Fire on the Desert: Conflict Archaeology and the Great Arab Revolt in Jordan, 1916-18

By Saunders, Nicholas J.; Faulkner, Neil | Antiquity, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Fire on the Desert: Conflict Archaeology and the Great Arab Revolt in Jordan, 1916-18


Saunders, Nicholas J., Faulkner, Neil, Antiquity


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Introduction

The archaeology of the First World War is not confined to the deep verticality of the Western Front's industrialised battlefields in France and Belgium. In the Middle East, in that part of the Ottoman Empire that is today southern Jordan, there exist vast areas transformed by war, and whose existence has only recently been recognised. These are not so much 90-year-old fossilised battlefields as 'conflict landscapes', defined by their horizontal nature and the palimpsest of meanings they embody. Their investigation offers a different perspective on the global conflict and provides insights into the clash between the kin-based tribalism of traditional societies and the industrialised modernity of Western democracies. It also yields valuable lessons for a multidisciplinary archaeology of twentieth-century conflict as it casts off the straitjacket of traditional 'Battlefield Archaeology'.

The archaeology of the First World War in this region preserves the desert signatures of that conflict and is entangled also with the Great Arab Revolt of 1916-18. These two events heralded the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the post-war reshaping of the Middle East and the eventual establishment of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The archaeological correlates of these momentous events lie scattered across the wadis and escarpments of southern Jordan. They are the material traces of the beginnings of modern guerrilla warfare as espoused by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence [1929] in Brown 2005: 275-84). This method of war, albeit reconfigured by modern technologies, still characterises this violently contested region from Gaza to Baghdad (Fisk 2007).

The relationship between guerrilla warfare, archaeology and politics in this region is also uniquely embodied by T.E. Lawrence himself. Having studied the Levant's Crusader castles first hand for his thesis at Oxford University, he excavated at Carcemish in northern Syria between 1911 and 1913, first with David Hogarth and then Leonard Woolley (Wilson 1990: 57-134), and spent several months on a survey expedition to the Sinai desert (Wilson 1990: 134-44). When war broke out in August 1914, Lawrence's experience of the Ottoman Middle East, together with his knowledge of Arabic, inspired and underpinned his role in British military intelligence. His lack of formal military training, unorthodox thinking and personal attachment to the Arabs would lead him to play an influential role in the events to come, and which are best known through his own account, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (2003) and as a romantic and enigmatic figure in David Leans 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia.

The conflict landscape of southern Jordan incorporated, and was partly defined by, the Hejaz Railway, which was built between 1900 and 1908 and ran from Damascus to Medina (Figure 1). Authorised by the ageing Sultan Abdiilhamit II, the railway had pan-Islamic appeal and substantiated his claim to the caliphal title by facilitating the annual Haj pilgrimage to Mecca (Landau 1971: 19-20; Quataert 2006: 98). It also had strategic significance, bypassing the British-controlled Suez Canal, giving direct access to the Red Sea (and thereby threatening British India) and allowing Ottoman troops to be rapidly deployed to the empire's distant and increasingly dissident Arabian territories. These strategic considerations were not lost on the 'Young Turks' who came to power in the revolution of 1908-9, nor on the Germans with whom they aligned themselves in November 1914.

Investigating battle-zone landscapes of the First World War reveals the complex challenges facing the archaeology of modern conflict (Saunders 2001, 2002). Studying the militarised landscapes of the Hejaz Railway adds further interdisciplinary dimensions, as it contributes to an industrial archaeology of railways (Tourret 1989) and to the historical archaeology of the Ottoman Empire (Baram & Carroll 2000).

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