Lawrence in Arabia Summary

Scott Anderson

Lawrence in Arabia

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Lawrence in Arabia Summary

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Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East is a 2014 work of historical non-fiction by American writer and war correspondent Scott Anderson. Anderson sheds new light on the much-told story of T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) by comparing him to three other young men who represented foreign governments in the Middle East during the First World War. This broader scope allows Anderson to trace the origins of present-day political fractures, including Arab-Jewish conflict, Islamic extremism and the role of the petrochemical industry in the Middle East.

Anderson sets the stage by describing the political situation in the Middle East at the beginning of the twentieth century. Although much of the region is nominally under the control of the Ottoman Empire, the Ottoman regime is on the brink of collapse. The real power in the region belongs to the British, based in Cairo, Egypt. The goal of British diplomats is to divide control of the Middle East between themselves and the French. Meanwhile, French politicians plot to seize a larger slice of the territory; the Germans are allied to the Ottoman Turks; Zionists in Palestine hope to carve out an independent territory, and the Arab population longs for independence. The Americans are opposed to empire in general, but Washington’s interest in the Middle East is growing: the oil industry is burgeoning.

Against this backdrop, Anderson introduces his four principal characters. The first is German spy Curt Prüfer. An Arabic scholar who cannot speak above a whisper (due to a childhood operation that went awry), Prüfer is working with the Ottomans to undermine the power of the British Empire in the Middle East. Anderson traces the development of Prüfer’s most ambitious plan: to restore to his throne the Khedive of Egypt, deposed by the British. The Khedive, Abbas Hilmi, is living in Ottoman Constantinople. He agrees to meet with Prüfer, and the two men plot to create a German-sponsored Islamic caliphate. Ultimately the plan comes to nothing.

The second major figure in Anderson’s story is Aaron Aaronsohn, a Romanian Jew and passionate Zionist who has settled in Palestine. An agronomist by training, he has established a botanical station on the coast of Palestine, with the twin goals of conducting scientific experiments and advancing the Zionist cause. He wishes to support the British in their aim of ousting the Ottomans from Palestine. He sets up a network of Jewish spies which reports to the British on Ottoman military maneuvers.

The third important figure is William Yale, an American who first comes to the Middle East as an agent of Standard Oil. When the war breaks out, he is drafted into the service of the U.S. State Department, and subsequently on attachment to British intelligence. He is ineffectual, and Anderson underlines that his total failure to understand the politics of the Middle East set the tone for the American agents and diplomats who will follow him into the region.

The central figure of the book is T.E. Lawrence, the Anglo-Irish, Oxford-educated archaeologist who rises to prominence leading an army of independent Arabs in the British cause. Anderson stresses Lawrence’s love of the Middle East, and his foresight about the probable consequences of disastrous political decisions made in London and Paris. Anderson also demonstrates Lawrence’s charisma and persuasiveness by including a range of encounters between his hero and the major political figures, spy chiefs and military generals of the region. Anderson refuses to draw any definitive conclusions about the controversial episode in Lawrence’s autobiography, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, in which Lawrence claimed to have been raped and tortured while in captivity in Deraa. However, he does not, as some biographers have, suggest that the incident was a fantasy of Lawrence’s. Instead he concludes that “something happened in Deraa.”

Interwoven with these four narratives are a host of remarkable stories and minor characters. We encounter Enver Pasha, the Ottoman minister of war, described in the New York Times  as “the handsomest man in the Turkish Army,” and Aaron Aaronsohn’s sister Sarah, who leaves her husband in order to set up a spy ring of her own (comprised mainly of her lovers). Aaronsohn himself provides a number of colorful anecdotes: he fights off a plague of locusts, and when an Ottoman leader threatens to hang him, he replies: “Your Excellency, the weight of my body would break the gallows with a noise loud enough to be heard in America.” As Anderson explains, Aaronsohn is “alluding to both his considerable girth and to his network of influential friends abroad.”

Lawrence in Arabia is a work of close historical scholarship which nevertheless “reads like a political thriller” (Publisher’s Weekly). Anderson’s book provides valuable context to the story of T.E. Lawrence and to the recent history of the Middle East.