Lawrence of Arabia and the Thrice Promised Land

May 31, 2016No Comments »

One of the most romantic figures of twentieth century popular culture is undoubtedly Thomas Edward Lawrence. Lionised during and after the Great War slaughterhouse of industrial death as a hero of irregular political warfare in exotic places, all eccentric colour and movement, Lawrence was a latter-day exponent of the middle class echelon which provided the British Empire with so many of its cadres from the Elizabethan age on, when his forbears were involved in the colonisation of Ireland. In maturity Lawrence admitted to having wanted to be a hero since boyhood. The illegitimate son of Anglo-Irish gentry brought up in Oxford, Lawrence necessarily had an uneasy relation with the truth, evident in his romanticised memoir The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Lawrence nevertheless had a countervailing streak of integrity. This emerges clearly from an incident of self- deprecation after the war motivated by shame over British double-dealing with the Arabs during and after the Great War.

Palestine is sometimes referred to as the thrice promised land, an allusion to the legend of its having been promised by God to the Jews and by the British to both the Jews and the Arabs. Between July 1915 and January 1916 Sir Henry McMahon British High Commissioner in Egypt was in correspondence with the Hashemite Sharif of Mecca with a view to encouraging an Arab revolt against the Turks and the subsequent creation of an Arab state or states in the Middle East. McMahon studiously omitted reference to Palestine in this correspondence, an omission the Sharif just as studiously ignored. Each party therefore were parties to a contradictory Machiavellian understanding. Lawrence subsequently felt that the Versaille settlement based on the infamous wartime Franco-British Sykes-Picot partition plan for the Middle East was in derogation of the expectations the British had fostered in the Arabs in general and the Hashemites in particular.

After the war, Lawrence was presented to the King to receive a decoration.

`During the course of the conversation, Colonel Lawrence said that he had pledged his word to Feisal [the Hashemite prince], and that now the British Government were about to let down the Arabs over the Sykes-Picot Agreement. He was an Amir among the Arabs and intended to stick to them through thick and thin and, if necessary, fight against the French for the recovery of [occupied] Syria. Colonel Lawrence said that he did not know that he had been gazetted or what the etiquette was in such matters, but he hoped the King would forgive any want of courtesy on his part in not taking the decorations.’ [Stewart,TE Lawrence p216]

By Dr David Faber, Adjunct Senior Lecturer, Flinders University, 2 December 2012.

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