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Top 10 Things Nobody Tells You About Lawrence Of Arabia

by Thiago Sanchez
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Although most people know him as the hero and leader portrayed in David Lean’s 1962 epic film Lawrence of Arabia, Thomas Edward Lawrence was a far more complex and intriguing character than many people realize. His individualism, eccentricity, and profound intellect brought him both trials and tribulations which most people are unaware of. Here are 10 surprising things about Lawrence of Arabia which you won’t learn by watching the movie.

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10 He Was Short


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Lawrence was a small man, yet Peter O’Toole, who portrayed him in the 1962 film, stood at a full 188 centimeters (6’2″). In reality, he was only 165 centimeters (5’5″) and therefore not the towering figure which he is often believed to be.

Even Robert Pattinson, having recently played Lawrence in Werner Herzog’s film Queen of the Desert, is far too tall at 185 centimeters (6’1″) to give a good idea of the man’s true height. Once again, this warps people’s perspectives.

Thanks to his diminutive size, Lawrence was known as “shortarse” among his colleagues. Even so, Lawrence reportedly had astonishing endurance and was improbably tough. Such strength has been attributed to a strong mental determination to overcome his unimpressive stature, spurred on by the fact that his brothers were much taller than he was.

9 He Might Have Been Gay


Lawrence’s sexuality is a sensitive matter that remains the subject of constant speculation. Some claim that his marriage proposal to Janet Laurie—an old family friend—is proof that he was heterosexual. Supposedly, he also had a mistress to whom he sent regular, secretive payments.

Others argue that Lawrence was probably gay, especially given his close relationship with Dahoum, an Arab water boy. Dahoum is often considered to be Lawrence’s “personal motive” for leading the desert revolt which Lawrence mentioned in his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Furthermore, his book was dedicated “to S.A.” These are the initials of Dahoum’s real name, Selim Ahmed, thus adding fuel to the speculation.

It is clear from such disagreement that nobody actually knows what Lawrence’s sexuality was. But it is an irrelevant factor when considering the achievements and flaws of this war hero.

8 He Built His Own House In His Family’s Garden


A perfect example of what made Lawrence an unusual person is the bungalow he built for himself in his family’s garden. As a student, he was an introvert who spent little time with his fellow pupils. Growing up with four brothers and both parents in a relatively small Victorian house wasn’t easy, either.

As a result, Lawrence and his father built a small, single-story house for him in the garden, where he could work in peace, away from his brothers and other distractions. During his time in this bungalow, he claimed to have pushed himself to the limits, once going 45 hours without food or sleep.

Both his family home and the house in the garden are still standing, proof that Lawrence did not go about his life the way most people do.

7 He Introduced Explosives To The Middle East


Photo credit: BBC

In 2016, we are all too familiar with the use of IEDs (“improvised explosive devices”) and suicide bombers in the Middle East, both of which are used by terrorists. Lawrence may have played a large role in giving such tactics to the terrorists.

With a man named Herbert Garland, Lawrence made widespread use of explosives to disrupt the Turkish railway lines in Arabia. This strategy had devastating effects and contributed massively to the success of the revolt. His ingenious ideas were used by Vietnamese generals during the war with America.

Since then, they have been copied by revolutionary groups and terrorists across the world. Perhaps that explains why the writings of Lawrence are on the recommended reading list of US forces engaged in combat in the Middle East.

6 He Walked Across Syria Alone


Photo credit: I Wonder and Wander

As a young man, Lawrence decided to walk the length of Syria alone—and he promptly did. Only 21 years old, he traveled over 1,600 kilometers (1,000 mi) on foot across the desert and through many of the world’s oldest cities, regardless of the dangers he faced. His reason for the trip was related to his university degree in history, so he spent his time photographing and studying crusader castles.

However, Lawrence did much more than look at castles. He learned about the political and geographic conditions of the region and the customs of the local people. In addition, he learned to speak Arabic. The things he discovered in Syria would be invaluable to his campaign to aid the Arab revolt. And the sheer audacity it took to walk across a dangerous, foreign country on foot speaks volumes about Lawrence as a man.

5 He Was Born Out Of Wedlock


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Being born to unmarried parents in the Victorian era was scandalous. But that is the story of Lawrence. His father, Sir Thomas Chapman, left a wife and four daughters to be with the family’s governess, Sarah Junner. They soon adopted the name, Lawrence. Once again, this put them in conflict with a deeply patriarchal Victorian society, which expected children to have the surname of their father.

Since Chapman never divorced his first wife, the Lawrence family moved around constantly to escape detection. As a result, all five sons were born in different countries. T.E. Lawrence was born in Wales. Since he grew up in England, his mother was Scottish, and his father was part Irish, T.E. Lawrence ended up as something of a combination of all the different countries that make up the United Kingdom.

4 He May Have Fabricated His Own Torture


Photo credit: The Telegraph

In Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence writes of being captured, tortured, and sexually assaulted by Turkish soldiers. These events, which reportedly took place in Deraa, were reproduced in David Lean’s film.

However, some people contend that this was entirely made up by Lawrence for a variety of reasons, both political and personal. Forensic analysis of the journal that Lawrence kept during the war suggests that he was not where he claimed to be when the torture took place.

However, it is known that torture, both orthodox and sexual, was a common practice in the Ottoman Empire, especially against captured officers like Lawrence. When Seven Pillars of Wisdom was published, topics such as sexual assault were taboo. Thus, his decision to include the passage would not have been taken lightly.

As with much of Lawrence’s life, the truth is unclear but remains hotly contested.

3 He Was Multilingual


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Lawrence was a polyglot. Having supposedly learned to read at age four, he started to learn Latin at six, displaying early signs of linguistic proficiency. Before age 30, he was fluent in French, German, Greek, Arabic, Turkish, Syriac, English, and Latin.

He translated Homer’s The Odyssey from ancient Greek to English—perhaps reflecting his own epic journeys—and this was subsequently published. Furthermore, he was part of the Arab delegation to the Treaty of Versailles after World War I, acting as a translator between the various heads of state. This role allowed him to speak personally with many of the world’s most powerful people, such as Woodrow Wilson, Georges Clemenceau, and David Lloyd George.

2 He Was A Photography Pioneer


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Few people are aware that Lawrence was an avid photographer, perhaps surprising for a man who was so often on the other side of the lens. Inspired by his father, Lawrence took photographs throughout his life—from class pictures at school to detailed images of archaeological finds in the Middle East.

Some of his photographs were very important because he was involved in a project to photograph and map large parts of uncharted Palestine. This material would become hugely important during World War I. Even after retreating from the public eye and joining the Royal Air Force, Lawrence became part of a recently founded School of Photography, where he excelled and developed new techniques for photographing planes.

1 He Hated Fame


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Lawrence hated his fame and could not stand the media attention he received. As one of the heroes of World War I, his achievements were widely praised. He became arguably the world’s first media celebrity, with the press constantly reporting on him.

Yet he wanted anonymity, even enlisting in the Royal Air Force under a fake name to get away from his fame. But within months, the press had discovered his identity and published it. Despite having written Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence didn’t have it published in his lifetime because he was desperate to avoid the attention it might bring him.

The reason for this aversion to popularity is believed to be a deep sense of guilt about his achievements. This was evident in his letters because he thought the Arab revolt was a failure. After all, the Imperial powers simply carved up the Middle East for themselves after World War I. So he considered himself to be a failure, despite public opinion to the contrary.

+ Further Reading

If you are still hungry for more information on Lawrence of Arabia and others like him, be sure to take a look at some of these earlier lists:

10 Reverential Biopics That Accidentally Insulted Their Subjects
10 Historical Battles Hollywood Got Completely Wrong
Top 10 Things The British Empire Got Right
10 Astounding Fish-Out-Of-Water Stories From History

Thiago is from a flat place with a big sky. Gotta fill all that sky with something, so he filled it with his dreams.

fact checked by Jamie Frater