Lawrence in Arabia

Jan Morris in The Telegraph:

Lawrence_2835912bThis 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.

More here.