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.

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.