He also chose to enter on foot in order to contrast British ways and attitudes to those of the Germans: in 1898 Kaiser Wilhelm II visited Jerusalem, entering upon a horse and accompanied by all the accoutrements of the German military, including mounted cavalry wearing spiked helmets.
For generations, Jerusalem had been the goal of Crusader armies and the dream of schoolboys, but only the first wave of Crusaders got there at all—and they were expelled within a century. As part of the third wave of Crusaders, King Richard the Lion-Hearted caught a glimpse of the Holy City twice, but strategic and diplomatic considerations meant he had to turn around before he could draw closer. When Saladin, his great adversary, was finally in a mood to negotiate, they agreed that Richard and his army would simply depart. No subsequent Crusader got any closer.
And then suddenly, more than 700 years after King Richard went home, the Ottoman Army withdrew from Jerusalem and the British Army entered the Holy City.
In terms of the horrible slaughter on the western front, this victory on December 11, 1917, was unimportant. But it was of immense symbolic significance for a people weary of war and in desperate need of good news. Every church bell in Great Britain rang.
General Sir Edmund Allenby—known to his friends as “The Bull” because he was a large, burly fellow—gave assurances to all religious groups in the city that their holy places would be respected. After the ceremonial entrance, General Allenby put Muslim soldiers from his Indian troops in charge of patrolling the city and keeping the peace among its mostly Muslim population at that time.
This is how many of us like to think of this event in 20th Century history: The kindly, benevolent, fair-minded English-speaking peoples defeat the militaristic, arrogant, goose-stepping Germans—along with their Turkish allies—and spread the influence of Anglo-Saxon justice a little bit further. This is certainly how I like to think of it. My father served in the American Army Air Corps in India during World War II, at a Royal Air Force base outside of Calcutta. He flew in little two-engine airplanes—DC 3s—over the Himalayas to deliver supplies to China. It was the adventure of his life. The British officers there must have been kind to this young man who had never before left the Midwest, for Dad always spoke highly of the British military.
I also spent a year in England during college and was fortunate to be adopted by an English family for the Christmas holidays. Mom and Dad came to visit in the spring, and Major Hyde was pleased to meet Colonel Irvine, who was a British Army doctor during the war, and whose wonderful family had taken me in.
General Allenby did his best after the end of hostilities to bring peace to the British Empire’s new and wholly unexpected possession. Though they were not exactly allies, Great Britain and the Ottoman Empire had traditionally been on quite friendly terms. British policy was to support this ancient polyglot empire as a barrier between Russia and the long route to India.
But when World War I broke out, the Ottoman Empire could not decide what to do. While Sultan Mehmed V favored remaining neutral, his senior advisors thought neutrality would be impossible. After much back-and-forth, the majority, led by Minister of War Enver Pasha, decided that the Axis Powers had more to offer and were the most likely to win. Thus the Ottoman Empire attacked Russia, its ancient enemy, on October 29, 1914, thereby entering the war against Great Britain, as well.
When the war ended, Great Britain gained control of the fragments of the Ottoman Empire. One of few British subjects who knew much about this area was a most remarkable woman named Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell (1868 – 1926). She had explored and charted a great swath of Arabia, from remotest Syria to the waters of the Persian Gulf. She traveled well, usually with enough camels, servants, aides-de-camp and supplies to dine at table every evening off the finest porcelain with crystal wine goblets, engraved silver, linen napery and vintage wines. There was a reason for the show: She impressed the various Arab chieftains when she came a-calling and got good information. The maps she made were used by the British military during the war and were among the reasons for their success in the field—they had better maps than the Turks.
She fell in love with a British officer who died in the early days of the war, and though she was a boon companion to many and despite rumors of something between her and Colonel T.E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia), she never had another serious relationship.
After the war, she made Baghdad her home. She helped to organize elections, write a constitution, draw borders and found the Iraqi National Museum—even contributing items from her own personal collection. If you read a few years ago about a great museum in Baghdad that was looted during the recent hostilities, that was it. She was made a Commander of the British Empire for her efforts and is still fondly remembered by Iraqis; her grave site in Baghdad is well taken care of.
Then she had to watch the whole edifice of her efforts collapse. Around 1925, the Iraqis could not agree among themselves on a government and the British could not impose one. British promises during the war to Arabs, Jews and French that it could not fulfill made matters all the worse.
She summed up her experience as follows:
“”I suppose we have underestimated the fact that this country – Iraq – is really a mess of tribes which can’t as yet be reduced to any system. The Turks didn’t govern and we have tried to govern … and failed. … No one knows exactly what they – the people who live there – do want, least of all themselves, except that they don’t want us.””
I don’t think that anyone who has been there more recently has added anything more succinct or accurate.
We look to this part of the world as a source of endless frustration and, at the same time, inspiration. The lands mentioned in the Bible have lifted and broken our hearts for centuries. We dream of good and decent government, both at home and around the world. It is a good dream and it comes from the Middle East, from the events and stories and prophecies related in the Bible, from Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and, of course Jesus, the Prince of Peace.
No prophet is appreciated more in the Christian world than Isaiah, thanks to Handel’s Messiah. The following lines (Isaiah 9:6) inspire us every year at Christmas and Easter:
Though not set to music, line seven continues:
Elsewhere Isaiah prophesied:
Christians believe this shoot from the stock of Jesse, the father of David, was Jesus. He was of the house and lineage of David. His teachings, his life, his death, inspire us to this day—as does the city in which his work came to a climax and he was executed. His life and death are the events around which our lives revolve.
These lines tell us that there is a moral force behind and within the universe, working its way throughout history. It is an idea that provides comfort through thick and thin. We must admit that it is at times hard to believe, but it is even harder, if not disastrous, to disbelieve it. Perhaps every country, and the whole world, is really a mess of tribes which can’t as yet be reduced to any system of organization or administration. Perhaps the world order that was constructed in the second half of the twentieth century will collapse, and all the work of so many people before and after two world wars will seem to be in vain.
But whatever the case, we Christians continue to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, for peace on earth, for peace in our own divided society, having faith that God does have something to do with it all. At the end of each day, we trust in God’s Providence. How could we not?