Sunday, June 24, 2018


Riding a camel and fighting like a Bedouin tribesman, T.E. Lawrence played a leading role as a British adviser to Prince Feisal during the Arab revolt against Turkish rule (1916–1918) and was clearly torn between his pro-British and pro-Arab sympathies. As an adviser to Winston Churchill after the war, Lawrence helped establish Prince Feisal’s family, the Husseins, as rulers in the Middle East. The present King Hussein of Jordan is the beneficiary of Lawrence’s work in helping his grandfather, King Abdullah, solidify control of Transjordan.

Much of Lawrence’s story is fairly well known, But despite all this publicity, it is sometimes forgotten that Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888–1935) was a very competent Middle Eastern archaeologist before the war and that his archaeological activities and Biblical interests helped shape him for the military and political role he later played. Although his pre-war work focused on the Crusaders and on the Hittites, he contributed to the resolution of at least one important issue in Biblical archaeology and touched on several others.

Indeed, Lawrence derived his earliest interest in the Middle East from his religious training. The Bible was read in Lawrence’s home in the mornings before he and his four brothers went to school and on Sundays, and he studied the Holy Land during his Sunday school classes. Given this training and his exceptional abilities, it is not surprising that at the age of 16 Lawrence achieved distinction in an examination of religious knowledge.1

Lawrence’s family was more devout than most—with special reason. His father, originally named Chapman, was the lord of a manor in Ireland. He ran off with the family governess, leaving four daughters and a wife who never divorced him. The father and the governess
had Lawrence. He was dispossessed of his rightful inheritance because of his parents’ illicit relationship, which may have given him sympathy for the national movements of various groups who considered themselves dispossessed. It may also have strengthened his steadily developing interest in castles and their lords.

At a relatively early age, Lawrence began studying the Middle Ages, especially the time of the Crusades. When he was only nine, he took up the very British hobby of “brass rubbing,” recording the inscriptions and insignia on medieval tombs by placing a cloth over them and rubbing them with a waxy substance, leaving a black impression on the cloth. He loved medieval artifacts, including books, crypts and clothing.

At 13, Lawrence bicycled to various castles and churches in England, and during the summers of 1906 through 1908, he toured France, again on bicycle, studying castles and sending home detailed letters, sometimes accompanied by excellent sketches, concerning them. During his student days at Oxford from 1907 to 1910, these pursuits culminated in a professional interest in the great strongholds built by the Crusaders in the Holy Land. He was encouraged in this interest by D.G. Hogarth, keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, who had noticed Lawrence’s exceptional abilities when Lawrence worked at the museum as an undergraduate.

Lawrence chose the topic of Crusader castles, then a relatively new subject of academic study, for his honors B.A. thesis, and in the summer of 1909 set out to do fieldwork in the Middle East. This involved a 1,100-mile walking tour in broiling heat. During that summer, Lawrence who turned 21 on August 16, 1909, visited no fewer than 36 castles in the area that now comprises Syria, Lebanon and Israel. During this trip, Lawrence, although never as religious as his mother, was nonetheless influenced by Biblical memories.

Based on this firsthand research, Lawrence’s thesis was so good that his tutor threw a dinner party in his honor and he received a “First,” the rare, highest grade possible at Oxford. The thesis was first published in 1936 and has recently been published again in two different editions. In it, Lawrence advances the controversial idea that except for the newer fortresses of the Templars, the Crusader castles were influenced almost exclusively by Western designs. The prevailing opinion at the time was that the Crusaders had been strongly influenced by Eastern architectural designs. It now appears that Lawrence was extreme in finding only Western influence in Crusader architecture, apart from that of the Templars. It is now generally agreed that all Crusader orders were influenced by both Eastern and Western castle architecture and that they often created their own unique designs. The longer the Crusaders stayed in the East, the more Eastern influence exerted itself on them.

After Lawrence’s graduation in 1910, Hogarth used a small scholarship to bring him to the dig that he himself was conducting in Jerablus, Syria. This was the site of Carchemish, the eastern capital of the ancient Hittite empire. The Hittites (and later the neo-Hittites) ruled much of the Middle East from about the 13th through the 9th century B.C.E.a They are referred to in many places in the Bible: Abraham bought the cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite (Genesis 23) and both David and Solomon enlisted Hittites among their soldiers. David had Uriah the Hittite killed so that he could have Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11). Solomon apparently had Hittite wives and sold chariots and horses to the Hittites (1 Kings 10:29; 11:1). This powerful people was, however, defeated by the Assyrian king Sargon II at Carchemish in 717 B.C.E.

At this dig, Lawrence worked not only with Hogarth but with C. Leonard Woolley, who later discovered Ur of the Chaldees.b Here Lawrence served as the foreman of a group of local workers. He copied inscriptions, photographed finds, catalogued discoveries, bought antiquities and used his mechanical ingenuity to solve any small problems that would arise. This dig and the subsequent publication of its results, titled Carchemish: Report on the Excavations at Djerabis on Behalf of the British Museum, containing contributions by Lawrence, set the course of future British study of the Hittites. During the dig, Lawrence played a leading role in salvaging many important objects from a cemetery that was being looted, and recognized that some of the graves were from the later Parthian period (c. 250 B.C.E.—250 C.E.).5

As an apprentice at Carchemish, Lawrence increased his knowledge of archaeology and made worthy contributions of his own. He also took part in covering up a spying expedition—a precursor of things to come.

In December 1913 a telegram from the British Museum directed Woolley and Lawrence to join Captain Stewart Newcombe of the Royal Engineers in Beersheva, then part of Palestine, for a six-week survey. On the surface, the expedition was archaeological: to look at the Biblical, Nabatean and Byzantine sites in the northern Sinai and southern Negev deserts for the Palestine Exploration Fund. This archaeological expedition (which came to be called the Wilderness of Zin survey) received prior Turkish approval and was confined to a relatively small area. But as Lawrence wrote his mother, the real object was to spy on the Turkish defenses in southern Palestine, about a hundred miles from the Suez Canal.

Working with his mentor Leonard Woolley (who later excavated Ur), T. E. Lawrence helped draw plans of the Nabatean city Shivta that are still used. Prominent traders, merchants and caravan guides, the Nabateans controlled much of the land between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea in the first century C.E. Located in the central Negev desert, Shivta was probably founded during the reign of the Nabatean king Aretas IV (9 B.C.E.–40 C.E.), whose daughter married Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. The city prospered as the Nabateans began to breed horses and to farm the desert.

Since Aqaba was outside the Turkish-approved survey area, Lawrence and Dahoum had to evade the Turkish police to explore this town, which would become the site of Lawrence’s most important military victory during World War I. After a daring swim during which they used an improvised raft made of their camel water-tanks, they explored the ruined structure, possibly of Crusader origins, on the Ile de Graye (now also called Jezirat Faroun and the Coral Island), about 250 yards from the Sinai coast and approximately 7 miles south of Aqaba.c Lawrence was ordered away from Aqaba after this expedition but was able to study the area north of Aqaba on his return journey to Carchemish via Petra, Maan and Damascus.

When World War I broke out in August 1914, Lawrence and Woolley were in England. They were told to finish their report on the survey quickly, to make the survey appear to have been solely archaeological in intent. While subscribers to the Palestine Exploration Fund publications received Woolley and Lawrence’s archaeological report, titled The Wilderness of Zin, Newcombe’s detailed maps and photos of the area went to the British military. The surprising thing is that this rushed book, designed as a cover for a relatively brief spying survey, remains of permanent importance in Biblical studies.

The Israeli archaeologist Rudolph Cohen has noted that Lawrence and Woolley were the first to study the remains on the Ain el-Qudeirat tell.d He bases his identification of the site as Kadesh-Barnea on the reasons given by Lawrence and Woolley in The Wilderness of Zin, and by Woolley in a 1914 article,9 even though Cohen’s own excavations uncovered no remains dating earlier than the tenth century B.C.E., the time of King Solomon. In The Wilderness of Zin, Lawrence and Woolley speculate that the tribes of Israel must have numbered some thousands and were possibly “a tribal group keeping to one district and moving a mile or two in this direction or in that as they devoured the pasture.” If so, they reasoned that only in the Kossaima district, which includes the sites of Ain el-Qudeirat, Kossaima, Muweilleh and Ain Kadeis, was there enough water and greenery to support a large tribal group. Moreover, Moses, in writing to the King of Edom, described Kadesh as “a city in the uttermost of thy border” (Numbers 20:16), and Lawrence and Woolley thought that the fortifications at Ain el-Qudeirat—assuming, on the basis of pottery, that they dated from the time of Moses—more nearly fit that description than any other site in the Kossaima area.

Woolley and Lawrence were also the first to identify the rough earthenware pottery now known as “Negev” pottery.

After the war, from 1919 to 1926, Lawrence wrote and rewrote a memoir of his role, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which is now widely regarded as one of the finest British autobiographies of the 20th century. Given his firsthand knowledge of and meditation on the Biblical sites in the Negev and Sinai, as well as his early Biblical training, it is no surprise to find that Lawrence refers to both the Old and the New Testaments at many points in this book.

Just as interesting as Lawrence’s use of Biblical phrases are his thoughts on Judaism and Islam, which he at first regarded as too ascetic and abstract to embody real love between God and man. But as he cleansed himself of the dirt of war and politics in a pool in the Wadi Rumm, in modern Jordan, as if in a baptism, he met an old Arab man. This man, whom he names a “new prophet,” declared, “The love is from God; and of God; and towards God.” This statement seemed to overturn all of Lawrence’s theories about the distance between God and man in Judaism and Islam, and to bring those religions closer to his conception of Christianity.

Because of the trust they placed in him, Lawrence was able to play a major role in bringing together Jews and Moslems in the service of peace. In 1919, when he was at the Paris Conference, he served as go-between for Prince Feisal, the leader of Arab nationalism at that time, and Chaim Weizmann, the head of the Zionist movement, when they signed the only treaty between the two movements until the 1978 Camp David accords. Both sides pledged to help one another and to work together. When Feisal was evicted from Syria by the French in 1920, this treaty became void. But that it existed at all was thanks entirely to Lawrence’s persistence and persuasion. To get them to sign it, Lawrence may have even mistranslated a bit to convince each party that the other was being more flexible than was in fact the case. But both Feisal and Weizmann always felt that Lawrence was friendly to their movements and that he had done them a service by bringing them together.


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