The great drama of the First World War forged the modern world. In one of its 'sideshows,' the flamboyant figure of T. E. Lawrence strutted and fretted his hour upon the stage - a stage which set the destiny of Palestine and the Holy Land.
- Review by Jan Morris, The Telgraph
This tremendous book puts me in mind of a huge murky kaleidoscope, an ever-shifting display through which one image remains ambiguously constant. The scene is the tumultuous world of the Arabs during the last stages of the First World War; the enigmatic central figure is that of Thomas Edward Lawrence, a small Anglo-Irish archaeologist in his late twenties, later to be known as Lawrence of Arabia.
It was a populist, even patronising epithet, because there was nothing Arabian about him. This hefty volume, though, by a scholarly American journalist, demonstrates how central he was to the infinitely convoluted, deceptive and contradictory goings-on that were eventually to bring into being the Middle East as we know it now.
Until the First World War the whole region, including today's Iraq, Syria, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the petty Persian Gulf emirates and Egypt, were nominally part of the Ottoman Empire with its capital at Constantinople – nominally, because the British Empire in effect governed Egypt and the Gulf states, and possessed the port of Aden.
The impending collapse of the Ottomans in the so-called Great War meant that almost the entire region would eventually be up for grabs among the victors, and it is cosmopolitan opportunism, as the conflict approached its conclusion, that is Scott Anderson's huge subject.
The scramble has been repeatedly chronicled for the best part of a century, but nobody has explored the subject with quite such intensity, and from quite so many angles. Just reviewing the book is demanding. The multiple rivalries were themselves innumerably subdivided, and it takes Anderson more than 500 close-packed pages to make the story cohesive.
The British were the international power of the region, with their headquarters at Cairo, and they had dubiously defined their war aims, foreseeing the Arab lands divided between themselves, the French and a semi-independent Arab state, with a Jewish Zionist enclave in Palestine. This is more or less what came about, tentatively confirmed at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 after incessant plotting and subterfuge.
READ FULL REVIEW: Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson, review (The Telegraph)
Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson (YouTube)