To Begin The World Over Again
Lawrence of Arabia from Damascus to Baghdad
By John C. Hulsman
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2009 John C. Hulsman
All rights reserved.
"[I like it] well; but it is far from Damascus."
—Lawrence to Prince Feisal, on the occasion of their first meeting, October 23, 1916, Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
Thomas Edward Lawrence was born in Tremadoc, Wales, on August 16, 1888, the second of his unmarried parents' five sons. His father, Sir Thomas Chapman, was a wealthy Anglo-Irish landowner descended from the Elizabethan adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh. Trapped in a disastrous marriage with a cold and fanatically pious wife, in the mid-1880s Sir Thomas had run away with the nanny to his four daughters, Sarah Lawrence, giving up the rights to his estate to his brother in return for 20,000 pounds and a yearly annuity. Chapman's furious wife refused to divorce him, forcing the stain of illegitimacy on Chapman's second family. In an attempt to break with the past, Chapman took his lover's surname, although it was never legally adopted.
Given Victorian social mores, the family was forced to move around a good deal, always fearing that scandal was following just behind them. Finally, in 1896, they settled in Oxford for good, at No. 2 Polstead Road. Ned (as Thomas Edward was known in the family) always considered Oxford his family's home.
Even as a child, Ned was an eccentric. Small, muscular, perpetually fidgeting, he was delicately handsome, with startlingly beautiful blue eyes, a large, well-made head, and long eyelashes; he was almost pretty. He had the ability, which he retained all his life, to draw others to him while remaining beyond their grasp. Possessing a soft voice and a nervous smile, Lawrence was often described in school as being quiet, self–possessed beyond his years, and cheerful but difficult to know. He was not, in English terms, clubbable, preferring solitary activities such as cycling or walking, while disdaining the organized sport that was so central to the English ruling-class ethos of his time. Even as a child, Lawrence was never much of a team player.
At the risk of being overly Freudian, it may be said that a large measure of the Lawrence's youthful diffidence sprung from his never ending emotional struggle with Sarah, who was the dominant influence, for both good and ill, on his childhood. Whereas his father was seen by outsiders as a nice but inconsequential man—a bearded, quiet, gentleman of leisure (the settlement had left the family comfortably off) and, like his son, a passionate cyclist and photographer—his mother inevitably provoked strong reactions in all who met her. Sarah was small and neat, with golden hair, the same electric blue eyes as her son, and a fixed, determined jaw. Like Thomas's wife, she was deeply religious. Although their life together was outwardly respectable, her guilt at her adultery with Chapman never entirely left her. While not well educated, she was intelligent and opinionated, ranging to downright bossy, yet capable also of great warmth and loyalty.
Sarah came to be a dominant influence in the lives of all her sons. She ran the family like a drill sergeant, dressing all the boys identically in what amounted to the family uniform—white-striped Breton jerseys. Sarah would lose two of her sons, Frank and Will, in World War I. Of the three sons who survived to adulthood, only the youngest, Arnold, married, escaping by coming to ignore her as best he could. Ned, the family rebel, directly confronted her, bearing the brunt of Sarah's corporal punishment. Like many Victorians of her time, she believed that to spare the rod spoiled the child; Ned was repeatedly beaten, whipped over the bare buttocks. Ned spent almost the whole of his life trying to elude her formidable control. It is from this battle that his famous unconcern for social convention grew, as it was a guiding principle of his mother's life.
There was a general consensus within the family that Ned was the most intelligent of the brothers, displaying a quick mind and an independent spirit from the beginning. He grew up a great reader, especially of history, archaeology, and medieval legends, which were to remain passions throughout his life.
The feudal past, in particular, particularly held sway over him. With his friend Charles Beeson, Ned made brass rubbings in the many churches lying in the English countryside near Oxford. The two boys combed the city for the remnants of an earlier eras, though to Lawrence's chagrin most of his finds tended to come from the nonfeudal sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Still, his collection of coins, pottery, and glazed ware was significant enough to be accepted by Oxford University's famous Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archeology. There, Lawrence met a young archeologist named Leonard Woolley, who then worked at the museum as junior assistant keeper. At the time, little did either the archeologist or this rather eccentric boy realize that they would be partners in running an archeological dig in exotic Carchemish together.
As he grew older, Ned's fascination with castles and crusades came to dominate his free time. As a youth, he made eight cycling trips to France, covering many thousands of miles and visiting every twelfth century French castle of note. E. M. Forster, the famous novelist who was a friend of the adult Lawrence, later saw in this obsession the defining quality of Lawrence's life, saying "The notion of a Crusade, of a body of men leaving one country to do noble deeds in another, possessed him."
At the age of 17, Ned had a profound and mysterious personal crisis, possibly relating to the discovery of his illegitimacy and his outwardly respectable parents' sordid past, but more probably relating to the climax in the struggle between his carefully constructed world of intellectual escape and his domineering mother. Ned's name was put forward for a mathematics scholarship at Oxford. However, given his passion for the Middle Ages, he wanted to study history. Sarah pressed her son to accept a place at the most prestigious university in the land. Lawrence, feeling cornered, suddenly rebelled—he ran away to join the army.
It is likely that Lawrence became a gunner in the Royal Garrison artillery, stationed at St. Just in Cornwall. The rough treatment of the soldiers that he witnessed there, as well as the brutal violence within the ranks, frightened him; he soon let his father know of his location. As was accepted custom of the time, Thomas Lawrence bought his son out of his military obligation. Despite what Lawrence later said to his friend and biographer Basil Liddell Hart, his time in the army was not lengthy; the whole affair probably lasted only days, occurring sometime in February or March 1906. There is curious proof that the event actually took place. After his death, a painting by the noted English artist Henry Scott Tuke was found among Lawrence's effects. It shows a young man, who looks a great deal like Lawrence, in a gunner's uniform.
Whatever the particulars of this wrenching event, it enabled Ned to definitively break from his mother's overweening influence. While he remained devoted on the surface, from that moment on Lawrence gained a certain independence from his family. To begin with, he was allowed to study history rather than mathematics. Ned also persuaded his parents to build him a small cottage at the bottom of the garden at No. 2 Polstead Road. It was equipped with a telephone to the house, a working fireplace, a bedroom, a study, and piped water. Throughout his college years, Lawrence spent the majority of his time here, rather than living among the other undergraduates. The cottage's physical distance from his family's house mirrored the hard-won psychological distance Lawrence had put between his ever-expanding intellectual world and the domineering presence of his mother. Long after, he would say that he found himself at the age of 17.
On October 12, 1907, Lawrence entered Jesus College, Oxford, to study history. A year later, as a further sign of independence, Lawrence threw off the shackles of his oppressive Christian upbringing. In an early example of Lawrence's subversive nature, and his sense of humor, he read a religious story by the disgraced, openly gay British playwright and novelist Oscar Wilde—and consequently lost his long-running job as a Sunday school teacher. Wilde had gone to jail over a scandal involving his homosexuality, shocking Edwardian Britain. Thus ended Lawrence's career as a Christian.
That same year, to everyone's surprise, Lawrence finally joined a club. He became a cadet in the Oxford University Officer Training Corps, where he proved himself to be a good shot. He seems to have been able to set aside his horror of organizations because the Jesus College cadet contingent was a bike-mounted signals unit, meaning Lawrence could pursue his beloved cycling and spend as much time outdoors as possible.
Meanwhile, Lawrence's passionate enthusiasm for medieval epics continued to flower with his reading of Malory's Morte d'Arthur and Tennyson's collection of Arthurian legends, The Idylls of the King. Both books would remain lifelong favorites; the warrior Lawrence read Malory over and over again during the Arab Revolt.
This further intellectual grounding in tales of crusades and knightly feats of chivalry led Lawrence to his choice of a thesis topic. Among medieval scholars there had been a long-running academic dispute as to whether the Crusaders from the West had inspired architectural innovations in Eastern castles, or rather that, bedazzled by the forts of the East, they had brought Eastern architectural styles back to Europe. Lawrence, already an expert in Western castle architecture, proposed to study a large group of Eastern castles first-hand, in order to determine whether the pointed arch and vault originated in Europe or the Middle East.
But it was his proposed odyssey for determining this rather obscure point that was the real object of the whole undertaking. So, in 1909, at just 20 years old, Lawrence embarked upon a journey that few if any undergraduates would now be permitted to undertake through modern day Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria. Traveling alone and principally on foot, he covered more than 1,100 miles in 83 days, at the height of the Levantine summer. During the journey he contracted malaria (of which he experienced recurrences throughout his adult life) and seems to have been shot at and attacked by bandits. In spite of these perils, Lawrence visited three dozen or so castles (not 60, as he later claimed), drawing detailed sketches of their architectural features. Critically for his future, Lawrence learned rudimentary Arabic and about the local peoples, their customs, social and political conditions, and tribal structures.
Lawrence's thesis—that Western ideas of architecture had been adopted by the East—earned him a rare first-class degree in 1910. He was feted for his significant academic success by his tutor, Reginald Lane Poole, at a celebratory dinner, and tales of his undergraduate trip became the stuff of Oxford legend.
Lawrence's work on his thesis had brought him into contact with David Hogarth, the renowned British archeologist. At age 45, Hogarth had already lived the sort of life Lawrence aspired to. He had traveled alone through much of the Near East, including today's Syria, Turkey, and Palestine and had led archeological excavations in Cyprus and Egypt. Fluent in French, German, Italian, Turkish, and Greek, Hogarth was as superbly educated as he was adventurous.
Hogarth was a man of the mind, but he was also a man of the world. Sitting on the board of the Royal Geographic Society, Hogarth was well connected with the rulers of the British Empire in London. Indeed, if one were describing the standard Edwardian gentleman imperialist, Hogarth would have done nicely as a model. Like a character in a Galsworthy novel, he was worldly, civilized, shrewd, conservative, and elitist. If Hogarth had a failing it was that while his talents were many, he never managed to concentrate on any one aspect of his career long enough to achieve genuine greatness. He is best known today as the man who discovered the young Lawrence. Years later, Lawrence admitted that that he owed to Hogarth every good job he ever had and that everything he had accomplished was due to him.
Before his undergraduate journey, Hogarth had set Lawrence an Arthurian task; to return from Syria with ancient Hittite seals that had piqued the archeologist's interest. Lawrence brought back 30 of the rare artifacts. Impressed with this obviously unusual young man, Hogarth offered Lawrence a job working on an archeological dig at the ancient city of Carchemish, a Hittite ruin located on today's SyrianTurkish border. A Hittite provincial capital dating from as early as 2500 B.C., Carchemish had been discovered by the modern world in 1876. Mentioned in the Book of Jeremiah in the Old Testament, it overlooked the Euphrates River, giving it strategic importance in the ancient world. Hogarth was on the elusive trail of a word key that might uncover the ancient Hittite language, much as the Rosetta stone had done for the ancient Egyptian language of the Pharaohs. Hogarth wanted to excavate there to uncover the secret of Hittite hieroglyphics for the British Museum.
Hogarth saw to it that Lawrence received a scholarship from Magdalen College in Oxford in the amount of 100 pounds a year. This allowed him to continue his studies in the wider world.
Lawrence arrived at Carchemish in spring 1911. With Hogarth distantly supervising the work from Britain, Lawrence and his colleague Leonard Woolley were largely left to their own devices in running the dig.
The archeological site consisted of three huge mounds and a nearby local village whose primary source of employment came from working for the British on the dig. It was here that Lawrence's soon-to-be legendary talent for working with Arabs was first displayed. During the four archeological seasons preceding World War I, from 1911 to 1914, he ran the day-to-day operations at Carchemish brilliantly, by all accounts instilling a sense of fun into what otherwise would have been backbreaking drudgery.
Lawrence introduced a reward system for grading the quality of the finds. The overseer would fire pistol shots into the air, with the number corresponding to the object's importance; the more shots, the greater the find. The worker would then be rewarded with baksheesh (a small amount of money), but it was the honor of the number of shots awarded that often provoked heated arguments. Lawrence was discovering the curious mix, to Western eyes, of a culture that was partly centered on honor, partly mercenary.
Lawrence also instituted a series of races, pitting the pick men against the shovelers and the basket men, until the entire workforce was soon yelling and running at top speed. By turning the toil into a game, a day's scheduled work would often be finished by noon or earlier. While Lawrence proved to be not much of a formal scholar (during these years he published as little as he could), his genius in directing what we would today call fieldwork was perhaps the most valuable lesson he ever learned.
Leonard Woolley, who was later knighted as a tribute to his distinguished archeological career, was a kind, able, energetic, sensitive companion, who shared a house on the site with Lawrence throughout much of his time at Carchemish. Woolley was the rare man who thought Lawrence neither cad nor god. Although he found Lawrence both charming and talented, he did not see the budding genius that so many of his supporters later perceived. With a fine eye he described the eccentric junior archeologist at this happiest time of his life. "He always wore a blazer of French grey trimmed with pink, white shorts, held up by a gaudy Arab belt with swinging tassels ... grey stockings [socks], red Arab slippers and no hat; his hair was always very long and in wild disorder." Even before he was famous, Lawrence was not likely to be overlooked.
If Lawrence found his calling at Carchemish, he also encountered the great love of his life. Dahoum (meaning "the dark one") was a servant working at the camp. Ten years Lawrence's junior, startlingly handsome, steadfastly loyal, and in awe of his new mentor, the boy became his closest companion. Lawrence went so far as to make a carving of him, naked, in sandstone, which he placed on the roof of the house he shared with Woolley. In July 1913, when Lawrence was obliged to return to England on business relating to the dig, Dahoum was one of two companions Lawrence took home with him to Oxford. There has been endless speculation about the nature of the relationship between the two; suffice it to say that, platonic or not, Lawrence never loved anyone else as much.
The initials of Dahoum's nickname, "Salim Ahmad," correspond to the mysterious S. A. to whom Lawrence would later dedicate his book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In the exquisite, soaring, and heartfelt poem opening the epic, Lawrence says of S. A. "I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands and wrote my will across the sky in stars/To earn you Freedom, the seven pillared worthy house, that your eyes might be shining for me/When we came." Years after Carchemish, Lawrence would write of S. A., "I wrought for him freedom to lighten his sad eyes: but he died waiting for me. So I threw my gift away and now not anywhere will I find rest and peace." (Continues...)
Excerpted from To Begin The World Over Again by John C. Hulsman. Copyright © 2009 John C. Hulsman. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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