January 8, 2000
Lawrence of Arabia is one of the most mysterious and romantic characters of the early 20th century. An Englishman who was able to blend into the "exotic" Middle East, his main accomplishment was helping to lead the people of the Arabian Peninsula to independence. A dedicated member of the British military and a steadfast believer in his own moral code, Lawrence was a stubborn man of tremendous integrity, never doing or saying anything that would compromise his beliefs. In fact, it was his unwavering integrity that inspired-or infuriated-everyone he came into contact with.
In the summer of 1909, as part of his studies, Lawrence made a 1,000-mile walking trek through what are now the countries of Syria and Palestine. It was then a very adventurous thing for a young Englishman to set out alone in a remote foreign country. He learned Arabic and visited and studied 36 castles built by the Crusaders, but his trek was not without incident. He was shot at, robbed and beaten, and fell ill with malaria four times!
It was on this trek that Lawrence discovered a love and appreciation for foreign languages and customs, and a talent for assimilating into other cultures. He would have made a great World Trekker for The Odyssey!
When Lawrence returned to England, he wrote his thesis and graduated with highest honors. He then returned to the same part of the world and worked for three years, between 1911 and 1914, on an archaeological dig in the ancient Hittite city of Carchemish. Because of his ease with foreign languages and customs, Lawrence was put in charge of the Arab labor force on the dig and made many Arab friends
In 1916 the most famous chapter of Lawrence's life began when he was sent to Arabia on a secret diplomatic mission. An Arab revolt against the Turks had begun under the leadership of Grand Sharif Hussein, ruler of the Hejaz region, where Mecca, the holy city of Islam, is located. The rebels, mostly poor Bedouin tribesmen, were badly in need of reinforcements, and Lawrence was sent as a liaison to help the rebels and coordinate their efforts with the British.
But Lawrence was much more than just a liaison. He soon became a good friend and main advisor to Prince Feisal, the leader of the rebel troops and the son of Grand Sharif Hussein. Now completely assimilated and soon leading troops himself, Lawrence dressed in Arabic robes and rode and fought alongside his men. He gained a reputation among the rebels as a man of great courage and integrity. In fact, his judgment was trusted so much that he was often called on to settle disputes among the men.
Eventually and against great odds, the rebels defeated the Turks and took control of Damascus, which was to be their new capital city. He used his soldiers' knowledge of the desert and sabotaged the Hejaz railway, thus cutting off supplies to the Turkish troops in Damascus. News of the unprecedented victory spread quickly, and the legend of Lawrence of Arabia was written in the history books forever. Who was this man who could enter a harsh foreign land and inspire and lead "uncivilized barbarians" to victory over their more numerous and well-funded enemies?
Unfortunately, the British government did not share Lawrence's integrity. Once Arabia was under their control, the British revealed a secret treaty they had signed years before. In this treaty it was agreed that the new Arab territory would be split with France: yet another example of unabashed colonial tyranny. The independence for which Lawrence and his men had fought so hard had been stolen from them once again.
Lawrence felt betrayed by his own government. Back in England, in a show of disgust at a royal ceremony, he refused the medals of honor about to be pinned on him by the King of England. At this point, he could have lived a life of prestige and fame, and taken his pick from any number of high ranking offices in the English government. Instead, he once again stuck to his modest ideals, changed his name to avoid the press, and re-entered the military to live a quiet life of humility and service as just another soldier.
Back in the military, he continued his literary pursuits by corresponding regularly with many influential people of the time, including Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw. To supplement his military income he published several books, including Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his personal account of the war, and a translation of Homer's The Odyssey. After a relatively short but influential life, he died in a motorcycle accident in 1935 when he swerved to avoid hitting some boys bicycling in the road. If Lawrence of Arabia were around today, there is no doubt he would have approved of The Odyssey's "World Trek for Service and Education."
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