Across The Sky In Stars: The Wisdom Of T. E. Lawrence

Thomas Edward Lawrence was born in Tremadog, North Wales on 16th August 1888. The second of five sons, Lawrence’s father was Sir Thomas Chapman, Baronet of Kilkea Castle, near County Kildare in Ireland and his mother was a young governess named Sarah Junner, for whom Chapman had left his wife. Despite the fact they never married, the couple both adopted the surname Lawrence. In his later years, his early familial situation would be a source of awkwardness for Lawrence regarding his own identity, and he would change his name several times throughout his life.

The world Lawrence entered was an ordered and stable Victorian one, where Pax Britannica saw the longest ever period of peace in Europe and in which the British Empire covered vast swathes of the globe. However, the devastation wrought by the Great War and the carving up of once great empires brought about Lawrence’s elevation from an astute and skilled soldier into the mythical ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’

In 1907, Lawrence went up to Jesus College, Oxford to read history and left in 1909 with a first class degree, the same year he visited Palestine and Syria whilst working on a dissertation that would later be published as Crusader Castles in 1936. His journeys ignited in Lawrence a powerful fascination with the Middle East and a deep affection for the people who lived there. After joining an archaeological expedition to excavate the site of Carchemish in Syria in 1911, Lawrence decided to extended his stay, and began learning Arabic, immersing himself in the local culture. He became particularly close to Selim Ahmed, also known as Dahoum, a young water boy in Carchemish who helped Lawrence with his Arabic.

Following the outbreak of war, Lawrence was recruited by British army intelligence, and in December 1914 he was sent to Cairo. In 1915, Lawrence learned that two of his brothers, Will and Frank had been killed in action in France and the tragic news only hardened his resolve to fight. When the Arab Revolt erupted against Turkey in June 1916, Lawrence was offered the role of adviser to Prince Faisal, the son of Sharif Hussein bin Ali, Grand Sharif of Mecca. Recalling his first meeting with the Prince, Lawrence remembered, ‘I felt at first glance that this was the man I had come to Arabia to seek – the leader who would bring the Arab Revolt to full glory.’ 

Continue reading

Lily Of The Nile: The Dynasties Of Princess Fawzia

When she died on 2nd July 2013, few could have appreciated the vast and extraordinary changes Princess Fawzia had witnessed during her 91 years. ‘Twice in my life, I lost the crown,’ she acknowledged, recalling her time as an important figure across the Islamic world. Her wealth of experience had taught the Egyptian Princess that the power behind great crowns could be both ephemeral and illusory, and so for her, their loss did not ‘matter.’

The eldest daughter of King Fuad of Egypt, and his second wife Nazli Sabri, Fawzia was born at the Ras el-Tin Palace in Alexandria, on 5th November 1921. Rarely leaving the confines of the palace, and brought up by her English nanny, Fawzia’s childhood was both sheltered and rarefied, leading the Egyptian writer Adel Sabit to comment, that she grew up a ‘supremely naive, over-protected, cellophane-wrapped, gift-packaged little girl.’

In April 1936, following King Fuad’s death, Fawzia’s older brother Farouk ascended to the throne, and the new King’s advisors were eager to strengthen Cairo’s relations with Tehran. With Egypt keen to assert its status in the region, particularly following the signing of the Treaty of Saadabad with Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and Afghanistan in July 1937, a match was suggested between Fawzia, and the son of the Shah of Iran. The prospect of Crown Prince Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s marriage was welcomed by his father, a soldier who had assumed power by overthrowing the Qajar dynasty in 1925. The Shah was minded to cement his own royal legitimacy and a union with the regal and established Muhammad Ali Dynasty of Egypt seemed ideal. Despite the Egyptian Prime Minister’s warning that a marriage between the Sunni Princess and Shia Prince was a ‘recipe for disaster,’ secular diplomacy won out over tradition, and their engagement was officially announced in May 1938. The couple married in March 1939 enjoying the splendour of two royal weddings, a Shi’ite ceremony in Fawzia’s new home of Tehran, following a Sunni union in Cairo with her Prince, the heir to the Peacock Throne.

Above: The Royal Wedding in Cairo (1939)

Continue reading

A Man Of Dust: The Battles Of Keith Douglas

The Second World War is seldom feted for its poetry, despite producing poets whose talents rivalled those of the 1914-1918 conflict. Though he remained relatively unknown until the reissue of his work in 1964, of all the later conflict’s poets, the most striking was Captain Keith Douglas, with poems such as The Knife, and How to Kill hinting at the great promise that had barely begun to surface before his death on 9th June, 1944. In Desert Flowers, written in 1943, Douglas freely admits, ‘Rosenberg I only repeat what you were saying’ and he made no secret of how he looked to the earlier soldier poets, such as Isaac Rosenberg for inspiration, claiming their poetry was enacted ‘everyday on the battlefields’ and admiring how they communicated their personal experiences of battle.

Born on 24th January 1920 in Tunbridge Wells, Douglas’s childhood was marred by the illnesses of both his parents, which led to financial hardship for the family and the breakdown of their marriage by 1929. Douglas’s father later remarried and subsequently distanced himself from his young son, who was sent to a boarding school near Guildford. Douglas later recalled how his father’s rejection led him to retreat into his own imaginary world, which was ‘so powerful as to persuade me that the things I imagined would come true.’ In 1931, with his mother no longer able to afford his school fees, Douglas was sent to Christ’s Hospital near Horsham, where assistance funds covered the costs of his education.

Douglas left Christ’s Hospital in 1938, to read History and English at Merton College, Oxford. At Oxford he encountered the war poet, Edmund Blunden, who was his tutor and a profound influence upon the young man.  It was at Oxford that Douglas’s love of poetry was fostered, he also met the only woman with whom he would fall deeply in love, a Chinese student named Yingcheng, who turned down his proposal of marriage, a rejection that, like that of his father, he would never quite get over. Though he would go on to have other lovers, he would tell Yingcheng, you, however cheaply you behave…will always be the only person I love completely – you’ll become almost a goddess or a mania if you go away… If you ever can decide that things could be all right… please have the courage and confidence in me to come back.’ Continue reading