Lawrence Plus Three in Arabia

Anderson.LawrenceCurrently I’m reading Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson. The title is a little misleading; this book is not just a book about T.E. Lawrence, although his is the most completely fleshed out story. The book also deals with three other Europeans who shape the story of the Middle East in the early 20th century. By drawing back to focus on more than just the romantic figure of Lawrence, Anderson offers us a better understanding of the history and its consequences.

Anderson’s four figures:

T.E. Lawrence needs no introduction (surely) – Lawrence of Arabia? Peter O’Toole on a camel? He was a British archaeologist, military officer, and diplomat in the Middle East during WWI.

Aaron Aaronsohn was a Jewish agronomist and Zionist. He was born in Romania but moved at age 6 with his family to Ottoman Palestine. His father was one of the founders of Zichron Ya’acov, now a thriving city in Northern Israel. He would have been among the Founders of the State of Israel had he not been killed in an air crash over the English Channel in 1919.

William Yale was an American civil engineer and executive with the Standard Oil Company of New York, which sent him to Istanbul and then Cairo to explore for oil. In 1917, he was appointed special agent in Cairo for the U.S. Department of State, and the next year he was given a commission as Captain in the U.S. Army and was assigned as an advisor to British General Allenby in Palestine.

Curt Prüfer was a German diplomat from 1907 until 1945. He served primarily in the Middle East although he finished his career in WWII in Brazil. He was one of the architects of German policy towards the British in the Middle East, and thoroughgoing antisemite.


This history is mostly about the Great Powers of Europe, not the Turks or the Arabs or the Palestinians. I might argue for a different subtitle: How the European Powers Laid Waste to the Middle East with Some Help from Standard Oil.

I confess to reading about Aaronsohn with some special interest: only he, among the four, regarded the Middle East as his home. I was also curious because, frankly, I’d never heard of the guy and he’s important both as a Zionist and as an agronomist. He was one of the people who “made the desert bloom;” without his work, Israel today would look very different.

Another thing that interests me about this book is its account of the Armenian genocide. I had heard of it, of course, but now I can see how it happened. I now understand its connection to the Nazi Final Solution: Germans like Prüfer were watching very closely to the Turkish policies and to the inattention of the world.

I’m only about half way through the book, and I already feel that I understand more about the modern Middle East. If you have read it, or in future read it, I hope you’ll leave your impressions in the comments here.