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The Legend of Lawrence, Turkey, and the Turks

When it comes to Turkish-Arab relations, one of the first names that come to mind is Lawrence, who served as a British intelligence officer in the Middle East during World War I. After the war, Lawrence became a legend through his propaganda activities.

One of the most significant traits of Lawrence was his animosity towards Turks. In his memoirs, Lawrence expressed this hostility in very harsh terms, claiming to have met M. Kemal Pasha during the war and to have been subjected to assault by the governor Hacim Muhiddin Bey in Deraa, where he was captured.

It is observed that Turkey also closely followed Thomas Edward Lawrence in the early years of the republic, with embassies sending information to Ankara that was sometimes accurate and sometimes merely speculative.

More legend, less work Since the 1920s, Lawrence has been portrayed both globally and in Turkey as the sole organizer of the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Especially in our country, where “conspiracy theories prevail over reality,” it has been claimed that “Lawrence” or “Lawrences” were behind every event.

For example, it was alleged that he was involved in organizing the Sheikh Said Rebellion in 1925. Yunus Nadi, the owner and lead writer of the Cumhuriyet newspaper, also stated that Lawrence organized the Kurdish rebellions in the Ağrı region. Interestingly, Nadi was the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the TBMM at that time.

The shooting of the “Lawrence of Arabia” film in 1962 brought Lawrence fame he never deserved and made him a subject of discussion again worldwide. Turkey’s reaction was to ban the film, and Turkish audiences could only watch it on the first private television channel, Star TV, in 1990.

The Turkish academic world did not conduct any significant research on Lawrence for years. Initially, A. Fuat Paşa (Erden), who served on the Syria-Palestine front, briefly touched upon Lawrence in his works, while Cemal Kutay wrote the book “Against Lawrence: Kuşçubaşı” (1978). The most bitter fact was the publication of Lawrence’s memoirs in Turkey years later. His memoirs were published in 1991 under the title “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” by Rey Publishing in Kayseri.


For the Islamist segment, Lawrence held a different significance. Almost every Islamist magazine contained an article about him, warning the Islamist youth against “contemporary Lawrences.”

Some articles aimed merely to introduce him, while others focused on “his activities in the Middle East, his death,” the effects of his activities on the “division of the Islamic ummah,” “Dressing in Cleric’s Clothing and Striking Islam from Within,” “Arabs Demand Accountability from Lawrence’s Descendants,” “Eşref Bey vs. Lawrence,” among other titles. Authors of these articles include Fehmi Koru, Kemal Pilavoğlu, and M. Niyazi Özdemir.

Despite the Turkish public’s sensitivity towards Lawrence, the scarcity of Turkish publications on him is noticeable. The work titled “The Secret Life of Lawrence,” written against the Lawrence legend and translated into Turkish in 1975, and Orhan Koloğlu’s studies have contributed somewhat to Turkish literature. However, to date, there has not been a master’s or doctoral thesis directly focusing on Lawrence. Additionally, two articles by the Cypriot historian Salahi R. Sonyel published in Belleten are of great importance, especially since they also use British archives.

Lawrence and Turkey In the Ottoman Archives, Lawrence’s name appears for the first time in 1919. This record is a translation from the Manchester Guardian newspaper regarding Lawrence and the lands promised to the Arabs. In the Republican era, other records related to Lawrence also exist.

A 1928 correspondence mentioned rumors of Lawrence being assigned to the Indian army and secretly entering Afghanistan to prevent Turkish-Afghan military cooperation. The British Embassy in London’s 1929 letter mentioned Lawrence’s extradition from the Afghan border to England, and in 1930, it was reported that he arrived in the Revandiz area of Iraq and plotted a rebellion in Afghanistan.

Documents from 1933 mention that under the name “Shaw” as an “aviator,” Lawrence planned to travel to Kashgar to study Japanese activities along the Central Asian and Chinese borders after studying Turkish. That year, the Foreign Ministry in London reported that Lawrence had resigned from the British air force and would play in a movie called “Arab Swordsman” in Hollywood for 1,000 British pounds (State Archives Presidency Republican Archive (BCA), 37122-149056-17). This news was published in the Daily Herald newspaper.

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Documents from 1935 also report on his death in a motorcycle accident, communicated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the General Staff and the Ministry of the Interior. The person who sent the report was Fethi Okyar, a prominent figure in the founding cadre of the republic. In his report from his tenure as ambassador to London from 1934-1939, Okyar not only reported the death news but also included newspaper articles about Lawrence (BCA, 37354-150017-13, 23.5.1935).

Okyar’s report mentioned that politicians like Winston Churchill and Lord Lloyd (George) attended Lawrence’s funeral and quoted newspaper articles describing Lawrence as “known for being a friend of the Arabs” and achieving great fame with his works “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” and “Revolt in Arabia,” despite the exaggerations in these works.

Okyar also relayed information about the accident, initially kept from journalists. However, investigations revealed that the role attributed to a “black car” at the scene was merely a myth.

Okyar reported that Lawrence, during his studies at Oxford, claimed to have read all fifty thousand books in the library there, but the Manchester Guardian noted that to be true, he would have needed to read thirty-five books a day over four years, which was “impossible.”

Another document reflects on a conference given by the former Governor of Cyprus, Stors, which was reported by the Turkish ambassador in Sofia, Şevki Berker (BCA, 37430-150436-21, 22, 19.10.1938, 21.10.1938).

According to the report, Stors said in the conference that Lawrence managed to unite the scattered Arab forces and had a significant influence over the Arabs, but could not capture Medina due to Fahreddin Pasha’s defense. Berker also reported a meeting with the British ambassador regarding Stors’s derogatory comments about Turks.

Berker met with Stors through the ambassador and reported this meeting to Ankara. Stors stated in this meeting that he was an old friend of Lawrence and did not speak against Turkey, asserting that Lawrence was not a great personality but became a “Hollywood face,” hence the demand for such conferences in Europe and America.

Did Hacim Muhiddin Bey Assault Him? Documents from the Republican Archive clearly show Turkey’s interest in Lawrence. The exaggerated attention to his death in the Turkish public sphere is also evident in newspaper reports.

The “Haber” newspaper on May 20, 1935, announced Lawrence’s official death and speculated whether he would “resurrect in hell or in Abyssinia,” drawing attention to the upcoming Abyssinia-Italy War. The newspaper also remarked that “this was his third death” (https://www.gastearsivi.com/gazete/haber/1935-05-20/1, 2.2.2024).

The “Zaman” newspaper of the same date provided a brief biography along with the news of his death, while Cumhuriyet reported that the English radio had made a lengthy broadcast after his death explaining “how he incited the Arabs against us.” The “Kurun” newspaper, like Haber, used the headline “Lawrence died, will he resurrect again?” (https://www.gastearsivi.com/gazete/kurun/3, 2.2.2024).

Ankara’s and the Turkish public’s approaches to Lawrence have various reasons. Born in the Welsh region in 1888, Lawrence began studying history at Oxford in 1907. During his studies, he met Hogart, who played a fatherly role and also served as an advisor to British intelligence, and was influenced by him to turn to archaeology. He decided to write his thesis on the military architecture of the Crusaders in Syria and its surroundings. Lawrence obtained detailed information on how to behave in this geography and arrived in Syria in 1909, marking his first contact with Ottoman territory.

During his first visit to the Middle East, Lawrence tried to dress and live like the Arabs. Arriving in Antakya and Urfa, he learned Arabic and got to know the local people closely. The following year, he participated in excavations and improved his Arabic, and his hatred towards Turks began during this period.

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Advised by Hogart, Lawrence joined the British intelligence in Cairo as a lieutenant during World War I, interrogating Ottoman prisoners. Although he is portrayed as the one who incited and organized the Arabs, his actual participation in military operations is estimated to be around five months.

After being promoted to colonel, Lawrence was sidelined by British intelligence. He later worked under different names in a tank unit and the air force. From 1927 to 1930, Lawrence served in India and died in a motorcycle accident in 1935.

His memoirs, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” which played a key role in his fame, are filled with hatred towards Turks. Lawrence accused Ottoman soldiers of killing defenseless women and children during the war. On November 20, 1917, while collecting information behind the lines in Deraa, he claimed to have been captured as a deserter, taken to a police station, and forced to comply with the governor’s demands.

The “bey” Lawrence referred to was Hacim Muhiddin Bey, the governor of Deraa. Born in Uşak in 1881, Hacim Muhiddin served as a district governor in various locations and was appointed as the governor of the Havran district, starting his service in Deraa on March 31, 1917. He also played a role in organizing the Balıkesir and Alaşehir congresses at the beginning of the National Struggle.

Lawrence’s claim has been criticized by many, with Koloğlu finding that Lawrence told some people he complied with the governor’s demands to save his life, was exploited by the governor’s servants according to others, and told Bernard Shaw that such an incident never happened. These findings prove that Lawrence provided contradictory information. Nowadays, both British and Arab researchers do not support the theory that his hatred towards Turks was influenced by this incident. The general consensus is that such an incident never happened and that Lawrence was not in Deraa at that time but in Azraq Castle.

Did He Meet with Mustafa Kemal? Another claim by Lawrence was that he met with M. Kemal in September 1918. According to Sonyel, a British Brigadier General who wrote a book titled “The History of the Iraq Campaign” asked the Foreign Office for information, and an official named W.G. Childs, after consulting with Lawrence, recorded that Lawrence had “strangely coincidentally” met with M. Kemal several times in September 1918.

Mustafa Kemal reportedly said during the meeting that Turkey’s interests lay in the east, and after winning the war, thanks to Germany, regions such as Transcaucasia, Northwest Iran, Dagestan, and the Caspian Sea area would be gained. M. Kemal also mentioned that “Pan-Turkists (Unionists)” shared this view and considered Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia worthless, even being pleased with their loss.

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According to Lawrence, M. Kemal was leading a group that advocated prioritizing Turkish interests over Germany’s, as represented by Enver Pasha. He also planned for 100,000 soldiers to be assembled in Transcaucasia and Northwest Iran, which could be activated if the war was lost. Lawrence believed that even if Istanbul and the Straits were occupied, the invasion of Anatolia was impossible, and the 100,000-strong force could reach Central Asia.

These claims, based solely on Lawrence’s narration and Childs’s record, cannot be verified. Lawrence did not mention this information in his memoirs but shared it later, and M. Kemal never spoke of such a meeting.

In September 1918, Mustafa Kemal Pasha was appointed for the second time as the commander of the VII Army. Subsequently, during the Nablus Battles, the 4th, 7th, and 8th Army forces were largely destroyed by the British, and M. Kemal withdrew to Damascus, after which Arab and British forces occupied the city. If a meeting took place, it would have been during this time in Damascus. However, aside from these narratives, there is no evidence of such a meeting.

This is how Lawrence is perceived in Turkey, with embassies tracking his activities and speculative claims about him. He remains a controversial figure, not just an ordinary intelligence officer, always a subject of debate due to the claims he made.

Sources: Lawrence, T. E. (1991), The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Kayseri, Rey Publishing; Sonyel, S. R. (1987), “How Lawrence Deceived the Hashemite Arabs Against the Ottoman Empire,” Belleten, No. 199, pp. 199-231; (1988), “The M. Kemal-Lawrence Meeting According to British Documents,” Belleten, No. 205, 1701-1706; Koloğlu, O. (2003), “Lawrence, Thomas Edward,” DİA, Vol. 27, pp. 114-116; (2018), The Legend of Lawrence, Istanbul, Yeditepe; https://katalog.idp.org.tr/search?query=lawrence&order_by=match (30.01.2024).

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Dr. Yüksel Nizamoğlu is an Historian focuses on Ottoman Balkans, Middle East Studies, and Military History. PhD. 2010. Istanbul University.

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