Innlegg merkte med ‘Arab Revolt’

A story from Major Sir. Hubert Young«s book The Independent Arab (published 1933). In 1918, during the days of the Arab Revolt, Major Young sets out on a reconnaissance from the confines of Aqaba towards the Hijaz Railway. On their way lay the grazing grounds of the bedouin tribe Beni Atiya. For them to travel comfortable and safe the head of the tribe, Matlaq al-Jumaan, travelled with them. He was apparently «such a tiny little man», but he told great stories:

Matlaq had one mysterious story of a place called Gareya, which apperently lay quite close to the place for which the party were making. One of his tribe, he said, had found himself one day in Al Qahireh (Cairo). An English Qonsulos came up to him in the suq and said, «Oh! brother, art thou of the brave Beni Atiya?»

He said, «I am.»

«Knowest thou Al Gareya, the ruined city in the mountains, eight hours» journey from the iron way?»

«Yea, by God, I know it.»

«Take then this paper. Burn it on a flat stone which thou wilt find outside the great gate in the rock that no man has ever seen to open. Beat thrice upon the gate and it will open before thee. Within sits a huge negro of stone, his hands upon his knees. Fear him not, but walk boldly past him and thou shalt find treasure heaped within beyond all counting. Take from it what thou wilt for thyself, and return to me here upon a day to tell me what has befallen.»

Half doubting, the herd returned to his home, but when next he passed Gareya he bethought him of the English Qonsulos, and fished out the magic paper from his saddle-back. He burnt it upon the flat stone and rapped thrice on the great stone door, which swung open to his knock, and he saw within the giant statue glaring at him from the gloom. Moved by unreasoning terror he fled to his camel, and rode away as if the devil were after him. The door clanged to behind him, and was never opened since.

I am not quite sure what the morale of the story is supposed to be, and neither Young nor Matlaq offer an explanation, but I found it interesting. You’ll find the story on page 158-159 in Young’s book.

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In Robert Ryan’s newest book, Empire of Sand, he takes us back to the Middle East during the First World War. Ryan’s main protagonist is the legendary Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. The main focus of the story centers around the year 1915, before the Arab Revolt of 1916 and Lawrence’s fame, and shifts mainly between Cairo and Persia. In Cairo you have Lawrence the map maker and in Persia you have his German counterpart and lookalike Wilhelm Wassmuss (short, blond, blue eyes, etc.).

The book is a work of fiction, but most of the characters are real. It seems that Ryan could not resist adding a number of colourful characters to his story, one of these being Gertrude Bell. Even Harry St. John Philby makes a small guest appearance where he makes Lawrence annoyed by claiming that Ibn Saud is the right man to bet on, not Sharif Hussein.

The book is good and very entertaining, but I keep asking myself where the story is going and how interesting it really was. Ryan’s portrayal of the characters is very good together with his descriptions. You get sucked into his fictitious world which seems very real. My main problem with the book is the story on a whole. Ryan blends fact and fiction skilfully, but for me it seems a bit anti climatic. The story keeps growing and you expect a big showoff that never really comes.

Ryan’s book is worth a read, mostly because of his portrayal of Lawrence and his surroundings, but I would rather recommend James Barr«s non-fiction book Setting the Desert on Fire. It is very interesting and at the same time as exciting as a work of fiction.

During the first world war the British forces, under the leadership of General Edmund Allenby, had tried and failed twice to take and hold the area of Transjordan. The goal had been to break the lines of the Ottoman Empire between Damascus and Medina. After two failed attacks with many casualties, Allenby shifted focus. Allenby’s new strategy was take Damascus by breaking the Ottoman lines in coastal Palestine and thereby bypassing the Ottoman forces in Transjordan. The rush for Damascus started in September 1918. The Arab Army, under the leadership of the Hashemite Sharif of Mecca, Hussein b. Ali, had been held in check by the Ottoman forces, but moved camp to Azraq Oasis to participate in the rush. To cover this operation up Allenby came up with a plan to fool the Ottomans:

Allenby feigned a new attack on Transjordan to cover his troop build-up on the coast of Palestine by pitching an empty encampment in the Jordan Valley, making some 15,000 dummy horses out of canvas, and driving mule-drawn sleighs to raise dust.

At the same time the Arab Army draw the Ottoman’s attention away from Palestine by attacking the Hijaz Railway line. The plan worked and the heavily outnumbered Ottoman forced in Palestine were defeated and their defenses collapsed in six days. The Arab Army and Allenby’s forces now raced each other to Damascus, a race the Arabs would win.

This small moment in history is picked from Frontiers of the State in the Late Ottoman Empire by Eugene L. Rogan. For more detailed information about the campaign see Setting the Desert on Fire by James Barr.