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Building up One Empire while Tearing Down Another: Scholars, Missionaries and Spies in the Ottoman Middle East

Module by: Michael Decker. E-mail the author

Summary: This module explores the careers of British archaeologist T.E. Lawrence and Czech scholar Alois Musil. Both men were scholars, but also agents for their respective governments. As with many figures active in the age of European colonialism, Lawrence and Musil created an important intellectual legacy, but their value as contemporary witnesses is diminished somewhat by their imperial outlook and subsequent inability to attain any approximation of objectivity.

Figure 1
Figure 1 (Graphic1.jpg)


In 1992, Professor John Russel of Columbia University visited Canford School, an English boarding school and once the site of a large collection of Assyrian material donated by Sir John Guest, a collector and patron of the famous British archaeologist Sir Henry Layard. Layard is best known for his "discovery" and subsequent excavation of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire which flourished in Mesopotamia in the 9th and 8th centuries B.C.E. At the Canford School, Professor Russel was surprised to discover in the student sweets shop, between the candy machine and the dart board, obscured by several coats of paint, what appeared to be an Assyrian frieze. Russel's suspicions proved to be correct, as confirmed by a team from the British Museum. The Canford Frieze, freed from its coating of Canford paint, emerged as a beautifully preserved carving, dinted only slightly by the odd errant dart. Measuring approximately 1.83 M x 1.06 M and representing the Assyrian king, Assurnasirpal III (883 – 859 B.C.E.), the frieze was expected by the auction house Christies to fetch $1.5 million. Beyond their wildest expectations, in a furious four-minute auction, an anonymous Japanese investor led the charge, finally landing the Canford Frieze for $11.7 million. Using the proceeds from the sale of the Canford Frieze, the Canford School was said to have planned to build a new theatre and a new gymnasium, among other things. 1

Figure 2
Figure 2 (Graphic2.jpg)

Excavations, such as those conducted by Layard and by his contemporaries (Heinrich Schliemann) often cause today's practitioners of archaeological arts to cringe. Probably Assurnasirpal would have approved of the removal of so many artifacts from the city of Nineveh to England, as his Assyrians were notorious for their predilection for pillage. But today the issue of how such antiquities are to be treated is at the center of a raging conflagration. I am no expert on such issues, and it is not the purpose of the present module to treat such weighty matters. The loss of artifacts, texts and architecture to occupation or warfare is not a new phenomenon. 2Undoubtedly such losses far exceed humanity's efforts to conserve its past. This does not sugar a bitter pill, nor does it cover in any protective paint the treasure of an Assyrian frieze.


The late 19th – early 20th centuries were times of great excitement in western Europe, where French, English and German travelers especially, had seemingly discovered a new Old world: the East. Europeans (and a few people from the Americas) were journeying to the Orient in some number. For many of them, the closest part of a geographical Orient that they knew was the Middle East, a term that remains wholly inappropriate as a Eurocentric designation. Since it permeates the media and forms part of the title of this paper, I will the term "Middle East" to designate that area from Persia to Egypt and from Turkey to Yemen, where so many scholars, missionaries and spies worked at the end of the Ottoman period; that is the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to the end of World War I. After this time, Ottoman Turkey was stripped of those territories it had held in the Middle East. Those lands were taken under the wing of colonial rule, camouflaged under the Mandate of the League of Nations.

Before and after World War I, a large number of archaeological investigations took place and were published during this epoch of the travel log. Many such accounts were written by people such as Selah Merrill, from the United States, who had a passionate interest in the Holy Land and who described many of the archaeological remains he found in the Transjordan in his book East of the Jordan, published in 1881. Merrill was sympathetic to and in contact with Protestant missionary groups who were working in Lebanon, and he has a colonialist's eye. On more than one occasion he comments on the poverty of the inhabitants who live under Ottoman oppression, and at the countryside, the fertility of which could be restored if only investment could be brought to the region. We are left on our own to figure out who might bring such investment, and in what form, but it is not hard for us to suppose the agents of change that Merrill had in mind.

Whatever his perceived flaws to our eye, Merrill does offer many interesting and valuable descriptions of ancient buildings, without mentioning any contemporary Ottoman structures in any important way. His notice of the Umayyad palace at Mshatta, for example, accompanied by an interesting drawing of the gateway, has a good discussion outlining the debate about the date of the edifice and the current debates about its history. 3It is interesting that Merrill argued against the eastern origin of the grand edifice, insisting instead that it must belong to the Christian Byzantine period. While right that the structure was not Persian, it is, in fact, Muslim, belonging to the Umayyad period (8th century C.E.). We can thus see in part the kind of wishful thinking in which Merrill engaged, which somewhat crudely (and perhaps unfairly) may be schematized as the good belonging to a Christian past in need of resurrection.

Nor does the literature allow for us to be free from complications and allow for easy, stereotypical reflections of the type I have just made. The pro-Protestant Lebanese writer, Habeeb Risk Allah Effendi, who wrote his The Thistle and the Cedar of Lebanon in 1854, described what he saw as the poverty and underdevelopment of the people of Syria and Lebanon as a solvable problem:

"From the earliest days of Christianity, the blessed truths of the Gospel were almost invariable accompanied by mercy and love....The early apostles were physicians to both soul and body; and those that had faith but as a grain of mustard seed went about doing good for the sick and the dying." 4

Effendi then proposes a ten-step plan to raise money in England and send a Christian doctor to Lebanon to train, in his words, "clever natives" who would be supported by an endowment created through the purchase of land on which mulberries would be grown, silkworms fed and the silk sold in Damascus or Europe. These ideas were pillows on the great bed of European hopes to create an order out of what they perceived to be the chaos of Middle Eastern life in the dog-days of the Ottoman decline. In turning the sheets, the Europeans were inspired to take the Orient out of the Oriental. They did so, as Edward Said in his work Orientalism shows, by putting the Orient into the European. 5Thus sanitized through figures like Gertrude Bell, herself a pioneer archaeologist and British agent, and T.E. Lawrence, who would later become famous under the name Lawrence of Arabia, the Europeans began to create an intellectual homestead in the sands of Arabia, built from the rough-hewn logs of colonialism dependent on religion, economy, or ethnic chauvinism. Today historians and archaeologists continue to profit from the efforts of these figures, to utilize the data that they collected, to read with interest their romantic tales, and to criticize harshly their methods.


I would like to present, in the figures of T.E. Lawrence and Alois Musil, two parallel examples which represent much of the negative aspects of traditional Orientalism and thus explore a share of the burden of the archaeological past in the Middle East and North Africa.

Figure 3
Figure 3 (Graphic3.jpg)

T.E. Lawrence was born on 16 August in 1888 in Caernarvonshire, Wales. The son of nobleman Sir Thomas Chapman, Thomas Edward Lawrence was born from a common law union between Chapman and his governess, Sarah Junner. Chapman took Lawrence as his last name and moved the family throughout England. Eventually the family settled in Oxford. There Lawrence attended high school and eventually Jesus College, Oxford, as an undergraduate student in modern history, where he attained honors upon graduation in 1910.

During this time Lawrence became increasingly interested in castle architecture, and he spent time cycling around Wales, England and France before going to Oxford in 1907, and in 1909 he spent three and a half months in the Middle East, looking at castles and examining their architecture in some detail. His work would lead to a masters thesis which Lawrence said was "an elementary performance" and "not worth publishing." 6This masters' thesis, completed in 1910, was published the year after Lawrence's death in 1936. In the thesis, Lawrence argues that European castle architecture, specifically that from France, was wholly responsible for the forms taken by later Muslim fortification in the Levant. This argument was strongly against prevailing scholarly notions; in fashion at the time was the theory that many stone castles in northwestern Europe were inspired by the Crusaders' experiences overseas.

Crusader Castles has recently been republished and edited by a well-known archaeologist of the Byzantine and Crusader era, Denys Pringle. 7Pringle notes that Lawrence went too far in his assessment of the impact of Europeans on castle building in the Muslim world, that, nevertheless there is some merit in the work, which remains one of the few guides on the subject. One of the more interesting features of the text is Lawrence's photographs which, though of poor quality from a photographic standpoint, demonstrate a fair eye for architectural detail in his photos. These and his descriptions remain a valuable record of these structures, some of which have degraded considerably. Although no expert in Crusader castle architecture, I have myself visited several of the more impressive of these medieval buildings in Syria and Jordan. Thus, it was with interest that I found in Lawrence's book, the image of a small castle, unknown to me, in Lebanon at Mseilha. Pringle's reprint preserves Lawrence's original caption from a photo taken in August of 1909, which reads as an apology for Lawrence including the photo although the subject was chronologically outside the scope of the investigation: "A little Metwali robber-hold in the Mseilha: fifteenth century probably, but no matter." 8It's this humanizing and picaresque approach to his youthful scholarship that makes Lawrence both an interesting read and an informative source. What is apparent (and of course unsurprising) is that Lawrence's own scholarly interests were inextricably linked to his person, intertwined in the body of time and place and experience. If, as seems apparent to this interpreter, Lawrence developed the theory of European castles influencing their Islamic architectural brethren based on a theory tied to European progressive thoughts, he is an obviously problematic observer. Problematic, but I hasten to add, no more troublesome than any textual source to which historians and archaeologists turn. Lawrence and his contemporaries are probably much easier to treat, for example, than the average medieval hagiographic text. With Lawrence and other Orientalists, the biases are often transparent and thus easily navigated, the social context and personal information being so much more plentiful than their medieval and ancient partners.

Figure 4
Figure 4 (Graphic4.jpg)

Another of Lawrence's contributions to archaeology is The Wilderness of Zin, first printed in 1915 and reprinted in 1936. 9The book is a record of a journey taken by Lawrence and C.L. (Leonard) Woolley. Woolley was later to gain great notoriety as excavator of Ur in Babylonia. He and Lawrence journeyed from Gaza into southern Palestine in the desert country of what is now the Israeli-Jordanian border area of the Wadi Araba and the Negev deserts. They parted company in the desert: Woolley struck northward into the area of Beersheba, while Lawrence went south, to Aqaba on the Read Sea. The two were interested in sites mentioned in the Bible, but the dominant standing remains in the region belong to the Byzantine period, particularly the fifth and sixth centuries C.E. The Wilderness of Zin, filled as it is with plans, drawings and photos, remains a consulted work for those archaeologists working in this region. The work shows an interesting and imaginative analysis of the region's efflorescence that has long since preoccupied and puzzled scholars. 10

After his Oxford days, Lawrence soon met well-known English archaeologist D.G. Hogarth, who selected he and Leonard Woolley to work on and eventually take over his excavations at Jerablus in southeastern Turkey at Carchemish, the capital of the ancient Hittite Empire.

Figure 5
Figure 5 (Graphic5.jpg)

Although archaeologists have worked recently in rescue operations at Carchemish, the site is now flooded, lost forever to art historians and archaeologists beneath the waters of the Carchemish dam. Lawrence's contribution to the project is unclear; he was called away to other activities in 1921, namely to work for the British government where Lawrence was advising Winston Churchill, then colonial secretary, on how to settle the question of Arab rule. In the end, Lawrence helped Faisal become king in Iraq and Faisal's brother Abdullah become king of Transjordan, but both were under the British Mandate and thus not self-governing, a fact that apparently disillusioned Lawrence.

The Priest and the Sheikh: the Career of Alois Musil

Figure 6
Figure 6 (Graphic6.jpg)
Lawrence's older contemporary, the Czech Alois Musil, was born in 1868, the son of a peasant family and one of five children. Musil's publications are filled with less-inspired photos (such as that shown here) than those of Lawrence, but his works provide a major corpus of data on the Ottoman Middle East.

Musil was a good student and was able to enter the Theological Faculty in the Moravian town of Olomouc. He was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1891, and continued to display a sharp interest in Old Testament studies. Fascinated by monotheism, and the common idea of one God Musil saw as common to Jewish, Christian and Muslim believers, he sought to make a trip to the Holy Land. He was able to do so with financial support of the Archbishop of Olomouc, who sent him to the École biblique in Jerusalem, run by French Dominicans, and still in operation today. Once in Jerusalem, Musil bought a horse and began to foray into the countryside, seeking sites that interested him and becoming increasingly intrigued by the local people. In 1896, while at Madaba in what is now northern Jordan, Musil heard the locals talking about the ruins of Tuba and Amra, where there were wonderful buildings, columns and pictures. Undeterred by the intertribal warfare that wracked the area waged by the tribes of Beni Sakhr and the Rwala, Musil wished to visit Amra. He traveled to the camp of the Beni Sakhr where the tribe welcomed him. 11Musil came to be a close friend to the leaders of the tribe. They afforded him a chance to see Qusayr 'Amra, one of the so-called ‘Desert Castles’. Qusayr 'Amra turned out to be one of the most spectacular of these isolated retreats built by the ‘Umayyad dynasty of Islam (ruled C.E. 661-750), but Musil could not stay long enough to make any measurements or document his discovery. His story of the remains met skepticism in Europe.

Thus doubted by his critics, Musil returned to Amra after the bloody feud ended, and in 1900 Musil made 120 or so photographs, sketches and plans on which he based his book on Qusayr Amra, published in 1907 in German in Vienna, where Musil had taken up a position at the university as a professor of theology and Arabic. The publication of such a building as the bathhouse at Qusayr Amra created a stir among scholars: the building was one of the oldest known Muslim structures. It belonged to the first Islamic century, and was constructed for the Caliph al-Walid between 712-715 C.E. Most startling, however, was the interior. Its frescoes depicting human figures, including semi-nude dancing women, raises an insurrection against the Islamic tradition prohibiting depictions of the human form. 12The find was sensational in scholarly circles. Musil would travel and study extensively until the outbreak of war closed the Holy Land to his journeys. He became an influential scholar in the eyes of the American Geographical Society, who sponsored his publication in English. These works today remain immensely valuable sources for the historian, archaeologist and anthropologist.

When World War I broke out Musil, like Lawrence, found himself in the service of his country. The two men shared similar visions for the Arab tribes with whom they worked, albeit on opposite sides. In 1914, Musil was sent to Damascus to negotiate with the members of the largest tribes in the region to support the Austrian-Turkish alliance, a move that Musil hoped would bring the Arabs self-government. Lawrence, as is well known, from 1916 onwards, led a portion of the revolt of Arab tribes against Turkish rule. Probably because he was less associated before the war with the Turkish authorities, and certainly because he had infinitely more money with which to spread his influence, Lawrence won the day.


The legacy for archaeologists and art historians left by men and women that traveled much the same road as Musil and Lawrence is complex and problematic. On the one hand, their records remain, in some instances, the only eye-witness accounts which survive of archaeological sites now lost. On the other hand, a photograph, showing Lawrence with Woolley, bringing out of the ground one of thousands of pieces from the Middle East that Western archaeologists would pilfer says more than can any number of papers. 13

Figure 7
Figure 7 (Graphic7.jpg)

To disregard their body of work, and those of their contemporary Orientalists, such as Gertrude Bell 14who journeyed widely throughout the Middle East and recorded a great deal of historical and archaeological interest, is untenable. Perhaps more troubling than their obvious cultural biases noted above, is the fact that these prejudices prevented Lawrence and those like him from being enlightened observers of Ottoman social and material culture. It is, sadly and ironically, the same sort of neglect being tendered Ottoman buildings and artifacts in the Middle East today by governments in the regions the empire once controlled. The Turks, while still present in the real landscape, dwell in a landscape of damnatio memoriae, willfully erased from the writings and memory of many colonial writers.

That Lawrence, Musil and those like them had sympathies for the Arab peoples is debatable but probably can be answered in the affirmative. That these figures thought that the Arabs should be re-imagined, not under the tutelage of the Ottoman state, which they saw as terminally ill, is without question. The Middle East was to be re-imagined, taken in by Western eyes and cast out again by those who had lived it and could understand it.

It is little wonder, then, that Musil and Lawrence saw in the Middle East of their day, a gateway to a romantic landscape. Neither author took much notice of any of the numerous Ottoman buildings that they saw. While meticulous in his descriptions of daily life, Musil sees himself in every way superior to both Arab and Turk. Despite his extensive travels, no Ottoman building receives any extensive architectural treatment. This is in stark contrast with his treatment of Roman buildings, which are commonly planned and photographed.

Musil would become a Bedouin sheikh of the Rwala tribe, Sheikh Musa ar-Rwejli, as stated in the caption to this photo, from his monumental, immensely valuable The Manners and Customs of the Rwala Bedouins. 15For Musil, and for Lawrence, they would wear the garb of the contemporary Middle East, but their values were European values, their visions were visions crafted by classical studies filtered through the Bible. They looked beyond a landscape filled with Turkish gendarmerie to the glorious Roman, western past, to the empty Hellenistic temples and Roman forts and colonnaded streets that told them what life should be like in the Middle East: miles and miles of Roman style paved roads, with not a Turk in sight.

While it is easy to recognize the inherent weaknesses and biases of many nineteenth and early twentieth century travel accounts, the scholarly value of works like those produced by Lawrence and Musil is immense. In many instances it is possible to look through the lens these works provide, and peek into the human and material landscape of the Middle East. The contentiousness and the complexity of material preserved in these travel writings opens up new worlds to the colonial past, the early modern Middle East, and even vistas into the remote past of classical antiquity whose past many Europeans were so eager to possess.


  1. Reported in the Columbia Record vol. 20, no. 5 (1994).
  2. The Crusader sack of Constantinople and the Mongol sack of Baghdad ranking among the greatest acts of cultural destruction in human history.
  3. S. Merrill, East of the Jordan (London, 1881), 253 – 263.
  4. H. Effendi, The Thistle and the Cedar of Lebanon (London, 1854, repr. Reading, 2001), 384.
  5. E. Said, Orientalism (New York, 1979), 251.
  6. Quoted in K. Begum, Dictionary of Literary Biography vol. 195: British Travel Writers 1910-1939, B. Brothers and J. Gergits, (eds.), (Detroit, 1998), 196.
  7. The edition to which I have had access.
  8. T.E. Lawrence, Crusader Castles (Oxford, 1988).
  9. C.L. Woolley and T.E. Lawrence, The Wilderness of Zin, (London, 1936).
  10. For example, in Zin, pp. 47 – 56, Woolley and Lawrence offer an interesting sketch and analysis of Byzantine settlement of the region and propose that the presence of farming communities in this period in such a marginal and difficult environment was due to human ingenuity and investment, not climate change. Although certainly reflecting the colonialist mind, which in such matters was decidedly anti-deterministic (while being decidedly deterministic in other areas), their conjecture is probably the correct. See H. Bruins, "Comparative chronology of climate and human history in the southern Levant from the Late Chalcolithic to the Early Arab period", in O. Bar-Yosef and R.S. Kra (eds.), Late Quaternary chronology and paleoclimates of the eastern Mediterranean, (Tuscon, 1994).
  11. Musil actually joined the Beni Sakhr on raid against the Rwala, on whom he would be on such intimate terms in later years. For a sketch of much of Musil's activities and the climate of the Arabian region he presents, see the review of his works by J. Wright, "Northern Arabia, the Explorations of Alois Musil", Geographical Review, 17 (1927), 177 – 206.
  12. Of course 'Amra is not unique in this, nor would Islam abandon anthropomorphic depiction entirely, though great tensions remained (and remain).
  13. See Begum, Lawrence, 199.
  14. Bell's most famous work is probably her The Desert and the Sown (originally published as Syria in New York in 1907). A sketch of Bell's life and personality can be found in Rosemary O'Brien's introduction to the recent edition Cooper Square Press edition of The Desert and the Sown (New York, 2001). Bell also added much to archaeology with her books Amurath to Amurath (London, 1911) and The Thousand and One Churches with W.M. Ramsay (London, 1909).
  15. Musil, The Manners and Customs of the Rwala Bedouins, (New York, 1928).

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