The Wilderness of Zin

Under the guise of biblical archeology, a war strategy.

Sinai Peninsula (brown, naturey) 521 (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Sinai Peninsula (brown, naturey) 521
(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
It was 99 years ago, on October 29, 1913, that the Turks issued the permit that allowed the archeological survey of the Sinai to proceed. It was the beginning of a train of events that would determine the outcome of the First World War as it affected this part of the Ottoman Empire, known as Palestine. It can be considered as a small incident in the run-up to WWI which will be of interest to Israelis, to the British, to servicemen in the Royal Engineers and to archeologists, and the writer considers himself to come into all four categories.
There are four major dramatis personae involved, two of them quite famous, the others less so. Two were army officers and two archeologists.
The famous ones are Earl Kitchener of Khartoum and Broome, later British Secretary of State for War, and at that time General Officer Commanding the British Forces stationed in Egypt. The other one is Thomas Edward Lawrence, a young archaeologist working at Carchemish, later to be famous as the dashing Lawrence of Arabia and author of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The other soldier was Capt. Stewart Newcombe, in charge of the survey team of the Royal Engineers in Southern Palestine, and the other archaeologist Leonard C. Woolley of the British Museum, in charge of the dig at Carchemish, later to be better known as Sir Leonard Woolley, the excavator of Ur of the Chaldees. Woolley was then 32 years of age and his junior colleague at Carchemish was the young Lawrence, then only 24.
It all started in late 1912. Kitchener was stationed in Cairo. He and the War Office anticipated war with Germany, and that the Turks of the Ottoman Empire were likely to side with the Germans. If or when that happened, it would be necessary for the British to cross the Sinai to invade Palestine, in order to defend the Suez Canal, and if necessary to cross into Palestine and then strike up through Syria into Turkey itself. Kitchener realized that the army had no maps of the Sinai Desert, or at least nothing since the Jacotin maps of Napoleon’s army, dating from 1799.
As far as the Egyptian side was concerned, the Royal Engineers could survey that without trouble as the British were a peaceful occupying force in Egypt, but the Ottoman or Turkish side would be difficult to achieve without arousing the suspicions of the Turks.
In fact it would be necessary to get their permission and that would hardly be forthcoming.
AS A young lieutenant in the Royal Engineers, Horatio Herbert Kitchener had worked in Palestine on the Survey of Western Palestine, first under Claude Regnier Conder, also in the REs, and then with himself in charge, working under the auspices of the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF). Kitchener was a devout Christian and keen photographer and he had surveyed about one-third of the country in the 1870s.
He was commissioned again by the PEF in 1883, by which time he was a fluent Arabic speaker, to survey the Arava, before he went on to greater things in the Sudan and elsewhere. In 1912, Kitchener hit on the idea of getting the PEF to ask the Turkish government for permission to conduct an archeological survey of the “Wilderness of Zin” as the Bible calls it, as none had been done before. The idea was that the archeological work, carried out by serious PEF scholars, would be a cover for a military survey by a team of the Royal Engineers.
The PEF Committee, then consisting of a curious mix of clerics and military men, was persuaded and agreed to the idea. The clergymen were keen to investigate the route of the Israelites across the wilderness and thought the survey would throw light on the biblical record. The military men were more skeptical, but they knew the importance of the work. It would be a biblical expedition to “spy out the land.” The committee decided to appoint an Egyptologist, T.F. Peet, to do the work and they applied to the Turkish government for permission to carry out the survey.
Permission, curiously enough, was granted in late October 1913, but then a further problem arose.
As it happened, Peet was unable to take the assignment, and the committee turned to the British Museum for help. The assignment was not an agreeable one to most scholars, as it entailed working for many weeks in a hostile desert environment without full team support, sleeping under canvas and on short rations. The head of the British Museum, Sir Francis Kenyon, father of the famous archeologist Kathleen Kenyon, was a Bible scholar and interested in the project. Just at that time the museum had two young archeologists available.
The British Museum dig at Carchemish, in northern Syria on the banks of the Euphrates, was closing down for the winter season and the two professional archeologists, Woolley and Lawrence, were on a retainer of half a pound sterling a day, in place of the full pound they were getting while on active digging.
Francis Kenyon had the bright idea of asking them to undertake the work at Sinai, and they agreed. This would save the museum giving them a retainer for doing very little while waiting for Carchemish to reopen next season, which in fact it only did briefly, due to the start of the war, for it was by now late 1913. Both the young men were fluent Arabic speakers and used to roughing it under canvas, and they accepted the commission to work in the Sinai, though they pointed out that they were not Semitic scholars.
The Palestine Exploration Fund, since its inception in 1865, when it directed Capt. Charles Warren to start the survey of Jerusalem, always had members of the clergy who wanted further investigation of biblical matters, and their mandate to Woolley and Lawrence was: 1. To follow the route of the Israelites in “the Wilderness of Zin”; 2. To examine the Darb el-Shur, or Way of Shur, to see if it was used by the Israelites; 3. To collect place names to see if any of the Bible names could be identified; 4. In particular, to investigate Ain Kadeis, the probable site of Kadesh Barnea, where the Israelites had spent nearly 40 years waiting to go up into Canaan.
The two archeologists had no, and were given no, inkling of the military intelligence aspect of their work, but Woolley was later to write, “We were to follow in the footsteps of Moses, in an expedition headed by a Sapper officer, making a map of Turkish Sinai, and we were the red herrings!” The PEF having gained the agreement of the Turks, the work could start. Capt. Stewart Newcombe was in place with five other RE surveyors ready to start on Christmas Day 1913 from his base camp 15 miles south of Beersheba. Woolley and Lawrence arrived from the north in early January 1914. Newcombe had little inkling about the archeologists and thought he was to meet two venerable old scholars, who could hardly be expected to work in tents, and so he was pleasantly surprised to find two keen young men used to roughing it under canvas and under desert conditions.
To them it was also a surprise to find they would be working under a military man, as they were professionals working for the British Museum in conjunction with the PEF, both bodies devoted to scholarly work. But it seems that the three of them got on very well together, enjoying each other’s company and respected each other’s work. As mentioned above, at that time neither Woolley nor Lawrence had any idea that they were being used as “red herrings,” which they might have resented, had they known it.
THEIR TASK was daunting. The engineers and the archaeologists were to map an area stretching from just south of Beersheba, the southern end of Conder’s Survey in the north, to Kitchener’s survey of the Arava in the east, and to the line of the Turkish-Egyptian Border Commission in the west, a huge, triangular area of about 4,500 square miles, nearly 12,000
or, as the newspapers would say, nearly three million football pitches! Their chief reference point was to be the Tomb of Aaron (Gebel Haroun), near Petra, which was painted white and visible from 50 miles away, a landmark that was to be useful to Lawrence at a later occasion, when he escaped from Aqaba.
Captain Newcombe, known it seems as “skinface” (because his skin peeled in the sun) was an extremely dedicated worker, spending his day in the field (a pretty arid one) with his men, and his nights under canvas plotting his maps by the light of candles.
When he was joined by Woolley and Lawrence, he says that they spent many nights talking of the Bible account of the Israelites and how unlikely they were to find any traces of them. Woolley of course was something of a Bible scholar, he later wrote a good book on Abraham, based on his discoveries at Ur of the Chaldees, where he also claimed to have found evidence of Noah’s Flood in the eight-foot deep layer of alluvial mud.
The PEF had persuaded Woolley to take on an assistant called Yusuf Canaan, who had worked with the PEF on digs in Palestine, and Woolley himself brought along an assistant from Carchemish called Dahoum, who was paid the tiny sum of 12 piastres, or 1/9d, per day. Both proved to be useful for trekking and taking photographs.
What the archaeologists found was remarkable, but it was hardly what Moses had recorded. They met Newcombe on January 9 and started work immediately.
Supplies came to base camp from Cairo but the equipment was primitive, Newcombe complaining about the poor quality of the new theodolites that his men had to use. Woolley and Lawrence had expected a fully equipped base; they found hardly anything on site and luckily had brought their own cameras and squeeze material (a kind of papier mâché to copy the inscriptions). From the beginning they saw and recognized the Sinai as an area of Byzantine remains and took note of the careful water management schemes, mainly shallow dams, devised by its inhabitants, later to be known as the Nabateans.
They discovered several major sites such as Khalasa (Elasa or Halutza), which even today has not been excavated, and El-Auja (today Nitzana), and found them all to be Byzantine towns or settlements. Later Lawrence wrote to a friend, “not a sign or smell of Israelites wandering about here...
we are transforming a hillfort of the Amorites into a Byzantine Monastery, sounds almost impious, doesn’t it?” It seems that both Woolley and Lawrence felt rather apologetic at finding nearly everything to be Byzantine and nothing Israelite.
They got to Ain Kadeis by January 25, having lost their baggage camels and travelling on foot till January 28, when they met up again with the Engineers. In the meantime Newcombe had asked the Egyptian Police Camel Corps to find them but without success. Lawrence said, “it shows how easy it is in an absolutely deserted country to defy the government.”
They found Ain Kadeis, supposed to be Kadesh Barnea, to be a very poor place, and said it was impossible for the Israelites to have lived there for 40 years, but later Lawrence got to like it and even said he wished they could have stayed there for many years, like the Israelites. But Woolley wrote, “it says wonders for the Israelites that they left Moses alive, after he brought them to a place like this!” They wrote some interesting footnotes, often pooh-poohing the conventional wisdom, like this one about Ain Kadeis, and I quote: “Kadeis is a water scoop or bailer in Hejaz Arabic, nothing to do with ‘holy!’” In fact, Woolley and Lawrence made a very important discovery near this place Ain Kadeis. They located an impressive fortress of an early date at a site not far away called Ain el-Guderat, where there was very abundant water and good pasture, and where four roadways converged out of the Kossaima plain. That site was more likely to be have been the Kadesh Barnea of the Israelites. Today that impressive fortress is dated to the Israelite Monarchic period, later than the Children of Israel, but nevertheless a place where some nomadic peoples could have settled for a longer period.
At that time it was often said that the climate in the Sinai had changed over the centuries, and that perhaps in the time of the Children of Israel it had been wetter and more able to support large numbers of nomads. That is an argument one still hears all the time, even today. Well, Woolley and Lawrence put that one to bed.
They declared quite categorically they saw no evidence of a wetter period, basing their conclusion on the frequency of deep wells, with no evidence of higher levels in the stonework, and also the many early stone-cut cisterns, which showed no signs of having been fuller in the past then they were in 1914.
On February 8, Woolley and Lawrence split up. Woolley and Yusuf Canaan went north to survey Avdat, and later to Kurnub, which today is called Mamshit or Mampsis, which they also plotted and surveyed.
Woolley did a very thorough survey and detailed report of Avdat, not knowing when he was there that the French Fathers had done some of that work 10 years earlier. But he did make important discoveries, and in particular he saw that the main church had indeed been built on top of, and out of, a large temple of the Roman style, built by the Nabateans as a temple to Obodas I, their king and god, both in his lifetime and after death. Woolley recognized all this, and he also discovered important rock-cut tombs, and all this in the space of a few days. He also gives a full report and plan of Kurnub (Mamshit) and its churches. He and Yusuf Canaan then returned to Beersheba and on February 22 Woolley left for Gaza and Aleppo.
Lawrence, however, was then still in the Arava. He had gone to Aqaba with Newcombe, where the local governor was suspicious of their activities, saying he had received no orders to allow them to work. It seems that Kitchener, when telegraphed, forbade Newcombe to proceed, not wishing to arouse any suspicions.
Lawrence, however, ignored the governor, who had refused to give him a boat to cross over to Gezirat Faraon (Pharaoh’s Island). Lawrence, with typical bravado, borrowed two 10-gallon water drums from Newcombe and paddled across the half-mile or so to the island.
He checked over the encircling walls, describing them in detail, but could not date the very rough stonework. On his return he was arrested by one Turkish policeman (though Lawrence afterwards claimed it was a troop!) but managed to escape and flee across to Wadi Musa, using the Tomb of Aaron as his marker, and to Petra. As later recorded, there he was more interested in the geology of the colored rocks than the tombs. He was desperately short of money, and went up and down the Sik in Petra till he eventually met two well-dressed ladies on horseback, Lady Evelyn Cobbold and a companion, and asked them for a loan. Lady Evelyn was appalled to see this dirty-looking Arab beggar approach them but was then fascinated when he addressed them in perfect Oxford English. He was thus able to borrow from the two visiting ladies enough for his train fare from Ma’an to Damascus, arriving there on February 28. So Lawrence had spent seven weeks in the “Wilderness of Zin,” and Woolley six weeks. They eventually met up in Aleppo on March 2, 1914.
NEWCOMBE AND his men continued in the Negev till mid May 1914, unmolested by the Turks. He had been in the field for nearly four and a half months.
Shortly after completing his work he went to see Woolley and Lawrence, who were back temporarily in Carchemish. Kitchener had forbidden him to go, as he did not want Newcombe to tell the archeologists about the true nature of their work, but Kitchener relented when he learnt that they could show Newcombe details of the Istanbul-to-Baghdad railway, which was being built by German engineers. It was probably then that the archeologists finally heard that they had been used to cover the military survey work, what Lawrence later called “a whitewash,” and of which Woolley had said that they had been used “as red herrings.”
Of course Woolley and Lawrence had been unable to meet the expected deadline of April 1914 set by the PEF, but they both returned to London and reported in person to the PEF Committee in July of that year.
It was then that the question of publication was raised, and it was decided to publish the work in the two PEF Annuals for 1914 and 1915. Woolley and Lawrence started on the work and got the assistance of several scholars to read the inscriptions. Marcus Tod of Oriel College, Oxford, did the Greek ones, Dr.
Arthur Cowley of the Bodleian the Aramaic or Nabatean ones, and Prof. David Samuel Margoliouth the Arabic inscriptions. The maps were worked on by the Royal Geographical Society and, of course, the War Office, but as they were classified “secret,” they were not published until well after the war in 1921.
In August 1914, war broke out and, at the end of October, as predicted, Turkey joined the German side against Great Britain and France. Woolley was commissioned into the Artillery while Lawrence continued working on the material, but not for long.
Lawrence, being rather short, was not at first accepted for the army but joined Military Intelligence, and was immediately ordered to prepare a road report on the Sinai, for which he was eminently suited. In November, Lawrence was sent to Cairo and shortly afterwards so was Woolley, both now working for Military Intelligence. They had to relinquish work on the manuscript, which was handed over for editing to D.G. Hogarth of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, who had been Woolley’s predecessor at Carchemish.
Hogarth had been Lawrence’s professor in archeology and Arabic at Oxford, and he had also been in Military Intelligence at Cairo for a short time.
Hogarth finished the work of editing in April 1915, and the PEF Committee then ordered 1,000 copies to be printed, but without the map, which was still on the secret list.
The work was remarkably interesting and even important from a geographical and archeological point of view, and eminently readable. It contained many photographs which are valuable today for giving us a picture of what the Negev was like 99 years ago. Many of the inscriptions collected by Woolley and Lawrence were of first importance, especially as many have by now disappeared.
LAWRENCE WENT on to greater things in leading the Arab Revolt against the Turks, and Stewart Newcombe was with him in organizing the Arab militias.
Woolley was captured by the Turks on a spy mission in 1916 and remained a prisoner of war till 1918.
As predicted, the Turks entered the war on the German side, and later, in 1914, they massed along the Sinai border. German troops set up their headquarters in Jerusalem and from there directed 100,000 Turkish troops, massed around Beersheba, to strike out to the Suez Canal, a mainstay of British imperialism and control of the East, all as predicted by Kitchener and the War Office.
Earl KitchenerEarl Kitchener
The attempt to reach the canal failed, but the German commander, General Kress von Kressenstein, was not deterred and attacked again in the summer of 1916 with 50,000 Turkish shock troops reinforced with German machine gunners and heavy artillery. The attack was repulsed again, but the danger remained and Kitchener realized that a bold move was necessary to remove this threat from the Turks and Germans in Palestine.
The commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, Gen. Sir Archibald Murray, was ordered to attack Gaza and so to open up the road to Jerusalem. Sadly Kitchener had drowned on the HMS Hampshire in 1916, on a mission to seek Russian aid, but the plan went ahead, and in December 1916 the British forces moved out of Cairo. It was the Kitchener plan that a crushing victory in the East might turn the tide in Europe, where things were not going well, with British and French troops still pinned down by the Germans on the Western Front.
As far as the military maps go, they were of course used by the British Expeditionary Forces in Egypt, under Murray, who crossed the Sinai with their aid and attacked El Arish and Rafah, which put up little resistance. But Gaza was different, it was ringed with trenches and armaments and the British attack was repulsed with heavy losses. Murray called up more reinforcements and arms so as to launch another attack before the hot and dry season, and it was launched in April, with the same disastrous result. The British government was furious with Murray, and prime minister David Lloyd George dismissed him and called on “the Bull,” as Gen.
Edmund Allenby was nicknamed, to restore the reputation of the British Army and send a suitable Christmas present home to the government.
Allenby arrived in June 1917 and immediately took his headquarters into the harsh Sinai, away from the brothels of Cairo. Word came that Lawrence and his Arab troops had taken Aqaba, which Lawrence knew from his previous escapades there. Allenby now studied the PEF maps, and other historical and biblical literature, it seems, and formulated a new plan. It would be useless to launch another frontal attack on Gaza, so he would make as if to attack it, but rather seize Beersheba first.
To fool the enemy he planted a secret document, dropped by an escaping British scout, with secret papers of the proposed Gaza attack, and this was duly found by Turkish scouts and relayed to their headquarters.
Furthermore, a heavy aerial bombardment of the Gaza defenses gave the impression that the British were ready to attack there again.
As a result, Turkish forces moved out of Beersheba to reinforce Gaza for the imminent attack, leaving only token forces behind. Allenby then ordered a lightning nighttime attack on the town, which was seized, and the remaining Turkish forces fled. Allenby then turned on to Gaza and with the help of planes and tanks (never before used in this part of the world) managed to occupy it within a week. The enemy Turks and Germans fled north, hotly pursued by Allenby and his men, who cleared the enemy from such famous archeological sites as Tel Jammah, Tel el Hesi and Tel Gezer. But Allenby’s main aim was to cut up to Jaffa and in particular to Jerusalem, which he had been made to promise as a Christmas present to Lloyd George and his government.
After the defeats in the South, panic seized the German-Turkish headquarters in Jerusalem and their troops were ordered to retreat, taking anything of value with them, and the city was left helpless and undefended, manned only by its halfstarved inhabitants. By December 9, the mayor of Jerusalem was left in charge and, carrying a large white bedsheet, he marched out of the city, hoping to surrender it to the first British soldiers he met, who turned out to be two astonished British Catering Corps sergeants out looking for fresh eggs for the troops’ breakfast.
Two days later, Allenby arrived and, dismounting from his horse and removing his military helmet as a sign of humility and peaceful intention, marched into the Jaffa Gate to the welcoming sounds of the bells of all the church and clock towers of the city. By the following year, after their victory at Megiddo, the whole of Palestine was in the hands of the British.
After the war, Lawrence became adviser to Emir Feisal and the Arabs in general, but not unfriendly at all to the Jews (he supported the Balfour Declaration), and he never returned to archeology. By the time of his death by motorcycle accident (or was it suicide?) in 1935, his was a famous name, and the PEF decided to reprint the work, entitled The Wilderness of Zin, in 1936, the recent death of Lawrence giving it wide publicity. It was Stewart Newcombe who in 1935 had recommended to the PEF that this second edition be published.
Woolley, after his release from POW camp in Turkey, returned directly to work for the British Museum and to the excavations at Carchemish. He worked there for two more seasons, completing the excavations in 1920, and then went on to dig at Ur of the Chaldees, where he achieved worldwide fame by uncovering the marvelous golden treasures of the Royal Cemetery.
Most of the artifacts of this early period, about 2200 BCE, are now in the British Museum, carefully restored. It was a monumental achievement, for which Woolley was knighted. He also participated in World War II, as archeological adviser to the Civil Affairs Directorate. He was instrumental in influencing General Eisenhower’s staff to issue orders to prohibit looting and damaging of buildings of historic value in the liberated territories.
Woolley died in 1960 at the age of 80.
Capt. Stewart Newcombe, or Col. Newcombe as he became, died in 1956. He was a remarkably modest man who, having participated in important events with Lawrence and others, always, as a colleague recorded, hid his light under a bushel, and let others take the limelight. It was he, after all, who had made a success of the Wilderness of Zin survey, and it is pleasing to see that the authors dedicate their work to him, with the Biblical quotation: who showed them “the way wherein they must walk and the work that they must do,” as Jethro says to Moses (Exodus 18:20).
It is fitting to conclude with a little incident from Woolley’s memoirs relating to his postwar work at Carchemish in the last seasons of 1919 and 1920.
At that time Woolley was recruiting local labor for the dig, which was difficult because the local sheikhs, many of whom he knew personally from his previous work there, were now unwilling to work with the British. Why? Because in 1919 the Turks were still skirmishing against the French in northern Syria, and the sheikhs were under orders not to cooperate with the French, or their allies the British.
Woolley needed the men for his dig so he called a meeting with the sheikhs, who agreed to come to show their respect for him. Woolley reports as follows: “After lengthy discussions, I said, ‘Right, you are under orders to fight for the Turks, but what are you fighting for?’ To which they replied with glib catchwords, ‘For the Turkish government and for liberty!’ ‘Exactly,’ I answered, ‘and I have come here to dig for the British Museum and for archeology. Tell me, which is greater, the British Museum or the Turkish government?’ and ordinary politeness obliged them to say ‘the British Museum.’ ‘And which is the greater thing,’ I continued, ‘Liberty or archeology?’ They had not the least idea of the meaning of either word, both strange to their vocabulary, but they did know their manners; ‘Archeology, by God!’ they cried in chorus, and so I was able to dig in peace for another year.” ■The writer is a Senior Fellow, W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.