Lawrence of Anatolia

TE Lawrence was a troubled, complex figure who remains an enigma. But the two years he spent as a young man at the archaeological site of Karkemish, on the Turkish–Syrian border, were the happiest of his life, says his biographer, Anthony Sattin

  • Camp life at Karkemish, 1911. One of the wrestlers is the waterboy Ahmed Dahoum. Lawrence wrote on the back: 'The pace is extremely hot, and they wrestle nearly every day at noon'

The invitation came from the mayor of Gaziantep, from Professor Nicolò Marchetti of Bologna University and Assistant Professor Hasan Peker of the University of Istanbul.

At the Zeugma Museum in Gaziantep in November 2014 they revealed the results of the latest excavations at Karkamiş, ancient Karkemish (Carchemish). Marchetti, who heads the excavations, wanted to focus on progress at the ancient Hittite city, the thousands of objects recovered, the century-old expedition house excavated, and the fact that the site would finally be opened to the public the following summer. But most publications who ran the story also talked about TE Lawrence and ISIS (ISIL). The Daily Telegraph’s headline was typical: “Archaeological site uncovered by Lawrence of Arabia to be opened under the eyes of ISIL.”

While the British might be comfortable with who Lawrence was and what he did between the Hejaz and Damascus in 1917 and 1918, many others are not. A Kuwaiti newspaper recently pointed out that while Lawrence was alive he was betrayed by his own country and doubted by the Arabs he was trying to help. Since his death following a motorbike accident in 1935, almost everything about his activities during the First World War has been scrutinised. Even his role in the attack on Aqaba, usually seen as one of his more brilliant and daring ideas, has been questioned: in his new biography, Faisal I of Iraq, Ali Allawi claims Faisal conceived the attack on Aqaba long before he met Lawrence. Allawi also points out that Faisal’s cousin, Sharif Nasir, who took part in the attack, made no mention of Lawrence planning the raid.

People in Turkey seem more certain about Lawrence’s role in the region. When the Pera Museum hung a poster of Lawrence for a recent exhibition, the words “İngiliz casus”, British spy, were scrawled across it. President Erdoğan picked up the theme in a speech, referring to “new voluntary Lawrences, disguised as journalists, religious men, writers and terrorists… making Sykes-Picot agreements” in the region today. It was a similar comment made to me by a Syrian friend several years ago that started me wondering why Lawrence would have wanted to be involved in the Arab Revolt.

Lawrence was 25 in July 1914 and had just returned to England from the Euphrates. It wasn’t immediately obvious that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand would bring about a world war, and Lawrence thought he would soon be back at Karkemish, digging… There had been a time, not so long before, when he had thought of setting up a boutique printing press with Vyvyan Richards, a friend from Oxford. But the previous December, 1913, he had given up on that and explained to Richards: “I have got to like this place [Karkemish] very much: and the people here… the whole manner of living pleases me.”

But this pleasure (Lawrence’s youngest brother, Arnold, later wrote that the Karkemish years were the happiest of TE’s life) was not what convinced me to write Young Lawrence>/em>. Two other details were responsible for that. In a one-page epilogue to Seven Pillars of Wisdom, only published after his death, he admitted that “the strongest motive throughout had been a personal one… present to me, I think, every hour of these two years”. The other detail relates to a book he wrote about his adventures in the eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire. The manuscript was sufficiently important for him to take it to England in June 1914, when he left behind so many other belongings. But in August 1914, when the war had started and it was clear he would not be returning to his old life, he tidied up his affairs and burnt it.

Asked about it after the war, Lawrence explained he had burnt the manuscript because it was too immature; but so, too, was much of his other writing, and he didn’t burn that. I assumed the “personal motive” behind his involvement in the Arab Revolt was connected to his happiness in Karkemish, to the burning of that manuscript and the futility he felt after the war.

There are several excellent biographies of Lawrence, but none has looked closely at his formative years, at how one goes from being Ned Lawrence, the second son of a middle-class Oxford family, to become Lawrence of Arabia. None takes that “strongest motive”, the personal one, as its central concern. Nor has anyone observed the coming of the war through Lawrence’s eyes and ears, from the stresses felt in Anatolia because of the rise of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the Young Turks, and the plotting of Mesopotamian Kurds, inspired by the loss of the Libyan provinces in 1912.

The research trail led from the Bodleian Library, where much of Lawrence’s archive is held, to Istanbul, which he had enjoyed so much on pre-war visits and where I arrived just after the Gezi Park protests of 2013, to Aqaba and on to Cairo just as President Morsi was toppled. The one place I failed to visit was Karkemish. I had tried to arrange a permit through the Global Heritage Fund, which was supporting the excavations, through Professor Marchetti, the Turkish Embassy in London and other avenues, but none had been able to secure my entry. I went anyway, in June 2013, and the reason I had failed to obtain a permit became obvious as soon as the guards started waving their guns at me.

The Hittites built their city on a rise beside the Euphrates. That rise has become a hundredmetre- high “tell”, layer upon layer of human deposits. Since Lawrence left in June 1914, the top of the tell has served as a military post, watching over the excavations, the farmlands beyond and, perhaps most important, the Euphrates. While Lawrence worked there, German engineers built a bridge that would carry the railway from Istanbul to Baghdad. The railway, and the bridge, now mark the border between Turkey and Syria, and at the time of the press conference in 2014 the black flags of ISIS were flying on the other side.

Those flags were the reason local politicians thought it best to hold the press conference at the Zeugma Museum in Gaziantep. They might also be why foreign visitors will be reluctant to visit Karkemish if it is opened. But not everyone will be put off: I might have finished the book, but I am still curious, and I for one will be there.

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