The image of Peter OToole scampering atop dynamited Turkish trains garbed in wafting white Arabic robes might be accurate after all: Bristol University archaeologists claim to have found the spent bullet Lawrence of Arabia fired from his Colt automatic pistol during the bold train ambush in Hallat Amar in 1917.
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Hundreds of expended British and German or Turkish bullet cartridges were found at Hallat Amar. As for the one shot by Lawrence, “Its significance wasn't immediately obvious to us," Professor Nicholas Saunders of Bristol University, the director of the project, explains. It differed from the others, but it was only later, with the help of an extensive international network of specialists, that the archaeologists realized what they had in hand.
Former military hand-gun experts helped identify the spent bullet as coming from a Colt 1911, rather than the standard British and German-Turkish pistols or the various rifles that were in use during the fighting. It was the only Colt 1911 bullet found at Hallat Ammar. Lawrence was the only person known to have one of these during the ambush.
The discovery was made through the "Great Arab Revolt Project", an endeavor ongoing since 2004, to investigate the landscape in which modern guerrilla warfare was invented - and the archeological evidence for the Arab Revolt of 1916-18, the consequences of which are still reverberating in the Middle East and beyond. Dozens of sites associated with the 1916-1918 Arab Revolt have been excavated in Jordan to date.
“We excavated Ottoman Army camps, redoubts, hill-top fortresses, machine-gun positions and sites of ephemeral fighting. We also discovered a unique Rolls Royce Armored Car camp which was used for just a few hours by the British on their way to raid a Hejaz Railway station, and an advanced landing strip used by the Royal Flying Corps to bomb the railway," Saunders told Haaretz.
With the help of a local Bedouin sheikh on the Jordanian-Saudi border, a team of 30 archaeologists was allowed into the demilitarized zone - with a Jordanian army escort - to investigate the Hallat Ammar ambush site. “We found extensive railway tracks that had been blown apart, which now litter the ambush site even after 100 years. We also found many spent British .303 rifle cartridges with a scatter diagnostic of the description of the ambush as told by Lawrence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” Saunders told Haaretz.
Archaeologist turned spy
As the World War I raged and the Ottoman Empire disintegrated, struggles erupted in Arab territories that had been under Turkish control. Western imaginations about the war were fired by Thomas Edward Lawrence, a British military officer, diplomat and archaeologist, who lived briefly – dying at age 47, in 1935, but whose activities in Arab spheres fired romantic imaginations and culminated in the movie.
Some historians accuse Lawrence of embellishing his stories in an “Arabian Night” fashion. Now we can say that he was an extremely accurate source for those military actions where he was present.
After studying the Hittite site of Carchemish for four years, Lawrence and the renowned archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley embarked on a journey through Palestine and the Sinai Peninsula, in search for the Wilderness of Zin, where, according to legend, Joshua spied out the land before entering Canaan. They carried out an archaeological survey and took photos.
Little did the Ottomans know that Lawrence's archaeological expedition to Palestine was a smokescreen for a spy operation staged by the British military. Lawrence and Woolleys real objective was to map the Negev Desert on behalf of Her Majesty's Government.
The Negev was of keen strategic importance, as it would have to be crossed by any Ottoman army attacking Egypt in the event of war. Knowledge and control of water sources in the desert tracts was vital for any army crossing the desert.
That same year, World War I broke out and Lawrence was sent to Cairo. In June 1916 fighting broke out in the Hijaz in western Saudi Arabia. The Emir of Mecca and guardian of the holy places, Hussein ibn Ali, had rose up against the Ottomans, emboldened by a promise of British support to establish an independent Arab state under Hashemite rule in the Arabian provinces, including Palestine.
During a critical stage of the war, after the failed capture of Medina, with the Arabs bogged down by the Turks, Lawrence met with one of Hussein’s four sons, Faisal. The two formed a friendship and he asked Lawrence to serve as his liaison officer. Lawrence came to play a pivotal role in the uprising over the following two years, acting as Faisal’s military advisor.
One of Lawrence's most astounding feats during the war is the famous 965-kilometer-long camel march through the desert, resulting in the capture of the port of Aqaba. Following that achievement, attention turned to cutting the Turkish supply lines, by sabotaging the Hijaz railway. The newly found bullet is a relic from the guerrilla warfare Lawrence helped wage for over a year in Syria and Jordan.
Ultimately, the Arab revolt threw off the Ottoman mantle, and by the end of World War I, Britain had control over Palestine. After the war Lawrence (together with Gertrud Bell) became a symbol of British understanding of the Arab cause.
Unknown to many, Lawrence showed equal support for the Jewish cause and embraced political Zionism.
Lawrence of Judea
Lawrence had a vision of Arabs and Jews living together peacefully. In a letter dated to August 2, 1909, he explained, “Galilee was the most Romanized province of Palestine. Also the country was well peopled, and well watered artificially: There were not twenty miles of thistles behind Capernaum! And on the way round the lake they did not come upon dirty, dilapidated Bedouin tents, with the people calling to them to come in and talk, while miserable curs came snapping at their heels: Palestine was a decent country then, and could so easily be made so again. The sooner the Jews farm it all the better: Their colonies are bright spots in a desert.” (David Garnett, ed., The Letters of T.E. Lawrence (New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1938, p. 71.)
Lawrence refuted the myth that Jews had not existed in pre Muslim-Palestine in his article “The Changing East,” published in the Round Table Magazine in 1920, where he wrote that the Jewish immigrants settling in Palestine were a “conscious effort” to make “head against the drift of the ages, and return once more to the Orient from which they came fromthe land which they occupied for some centuries before Christian Era.”
The settlement should be done in a way benefited the Arabs too, he wrote, adding that it would take a long time before a Jewish majority would come into being.
Whatever hopes he had for coexistence, Lawrence was also among the first to foretell that the Jews would not receive a warm welcome in their new home. In 1917, he told William Yale, a well-connected oil man (his great-great-uncle founded Yale University) who became, in August 1917, the state department's "special agent" for the Middle East, that "if a Jewish state is to be created in Palestine, it will have to be done by force of arms amid an overwhelmingly hostile population."
A month after the war, Lawrence even mediated between the Hashemite ruler Faisal (later king of Iraq) and the Zionist leader Dr. Chaim Weizmann (the first president of Israel) in London. Notes from the meeting show they were not predicting friction: “there was not any scarcity of land in Palestine” and there “was no friction in any other country where Jews and Arabs lived together”. (Archives of the British Foreign Office in the Public Record Office, London, 371/3420.)
In 1919, in Paris, Lawrence was showed a handwritten letter from Faisal that declared, “We Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement. We are working together for a reformed and revived Near East, and our two movements complete one another.” He added that the Jewish movement “is national, and not imperialist: our movement is national and not imperialist, and there is room in Syria for us both. Indeed I think that neither can be a real success without the otherwe are mutually interested may once again take their place in the community of the civilized peoples of the world.” (Letter from Faisal to the U.S. Zionist Felix Frankfurter, March 1, 1919).
Whatever fond illusions Lawrence held about peaceful co-existence proved fallacious. Lawrence also had fond illusions in British imperialism, which he saw as essentially benevolent, despite the betrayal of the Arabs, who did not get the independence they expected, a fact that left him riddled with guilt.
On May 1935, T.E. Lawrence died, after a motorcycle accident near his house in Dorset. He will always be remembered as Lawrence of Arabia because of his involvement in the Arab revolt. But perhaps, for all his evidently imperfect understanding of Arab nationalism, Zionism and British imperialism, he should have been nicknamed “Lawrence of Judea” as well.