The Antonius Lectures

Martin Kramer’s review of Studies in Arab History: The Antonius Lectures, 1978-87, edited by Derek Hopwood, published by Macmillan in association with St Antony’s College, Oxford and World of Islam Festival Trust. The review appeared in Middle Eastern Studies, July 1992, pp. 592-95.

In 1976 St Antony’s College, Oxford, instituted a series of annual lectures in memory of George Antonius, the author of The Arab Awakening. For many people, writes Edward Hodgkin in his introduction to this volume, the occasion ‘has become one of the most enjoyable events of the year, more eagerly awaited than Epsom, Wimbledon, Eights Week, or any other of the summer season’s fixed points’. Derek Hopwood, Director of the Middle East Centre at St Antony’s, has now collected eleven of the first twelve lectures in what Hodgkin calls a ‘sort of posthumous Festschrift‘ for Antonius. Hodgkin is undoubtedly right when he suggests that ‘George, who admired scholarship and enjoyed chat, would have greatly appreciated the chattiness as well as the scholarship displayed here’. It might also be suggested that Antonius would have been astonished to find the occasion devoted to his memory. He would not have been alone.

The first group of essays comprises three of the first four lectures. These were essentially statements of work in progress, and anticipated books which have since appeared. George Makdisi’s 1976 lecture, which inaugurated the series, anticipated his 1981 book, The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West. André Raymond’s 1978 lecture was an advance synopsis of the arguments made in his 1984 book, The Great Arab Cities in the l6th-l8th Centuries. And Afaf Marsot’s 1979 lecture covered a subject later developed in her 1984 book, Egypt in the Reign of Muhammad Ali. (The title of the lecture is identical to the title of a chapter in that book.) These early lectures have been overtaken by full-length treatments, a fact that might have been noted in the editor’s preface or in notes to the published lectures. Nevertheless, the inclusion of superseded pieces does bear witness to the early role of the Antonius Lectures as a forum for preliminary statements.

At this point, a transformation of the series occurred. On three consecutive occasions, anticipation yielded to retrospection. In 1981 Thomas Hodgkin told the story of his youthful friendship with Antonius, and recalled the colonial ambience of Palestine in the 1930s. In 1982 Magdi Wahba brilliantly evoked the Cairo of his youth, and especially the many foreign communities that disappeared long ago under the tide of revolution and nationalism. In 1983 Sir Harold Beeley remembered Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin’s wrestling with the Palestine problem, which Beeley had frequent occasion to witness from within Bevin’s chambers. The series then reverted from chat to scholarship. In 1984 Mahmoud Manzalaoui’s discriminating survey of the place of modern Egypt in English fiction held up art as its sole criterion, leading the lecturer to this observation about post-imperialist novelists:

A fact which the contemporary western sensibility finds it difficult to accept is that these more ecumenical post-imperialists simply do not understand the Egyptian mind—or indeed, the non-western conscience in general—at all well, compared to their Edwardian pro-consular predecessors, even when those were disposed to be unfriendly. It is yet another case of the bleeding heart not being of particular help as an aid to clear observation and understanding, which are so often replaced today by the limp handshake of uncomprehending sympathy.

(At which point, many a limp hand must have trembled.) The following year, Oleg Grabar offered a revision of his earlier assessment of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, this time according more significance to the Ka’bah and the Meccan haram as a source of inspiration. The lecture is yet another example of Grabar’s rare ability to transcend technicalities and to render the history of Islamic art and architecture intelligible to all. The next year Tarif Khalidi offered a brief excursion into the pious Islamic geography of Palestine. In the last of the lectures included here, Norman Daniels decided to avoid decision in the long-running Orientalism debate. Taken as a whole, the volume may be described either as wide-ranging or uneven. So it is with any lecture series.

In a category unto itself was the lecture given by Albert Hourani in 1977, entitled ‘The Arab Awakening Forty Years After’. Although delivered as the second lecture in the series, Hourani’s address served an inaugural function, dwelling as it did on the life work of Antonius himself. Although the piece made no explicit argument on behalf of the lecture series, it must be read as a justification for the perpetual commemoration of Antonius in such a place, in such a manner.

In this regard, it should be noted that the only link between Antonius and Oxford was a false claim made by Antonius’s American patron, Charles Crane, that Antonius held the highest degree from the university. In 1936 Crane wrote to President Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia University to persuade him to appoint Antonius to the Columbia faculty in Oriental languages and literatures:

He is of a fine old Greek family but says he cannot remember the time when he did not speak Arabic or French. He not only knows classical Arabic as well as any Arab, but speaks some ten or a dozen dialects of it. He has his doctor’s degree both from Oxford and the Sorbonne. His English is quite the best Oxfordian…. As he is neither Jew nor Arab he is untouched by the deepest racial problems and carries very successfully an objective outlook.[1]

Given Crane’s purpose, one readily appreciates why he disguised Antonius in Greek costume. But an Oxonian? Antonius held no doctorate from Oxford or the Sorbonne. He never attended either university. The apex of his education was a First in the Mechanical Sciences Tripos, obtained at King’s College, Cambridge. It hardly seems likely that Crane would have dared to misrepresent Antonius’s academic credentials in a letter of recommendation to a university president, and one is led to wonder whether Antonius somehow contributed to Crane’s confusion. But then there is ample testimony that by his very manner Antonius seemed to be other than he was. Thomas Hodgkin quotes one of his own letters of 1933, in which he described Antonius as ‘a man with rather the manner of a young fellow of All Souls’. If he possessed the manner, then why not the diploma? And would not The Arab Awakening have earned Oxford’s highest degree? (H.A.R. Gibb, newly elected to the Laudian Chair of Arabic at Oxford when the book appeared, praised it highly in a published review.) The institution of the Antonius Lectures at Oxford almost 40 years later completes the illusion.

A more consequential illusion concerns The Arab Awakening itself. Are the claims made for the book by Hourani tenable? Upon close examination, these are modest enough. Hourani is right that The Arab Awakening is well-written, that it had a ‘great impact’ in policy circles when it appeared, and that it once had a ‘great influence’ on the academic study of the Middle East. Otherwise, Hourani concedes, it has been largely superseded (and, on the question of the origins of Arab nationalism, persuasively contradicted) by subsequent research. He also acknowledges all that stands between The Arab Awakening and history, principally its lack of documentation and ‘some confusion between historical explanation and political advocacy’. And while he endorses Antonius’s conclusion that Great Britain made incompatible commitments to Arab and Jew over Palestine, he recognizes that here, too, the book’s authority has been eroded. Hourani is ultimately led to rule that the debate over the wartime commitments is ‘impossible to end’, partly because historians, ‘whether or not they know it, are carrying on the political discussion which began the agreements. This is true of Antonius himself’. One cannot read this assessment without concluding that the posthumous honor conferred upon Antonius must rest upon more than his book.

To judge from the tributes, it would seem to stand partly upon the power of his personality. As Edward Hodgkin put it, Antonius was ‘splendid company’. Helen Bentwich described him as ‘brilliantly clever’, or, in the formulation of one British official, ‘too clever to be an extremist’. His own chat could hold the attention of a Wauchope or a Roosevelt. It should be added that his charm sometimes wore thin, and that he could be prideful to the point of offense. He was the sort of man who could launch a crusade against a poor policeman who had the audacity to issue him a traffic summons. Ultimately, even the trustees of the American foundation that funded his writing of The Arab Awakening felt so abused that they fired him.

Still, he evoked an abiding admiration in certain circles, and it is interesting to learn from the Introduction that the Antonius Lectures were endowed by ‘an admirer of George Antonius who has from the outset desired to be anonymous and still wishes to remain so’. The formidable Katy Antonius, ‘who showed the guest to what heights hospitality could rise’ (Edward Hodgkin), and to whose memory this volume is also dedicated, had admirers too. One of them also wished to remain anonymous. The British Commander of Forces in Palestine sent the widow Antonius this note on New Year’s Eve 1946:

You have been a wonderful friend to me & life seems so empty with you gone. I lay in bed last night thinking & thinking of you—your lovely little rug on the floor beside me. Your little box which I now use for studs before me on the shelf & The Arab Awakening on my bedside table.[2]

‘George Antonius died at the moment when he was most needed, the moment for which his whole life had been a preparation’, Hourani wrote in 1942, when Antonius succumbed to illness at the age of 50 in Jerusalem. Antonius never expected to be judged by his book. He planned to make history itself, by appearing at a moment when his expert mediation would make a decisive difference for the Arab cause.

Yet death did not rob him of his destiny. The book did. Weighted down by its arguments, Antonius could not break free to rise above the fray, despite a desperate effort to make himself an indispensable middleman in the two years before his death. For some time afterwards, the book served as his monument, but it has gradually disappeared from bedside tables and bibliographies. As for the Arabs, they always preferred less pleading texts, written for them in their own language and in a strident cadence. A remorse at the severity of the gods is visible beneath the polished surface of Hourani’s lecture, and one is left to ponder whether the very point of the lecture series has been to snatch George Antonius from the brink of oblivion.

© Martin Kramer


1. Letter of 12 June 1936, Institute of Current World Affairs Archive, Antonius Correspondence, Reports, vol. II, 1934-43.
2. Letter of 31 December 1946, Israel State Archives.