Colonel Stewart Francis Newcombe was already a legend in the deserts of Arabia before he was joined in Cairo during the early months of the First World War by a group of extraordinary specialists in Middle Eastern affairs. One member of this group was T.E. Lawrence who went on to achieve worldwide fame. Colonel Newcombe's story, like those of other unsung figures in the Anglo-Arabian panoply, has been eclipsed by the legend of ´Lawrence of Arabia´, and has languished in the dusty recesses of regimental records, government files or in the elliptical words of Lawrence’s book Seven Pillars of Wisdom. However, S.F. Newcombe´s untold story is there to be told. IN THE SHADOW OF THE CRESCENT is a story of extraordinary exploits and courage, coupled with Newcombe's own legendary and inexhaustible supply of energy and of remarkable adventures under the very noses of the Ottoman authorities – full of danger, intrigue and perhaps more surprisingly, of romance during Newcombe's captivity in Turkey.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

"The important thing is GROPPI's"

Garden Groppi

Not so long ago Groppi's Café was once 'the place' to go in Cairo for tea, pastries and chocolate. When Cairo was the place to be seen, Groppi's was the café to be seen in. Such was its place in the social merry-go-round that everyone from Kings and Queens to politicians and members of the social elite passed through its doors to sample its legendary delights. Today, the café still occupies two sites in downtown Cairo. The first opened for business on 23 December 1909 on Sharia al-Maghrabi (today: Adly Street) and was generally known as Garden Groppi's. 
Mosaics by the Venetian, Antonio Castaman
The second followed on its success and opened in March 1925 on a corner of Midan Soliman Pasha (today: Talaat Harb Square) opposite the Savoy Hotel, long after the British Military had vacated its war-time headquarters in the requisitioned hotel. This branch has become a downtown landmark with its art deco tiled exterior and neon signage, with distinctive multi-coloured mosaics in the entrance executed by the Venetian artist, Antonio Castaman, and an eclectic interior by leading designers of the day.

Groppi in WW1
The Adly Street premises became a favourite haunt of T.E. Lawrence long before he was sent out to the Hejaz as an advisor to the Emir Feisal. Every day for nine months, he and Stewart Newcombe would have passed the café on their way by bicycle to-and-from their lodgings at the Grand Continental Hotel to the Military Intelligence offices based in the Savoy, a short journey of some five minutes. With breakfast taken in the sumptuous dining room of the Continental, the two men would undoubtedly have frequented the café during the day, the cool enclosed garden offering a peaceful sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of the Savoy offices. Conveniently, the café provided two exits, one through the shop and one through a door set in the wall of the garden. For operatives with secrets to divulge and enemies to evade, this was an added advantage.

At some time in late 1925 - the letter is undated - Lawrence wrote to his biographer, Robert Graves who was en route to Egypt, explaining that he had spent three magnificent years in Cairo and only ever went twice into a club. But what stood out for him most was Groppi's: "The important thing is GROPPI's, the Tea-garden shop," he wrote, emphasising its significance by the use of capital letters, "and the drink is iced coffee. Straws the process. 2 piastres the means. The children will love Groppi's. Chocolate all right, too: but not in summer." 

Based on Lawrence's recommendation Graves' children would probably have enjoyed Groppi's but Egypt did not appeal to Graves and he left his posting as Professor of English Literature at the Egyptian University at Cairo at the end of the first academic year. In March 1925, Groppi opened its second branch opposite the Savoy Hotel. One suspects that Lawrence's abhorrence of 'clubs' held no sympathy for Newcombe who would have felt most at home in either the Gezira Sporting Club or the Turf Club - those two great institutions beloved by staff officers wearing suede desert boots and brandishing fly whisks and swagger sticks.  

Soliman Pasha branch signage
Further evidence of Lawrence’s fondness for Groppi’s is shown in the introduction to Clare Sydney Smith’s story of her friendship with him, entitled The Golden Reign. 

“Early in 1920,” she wrote, “I went out to Egypt where my husband was in command of the Royal Air Force Station at Heliopolis. The Cairo Conference was held in spring of 1921 and there was, of course, much coming and going of important people. The Conference had been summoned by Mr. Winston Churchill, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, for the purpose of attempting to settle the Arab question...

During the Conference we did our share of entertaining in our Cairo flat and I was used to my husband bringing people in with him at odd times of the day. So there seemed nothing out of the ordinary when one hot March afternoon he came in as usual at tea-time accompanied by a small and, I thought, not particularly distinguished-looking man in a blue suit, carrying a white topee...

I remember he was quiet and withdrawn and had a shock of untidy-looking hair, but beyond that he made no impression on me at all.

After tea Sydney drove him home, and when he came back he said: "Do you realize who that was?"
"It was Lawrence of Arabia!"
"Good gracious!"
"And what's more, he's asked us to go to tea with him to-morrow."
That was our first meeting.”

The next day the Sydney Smiths made their way to Groppi's where they had arranged to meet. “Now that I knew who he was,” Clare recalled, “I was looking forward to getting to know our visitor better, but it was not until long afterwards that I realised what an unusual event - almost unknown, in fact - it was for him to invite anyone to tea. Usually he shunned all social occasions, even the simplest, and never took the initiative in arranging them.”

The couple arrived first and sat at a table in the garden facing the restaurant he would have to come through to join them. Looking back through the years, Clare remembered the moment Lawrence first walked into the gardens:

“There was a stir of interest when he appeared as everybody knew him by sight, but he took no notice as he walked straight across to us in the peculiarly springy walk he had. A quiet dignity surrounded his small, modest figure, dressed as yesterday in a dark blue suit and holding his white topee with both hands in front of him - a dignity which put the bare-faced curiosity of the public to shame.”

The event may have been unusual but the choice of venue was perhaps not so surprising. Clare does not tell us if Lawrence did in fact drink tea that day or whether her infatuation with him began over a glass of iced coffee drunk through straws. But one thing is obvious; for Lawrence, Groppi’s was infinitely preferable to the usual haunts like the great pavement-side terraces of Shepheards and the Continental which served as both stage and auditorium and were therefore anathema to his unique predicament of having a “craving to be famous; and a horror of being known to like being known.”   

Groppi chocolate wrapper
During the Second World War, Groppi’s retained its reputation as one of the few smart places open to everyone regardless of rank, although its exorbitant prices tended to mostly attract the officer class. It was said the garden was a favourite of General Montgomerie who came to enjoy the regular jazz evenings. Stage shows were a regular feature throughout the Forties. When the musicians stopped playing well into the evening and the dancers had returned to their tables, the floor would then be hydraulically raised two feet to become a stage for the floor show which often featured some very accomplished performers. An officer in the Special Boat Service, Colonel David Sutherland, famously entertained two German prisoners to ice-cream sodas in Groppi's before handing them over for interrogation. It was said his act of hospitality was unappreciated in certain quarters but in his defence he pointed out to an exasperated brigadier that as it was so rare for the SBS to take prisoners alive during missions in enemy territory he saw no harm, especially as one of the men had been captured with the Wehrmacht's new self-loading rifle, a weapon years ahead of its time and of particular interest to the boffins in Cairo.

No matter how full, the flowering creepers that had by now been trained up the garden walls created an illusion of intimacy and a haven of peace in the midst of the bustling city. Such an atmosphere gave rise to more than just the promise of welcome refreshment. The writer, Artemis Cooper, who taught English at the University of Alexandria, recalls how pashas came to sip freshly roasted coffee and eat cream cakes with their Levantine mistresses who draped their furs over the chairs while discreet waiters shuffled silently on the sandy floor wearing long white galabiehs topped with red tarbushes. “Officers on leave,” she revealed, “looked out for female companionship, and envied the man at the opposite table who suddenly rose to his feet with a smile, and pulled out a chair for the woman who had just joined him.” Then, as dusk fell, strings of coloured light-bulbs illuminated the garden adding to the possibility of intrigue and romance for the clientele who at that time in Egypt was mostly under the age of thirty.

The key to Rebecca
While the 1920s witnessed the ultimately unsuccessful hunt for the lost oasis of Zerzura in the Western Desert - a mythical city that had long excited the imagination with tales of verdant palms, a ruined city and lost treasure - it at least alerted one of the region’s most famous explorers, Count Laszlo Almásy, to a way of smuggling two German spies into Cairo. Almásy may have known the ways of the desert but he clearly underestimated the British spy-master, Major A.W. Sansom, of the British Security Services in Cairo. Sansom’s interest was first aroused when a copy of Daphne de Maurier’s novel Rebecca was found among the belongings of two German wireless operators in a remote desert W/T station which had been captured in May 1942, the significance being that the men could not read English. A rubbed out price mark of ’50 escudos’ indicated the book had been bought in Portugal and Sansom’s network of agents soon discovered that six copies of the book had been bought on the same day in a Lisbon bookshop by the wife of a staff member from the German Embassy. The book was clearly being used to encode and decode wireless messages. 

Hekmat Fahmy
Almásy’s two hapless spies, Hans Eppler and Gerd Sandstede, were finally undone when their Egyptian money ran out and they began to off-load forged five pound notes onto the black market in the belief that their value would plummet the closer Rommel approached Cairo. Their dissolute and desultory lifestyle was funded by over 3,600 pounds worth of dud fivers lavishly spent not just in the usual fleshpots like the Kit Kat Club, the legendary cabaret venue, but in more sedate establishments like Groppi’s where suspicions were raised and brought to Sansom’s attention. Their friendship with the sultry Hekmat Fahmy, known as the belly dancer spy, further sealed their fate and the three were surrounded in a dawn raid on their luxurious houseboats on the Nile. Eppler contrived a getaway by rolling up his socks and throwing them like hand grenades to slow down Sansom's men. But the game was up and they were apprehended.   

During the infamous Cairo riots that took place on 26 January 1952, both the Gezira Sporting Club and the Turf Club – the latter situated almost opposite Groppi's garden entrance on al-Maghrabi Street – were firebombed and totally destroyed. On what has been called Black Saturday, a series of anti-British and anti-Western riots spread throughout the city targeting banks, shops, theatres and hotels. Even the iconic Shepheard’s Hotel was not spared, along with the destruction of 12 other hotels, almost 300 shops and department stores, 40 cinemas and even the Cairo Opera House. Within a few hours thousands of local workers were displaced while the perceived symbols of seventy-years of British rule were razed to the ground as the incendiary fervour of revolution swept throughout the capital.

Shepheard's Hotel Terrace
Shepheard's in ruins 1952

Despite President Nasser’s attempts to nationalise foreign owned businesses the restaurant remained Swiss-owned and enjoyed something of a revival during the next two decades, becoming the caterer of choice for presidents and kings and thereby escaping the rigid hand of privatisation. The window displays at the Talaat Harb branch were famed for their creativity during Christmas and Easter festivities, earning praise for the restaurant as Cairo's answer to London's Fortnum and Mason's.

In 1971, the café provided the catering at the inauguration of the Aswan High Dam, an enormously ambitious project at the heart of Nasser’s economic vision. Five-hundred guests attended an extravagant party that included heads of state from other Arab countries as well as soviet leaders, since the Soviet Union had funded the project.

Talaat Harb Square branch
But already the trends in catering had shifted and competition came from an unexpected direction. With the opening of the first Wimpey’s in Cairo in the mid-70s, the burger restaurant quickly became the place of choice for young modern Cairenes and was where you took your girlfriend if you wanted to treat her. The old world charm of Groppi’s, with its ice-cream smothered in Chantilly créme, marrons glacés and chocolate covered dates, gave way to the brash plastic and bright lights of the first of the fast food giants to hit the town. Egypt had changed and Groppi’s was just one of its anachronistic casualties.

Groppi's fortunes have been mixed during the past one hundred years of trading and having survived social upheavals, riots, bomb blasts and financial downturns it survives today by reputation only. The current owners are fighting back and are using social media sites to promote its history and products to a younger generation while older clients remain steadfastly loyal, sometimes against all the odds. But if you are strolling in Cairo and want to soak up some of the atmosphere of a bygone era, Egypt's Belle Époque, then take a table at Garden Groppi’s and let your imagination wander. You’ll have plenty of time. Your waiter, no longer wearing the galabieh and tarbush, will not rush to serve you. Having seen off revolutions and fast food establishments, life moves at a different pace at Groppi’s and you would be wise to sit back, relax, and wonder who might next come through those famous doors.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Lawrence Symposium, Oxford 2016

Kerry presenting his paper 'Beyond Arabia' to the symposium

The 14th T.E. Lawrence Symposium at St. John's College, Oxford University, which ended on Sunday 25 September 2016, was a great success with interesting and entertaining papers presented by a diverse range of speakers from around the world. Attendance was, I understand, the highest ever for such an event - about 150 per session - and thanks must go to the hard working group of volunteers that form the committee of the society.

St. John's College, Oxford University

Once again, thanks to the chairman of the society, Philip Neale, and his committee for inviting me. It is always a pleasure meeting old friends and making new contacts in such convivial surroundings. I would also like to especially thank Joe Berton and Philip Walker to allow me to use previously unseen photos of Newcombe in my presentation.   

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Kennington's Lawrence effigy at Wareham

Lawrence effigy in repose
"The shock of T.E.'s death. Yes, when we were getting over it I had a letter from Buxton asking me to attend a committee which would plan a National Memorial."

The artist and sculptor Eric Kennington was among a select group of people brought together to discuss a fitting memorial following the death of T.E. Lawrence in 1935. "As far as I can remember," Kennington recalled many years later, "the other members were Buxton 'in the chair', Lady Astor, who soon elbowed him out of it and was in it herself, Newcombe, Storrs, Bernard Shaw, Lionel Curtis, Sir Herbert Baker."

Robin Buxton was Lawrence's banker and former colleague in the desert war. Lionel Curtis was an old friend and advocate of Imperial Federalism, which after its rejection in 1937 gave way to the idea of a Commonwealth of Nations. Sir Herbert Baker was an influential architect who with Edwin Lutyens had created New Delhi which became the capital of the British Raj in India. Baker had given Lawrence sanctuary in an upstairs attic room above his studios in Barton Street, Westminster, allowing Lawrence to work undisturbed on his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

The committee was slow to come up with suitable ideas. "Then Baker said he had asked T.E. once what his idea was for a monument to himself," Kennington recalled, "and his reply - "The largest mountain in Arabia carved into a likeness of himself!" This amused Sir Ronald Storrs who interjected, "What a fine target for the Arabs - they'd get his nose first shot." Storrs, formerly assistant to the High Commissioner in Egypt followed by spells as Governor of Jerusalem and Cyprus, was an old friend of Lawrence and was instrumental in inviting him to assess the situation in the Hejaz at the start of the Arab Revolt. He knew that no grand ideas were ever formed by committees, but a lot of foolish ideas died there. Then Baker said, "What about an effigy? We have a distinguished sculptor here." Kennington had been lying low throughout the proceedings but quickly produced some sketches which were generally accepted. Then the matter went very quiet for several months. Kennington turned to the one man he could trust to give him a straight answer. He wrote to Stewart Newcombe who replied, "Nothing doing - it's all off. They aren't going on with a National Memorial." This was a blow especially as leaflets had gone out requesting donations and had been signed by the committee members which now included Churchill, Allenby and Augustus John. The idea was quietly dropped.

Hand on Arabian khanjar dagger
Two years passed when a chance encounter at Oxford railway station between Kennington and Curtis reinvigorated the idea of an effigy. Curtis remembered their previous association and said it was a pity that the scheme for an effigy had fallen through, adding, "I wonder what it would have looked like?" "You'd better come and see it," Kennington replied. "It's almost finished."

Legs crossed at the ankles
Lawrence's brother, Arnold, came to see it and immediately offered to buy it from Kennington. "What's this worth to you?" he asked bluntly. Kennington gave a price of two thousand pounds and a cheque was drawn up there and then. But where to place it? It is not clear who first suggested the tiny parish church of St. Martin's-on-the-walls, Wareham in Dorset, but when seen today Kennington's effigy rests in the most wonderful example of a 1000 years old Anglo-Saxon church, accessible to all and in perfect harmony with its surroundings.

St. Martin's-on-the-walls, Wareham
Kennington sculpted the effigy in the style of a recumbent figure with one hand resting on the hilt of a curved Arabian khanjar dagger and one resting loosely at his side and with legs crossed at the ankles in the style of a thirteenth-century knight. Cross-legs and sword handling were features of effigies during this period, created to depict an image of repose and peace which complemented further characteristics which represented military vigour and alertness. This style persisted until the middle of the fourteenth-century when it fell out of favour to be replaced by the praying, straight-legged effigy. The meaning of the cross-legged feature was generally thought to have originated from Knights Templars or Crusaders who had died in the Holy Land, had died during the journey home, or had simply travelled east as a pilgrim or soldier. The romance of the pilgrim soldier persisted and was especially strong in the sixteenth-century, long after the period of the Crusades, reinforcing the theory. However, this crossed-legged Crusader connection has since been refuted by historians. Kennington, in reproducing the image of a 13th-century knight, was tapping into the popular beliefs held at the time.
Lawrence's crossed feet rest upon a piece of Hittite sculpture

Kennington was aided in his work by photos of the progress of the sculpture made by Wing Commander Reginald Simms, an amateur photographer and a former colleague of Lawrence at Bridlington during his RAF service. These undoubtedly helped Kennington during the development of the effigy, highlighting any errors. This ultimately resulted in a fine piece of work with an exquisite likeness of Lawrence in repose but also with an alertness and readiness for further action as depicted by his resting hand ready to un-sheath the curved blade. This feature was particularly pertinent when the effigy was finally placed in St. Martin's in September 1939.

Two years earlier, Churchill had contributed a piece to T.E. Lawrence By His Friends, a collection of reminiscences or impressions of Lawrence by those who knew him or had worked with him - a 'gallery of partial portraits', as Arnold Lawrence, the editor, put it. Churchill submitted a revision of an earlier obituary article published on 26 May 1935 in the News of the World newspaper, only seven days after Lawrence's death. He wrote, 'I fear whatever our need we shall never see his like again'. Churchill used much of this article at the unveiling of a memorial plaque by Kennington at the Oxford High School for Boys on 3 October 1936, an event at which Colonel and Mrs Newcombe attended and where Elsie Newcombe confessed to a bemused E.M. Forster that "Mrs Lawrence [T.E.'s mother] lovs me so much that I may kiss her here here with my rouged lips and leave spots on her face and still she doesn't mind."

Churchill included the Oxford text with further amendments in his 1937 opus Great Contemporaries where he made significant changes in both words and tone at a time when he was languishing in a political wilderness. With ominous world events pointing to another world war - in March 1936 Germany had reoccupied the Rhineland and four months later saw the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War - he used the occasion to highlight a pressing need for political effect. "All feel the poorer that he has gone from us. In these days dangers and difficulties gather upon Britain and her Empire, and we are also conscious of a lack of outstanding figures with which to overcome them."  This was not just about Lawrence. If Churchill had been side-lined at least he was able to remind his audience he was still available.

Even Lawrence's role in the RAF was utilised for Churchill's own political aims. In Friends, Churchill wrote simply that Lawrence experienced twelve years of "honourable service" in the RAF as an air-mechanic, concerned with the "mechanism of aeroplane engines, the design of flying boats." Two years later this employment was set aside in favour of a more far-reaching role that was used to bolster Churchill's own arguments for the strengthening of the aerial defence of Britain in line with the growth of the Luftwaffe.  "Those who knew him best miss him most; but our country misses him most of all. For this is a time when the great problems upon which his thought and work had so long centred, problems of aerial defence, problems of our relations with the Arab peoples, fill an even larger space in our affairs." 

With the spectre of war with Germany looming on the horizon, the tone of Churchill's revised portrait of Lawrence in Great Contemporaries became elegiac and inspirational to stir the emotions of the British public about to face their finest hour and in need of an Arthurian figure who was merely waiting for the call to arms once again. Kennington's effigy fitted the bill exactly. It would also not be long before Churchill was recalled from exile. 

Photographs of Eric Kennington's effigy of T.E. Lawrence by Kerry Webber (December 2015), courtesy of the Rector and Churchwardens of St. Martin's-on-the-walls, Wareham.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Fragmentary notes from a diary

Slightly off topic but I was searching through some papers recently when I came across an old hotel bill. The name of the hotel was sufficiently interesting to warrant further research which revealed that the establishment was to have a dramatic and somewhat explosive future ahead of it years after I had left. At the time of my travels in the region Jerusalem was experiencing attacks on tourists and my diary records a particularly close shave in the narrow lanes of the Old City. Thirty-five years have passed since I wandered the Holy Land with youthful bravado. Today, the security environment in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza remains complex and volatile despite efforts by the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to police tourist destinations. The events recorded in my diary did not put me off from returning time and again and indeed millions of tourists - 3.3 million in 2014 - over half of whom are Christian pilgrims, continue to make the journey with over 80% visiting Jerusalem.

6 September 1981 - Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv
I landed at Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv, at 9.15pm and after collecting my bag I exchanged coins for telephone tokens and phoned to confirm my hotel reservation. Outside the air-conditioned terminal a delicious warmth hit me as soon as I pushed through the doors. I was hustled towards a taxi but I insisted on a sherut (a shared taxi of six people from TA to Jerusalem) with a cost of 75 shekels for the hour journey to the Old City. After dropping off the other occupants I eventually arrived at the Rivoli Hotel at 3 Salah Eddin Street in East Jerusalem at 11.15pm and was given room 102. This was to be a one night stay so after a quick wash I threw open the windows and began to sort through hotels for the next morning. That night I slept on top of the sheets as the heat seemed unbearable after London.

7 September (Monday) 1981 - Jerusalem
After what seemed like only a couple of hours of fitful sleep I was woken by a cacophony of sounds from the window which increased in volume until 7 o’clock when I could take no more and went down to a breakfast of fried eggs and plenty of coffee. I was out by 8.45am. I had a couple of hours yet until 11am when I had to vacate the Rivoli so I left the hotel armed with a list of other hotels to look at, all close to Salah Eddin Street. I didn’t have to look very far when I spotted the Lawrence Hotel. I went in and reserved a room for two nights. Happy now that my next couple of days were secure I headed for the Old City. I wanted to enter by the Jaffa Gate so walked up alongside the walls and round until I came to the Citadel of David. Inside the gate the road, David’s Road, had just been dug up and was thick with dust, thrown up by passing cars and the occasional tourist camel. I sought refuge in the souq with its familiar pungent smells of spices, meat and incense. After soaking up the atmosphere for a while I worked my way through the labyrinth of alleyways to the Via Dolorosa and left by the Damascus Gate to pick up my case and move on. The bill for room and breakfast came to 19.25 US Dollars. They accepted £10 and I paid in Travellers cheques. I need only to cross the road to check into the Lawrence Hotel at 18 Salah Eddin Street where I took room 26. I spent the rest of that day and evening exploring the Old City, trying to become familiar with the twists and turns of its lanes in the hope that I might begin to understand its layout. An impossible but enjoyable task.

Lawrence Hotel, Jerusalem, Room 26

8 September (Tuesday) 1981
Breakfasted on sesame-seeded bread, cheese, figs, honey and sweet black coffee, then refreshed I threw myself back into the Old City to visit the Dome of the Rock. It took some time as the souqs were reluctant to give up the prize without a few wrong turns. When I eventually found it I bought a ticket for 10 Shekels for admittance to the El Aqsa Mosque and the Dome. I entered the Mosque first, barefoot as custom demands, and padded softly on the richly coloured Persian carpets that were scattered throughout. To the left as I entered was the spot where King Abdullah was murdered in 1951 and on the right was where in 1969 an Australian Christian pyromaniac set fire to the interior causing considerable damage that is still being repaired all these years later. It was cool and peaceful inside now and a welcome relief from the increasing heat that had seemed to follow me through the city to this upper platform of the Haram al´Sharif, or Temple Mount. On my way across the platform towards the Dome I was beckoned by a man sitting in the shade of a palm tree. I felt inclined to nod and pass on but I dimly recognised the man as the mosque guide I had met the year before. His name was Ali and he remembered me and even said I had been accompanied by a girl last year. We talked for a while then I said I wanted to visit the Dome alone this time and we said goodbye, he added “until next year, Inshallah”. The Dome inside is quite beautiful and is where guides point to a hoof print of el-Burak, the legendary horse of the Prophet Mohammed, from where Mohammed returned to Mecca after the Night Journey to the Seventh Heaven to receive the blessings of Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses and Jesus to become the last prophet of God. It is the centre piece and focus of the Moslem pilgrimage. Beneath this is the cavern known as the Well of Souls where some say is the traditional hiding place of the Ark of the Covenant containing the stone Tablets of the Ten Commandments. The Hebrew faith considers the Temple Mount to be its holiest site as God's divine presence is felt here more than any other place. For Sunni Moslems this is the third holiest site after Mecca and Medina. I finished my visit by descending to the Western or Wailing Wall to take some interesting photos. I wasn't completely happy at the Lawrence Hotel, the room being quite stuffy, so my search for something more suitable continued. Retracing my steps back to the Jaffa Gate I saw a sign for the Knights Palace Hotel. A name to conjure up images! I was not disappointed and booked myself in for the remainder of my stay in Jerusalem - four nights until my journey to the Galilee and Lake Tiberius. The Knights Palace is part of the Latin Patriarchate and a former theological seminary and has great charm. It is located in the north-western corner of the Old City and forms part of the city walls. As I spend so much of my time here it made sense to relocate again.

12 September (Saturday) 1981
Today my decision to relocate nearly proved costly. I was walking back to the Knights Palace Hotel this evening through the New Gate when I narrowly missed an explosion by hand grenade which killed one and badly injured 28 others. I saw the 47 strong group of Italian Catholic pilgrims about to enter the narrow lane that led to my hotel and as I was not feeling too well – a stomach cramp that I thought might get worse - I decided not to buy fruit from the hole-in-the-wall fruit shop which was my normal routine whenever I came through this way. Instead I rushed through to get ahead of the slow-moving crowd and reached the hotel. The grenade was thrown immediately after I had passed by and landed in the centre of the group just as I reached the entrance to the hotel. A sickening metallic thud was followed by screams as the explosion caught the pilgrims in the narrow lane, intensifying the effect. Until the ambulances arrived many of the injured were carried into the hotel and through to the refractory where they were placed on the tables to receive medical first aid. Blood flowed through the lobby and the situation was made worse by a staff member attempting to wash down the flagstones with a bucket of water, turning the corridors into a river of blood. The area was locked down for several hours so later that evening we were forced to dine in the same refractory that had served as a temporary medical centre. Not surprising, some people had lost their appetite. One young couple, Paul and Charlotte, were visibly shaken up by the incident. After dinner security was relaxed and I convinced them to come out with me to a restaurant in New Jerusalem for coffee and rumbaba-style pastries, mixing with the post-Shabbat crowd, all in good humour and seemingly oblivious to the carnage that had taken place earlier. Later we learned that a second victim had died of his wounds. And this after a German tourist had been shot dead while walking in the Via Dolorosa only three weeks earlier.

On the morning of 12 April 1996, room 27 of the Lawrence Hotel was completely destroyed by a bomb that went off prematurely after a Lebanese operative from Hezbollah, Hussein Mikdad, misjudged the procedure for assembling the crude explosive device made from a Sony radio and military-grade C4 explosives. At first police suspected a gas leak but a deep crater in the room pointed to a more sinister cause. Mikdad had entered through Israel's front door, using a stolen British passport in the name of Andrew Newman to fly from Zurich to Tel Aviv on Swissair. He lost his sight and the lower parts of both legs and a hand in the explosion and after spending two years in the Ayalon Prison in Ramla he was released as part of a prisoner swap in 1998. My old room, number 26, was also destroyed in the explosion.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Life on Mars - Bagnold Dunes

Further to my post Newcombe, Bagnold and the hunt for the lost oasis of Zerzura (22 March 2015) NASA reports that the Curiosity Mars rover has recently reached a field of dark dunes along the north-western flank of Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater that has been informally named "Bagnold Dunes", further proof of the importance placed by NASA on the intrepid exploits and academic research carried out by desert explorer Ralph Bagnold and his colleagues.

Bagnold's seminal work, The Physics of Blown Sand and Desert Dunes (1941), was an invaluable aid to understanding dune formation and wind erosion prior to the first fully successful soft landing on Mars by a probe in 1976 from NASA's Viking programme. 

Observations of this dune field from orbit indicate that edges of individual dunes move about 3 feet (1 meter) per Earth year. This photograph (taken in December 2015) of the rippled surface of the first Martian sand dune ever studied up close was taken from Curiosity's mast camera and is an image that would have been familiar to Bagnold's own studies carried out in the Libyan Desert (Eastern Sahara).

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Man with the Gold

T.E. Lawrence Society Announcement

Following on from the success of The Oxford Roof Climber’s Rebellion at the 2014 Symposium, the Society is pleased to bring a new play to the stage at the 2016 Symposium. The Man with the Gold has been written by distinguished author Jan Woolf. The performance at St John’s College on the evening of Friday September 23 will be the world premiere. 

The British government is at war again in the Middle East and never before has an understanding of the historical dynamic linking the Sykes-Picot treaty at the end of WWI to the present day been so vital. This new play, started by Jan Woolf on an archaeological dig in Jordan in 2013, has been completed for the centenary of the Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule during WWI. Its intention is to unravel the complex “hero” it produced in T. E. Lawrence. Set in the present, it centres on two archaeologists as they prepare a centenary exhibition in a war museum. As they unravel their own personal connections, ghosts are unwittingly summoned and the myth of “Lawrence of Arabia” excavated. 

“It’s terrific: witty, unusual, and timely, and it’s going to be very watch-able. Bringing Lawrence to life through the preparation for an exhibition is a riveting device. You feel he is being dug out of the desert sand in front of you to rise up like a scrap of desert mist. A wraith with a message who blasts his way into the present to deliver it.” Heathcote Williams

14th Biennial T.E. Lawrence Symposium, St. John's College, Oxford, 23-25 September 2016

The T.E. Lawrence Society will be returning to St John’s College, Oxford, for its 14th Symposium in September 2016. Coinciding with the outbreak of the Arab Revolt in 1916, a special programme of lectures is being planned to mark this very special centenary, plus the world premiere of a new play by Jan Woolf, The Man with the Gold. Booking forms are included with this Newsletter, and will be downloadable from the Society’s website at

Friday September 23

Roger Holehouse: The Strategic Context to the Arab Revolt

Roger Holehouse OBE is a former Royal Navy officer and Foreign and Common-wealth Office civil servant. He is also a National Trust volunteer at Clouds Hill. Roger will examine the shifts in British policy towards the Ottoman Empire from the middle of the 19th century until its dissolution in 1922. He will examine the reasons behind Britain moving away from supporting the Ottomans, as a buffer against Russian expansion, in the Crimean War, to a position of fighting against them, as an ally of Russia, and supporting the Arab Revolt, in the 1914-18 war.

Dr Steve Mills, Professor Paul T. Nicholson and Hilary Rees: Views of An Antique Land: Egypt and Palestine During the First World War

Dr Steve Mills is a lecturer in archaeology at the School of History, Archaeology and Religion at Cardiff University and a specialist in auditory and sensory archaeology. He has worked in Egypt and has an established interest in landscape archaeology.

Professor Paul T. Nicholson is also at the School of History, Archaeology and Religion at Cardiff University where he teaches Egyptian archaeology and early technology. He regularly directs projects in Egypt and has an established interest in early archaeological photography.

Hilary Rees is the project officer for Views of an Antique Land. She is secretary to the Gwent branch of the Western Front Association.

This paper looks at the background to, and some of the results of, a Heritage Lottery-funded project based at Cardiff University which is examining images of Egypt and Palestine taken during the First World War. The project will provide a website which descendants of those who served in the conflict can use to better understand the landscape and societies in which their ancestors served, but will go further by providing images of the archaeological sites and settlements as well as photographs of military subjects. These, often dated, images give what is, quite literally, a snapshot of Egypt and Palestine at this important period and should prove useful to archaeologists, historians and film makers as well as to those researching military or family history.

Accompanied by a small exhibition of ephemera from the project

Saturday September 24

Philip Walker: New Light on the Arab Revolt and the Forgotten Few Who Shaped It

Philip Walker is a retired archaeologist who spent many years as an Inspector of Ancient Monuments with English Heritage. He is writing a book on his research, which grew out of a paper he presented at the Society’s 2010 Symposium. He has travelled in Libya, Palestine, Morocco, Xinjiang (the Muslim far west of China) and other parts of Central Asia. He has a particular interest in the relationship between British Intelligence and the Arab Revolt.

New research into a key group of British officers based at Jeddah demonstrates that they saved the Arab Revolt from likely collapse before and during T. E. Lawrence’s indispensable involvement. In particular, the influence of one officer over the Revolt’s leader, Sherif Hussein of Mecca, was at least as important as that of Lawrence over Emir Feisal. Without these forgotten efforts, the world would not have heard of “Lawrence of Arabia”. This paper draws on archival research including extraordinary unknown private collections of Arab Revolt photographs, letters, diaries, memoirs and other documents. Philip discovered this material by tracking down the descendants of British officers in Panama, Jamaica, the USA, Canada, Australia, Ireland, Denmark and various parts of the UK. A fresh interpretation of the Revolt will be complemented by a selection from hundreds of stunning photographs, to be shown for the first time.

Professor Ali Allawi: Feisal and the Arab Revolt

Born in Baghdad, Ali Allawi graduated in 1968 with a BSc in Civil Engineering. He continued his postgraduate studies in regional planning at the London School of Economics, and went on to obtain an MBA from Harvard University in 1971. He worked in finance and investment during the 1970s, and following an academic period at St Antony’s College, Oxford, he was appointed Minister of Trade of Iraq in 2004. In the same year he was appointed to be Iraq’s first post-war Minister of Defence. In 2005 he was elected to Iraq’s Transitional National Assembly and became Minister of Finance. Since 2006 he has been elected to different academic appointments around the world, appeared on many Western TV programmes and delivered numerous lectures related to Iraq. He has published many books on Iraq and the Islamic civilisation and in 2014 his major political biography of Feisal appeared to great acclaim. He continues to lecture and present programmes on the politics and history of the Middle East.

This paper looks at the type of states or confederation of states and political organisations that Feisal expected as an outcome of the Arab Revolt, Lawrence’s perspectives on this, and the final pattern of states that did in fact emerge. One contention is that Feisal’s vision was far more conducive to stability, security and prosperity in the post-Ottoman world than the failed mandate system.

George Thompson: Seeing Arabia: The Personal Photographs of T. E. Lawrence taken between 1916 and 1918

George Thompson lives in the United States where he devotes his time to lecturing, writing and developing programmes on the First World War. After more than 25 years in higher education, as a university professor and assistant dean, he returned to academia as an Adjunct Associate Professor in the History and Philosophy of Medicine Department at the University of Kansas Medical Centre. Professor Thompson’s knowledge of the war and his skill in programme development resulted in his being elected President of the World War Historical Association, Chair of the Midwest Chapter of the Western Front Association, US Branch, and serving as a member of the Academic Advisory Committee for the National World War One Museum and Memorial.

Seeing Arabia will examine a selection of wartime photographs taken by T. E. Lawrence. The images will be viewed from several contexts: geographical, chronological, historical, and as photographic objects. These approaches will reveal to us the man, his values and his photographic motives, and allow us to evaluate his effectiveness as a photographer. The presentation will place Lawrence in a larger context which was his era’s use of photography as a tool to document one’s perceptions and experiences.

Seeing Arabia will describe how Lawrence’s pre-war life established his aesthetic and historical views that would influence his future choice of photo-graphic content and techniques. It will also reveal why his images are not just a significant historical record but are elegant visual statements.

John Johnson-Allen: T. E. Lawrence and the Red Sea Patrol

John Johnson-Allen went to sea in 1961 with the BP Tanker Company and spent nearly nine years at sea, rising to the rank of Second Officer. He then pursued a career in the property industry. Since retiring 10 years ago, he has gained an MA in maritime history and been elected a Liveryman of the Honourable Company of Master Mariners. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Royal Institute of Navigation, Chairman of the Institute of Seamanship and a member of the Society for Nautical Research. He has written two previous books: Voices from the Bridge (with David Smith) and They Couldn’t Have Done It Without Us; The Merchant Navy in the Falklands War. He lectures on maritime subjects and is researching for a fourth book.

Following extensive research into the activities of the ships of the Red Sea Patrol, it has become evident that without the work of those ships, the Arab Revolt would have failed and Lawrence would have remained an obscure officer in the military bureaucracy of Cairo. This paper looks at the work of the Royal Navy, largely unreported at the time for political reasons, using primary source material from the ships’ logs and other early sources. Lawrence was aware of the importance and relevance of the Royal Navy in their Red Sea operations and commented on it on many occasions. He reported in 1918 that “the naval side of the … operations, when the time comes to tell of it, will provide a most interesting case of the value of command of the sea …” Until now, nobody has investigated what was behind those comments. This paper uncovers a new angle on the Lawrence legend.

Sunday September 25

Group Captain John Alexander: “Aeroplanes and Arabs”: T. E. Lawrence as Proponent of Air Power and the British Way in Warfare

John Alexander is a Group Captain in the RAF Regiment, the successor to the RAF armoured car companies formed to help garrison Iraq following the 1921 Cairo Conference, in which Trenchard offered Lawrence a commission. A specialist in air/land integration and an Arabic speaker, he served in the Falkland Islands in 1982; on secondment to the Sultan of Oman; at Tabuk on the Hejaz Railway in the 1990/91 Gulf War; in Iraq from 2003 to 2005; and in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2011. He has conceptualised warfare in appointments in think-tanks at the RAF, Luftwaffe and the MOD. A graduate of Newcastle, the Open, Cambridge (as a Chief of the Air Staff Fellow) and Pakistan National Defence Universities, he was recently a Chief of the Air Staff Visiting Research Fellow at the Changing Character of War programme at Pembroke College, Oxford. He has published in the Royal United Services Institute Journal (based on his work on Taliban outreach), Air Power Review and Asian Affairs. T. E. Lawrence’s fame derived from the contrast between the warfare of the Arab Revolt and the attrition of the Western Front. His conception of guerrilla warfare influenced Basil Liddell Hart’s theory of the “Indirect Approach” and his cultural understanding is now a totem for contemporary counter-insurgents. Yet in the ever growing Lawrence literature there is little linking his concept of war-fare and his choice of Service for post-war enlistment. This paper uses archival research to argue that Lawrence and his colleagues employed a strikingly modern British “way in warfare”, using armoured cars, machine guns and aeroplanes to avoid Arab attrition and minimise British presence, and Britain’s economic and maritime strength to subsidise proxies and provide operational mobility. The paper concludes that this example of liberal militarism throws light on Lawrence’s subsequent support for air control in Iraq, and enlistment in the RAF.

Kerry Webber: Colonel Newcombe and Lawrence: Beyond Arabia

Kerry Webber is a British writer, photographer and designer who has spent many years travelling and working in the Middle East. He became interested in the Arab Revolt and the Palestine Campaigns of the First World War which inevitably brought him into contact with the legend of “Lawrence of Arabia”. Intrigued by Lawrence’s claim that fellow officers could “each tell a like tale”, he began to explore those peripheral figures and decided to research the life of Stewart Newcombe, eventually publishing articles and giving lectures on his findings. In 2000 he joined the T. E. Lawrence Society and was elected to its Committee, sitting on its editorial panel under the chairmanship of the late Philip Kerrigan. Kerry also contributes biographies to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biographies. He now lives in Spain and his book on Newcombe will be published in 2016.

Colonel Newcombe of the Royal Engineers was already a legend in the deserts of Arabia before he was joined in Cairo during the early months of the First World War by a group of extraordinary specialists in Middle Eastern affairs. One member of this group was T. E. Lawrence. Newcombe’s story, like those of other unsung figures in the Anglo-Arabian theatre of war, has been eclipsed by the legend of “Lawrence of Arabia”, and has languished in the dusty recesses of regimental records, government files or in the words of Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Colonel Newcombe and Lawrence: Beyond Arabia explores the unique friendship between the two men, that began in a pre-war desert meeting south of Beersheba and endured for more than 20 years until Newcombe was at last able to describe Lawrence as being like a younger brother. At Lawrence’s funeral, history records Newcombe as representing the Arabian years as one of the six pall bearers; this paper shows how much more this relationship meant to both men.

Dr Neil Faulkner: Lawrence of Arabia’s War

Neil is an archaeologist and historian who works as a lecturer, writer, editor and broadcaster. He is co-director of the Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project in Norfolk and the Great Arab Revolt Project in Jordan. Educated at King’s College, Cambridge, and the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, he is a Research Fellow at the University of Bristol and Editor of Military History Monthly. The author of countless magazine articles and academic papers, his books include: Apocalypse: The Great Jewish Revolt against Rome, AD 66-73; Rome: Empire of the Eagles; and A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics. Lawrence of Arabia’s War will be published by Yale University Press in Spring 2016.

Neil Faulkner was joint academic director of the decade-long Great Arab Revolt Project in Jordan. The discovery and interpretation of the archaeological remains have transformed understanding of the war in the desert in 1916-18. Neil will address four of the key themes: 1). The way in which Lawrence’s character as a Romantic and an Orientalist equipped him to play a unique role in the Arab Revolt. 2) The rich interaction of tradition and modernity, symbolised by the camel and the train, during the war. 3) The seminal contribution of Lawrence and the Sherifian Arabs to the development of modern guerrilla warfare. 4) The way in which the evidence on the ground has confirmed the scale of the insurgency and the essential veracity of Lawrence’s account in Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Accompanied by an exhibition related to the Great Arab Revolt Project in Jordan

Dick Benson-Gyles: The Boy in the Mask

Dick Benson-Gyles was educated at Marlborough College and is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin. A professional editor and freelance writer, who has been writing for the Western Morning News for 25 years, he has also been an archaeologist in Iraq and TV documentary presenter. His new book, The Boy in the Mask: The Hidden World of Lawrence of Arabia, is due to be published in Spring 2016.

This presentation will explore Dick Benson-Gyles’ quest to uncover previously unexplained areas in the life of Lawrence. The talk will explore a personal mission to reveal the man behind the mask: the secret Lawrence. Lawrence’s lost Irish heritage will be explored - his father’s real family (the aristocratic, Anglo-Irish Chapmans), his abandoned half-sisters (with evocative interviews), his illegitimacy, and his mother’s obscure forebears. His concealment from his titled and wealthy Irish family affected Lawrence more deeply than thought. We will also have an insight into some of the mysteries and questions still remaining around Lawrence and his life. The presentation will be supported by a wide range of unseen family and documentary photographs, never before published.

Please note that this is a provisional programme and may be subject to change.