Let me begin by saying, it took me almost two years to finish this book.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom is the autobiographical account of T.E. Lawrence as he served in the British Armed Forces during the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918. Lawrence makes it clear that this book “…is not the history of the Arab movement, but just of what happened to me in it. It is the narrative of what I tried to do in Arabia, and of some of what I saw there.”
I find his use of the word “some” to be one of the greatest understatements I have ever come across. Lawrence described nearly all of what he saw there. This was not a high level overview of major events. This was a day-by-day and sometimes even hour-by-hour account of everything he did, heard, and saw. This is why it took me nearly two years to finish. (Reading a day-by-day account of a two year conflict should take two years, right?)
With that out of the way, I’ll admit that this was an epic that was worth the time it took to read. Is it a page turner? No. Is Lawrence the romantic hero so many make him out to be? I don’t think so. But he did some amazing things. He thrived in a world completely foreign to most of us.
In his early explorations, he was constantly in awe of the life and spirit of the Arabs he journeyed with and of the kinship they felt for their desert. In one passage he described exploring a ruined palace with several of his companions:
”…which the Arabs believed was made by a prince of the border as a desert palace for his queen. The clay of its building was said to have been kneaded not with water but, for greater richness, with the precious essential oils of flowers. My guides, sniffing the air like dogs, led me from one crumbling room to another, saying, ‘This is Jessamine, this ambergris, this rose.’ But at last Dahoum drew me: ‘Come and smell the very sweetest scent of all’: and we went into the main lodging, to the gaping window sockets of its eastern face, and there drank with open mouths of the effortless, empty, endless wind of the desert, throbbing past.”
Lawrence’s main role during the Arab revolt was to be the link between the British forces and the Arab forces, and to convince the Arab leaders to coordinate their efforts with the British. To gain the trust of his companions, he abandoned the comforts of Western living and tried to emulate the lifestyle and dress of the desert. He even carried this to the extreme. When Arabs journey through the desert and come across a well, they will drink their full, almost to bursting, and then they will continue their journey without carrying any water with them. They will do this even if the next well is hundreds of miles away. It is a sign of weakness to carry water into the desert. In this custom, and in all others, Lawrence proved himself a true and faithful companion to the Arabs, and as a result they followed him into battle with unquestioning faith.
Much of the work that occupied Lawrence and his companions was undermining the efficiency of the Turkish armed forces. In a nutshell, this involved numerous demolition raids on the Hejaz railway. They would sneak up at night on their camels, plant explosives under the tracks, and then wait until dawn for a passing supply train. In time, Lawrence led his men up the Arabian Peninsula all the way to Damascus, and with the support of the British troops overthrew the Ottoman government and gained Arab independence. The day after their liberation, Lawrence rode into Damascus with the Arab leaders:
“When we came in, there had been some miles of people greeting us: now there were thousands for every hundred then. Every man, woman, and child in this city of a quarter-million souls was out on the streets: and as the miracle of victory was at last confirmed, they waited only the spark of our appearance to unchain their spirits. Damascus went mad with joy. The men tossed up their tarbushes to cheer, the women tore off their veils. Householders threw their flowers, their hangings, their carpets into the road before us. Their wives leaned through the lattices and splashed cups and vases, even bath-dippers of scent at us… We English had been too long free to keep even a memory of its first delirious taste: so that this named gratitude and thanks from a hundred thousand voices broke us with the humiliation of over-great honor.”
The most difficult part of this book for me was Lawrence himself. As I stated before, I do not doubt the greatness of what he accomplished, but I do not think he was a very likeable person. He even said that much of what he did wasn’t out of any great ambition of his own, but merely out of curiosity, to see if he could. To this end, he would often play with the emotions of others. It gave him great satisfaction to treat someone roughly, and then in the next breath treat them with great kindness. Then he would run away and leave them wondering what sort of strange creature he was. Lawrence recognizes the perverseness of this, and on his 30th birthday goes into a state of deep reflection about his true nature. He emerges from this personal inventory with the conclusion that he does not like himself.
I recognize that to achieve great things, a man doesn’t have to be perfect. All men are flawed, and those (like Lawrence) who admit their flaws and move forward anyway, may deserve even greater respect. What Lawrence did was great. There is no denying that. He set out to accomplish the impossible, and whatever his reasons were, he stuck with it and in the end came off conqueror.
“This therefore is a faded dream of time when I went down into the dust and noise of the Eastern market-places, and with my brain and muscles, with sweat and constant thinking, made others see my visions coming true. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that all was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, and make it possible. This I did.”