A Syrian border town recently captured by Turkish-backed forces has for millennia been coveted by smugglers, statesman and spies — including my great-uncle and Lawrence of Arabia.

Jarablus
Leonard Woolley (R) and T.E. Lawrence — later dubbed Lawrence of Arabia — in Carchemish, Syria in the spring of 1913. (Wikimedia Commons)

By Alistair Lyon

When Turkish tanks swept into Syria last month, their first objective was to drive Islamic State fighters from Jarablus, a border town whose strategic location has long attracted covetous eyes and the murky maneuvers of spies and statesmen.

For Islamic State militants, Jarablus was a useful hub for smuggling, trade and supplies.

Even thousands of years ago, its location on the west bank of the Euphrates appealed to the ancient Hittites. Here they built Carchemish, which hit its heyday more than 3,000 years ago.

The armies of Assyria, Egypt and Babylon all came and clashed over the city until it fell into a mound of rubble.

Jarablus in northern Syria (NordNordWest)
Jarablus (also spelled Jarabulus) in northern Syria (NordNordWest)

By the eve of World War One, imperial rivals Britain and Germany were taking an unusual interest in Jarablus, then a sleepy village beside the legendary river flowing from modern Turkey into Syria on its way to Iraq. The Ottoman Empire, which ruled all three future states, was crumbling and European powers were jostling for influence.

In those tense times, the British Museum chose to send a minor archaeological expedition to Carchemish that was curiously financed by an unidentified “well wisher.”

In 1912, the leader of the two-man British team was my great-uncle Leonard Woolley, who was to make his name unearthing the Mesopotamian city of Ur in southern Iraq. His 24-year-old assistant was T.E. Lawrence, later dubbed Lawrence of Arabia for his role in stirring a war-time Arab revolt against Ottoman rule.

Eyes on the railway?

The expedition’s mystery financier may have had less interest in the ruins of Carchemish than in keeping tabs on Jarablus, where Kaiser Wilhelm’s engineers were building a bridge across the Euphrates. It was intended to carry the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway, a mainly German-financed project that fueled pre-war disputes between Britain, Germany and other European powers.

Lawrence of Arabia (Wikimedia, Lowell Thomas)
Lawrence of Arabia (Wikimedia, Lowell Thomas)

Woolley and Lawrence did some serious work at Carchemish, but appear to have relished other challenges at least as much. They both carried revolvers and had Zeiss binoculars and a telephoto lens for their camera – handy for observing the German railway engineers based in the same neighborhood, as Woolley’s biographer H.V.F. Winstone notes.

In an era that blurred the lines between scholarship, patriotism, espionage and imperial arrogance, it is not clear how far the two men strayed from their archaeological brief. Both were slightly built, but they were not averse to throwing their weight around – and embroidering tales of their exploits.

Woolley recounts how he put his revolver to the head of a local Turkish governor to persuade him to withdraw his objections to the expedition’s Ottoman-approved excavation permit. The governor, his lips “twisted into a wintry smile,” decided that digging could start the next day after all. Coffee and cigarettes followed.

Woolley and Lawrence were later embroiled in a tangled court case over the disposal of rubble. They had dug up the stones from the site, the German engineers needed them for building projects and an Arab landowner claimed they were his. The Turkish governor had hoped the case would bring him revenge for his earlier humiliation. It was not to be.

Camel mission in Palestine

During court proceedings, a row over documents erupted and out came the revolvers again. Woolley threatened the judge while Lawrence held up the governor. “You will not leave this room alive…unless I get those papers,” Woolley informed the judge. Lawrence found the paperwork in the governor’s pockets, and the judge declared the case closed.

Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters pose with children in Jarablus, Syria, 31 August 2016. (REUTERS/Umit Bektas)
Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters pose with children in Jarablus, Syria, 31 August 2016. (REUTERS/Umit Bektas)

When they were not perverting the course of justice, the two archaeologists found time to smuggle guns. According to Lawrence, they ran a weapons consignment — with British diplomatic assistance — from Beirut to the British consulate in Aleppo, citing fears of a Kurdish assault on the city.

In early 1914 the two men were sent on a brief archaeological survey in the desert of southern Palestine, then still under Ottoman rule and already thoroughly explored. Their real role may have been to distract attention from a British military mapping expedition to which they were attached.

They traveled on camels, and Lawrence, temporarily parting company with Woolley, rode south to Aqaba on the Red Sea. The long-distance camel-riding and the opportunity to scout around Aqaba must have stood Lawrence in good stead during the war when he was advising the Bedouin tribesmen who captured the port from the Turks in 1917.

“The banks of the Euphrates echo with ghostly alarms.”

Reunited in Carchemish, Woolley and Lawrence set off for home by rail across Turkey, a journey that featured what Woolley described as his only real spying before the war. He and Lawrence charmed a German botanist fellow-passenger into giving them letters of introduction, in false names, to three engineers working on the Berlin-to-Baghdad rail route.

The first of these proved to be an Italian furious with his German employers, who had sacked him for exceeding his budget. The Italian readily handed over documents on railway construction plans and progress, which Woolley and Lawrence passed on to the British War Office.

When World War One erupted, Woolley became an accredited spy, working as an intelligence officer in Cairo until the Turks captured him at sea and held him as a prisoner of war for two years. He attempted to resume work at Carchemish in 1920, but fighting between Turkish forces and French troops stationed in the area forced him to abandon the Hittite mound on the Euphrates.

“The banks of the Euphrates echo with ghostly alarms; the Mesopotamian deserts are full of the rumour of phantom armies,” wrote British explorer Gertrude Bell, who visited Carchemish.

Today, with Jarablus once again a battlefield, the excavations and escapades of Woolley and Lawrence may be only an obscure historical footnote. The alarms and armies are all too real.


alyonAlistair Lyon is former Middle East diplomatic correspondent for Reuters. During three decades at the news agency he covered conflicts as well as political and economic news in the Middle East and beyond. He began in Lebanon and headed bureaus in Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan/Afghanistan and Egypt/Sudan. He spent five years in London as Middle East diplomatic correspondent and five in Beirut as special correspondent, Middle East.

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