At the start of the First World War, the lands which we have come to know as the Middle East lay in a great sweep from the Caspian to the Red Sea. It comprised a hotchpotch of factions and tribes, communities born into religious friction, wastelands and deserts, remote townships and cities with Biblical names. The Ottoman Empire had held these areas in subjugation by fear and cruelty. T.E. Lawrence, the legendary hero of the Arab rising of 1916, described the jig-saw-puzzle nature of the native peoples in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom. [1] He painted a detailed picture of a colourful land comprising many religions and cultures with little sense of tolerance. Ansariyas, distrustful of Islam, colonies of Syrian Christians, Armenians and Druses were to be found to the north from the Euphrates Valley down to the southern coast of the Mediterranean. Kurds populated the territory to the north-east and they hated, in strict order, the native Christians, then the Turks and finally all Europeans. There were settled Arabs to the east of Aleppo, semi-pastoral Moslem communities, Bedouins and some Ismaili outcasts. Between Tripoli and Beirut, Lebanese Christians, Maronite or Greek, united in their disdain for Muslims but barely tolerated each other. On the banks of the Jordan valley, Algerian refugees faced Jewish villages. These too were diverse in nature with traditional Hebrew scholars on the one hand and, on the other, recent German in-comers with European-style houses paid for from charitable funds.

Lawrence thought that the land of Palestine seemed too small, too impoverished, to absorb settlers. Galilee was apparently more tolerant of newcomers than Judea. Feuds abounded. Druses hated Maronites and indulged in periodic blood-letting. Muslim Arabs despised them with a vengeance. Around Jerusalem, the German-speaking Jews ‘were obliged to survive’ side by side with ‘sullen Palestinian peasants’ whom Lawrence described as ‘more stupid than the yeomen of North Syria, material as the Egyptians and bankrupt.’ [2] Such racist stereotyping from an upper-crust, patronising English gentleman demands reply. Were the Felhaini, whose ancestors had worked the land for thousands of years, not entitled to be sullen when their lands were taken over by foreign strangers? There was an intrinsic difference between the old settlers, with whom the Arabs had co-operated on friendly terms for generations, and the new breed of imperialistic colonists who confronted the native Arabs with threats of violence. [3] To the south, running along the Red Sea, was the Hejaz in which lay the holy places, Mecca and Medina.

Jerusalem 1914

The great cities of Jerusalem, Beirut, Damascus, Aleppo, Hama and Homs had a distinctive nature and admixture of religion and history. Jerusalem had its own unique quality. As Lawrence saw it, ‘Jerusalem was a squalid town, which every Semitic [4] religion had made holy.’ [5] Behind his much acclaimed commitment to Arab nationalism and his knowledge of Arab strengths and weaknesses, T.E. Lawrence had great sympathy for Zionism. [6]

The land known as Palestine had a population of some 500,000 Moslems, 60,000 Jews and a similar number of Christians. [7] A British War Cabinet paper written by Lord Curzon noted that under the Turkish yoke there was no country called Palestine, ‘because it was divided between the sank of Jerusalem and the vilayets of Syria and Beirut.’ [8] He estimated that there were between 600-700,000 inhabitants of whom less that one quarter were Jews. What he described was a patchwork of largely poor communities and tribes, disunited and distrusting, hardly a blade away from each other’s throat. It was no single people’s homeland but was, most certainly, predominantly Arab.

Yet the Young Turks achieved the near impossible feat of uniting all classes of culture and creed against the Ottoman by suppressing them with ruthless cruelty. [9] In Syria, the Arabs, the largest of the indigenous natives, were treated with contempt, their culture and language suppressed, their societies disbanded, their leaders proscribed. The Turks tried to crush Arab nationalism but the Arabs had watched what had happened to the Armenians who had been isolated and systematically wiped out, and sought to establish their own sovereign land. [10] To achieve that, they needed allies who would stand by them against the hated Turk.

The importance of the Arab populations to the Allied war effort cannot be over-stated. Kitchener, when he was Consul-General in Cairo from 1911-14, was well aware of the desert undercurrents; the shifting sands of loyalty and treachery which his spies reported. His first priority was to safeguard British imperial interests. He knew that the Arab dream of independence was rooted in Hussein, the Sherif of Mecca, and his sons, whose ambition was to gather a vast Arab confederacy under the suzerainty of their family and reconstitute an Arab Empire. [11] Though bogged down in the mire of the Western Front, Kitchener retained his relationship with the Husseins, custodian of Islam’s holiest shrines, and when the futile attack on the Dardanelles was deliberately allowed to fail (see Chapters 9-10), they hoped that an Arab alliance with Britain would neutralise the chances of the Ottoman sultan-caliph’s call to jihad. The British wanted ‘to rob the call to Holy War of its principal thunderbolt’, by striking an agreement with Hussein themselves. [12]

Hussein, Sherif of Mecca who trusted TE Lawrence

Consequently, the foreign office instructed Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt to offer Hussein of Mecca, Britain’s commitment to an independent Arab state in a ‘firm and lasting alliance, the immediate results of which will be the expulsion of the Turks from the Arab countries…’ [13]  This formal promise was given in October 1915. [14] Palestine was included in the areas which the British government pledged would be an independent Arab country. [15] The Arab uprising against Turkish rule was based on that unambiguous promise.

The foreign office then proceeded to make a very different pact with the French. An Arab Bureau had been created in January 1916 to harmonise a wide range of political activity in the near East to keep a watchful eye on the German-Turkish activities and co-ordinate propaganda. An interdepartmental conference agreed the need for a single Bureau stationed at Cairo to focus on Arab activities. Amongst the select group which made this decision was Captain W.F. [‘Blinker’] Hall, the Director of Intelligence at the admiralty, Sir Maurice Hankey, the Cabinet secretary and Sir Mark Sykes at the foreign office. [16]

Britain’s commitment to the Arabs was short-lived and utterly worthless. Rarely have a people been promised so much then denied their just deserts with such callous disregard. Sir Mark Sykes was instructed by the foreign office to negotiate the redistribution of Turkish lands with Charles Georges-Picot, the former French consul-general in Beirut and the Quai d’Orsay’s adviser on Middle Eastern affairs. They secretly agreed the future boundaries of the Arab lands which would be dismantled and shared between them when the war was won. The Czarist Foreign Secretary Sazonov was also involved since the Russians had been clearly promised a share of the rotting Ottoman carcass.

Sir Mary Sykes and the Frenchman Georges-Picot.

Lines were drawn by Sykes and Picot to delineate a French Zone, which would include all of Syria north of Acre and west of Damascus and Aleppo, and a British Zone comprising the Tigris and Euphrates from north of Baghdad to the Persian Gulf across northern Arabia to what later became Jordan. Palestine would be a jointly controlled allied responsibility. [17] For centuries, classical scholars had used different names and interpretations to describe the land sometimes called Asia Minor or Mesopotamia and Syria. Although no country had actually been called Palestine, the name emerged as a geographical term current in the so-called Christian world to include the ‘Holy Land’. [18] While the Arab tribes were rising against the Turks in the desert, their faithless British Allies were double-crossing them.

Sir Edward Grey believed that Sykes had been too generous in agreeing the territorial split, but vitally, he had forestalled any rift in the Franco-British alliance. [19] This is a remarkable claim. British foreign policy was never left in the hands of a minor official. If Grey believed that Sykes had avoided a rift with France over the future spoils in the Near East then that was the main purpose of the exercise. It was an agreed position whose ultimate worth would be determined once the war was won. What we do know is that the Director of Naval Intelligence, William Reginald Hall, indicated that ‘France’s claim to Palestine cannot be justified’. [20] The British government played fast and loose with all of its allies.

Thus two violently opposite arrangements were agreed. The first was a clear pledge to the Arabs; the second was an act of betrayal which would deny them the promise of full independence. Critically, the Arabs knew nothing about the Sykes-Picot pact and remained in the dark until the Bolshevik’s came to power in Russia and unmasked the secret double-cross.

1. T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, pp. 256-260.
2. Ibid., p. 259.
3. Jeremy Wilson, Lawrence of Arabia, The Authorised Biography, pp 606-7.
4. The three main Semitic religions are Judaism, Islam and Christianity, They are related by a common belief in God, the hereafter and the constant battle between good and evil.
5. Lawrence, Seven Pillars, p. 260.
6. [
7. Doreen Ingrams, Palestine Papers, p.1.
8. CAB /24/30 The Future of Palestine, p. 2.
9. Robert Fisk, The Great War for civilisation, The conquest of the Middle East, pp. 400-401.
10. Lawrence, Seven Pillars, p. 24.
11. Liddell Hart, T E Lawrence, p. 61.
12. Dr Peter Shamrock, A Lapse into Clarity. The McMahon-Hussein Correspondence Revisited, paper given at the Balfour Project conference October 2015,
14. CAB 27/24
15. Doreen Ingrams, Palestine Papers, p. 48.
16. FO 882/2; ARB/15/3 p. 6.
17. Liddell Hart, Lawrence, pp. 69-70.
18. Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace, The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and Creation of the Modern Middle East, p. 48.
19. Lawrence James, ‘Sykes, Sir Mark, sixth baronet (1879–1919)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
20. Mayir Verete, The Balfour Declaration and its Makers, Middle Eastern Studies, 6 (1), January 1970, p. 54.