyed reading Lawrence in Arabia. I found the material mesmerizing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I purchased this book on my nook which has been difficult because I keep wanting to refer to the maps located in the book. Nonetheless, I have enjoyed this book!
Lace1cat More than 1 year ago
Knowledge of the Middle East as it stands today is definitely required to understand and truly appreciate this book. This effort is as current as today's Washington Post! A history buff's delight.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'll read it over again with a mid east map beside me. It was completely engrossing. I just hate to think about all of the additional interesting information that probably had to be edited out of it due to lack of space. I could have kept on reading for a lot longer. I recommend it very much.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Lawrence in Arabia is a very well researched book. It was very educational. I give it my highest recommendation.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I first heard the author in an interview on Natinal Public Radio and was intrigued by his clear-headed encyclopedic knowledge, and the always intriguing element of "it's not what you think it was". But first, I read TE Lawrence's autobiography, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, as well as watched the 1962 movie (for the first time) Lawrence of Arabia. The first was a rather slow and difficult read, with TEL's obtuse grammar and what often seems like a 600 page camel ride. And then the movie, as movies do, tends towards dramatic license, obscuring the truth of the story. By contrast, Anderson's book was thoroughly researched, fast paced, and difficult for me to put down. While using the current (over-used) literary vehicle of interleaving personalities and stories to keep the reader engaged, nowhere does it not serve the purpose of the story. And a compelling true story it is. It gives great insight into what is true in 7 Pillars, and the man who felt compelled to reject his fame, fortune, and even his name in order to escape the horrors of what he was responsible for. The character Aaron Aaronson serves to show the origins of the state of Israel, Prufer, the role of Germany in the theater, and Yale, the role of the Americans. It's a thoroughly enlightening read about the basis of what is currently happening in the Middle East.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
best history of the era, have read "law OF Arabia" but this is VERY comprehensive and well written, enplanes the situation we find ourselves in today. i now have a real view of the events that occurred during that time. A great read
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Am reading book in digital form and wish the maps intrigal to following the timeline would be more readable. Wish also that author/pulisher would have included a glossary of persons. With my long interruption in finding readable maps I had to refresh (search for, reread portions) my memory about who was involved where. Frustrating! Otherwise, engrossing, great background for understanding the Middle East today.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Read it. It's terrific and informative and a really good experience.
RAgnew More than 1 year ago
An excellent read for History buffs and readers who want to better understand the Middle East idiosyncrasies in a chronological manner. Tedious at times requiring a certain patience as the reader moves along the timeline. Lawrence portrayed often times as immortal and unbelievable, yet his accomplishments were evident, no matter how far fetched it seemed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Really good book. Deals with complex subjects, but deals with them in a simple manner. Moreover the rich detail of the book is beyond astounding; Anderson really wanted his audience to note the details that changed and continued throughout the Middle East's fabrication. From the hint of the Crusades to T. E. Lawrence's birth to the First World War, and to many more, Lawrence in Arabia is a great book to read.
wilVD More than 1 year ago
I found it very complex and confusing at times. I love history but this was a difficult read. I have not recommended it to my other history buff friends.
HenryBeemis More than 1 year ago
Outstanding..............helps one to begin to understand the complexity of the Middle East. Covers a lot of ground, and often reads like a high powered spy novel. Reveals a multifaceted Lawrence as well as a cast of parallel characters working for their own objectives..........Pulitzer worthy..
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Reads like a 200 mile camel ride through the desert, with lots of bumps and detours. Anderson's writing style is as cumbersome and obtuse as Lawrence's. D B Cole
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
History can be fascinating when the writer makes reading the story a pleasure.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"Lawrence in Arabia" was on the NY Times list of 100 best nonfiction books for 2013, and for good reason. It's very readable and gives the background for the current political turmoil in the Mideast. This Barnes & Noble purchase was for 2 copies, both given as Christmas gifts, and both very well received. I read it when it first came out and highly recommend it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book thoroughly. The detail and research are amazing. I helped me to appreciate even more the history of the middle east and the complexity of the region.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The scope of this book was so all encompassing that one gets a very clear picture of the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the political aspects of the start of World War I. Engrassing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
highly recommended