WHAT CAME WAS the most destructive and widespread war that humankind had yet experienced. One by one the great powers joined in. Few understood that Europe would be recast, the entire world irrevocably altered.
For twenty years the great powers had been aligning themselves. When war began, the alignments crystallized, with Germany, Austria-Hungary, and (belatedly) the Ottomans on one side, and Russia, France, and Great Britain on the other. During the blood-drenched years that followed, smaller countries chose sides according to their interests and calculations: Italy, Romania, and Greece sided with Britain and her allies; Bulgaria with the Germans. The opposing forces were very nearly evenly matched, and only when another great power, the United States, entered the fray in April 1917 on the side of the Allies could the German-led coalition finally be defeated.
The Turkish decision to side with Germany had been probable but not inevitable. Germany was the enemy of Turkey’s greatest enemy, Russia. Russia was Turkey’s enemy because she coveted free access to the Sea of Marmara and thence, through the Dardanelles, to the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas; Turkey controlled access to the Sea of Marmara and would not let the Russians through. Twice Russia tried to force the issue, and twice she had been thwarted. In 1856 Britain and France, who did not want the Russian navy in the Mediterranean, helped Turkey to defeat her in the Crimean War; in 1878 a concert of European powers, meeting at the Congress of Berlin, made her back off after she defeated the Ottomans in the Russo-Turkish War. (The Congress did permit weakening the Ottoman Empire in other ways, allowing Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro to declare independence and granting limited autonomy to Bulgaria.) In August 1914 Russia seemed ready to try again—and this time both Britain and France were her allies. Naturally Turkey turned to Germany for support.
It has been argued that this need not have happened, that Allied diplomacy with regard to the Ottomans was inept. Some Britons thought their country’s alliance with Russia ill conceived, especially after the Young Turks and their Committee of Union and Progress led a successful revolution in 1908: better to ally with these advocates of modernization and representative government (however far they were from realizing those ideals), they felt, than with the tsar of Russia, the world’s most autocratic major head of state. Others pointed out that it ill behooved Britain, with nearly a hundred million Muslim subjects in South Asia, Egypt, Sudan, and elsewhere, to make an enemy of the world’s other great Muslim power, the Ottoman Empire, seat of the caliphate. When the war began, but before Turkey chose sides, some believed that Britain should make Russia declare she had no interest in taking Constantinople—that would have allayed Turkish fears. Others held that Winston Churchill, secretary of the British navy, was needlessly, if characteristically, provocative when, shortly after the German declaration of war but before the Ottomans chose sides, he commandeered two Turkish battleships (paid for by popular subscription in Turkey) that were under construction in British shipyards.
In fact, the Ottoman government was divided over which alliance to favor or whether simply to stay out of the conflict altogether. Enver Pasha, the minister of war and leader of the Young Turk movement, forced the issue. To make up for the two warships that the British had taken, Germany had given Turkey two more, the Goeben and the Breslau. Enver Pasha gave orders for Germans disguised as Turkish sailors aboard the two warships to bombard Russian ports on the other side of the Black Sea—without the knowledge of a majority in his cabinet. Some of its members never forgave him. Still, with Russia seemingly ready to advance, and with Britain and France both committed to Russia, it is hard to imagine Turkey doing anything significantly different. And with Turkey in the war and therefore in the crucible, so too were all her dominions, including Palestine.
In November 1914 the armies of Russia, a reactionary empire, and the Ottoman, a decrepit one, lurched into gory battle near the Turkish fortress city of Erzurum. Long before then, however, the British had been considering how to weaken the Turkish foe and help their Russian ally. They recalled certain prewar talks with dissident Arabs. They recalled reports from their Middle Eastern agents and diplomats on the aspirations and activities of these people. Perhaps, mused the British, Arab discontent with Turkish rule could be turned to advantage.
In 1914 the Arab nationalist movement was not a major factor inside the Ottoman Empire; nor was it a negligible one. Its immediate progenitors were an assortment of mid- to late-nineteenth-century clerics and intellectuals from Persia, Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia. Virtually all of them longed for the empire to modernize and regain its former status as a great world power, able to protect the East, including Arabs, from the West. How this recovery would be accomplished remained a matter of contention. Some Arabs emphasized that Islam would confront the European threat; they became pan-Islamists. Others stressed that Arabs within pan-Islamism would not merely participate in the Ottoman revival but repossess the caliphate from Turkey. A few preached the unity of all Arabs within the empire regardless of religion. Historians group this bundle of approaches under a single term, Ottomanism, because they all envisioned revival of the Ottoman Empire.
Pan-Islamism and Ottomanism predate a third Middle Eastern ideology, Arabism, which emerged as a significant factor only during the six years before the outbreak of World War I. Advocates of Arabism looked forward to the revival of the empire and held views on religious and political questions as disparate as those of the champions of Ottomanism. But they went further than the Ottomanists in that they also wanted autonomy (home rule, as the British called it) for the various Arab groups inside the empire. They did not advocate complete separation and independence; full-fledged Arab nationalism1 envisioning separate sovereign Arab states did not appear as a noteworthy force until after 1914.
Sultan Abdul Hamid II probably helped delay the emergence of Arabism. A despot who reigned from 1876 to 1909, he was convinced of his divine right to rule but fearful of his people. At the outset he promised them liberal reforms and accepted a liberal constitution, but it was a pose designed to attract Western support. When the Western powers meddled and interfered with his modernizing projects instead of facilitating them, the sultan dropped it. He disavowed the constitution, imprisoned its author (a former grand vizier, or prime minister), and instituted personal rule that he never willingly relinquished. Paranoid, he employed ten thousand spies or more. They came to constitute a powerful and dangerous oligarchy within his realm, crisscrossing the empire and seeking out—or intentionally fabricating—accounts of disaffected subjects whose only defense against such charges was bribery. The spies’ reports poured into the offices in Constantinople, stoking the sultan’s fears. He had a harem of nine hundred women; one would check under his bed every night before he went to sleep. His tasters tried every morsel of food before he would touch it. His vigilant censors attempted to allay his terrors by cutting paragraphs, or entire stories, out of newspapers and journals and books, or by shutting down the presses altogether; but judges invariably confirmed his apprehensions with guilty verdicts in his corrupted courts. The sultan was subject to melancholia and fainting spells as well as murderous fits of rage: He ordered that his brother-in-law be strangled; also the grand vizier who had written the constitution and been imprisoned for his pains; also a slave girl who flirted with one of his sons.
But the sultan understood the necessity of maintaining good relations with Arab notables. During his reign they received scholarships to his military academies, commissions in the army, sinecures at the court, imperial postings, and relatively generous treatment. Whether by policy or merely by chance, the sultan surrounded himself with Arab advisers; the point is that he did not discriminate against them. He also understood the importance of religion to his Arab subjects. In order to facilitate the hajj, the annual pilgrimage of the devout to Mecca, he ordered that a railway be constructed to connect Damascus with that city. By 1908 it reached as far as Medina. Nothing could disguise2 the brutality of his rule, but then the brutality helped postpone the emergence of Arabism; moreover his generosity with the Arab notables, coupled with his religious policies, tempered criticism from that quarter.
Policies aimed at soothing Arabs did not necessarily appeal to Turks, however. The Turkish elite, army officers especially, increasingly despaired for their country and its empire, for the sultan was not merely cruel and brutal to his own people but ineffective in dealing with strangers. Where once Turkey had been a great power, now it was “the sick man of Europe.” Ravenous wolves—which is to say the powers that were not sick, and those that were less sick (Austria-Hungary), and the smaller, newer nations that felt themselves in the springtime of youth (Serbia and Romania)—gathered around the sickbed and licked their chops or considered snatching a morsel then and there. Two years into Abdul Hamid’s reign Russian soldiers marched to within ten miles of Constantinople; he gave in, but the Congress of Berlin saved him from the worst consequences of defeat, stripping him of much territory but not allowing the Russians access to the Mediterranean. In 1881, however, Abdul Hamid had to accept Greek occupation of Thessaly and, much worse, foreign control over the Ottoman national debt. In 1882 he had to accept British occupation and financial control of Egypt. In 1903 he had to accept the German plan to construct a railway through his territories from Berlin to Baghdad. He was unable to pacify his increasingly restive subjects in those Balkan territories that remained to him; Bulgaria finally achieved independence in 1908. He pacified his subjects in Armenia, or rather terrorized those who survived the twentieth century’s first attempt at something approaching ethnic cleansing. (The entire world was outraged, or claimed to be.)
Organized resistance, when it came, originated in the army, which was warrened through and through by dissident Young Turk officers, members of secret societies, the most important of which was the Committee of Union and Progress. On July 3, 1908,3 a CUP major in the Third Army Corps stationed in Resna, Macedonia, raised the standard of revolt. His soldiers enthusiastically supported him. Troops sent to suppress the rebellion went over to the rebels. The uprising continued—indeed, it spread like wildfire. Within weeks the sultan surrendered. He restored the constitution of 1876 and reconvened the very parliament he had dissolved thirty-two years before. It decreed new elections, from which the CUP emerged victorious. The CUP proclaimed the equality of all Ottoman citizens regardless of ethnicity or religion. It pledged to uphold the reinstated constitution and parliamentary institutions. It promised to intensify Abdul Hamid II’s modernizing efforts. Enthusiasm reigned among most Turks and non-Turks alike throughout the Ottoman Empire.
None of this pleased the sultan or his conservative supporters. Within months they were dabbling in counterrevolution, launching an attempt in April 1909. The army suppressed it; the CUP retained power. This meant the end for Abdul Hamid II and almost for the sultanate itself. The CUP deposed him4 and placed upon the throne an unappealing but relatively tractable figure, his younger brother. This gentleman served as a CUP puppet until his death in 1918, whereupon a third member of the family, Turkey’s last sultan, took his place and served until 1923.
The empire’s position among the great and smaller European powers continued to be perilous; the grasp on her remaining European possessions grew ever more tenuous. During the hectic six-year period before 1914 she lost nearly all of them: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania—in fact, everything except a slice of eastern Thrace. Meanwhile Italy had seized Libya and Rhodes in 1912 and Greece had annexed Crete. A hurricane raged outside the new regime’s main gates.
Inside too the CUP was sorely tried. A Liberal Union Party, envisioning an empire composed of federated districts, won some key by-elections. More important, some CUP members were incompetent, unable to stem the loss of Balkan and other territory. In January 1913 army officers burst into a cabinet meeting. One of them shot5 and killed the minister of war then and there. The army officers authorized a new CUP government and outlawed the Liberals, but that hardly calmed things down. On June 11, 1913, the new grand vizier was murdered too.
For readers familiar with European history, the CUP may be usefully compared to the Jacobin Society led by Robespierre during the French Revolutionary era. It tamed a monarchy, as the Jacobins had done (or thought they had done). Like the Jacobin, the CUP held militantly secular views that sparked a conservative reaction. When the CUP replaced Islamic law with civil courts, when it opened schools for girls as well as boys, it offended devout Muslims. Like the Jacobins, the CUP was professedly democratic but, again like the Jacobins, it turned away from democratic practices in order to deal effectively with a national emergency. Finally, as the Jacobins had centralized power in eighteenth-century France, so did the CUP a little more than a hundred years later centralize the Ottoman Empire. This last policy caused the gravest difficulties of all.
Sultan Abdul Hamid II had conceived of Islam as the glue to which the vast majority of his subjects adhered; under his rule Muslims, whatever their ethnic background and wherever in the empire they might reside, had parity and deserved equal treatment by the state. But the Young Turks of the CUP exalted the Turkish element. They sought to strengthen its hold throughout the empire, among other things by making Turkish the official Ottoman language. They wished to extend Turkish rule wherever ethnic Turks lived, even outside the empire, even inside Russia. This Turkish nationalism, or pan-Turanianism, contradicted the CUP’s 1908 statements about the equality of all Ottoman citizens. Inevitably it provoked a reaction.
Now Arabs began to organize against the CUP. Some held to Ottomanist goals; they tended to support the opposition Liberal Union Party, which they hoped still might revive the empire. Many more championed Arabism, aiming at a revived empire that would provide autonomy for Arabs. Others lodged somewhere between the Ottomanist and Arabist positions.
A variety of organizations spoke for these diverse discontents. A short-lived Ottoman-Arab Brotherhood hoped to strengthen ties between the two peoples; a Literary Club in Constantinople soon had branches in the major towns of Syria and Mesopotamia and thousands of members. Its quarters served as meeting grounds for the advocates of Ottomanism, Arabism, and dissident views in general. A Young Arab Society, founded in 1909 by Arabs in Paris, aimed “to awaken the Arab6 nation and raise it to the level of energetic nations.” Reform societies appeared in Beirut, Damascus, Aleppo, Jerusalem, Baghdad, and Basra. They called for strengthening Syria and Mesopotamia (Iraq) in order to strengthen the empire and to facilitate resistance to the West. Most important was the Ottoman Decentralization Society, with headquarters in Egypt and branches throughout Syria. Its objectives with regard to the empire were apparent from its name. Meanwhile newspapers, journals, and Arab delegates to the CUP-dominated parliament in Constantinople maintained a steady stream of argument in favor of Ottomanist and Arabist ideals.
Secret societies emerged7 as well. Al-Qahtaniya preached the creation of a dual monarchy for Arabs and Turks, on the model of Austria-Hungary. Betrayed by one of its members, al-Qahtaniya ceased to meet within a year. But the dissatisfaction with Ottoman rule that had prompted its establishment remained unassuaged. Soon enough it reappeared in a new guise, as al-Ahd (the Covenant). This group’s membership was limited largely to army officers. It advocated not only a dual monarchy but the establishment of autonomous entities for all ethnic groups within the empire; each group was to be permitted to use its native language, although Turkish would remain as a lingua franca. Al-Ahd maintained a central office in Damascus and its members paid a monthly subscription. By 1915 its treasury contained 100,000 Turkish lira. The members, who communicated by cipher, swore an oath on the Quran never to divulge the secrets of the society, “even if they are cut to pieces.”
A second secret organization, al-Fatat, grew from the Young Arab Society, which maintained an above-ground presence. Seven Arab students in Paris founded the subterranean counterpart. The security issue loomed as large for them as for the members of al-Ahd; like them, they swore an oath of secrecy and admitted newcomers only after a careful vetting process and long period of probation. When the students returned to the Middle East, they changed al-Fatat’s headquarters to Beirut in 1913 and to Damascus shortly thereafter. Al-Fatat was the civilian equivalent of the military-dominated al-Ahd. After the outbreak of war the two movements would merge and play an important role in the lead-up to the Arab Revolt of 1916.
The climax of prewar Arab nationalism occurred in Paris during June 1913, at a conference whose primary organizer was the Young Arab Society. This was the world’s first Arab congress. Elected delegates from the secret societies attended. Telegrams of support8 arrived with 387 signatories: 79 Syrians, 101 Lebanese, 37 Iraqis, 139 Palestinians, 4 Egyptians, 16 Arabs resident in Europe, and 11 who were unidentifiable as to residence. On June 21 the congress9 made public its resolutions: One called for decentralization and another for recognition of Arabic in the Ottoman Parliament and as the official language throughout the Arab lands under Ottoman rule.
The growth of Arab nationalism, limited though its aims may have been before the outbreak of war, did not go unnoticed by the Turks. Turkish spies kept10 the regime in Constantinople well informed of Arab nationalist plans and actions.
Meanwhile the French, who had long-standing economic interests in Syria and Lebanon, were also keeping track of advocates of Arabism. They encouraged them, not without effect, to expand their horizons and look to France for support. A manifesto of Syrian nationalists, for example, read: “The heart’s desire11 of the Christians in Syria is the occupation of Syria by France.” We know about it because the French consul general in Beirut, François Georges-Picot, failed to burn this and other incriminating documents when he had to leave the city on the outbreak of World War I. Instead he hid them in a consulate safe, and then made the mistake (a deadly one for their authors) of telling the consulate’s dragoman what he had done. The dragoman, whose duties were to act as interpreter and guide between the French, Arabs, and Ottomans, informed the latter of Picot’s action. Not surprisingly, they immediately opened the safe. Since the Syrian document had been signed by “Christian members of the Executive Committee of the General Assembly elected by all the communal councils of the province of Beirut,” the Turks could pick off one by one not only the principals but, if they chose to, even the men who had voted for them.
The British were paying close attention to Ottoman possessions in the Middle East as well. Southern Syria, a land bordering Egypt, through part of which ran the Suez Canal, overlooked England’s economic jugular vein; moreover, the land route between Egypt and India, jewel in the crown of the British Empire, ran through Ottoman territory. For all that the British and French were allies against the Germans, and for all that they had settled many of their imperialist differences, French aspirations in Syria were unwelcome to the British. In fact, the British probably preferred a weak Ottoman regime there to a strong French one. When, late in 1913, the Turks dispatched a new governor or vali to rule Lebanon, the twenty-fourth in five years, British observers permitted themselves some optimism. Competent Turkish rule would keep out the French, and the new vali was “a man of character, decision and enlightenment.” Wrote one Foreign Office expert, “It is to be hoped12 he will remain long.”
Even minor events in Ottoman territory attracted British attention. In May 1913, when Arabs protested corruption among the police of Basra, a detailed report found its way to the Foreign Office in London. When a few days later the protesters rioted because Turkish officials had taken no action, a Foreign Office official noted, possibly with alarm: “There is every sign13 of the approaching disintegration of Turkish rule in these regions.” In December 1913 the Ottomans agreed to sponsor a new Islamic university14 in Medina, and a well-known Egyptian pan-Islamist laid the foundation stone; a report soon was circulating at the Foreign Office. So closely did the British watch the development of the Arab nationalist movement, in fact, that after the 1913 Paris Congress, a detailed report on individual participants soon made the rounds of the Foreign Office. “With one or two exceptions,”15 the report concluded, after describing in detail nearly a dozen participants, “they are all young men of whom much is expected.”
Only fourteen months later the European powers declared war upon one another, and in November 1914 Enver Pasha brought his country in on Germany’s side. Few Arab nationalists supported this move enthusiastically, but even fewer opposed it openly. Still, at least one conservative Ottomanist recognized the war as an opportunity. If Turkey lost it, then her grip on Arab lands would be weakened, perhaps fatally, in which case he might realize his (vast) ambitions for himself and his family. He would do nothing rash, but it might not hurt just to reestablish relations with the British. (He distrusted the French.) After all, he had had some contact with them, direct and indirect, prior to the war, and he had conceived a great admiration for them.
The cautious individual who had decided to sound out the British was the emir, or grand sharif, Hussein of Mecca. A leader among Arabs, he was at this stage not an Arabist but a conservative Ottomanist deeply alienated by CUP rule. In 1914 he was a little more than sixty years old, of medium height and fair complexion, with fine and regular features. He possessed “large and expressive brown16 eyes … strongly marked eyebrows under an ample forehead … a short and delicately curved nose.” His mouth was “full … [his] teeth well formed and well preserved. The beard thick and not long, grey almost to whiteness.” “He is such an old dear,”17 T. E. Lawrence once wrote of him dismissively. But a second Briton judged him “outwardly so gentle18 and considerate as almost to seem weak, but this appearance hides a deep and subtle policy, wide ambitions and an un-Arabian foresight, strength of character and persistence.”
Grand Sharif Hussein belonged to the Abadila clan, which claimed direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad. Only one other clan, the Dwahi Zeid, claimed a like lineage. Male members of the two clans possessed the aristocratic title sharif; only they could become emirs, or grand sharifs, of Mecca. Mecca was the capital city of the Hejaz, which is present-day Saudi Arabia.
Until the eighteenth century the grand sharifate was a prize worth having. Its holder was overlord of the Hejaz, although the Bedouin tribes who wandered the country were loath to acknowledge any temporal master. But the title conferred enormous religious authority too, because the Hejaz included not merely Mecca, where the prophet had been born, but also Medina, where he had been buried. Indeed, to Muslim eyes the grand sharif of Mecca probably ranked second only to the caliph as a holy and revered figure. The grand sharif oversaw arrangements for the annual pilgrimage, or hajj, to the two cities, an extremely lucrative business. In addition he received other monies, titles to land, and emoluments.
The position itself dated from the tenth century. In the sixteenth century, when the Ottomans took over the Hejaz, they chose to retain it as always, choosing the grand sharif from the two clans but making him govern in concert with a vali, whom they appointed in Constantinople. The Ottomans did not significantly reduce the grand sharifs’ power because they feared alienating Muslim Arabs. Instead, they went the other way, exempting Hejazis from taxation and conscription and pouring money into the two holy cities, both of which prospered as a result.
In 1803 Muslim fundamentalists, Wahhabis who wished to purge Islam of innovations, swept like a cutting desert wind into Mecca in order to “purify” it. In 1819 the Ottomans restored their own rule but gripped tighter than before. Sultans now sought to control the grand sharifs partly through the valis and partly by exercising stricter oversight from Constantinople; they encouraged rivalries within and between the two sharifian clans on the principle of divide and conquer. For the next ninety-five years the grand sharifs strove always to weaken the Ottoman hold, to regain the freedom of action they once had enjoyed. They engaged in sometimes deadly rivalry with the valis. The Dwahi Zeid and the Abadila clans maneuvered against each other too, jockeying incessantly for favor and position at the Ottoman court. After 1819 the history of the grand sharifate was one long tale of intrigue. But of that intrigue Hussein, grand sharif of Mecca in 1914, was a master.
He was born in Constantinople in 1853, the son, grandson, and nephew of former emirs. Part of his childhood he spent in Mecca, part in the Ottoman capital. According to an early, sycophantic biographer, he displayed extraordinary qualities even as a youth: “integrity, energy19 and truth … unselfishness … gracious manners … love of virtue.” One imagines this young paragon listening intently as his uncles, older cousins, father, and grandfather discussed how to best their Dwahi Zeid rivals, and how to manipulate the politicians of Constantinople and the valis in Mecca. In secret his closest relatives may have discussed how to defeat their own cousins and uncles, since all longed to be appointed grand sharif. The youngster took it all in. During a second stint in Mecca, as an adult, Hussein supported the attempts of his uncle, Grand Sharif Aoun el-Hafik, to loosen the Ottoman reins. For this the sultan recalled him to Constantinople in 1891. There Hussein stayed until 1908, when he himself gained the great prize.
Constantinople, Europe’s easternmost or Asia’s westernmost city, is situated on a peninsula studded with seven low hills; the Golden Horn, or Bay of Constantinople, lies to its north, the channel of the Bosporus to its east, and the Sea of Marmara to its south. It is a city of mosques and domes and minarets; of Roman ruins, palaces, fortresses, and columns: beautiful, cultured, cosmopolitan, and lively. The future grand sharif flourished there. The sultan provided him with a furnished home overlooking the Bosporus. Hussein raised four sons (Ali, born in 1879, Abdullah, born in 1882, Feisal, born in 1886, and Zeid, born to a Turkish mother in 1898), for whom he engaged private tutors in every subject except the Quran, which he taught them himself. Already he was known for his piety and knowledge of Islam. His social circle comprised the Turkish and Muslim elites, many of the latter being descended, as was he, from the Prophet. “He enjoyed the high esteem and respect of the Constantinople Statesmen, Ministers and Viziers, and of the Sultan himself,” according to the biographer, and as a result he too attained the rank of vizier, and membership of the Council of State, an advisory body to the sultan. Nor would he deviate “by a hair’s breadth from the path of honor and virtue thus gaining the deepest love and veneration of the whole nation.” But for all its glories, Constantinople was a political hothouse. That Hussein succeeded in becoming grand sharif in 1908, when all his male relatives and their Dwahi Zeid rivals wanted the position too, suggests qualities his biographer failed to mention: tact, for one, which is to say the ability to mask his true thoughts, which is to say political cunning. Also he was lucky.
Cunning and luck were both apparent in 1908, when the CUP decided to replace the acting grand sharif (who happened to be one of Hussein’s cousins). Having just taken power and still nourishing progressive and democratic impulses, the CUP had little reason to favor the conservative, deeply religious Hussein, who put himself forward. It chose instead another20 of his relatives, an uncle. But the latter dropped dead while on his way to Mecca. The Young Turks distrusted Hussein, but some Old Turks held different views. The sultan, for one, appears to have admired and liked Hussein personally. “I pray that God21 may punish those who have prevented me from benefiting from your talents,” Abdul Hamid II told him before dispatching him to Mecca. But the sultan could not have done it alone. Hussein had been courting22 the English too: He sent a message of thanks to the British ambassador in Constantinople for supporting opponents of the CUP’s centralizing policies; and the British dragoman, Gerald Fitzmaurice, may have recommended Hussein to the Anglophile grand vizier. The British influence, coupled with the sultan’s, proved too weighty for hardliners in the CUP to overcome. Another possibility is that the CUP hoped to score points with the British by appointing their favorite. In any case, while Hussein’s courtship of the sultan was simply elementary politics, that he had bothered to court Fitzmaurice is evidence of political acumen.
Another part of this story needs telling. By now Hussein’s second son, Abdullah, aspired to play a political role. Like his father, he had grown up at the feet of elder male relatives spinning political intrigues. When he was alone, he must have ruminated upon what he had heard and nourished the ambition to take part someday in political affairs. In 1908 he was ready. He urged his father to put his claim to the sharifate in writing; he brought the letter himself to the Anglophile grand vizier; he lobbied court officials on his father’s behalf. He later claimed these efforts were decisive, which we may doubt. But as markers23 of his future role they were significant.
Already in 1908 Sharif Hussein despised the Young Turks of the CUP, who heartily returned the sentiment; he supported instead the reactionary sultan, Abdul Hamid II. Upon reaching Mecca, Hussein’s first words confirmed his deeply conservative views: He would respect not the CUP constitution but only God’s: “This country abides24 by the constitution of God, the law of God and the teaching of his prophet.” He anticipated the counterrevolution of 1909: “When Your Majesty calls, the first country to respond will be the Hejaz,” he pledged before his departure. He may have promised25 the sultan a place of safety from which to plan the countercoup, and it may be that the sultan lived to regret not accepting this invitation. At any rate, Hussein’s general outlook did not augur well for his future relations with the CUP government.
The Hejaz of which Hussein became emir in 1908 was among the most desolate regions of the Arabian Peninsula, that vast expanse of sparsely settled rock and sand roamed by constantly warring, untamable nomadic tribes. “The principal superficial characteristic of Hejaz is general barrenness,” wrote the British archaeologist and agent David Hogarth in a prewar handbook. Only the occasional oasis and “rare fertility” at the foot of certain upland valleys permitted the practice of agriculture at all. There were few villages or even hamlets. In Midian, in northern Hejaz, such tiny settlements as did exist consisted solely of mud huts, according to William Yale, an American engineer who worked as an agent for the State Department in the Middle East during World War I. And Midian as a whole Yale judged “a miserable country.”26 As for the Bedouins, they were, according to Hogarth, “of exceptionally predatory27 character, low morale and disunited organization.”
But Hejaz boasted a significant port, Jeddah, and two relatively prosperous cities, Mecca and Medina. Jeddah, with a population of 30,000, played a crucial role in the hajj: Muslim pilgrims sailed there from all over the world, then proceeded on to Mecca. Medina, with a population of 30,000 to 40,000, was a walled town based on a large oasis, well watered by wadis, and surrounded by palm trees bearing 139 varieties of dates, other fruit trees, vineyards, wheat, barley, and vegetable gardens. As the terminus of the railway from Damascus, it supplied the second great stream of Muslim pilgrims en route to Mecca. In fact, for wealthier pilgrims Medina, final resting place of the Prophet Muhammad, was a destination city too. Residents of all classes28 and occupations made large profits from these sojourners.
Mecca itself was a city of 70,000, surrounded by hills, some fifty miles inland from Jeddah; a nine-hour ride on a fast donkey, a two-day trip by mule, a three-day journey by camel. It contained a great mosque called the Beit Allah, with a vast courtyard and colonnades, and major and minor bazaars in the surrounding neighborhood; three forts stood in districts to the southeast, west, and north. Chief among the city’s houses was the grand sharif’s palace, called the Imaret. Made of five stories, massive “as a mountain,”29according to one who saw it for the first time, it contained one hundred rooms, some of them exceedingly grand. A second palace, even more sumptuously furnished, contained the sharif’s sleeping quarters and was the domicile of his wife.
Mecca’s other houses were mainly of stone; those near the mosque rose to three or four stories, with large windows facing the outlying hills. Water carriers, with swollen dripping leather skins draped over their shoulders, supplied the houses from pits sunk into an underground conduit that connected with springs outside. There were baths, hospices, hospitals, and a court, where the sharif’s wakil (or general factotum) dispensed rough justice: “In the event of a quarrel30 in which knives were used an official measurer of wounds … estimates by the depth and length of the wound the amount of the fine payable: the total of the smaller wound having been deducted from that of the larger, the inflictor of the latter has to pay the difference.” A single building contained a post office, telegraphs, and telephones. There were three schools and a library, but according to Hussein Ruhi Effendi, a Persian employed by the English in Jeddah and later in Cairo, Mecca possessed “only fifty people who are educated at all and there are not more than three per cent who can read and write.” Hogarth thought the place “clean,”31 which is curious since Ruhi deemed it “not clean,” and a second Arab agent employed by the English (called only X but who was in fact Ruhi’s father-in-law, Ali Effendi), reported, “Everything exceedingly filthy.” For what it is worth, Ruhi also claimed that “morality seems to be32 at a very low ebb, very many of the men having unnatural taste.” There were no local industries—the population mainly lived off the annual hajj in one way or another—but a few marts still carried on in several inns, where men might purchase Sudanese and Abyssinian slaves.
Mecca’s soil was barren. Fruits and vegetables were brought in from a town called Taif, two days’ ride up in the hills, where the emir had another palace as refuge from the summer heat. Rice and foreign products came from the port city, Jeddah; poultry, mutton, milk, and butter arrived from the desert Bedouins. It was almost always hot, the mean annual temperature higher than eighty degrees Fahrenheit. Shielded from most breezes by the surrounding hills, Mecca on a still summer day reminded Hogarth of a furnace: “The heat reflected from the rock-faces [of nearby hills] increases the glare by day and the closeness of the atmosphere at night.” And it was dry. Rain rarely fell; when it did, it descended in torrents and routinely flooded the mosque.
Here then was Sharif Hussein’s kingdom, intimately known to him since early childhood and now, finally, his inheritance. He took it up like a familiar garment. It fit like a glove. Two of his four sons accompanied him to Mecca; they came to know the tribal sheikhs and local notables almost as well as he did. Together father and sons discussed tactics and strategies. Perhaps they were already dreaming tall dreams: not merely of an autonomous Hejaz, restored to the freedom of action that had preceded 1803, but of a semi-independent principality with a hereditary monarch under the protection of Great Britain, for which Hussein had developed great admiration. Britain would treat33 the Hejaz as Hussein fondly believed she did Afghanistan, refraining from interference in internal matters.
Did they dream too of uniting the Arab tribes under their own leadership? It is possible. During the spring of 1911 Hussein made common cause with the Turks, to defeat a potential rival and anti-Ottoman rebel whose territory lay immediately to the south of the Hejaz. During the campaign Hussein’s sons gained valuable military experience. Meanwhile the grand sharif established friendly relations with the chiefs and notables of most of the other Arabian tribes. Only Imam Yahya of Yemen and Abdul Azziz ibn Saud—the inscrutable, ambitious, indeed ferocious Wahhabi chief in the desert regions called el-Nejd, directly east of the Hejaz—rejected his overtures and denied his religious paramountcy. Nevertheless his position was a platform34 capable of supporting vast ambitions. Perhaps Hussein already dreamed of wresting the caliphate from Ottoman hands. Or perhaps his son Abdullah cherished it for him, or even for himself.
In the meantime Hussein and his sons played the CUP with consummate skill. No vali could outmaneuver them; seven tried during 1908–14; all were defeated and recalled to Constantinople. When CUP directives encroached upon his prerogatives, he evaded, or gave the appearance of acquiescing, while considering future options. Above all he opposed extension of the railway from Medina to Mecca, as it would give the Turks a direct line from Damascus into his stronghold and it would deprive Hejazis of their lucrative trade guiding and supplying the pilgrims traveling on foot or by hired camel. He opposed even35 the extension of the telegraph to Mecca; and he opposed the abolition of slavery, which the modernizing Young Turks favored. Apparently these reactionary positions were popular among his subjects. “He is very generous,36 kindhearted and liberal,” said one. “He does not refrain from stretching out his hand to salute a rough looking and dirty Arab who puts his sandals round his wrists and holds out his hand to shake the hand of the Sherif.”
When war came and the sharif decided to establish contact with the English, he sent his son Abdullah. It was a natural choice, for by now this young man had practical experience as a politician, and some knowledge of the English, perhaps more than his father did.
Abdullah was a short stocky figure, “with merry dark brown eyes,37 a round smooth face … straight nose, brown beard.” He was canny and ambitious. When the CUP reinstated the Ottoman parliament, he ran successfully for one of the two seats allocated to the Hejaz, receiving 144 votes. (Very few Hejazis possessed the franchise.) He owed his election to the influence of his father. He does not appear to have been much of a parliamentarian; says one account, “On one occasion38 he quarreled with the wayward Enver Pasha and cursed him in front of a great multitude and was on the point of striking him.” His biographer writes39 that Abdullah played little part in the Ottoman assembly; the press never mentioned him, and he does not figure in the memoirs of contemporary politicians. Surely aware of the developing nationalist movement, surely sympathetic to the Liberal Union Party’s giving voice to opponents of Ottoman centralization, he nonetheless joined no political party and evidently developed little respect for representative government. He believed the Ottoman parliament had been fixed to favor Turkey. “It purports40 [emphasis added] to be a government by the people for the people,” he wrote dismissively, many years later, of parliamentary rule.
Abdullah contacted the British not out of respect or admiration but rather because Hussein desired a powerful ally against the CUP. When Abdullah made first contact is uncertain, but the location can be fixed. From 1910 to 1914 he attended Ottoman parliamentary sessions41 in Constantinople, journeying there every winter and spring via Cairo, where he often stayed with the Egyptian khedive. The latter, although supposedly a vassal of the Ottoman sultan, was in fact little more than a British puppet, because the British had controlled Egyptian finances since 1882. The British felt obliged to control Egypt one way or another since it contained the Suez Canal, in which they owned a majority interest and through which traveled much of their foreign trade. So while Egypt remained ostensibly part of the Ottoman Empire, in reality it was part of the British. And it was in Egypt that Abdullah approached them.
He may have met42 Sir Ronald Storrs, oriental secretary at the British Agency in Cairo, as early as 1912, for he mentions in his memoirs that by 1914 they had kept up friendly relations for two years. During the same period Abdullah records, he developed great respect for Storrs’s chief, the consul general, Lord Kitchener.43 The British, deeply interested as they were in Arab affairs, likely knew of the sharif’s politically active son. But there is no reference to their having made Abdullah’s acquaintance during 1912–13, whereas a series of meetings held in February 1914 are well chronicled.
By that month relations between Emir Hussein and Constantinople had sunk to a new low. The CUP dispatched a fresh vali to the Hejaz, accompanied by an additional detachment of troops. His orders were to enforce a law passed in 1912 that removed Medina from Hussein’s control, and to secure the emir’s consent to extension of the railway from Medina to Mecca. Hussein intended to block these moves as he had blocked previous Ottoman encroachments, but he feared the CUP response.
Meanwhile Abdullah was passing through Cairo on his way to Constantinople for the opening of parliament. According to his account, Lord Kitchener called upon him at the khedivial palace. They chatted about unimportant matters. Two days later when Abdullah returned the call, however, “I decided to speak openly to Kitchener.” (Records being sparse, we have no indication that his father suggested the meeting.) Abdullah described to Kitchener “the realities of the situation in the Hejaz, the delicacy of the Sharif’s position, the causes of the disaffection between Turks and Arabs and the aims of the Arab movement as a whole.” He thought Kitchener listened attentively. “When I asked him to tell me whether in the event of a rupture the Sharif could count upon any support from Great Britain, Kitchener replied negatively on the plea that British relations with Turkey were friendly and that in any case the dispute was an internal matter in which it would be improper for a foreign Power to intervene.” Abdullah pointed out that Britain had intervened in other countries’ internal matters. (He was too tactful to say it, but Kitchener himself had done so, on Britain’s behalf.) The consul general only laughed.
Two months later, on his way back from Constantinople, Abdullah appears to have tried again to interest the British in his father’s plight. At a second meeting with Kitchener he confined himself to small talk, but a few nights later he requested that Storrs call upon him at the khedive’s palace. Storrs obliged. First the two men discussed poetry. “I was astonished and delighted at the range of his literary memory,” Storrs recalled. “He intoned for me brilliant episodes of the Seven Suspended odes of Pre-Islamic Poetry, the glories and the lament of Antar ibn Shaddad.” Then carefully, obliquely, “by a series of delicately inclined planes,” Abdullah broached the true reason for the meeting: “whether Great Britain would present the Grand Sharif with a dozen or even a half dozen machine guns.”
Storrs demurred. He thought Abdullah could have expected nothing else, “and we parted on the best44 of terms.” But the son of Sharif Hussein had laid down a marker. When World War I began only six months later, the British would remember it, and they would pick it up.