Shifting Sands: Lawrence of Arabia and the Great Arab Revolt

4 mins read
Lawrence found his army uniform too uncomfortable to wear in the desert. He found Arab clothing ‘cleaner and more decent’.

Shifting Sands is an exhibition about T E Lawrence, probably known to most of us as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. The title inevitably conjures up pictures of desert sands whipped up into fierce sandstorms by violent winds. There is, however, a subtler subtext, linked to Lawrence’s mindset, to the shifting sands of his personality. Both of these meanings are fully explored in this relatively small, but densely packed exhibition.

The exhibition is housed upstairs in the National Civil War Centre in Newark. There is a large window display as an invite to the public. This comprises a huge title image with the iconic photograph of Lawrence in Arab dress. Another large photograph shows Lawrence on one of his beloved Borough motorcycles; he owned seven Borough Superior S100s, and an eighth was on order when he crashed in 1935, later dying from his head injuries.

This was one side of Lawrence – his need for speed; the SS100 designation indicated that the bike had been tested at 100mph. The last of these Borough machines, appropriately enough, forms the focus of this entry display.

The exhibition is spread over three rooms, which are linked together with intermediary material. Two large, curving panels divide the first room, and these are wallpapered with huge, topographic images. They provide context for the material displayed in each section


The first section of the exhibition covers Lawrence’s troubled early life and the intellectual passions of his early manhood: in particular, his interest in Gothic architecture, his venture into archaeology, and the beginnings of his love affair with the Middle East.

There is a copy of a large brass rubbing by Lawrence, which shows his interest in the Gothic. Lawrence carried this interest into his undergraduate years at Jesus College, Cambridge, during which time he travelled to France and Syria in order to research the Crusader castles that were the subject of his thesis.

So we can already see Lawrence’s interests beginning to focus on the Arab world. Indeed, his intellectual interests went on to be captured by a strain of Orientalism, that fascination of Western Europe with the mysterious ‘Other’ that was the Middle East.

This increasing interest in the Middle East went hand-in-hand with a growing engagement with archaeology. Under the patronage of D G Hogarth, the Curator of Archaeology at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, Lawrence travelled to Palestine to work as an archaeologist. Having spent time at Jbail (Byblos) learning Arabic, he moved on to undertake fieldwork at Carchemish, in what is now northern Syria, both with Hogarth and the Syria, both with Hogarth and the renowned Leonard Woolley.

A case of finds from these excavations is included in the exhibition, as well as copies of early texts produced for the Palestine Exploration Fund, to which Lawrence contributed. There are also some small watercolour drawings of finds that show the competence of Lawrence’s hand.

Gordon Collins on placement at the National Civil War Centre from Leicester University arranges the robe worn by Lawrence for a 1919 publicity shot. Now on display in Newark at the National Civil War Centre. More info Richard Darn 0775 367 0038..
Gordon Collins from the National Civil War Centre arranges a robe worn by Lawrence for a 1919 publicity shoot.


As we move into the second part of this first room, the exhibition begins to explore the roots of early 20th-century conflict in the Middle East. Germany was trying to expand her influence in the region, and Britain sought to maintain and even extend her holdings in the area; all this against the backdrop of a declining Ottoman Empire.

One panel examines the concurrent internal conflicts in the Arab world, where there was much the Bedouin – between the settled the Bedouin – between the settled and the nomad.  It was this gap that the British sought to exploit, and they went on to encourage what became known as the Great Arab Revolt. Pictures of some of the main personalities of the conflict add a human touch to this hugely influential movement.

The main focus of this section of the exhibition, however, is a full-scale representation of a Bedouin tent. It comes complete with a camel saddle, carpets, and cushions; and a platter with food bowls, drinking cups, and a coffee pot, all intricately chased. There are even keffiyehs (Arab headdresses) to try on.

Section of blown up railway line from the ambush on a supply train led by Lawrence and featured in the 1962 David Lean film.
Section of blown-up railway line from a train ambush led by Lawrence and featured in the 1962 David Lean film.



A railway line painted on the floor takes us into the second room, which focuses on the Great Arab Revolt. Little explosions on the line give the dates of attacks on the Hijaz Railway, the supply line of Turkish forces in the Arab lands. Here archaeology and war come together, as modern conflict archaeology seeks to understand the material remains of that particular conflict.

A major driving-force behind the exhibition was the work of the Great Arab Revolt Project (GARP), conducted under the auspices of Bristol University, and led by Nicholas Saunders and MHM Editor Neil Faulkner. GARP undertook nine seasons of excavations in Jordan, and some of their finds are displayed in this room, including a small section of the railway line from one of the attacks on the Hijaz line.

One of the main exhibition pieces here is the reconstruction of Tooth Hill Camp, a camp used by Lawrence and British mobile units, which is furnished with GARP finds.

A fine model displays the ambush at Hallat Ammar on the Hijaz line on 19 September 1917. This was one of the series of attacks by Arab and British mobile forces on the supply route, and it reflects one of the conundrums of the First World War: the conflict between modern technology and traditional methods. The Bedouins’ understanding of the desert certainly overcame the modern, but light, mobile weapons such as the Lewis Gun and the Stokes Mortar certainly aided the latter, and full-scale replicas of these are on display.

Project archaeologists working in the Jordanian desert.
Project archaeologists working in the Jordanian desert.


The third room primarily explores Lawrence’s world after his exploits in the Middle East. It goes in search of the ‘real’ T E Lawrence. A series of images shows the man in various guises: as private Shaw in the Tank Corps and as Aircraftman Ross, among others.

This final section then explores the creation of the myth of Lawrence of Arabia, and no exhibition on Lawrence would be complete without a poster of the David Lean film. This room also touches on Lowell Thomas’s travelogues, in particular With Allenby in Palestine, which features Lawrence and helped propel him to fame in the US.

All in all, this is a deep and complex exhibition about the deep and complex man that was Lawrence of Arabia. Definitely worth a visit.

Keith Robinson

Shifting Sands: Lawrence of Arabia and the Great Arab Revolt
17 October-Summer 2017
National Civil War Centre, 14 Appletongate, Newark, NG24 1JY
01636 655 765

This review was featured in issue 76 of Military History Monthly.

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