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T. E. Lawrence, eponymously of Arabia, was quite a few things: Archaeologist, classicist, translator, soldier, insurgent, cyclist, agent, diplomat, hero. But he was also very much an Englishman and a captivating travel writer.
Lawrence’s historical status has undergone phases of legend building and deconstruction. He shaped the modern Middle East in a way that still has reverberations to the present day — possibly like no one before or since. He was a champion of Arab independence, yet bound by his loyalties as a British officer. He strove to be and was a hero, yet eschewed public honors. He introduced the use of explosives in insurgencies, yet was deeply affected by the killings for which he bore direct or indirect responsibilities. Be that as it may, Lawrence was, without a doubt, an adventurer extraordinaire and — as strange as it may sound — a gifted travel writer.
Thomas Edward Lawrence
Lawrence of Arabia
Born: August 16, 1888, Tremadog, Caernarvonshire, Wales
Died: May 19, 1935, Bovington Camp, Dorset, England
British military hero, traveller, writer, diplomat, scholar, translator. His best-known work is the autobiographical account of the Arab Uprising, the Seven Pillars of Wisdom (now in the public domain, find it here).
Lawrence was the subject of many biographies, for instance, Michael Korda’s recent Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia. It is well worth the read.
Lawrence was also immortalized in the epic 1962 David Lean film Lawrence of Arabia, which won 7 Oscars, among them Best Picture and Best Director.
The Seven Pillars of Wisdom
If you are interested in the Middle East, Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom is seminal reading. It is a personal, autobiographical account of the Arab Uprising and Lawrence’s role in it. Chock full with larger than life characters and amazing descriptions of desert landscapes, it reads rather like a novel of desert adventure than a war journal. Here’s why it is worth the read.
The Desert Landscapes
Lawrence’s description of the Arab desert paints a vivid picture of the barren landscape and the toil of travelling it:
“While he spoke we scoured along the dazzling plain, now nearly bare of trees, and turning slowly softer under foot. At first it had been grey shingle, packed like gravel. Then the sand increased and the stones grew rarer, till we could distinguish the colours of the separate flakes, porphyry, green schist, basalt. At last it was nearly pure white sand, under which lay a harder stratum. Such going was like a pile-carpet for our camels’ running. The particles of sand were clean and polished, and caught the blaze of sun like little diamonds in a reflection so fierce, that after a while I could not endure it.” (from the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, chapter XI).
Desert travel, particularly over weeks on camelback, is tough and the desert is a harsh mistress. Combine that with a need to avoid detection by Turkish patrols, little food and water, and hostile native tribes, and you can fathom the toughness and endurance it requires.
Many of the characters in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom seem larger than life. From the main protagonists to people only briefly encountered, the book is chock full of captivating characters. You meet the magnificent Faisal, Lawrence’s “prophet” and leader of the desert tribes, who would later become King of Syria and Iraq; Faisal’s brother Abdullah, later King of Jordan; the old, grizzled warrior Auda abu Tayi, boastful, cruel and tough; British and French officials, among them the magnificent Allenby; and many, many more.
Chapter X has a scene in which Lawrence and his guide water their camels at a well, with several local tribespeople present, when two strangers appear on camel, apparently master and servant. A charade unfolds, which is somewhat comedically resolved:
“My Lord, you saw those two riders at the well?”
“The Sherif and his servant?”
“Yes; but they were Sherif Ali ibn el Hussein of Modhig, and his cousin, Sherif Mohsin, lords of the Harith, who are blood enemies of the Masruh. They feared they would be delayed or driven off the water if the Arabs knew them. So they pretended to be master and servant from Mecca. Did you see how Mohsin raged when Ali beat him? Ali is a devil. …” (from the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, chapter X).
The subject matter of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom is, of course, not your run-of-the-mill travel. It is an account of an insurgency in one of the most desolate and cruel places in the world. If you can stomach the violence, the death and destruction, and the cruelty, though, it is a tale of grand adventure. Not so much in the bombings of train tracks, battles and strategic manoeuvres (although, if you are interested in military history, those too are enlightening), but in Lawrence’s discovery of the desert, its people and its places.
Lawrence made himself a creature of two worlds, one part British officer, one part Arab insurgent. He went native, living with his Arab brothers-in-arms almost as one of them. Toughness is a characterising mark of Lawrence’s, and one necessary to be accepted by those around him. He truly shared the desert experience, and in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom he shares it with the reader.
The adventure is not just physical in nature. The psychological components are ever present. Particularly interesting is Lawrence’s inner struggle — his loyalty to the British Empire contrasts starkly with his love for the Arab people and their cause. This gives the book a tragic quality, with the inevitable betrayal of the promises made in wartime looming on the horizon.
Even though the events depicted in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom take place a hundred years ago, they still have impact on today’s world. More than that, if you want to understand current affairs in the Middle East, the book will provide some interesting insights. You’ll get an understanding of inter-Arab rivalries and tribal thinking, of the driving forces behind Arab nationalism, of insurgent tactics, and of the deep distrust that the region still harbours towards the West.
Beyond that, you’ll get a personal insight into what might be one of the last Victorian heroes, Lawrence himself — a complex, conflicted, driven and fascinating man.
Lawrence of Arabia, the Legend
Lawrence once remarked in a letter to writer Edward Garnett that “in the distant future, if the distant future deigns to consider my insignificance, I shall be appraised rather as a man of letters than a man of action.” Yet, a man of action he was. A man of action who was also a skilled writer. As a matter of fact, Lawrence built his own legend — a factual and true legend — through his writings.
His greatest work is the aforementioned seminal Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It is very personal and autobiographical, published in 1922 after it had to be rewritten for the third time following the loss of the manuscript on a train. And it is far more than just a dry report or war journal. As I mentioned before , it reads almost like a novel. Yes, it is at times overwritten and maybe a bit burdened by Lawrence’s aspirations to be seen as a great writer. Nevertheless, it is a timeless account and well worth the read.
Lawrence is, clearly, a very complex character — his personal motives, his iron will-power, evident in his capacity for enduring pain, his penchant for drama, his longing to be a hero and his reflexive reclusion after achieving this status — a refusal of public honors and withdrawal from public life to serve as an enlisted man under an assumed name — invite many a different interpretation.
Quite a few biographies have tried to make sense of the man. If you want to find out more about Lawrence, I can recommend Michael Korda’s biography of Lawrence: Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia. While he does not cover much new ground with regard to unearthing the ‘true’ Lawrence, Korda paints an entertaining, comprehensive and ultimately satisfying picture of his subject.
Lawrence is, of course, best known for his exploits during World War I. His later life, however, is no less fascinating. He accepted none of the honors bestowed upon him at home, being deeply troubled and torn by the duplicity of his and his superiors wartime actions. After the war, he served briefly in the Foreign Office, advising Winston Churchill. His intense dislike for bureaucracy saw to it that this did not last too long.
In 1922, Lawrence enlisted under an assumed name in the Royal Air Force. His experiences there are published in The Mint, Lawrence’s second well-known book. Aside from monographies, Lawrence’s letters also provide a glimpse of the man.
Lawrence wrote letters copiously. Nowadays, the art of letter writing has been replaced by short-form digital communication, back in the late 19th and early 20th century however, letters were the essential form of communication — with their own particular, abridged style.
Lawrence’s letters, of which I find the early ones from the Middle East to his family (1909-1911) particularly worthwhile, show a very personal side of him. The reputed distance he keeps from his mother, while obviously still loving and respecting her and the entire family, seems palpable. They are also not yet overburdened with Lawrence’s future fame. Rather, they are the correspondence of a young man, showing outward confidence and (guardedly) sharing his experiences. In them, one can also possibly see Lawrence trying to find his own narrative style.
Later correspondence, among them letters posted from India while he was stationed there under the assumed identity of Airman J. H. Ross, shows a more mature Lawrence. His correspondents are also more illustrious, among them Charlotte Shaw and her husband, famed author Bernard Shaw.
The letters provide — while not, for the most part, travel writing per se — interesting insights into Lawrence the man. Some of them are collected here.
T. E. Lawrence died, aged 46, from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident on May 19, 1935. His death, like his life, was tragically heroic — he had swerved to avoid children in the road, in the process losing control over his Brough Superior SS100 motorbike.
He lies interred at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
In Churchill’s words: “The world looks with some awe upon a man who appears unconcernedly indifferent to home, money, comfort, rank, or even power and fame. The world feels not without a certain apprehension, that here is some one outside its jurisdiction; some one before whom its allurements may be spread in vain; some one strangely enfranchised, untamed, untrammelled by convention, moving independently of the ordinary currents of human action.”
Next time: Gertrude Bell — The Original Female Solo Traveller