A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

May 9, 1917: Origins of the ‘Aqaba Campaign, Part I

A century ago today, on May 9, 1917, a small party of 45 Arab men and a single Englishman rode out of the Red Sea port of Wejh into the desert country to the north. The small raiding party was ostensibly going on a typical raiding expedition of the Arab Revolt. The overall Arab commander, Prince Faisal, knew where they were headed, but the Arab Army's British and French advisors did not. In fact, the one British officer accompanying them knew, but just two months before had been explicitly ordered against such a venture, an order not yet rescinded. The Englishman was T.E. Lawrence; the tactical commander of the raid was the most famous tribal warrior in northern Arabia and southern Syria, the Howeitat chieftain ‘Auda Abu Tayeh; and their goal was the last Red Sea port under Ottoman occupation, ‘Aqaba.

You've heard of ‘Aqaba, of course. Its capture is the centerpiece of the first half of David Lean's epic 1962 Lawrence of Arabia. As I've noted before, the film takes considerable liberties with historical fact and may be a better movie for it. Surely the six foot two inch Peter O'Toole is a more heroic cinematic presence than the five foot five inch Lawrence would have been, but the blond hair and blue eyes are right. And Anthony Quinn was no Arab and his real role is if anything shortchanged, but he's a memorable ‘Auda Abu Tayeh.

And I'm sure if you know anything about the fall of ‘Aqaba, it probably is derived from one of the great scenes in epic cinema, as the attackers charge down a long plain, ride through the Turkish guard post and the awakening camp, and then, with the theme song rising in the background, fan out through the village and ride down to the sea in triumph. it's a hell of a memorable scene. If you've never seen the movie (what's wrong with you?), here it is:

As cinema, it's magnificent. As history, not so much. Nothing remotely like the above actually took place. The actual battle took place many miles to the north at Abu al-Lissal, nowhere near the sea.. There were no fixed guns pointed out to sea that could not be turned (that was Singapore in 1942); in fact the Royal Navy routinely shelled ‘Aqaba and had even put a landing party ashore in late 1916 and taken prisoners, some of whom defected. And as shown, Lawrence was riding a camel and firing a pistol, but in reality he accidentally shot his mount in the head and was injured when it threw him.

The actual history is less cinematic, but worthy of telling. in Part II, I hope later today I'll begin the tale.

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