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Cairo 1921: Ten Days that Made the Middle East: Cairo 1921: Ten Days that Made the Middle East
: C. Brad Faught
: Yale University Press
: 2022
: 277
:
: pdf (true), epub (true)
: 19.5 MB

The first comprehensive history of the 1921 Cairo Conference which reveals its enduring impact on the modern Middle East

Called by Winston Churchill in 1921, the Cairo Conference set out to redraw the map of the Middle East in the wake of the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The summit established the states of Iraq and Jordan as part of the Sherifian Solution and confirmed the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestinethe future state of Israel. No other conference had such an enduring impact on the region.

C. Brad Faught demonstrates how the conference, although dominated by the British with limited local participation, was an ambitious, if ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to move the Middle East into the world of modern nationalism. Faught reveals that many officials, including T. E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell, were driven by the determination for state building in the area to succeed. Their prejudices, combined with their abilities, would profoundly alter the Middle East for decades to come.

In the autumn of 1918, as the catastrophic First World War wound down along the Western Front, far to the east in the Syrian capital city of Damascus a rapturous celebration of the countrys newly won liberation from four centuries of Ottoman rule broke out. On the morning of 1 October the Australian Desert Mounted Corps, a part of General Edmund Allenbys combined British and imperial force, had led the way into the still-burning and chaotic city. Soon thereafter, and in a respectful nod to the impending arrival of the Arab Northern Army fighting in the name of Prince Faisal of the Hashemite dynasty of the Hejaz region of Arabia, the Australians would withdraw from the conquered city in order that the Arabs alone might enjoy their supreme and historic moment of triumph. And enjoy it they did. Amidst shouts of joy and piercing ululation, the vanquishing of the Ottomans was savoured throughout the city of 300,000 that had served historically as the focal point of pan-Arab society. Revelling in the experience also was the young British officer, Lieutenant-Colonel T.E. Lawrence. Having started out as an Arab Bureau deskman in Cairo early in 1915, the intrepid Lawrence had gone on to become Faisals chief military adviser. In the process he had become a heroic figure to most Arabs. Known to them as Aurens, later on that first day of October he drove into Damascus in his armoured Rolls-Royce, nicknamed Blue Mist. Wearing full Arab dress as usual, Lawrence was cheered by name, as he recalled later, covered with flowers, kissed indefinitely, and splashed with attar of roses from the house-tops.

On Sunday, 20 March 1921, a group of delegates attending the Cairo Conference on the post-war geopolitical future of the Middle East were invited by their host, the British colonial secretary Winston Churchill, to join him for a special outing. The conference delegates visit to Giza, the site of the ancient pyramids and the Sphinx, and a short drive from their hotel across the River Nile, had been designed by Churchill to provide them with a capstone event to celebrate their time together in the Egyptian capital. Though a few formal dinners remained, the visit to the pyramids would prove to be a social highlight of the ten-day conference.

One of the photographs taken that day (reproduced on the cover of this book) would later become an iconic image in the modern history of the Middle East. Directly in front of the Sphinx, the invited delegates sit alongside one another on camelback. To the left can be seen Churchills wife Clementine, wearing a flowing white ensemble and a pair of sunglasses, a kerchief sheathing her head; her husband is to her side, in a trench-coat, a homburg hat and sunglasses. Then comes the long-time Arabist Gertrude Bell, wrapped in a long coat with an unlikely fur collar; on her head is perched an elaborate feathered hat while in its shadow her steely eyes stare straight ahead at the camera. Next to her, the already legendary T.E. Lawrence sits diffidently atop his camel, wearing a suit and tie and a homburg, and looking distinctly unlike Lawrence of Arabia. Finally, beside Lawrence is Churchills bodyguard, Walter Thompson, squinting into the camera. Famous though the photo would become, the scene it depicts is nevertheless faintly ridiculous; at best decidedly touristic in the manner of the day. Of course, in spite of their attire, Bell and Lawrence, veterans both of long passages in the desert, had in the past spent many months riding camels, so the staginess of the moment would not have been lost on them. (Churchill and Clementine, on the other hand, had never ridden a camel before in their lives, and in the formers case this fact would soon be embarrassingly revealed.)

The Cairo Conference stands as a watershed moment in the modern political history of the Middle East. It was called by Churchill in the aftermath of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference and one of its cognates, held in 1920 at San Remo, Italy to determine the nature and scope of the newly created international Mandate System. At its conclusion the Cairo Conference would set in motion the creation of two new Arab states, Iraq and Jordan, as well as influence deeply the direction taken in the future by Mandatory Palestine, forerunner of the modern State of Israel. Although the Cairo Conference has been featured in a number of studies of the history of the Middle East in the early twentieth century, it has not before been examined comprehensively in the manner attempted by this book. Recently, as I was finishing work on a biography of General Edmund Allenby, I began to think that a close examination of the Cairo Conference might bring a new and valuable perspective on the events and purposes of those ten important days back in 1921. In Allenbys private letters, written in the spring of that year when he was British high commissioner in Egypt, he made a number of references to the expected arrival in Cairo of Mr. Winston Churchill for a special conference convened to concentrate upon the geopolitical future of the Middle East. Indeed, Allenby had been contacted by Churchill only a few weeks earlier asking for his recommendation as to the right hotel he would suggest the luxurious Semiramis in central Cairo in which to house the delegates and hold the conference sessions.

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Cairo 1921: Ten Days that Made the Middle East












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