On July 6, 1917, the disparate Bedouin tribes of the Arabian Peninsula joined forces against the Ottoman Empire in the Battle of Aqaba, made famous by the 1962 motion picture Lawrence of Arabia. Seeing a strategic opportunity to break open the war against the Ottomans, the British military sent T.E. Lawrence to advise Emir Faisal I, king of Greater Syria. But Lawrence did more than just provide counsel: he was an active leader in the attack. The battle represented a turning point in the war in the Middle East, and the story and images of Lawrence on camelback with Bedouin cavalry charging across the desert have captivated the public imagination ever since.
image credit: Lowell Thomas. Public domain.
Thursday marked the centennial of the Battle of Aqaba, and antiquarian bookseller Maggs Bros. Ltd. is exhibiting material relating to Lawrence and his exploits while also celebrating the firm's move to 48 Bedford Square, a stone's throw away from the British Museum.
"Lawrence is a fascinating target for the book collector," said Ed Maggs, managing director for the company. "To have written two books, translated a few extra, and to have a bibliography of some 8000 items, is remarkable." Admirers and collectors are drawn to the romantic wartime figure, whose "dash, brio, and unconventionality of the Arab Revolt was in stark contrast to the clumsy mechanised brutalities of the Western Front," said Maggs. "He was painfully aware that the dream of complete independence for the Arab nation or nations that he was pitching to the Arabs was not deliverable because of the existence of the Sykes-Picot treaty, but he went to great lengths after the war to compensate for this."
Others connect with Lawrence because of his ability to keep cool under pressure. "He consciously kept his emotional core closely guarded, while subjecting himself to pretty scorching self-examination of his motives and his being," Maggs explained. "There are few people of his period who were so self-aware and so eloquent on the subject of their own failings: as a model for the postmodern male, he led from the front."
Entitled To Aqaba, the exhibition features items from various moments of Lawrence's life. Highlights include a 1919 pencil portrait of Lawrence by Welsh artist Augustus John and the bloodstained map Lawrence carried with him on his walking tour of Syria in 1909. A unique proof copy of Lawrence's best-selling Seven Pillars of Wisdom includes an inscription from Lawrence to his literary agent, Raymond Savage. Notes prepared by Winston Churchill, who addressed mourners at Lawrence's funeral in 1935, reads, "What a tragedy it is that we have not got Lawrence with us to settle up Palestine. He alone could have done it and everybody would have taken his decision."
image credit: Maggs Bros. Ltd.
Maggs also reports that he and his team have adjusted perfectly to the new location. "We're loving our new digs, and it's been a very easy transition to the more bookish milieu of Bloomsbury, where we're surrounded by publishers, agents and academics: on one side we have Bloomsbury Publishing, on the other we have Yale University Press. Our first walk in customer, just a few minutes after we opened for the first time, was a charming man whose wife, a successful novelist, was having a meeting at Bloomsbury," enthused Maggs. "The building itself is magnificent and we've done (in all humility) a first rate job of restoration of a first rate building. It is something of a palace of rare books, and I encourage people to come and visit." The firm is retaining its impeccable shop in London's Mayfair for the time being.
We all wish Maggs Bros. many happy years in Bloomsbury. To Aqaba will be open to the public through July 14th. For more information, contact Maggs Bros. Ltd. here.