Have you ever wondered how far your curiosity for history can take you?
T.E. Lawrence's took him on a whirlwind adventure.
As a boy, Thomas Edward Lawrence was a dreamy eccentric. Born in 1888, he spent his teenage years bicycling around medieval churches to copy engravings. Caught in the grips of the Industrial Revolution, the Victorian England of his childhood was fixated on progress. Yet he looked back in time. He studied archeology at Oxford, then fled England for Syria at the age of 22 to learn Arabic.
No one ever dreamed this gawky boy from Wales would become one of the most famous strategists and diplomats in British history.
In 1914, the world erupted into what would become the First World War. At the time, most of the Middle East was ruled by a Turkish state known as the Ottoman Empire. Once powerful, the Ottomans had suffered a century of decline that left them vulnerable to predatory British and French financiers. To preserve the tottering Empire and reverse humiliating concessions at the hands of Europeans, the Ottoman Turks joined Germany and declared war on Britain and France.
Within the immense Ottoman Empire there existed many ethnic groups that resented Turkish domination. The Arabs, a diverse people whose territory stretched from modern-day Syria to the vast reaches of the blistering Arabian Desert, where among them. In 1916, the British promised the Arab leader Hussein bin Ali that if he joined them in revolting against the Ottomans he could form an independent Arab nation after the war.
Under his leadership, the Arabs managed to seize the city of Mecca, but initially fared poorly against the better-armed and much larger Ottoman Army. Then they met T.E. Lawrence.
Now 28, Lawrence had been recruited by the British to serve as a liaison to the Arabs. Remember, he could speak their language. Traveling by camel to Hussein’s camp, Lawrence discovered that Hussein’s third son Feisal was destined to become leader of the revolt. So, in a display of independent-mindedness that would become his hallmark, Lawrence became Feisal’s self-appointed advisor.
While the young archeologist had never had a day of military training, Lawrence’s understanding of the history and people of the region convinced him that the Arabs could more effectively fight the Ottomans with legs, rather than arms: While skilled at conventional warfare, the Ottomans couldn’t cope with Arab speed and flexibility and their ability to negotiate the desert. When the Ottomans marched on Mecca, Lawrence and the Arabs rode their camels 200 miles behind the enemy to strike their vulnerable bases. By 1918, Feisal’s force of 5,000 riders had captured 35,000 Ottoman soldiers and liberated Arab territory as far north as Syria.
Then came the betrayal.
While the Arabs were struggling for their promised independence, the British and French secretly agreed to divide the Middle East between themselves without input from local inhabitants. When their deal became public, Lawrence was bitterly ashamed of his nation’s leadership. In the presence of King George V, he refused a knighthood in 1919.
Lawrence’s popularity as a dashing war hero, now known as “Lawrence of Arabia,” eventually led the Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill to recruit him as an advisor. In 1921, Lawrence helped negotiate the creation of the independent Arab states of Jordan and Iraq, with Feisal and his brother Abdullah as rulers. Although Lawrence was apprehensive over the arbitrary borders drawn by British diplomats, he considered his role in the creation of the first free Arab states the proudest moment of his life.
T.E. Lawrence harnessed history, not arms, to define a strategy for success. What’s more he used his linguistic prowess and appreciation of culture to become a bridge between diverse nations and peoples. He is the original cultural ambassador. That's why he's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. Many thanks to Jonathan Duff of London, Paris, and Dubai for nominating him.