Jun 2nd 2016
AGAINST the vast, terrible tableau of the First World War it was just a detail. Far from the fields of France, the main theatre of battle, a few hundred Bedouin operated behind enemy lines, assisting the British campaign against the Ottoman Empire. T.E. Lawrence, the British intelligence officer who orchestrated their attacks on Ottoman supply lines, called them “a sideshow of a sideshow”. Yet a century on, the Arab Revolt continues to capture imaginations. This year alone it has inspired a slew of docudramas, books and exhibitions, and even an archaeological-style desert dig for souvenirs. Jordan is marking the centenary with a national holiday. A new play, “Lawrence after Arabia”, is attracting packed houses in London; another is in production. To its contemporary admirers, history’s last cavalry charges through the dunes offered heroic, romantic relief from four years of global industrialised killing. Their cause, of Arab liberation from Turkish oppression, gave a momentary sense of moral clarity to a war-torn world which seemed to have lost its way. To its detractors, Britain’s machinations ruptured centuries of Middle Eastern stability under Ottoman rule, plunging the region into a chaos from which it has yet to emerge.
On June 5th 1916, Sharif Hussein bin Ali, the Ottoman emir in Mecca, turned on his overlords and attacked the Turkish garrison in Medina. In the declaration of war that followed, the Hashemite ruler proclaimed that he was not fighting the Ottoman sultan, who for half a millennium had presided over a multinational empire encompassing most of the Middle East, but rather the Turkish nationalists and supremacists who had taken the helm in Istanbul. As his sons—Ali, Abdullah and Faisal—pushed north, his ambitions broadened. He proclaimed himself first King of the Hijaz, the western littoral of the Arabian Peninsula, and then, as his irregular forces advanced into the Fertile Crescent: King of the Arabs. A year later, his camel corps took the Ottoman port of Aqaba, at the tip of the Red Sea. In October 1918 they reached Damascus, joining British-led forces marching from Palestine to push the retreating Turks from the Arab world.
That high point of co-operation quickly receded. Britain had roused the Bedouin against their Sunni masters with sacks of gold, arms, training and prestige, but most of all with the promise that they would inherit the lands the Ottomans left behind. But it also promised much of the same territory to the French and the Jews, and harboured territorial aspirations of its own. As Britain’s interest in Arab rule lapsed, the Hashemites lost Islam’s three holiest cities in rapid succession—Mecca, Medina and, after a brief tenure from 1948 to 1967, the Old City of Jerusalem. With them it also lost its choicest lands: Syria in 1923 (to the French), the Hijaz in 1926 (to the Al Sauds) and Iraq in 1958 (to republicans). The largely barren rump of Jordan, ruled by Sharif Hussein’s great-great-grandson, King Abdullah II, remains their last surviving possession.
In modern Arab lore, Britain’s abandonment of the Arab Revolt epitomises Albion’s perfidy. The British diplomat who designed the flag of Arab independence, Mark Sykes, carved up that same Arab land with his French counterpart, François Georges-Picot, into French and British mandates. Partition rent what had been the multicultural and multi-faith realm of the Ottomans. It spawned competing sectarian and ethnic militias which jostled to dominate the Middle East after the Ottomans.
The Arab Revolt also established guerrilla warfare as a modern instrument of political change. Arab tribesmen reinforced with foreign fighters, including undercover British and French agents and Arab soldiers from as far afield as Algeria and Iraq, preyed on the region’s ancient cities. The Revolt’s raids on trains, bridges and railways; its slaughter rather than capture of prisoners; its frequent recourse to looting; its battle for land; and its religious appeal all share more with the region’s contemporary Islamist militancy than convention admits. A century on, the battle to succeed the Ottomans as regional arbiters remain unresolved. In the words of Howard Brenton, the playwright of “Lawrence after Arabia”: “We live in the mess they left.”