Chapters 41-58 of “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” are about Thomas Lawrence’s approach to Damascus on his way to Akaba. He was in the company of Auda Abu Tayi, Nasri and a group of Arab tribesmen with whom he intended to take control of the port town of Akaba from the Turks (Lawrence).
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This expedition was part of the Arab Revolt whose goal was to liberate Syria from the Turks. The Arab Revolt was orchestrated by the British, during The First World War, after Turkey entered the fray of the war on the side of Germans. The events described in this paper are useful in comprehending the course of that war, its outcome and the legacy it left in the Middle East.
It would also be important to understand how Lawrence meant for “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” to be read. In the book’s preface, Lawrence writes that it would be wrong to perceive the book as an objective account of the Arab Revolt. Rather, he asserts, it should be considered the subjective record of how he saw and felt about the happenings related to the revolt at the time. It was written after the actual events had taken place, and is as such to a large extent the product of his memory.
There are two reasons behind Britain’s instigation of the Arab Revolt. The first is that the British were aware that there was a possibility of a call of Jihad against the Allies by the warlike Arab tribes who were on the side of Germany and Turkey (Glubb, 58). The sheriff of Mecca had however inquired about Britain’s willingness to come to his aid against the Turks.
Having the custodians of Mecca at war with the British as allies would definitely have worked against a united jihad against the Allies (Glubb, 58). Secondly, the British being well aware of the resentment of the Arabs towards the Turks, decided to exploit their eagerness to revolt against the Turks in order for Britain to engage the Turkish army towards the Arabs while she herself engaged with Germany (Lawrence).
Promises had been made to the Arabs by the Britons to the effect that Syria would be declared independent and that an Arab state would be established in the Arabian Peninsula after the Turks had been defeated. It was however no intention of the British to fulfill this promise in view of her knowledge of France’s interest in Syria (Lawrence, Glubb, 108).
It is with this awareness that Lawrence led the Auda, Nasri and the tribesmen towards Damascus through Wadi Fejr, Houl, the Kaseim of Arfaja, Ghutti, Ageila and eventually Nebk (Lawrence).
On arrival at Nebk, Nesib, one of the tribesmen with whom they were riding with proposed that they should attack Damascus instead since he could not understand the tactical basis of attacking Akaba. He felt that since they were completely unexpected, Damascus would be more than easy to take. Lawrence on the other hand felt that such a course would have been hard to sustain because of two main factors.
Firstly, Feisal, in whose name they were attacking was still in Wejh and the British army, whose assistance they had to rely on, was still not in position (Lawrence). Akaba was important for the Arabs because it was strategically placed and also because it would give them an opportunity to link up with British troops.
At the same time, Akaba, in the hands of the Turks, was perceived to be potentially detrimental to the smooth running of the Suez Canal. Lawrence was able to prevail upon Auda and Nasri against Nesb’s ideas and they stayed put until everything was in place. Nesib therefore left the party, hoping to ferment a Syrian revolt against the Turks in Damascus (Lawrence).
It is here that we get to know of the guilt that was eating Lawrence up. While he knew of Britain’s plot after the fall of the Turks, he had not been honest with Feisal. He hoped, as they awaited the arrival of Feisal and the British troop to get ready and go on a wild foray into Syrian territory in order to fire up his resolve to carry on with the expedition.
He also resolved to make the Arab Revolt so successful that his government would have been unable to refuse the demands of a free Syria and the establishment of an Arab state. But this was not to happen.
Of significance in the selected chapters, first and foremost, is Lawrence, who was able to influence Feisal into fighting on the promise of an independent Syria and an Arab state in the Arabian Peninsula that was yet to be established. Arabs are seen here to be suspicious of the British, and more fundamentally, of faceless institutions that characterized British officialdom.
As such, they preferred to engage with individuals whose intentions they could better analyze and who could be questioned if anything was to go wrong. Lawrence, in going on these expeditions with the Arab tribesmen, had been able to gain their trust. He was, to them, the face of the British government, and because they trusted him, they trusted the British (Lawrence).
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There is on the other hand, Feisal, under whose banner the attack on Akaba would be made. Without him, Lawrence would have been incapable of raising an army of tribesmen with whom to raid Akaba. He would also have found it hard to cross the desert on his own. This, in retrospect was the most significant entity in the whole setup. It is because of the British government, its dishonesty and unwillingness to anger France that the events described would eventually become so important in understanding the history of the Middle East.
Lawrence eventually made his attack on Akaba, and Syria was finally freed from the Turks. Despite this, Turkey was however not to be recognized as an independent country. Instead it was placed under the French against the wishes of the Syrians themselves (Glubb, 128). This is in spite of the fact that the General Syrian Congress came up with a document that contained the wishes of the Syrian people which expressly demanded that Syria be recognized as an independent state.
It was later ignored by the Supreme Council of Allies and Syria was put under the control of France. Soon after the war ended, British troops were replaced by the French army in Syria (Glubb, 130). This will however prove to be a bone of contention between France and Britain since the British kept insisting that the independence of Syria was crucial. Feisal at last was forced to recognize the mandate of the French in Syria and would be pushed into the Arabian deserts in due course.
The Middle East was greatly affected by the actions described in the chosen chapters. As already mentioned above, Britain broke the promises made to the Arabs since it could not risk a fall out with the French. The French had always been interested in Syria. This resulted in the Arabs being perpetually suspicious of the British. During the Second World War, German troops would dislodge the French out of Syria.
The British on seeing this, and fearing what a Syria in German hands might mean, invaded Syria. This is in spite of the fact that the French still had 35,000 troops inside Syria (Glubb, 253). While the British maintained that they only wanted to free Syria from the Germans, this action was interpreted by the French to mean that Britain wanted Syria for herself. It would result in suspicion and jealousy between the French and Britons, and eventually managed to make Syrians pro-British (Glubb, 259).
In general, these events managed to make the Arab world both anti-British and Anti-French. There had been rumors that the British and French had initially conspired to divide up Syria between themselves, but no conclusive evidence has been found to back this claim. Nevertheless, the events that took place during the Second World War between Britain and France give some credence to this rumor. The Arab world interpreted the intentions of the British to be anti-Arab unity, something that would beset Arab-British relations onwards.
In conclusion, the military events related by Lawrence were part and parcel of the Arab Revolt. They actively contributed towards the eventual outcome of the revolt and can therefore be said to be partly responsible for the manner in which the Middle East region is currently understood.
Glubb, John. Britain and the Arabs: A Study of Fifty Years 1908 to 1958, London: J.B.G Ltd, 1959. Print.
Lawrence, Thomas. 2011. Seven Pillars of Wisdom. 2011. Web. <www.gutenberg.net.au>.