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Middle East

The Complete Guide to Lawrence's Arabia

Winston Churchill described T E Lawrence as 'one of the great beings of our time'. David Orkin retraces his steps through Arabia



Popularly known as Lawrence of Arabia, Thomas Edward Lawrence stands out as one of the most romantic figures in the history of the British Empire. At his funeral, Winston Churchill said: "He was one of the greatest beings of our time. Whatever our need, we shall never see his like again."

Born in Tremadoc, Wales, in 1888, he was the second of five illegitimate boys. His family settled in Oxford where he went to school and developed a childhood fascination with the Middle Ages. In 1907, Lawrence enrolled at Oxford's Jesus College on a history scholarship. Here he found a mentor in David Hogarth, the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, who directed Lawrence's reading, pointing him to the military hit-and-run tactics made famous in Roman times by Procopius. Additionally, Hogarth drilled Lawrence on the tactics used in every major battle in recorded history.

The Ashmolean, Britain's oldest public museum (01865 278000; www.ashmol.ox.ac.uk), opens from Tuesday to Saturday 10am-5pm and Sunday 2-5pm. Admission is free, and it displays Lawrence's archaeological finds from Syria.

Lawrence was only 5ft 5in tall and his head looked too big for his body. He was very conscious of his stature, and from an early age worked on his stamina, practised going without sleep and rode a bicycle 100 miles a day. Later he learnt to be a marksman. For most of his life, Lawrence was a vegetarian and he abstained from alcohol and tobacco. Through this regime he developed what he described as "the strength of a man twice my size".

In 1909, Lawrence left England to work at an archaeological excavation in Carchemish, on the present day borders of south-eastern Turkey and northern Syria. He walked more than 1,100 miles through the region studying Crusader castles, living and eating with the local people and learning their customs. The best source of information on his life is the TE Lawrence Society, PO Box 728, Oxford OX2 6YP; www.telsociety.org.


Though he worked in Cairo in the early years of the First World War, Lawrence's Arabia can best be described as what the Arabs call Bilad Al Sham (what we know as The Levant), a region controlled for 400 years by the Ottomans. The present-day territories within it are Saudi Arabia, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria; in Lawrence's day, the map showed Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Trans-Jordan and Syria. It is the land occupied by modern-day Jordan with which Lawrence is most associated.


When Germany and Austria declared war on Britain, France and Russia in 1914, they aligned themselves with the Ottoman Empire. Though destined for eventual independence, Egypt was then a British protectorate in the front line against the Ottoman forces, which had dominated the Middle East for four centuries. Britain wanted to push the Ottomans out and prevent other powers from controlling the Suez Canal and the region's oil reserves.

Initially, Britain underestimated the Ottoman Empire, and regarded the Ottoman Sultan's war as a nuisance rather than a danger. Although France and Russia were at that time Britain's allies, historic rivalries would resume after the hostilities. Anticipating this, and unwilling to commit British troops, much needed in Europe, to the Middle East, Lord Kitchener - the War Minister - made contact with Emir Hussein of Mecca in 1914. The Arabs were encouraged to revolt and fight to drive out the Ottomans, with independence promised as a reward.


In October 1916, Lawrence sailed from Egypt to Jeddah to meet the sons of the Emir Hussein. He became convinced that Feisal was the son who should lead the Arab cause. He also saw that the Bedouin would be better fighting a guerrilla war than a conventional one. Prince Feisal duly became the Arab field commander; he requested that Lawrence be made his British liaison officer. In the two years that followed, Lawrence was to be instrumental in keeping the Arab movement alive and directing it to help the Allied war effort.

One of the secrets of Lawrence and Feisal's success was their ability to survive in the desert while remaining undetected by the Turks: the Bedouin had millennia of experience in living off the land and their local knowledge was invaluable.

Lawrence's and Feisal's men dynamited the Hejaz Railway, the major Turkish supply line, several times. The railway was originally built to take pilgrims from Damascus to Medina, a distance of around 800 miles. First conceived in 1864, it was not completed until 1908. As well as carrying pilgrims, the Turkish army began to use the railway as its chief mode of transport for troops and supplies. Consequently, Lawrence and the Arab forces made repeated efforts to cripple sections of the line, particularly in the Maan area. After the First World War, attempts were made to revive the railway, but road and air transport were now established and rendered its restoration too expensive. In the Seventies, a new line (the Aqaba railway) was built in the south of Jordan to the west of the old line to carry minerals to Aqaba's port.

In 1999, passenger services were resumed between Amman and Damascus (00 962 6 489 5413) using the old track and reconditioned engines and carriages. However, the 200-mile journey can take between seven and 10 hours (it's about four hours by bus) and no passenger services operate south of Amman. Much of the old track and most of the station buildings are still in place and continue to attract railway historians: for example, if you contact the Jordan Tourism Board (0870 770 6933; www.see-jordan.com) in advance you can visit the old Maan station, and site of King Abdullah I's Palace. In addition, pieces of the old track can also be seen holding up an exterior balcony of a building in the town of Madaba.


In one of the campaign's most celebrated manoeuvres, Lawrence and Feisal took the fort at Aqaba, then a sleepy fishing port but a vital gateway for the push north to Damascus. Today, Aqaba is a popular seaside resort just across the frontier from the Israeli resort of Eilat (itself just a frontier line away from Egypt), and offers a quieter alternative to both. Just a few yards from the Red Sea you can visit the Aqaba Fort, taken by Lawrence and the Arab forces in 1916. After this triumph Lawrence based himself at Azraq Fort to the east of Amman, where you can see the very room from which he planned his guerrilla sorties.

You can reach Aqaba by air from Amman (the Tourism Board can provide details), but the road journey from the capital will enable you to see more Lawrence sights along the way.

To the south-west of Amman, not far from the Dead Sea, is the Crusader castle at Kerak, which also greatly impressed him, as did Jordan's most famous (and justifiably so) tourist icon, the Nabataean ruins of Petra.


It has to be Wadi Rum, an area of desert relatively close to the highway between Amman and Aqaba. It's no exaggeration to say that shots of its magnificent and extraordinary desert scenery kick-started Jordan's tourist industry when David Lean's film Lawrence of Arabia came out in the early Sixties.

In his book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence made no secrets of his feelings about Wadi Rum. He describes the place as "Rum the magnificent", and says he was "overcome with awe" at the "vast, echoing and God-like" scenery.

Nearly a century later, the scenery still ranks with that of any of the world's great deserts. There are no conventional hotels at Wadi Rum but it lies just an hour by road from Aqaba (where there are numerous accommodation possibilities). For a more authentic experience, stay a night or two with the Bedouin at one of their desert camps.

A good choice for a balance between luxury and authenticity is Captain's Desert Camp (00 962 3 201 6905; www.captains-jo.com), which offers accommodation in a Bedouin tent for 25 Jordanian Dinar (£20) per person half-board. Wherever you stay, you can take a 4x4 trip into the desert (approximately JOD18/£14.50 for an hour; longer trips approximately JOD10/£8 per hour), take a camel ride, and climb the sandstone cliffs and sand dunes, or for a truly rewarding experience set off for a multi-day trip. For more information, contact Wadi Rum Mountain Guides (Fax: 00 962 3 203 2651; www.bedouinroads.com).

Based in Azraq and dodging in and out of Wadi Rum, Lawrence and his men continued harassing the Turks with guerrilla sorties as vast numbers of Allied forces (spearheaded by Australian and New Zealand (Anzac) cavalry) advanced on the Ottoman-held Damascus. The oldest continuously inhabited city on earth eventually fell to the Allies, and a few days later, Lawrence and Feisal triumphantly entered the city on camels.


With the Allied victory came disappointment for the Arabs. They were unaware that Britain and France had already carved up the area in 1916. At the 1919 Peace Conference, Lawrence campaigned on behalf of Feisal, causing some on the British side to question his loyalties. Despite the promises made to the Arabs, Syria (including what is now Lebanon) went to the French, and Palestine (including what is now Israel) and Trans-Jordan (which was later renamed the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan) came under British control. It was commercially important for both the British and the French to have access to both the Mediterranean and points east; even 85 years ago oil was thought worth fighting for.

Knowing that the Arabs had been betrayed, Lawrence became a public critic of Britain's Middle East policy. In an act of protest, he refused to accept medals and wrote repeatedly to newspapers to promote Arab independence. He wrote of the Arabs: "They did not risk their lives in battle to change masters but to win a show of their own."

In 1920, Churchill called Lawrence back into government service, to work as an adviser in the Colonial Office. In this role, he helped construct a pro-Arab settlement for the Middle East. Following the Cairo Conference in 1921, Feisal was installed as the ruler of Iraq and his brother, Abdullah, was appointed the first King of Trans-Jordan.


Lawrence was largely unknown in Britain during the First World War. But in 1919, an American journalist-cum-showman named Lowell Thomas brought a "slide and lantern show" depicting a version of the Arabian exploits to London. "Lawrence of Arabia" became a star. But he was not happy with his fame, and to escape his celebrity he joined the RAF under the assumed name John Hume Ross. He was found out. Lawrence then moved to his adopted county of Dorset, enlisting in the Royal Tank Regiment as Thomas Edward Shaw, a name that remained with him when he transferred back into the RAF and up until he died.

Lawrence was killed in a road accident in Dorset in May 1935. Speeding on his motorbike (as was usual for him), he veered to avoid hitting two children and was thrown over the handlebars. Just as might have happened today, there were conspiracy theories aplenty and rumours of possible suicide.

He was buried a few miles away from where he was killed, in the village of Moreton. Churchill and the King of Iraq attended his funeral. His coffin was inscribed "To TEL, who should sleep among Kings." In death as in life, mystery surrounded Lawrence. He once said: "On the whole I prefer lies to truth, particularly where they concern me." When asked a factual question about an event during the Arabian campaign, he responded: "What does it matter? History is but a series of accepted lies."


Lean's 1962 film, starring Omar Sharif, and Peter O'Toole as TE Lawrence, is one of the great cinematic epics. Having said that - and although the film won seven Academy Awards - as in TE's own writings, fact and fiction are often interspersed.

Though the most stunning settings were filmed against a backdrop of the real Wadi Rum, the film was also shot on location in Spain and Morocco. There are geographical inaccuracies in the dialogue and purists complain about out-of-place architecture.

Though the attack on Aqaba was important, the scale of the battle and the size of Aqaba were exaggerated. It's also widely accepted by historians that Feisal's and Lawrence's men were not the first of the Allies to enter Damascus: that honour went to the Anzac cavalry. One of TE's brothers, Arnold, said that he hated the film, calling it "pretentious and false". The American journalist Thomas - perhaps miffed that in the film he was portrayed as "Jackson Bentley" - was even blunter. The man who marketed the real Lawrence said: "They only got two things right: the camels and the sand."


The best and most easily accessible remnants of Lawrence's Arabia are to be found in Jordan, but Saudi Arabia is gradually opening up to tourists as long as they travel on group tours such as those offered by Bales Worldwide (0870 241 3208; www.balesworldwide.com).

Syria is relatively easy to reach. Between 1911 and 1914, when working as an archaeologist in nearby Carchemish, Lawrence stayed regularly at the the Baron Hotel in the Syrian city of Aleppo (00 963 21 211 0881). The hotel still proudly displays one of his unpaid bar bills. Double rooms cost from £2600 Syrian pounds (£28) per night including breakfast. Aleppo can be accessed by bus from Damascus or by overnight train from Kadam Station. Buses to the north depart from the Pullman/ Harasta station. You can also fly from Damascus with Syrian Airlines (020-7631 3511; www.syrian-airlines.com).

In addition, after visiting it on his study tour in 1909, Lawrence called Krak des Chevaliers (between Homs and Tartus in eastern Syria), "the finest castle in the world". It is open from 9am-6pm during the summer and from 9am-4pm during the winter. Admission is S£150 (£1.60). The ticket office (00 963 31 740 002) has further information. Buses run from Homs, Hama and Tartus. Homs offers the easiest journey, with direct buses to the castle costing around S£25 (30p) and taking about an hour each way.

Visitors to Syria need a visa. They are available from the Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic at 8 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8PH (020-7245 9012; www.syrianembassy.co.uk). The visa section is open from 10am-12pm Monday to Friday - visas for British nationals cost £32 and take five working days to process.


Various airlines fly to Amman in Jordan, but only Royal Jordanian (020-7878 6300; www.rja.com.jo) and British Airways franchise partner British Mediterranean (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) offer direct flights, both from Heathrow. You can travel between Jordan's main cities by bus using companies such as JETT (00 962 6 562 1217) or Trust International (00 962 6 581 3422), or shared service taxis that follow set routes. Unfortunately, none of these are convenient for the sites, making independent travel awkward.

Various UK tour operators offer programmes in Jordan: try Explore Worldwide's 10-day "Lawrence's Arabia" (01252 760000; www.exploreworldwide.com). Bales Worldwide does tailor-made itineraries, or a nine-day "In the Footsteps of Lawrence" tour (0870 241 3208; www.balesworldwide.com).