EARLY IN 1916 Grand Sharif Hussein began laying the groundwork for rebellion in earnest. He knew little if anything of Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, and absolutely nothing of the agreement the two men had reached regarding Arabia and that the three Entente powers had subsequently ratified. He had no inkling either that the British government soon would be considering the future role of Jews in Palestine. Had he known of such matters, Middle Eastern history might have unwound very differently. Instead, with the careful but encouraging letters of Sir Henry McMahon fresh in his mind, the emir pushed his chess pieces into position.
To Damascus—headquarters of the dangerous Djemal Pasha and base of the Turkish Fourth Army, of which Djemal was commander in chief—he dispatched his third son, Feisal. Feisal would secretly reestablish links with the nationalist Arab army officers who had framed the Damascus Protocol and with whom he had met the previous spring. Hussein anticipated that they, with the loyal Arabian soldiers under their command and with Feisal at their head, would lead the Syrian wing of his rebellion.
To Medina, which also housed a substantial Ottoman garrison, he sent his eldest son, Ali, and fifteen hundred troops. Ostensibly their mission was to take part in the second invasion of Egypt, planned by the Ottomans; in reality they would undertake the siege of Medina when Feisal threw down the gauntlet in Damascus. In the meantime Ali must win over the regional tribal chiefs, all retainers of the grand sharif.
To the British in Cairo, he sent a series of letters, requesting arms and ammunition for his desert fighters, gold with which to pay them, and British troops to reinforce them.
Finally in Mecca, he kept by his side for the time being his second son, Abdullah, and his youngest son, Zeid. The latter lacked experience and influence, but Hussein depended on the former. He could send Abdullah to parley with local sheikhs. Moreover, aided by Abdullah—and perhaps with young Zeid looking on respectfully and very occasionally making a suggestion—he could ponder the chessboard and discuss future moves. Together father and son would direct their knights in Damascus and Medina to jump at the proper hour onto the proper squares.
For the moment, however, the two knights must rely upon their own good judgment, at a time when any false move might prove literally fatal. We have scant record of Ali’s movements and activities in Medina, but he appears to have skirted very near the edge of the precipice. Ali did not much resemble his more active younger brothers, being short while Feisal was tall, slim while Abdullah was stocky, and with a face already weary-looking (although he was only thirty-seven years old); but he had his father’s large deep brown eyes and thin nose. A zealous protector of Hussein’s prerogatives as the emir of Hejaz, he quickly came into conflict with the Ottoman governor in Medina.1 Perhaps there was a religious component to his attitude: He was, like the grand sharif, a devout Muslim, “less ready to sink2 religious prejudices than his brothers.” During this period in Medina, Ali was “assuming powers on the3 pretext that they were part of his authority as Imam,” wrote an Ottoman who watched him carefully. This official warned Ali to mend his ways. Ali, perhaps emboldened by the fifteen hundred Hejazi troops at his back, did nothing of the sort. Rather, he became “simply intolerable,” the same official remembered. The official was Djemal Pasha, not a man one would wish to antagonize, but the Turks needed Ali because they needed his father. They still wanted the grand sharif to endorse the jihad publicly. They wanted him to raise additional Arab troops for the second invasion of Egypt and to fight the British in Mesopotamia too. So Djemal, whose first instinct when confronted with a troublemaker was to flatten him, stayed his hand. Only in retrospect did he recognize Ali’s conduct for what it most probably had been: a harbinger of a total break.
Thus spared, Ali managed a successful passage. His primary mission in Medina was to win over the region’s tribal leaders. “The Jehani Kadi has4 arrived,” he wrote to his father, “and I did the necessary with him.” In fact he had “compelled” the latter to come to terms with a rival sheikh,5 then brought them and three more sheikhs into the rebel camp, a considerable achievement. Their tribal armies, when added to the fifteen hundred soldiers already encamped on the outskirts of Medina at Hezret Hamza, constituted a significant if unconventional and undisciplined force. Now they waited on tenterhooks for word from Hussein to advance against the Ottomans.
Feisal’s mission in Damascus was more important to Hussein than Ali’s in Medina, because that Syrian city had been the main base of the Arab officers in the Ottoman army who drew up the Damascus Protocol and who, he now hoped, would provide the nucleus of a rebel general staff. Damascus was also more dangerous for Feisal than Medina was for Ali, because it was headquarters of the redoubtable Djemal. Feisal would have to plan his part of the rebellion right under the Turkish commander’s watchful, unforgiving eye.
Forty picked men accompanied Feisal into this lion’s den. They were, Feisal said, soldiers for the invasion of Egypt, but in fact they constituted his bodyguard. With them he approached the familiar city. He may have intended to stay once again with the al-Bakri family and, as before, to meet with the conspirators at the al-Bakri house in the small hours of the morning. As they rode the train into Damascus, Feisal must have thought he would be engaging in work that was perilous but not impossible. After all, he had done it before, unaccompanied.
In fact, by January 1916, when Feisal arrived in Damascus, everything had changed. Almost all the officers with whom he had met the previous year were gone. Djemal had sent6 the 35th Division, in which most of them were based, to fight the British in Gallipoli. Not only the officers but the Arab soldiers, upon whom the conspirators had counted to act as the revolution’s shock troops, were gone as well. This was a major setback for which Hussein and his sons were entirely unprepared.
Moreover, the disruption of trade caused by the war had taken a toll on Damascus. The British had blockaded most of the east coast of the Mediterranean. To cope with scarcities and to feed his armies, Djemal Pasha had levied new taxes and had confiscated much Syrian property. To make fuel for his trains, he had directed the felling of trees, including cherished orchards and olive groves. Hardship for the residents of Damascus led to hunger and eventually to starvation. People weak from lack of food succumb easily to disease, in this case typhus. Historians estimate7 that during the war between 150,000 and 300,000 Syrians died from famine and sickness. Hussein and Feisal had hoped that when the rebel Arab army challenged the Ottomans, the population of Damascus would rise. But with so much of the city ill and famished, there was little chance of that.
Perhaps worst of all from the Arab nationalist point of view, the political atmosphere in Damascus had grown darker and more ominous than before. Djemal Pasha, who had known from the outset about Arab nationalist activities because Picot had left those incriminating documents in the French embassy safe, had finally turned upon the conspirators. Moreover he had additional evidence of traitorous activities from spies and informers who carried news to him in a constant stream. Some of it was accurate. “I decided to take8 ruthless action against the traitors,” Djemal records.
The results were horrific. The Turks rounded up suspects and brought them for trial and imprisonment to Aleyh, a town southeast of Beirut. There they were beaten bloody; pierced with needles; and pressed by a vise that squeezed their heads until they thought their brains would burst from their eye sockets. They received bread9 and water only, and that every other day; their jailers kept them awake seventy-two hours at a stretch. How could they defend themselves when finally they were brought into the courtroom? They could not. They would say anything to stop the torture. Eleven men paid with their lives. An English newspaper reported: “The bodies of the hanged10 remained exposed in Liberty Square [in Beirut] for six hours, after which they were carried to the sands on the western outskirts of the town and there buried ignominiously.” That was only the beginning. “Eight more11 have been hanged and fifteen others [are] expected to meet the same fate,” the newspaper reported a little later. Djemal ordered that hundreds of suspected nationalists be deported to the far reaches of Anatolia. Thousands more left of their own accord, fearful that he would turn upon them next.
Feisal and his retinue, forty strong, disembarked from the train at the Damascus railway station to find themselves in a city gripped by hunger, illness, dread, and revulsion. Djemal suspected everyone, possibly even Feisal and his father. He insisted that the grand sharif’s son stay with him, at Ottoman army headquarters. Was he trying to keep his enemy close, or was it simple courtesy? Either way Feisal had no option but to accept. Imperturbably he presented his host with gifts from Mecca, including a sword of honor. Djemal claimed to have interpreted this at the time “as the greatest proof12 of friendship.” Did he really? Feisal thought not. He wrote of the Ottoman leadership to his father: “There can be no trust13 in their sayings or their writings.” His letters to Mecca traveled in cakes, in sword handles, in the soles of his servants’ sandals. He wrote them in code, in invisible ink. And meanwhile, in the famished, terrorized city, he attended banquets and receptions arranged by Djemal in his honor.
In Aleyh, to which all eyes had turned, trials of the second batch of suspects proceeded. Among the prisoners now suffering the same vile torments as had been meted out to the first group were Arab deputies to the Ottoman parliament; delegates to the prewar Arab Congress in Paris, including its president; lawyers, journalists, and army officers; indeed, “some of the best known14 and most influential names in Syria.” A few were Christian, but most were Muslim. “In my opinion,”15 wrote Djemal Pasha, “the punishment of a man who betrays his faith and his country should be in proportion to the social position he enjoys.” The outcome was a foregone conclusion, although (as we know today) a number of the condemned had in fact held aloof from the nationalist movement. Their innocence did not save them. Now it was Feisal’s turn to sail close to the wind. “He came to see16 me every day,” Djemal Pasha continues, “and always brought the conversation round to the question of pardon.” From Mecca the grand sharif, too, exhorted the commander of the Fourth Army, and leading Young Turks in Constantinople and even the sultan himself, to show mercy.
There was to be none. On the evening of May 5, 1916, a jailer read out the names of twenty-one prisoners. They were divided into two groups: one entrained for Damascus, while the other boarded horse-drawn carriages bound for Beirut. In the first city soldiers had erected seven gallows in the main square; in the second they had built a scaffold in Liberty Square (known today as Martyrs’ Square). “O paradise of my17 country,” cried one prisoner as they placed the rope around his neck, “carry our feelings of brotherly love to every Lebanese, to every Syrian, to every Arab, tell them of our tragic end and tell them: ‘For your freedom we have lived and for your independence we are dying!’” Then he kicked away the stool himself, denying that honor to the hangman.
On the very day of the executions, Djemal caused the army to publish a summary of the trials, including some of the evidence used to convict. That morning Feisal was taking his ease with the al-Bakris, at their house five miles outside Damascus. A servant brought them the army summary. One of the Bakri family read aloud the twenty-one names. At last, and only for a moment, the mask slipped from Feisal’s face. He leaped to his feet, a cry for vengeance wrenched from deep within him: “Death will now18 be a pleasure for us!” But two hours later he stood before Djemal protesting his good intentions: “I swear by the19 memory of my ancestors,” he is supposed to have told him, “that had I known how heinous was the offence of those criminals I should not merely have refused to intervene for them. I should have asked for them to be torn limb from limb to prolong their sufferings. God’s curse be upon them!”
That was play-acting. The real Feisal met again secretly with the remaining members of al-Fatat at the al-Bakris’ house. Their number was much diminished, not only by the dispatch of the 35th Division to Gallipoli but by the transfer of nearly all Arab officers out of Syria and into Turkey, and of course by the executions, deportations, and other removals. Djemal, now also contemplating the chessboard, was taking off as many of his opponents’ pieces as possible before the game began. With them gone, and with Damascus effectively traumatized, Feisal and the remaining conspirators came to the only possible conclusion. The revolt could not begin in Syria. Feisal advised his father that the initial blow must be struck elsewhere, in Medina or Mecca or both.
But first he must escape from Damascus and make his way to one or the other of those cities. Once more he appeared before Djemal Pasha, wearing his dissembler’s mask. Historians do not agree about precisely what he said, but in some way he gave reason to join his brother Ali in Medina. Djemal believed him (as most would have it) or did not (as Djemal himself later told it, but he was an interested party). Either way, he raised no objection. Feisal left Damascus. Djemal Pasha had had him in his grasp and let him go.
Could the grand sharif launch a successful rebellion without the Syrians playing a leading role? He thought so. He had his two knights now and fifteen hundred warriors in Medina. The tribal desert fighters were champing at the bit in the surrounding wastes. At his signal Ali and Feisal would gather them all and lead them in an attack upon the railway that connected Medina with Damascus. Tear up enough line, and the Ottoman path into Arabia would be blocked. Then they must besiege and capture Medina itself. Simultaneously a portion of the grand sharif’s own army would take Mecca, forcing surrender of the Ottoman troops there. Abdullah would lead another force, local tribesmen with whose sheikhs he had been consulting, against Taif, where the Turkish valialready was seeking refuge from the early summer heat and where the bulk of Ottoman troops usually posted in the holy city spent the summer months. Still other desert tribes would attack the Turks in the port of Jeddah and other Hejazi towns occupied by Ottoman soldiers.
But first Hussein sought once again to bring even more powerful pieces onto the board. He thought the British should land at Alexandretta. With the eastern Mediterranean’s best port as their base, they could fall upon Djemal’s Fourth Army and then turn north to join up with the Russians. Together the armies of the two great powers could push west into Anatolia toward the Ottoman capital. Hussein wrote to McMahon: “Since this war20 started we had thought that this plan will be that of the Allies in the Turkish theatre of war. This is why I could not understand [that] they have preferred to take operations in the Dardanelles.” But the British would not land at Alexandretta. They had just accepted the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which among other things allocated that harbor to France. Of course McMahon could not say so; he reiterated instead that given clear evidence of a genuine rebellion, Britain would be willing to pay and supply the Arabs and, if necessary, to assist by bombarding the Red Sea ports held by Ottomans. But Britian would provide no significant detachment of troops to aid the rebellion.
Ali wrote to his father from Medina, “The movement should21 take place in the hot season; i.e., in the middle of the summer, so that the hot climate also might help us against them.” This was indeed the schedule, but an unforeseen development precipitated matters earlier. A Turkish force22 of 3,500 arrived in Medina, aiming to pass through the Hejaz en route to a final destination in Yemen. Stationed there, it would strengthen the Ottoman presence in the Arabian Peninsula as a whole; it would menace British-dominated Aden; it could even prove helpful to German troops across the Red Sea in East Africa.
There was more to this Turkish mission than was apparent. A small party of Germans, led by a major of the general staff, Baron Othmar von Stotzingen, accompanied the Turkish division. Von Stotzingen’s servant was a Muslim Indian deserter; his interpreter was “the notorious Jew, ex-storekeeper, ex-prisoner of the caliphate, Heinrich Neufeld.” Neufeld had brought23 with him a Kurdish bride fifty years his junior. The party contained three additional officers, two wireless operators, and a few attendants. As non-Muslims, they were not permitted to travel by train to Medina. Djemal Pasha instructed them to take the coastal road and to rejoin the troops south of the Hejaz. The Ottoman Muslim troops, however, could go right on through.
The arrival of Turkish soldiers in Medina set off alarm bells, and Ali immediately communicated with his father. Suppose the division’s real target was not Aden but the Hejaz? Even if it was not, Ali said, the presence of 3,500 Ottoman troops permanently stationed south of the sharif in Yemen would be a direct threat, and the passage through his father’s territory an insult. Hussein agreed. He determined that the Ottoman troops would not enter his kingdom at all. It was time to launch the rebellion.
On May 23, 1916, McMahon received a telegram: “Sharif’s son Abdallah24 urgently requires Storrs to come to Arabian coast to meet him. Movement will begin as soon as Faisal arrives at Mecca.” The delighted high commissioner informed the Foreign Office back in London: “Will send Storrs25 as required.” He dispatched his oriental secretary almost immediately, and with him Kinahan Cornwallis and David G. Hogarth, both leaders of the newly established Arab Bureau in Cairo, which would oversee British intelligence operations in the Middle East for the rest of the war. The three men carried with them two sacks of a British propaganda newspaper called al-Haqiqa (The Truth) for distribution as the sharif saw fit, and £10,000 for his rebellion; also news that Britain would send £50,000 more once it had clear evidence that the revolt was in progress.
From Cairo the trio went to Suez, where they boarded HMS Dufferin, which took them down the canal and into the Red Sea all the way to Port Sudan. They sailed under a blistering sun on flat and shining water, with their singular cargo in Storrs’s cabin. At Port Sudan the three met with Oreifan, an experienced go-between. Oreifan reported that the grand sharif wished to consult with him one more time before sending Abdullah to meet the British. HMS Dufferin ferried Oreifan across the Red Sea, landing him close to Jeddah, the port nearest Mecca. They would rendezvous at the same spot when Oreifan returned from Mecca three days later.
It was a nervous interval. To fill it, HMS Dufferin cruised the Arab side of the coast, a forbidding, gorgeous, picturesque shoreline. “We made the near acquaintance26 of an island as scorched by heaven as any vent of earth’s fires, and of long miles of submerged coral, greens and blues dappled with gold,” Hogarth would recall. High mountains towered in the near distance. Tiny port villages, still under Turkish control, baked in the sun. Then “a naked fisherman paddled his bark canoe through the shark-infested sea to tell an incredible tale of German officers and a German lady gone southward to Yambo a few days before.” It was von Stotzingen’s party; the German lady was Neufeld’s Kurdish bride.
At one P.M. on Monday, June 5, HMS Dufferin anchored off Jeddah. Oreifan was waiting. He had news: Bedouin marauders had murdered seven Germans the previous day—obviously some, or all, of the contingent described to them by the naked fisherman. If the Englishmen wished, Oreifan continued, he would bring them their heads. Storrs declined, telling Oreifan that he would prefer to see the Germans’ papers.
Then Oreifan presented a letter, signed by Hussein but written in Abdullah’s hand: “I deeply regret my inability27 to send Abdallah for an urgent reason which bearer will explain: but his brother will represent him with one of his cousins.” Oreifan handed over another letter, from Abdullah to Storrs, containing the same message, but ending: “My request of you is to start operations in Syria to the best of your ability.” Evidently he and his father still pined for a British landing at Alexandretta. Finally Oreifan proffered a third letter, unsigned, but very much to the point: “Please order by28 wireless immediately 500 rifles of same pattern as those already sent us … also 4 machine guns, both with ammunition.”
In addition to conveying the letters, Oreifan delivered a verbal report, which surely came as music to the ears of the waiting Englishmen. The Arab revolt they had so ardently wished for, planned for, and more or less patiently nurtured, finally was about to commence. Oreifan told them that the reason Abdullah could not meet them was that he had left Mecca to begin the siege of Taif. Feisal and Ali were about to attack Medina; the sharif would turn upon the Turks in Mecca; the Harb tribe would fall upon Jeddah. All these actions,29 so long contemplated by the sharif, were to be launched by the coming Saturday. In the meantime telegraph lines between Mecca and Jeddah already were in the sharif’s hands; the line to Medina had been cut; the railway was cut also. Zeid, the sharif’s fourth and youngest son, was on his way to Samima, six miles southwest of Jeddah, where he would meet the three British men next day at dawn.
“We had not come so far30 to see a boy,” Hogarth sniffed, “but there was no help for it.” HMS Dufferin slipped down the six miles of coastline to anchor just outside the reefs at the desolate spot appointed. At five-thirty next morning, Tuesday, June 6, Storrs, Hogarth, and Cornwallis, still carrying their precious cargo of propaganda and £10,000, were taken by a small boat just inside the reef offshore from Samima. There was no sign of Zeid on the beach. But an Arab contact awaited them in a dhow half-full of sacks of maize, with a sail rigged to provide the Englishmen some shade. Even at that early hour the sun was broiling hot. On the shore Oreifan was waiting too, with a tent of honor erected for the conclave soon to occur.
Finally ten camels and riders appeared silhouetted against the shimmering horizon and made their way to the tent by the shore. Moments later Oreifan was paddling a canoe out toward the dhow. He told the Englishmen that Zeid and his cousin wished to meet alone with Storrs. Evidently the Arabs did not wish to be outnumbered in council. The three devised a counterstrategy: Storrs would step ashore alone, as requested, but then so firmly invite the Arabs to return with him to the ship that they could not politely refuse. Even at this initial meeting, maneuvering for precedence was essential; perhaps it is so at every meeting between emissaries of governments. On this occasion it was not a fair fight, however: Zeid, aged twenty, confronted three masters of the game.
“I stepped into Oreifan’s31 canoe, the bottom of which was so full of water that I elected for obvious reasons to stand up in it,” Storrs reported. “The last ten yards I was carried to the beach by two slaves.” Immediately he commenced to maneuver: “Without looking up I saw Zeid and Shakir [the cousin] slowly advancing upon me. I continued to arrange my clothes so as to bring the two down in front of their guard to welcome on their threshold one who was, after all, representing the High Commissioner.”
The three men walked back up the beach to the tent, passing Zeid’s protectors. Storrs scrutinized the sharif’s youngest son: “He is about 5.5′32 in height, fair in complexion, with fine eyes and the round face and Greek profile characteristic of Circassians. He is evidently attempting to encourage the growth of a somewhat backward beard.” The young man wore a caftan of Egyptian silk. Brilliant gold cords fixed the head shawl. In fact, both Zeid and his relative were so faultlessly attired that Storrs believed they must have stopped and changed costume just before reaching the beach. This was, perhaps, an Arabian attempt at maneuver.
The three waited in the tent for coffee, sitting on divans, the sand beneath their feet covered by two Shirwan rugs (of poor quality, Storrs judged) and two Killim carpets. Zeid confirmed the plan and schedule for the risings. Storrs asked for details. “We will summon the Turks to surrender and shoot them if they refuse,” Zeid said. “If they surrender we will imprison them until the end of the war. We intend to destroy the Hijaz railway as far north as Medain Salih, which will be our advance guard.” Then Zeid returned to the talking points provided by his father and older brother. The grand sharif wanted guns,33 ammunition, and money. He asked once more that the British send reinforcements to land on the Syrian coast. “His father felt very strongly on this point,” Storrs recorded. Storrs stuck to the British line: Money and weapons would be forthcoming, and perhaps advisers to train Arab soldiers in their use, but not soldiers in any quantity. At this juncture a slave dressed in white and silver served the coffee. “As soon as decently possible after this,” Storrs reports, I “took [Zeid’s] arm and told him it was time to be getting to the ship.”
By now he had taken his measure of the man: “soft in his ways and vague in his ideas … and though by no means intelligent quite capable of understanding and conveying to or from his father any instructions or explanation with which he may be entrusted.” With this judgment Hogarth concurred: “Zeid struck me34 as amiable but weak … not a man of action but a Harem Arab.” The business conducted on HMS Dufferin therefore, when the men clambered aboard, merely reprised what had taken place earlier on shore. The British promised to send guns and ammunition and, later, more money. Then Storrs arranged a meal, and for the Arabs to be photographed, and a guided tour of the ship: “I had them shewn [sic] and explained the wireless, which appeared to fascinate them, the guns, the Captain’s bath-room and other wonders of the deep.” Here as elsewhere in Storrs’s memoirs and papers, we recognize a tone. That same condescending attitude allowed Sykes so cavalierly to redraw Arabian borders, and the British government in India to look upon Mesopotamia as its own preserve, and McMahon to write to Lord Hardinge that promises made to Arabs need not be binding upon the British government.
Then it was over. The two young men disembarked from the ship into a canoe with the bundles of al-Haqiqa, the £10,000, and one thousand cigarettes, which Storrs thoughtfully added as a gift for Feisal and Ali, the only smokers in the sharif’s family. Then with the Arabs gone, the three Englishmen shared impressions. That the revolt would now take place none doubted. “The conception,35 plan and intended execution of the rising have every appearance of genuineness,” Storrs concluded. That the revolt was well conceived and would succeed remained an open question in their minds. “Far too much36 has been left to the last moment and to luck,” Hogarth warned.
Still, England had evidently gained a prime objective. Merely by taking place, regardless of its success or failure, the Arab Revolt would divert the Turks; it would blunt their call for jihad; it would convert many Arabs to the Allied cause. And it would have another entirely unforeseen consequence as well. Somehow on their journey across the Hejaz, von Stotzingen’s party caught wind of the impending revolt and, frightened by that prospect, decided to turn back. It was then that they met up with the Bedouins, with fatal consequences for some but not all of the party. (Von Stotzingen himself, Neufeld, and Neufeld’s bride eventually made it back safely to Germany.) Von Stotzingen’s mission had been to recruit soldiers for jihad against the Allies, not only on the Arabian Peninsula but across the Red Sea in the Sudan and Egypt. The repercussions could have reached east too, across the Indian Ocean into South Asia. “Had the sherifian revolt37 never done anything else than frustrate that combined march of Turks and Germans to southern Arabia in 1916, we should owe it more than we have paid to this day,” Hogarth would write in 1920. HMS Dufferin steamed slowly northward upon a molten and breathless sea. Upon its deck three Englishmen congratulated themselves on a job well done.
But three thousand miles to the northwest, off the Orkney Islands, Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener had just perished in icy waters amid gale-force winds. He had been on his way to Russia on a diplomatic mission when his ship, HMS Hampshire, struck a German mine. Thus did fate deny the British initiator and prime architect of his country’s alliance with Grand Sharif Hussein any chance to see the fruit, whether good or ill, of his labors.
Feisal had gone to Medina, but Djemal Pasha remained uneasy. Anticipating trouble, he decided to send Fakhri Pasha, a seasoned divisional commander, after him. “I explained to him the situation and … asked him … if occasion required to arrange … all necessary measures of defence.” Djemal also prepared “two or three battalions38 and one or two mountain batteries at Damascus … they could be entrained within half an hour of receiving the first signal.” By this time, late May, Hussein had already dispatched the letter to McMahon asking him to send Storrs to meet Abdullah, and in Medina, Ali and Feisal were busy making preparations for the uprising. Ali secretly contacted the tribal chiefs to warn them that action was pending. Feisal sent word to his bodyguard back in Damascus: They must leave that city immediately. He reviewed the fifteen hundred Mujahid fighters, who everyone supposed would take part in the invasion of Sinai, and discussed its real mission with their officers. When Fakhri arrived in Medina, the two brothers brought him out to Hezret Hamza to review the troops again. “We lunched together,” Fakhri reported to Djemal. “The volunteers were39 indulging in all the sports beloved of the Beduins [sic] and singing songs about the blows they were going to inflict upon the English.” On the evening of June 440 he accepted an invitation to dine with Feisal and Ali at their Medina quarters. The brothers assured him that the first contingents of Mujahids would depart for Dara in two days’ time. It was an unexceptional occasion.
The next morning, however, Ali sent a note to Fakhri. Perhaps he had written it before dinner the previous evening. Fakhri read it with surprise and growing anger. “In accordance with my father’s orders the transport of the volunteers to Palestine will be suspended,” Ali wrote. “I have therefore decided to return with the Mujahids to Mecca instead of wasting my time here. I regret that I must go without taking leave of you. Please excuse me!” Ali did not state it plainly, but Fakhri Pasha understood what was about to happen: Ali would not be returning with his troops to Mecca, he would be throwing them against the Turks. Frantically Fakhri sought to contact Djemal Pasha, finally tracking him down by telephone in Beirut. “The railway will be attacked tonight or tomorrow morning at the latest,” he warned. “Ali Bey will interrupt our communications between Medina and Syria and attempt a surprise attack on Medina … I have assumed command of all the troops.” Djemal sent the Damascus battalions and batteries at once. Let the two brothers waste their time in the desert blowing up railway track. That could be repaired. He was determined to hold Medina against all comers.
Ali and Feisal had ridden out to Hezret Hamza at daybreak. There before the fifteen hundred Arab fighters, they fired their rifles into the air and proclaimed the independence of Arabia in the name of their father the Grand Sharif Hussein of Mecca. Then the two brothers led their now-rebel army into the desolate reaches beyond Medina to join the tribes Ali had recruited earlier. They would tear up the railway. They would besiege Fakhri Pasha and his reinforced Ottoman army in Medina. The die was cast. The date was June 5.
Abdullah had arrived in Taif three days earlier. As in Medina, Ottoman soldiers crowded the city, refugees from the blast-furnace heat of Mecca. Likewise seeking relief from the blazing sun, the Turkish vali rested there. The grand sharif had either seized or cut the telegraph lines into Mecca, but not yet those extending from it, presumably on the grounds that control of cables in meant control of cables out. Taif, then, remained on line, but its messages could be intercepted in Mecca. During that first week of June no one in Taif knew anything about Ali and Feisal’s actions far to the north.
Abdullah consulted with the local sheikhs. All was in readiness; they waited only for the word to strike. Abdullah told them that a date had been set: Saturday, June 10. Then on the morning of June 941 he received a summons to meet with the Turkish vali later in the day. A nervous Abdullah accepted quickly enough but took precautions. At the time appointed he rode with four picked men toward the vali’s palace. They reined in before it. “I left Faraj with the horses,” Abdullah recalled. He entered the building with his three comrades “and posted Hosaan at the top of the stairs”; traversed a long hallway, and stationed the two remaining sheikhs outside the vali’s room.
Then Abdullah entered it, with a pistol hidden beneath his cloak. “If there was any trouble42 I was to shoot the vali in the room and they were to dispatch anyone who tried to interfere outside.” In fact, the vali harbored no designs; he remained ignorant of events in Medina. But the continual jockeying with the emir for control of the Hejaz preyed upon his nerves. When Abdullah appeared before him, the vali reiterated these concerns. Then two Ottoman officials entered the room. One of them whispered in the vali’s ear. Abdullah tightened his grip upon the pistol. But the vali only shook his head and ordered the men to leave. Later Abdullah learned they had been urging the vali to arrest him.
It was a narrow escape, and when a shaken Abdullah left the palace, he immediately ordered that the telegraph wires into Taif be severed. Now the city was entirely cut off. The next day, as planned, he launched the siege of Taif.
Back in February the grand sharif already had devised his opening gambit: He would send a letter to Enver Pasha, first among the triumvirate of Young Turks leading the Ottoman Empire. No copy survives,43 but both Abdullah and Djemal summarize it in their memoirs. Hussein offered, in this communication, to do what the Ottomans wanted: He would send additional troops for the invasion of Egypt and still more to face the British in Iraq; he would endorse the jihad. But he stipulated that the Ottomans must do something for him in return. They must pardon the prisoners in Djemal’s jails, grant autonomy to Syria and Iraq within the empire, and recognize him as hereditary emir of the Hejaz. It is impossible that the grand sharif did not understand he was crying for the moon. Therefore he was preparing the way for revolt. When the Ottomans rejected his offer, he would have his casus belli.
Meanwhile he ratcheted up tensions in Mecca. First he asked the British to extend their blockade in the Red Sea to the Arabian coast. He believed, rightly as it turned out, that those affected would blame the Turks for provoking Britain rather than Britain for prosecuting the war. As the blockade tightened, supplies dwindled throughout his kingdom. “Purveyors have begun to refuse to give provisions,” reported the acting governor and commandant of Mecca from Hamidiye, the Ottoman headquarters in that city. “Everyone reclaims44 his money. Even wood ration is now given day by day.… provisions sent to Taif have not arrived.” A few days earlier he had warned that as a result of the blockade, people in Mecca were showing “an attitude of distrust of the government.”
In Constantinople the Ottomans were puzzling over Hussein’s letter. Enver Pasha sent it to Damascus, telling Djemal that he could not make heads or tails of it. The latter understood it well enough, according to his account, but he approached the matter obliquely. “Your father,” he cautioned Feisal, who was at that point still in Damascus, “has many enemies … in Constantinople … trying every day to rouse the Government’s suspicions against [him].” The grand sharif’s son “turned pale,” according to Djemal. The commander of the Fourth Army sent a more transparent warning to Hussein: “The men who form45 the present Government … would never forgive anyone who had the audacity to hamper them in the war upon which they have entered for the good of the Mohammedan world.”
The time for a parting of the ways was near at hand. We may imagine the grand sharif and his son Abdullah in nearly continual consultation in Mecca; messages in code and invisible ink secreted in sword hilts must have been flying to and fro between Ali and Feisal, both now in Medina, and the sharif and Abdullah in Mecca. When the brothers in Medina finally set the date for their rising and informed their father of it, Hussein wrote to Enver in Constantinople and to Djemal in Damascus: “He [Hussein] considered himself46 compelled to break off relations with the Government until the request was acceded to which he had made to Enver Pasha two months before.” At that point Ali sent his own brief note to Fakhri Pasha. He and Feisal rode off into the desert with their fifteen hundred soldiers.
In Mecca Bimbashi Mehmed Zia Bey, the acting governor and commandant, had no knowledge of these developments. But as tensions grew because of the British blockade and ensuing mutterings, he devised a defense, in case matters should reach the breaking point. He must hold three main Ottoman outposts in the holy city, he concluded: Hamidiye (the headquarters), Fort Jeyad (which was close by), and the Jiyad Barracks (located on the outskirts of town). But he continued to hope that it would not be necessary to implement the plan. The evidence suggests that when the crisis finally arrived, it took him by surprise.
It came not with a rush but by degrees, yet overwhelmed him nonetheless. On the afternoon of June 9, just as Abdullah, pistol hidden beneath his robe, was entering the palace in Taif for his verbal sparring match with the vali, “outlaws” blocked the Jeddah-Mecca road and cut the Jeddah-Mecca and Mecca-Taif telegraph lines. In Mecca itself “a number of armed men” could be seen “wandering about in the streets,” while others patrolled the surrounding hills. The acting governor sent men to repair the telegraph lines. He telephoned the grand sharif, asking for an explanation of the armed men. “They were simply47 the young men of the quarter who were strolling about to maintain the peace of the town,” the sharif told him. Not entirely clueless, the Turk brought in troops to defend the oven and granary upon which both fort and headquarters depended. And he sent an order to both fortress and barracks: If a battery at the fort fired three blank shots, the barracks should instantly send reinforcements from the Second Battalion, 130th Regiment.
Immediately after prayers at dawn the next morning, gunfire broke out in the streets of Mecca. “I called up the Emir and asked what all this meant,” the acting commandant reported. “Do something,” he is said to have implored the grand sharif, and Hussein is said to have replied rather ambiguously that he would. But not ambiguously enough; at last the acting commandant, realizing what he confronted, ordered that the three blank shots be fired.
The reinforcements started off from the barracks but immediately ran into a larger detachment of Arab soldiers. The Second Battalion, 130th Regiment, returned to its barracks. “I felt much grieved at this … our position in the city was very dangerous,” the acting commandant later reported. That was an understatement. Only twenty-two artillerymen occupied the fortress; they had among them only 325 rounds of ammunition. The previous night Hussein’s men had cut off their water so that the twenty-two had only a single cistern containing perhaps a day’s supply. As a result of the blockade, they had stockpiled very little food.
All that day the Arabs kept up continual firing at Hamidiye. The single detachment of soldiers protecting the bakery and granary returned fire, but the Arabs outnumbered and outgunned them. Increasingly desperate, the acting commandant appealed for help to Taif, not realizing that Ottoman forces there were under attack by Abdullah. He dispatched his personal servant with a plea for help. The Arabs captured this unfortunate man immediately. Eventually the acting commandant tried the barracks once more, this time by telephone, but “the line was cut.” Meanwhile the heavy guns at the fort remained strangely mute. “I tried to communicate with the fort but no sooner did the private pass out of the door than he was shot.” His own soldiers at the granary and the bakery had only eight to ten rounds of ammunition left.
So passed the first day of the Arab Revolt in Mecca. On the second day, June 11, the fortress at last commenced a bombardment of the ground near and about Hamidiye. But by then the Turkish position was dire. Slowly but inexorably and from all sides, the Arabs advanced upon Ottoman headquarters. They occupied adjoining buildings. Others pumped petroleum onto the great wooden gates. They would burn their way in. Soon flames were licking at the structure. The Turks had no water to put the fire out. They had run out of ammunition. The acting commandant “was overpowered by the smoke … in a fainting condition.” Then he saw a representative of the grand sharif, striding toward him through the chaos. He “heard him speak to me in reassuring terms … A minute later I was being led to the Emaret as a prisoner in the hands of the rebels.” The first and most important part of the siege of Mecca was finished, and the Arab rebels were victorious.
It was only a first gust but in mid-June 1916 Britons and Arabs together had loosed a desert wind, a sirocco, upon the Middle East. From Mecca and Medina and Taif it would reach over and down to Basra and up and across to Damascus. Palestine would feel it too, but already a countervailing storm was brewing there. Some of the very same men working the Arab bellows had sufficient strength and purpose to pump a second pair as well. They would stir up a different storm. We turn at last to the subject of London and Zion.