Aug 162013


Today is the birthday (1888) of Thomas Edward Lawrence, CB, DSO, known professionally as T. E. Lawrence, and popularly as Lawrence of Arabia. He was a British Army officer renowned especially for his liaison role during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign and the Arab Revolt against Ottoman Turkish rule of 1916–18. The breadth and variety of his activities and associations, and his ability to describe them vividly in writing, earned him international fame. He was featured in the 1962 epic film, Lawrence of Arabia, which captured some of the mood of Lawrence’s campaigns in Arabia, but was riddled with historical inaccuracies, and completely missed the mark with regards to Lawrence’s personal character. Unfortunately the film has left a lasting impression in the popular mind.

Lawrence was born in Tremadog in Wales as the illegitimate son of Sir Thomas Chapman and Sarah Junner, a governess who was herself illegitimate. Chapman left his wife and first family in Ireland to live with Sarah Junner, where they called themselves Mr and Mrs Lawrence. In the summer of 1896 the “Lawrence” family moved to Oxford. At the age of 15, T.E. Lawrence and his school friend Cyril Beeson bicycled around Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, and Oxfordshire, visiting almost every village’s parish church, studying their monuments and antiquities, and making rubbings of their monumental brasses. Lawrence and Beeson monitored building sites in Oxford and presented their finds to the Ashmolean Museum. The Ashmolean’s Annual Report for 1906 said that the two teenage boys “by incessant watchfulness secured everything of antiquarian value which has been found.”

In the summers of 1906 and 1907 Lawrence and Beeson toured France by bicycle, collecting photographs, drawings, and measurements of medieval castles.  In 1907 Lawrence entered Jesus College at Oxford University to read history. In the summer of 1909 Lawrence set out alone on a three-month walking tour of crusader castles in Ottoman Syria, travelling 1,000 mi (1,600 km) on foot. He took a First Class Honours B.A. in 1910 and submitted a thesis entitled “The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture—to the end of the 12th Century” based on his field research with Beeson in France, notably in Châlus, and his solo research in the Middle East.

In December 1910 he sailed for Beirut, and on arrival went to Jbail (Byblos), where he studied Arabic. He then went to work on the excavations at Carchemish, near Jerablus in northern Syria, where he worked under D. G. Hogarth and R. Campbell Thompson of the British Museum, and with Sir Leonard Woolley (one of the most influential figures in the development of modern archeology). As the site lay near an important crossing on the Baghdad Railway, knowledge gathered there turned out to be of considerable importance to the military. Lawrence continued making trips to the Middle East as a field archaeologist until the outbreak of the First World War. In January 1914, Woolley and Lawrence were co-opted by the British military as an archaeological smokescreen for a British military survey of the Negev Desert. They were funded by the Palestine Exploration Fund to search for an area referred to in the Bible as the “Wilderness of Zin.” Along the way, they undertook an archaeological survey of the Negev Desert. The Negev was of strategic importance, as it would have to be crossed by any Ottoman army attacking Egypt in the event of war. Woolley and Lawrence subsequently published a report of the expedition’s archaeological findings, but also updated mapping of the area, with special attention to features of military relevance such as water sources. From March to May 1914, Lawrence worked again at Carchemish. Following the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914, Lawrence did not immediately enlist in the British Army. He held back until October, when he was commissioned on the General List; and immediately posted to the intelligence staff in Cairo because of his extensive knowledge of the Middle East.

Woolley (L) and Lawrence

Woolley (L) and Lawrence

The Arab Bureau of Britain’s Foreign Office conceived a campaign of internal insurgency against the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. The Arab Bureau had long felt it likely that a campaign instigated and financed by outside powers, supporting the breakaway-minded Arab factions and regional challengers to the Turkish government’s centralized rule of their empire, would pay great dividends in the diversion of effort that would be needed to meet such a challenge. The Arab Bureau had recognized the strategic value of what is today called the “asymmetry” of such conflict. The Ottoman authorities would have to devote from a hundred to a thousand times the resources to contain the threat of such an internal rebellion compared to the Allies’ cost of sponsoring it.

The British government in Egypt sent Lawrence to work with the Hashemite forces in the Arabian Hejaz in October 1916. During the war, Lawrence fought with Arab irregular troops under the command of Emir Faisal, a son of Sherif Hussein of Mecca, in extended guerrilla operations against the armed forces of the Ottoman Empire.  He was a major player in the Arab revolt against the Turks ultimately leading to the downfall of the Ottoman Empire and, eventually, to the creation of Arab states in the Middle East.


I won’t go in to a lot of detail. For one thing, I don’t like war, and, for another, the actions of both the British and the Arabs during the war were not of the highest moral standards. After gaining the trust of Arab leaders Lawrence co-ordinated Arab activities of a guerrilla nature, such as blowing up rail lines and disrupting supply lines and communications. He was also responsible for organizing Arab irregular troops leading to the fall of the strategic towns of Aqaba and Tafileh. After leading forces against Tafileh Lawrence was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. He was 30.


During the closing years of the war he sought, with mixed success, to convince his superiors in the British government that Arab independence was in their interests. The secret Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and Britain contradicted the promises of independence he had made to the Arabs, and left him deeply disillusioned. After the war Lawrence was involved for a time in peace negotiations, and then retired to All Souls College, Oxford, where he held a 7 year fellowship for the purpose of writing a history of the Arab campaign.  Seven Pillars of Wisdom was one of the products of these years, written from start to finish afresh three separate times, the first time because he left the entire manuscript (250,000 words) in a satchel on a platform at Reading train station while changing trains.


After this stint in Oxford he dropped out of sight and his actions have left historians puzzled. In August 1922, Lawrence enlisted in the Royal Air Force as an aircraftman under the name John Hume Ross. At the RAF recruiting center in Covent Garden in London he was interviewed by a recruiting officer – Flying Officer W. E. Johns, later to be well known as the author of the Biggles novels concerning a WW I flying ace (read them all as a boy). Johns rejected Lawrence’s application as he correctly believed “Ross” was a false name. Lawrence admitted this was so and that the documents he provided were falsified. But he returned some time later with an RAF messenger, carrying a written order for Johns to accept Lawrence.

However, Lawrence was forced out of the RAF in February 1923 after being exposed. He changed his name to T. E. Shaw and joined the Royal Tank Corps in 1923. He was unhappy there and repeatedly petitioned to rejoin the RAF, which finally readmitted him in August 1925. A fresh burst of publicity after the publication of a 2nd edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom resulted in his assignment to a remote base in British India in late 1926, where he remained until the end of 1928. At that time he was forced to return to Britain after rumors began to circulate that he was involved in espionage activities. He continued serving in the RAF based at Bridlington, East Riding of Yorkshire, specializing in high-speed boats and professing happiness. It was with considerable regret that he left the service at the end of his enlistment in March 1935.

At the age of 46, two months after leaving military service, Lawrence was fatally injured in an accident on his Brough Superior SS100 motorcycle in Dorset, close to his cottage, Clouds Hill, near Wareham. A dip in the road obstructed his view of two boys on their bicycles; he swerved to avoid them, lost control, and was thrown over the handlebars. He died six days later on 19 May 1935. The spot is marked by a small memorial at the side of the road.


One of the doctors attending him was the neurosurgeon Hugh Cairns, who consequently began a long study of what he saw as the unnecessary loss of life by motorcycle dispatch riders through head injuries. His research led to the use of crash helmets by both military and civilian motorcyclists.

In his (unpublished) field journal for May 1917 Lawrence describes a Bedu (Bedouin) feast he attended that consisted of boiled lamb and rice.

“. . . then two men came in carrying a copper butt, sixty inches across and perhaps five inches deep brimful of white rice topped with legs of sheep and ribs within the middle the boiled head, afterward the neck buried in the rice to the ears, which stuck up like withered leaves.”

This dish is known as mansaf and is nowadays much more kitchen friendly than it was in Lawrence’s Bedu encampment. It is the national dish of Jordan. Lawrence says that the rice was cooked in yoghurt but I suspect he misunderstood that the yoghurt flavor of the rice comes from the sauce that the lamb is cooked in.  Jameed is dried, fermented yoghurt that you can find online. If not just increase the amount of plain yoghurt. I give you here the simple version as served to Lawrence, but if you like you can spike the yoghurt sauce with spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, and cloves. Personally I prefer it with saffron only.




2 lbs (1 kilo) lean lamb cut in large pieces
1 cup jameed
2 cups plain yoghurt
2 cups long grain rice or basmati rice
4 tbsps ghee or clarified butter
1 tsp saffron
1 cup whole blanched almonds


Put the jameed in a bowl with a cup of water and let it soak overnight.

Melt 2 tablespoons of ghee in a heavy pot.  Add the lamb and sauté for 2 minutes. It should not brown.

Add 2 cups of water, bring to a boil, then simmer on low heat for an hour or until the meat is tender.

Place the rice in a bowl and cover with warm water.  Let it soak for at least 10 minutes, up to 1 hour.

Blend the jameed and soaking water in a food processor or blender until smooth.  Set aside. Blend the yoghurt with 1 cup of water, and add it to the blended jameed.  Stir well, and add to the simmering lamb. Add the saffron. Continue to simmer.

Drain the rice and rinse well in a sieve under running water.  Place the rice in a pot with 2 ½ cups of water. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer gently for 20 minutes.

Sauté the almonds in the remaining ghee until they take on a little color.

To serve, spread the rice on a large platter.  Put the cooked lamb on top, and sprinkle the almonds over the lamb. Pour the yoghurt sauce over the dish to moisten. Serve as a communal dish in the center of the table with flatbread.

Serves 4