Lawrence in Arabia | Scott Anderson

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


Embark on an enlightening journey through the intricate historical events that shaped the modern Middle East in ‘Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East’ by Scott Anderson. Delve deep into the life of T.E. Lawrence, the brilliant yet enigmatic figure pivotal to Middle Eastern affairs during World War I, alongside three other men: Curt Prüfer, Aaron Aaronsohn, and William Yale, who all played significant roles in the region’s tumultuous times. Anderson vividly paints a picture of the intrigue, deceit and ambition that engulfed the region, ultimately sowing the seeds of many of the challenges the Middle East faces today.

The Early Years of Lawrence of Arabia

Thomas Edward Lawrence, the man known for his role in the Middle East during World War I, had a middle-class upbringing in Oxford, where he developed a passion for history, especially of Europe and Egypt. During his senior thesis, he embarked on a project to study the castles built during the Crusades in Syria. Impressed with his work, the staff at Oxford invited him to stay in the Middle East to assist in an archaeological dig. He worked in Carchemish, a border city of Turkey and Syria, for three years and became well-versed in Middle Eastern culture. Lawrence earned the respect of the locals, and his ability to lead and work long hours under the desert sun proved his capability. The world plunged into World War I during his time in Carchemish, and Lawrence’s knowledge of the region and his ability to lead would prove essential.

Three Men of Note

This summary dives deep into the lives of three significant figures – Curt Prüfer, Aaron Aaronsohn, and William Yale – and their roles in the political turmoil of Egypt and Palestine in the 1910s.

Curt Prüfer, a German spy working in the German embassy in Cairo, had plans of instigating a revolution by stirring up the Egyptian Muslims against the British Christians who ruled Egypt. With his love for foreign languages, he soon met influential people who shared his interests. However, he was fired from his embassy job in November 1913 by the British government, which Prüfer had not anticipated.

Aaron Aaronsohn, a Jewish agronomist in Palestine, was building a research facility to make Palestine fertile and lush again while simultaneously trying to appeal to Western governments to support the Zionist cause. By this time, William Yale’s family fortune had declined, and he was employed with Standard Oil to find new sources of oil in the Middle East.

Together, these three men of note played significant roles in the political turmoil of Egypt and Palestine in the early 1910s.

The Decline of the Ottoman Empire

In 1913, four men noticed that the Ottoman Empire was in decline. The empire had lost territories and was filled with diverse populations, leading to instability. The rise of the Young Turks political party had formed a new government that struggled to maintain control. Led by the Three Pashas, the weakened Ottoman Empire entered World War I, and ultimately aligned with Germany against the British and Egypt.

War and the Struggles in Palestine

The book tells the story of the struggles in Palestine during World War I. As the war broke out, the Allied Powers and the Central Powers emerged, with the Ottoman Empire siding with the latter. Jews and Christians were stripped of weapons and taken into Turkish labor camps while the military plundered everything for use in the war effort. In the midst of all this, Aaronsohn refused to flee Palestine. Meanwhile, Lawrence’s knowledge of the region and culture led to his appointment in the British military intelligence office in Cairo. However, despite his advice, the British and French launched the Gallipoli Campaign instead of striking at the Gulf of Alexandretta, leading to a massacre.

Oil, War, and Loyalty

William Yale finds himself in a challenging and deceitful situation when he secures drilling rights on half a million acres of land in Palestine, promising to drill for oil during World War I. On his way back to the US, he realizes he can use his connections for the Allied powers. Meanwhile, T. E. Lawrence grows frustrated with military incompetence and political interference in the Gallipoli Campaign.

As World War I breaks out, William Yale is tasked with securing drilling rights for Standard Oil on promising areas of land. Despite the war indefinitely pausing drilling plans, Yale finds a way to secure the rights to drill on half a million acres of land in Palestine from Djemal Pasha, without mentioning the fact that drilling will not happen until the war is over. Though Yale feels uneasy about the deceitful agreement, he remains loyal to his employer. On his way back to the US, he realizes that his connections and dealings in the Middle East can benefit the Allied powers.

At the same time, T. E. Lawrence grows increasingly frustrated by the inefficiency and political interference in the Gallipoli Campaign. He realizes that the decision to land in Gallipoli instead of Alexandretta was largely due to the French government’s interests in securing post-war Syria for its own political ends. Lawrence’s experience with military intelligence leaves him eager to make a more direct impact and do actual good outside of Cairo offices. The story highlights the challenges faced by individuals in war and the influence of politics and loyalty in decision-making.

The Arab Revolt

In 1915, an Arab lieutenant surrendered to the British and revealed the Arabs’ willingness to fight against the Turks. Negotiations between the Arabs and the British commenced, with King Emir Hussein wanting a guarantee of independence for Arab territories after the war. Lawrence served as a British liaison to Prince Faisal and his army, and the Arab Uprising finally began on June 5, 1916. While in Europe, the Allied Powers drafted the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which granted France, Britain, and Russia control over Arab territories. Lawrence and Faisal formed a close relationship, and Lawrence tried to undermine the British and French’s betrayal of the Arabs throughout the war.

Aaron Aaronsohn’s Journey to Becoming a Wartime Spy

Aaron Aaronsohn, a witness to the genocide of the Armenian population, becomes concerned about the Jewish population’s safety. In an effort to help the Allied forces, he records the location and size of Turkish armies, depots, supplies, and undefended coastlines but needs to get this information to the British. After sneaking out of the Ottoman Empire, Aaronsohn was greeted with skepticism but ultimately became a British military intelligence operative. He organized a group of 24 Jewish operatives to act as spies, passing valuable information about Turkish troops until the group was caught in Palestine. Aaronsohn’s political gains for his Zionist movement continued with the British government issuing the Balfour Declaration, confirming support for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Lawrence’s Daring Plan

In 1917, Lawrence shed his British uniform and clothed himself in Arab garments to help the Arab Uprising. Knowing that the Arabs needed to capture land themselves to claim independence, he developed a plan to capture the Turkish fort in Aqaba. Rather than a traditional attack by boat, Lawrence led a small group of Arab soldiers to move inland through the Wadi Sirhan desert to capture the fort from behind. France was also planning a strike on Aqaba, so it was crucial for the Arabs to get there first. Meanwhile, Prüfer, blinded by geographical isolation, failed to recognize the realities of the war. In his reports, he considered Jews “docile and obedient,” and the Arabs “too cowardly to rise up against the Turks.” Lawrence’s daring plan helped the Arabs progress in the war.

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