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TE Lawrence in Jordan
 
Posted on: Sunday, October 23, 2016 Category: Cultures
 
In Jordan history lies in ambush, like Lawrence of Arabia on the Hejaz Railway. Everything is quiet in the hot, shimmering desert - and then, out of nowhere, the plume of smoke, the derailed train. One such moment occurred on the first of my seven days in the country, while I was visiting Azraq, an ancient desert castle in which Lawrence was billeted in 1917 and 1918.

The custodian, a blue-eyed Druze man named Nader, was bemoaning the lack of visitors (the war in neighbouring Syria is keeping people away, though Jordan remains perfectly safe). 'We are in high season - look what happen!' he said, gesturing at the empty courtyard. 'I am the here 20 years. I am the prince here but no tourists.'

So what, I wanted to know, did he think of Lawrence, who is reviled as much as revered in the Middle East? (Hero or double-dealer? Warrior or fantasist? A bit of all these and more is probably the best guess.) This was the ambush moment. At mention of the name Lawrence, Nader's face lit up. 'My grandfather on my mother's side was with Lawrence,' he said. 'He tell many beautiful things about him. He kept Lawrence's photograph here' - and Nader touched the top pocket of his shirt, over his heart.

The origin of this unlikely devotion lies in an event that took place 100 years ago, during the First World War. TE Lawrence was working in the Middle East as a British intelligence officer and on October 23, 1916, in an oasis town in modern-day Saudi Arabia, he met Prince Faisal of Mecca, who was heading a rebellion against the region's colonial rulers, the Ottoman Turks.

There was mutual benefit in a military alliance between Britain and this anti-Ottoman insurgency and Lawrence had been sent to make it happen. 'I felt at first glance that this was the man I had come to Arabia to seek - the leader who would bring the Arab Revolt to its full glory,' wrote Lawrence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. He and Faisal struck up an immediate rapport and from that moment Lawrence started his extraordinary journey from man to myth that reached its apotheosis in the stirring but inaccurate 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia (with the tall Peter O'Toole playing our notably short hero).

Lawrence travelled mostly by camel - he claimed to have ridden 1,400 miles on camel-back in June 1917 alone. I followed him across Jordan in the back seat of a little hybrid saloon, with a battered copy of Seven Pillars, my partner, Miren (for whom Lawrence would be the first name on any fantasy dinner party list), the driver, Ahmed (a Jamie Oliver fan), and an outstanding guide, Osama Al-Smadi, a student of the Arab Revolt who had an interestingly sceptical take on Lawrence himself.

The progress of Faisal's own irregular army was, roughly speaking, south to north - and of course there were no nation states on the Arabian Peninsula then, no lines in the sand. The disparate Arab forces (with Lawrence, if you are to believe him, to the fore as unifier, strategist, explosives expert and money man) moved up through modern-day Saudi Arabia and into what is now Jordan, where most of their most celebrated exploits (the attacks on the Hejaz Railway, the taking of Aqaba and Tafilah) - as chronicled in Seven Pillars at least - took place.

We travelled north-south, starting in the Jordanian capital, Amman, and finishing in the Red Sea port of Aqaba - audaciously seized from the Ottomans in July 1917 - where an unfeasibly tall flagpole flies the flag of the Arab Revolt. First stop was the old desert castle at Azraq, to the east of Amman, from which the final push on Damascus was launched in 1918. The castle is enclosed by a forbidding wall of basalt blocks, and sealed by a stone door that Lawrence describes: 'a poised slab of dressed basalt, a foot thick, turning on pivots of itself.'

It swung open surprisingly easily. Inside the castle we climbed to the room on the first floor of the gate tower, where Lawrence slept and socialised. A breeze blew through the narrow windows, mitigating the midday heat. In Seven Pillars Lawrence evoked the stormy nights he and his comrades spent here when he would light fires - the stone ceiling is blackened with smoke - and the 'leaping flames chased our smoke-ruffled shadows strangely about the rough stone wall behind us.'

In Lawrence's time Azraq castle sat on the lip of a mighty oasis, one of Arabia's biggest desert crossroads - Lawrence writes lyrically of 'the rustling palms, with the fresh meadows and shining springs of water'. But water was pumped from here to Amman in such quantities that by 1992 those shining springs had dried up. The fragment of wetland that exists today is artificially maintained as a bird reserve and as we walked its tranquil paths, our eyes snagging on the electric flash of kingfishers, a fighter jet roared overhead, presumably on a combat mission to bomb Isis-held territory in Iraq or Syria.

The kingfisher and the F-16 - it was an obscene juxtaposition. And another moment when past and present collapsed into one another. For the Arab Revolt of a century ago, like the Arab Spring that began in 2010, did not end in the sunny uplands of freedom. One of the spoils of 'victory', post-1918, was the carve-up of the Middle East by the British and French - an act of treachery so far as the Arab world is concerned. 'Before 1916 there were no borders,' Osama told me. 'When the Ottoman empire went it left lots of cultural space. We have been invaded by ideologies ever since.'

The current turmoil in the region has had a devastating effect on tourism in Jordan (though, I emphasise, the country is stable, safe and infinitely hospitable). I lost count of the occasions on which we took tea in a Bedouin tent and our host, sparking up a cigarette, remarked mournfully on the lack of business. 'Five years ago, many people,' said one. 'Now people are afraid of the Middle East.'

It was as if Lawrence were still out there somewhere - blowing up bridges and trains, toying with the Hejaz Railway like a cat with a ball of a string. The narrow-gauge line had been built between 1900 and 1908 to take pilgrims from Damascus down to Medina and Mecca and became a lifeline for Ottoman forces during the Arab Revolt. Masterminded by Lawrence, the Arab attacks on its tracks and bridges came to symbolise the romantic derringdo of the uprising ('Travelling became an uncertain terror for the enemy,' Lawrence wrote proudly of his hit-and-run tactics).

The railway still exists - we crossed it as we drove south - and has huge tourist potential. But it lies unused save for a branch line opened in 1975 to transport phosphate to the port at Aqaba. In the old Ottoman-era railway station in Amman the Jordan Hejaz Railway Corporation is working hard to revive it. Out on the tracks there is vintage rolling stock, including four steam locomotives 'in working order,' according to the company's 'deputy director manager', Dr Abdullah Malkawi, a proud and dapper man whose plans for running a tourist timetable sound like pipedreams in the current climate. The truth is, they are held on a red signal he referred to mournfully as 'the very sad situation in Syria'.

Even Petra, Jordan's most precious tourist site and a true world wonder, is not immune to the contagion of war. When we visited we joined a mere few hundred fellow tourists compared to the several thousand a day who thronged here pre-2010. 'Taxi! Ferrari! Lamborghini!' cried the camel drivers desperately but we preferred to walk the site, marvelling at the rock-carved mausoleums of the Nabatean civilisation and the coloured swirls of sandstone (like the marbled endpapers of old books) in relative peace.

Back on the Desert Highway we sped south past vast tracts of flinty desert where the heat of Arabia comes out 'like a drawn sword' in daylight hours. Among the drift-like hills appeared the occasional Bedouin encampment, of low tents and huddled livestock, which made me think of Lawrence, and the ragtag tribes he rode with, in their cooler hours - the sweetened coffee at dawn, the camp fires turning to 'slow pillars of smoke' as men and beasts fell asleep under the stars.

The monumental Crusader castles straggled along hilltops off the highway are a reminder that Western intervention in Arabia is not a recent phenomenon. Lawrence visited Shobek, not far from Petra, in deep winter, trudging through snow and ice in his 'naked feet' to the main gate. Inside, he warmed himself by 'a brass brazier of flaming wood which crackled in a recessed shot-window of the mighty outer wall'. We found a chamber matching the description, complete with scorch marks on the ceiling by the window. And then, leaving the castle, Osama and I decided to send the car on ahead, to the bottom of the hill, while we descended by a 'secret' passageway of rock-carved steps that spirals 200ft down through the hillside - a lifeline for besieged Crusaders in the 12th century and a thrill for this ageing child.

No less a thrill was Wadi Rum, the valley-complex of multi-coloured sands and rampart-like rock formations where Arab forces gathered before the advance on Aqaba. We spent one evening in a Bedouin camp there, eating tender lamb cooked in a pit in the sand while a blind man played Never on Sunday on a pear-shaped oud. And in the gathering heat of the following morning we took a 4X4 deep into the 'stupendous hills' that struck Lawrence dumb with their beauty.

After an hour's drive we reached an overhanging rock, beneath which was a ruined building that the Bedouin have cheerfully claimed as Lawrence's house. Next door was a camp where we drank tea flavoured with desert herbs. I was curious about the 'house' - little more than a wall of sandstone blocks - as there is no written evidence of a Lawrence connection. But the young Bedouin man was adamant that this is desert knowledge, handed down from 1917. 'Yes Lawrence stayed here. But it was a house before, built by the Nabateans,' he said.

Osama and I were happy to believe it. We clambered up to pose like comrades in arms on top of the old walls, and in that moment another of those time-bombs detonated. To quote Seven Pillars one last time, 'past and future flowed over us like an uneddying river. We dreamed ourselves into the spirit of the place.'

Published in the Sunday Telegraph on October 23, 2016



 
   
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