. . . she hath hewn out her seven pillars.”
Proverbs, chapter nine, is the source of the title of T.E. Lawrence’s war memoir, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It’s hard, even after re-reading this epic, to know what the hell he meant by that. Like many I first heard of Lawrence because of David Lean’s brilliant film, Lawrence of Arabia, with a remarkable Peter O’Toole in the title role. The movie, is of course, a movie, and it compresses a complex, mysterious man involved in a complex, mysterious part of history into about 3-1/2 hours. My dad had a battered paperback copy of the book in the house I grew up in, and as a boy I read snatches of it, but was too intimidated by its length (almost 700 pages) and weirdness to tackle it as a whole.
I read the book cover-to-cover for the first time in 1990, the year after we moved to Yreka. I read it again over the last few weeks. I’ve read a lot more history in the interim and was able to grasp the sweep of events much more clearly and understand the significance of the Middle East in the Great War. Events from one hundred years ago still impact the region! Lawrence was an Oxford scholar, in particular an archaeologist, who had traveled in Mesopotamia before the First World War. He spoke Arabic and had a working knowledge of Turkish, the language of the Ottoman Empire, and so found himself commissioned as a lieutenant in the British Army Intelligence Service when the War broke out. In Cairo he encountered an effort by his superiors to enlist the aid of Arabs in the fight against the Turks. Being as close to an expert in Arab culture as anyone else, he volunteered for the effort. Ultimately he became a confidant of both General Allenby, British theater commander, and Emir Feisal, son of the Sherif of Mecca, de facto leader of the Arab Revolt.
Lawrence is a controversial figure. Many Allied soldiers participated in the Revolt—to whom Lawrence gives much credit—but his particular narrative was so interesting and well-written that it made him a celebrity. Some feel his work is monumental self-aggrandizement, others accept him at face value. Either way, Lawrence’s legend is bigger than his actions, probably through no fault of his own. After the war he had his memoirs privately printed, available to only a select few, and his audience was mostly former colleagues and other Middle Eastern scholars. Eventually the work was made public in 1927 and it was wildly popular, and the ensuing celebrity status forced Lawrence to be a virtual recluse. He died in an accident in 1935.
It’s easy to see what the legend is all about. Seven Pillars is a great read despite its difficulties. Lawrence assumes you know as much about history as he does, and that you know all the players and their roles. As I stated the work was originally for those he’d served with and other scholars, not a general audience. So you have to work. I spent a lot of time with maps and encyclopedia entries! Plus Lawrence is always dropping Latin and Greek phrases, or literary allusions, and you sometimes get overwhelmed by his erudition. But the story is so gripping, and the power of his descriptions, both of the landscape and its inhabitants, are so marvelous, that you can’t put the book down.
Lawrence loved the Arabian desert and wrote of it with the passion and vividness Edward Abbey brought to the American Southwest. He was an idealistic supporter of pan-Arabism as well as a loyal Briton and served in the War out of a sense of duty and a desire to foster the nationalistic aspirations of a subject people. He was also a political realist and knew that many of the Allied promises to the Arabs were convenient fictions designed merely to get their help against the Turks (the Ottoman Empire was allied with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire). Lawrence is conflicted throughout his tale, ashamed of his duplicity but proud of his efforts, and heaps praise on his superiors as superb soldiers and leaders.
Lawrence worked mostly with irregular troops, Bedouin tribesmen he and Feisal recruited as guerrillas, supported by British engineers and combat specialists. Their chief contribution was as raiding parties, cutting the railroads, interdicting the supply lines, harassing the rearguard, and tying down Turkish units that would have been better off fighting the British armies head-on. Lawrence grasped immediately the principles of what we now call asymmetric warfare, and had an intuitive understanding of the importance of topography to maneuver and supply. Despite being an amateur he had a strategic conception of the conflict that was more far-reaching than many of the professionals in the general staff. Ultimately his role became one of liaison between Feisal and Allenby and his memoir is rich with details about both men, whom he greatly admired.
The book can be read as an adventure story. Lawrence rode with the tribesmen on many occasions, and the descriptions of life on the march, details of camping in the wilderness, the thrill of the skirmish, and the terror of pursuit by the enemy are expertly rendered. A British sapper named Garland developed techniques of railroad mining and destruction that the irregulars became experts at and those events are described with pulse-pounding authenticity. The book is also a rough travel guide as many of the places they go were once in the hands of Assyrians, Alexander’s armies, Roman legions, or even Crusaders. It’s also a primer on the anthropology of the Bedouins and the many other races and cultures that have inhabited the great crossroads of conflict that is the Middle East.
Ultimately, though, what makes Seven Pillars great is Lawrence’s self-reflection. He gives amazing thumbnail sketches of larger-than-life characters like the impetuous warrior Auda abu Tayi. He seems to grasp the essential person straight away and offers memorable insight into their motivations and behaviors. Much of the book is filled with these spectacular personages and Lawrence’s evaluation of them. But it’s when he turns his searing psychological scrutiny on himself that the book takes on real weight. The great hero of the Revolt, brilliant, ambitious, and accomplished, is revealed as deeply conflicted. On one hand desperate for approval and recognition, on the other cynical and misanthropic. He admits to seeking glory as part of a great movement but is tortured by his own personal demons and is unable to enjoy his successes. A loner and an ascetic by nature, he seems happiest when extreme physical hardship reduces him to his animal essence. Yet, as an intellectual, Lawrence cannot reconcile his lofty ideals with his almost desperate need for self-abnegation. A fascinating man, to be sure.
As far as the title goes, the biblical passage is open to many interpretations. Lawrence claimed he had written a previous book about seven cities (one can only guess: Damascus, Aleppo, Jerusalem, Mecca, Baghdad . . .?) but that it was “immature” and he decided not to publish it. He transferred the title as a “memento.” This strikes me as a cheeky bit of prevarication. Lawrence had a wicked sense of humor as well as a great ability to obfuscate his true meanings. He played many roles and wore many masks in his time. I like to think he learned several lessons in his time in Arabia, but they were either too arch or too abstract to share, so he gave them a casual nod in the title. Either that or Seven Pillars of Wisdom was just too cool and he had to use it before someone else did!
If you decide to tackle this extraordinary book, be advised that you will put out more than an ordinary effort. But I say it’s worth it!