Thursday, May 19, 2011

May 19, 1935 – Lawrence of Arabia Begins Tour of Independent Middle East

On the nineteenth anniversary of the conclusion of the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement talks, famed arabophile Theodore Edward Lawrence began his tour of the independent states of the Middle East.

The fate of the Middle East had always seemed to be wrapped in incursion from outside powers. As it acted as the central point between Asia, Africa, and Europe, the region had constantly been crucial to human development, trade, and warfare. Waves of conquests by Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, and Turks flowed over the region as millennia passed. As the Great War pitted the Allies against the “Dying Man” of the Ottoman Empire, the question came to France, Britain, and Russia as to what would come of the region when the Ottomans had collapsed.

In the first of a series of secret agreements, Russia and Britain agreed that Russia was to gain Constantinople and the Dardanelles while Britain gained southerly lands. Russia began to fade from the war as revolution broke out, and François Georges-Picot met with Sir Mark Sykes of Britain to guarantee a French mandate in Syria. The British agreed, though only secretly as the war effort had been working to invoke the Arab populace under the Ottoman Empire to revolt. Spoils might be divided only if the war was won, and using Arabs to fight the Ottomans for the Allies would aid in the victory.

Crucial to the war effort in the Middle East was a young archaeologist named T.E. Lawrence. He had been born illegitimately to Sir Thomas Chapman, who left his wife to live with Theodore’s mother, Sarah Junner. The family moved to Oxford, where Lawrence attended Jesus College, graduating with firsts and moving to Egypt to work on excavations with the likes of Hogarth, Woolley, and Petrie. By the outbreak of the World War I, Lawrence had traveled extensively in the Middle East and established a name for himself, prompting a position in the Intelligence Staff in Cairo. Meanwhile, the Arab Bureau of the Foreign Office had concocted a scheme of draining Ottoman resources by supporting an Arab revolt in their territories. Lawrence was sent as advisor, but he soon joined the Arab cause himself.

Told through sensationalistic journalism by American war correspondent Lowell Thomas, Lawrence fought alongside Arab irregulars under Emir Faisal, son of Sherif Hussein of Mecca. They made a surprise overland attack on Aqaba, the success of which caused Lawrence to be promoted to major and given a “free hand” by Sir Edmund Allenby, commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force. During the ending days of the war, Lawrence aided in the fall of Damascus, which would soon be capital of Syria, but not the independent state that Lawrence and his Arabic allies were promised. After the war, the Bolsheviks of Russia leaked the secret of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which outraged the Arabs and embarrassed the British.

In a bold push, Lawrence and others demanded the promised liberation of the Middle East from British administration. Finally in 1922, using the resources of Winston Churchill and threatening a war, the Middle East was divided diplomatically into states with self-rule. France refused to give up its hold on Syria, and Lawrence made good on his promise to fight. Guerilla warfare through the 1920s and early ‘30s finally destroyed French interest in the region, and Syria was freed, taking its place as an independent state alongside those of Kurdistan, Sunnistan, Shia-Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine.

Lawrence, wealthy through the publications of his memoirs in Seven Pillars of Faith, Revolt in the Desert, and Rains Fell, became a hobbyist pilot and continued his lifelong enjoyment of motorcycles. He returned to Britain, hated by some and applauded by many, and he planned to retire in Dorset. However, just before a daily motorcycle ride, he received a telegram from Ghazi I, son of his old friend Faisal who had become King of Iraq, asking him to join the work continuing his father’s dream of a pan-Arabic confederation. Lawrence agreed and arrived in Bagdad shortly thereafter, flying between Arabic centers until an untimely sand storm swallowed his plane, leaving him as a martyr for the cause.

While certain aspects of confederation have formed over the decades, the Middle East was once again torn between the influences of world powers as the Cold War pitted the Soviet Union against the United States. Discovery of significant oil deposits there have prompted further interest from the outside world, as has a minor but mentionable Zionist movement from Jews, particularly from their home state of Malta, given to refugees of the Holocaust.


In reality, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, though embarrassing, was largely upheld as the groundwork for the Middle East. Lawrence of Arabia bounced between positions in the RAF, RTC, and India. He regrettably ended his enlistment in the RAF in March of 1935, just two months before a road accident where he dodged two young cyclists at the cost of losing control of his motorcycle. Lawrence died six days later from his injuries.

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