T.E.Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, lived in this house in old Yanbu, on the Red Sea. It is boarded up now, surrounded by rubble and the crumbling, graffiti-smeared ruins of other once elegant buildings, ornate woodwork peeling off the balconies. Only a small plaque acknowledges the house’s famous former resident.
In most other countries in the world, this building would be a major tourist attraction, but it’s not easy to be a tourist in Saudi Arabia. They don’t encourage it, let alone promote it, especially to westerners. But I was lucky enough to be invited there to talk to students about my children’s books and TV series (yes, the Bananas in Pyjamas made it to Saudi Arabia too). I filled in lots of forms and was allowed in for a few fascinating weeks.
On one of my weekends off, my hosts offered me a choice of excellent diving in the Red Sea, or an archaeological trip into the desert. I know I can dive in other places (and usually don’t), so the history tour was far too good to pass up. It turned out to be absolutely the right choice.
We set out from Yanbu in 4x4s driving in convoy, at first on excellent roads, then sometimes on rough rocky tracks with wild camels wandering across them. I always thought Arabian desert would be all sand dunes, but this terrain was rugged, rocky and mountainous. And hot enough for thirst to kill you very fast if you didn’t have an airconditioned 4×4 with an esky and a few cold (non-alcoholic) ones inside. I was reassured too to have a convoy – even on the good roads there was very little traffic, and a breakdown could have been disastrous.
In the course of a day we discovered abandoned mud villages 1000 years old, disused shepherd’s huts and the ruins of an Ottoman fort (maybe Lawrence and his chaps had a hand in ruining it). No effort was being made to preserve these relics, and I was even told plans were in train to bulldoze them since they were considered unslightly. Arabs want to see themselves as modern, progressive people and unfortunately that means neglecting their heritage. A great shame, I think.
Later, back in old England, I joined busloads of tourists visiting Lawrence’s grave in Moreton village, Dorset, outside the lovely St Nicholas Church, where his funeral was held. Moreton is very attractive, and makes a great play of its connection with Lawrence, but the dilapidated house in Yanbu was considerably more interesting.