The False Mahdi

Early in the morning of November 20th 1979,  an event occurred which would transfix the whole Muslim world and shake the Saudi royal family to its very foundations. It was the first day of the Muslim year 1400. The Grand Mosque in Mecca was crowded with worshipers for the dawn prayer. Many of them had slept in the mosque overnight huddled up on the floor, some of them accompanying coffins bearing the bodies of relatives upon whom they hoped the imam would bestow a blessing of the kind that could only be obtained in such a sacred place. Just as the imam completed the dawn prayer with the sacred call for the blessing of peace, shots suddenly rang out from within the crowd. As the people turned around in amazement and fear – to fire a weapon within the precincts of Islam’s holiest site was a grave sin – gunmen brandishing automatic weapons and clad in the simple white robes of pilgrims, began to emerge from the edges of the crowd. More and more of them, all converging on the sacred Ka’aba. Members of sacred mosque’s own police force, who were armed only with sticks, rushed forward to intervene but were unceremoniously gunned down. Turning in panic towards the mosque’s gates to flee, the tens of thousands of worshipers found that all the gates were barred, each one chained shut with groups of wild-haired, ruffian looking, gun wielding fanatics guarding them. Meanwhile yet more wild-eyed ragged-haired, bearded men were unloading yet more guns from some of the coffins– coffins which they had carried into the mosque the night before under the pretense of being mourners.

Juhayman Ataiba shortly after capture by Saudi Security Forces

Now a slender man with dark burning eyes, flowing black hair and a beard, his head bare and wearing the simple white robe of a pilgrim appeared from deep among the shadows of the mosque. With an obvious air of authority and purpose he strode through the crowd, across the open marble-floored courtyard to the Ka’aba. He was Juhayman Ataiba, the son of the former Ikhwan warrior who had fought alongside Ibn Bijad at the battle of Sibilla in 1929, the one – time student who had attended lectures given by bin Baz. Over the intervening years, Juhayman had turned into a fiery Islamic preacher and founded a small, militant, fundamentalist reform movement-The Movement of Muslim Revolutionaries of the Arabian Peninsula. Snatching a microphone from the elderly imam who had been conducting the dawn prayers, Juhayman barked a set of military orders to his followers, instructing them to immediately shoot down any government soldier or policeman who attempted to intervene. Then, with his voice booming over the Grand Mosque’s loudspeakers into every corner of the building and out from the loudspeakers at the top of the almost three – hundred – feet- tall minarets over the surrounding city of Mecca, Juhayman began to address the crowd. ‘Mecca, Medina and Jeddah are all now in our hands’, he told them. He and his fellow rebels had come to cleanse the Kingdom of materialism and corruption, to end the rule of the sinful and unjust Al Saud, and to terminate the country’s relations with ‘infidel powers‘. Then Juhayman handed the microphone to one of his fellow rebels. Addressing the crowd with obvious authority and in the cadences and tones of the classical Arabic of a learned Muslim scholar, this new speaker told them that the wicked ways of the House of Saud were a clear sign to all true believers that the world was coming to an end and that, in accordance with prophecy, Islam’s final triumph over unbelief was at hand. The preacher listed a whole catalogue of sins and corruptions for which the Saudi state was responsible: the debauchery of many of those who ruled over them-the governor of Mecca, a brother of the present King, was singled out for special opprobrium; the corruption fuelled  by television, the pollution of minds brought by infidel Westerners to the very cradle of Islam, the desecration of the moral  purity of women caused by their employment, the pagan scourge of the newly introduced game of soccer, the fact that the royal family had become mere pawns of infidel foreign powers.

All these things and many more rendered the Al Sauds no longer worthy to rule over true Muslims in the birthplace of Islam, the land of the Prophet Muhammad Himself. The people’s oaths of allegiance to the Saudis were therefore no longer valid. They were null and void. But, he was too proud to tell them, relief was now at hand! Citing relevant Hadith, and other prophecies dating back to the centuries immediately after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, the rebel preacher announced that the Mahdi had arrived and was here in the Grand Mosque with them. At that moment the gunmen started pushing back the crowd of worshippers to open a corridor through them to the Ka’aba. Then from within the deep shadows of the mosque’s encircling arches there emerged a tall, pale, fair-haired young man, his head loosely covered in a red chequered headcloth and carrying a sub-machine gun. With no outward show of emotion ‘the Mahdi’ approached the Ka’aba, the crowd gasping at his youth. Having reached the Ka’aba, he turned and stood impassively as one after another the gunmen knelt before him and in turn kissed his hand, pledging their allegiance in the same words with which the first Muslims are reported to have pledged their allegiance to the Prophet Muhammad: “We will obey you in weal and woe, in ease and hardship and evil circumstances . . . except in what would disobey God.” The ‘Mahdi‘ then launched into an hour-long sermon denouncing the House of Saud and the corruptions, sins and deviations from the true path of Islam of the Kingdom they had created.

The figure of the Mahdi ( literally ‘the Guided One’) is common to all branches of Islam but also controversial, especially among Sunnis. He is not mentioned in the Qur’an although he does appear in one Hadith and later prophecies and learned Muslim texts. He is prophesied to be going to appear at the end of time, just prior to the Day of Judgement. He will bear the name Muhammad and, in a time of strife, when ‘the princes have corrupted the earth’, he will be sent to ‘bring back justice’. Throughout history there have been people who have claimed to be the Mahdi, perhaps the best known being the ‘false’ Mahdi who led an uprising against the British during the 1880s which resulted in the humiliation of a British and Egyptian army and the death of the charismatic General Gordon-Gordon of Khartoum

The ‘Mahdi’ that Juhayman Ataiba and his fellow rebels presented to the crowd in the Grand Mosque in Mecca on the morning of November 20th 1979 was Muhammad Abdullah al-Qahtani. Young Qahtani came from Asir, the poor region in the south west of the country. He had met Juhayman a few years earlier while he had been studying Islamic law at the Islamic university of Riyadh where the writings and sermons which Juhayman had begun to deliver had started to attract a considerable following amongst the most ardently Islamic students. It was Juhayman and his followers who first convinced the rather dreamy and impressionable young Qahtani that he was the Mahdi who, as promised in the Hadith, would come to cleanse Islam and redeem all true Muslims. As Juhayman pointed out to the worshippers in the Grand Mosque on that November morning, young Abdullah al-Qahtani  fulfilled the specific prophecies made about the coming of the Mahdi: after all the wars and revolutions that had wracked the Muslim world in recent decades he did indeed come ‘in time of great discord’, at the start of a new Muslim century, at a moment when the princes were ‘corrupting the earth’ and Muslims had been drifting away from the faith; he bore the first name Muhammad and had features similar to those attributed in the Hadith to the Mahdi–he was tall, had a fair complexion, a large birthmark on his cheek, and claimed descent from the family of the Prophet Muhammad. He came now, Juhayman and his fellow rebels assured the crowd in the mosque, to fulfil the prophecy, to lead the true Muslims in a cataclysmic encounter with the forces of evil, to overcome those forces of evil and to ‘fill the Earth with peace and justice as it will have been filled with injustice and tyranny before then’.

When Qahtani finished speaking some hundreds among the thousand-strong crowd were convinced. Falling to their knees, they hailed him as the Mahdi and volunteered to join the rebels in the fight. The rebels then opened more coffins and handed out yet more guns to these new followers. The rebels then allowed most of the able-bodied worshippers who had not volunteered to join them to begin making their escape through the mosque’s narrow windows, while keeping back a few hostages.

In the streets around the mosque, as word of what had happened spread, people started to flee. When a police car approached the mosque to investigate, it was riddled with well-aimed fire by rebel gunmen stationed in the Grand Mosque’s minarets and most of the policemen in the car were killed. Throughout the rest of that day other armed policemen or soldiers who approached the mosque were also summarily gunned down.

As news of what had happened reached Riyadh, members of the royal family came together in anxious huddled conference. What should they do? Crown Prince Fahd, responsible for day-to-day rule in the Kingdom, was not even in the country. He was in Tunis attending a conference of Arab leaders. Prince Abdullah, the Head of the National Guard, was holidaying in the south of France and the prince who headed the security service was with Fahd in Tunis. A total blackout of information was ordered on broadcasting stations and all lines of communication out of the country were disconnected.
It was the following day before Crown Prince Fahd discovered the details of what had happened. Meanwhile the rebels continued broadcasting their demands out over the city of Mecca from the Grand Mosque’s loudspeakers, while on the streets of the country’s major towns leaflets mysteriously began to appear detailing the rebel’s accusations and demands. The rebels demanded the dismissal of named corrupt high-ranking princes, the end of sales of Saudi oil to Western countries, a return to the true canons of Islam and the expulsion of all foreign military advisers from the Kingdom.

Back in Riyadh King Khalid and the senior princes had decided that they could not negotiate with the rebels: their demands were wholly unacceptable. The rebels had to be overpowered and control of the Grand Mosque wrested back. By seizing Islam’s holiest site and issuing their demands and accusations, the rebels were challenging the very foundations of the Al Saud’s claim to the right to rule. The rebels posed the most serious threat to the Al Sauds that they had faced since Ibn Saud had put down the Ikhwan rebellion fifty years earlier.

But dare the Saudis order their forces to attack the Grand Mosque? The rebels had already committed one of the gravest of sins by shedding blood in it. So dare the Al Sauds, who claimed to be the true guardians of Islam’s Holy Places, now desecrate the holiest site of all by risking damaging it with gunfire and killing perhaps many hundreds of worshippers? Not even a bird was allowed to be killed inside the precincts of the Grand Mosque, nor a plant uprooted. Khalid issued an urgent summons to bin Baz and the Kingdom’s other senior ulema.

It took until the next day to assemble the ulema, many from the farthest corners of the Kingdom. But once they were gathered they concluded, after careful consideration of all the known facts about the rebels and their actions, that not all the preconditions set forth in the prophecies about the coming of the Mahdi had been met. Al-Qahtani, the young man being hailed by the rebels as the Mahdi, could therefore not be the true Mahdi. So he must be another impostor, like all the previous impostors who down the centuries had claimed to be the Mahdi. King Khalid asked the ulema to issue a fatwa against the impostor, officially declaring him not to be the Mahdi, condemning the rebels and sanctioning the retaking of the Grand Mosque by force. Without such a fatwa the call by the rebels for the ending of corruption in the state and a return to the full rigours of the Islamic moral code might prove very attractive to many Saudis disillusioned with the behaviour of some of the royal princes and what they saw as the growing moral anxiety that was sweeping the Kingdom.

Bin Baz was quite happy to issue a fatwa denouncing the Qahtani’s claim to be the Mahdi and condemning the rebel’s action in seizing the Grand Mosque and shedding blood. However, the rebel’s call for an end to corruption and return to the true path of Islam was very attractive to him and his fellow ulema. The rebels were in many ways true Wahhabis and their movement was one which bin Baz and his fellow conservative clerics had done much to help to inspire. So bin Baz and the ulema drove a hard bargain. They would give the King what he wanted. They would permit the King and his forces to drive the rebels from the Grand Mosque, would issue a fatwa proclaiming that al-Qahtani was not the true Mahdi and reaffirm the regime’s Muslim legitimacy, but in return they required the King and the state to live up to its Islamic obligations. The policies of liberalization must be halted and where possible rolled back. There must be an end to licentiousness and the drinking of alcohol, to women appearing on TV and gaining employment, and to the screening of ‘lewd’ western films. And a greater part of the billions of dollars of oil money flowing into the country must be put to shoring up Wahhabism in the Kingdom and spreading the faith around the world. As some of the royal princes who were present at the negotiation put it, it amounted to the ulema demanding that King Khalid adopt Juhayman’s agenda in return for their help in getting rid of him.

But even after the ulema had issued their fatwa and their condemnation of the rebels as ‘renegades‘ and ‘deviationists from Islam’ had been broadcast across the country on Riyadh Radio, the regime’s forces were still faced with the serious practical problem of how to retake the mosque and overcome the rebels. They could not just go in ‘all guns blazing’, smashing up the Grand Mosque and killing hundreds of people in the process. It was clear that the rebels were well prepared and skilled in using firearms. In fact, many of the rebels were disillusioned former National Guardsmen from the Bedouin tribes which, like Juhayman’s own tribe, had been involved in the Ikhwan rebellion on 1929. There were somewhere between two and three hundred of these rebels well-embedded in good positions throughout the mosque. They had been joined by some hundreds of volunteers from among the original worshippers, making a total opposition force of perhaps one thousand. The regime’s forces were therefore going to have to attempt to retake the mosque by unconventional means, a fact which became more obvious when their first attacks were easily repulsed by the rebels.

Although they deeply disapproved of Shi’ism and the teachings of Ayatollah Khomeini, the rebels had concluded that if Khomeini and the Iranian students could overthrow a regime as powerful as that of the Shah, they could achieve a similar revolution in Saudi Arabia. Days passed and the rebels repeatedly beat off ineffective sorties by Khalid’s forces. But the rebels suffered one major disappointment. Although there were some scattered risings against the regime elsewhere in the country and a more serious uprising and rioting by Shia in the oil producing Eastern Province, there was no widespread general revolt such as had occurred in Iran. The Saudi rulers, for all their faults, were not as unpopular as the Shah, nor were they as brutal.

After days of unsuccessful attempts to dislodge the rebels, the Saudi authorities realized that their troops simply did not have the necessary know-how and specialized equipment to dislodge the rebels from the Grand Mosque on their own. However, they could not simply call in foreigners to do it for them. To do so would not only amount to a very humiliating public admission that the Saudi regime and their armed forces were not up to dislodging a few hundred fanatics from Islam’s holiest site, but to allow non-Muslims to enter the Holy City of Mecca, the Grand Mosque and even approach the sacred Ka’aba itself, would be totally haram–strictly forbidden under the most sacred laws of Islam. So a top-secret channel was opened between the highest levels of the French Government and one of the senior Saudi princes. As a result three French specialist commando officers with a great deal of experience of dealing with terrorist attacks and hostage crises were flown in the utmost secrecy to Saudi Arabia, together with a large amount of specially selected equipment and munitions, to devise a strategy, train one hundred and fifty of Saudi Arabia’s best and most fearless troops and supervise the operation.

The final assault on the mosque, exactly two weeks after the rebels had seized it, was fought mainly in the maze of cellars below the mosque. After almost twenty- hours of close-quarters fighting, in which large quantities of gas and chemicals were used as well as guns, the last of the rebels were either killed or captured. Qahtani was killed early in the operation, but Juhayman was captured alive. Asked by his captors, pointing to the desecrated shrine, “How could you do this?” Juhayman is reported to have replied, “It was God’s will.”

The official casualty figures were 12 Saudi officers killed, 115 other ranks, and 450 seriously  injured, 117 rebels killed, 26 worshippers killed and 110 wounded, many of them foreign nationals. The real figures were almost certainly a lot higher than this–American government sources suggested around 1,000. On January 9th 1980, Juhayman was executed in Mecca, while those of his fellow conspirators who had been captured were executed at the same time in Saudi Arabia’s other eight most important cities. The Saudi authorities were determined to leave Saudis across the Kingdom in no doubt about who ruled.


Fatwa: an opinion or judgement given by a suitably qualified Muslim legal expert, a mufti, on legal or personal matters.

Hadith: accounts of the deeds and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad compiled by scholars as an authoitative guide as to how individual Muslims and Muslim communities should live and act.

Ikhwan: literally ‘brothers’ or ‘brethren’, the name adopted by members of a radical Wahhabi religious and social movement which became a powerful fighting force.

Ka’aba: the cube at the centre of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in the side of which is the black stone, said to be part of what came down from heaven to provide light for Adam and Eve and which was subsequently rededicated to the worship of God by Abraham and his son Ishmael. Muslims perambulate around the Ka’aba during the Hajj and ritually touch or kiss it.

Ulema: learned men, authorities and guardians of legal and religious traditions of Islam.

Wahhabism: uncomprisingly pure and strict form of Sunni Islam, inspired by a mid-eighteenth-century Sunni preacher, Muhammad al-Wahhab, who formed an alliance with the Al Sauds. The dominant form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia.


With courtesy of : Ibn Saud by Michael Darlow & Barbara Bray, first published in the UK by Quartet in 2010

Battle of Gettysburg 1-3 July 1863


The first invasion of the North by Robert E. Lee was the unsuccessful Maryland Campaign of September 1862 which ended in the bloody Battle of Antietam. Shortly after Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia won a major victory over the Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Chancellorsville from 30 April – 6 May 1863.  Lee decided upon a second invasion of the North, leading his army through the Shenandoah Valley, the Gettysburg Campaign



With his army in high spirits, Lee intended to shift the focus of the summer campaign from war-ravaged northern Virginia and hoped to influence Northern politicians to give up their prosecution of the war by penetrating as far as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, or even Philadelphia. Prodded by President Abraham Lincoln, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker moved his army in pursuit, but was relieved of command just three days before the battle and replaced by Meade.

Such a move would upset the Union’s plans for the summer campaigning season and possibly reduce the pressure on the besieged Confederate garrison at Vicksburg. The invasion would allow the Confederates to live off the bounty of the rich Northern farms while giving war-ravaged Virginia a much-needed rest. In addition, Lee’s 72,000-man army could threaten Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, and possibly strengthen the growing peace movement in the North.

Initial movements to battle

Thus, on June 3, Lee’s army began to shift northward from Fredericksburg, Virginia. Following the death of Thomas J. Jackson (Stonewall), Lee reorganised his army into three corps, commanded by

Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, I Corps

Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, II Corps

Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill, III Corps

Ewell and Hill, who had formerly reported to Jackson as division commanders, were new to this level of responsibility. The Cavalry Division remained under the command of Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart [James Ewell Brown Stuart].

The Union Army of the Potomac, under Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, consisted of seven infantry corps, a cavalry corps, and an Artillery Reserve, for a combined strength of more than 100,000 men.

The first major action of the campaign took place on 9 June between cavalry forces at Brandy Station, near Culpeper, Virginia. The 9,500 Confederate cavalrymen under Stuart were surprised by Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton’s combined arms force of two cavalry divisions of 8,000 troopers and 3,000 infantry, but Stuart eventually repulsed the Union attack. The inconclusive battle, the largest predominantly cavalry engagement of the war, proved for the first time that the Union horse soldier was equal to his Southern counterpart.

By mid-June, the Army of Northern Virginia was poised to cross the Potomac River and enter Maryland. After defeating the Union garrisons at Winchester and Martinsburg, Ewell’s Second Corps began crossing the river on June 15. Hill’s and Longstreet’s corps followed on 24  and 25 June .

Hooker’s army pursued, keeping between Washington, D.C. and Lee’s army. The Union army crossed the Potomac from June 25 to 27.

Lee gave strict orders for his army to minimise any negative impacts on the civilian population. Food, horses, and other supplies were generally not seized outright, although quartermasters reimbursing Northern farmers and merchants with Confederate money were not well received. Various towns, most notably York, Pennsylvania, were required to pay indemnities in lieu of supplies, under threat of destruction. During the invasion, the Confederates seized some 40 northern African Americans. A few of them were escaped fugitive slaves, but most were freemen; all were sent south into slavery under guard.

Gettysburg Campaign


Gettysburg Campaign (through July 3); cavalry movements shown with dashed lines, Confederate, Union 

On June 26, elements of Maj. Gen. Jubal Early’s division of Ewell’s II Corps occupied the town of Gettysburg after chasing off newly raised Pennsylvania militia in a series of minor skirmishes. Early, laid the borough under tribute, but did not collect any significant supplies. Soldiers burned several railroad cars and a covered bridge, and destroyed nearby rails and telegraph lines. The following morning, Early departed for adjacent York County.

Meanwhile, in a controversial move, Lee allowed J.E.B. Stuart to take a portion of the army’s cavalry and ride around the east flank of the Union army. Lee’s orders gave Stuart much latitude, and both generals share the blame for the long absence of Stuart’s cavalry, as well as for the failure to assign a more active role to the cavalry left with the army. Stuart and his three best brigades were absent from the army during the crucial phase of the approach to Gettysburg and the first two days of battle. By June 29, Lee’s army was strung out in an arc from Chambersburg, 28 miles (45 km) northwest of Gettysburg to Carlisle, 30 miles (48 km) north of Gettysburg, to near Harrisburg and Wrightsville on the Susquehanna River.

In a dispute over the use of the forces defending the Harpers Ferry garrison, Hooker offered his resignation, and Abraham Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, who were looking for an excuse to rid themselves of him, immediately accepted. They replaced Hooker early on the morning of June 28 with Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, then commander of the V Corps.

On 29 June when Lee learned that the Army of the Potomac had crossed the Potomac River, he ordered a concentration of his forces around Cashtown, located at the eastern base of South Mountain and eight miles (13 km) west of Gettysburg.

On 29 June while part of Hill’s III Corps was in Cashtown, one of Hill’s brigades, North Carolinians under Brig. Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew, ventured toward Gettysburg. In his memoirs, Maj. Gen. Henry Heth, Pettigrew’s division commander, claimed that he sent Pettigrew to search for supplies in town, especially shoes. When Pettigrew’s troops approached Gettysburg on June 30, they noticed Union cavalry under Brig. Gen. John Buford arriving south of town, and Pettigrew returned to Cashtown without engaging them. When Pettigrew told Hill and Heth what he had seen, neither general believed that there was a substantial Union force in or near the town, suspecting that it had been only Pennsylvania militia. Despite General Lee’s order to avoid a general engagement until his entire army was concentrated, Hill decided to mount a significant reconnaissance in force the following morning to determine the size and strength of the enemy force in his front. Around 5 a.m. on Wednesday, 1 July, two brigades of Heth’s division advanced to Gettysburg.

The Battle of Gettysburg 1-3 July 1863; N39.811 W77.225 in and around the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, by Union and Confederate forces during the American Civil War. The battle involved the largest number of casualties of the entire war and is often described as the war’s turning point. Union Maj. Gen. George Meade’s Army of the Potomac defeated attacks by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, halting Lee’s invasion of the North.

Elements of the two armies initially collided at Gettysburg on 1 July 1863, as Lee urgently concentrated his forces there, his objective being to engage the Union army and destroy it. Low ridges to the northwest of town were defended initially by a Union cavalry division under Brig. Gen. John Buford, and soon reinforced with two corps of Union infantry. However, two large Confederate corps assaulted them from the northwest and north, collapsing the hastily developed Union lines, sending the defenders retreating through the streets of the town to the hills just to the south.

On the second day of battle, most of both armies had assembled. The Union line was laid out in a defensive formation resembling a fishhook. In the late afternoon of 2 July, Lee launched a heavy assault on the Union left flank, and fierce fighting raged at

  • Little Round Top
  • The Wheatfield
  • Devil’s Den
  • The Peach Orchard.

On the Union right, Confederate demonstrations escalated into full-scale assaults on

  • Culp’s Hill
  • Cemetery Hill.

All across the battlefield, despite significant losses, the Union defenders held their lines.

On the third day of battle, fighting resumed on Culp’s Hill, and cavalry battles raged to the east and south, but the main event was a dramatic infantry assault by 12,500 Confederates against the centre of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge, known as Pickett’s Charge. The charge was repulsed by Union rifle and artillery fire, at great loss to the Confederate army.

Lee led his army on a torturous retreat back to Virginia. Between 46,000 and 51,000 soldiers from both armies were casualties in the three-day battle, the most costly in US history.

On 19 November, President Lincoln used the dedication ceremony for the Gettysburg National Cemetery to honour the fallen Union soldiers and redefine the purpose of the war in his historic Gettysburg Address.






George G. Meade Robert E. Lee
John F. Reynolds James Longstreet
Winfield S. Hancock Richard S. Ewell
Daniel Sickles A.P. Hill
George Sykes J.E.B. Stuart
John Sedgwick
Oliver Otis Howard
Henry Warner Slocom
Alfred Pleasanton
104256 present for duty 71000-75000 estimated
23049 total

3155 killed

14529 wounded

5365 captured/missing

23000-28000 estimated


The Army of the Potomac, initially under Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker was replaced by Maj. Gen. George Meade in command on June 28, and consisted of more than 100,000 men in the following organisation:


Gen. J.F. Renyolds
Major General John F. Reynolds

I Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds with divisions commanded by

  • Brig. Gen. James S. Wadsworth
  • Brig. Gen. John C. Robinson
  • Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday


Major General Winfield Scott Hancock


II Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, with divisions commanded by

  • Brig. Gen. John C. Caldwell
  • Brig. Gen. John Gibbon
  • Brig. Gen. Alexander Hays


Major General Daniel Sickles

III Corps, commanded by Major General Daniel Sickles with divisions commanded by

  • Maj. Gen. David B. Birney
  • Maj. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys


Major General George Sykes

V Corps, commanded by Major General George Sykes (George G. Meade until June 28), with divisions commanded by Brig. Gens:

  • James Barnes
  • Romeyn B. Ayres
  • Samuel W. Crawford


Major General John Sedgwick

VI Corps, commanded by Major General John Sedgwick with divisions commanded by

  • Brig. Gen. Horatio G. Wright
  • Brig. Gen. Albion P. Howe
  • Maj. Gen. John Newton


Major General Oliver Otis Howard

XI Corps, commanded by Major General Oliver Otis Howard with divisions commanded by

  • Brig. Gen. Francis C. Barlow
  • Brig. Gen. Adolph von Steinwehr
  • Maj. Gen. Carl Schurz.


Major General Henry W. Slocum

XII Corps, commanded by Major General Henry W. Slocum, with divisions commanded by

  • Brig. Gens. Alpheus S. Williams
  • John W. Geary.


Major General Alfred Pleasonton 

Cavalry Corps, commanded by Major General Alfred Pleasonton with divisions commanded by

  • Brig. Gen.  John Buford
  • Brig. Gen. David McM. Gregg
  • Brig. Gen. H. Judson Kilpatrick.

Artillery Reserve, commanded by Brig. Gen. Robert O. Tyler. The preeminent artillery officer at Gettysburg was Brig. Gen. Henry J. Hunt, chief of artillery on Meade’s staff.

During the advance on Gettysburg, Maj. Gen. Reynolds was in operational command of the left, or advanced, wing of the Army, consisting of the I, III, and XI Corps.

Note that many other Union units but not part of the Army of the Potomac,  were actively involved in the Gettysburg Campaign, but not directly involved in the Battle of Gettysburg. These included portions of the

  • Union IV Corps
  • The Militia
  • State troops of the Department of the Susquehanna
  • Various garrisons, including that at Harper’s Ferry.


In reaction to the death of Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson after Chancellorsville, Lee reorganised his Army of Northern Virginia, 75,000 men into three infantry corps.


Lieutenant General James Longstreet

I Corps, commanded by Lieutenant General James Longstreet with divisions commanded by Maj. Gens.

  • Lafayette McLaws
  • George Pickett
  • John Bell Hood


Lieutenant  General Richard S. Ewell

II Corps, commanded by Lieutenant  General Richard S. Ewell with divisions commanded by

  • Maj. Gen.. Jubal A. Early,
  • Maj. Gen. Edward “Allegheny” Johnson
  • Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes


Lieutenant  General A.P. Hill

III Corps, commanded by Lieutenant  General A.P. Hill, with divisions commanded by Maj. Gens.

  • Richard H. Anderson
  • Henry Heth
  • Dorsey Pender


Major General James Ewell Brown Stuart

Cavalry division, commanded by Major General James Ewell Brown Stuart with brigades commanded by Brig. Gens.

  • Wade Hampton
  • Fitzhugh Lee
  • Beverly H. Robertson
  • Albert G. Jenkins
  • William E. “Grumble” Jones
  • John D. Imboden
  • Col. John R. Chambliss.

1 July 1863: First day of battle

 Gettysburg Battle Map Day 1

Overview map of the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1, 1863
Herr Ridge, McPherson Ridge and Seminary Ridge

Anticipating that the Confederates would march on Gettysburg from the west on the morning of July 1, Buford laid out his defences on three ridges west of the town: Herr Ridge, McPherson Ridge and Seminary Ridge. These were appropriate terrain for a delaying action by his small cavalry division against superior Confederate infantry forces, meant to buy time awaiting the arrival of Union infantrymen who could occupy the strong defensive positions south of town at Cemetery Hill, Cemetery Ridge, and Culp’s Hill.  Buford understood that if the Confederates could gain control of these heights, Meade’s army would have difficulty dislodging them.

Confederate General Henry Heth’s division advanced with two brigades forward, commanded by Brig. Gens. James J. Archer and Joseph R. Davis. They proceeded easterly in columns along the Chambersburg Pike. Three miles (5 km) west of town, about 7:30 a.m. on 1 July the two brigades met light resistance from vedettes of Union cavalry, and deployed into line.

 Eventually, Heth’s men encountered dismounted troopers of Col. William Gamble’s cavalry brigade, who raised determined resistance and delaying tactics from behind fence posts with fire from their breech loading carbines. Still, by 10:20 a.m., the Confederates had pushed the Union cavalrymen east to McPherson Ridge, when the vanguard of the I Corps under Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds finally arrived.

 North of the pike, Davis gained a temporary success against Brig. Gen. Lysander Cutler’s brigade but was repulsed with heavy losses in an action around an unfinished railroad bed cut in the ridge. South of the pike, Archer’s brigade assaulted through McPherson’s Woods. The Union Iron Brigade under Brig. Gen. Solomon Meredith enjoyed initial success against Archer, capturing several hundred men, including Archer himself.

 General Reynolds was shot and killed early in the fighting while directing troop and artillery placements just to the east of the woods. Shelby Foote wrote that the Union cause lost a man considered by many to be “the best general in the army.” Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday assumed command. Fighting in the Chambersburg Pike area lasted until about 12:30 p.m. It resumed around 2:30 p.m., when Heth’s entire division engaged, adding the brigades of Pettigrew and Col. John M. Brockenbrough.

As Pettigrew’s North Carolina Brigade came on line, they flanked the 19th Indiana and drove the Iron Brigade back. The 26th North Carolina, the largest regiment in the army with 839 men, lost heavily, leaving the first day’s fight with around 212 men. By the end of the three-day battle, they had about 152 men standing, the highest casualty percentage for one battle of any regiment, North or South. Slowly the Iron Brigade was pushed out of the woods toward Seminary Ridge. Hill added Maj. Gen. William Dorsey Pender’s division to the assault, and the I Corps was driven back through the grounds of the Lutheran Seminary and Gettysburg streets.

As the fighting to the west proceeded, two divisions of Ewell’s Second Corps, marching west toward Cashtown in accordance with Lee’s order for the army to concentrate in that vicinity, turned south on the Carlisle and Harrisburg roads toward Gettysburg, while the Union XI Corps, Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard, raced north on the Baltimore Pike and Taneytown Road. By early afternoon, the Union line ran in a semicircle west, north, and northeast of Gettysburg.

 However, the Union did not have enough troops; Cutler, whose brigade was deployed north of the Chambersburg Pike, had his right flank in the air. The leftmost division of the XI Corps was unable to deploy in time to strengthen the line, so Doubleday was forced to throw in reserve brigades to salvage his line.

 Around 2 p.m., the Confederate II Corps divisions of Maj. Gens. Robert E. Rodes and Jubal Early assaulted and out-flanked the Union I and XI Corps positions north and northwest of town. The Confederate brigades of Col. Edward A. O’Neal and Brig. Gen. Alfred Iverson suffered severe losses assaulting the I Corps division of Brig. Gen. John C. Robinson south of Oak Hill. Early’s division profited from a blunder by Brig. Gen. Francis C. Barlow, when he advanced his XI Corps division to Blocher’s Knoll, directly north of town; this represented a salient in the corps line, susceptible to attack from multiple sides, and Early’s troops overran Barlow’s division, which constituted the right flank of the Union Army’s position. Barlow was wounded and captured in the attack.

 As Union positions collapsed both north and west of town, Gen. Howard ordered a retreat to the high ground south of town at Cemetery Hill, where he had left the division of Brig. Gen. Adolph von Steinwehr in reserve. Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock assumed command of the battlefield, sent by Meade when he heard that Reynolds had been killed. Hancock, commander of the II Corps and Meade’s most trusted subordinate, was ordered to take command of the field and to determine whether Gettysburg was an appropriate place for a major battle. Hancock told Howard, “I think this the strongest position by nature upon which to fight a battle that I ever saw.” When Howard agreed, Hancock concluded the discussion: “Very well, sir, I select this as the battle-field.” Hancock’s determination had a morale-boosting effect on the retreating Union soldiers, but he played no direct tactical role on the first day.

General Lee understood the defensive potential to the Union if they held this high ground. He sent orders to Ewell that Cemetery Hill be taken “if practicable.” Ewell, who had previously served under Stonewall Jackson, a general well known for issuing peremptory orders, determined such an assault was not practicable and, thus, did not attempt it; this decision is considered by historians to be a great missed opportunity.

 The first day at Gettysburg, more significant than simply a prelude to the bloody second and third days, ranks as the 23rd biggest battle of the war by number of troops engaged. About one quarter of Meade’s army of 22,000 men, and one third of Lee’s army of 27,000 were engaged.

2 July 1863, Second day of the Gettysburg battle

Gettysburg Day 2 Plan

Robert E. Lee’s plan for July 2, 1863

Plans and movement to battle

Throughout the evening of July 1 and morning of July 2, most of the remaining infantry of both armies arrived on the field, including the Union II, III, V, VI, and XII Corps.

Two of Longstreet’s divisions were on the road: Brig. Gen. George Pickett, had begun the 22 mile (35 km) march from Chambersburg, while Brig. Gen. E. M. Law had begun the march from Guilford. Both arrived late in the morning.

Law completed his 28-mile (45 km) march in eleven hours.

The Union line ran from Culp’s Hill southeast of the town, northwest to Cemetery Hill just south of town, then south for nearly two miles (3 km) along Cemetery Ridge, terminating just north of Little Round Top. Most of the XII Corps was on Culp’s Hill; the remnants of I and XI Corps defended Cemetery Hill; II Corps covered most of the northern half of Cemetery Ridge; and III Corps was ordered to take up a position to its flank. The shape of the Union line is popularly described as a “fishhook” formation.

 The Confederate line paralleled the Union line about a mile (1,600 m) to the west on Seminary Ridge, ran east through the town, then curved southeast to a point opposite Culp’s Hill. Thus, the Union army had interior lines, while the Confederate line was nearly five miles (8 km) long.

Lee’s battle plan for 2 July called for a general assault of Meade’s positions. On the right, Longstreet’s First Corps was to position itself to attack the Union left flank, facing northeast astraddle the Emmitsburg Road, and to roll up the Union line. The attack sequence was to begin with Maj. Gens. John Bell Hood’s and Lafayette McLaws’s divisions, followed by Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson’s division of Hill’s Third Corps.

On the left, Lee instructed Ewell to position his Second Corps to attack Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill when he heard the gunfire from Longstreet’s assault, preventing Meade from shifting troops to bolster his left. Though it does not appear in either his or Lee’s Official Report, Ewell claimed years later that Lee had changed the order to simultaneously attack, calling for only a “diversion”, to be turned into a full-scale attack if a favourable opportunity presented itself.

 Lee’s plan, however, was based on faulty intelligence, exacerbated by Stuart’s continued absence from the battlefield. Though Lee personally reconnoitred his left during the morning, he did not visit Longstreet’s position on the Confederate right. Even so, Lee rejected suggestions that Longstreet move beyond Meade’s left and attack the Union flank, capturing the supply trains and effectively blocking Meade’s escape route.

Lee did not issue orders for the attack until 11:00 a.m. About noon, General Anderson’s advancing troops were discovered by General Sicklesoutpost guard and the Third Corps, upon which Longstreet’s First Corps was to form–did not get into position until 1:00 p.m.

Hood and McLaws, after their long march, were not yet in position and did not launch their attacks until just after 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., respectively.

Attacks on the Union left flank


Overview map of the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 2, 1863

As Longstreet’s left division, under Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws, advanced, they unexpectedly found Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles’s III Corps directly in their path.

Sickles had been dissatisfied with the position assigned him on the southern end of Cemetery Ridge. Seeing ground better suited for artillery positions a half mile (800 m) to the west— centred at the Sherfy farm’s Peach Orchard—he violated orders and advanced his corp to the slightly higher ground along the Emmitsburg Road, moving away from Cemetery Ridge.

The new line ran from Devil’s Den, northwest to the Peach Orchard, then northeast along the Emmitsburg Road to south of the Codori farm. This created an untenable salient at the Peach Orchard; Brig. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys’s division (in position along the Emmitsburg Road) and Maj. Gen. David B. Birney’s division (to the south) were subject to attacks from two sides and were spread out over a longer front than their small corps could defend effectively.

The Confederate artillery was ordered to open fire at 3:00 p.m. After failing to attend a meeting at this time of Meade’s corps commanders, Meade rode to Sickles’ position and demanded an explanation of the situation. Knowing a Confederate attack was imminent and a retreat would be endangered, Meade refused Sickles’ offer to withdraw.

 Meade was forced to send 20,000 reinforcements: the entire V Corps, Brig. Gen. John C. Caldwell’s division of the II Corps, most of the XII Corps, and portions of the newly arrived VI Corps.

Hood’s division moved more to the east than intended, losing its alignment with the Emmitsburg Road, attacking Devil’s Den and Little Round Top. McLaws, coming in on Hood’s left, drove multiple attacks into the thinly stretched III Corps in the Wheatfield and overwhelmed them in Sherfy’s Peach Orchard. McLaws’s attack eventually reached Plum Run Valley (the “Valley of Death”) before being beaten back by the Pennsylvania Reserves division of the V Corps, moving down from Little Round Top. The III Corps was virtually destroyed as a combat unit in this battle, and Sickles’s leg was amputated after it was shattered by a cannonball.

Caldwell’s division was destroyed piecemeal in the Wheatfield.

Anderson’s division, coming from McLaws’s left and starting forward around 6 p.m., reached the crest of Cemetery Ridge, but could not hold the position in the face of counterattacks from the II Corps, including an almost suicidal bayonet charge by the 1st Minnesota regiment against a Confederate brigade, ordered in desperation by Hancock to buy time for reinforcements to arrive.

 As fighting raged in the Wheatfield and Devil’s Den, Col. Strong Vincent of V Corps had a precarious hold on Little Round Top, an important hill at the extreme left of the Union line. His brigade of four relatively small regiments was able to resist repeated assaults by Brig. Gen. Evander M. Law’s brigade of Hood’s division.

Meade’s chief engineer, Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, had realised the importance of this position, and dispatched Vincent’s brigade, an artillery battery, and the 140th New York to occupy Little Round Top mere minutes before Hood’s troops arrived. The defence of Little Round Top with a bayonet charge by the 20th Maine, ordered by Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain but possibly led by Lt. Holman S. Melcher, was one of the most fabled episodes in the Civil War and propelled Col. Chamberlain into prominence after the war.

Attacks on the Union right flank

Ewell interpreted his orders as calling only for a cannonade. His 32 guns, along with A. P. Hill’s 55 guns, engaged in a two-hour artillery barrage at extreme range that had little effect. Finally, about six o’clock, Ewell sent orders to each of his division commanders to attack the Union lines in his front.

 Maj. Gen. Edward “Allegheny” Johnson’s Division had not been pushed close to Culp’s Hill in preparation for an assault, although one had been contemplated all day. It now had a full mile (1,600 m) to advance and Rock Creek had to be crossed. This could only be done at few places and involved much delay. Only three of Johnson’s four brigades moved to the attack.”

Most of the hill’s defenders, the Union XII Corps, had been sent to the left to defend against Longstreet’s attacks, leaving only a brigade of New Yorkers under Brig. Gen. George S. Greene behind strong, newly constructed defensive works. With reinforcements from the I and XI Corps, Greene’s men held off the Confederate attackers, though giving up some of the lower earthworks on the lower part of Culp’s Hill.

 Early, was similarly unprepared when he ordered Harry T. Hays’ and Isaac E. Avery’s Brigades to attack the Union XI Corps positions on East Cemetery Hill. Once started, fighting was fierce: Col. Andrew L. Harris of the Union 2nd Brigade, 1st Division, came under a withering attack, losing half his men. Avery was wounded early on, but the Confederates reached the crest of the hill and entered the Union breastworks, capturing one or two batteries.

Seeing he was not supported on his right, Hays withdrew. His right was to be supported by Robert E. Rodes’ Division, but Rodes—like Early and Johnson—had not been ordered up in preparation for the attack. He had twice as far to travel as Early; by the time he came in contact with the Union skirmish line, Early’s troops had already begun to withdraw.

Jeb Stuart and his three cavalry brigades arrived in Gettysburg around noon but had no role in the second day’s battle. Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton’s brigade fought a minor engagement with newly promoted 23-year-old Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s Michigan cavalry near Hunterstown to the northeast of Gettysburg.

3 July 1863, third day of the Battle of Gettysburg

Gettysburg Battle Map Day 3

Overview map of the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 3, 1863

Lee’s plan: General Lee wished to renew the attack on Friday, July 3, using the same basic plan as the previous day: Longstreet would attack the Union left, while Ewell attacked Culp’s Hill. However, before Longstreet was ready, Union XII Corps troops started a dawn artillery bombardment against the Confederates on Culp’s Hill in an effort to regain a portion of their lost works. The Confederates attacked, and the second fight for Culp’s Hill ended around 11 a.m. Harry Pfanz judged that, after some seven hours of bitter combat, “the Union line was intact and held more strongly than before.”

 Lee was forced to change his plans. Longstreet would command Pickett’s Virginia division of his own First Corps, plus six brigades from Hill’s Corps, in an attack on the Union II Corps position at the right centre of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. Prior to the attack, all the artillery the Confederacy could bring to bear on the Union positions would bombard and weaken the enemy’s line.

 Much has been made over the years of General Longstreet’s objections to General Lee’s plan. In his memoirs, Longstreet described their discussion as follows:

 Lee rode over after sunrise and gave his orders. His plan was to assault the enemy’s left centre by a column to be composed of McLaws’s and Hood’s divisions reinforced by Pickett’s brigades.

 I thought that it would not do:

  • that the point had been fully tested the day before, by more men, when all were fresh
  • that the enemy was there looking for us, as we heard him during the night putting up his defences
  • that the divisions of McLaws and Hood were holding a mile [1,600 m] along the right of my line against twenty thousand men, who would follow their withdrawal, strike the flank of the assaulting column, crush it, and get on our rear towards the Potomac River
  • that thirty thousand men was the minimum of force necessary for the work
  • that even such force would need close co-operation on other parts of the line
  • that the column as he proposed to organise it would have only about thirteen thousand men, the divisions having lost a third of their numbers the day before
  • that the column would have to march a mile under concentrating battery fire, and a thousand yards under long-range musketry
  • that the conditions were different from those in the days of Napoleon, when field batteries had a range of six hundred yards and musketry about sixty yards.
  • He said the distance was not more than fourteen hundred yards [1280 m].

 General Meade’s estimate was a mile or a mile and a half, 1.6 or 2.4 km.  Captain Long, the guide of the field of Gettysburg in 1888, stated that it was a trifle over a mile.

  • He then concluded that the divisions of McLaws and Hood could remain on the defensive line
  • that he would reinforce by divisions of the Third Corps and Pickett’s brigades, and stated the point to which the march should be directed.
  • I asked the strength of the column.
  • He stated fifteen thousand.
  • Opinion was then expressed that the fifteen thousand men who could make successful assault over that field had never been arrayed for battle; but he was impatient of listening, and tired of talking, and nothing was left but to proceed.

The largest artillery bombardment of the war

Around 1 p.m., from 150 to 170 Confederate guns began an artillery bombardment that was probably the largest of the war. In order to save valuable ammunition for the infantry attack that they knew would follow, the Army of the Potomac’s artillery, under the command of Brig. Gen. Henry Jackson Hunt, at first did not return the enemy’s fire. After waiting about 15 minutes, about 80 Union cannons added to the din. The Army of Northern Virginia was critically low on artillery ammunition, and the cannonade did not significantly affect the Union position.

Pickett’s Charge

Around 3 p.m., the cannon fire subsided, and 12,500 Southern soldiers stepped from the ridgeline and advanced the three-quarters of a mile (1,200 m) to Cemetery Ridge in what is known to history as Pickett’s Charge. As the Confederates approached, there was fierce flanking artillery fire from Union positions on Cemetery Hill and north of Little Round Top, and musket and canister fire from Hancock’s II Corps. In the Union centre, the commander of artillery had held fire during the Confederate bombardment in order to save it for the infantry assault, which Meade had correctly predicted the day before, leading Southern commanders to believe the Northern cannon batteries had been knocked out. However, they opened fire on the Confederate infantry during their approach with devastating results. Nearly one half of the attackers did not return to their own lines.

 Although the Union line wavered and broke temporarily at a jog called the “Angle” in a low stone fence, just north of a patch of vegetation called the Copse of Trees, reinforcements rushed into the breach, and the Confederate attack was repulsed. The farthest advance of Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Armistead’s brigade of Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s division at the Angle is referred to as the “High-water mark of the Confederacy”. Union and Confederate soldiers locked in hand-to-hand combat, attacking with their rifles, bayonets, rocks and even their bare hands. Armistead ordered his Confederates to turn two captured cannons against Union troops, but discovered that there was no ammunition left, the last double canister shots having been used against the charging Confederates. Armistead was wounded shortly afterward three times.

Cavalry battles

There were two significant cavalry engagements on July 3. Stuart was sent to guard the Confederate left flank and was to be prepared to exploit any success the infantry might achieve on Cemetery Hill by flanking the Union right and hitting their trains and lines of communications. Three miles (5 km) east of Gettysburg, in what is now called “East Cavalry Field”, between the York and Hanover Roads, Stuart’s forces collided with Union cavalry:

 Brig. Gen. David McMurtrie Gregg’s division and Brig. Gen. Custer’s brigade. A lengthy mounted battle, including hand-to-hand sabre combat, ensued. Custer’s charge, leading the 1st Michigan Cavalry, blunted the attack by Wade Hampton’s brigade, blocking Stuart from achieving his objectives in the Union rear.

 Meanwhile, after hearing news of the day’s victory, Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick launched a cavalry attack against the infantry positions of Longstreet’s Corps southwest of Big Round Top. Brig. Gen. Elon J. Farnsworth protested against the futility of such a move, but obeyed orders. Farnsworth was killed in the attack, and his brigade suffered significant losses.


The two armies suffered between 46,000 and 51,000 casualties, nearly one third of all total troops engaged, 28% of the Army of the Potomac and 37% of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Union casualties were 23,055

  • 3,155 killed
  • 14,531 wounded
  • 5,369 captured or missing

while Confederate casualties are more difficult to estimate.

 Many authors have referred to as many as 28,000 Confederate casualties, and Busey and Martin’s more recent 2005 work, Regimental Strengths and Losses at Gettysburg, documents 23,231

  • 4,708 killed
  • 12,693 wounded
  • 5,830 captured or missing

Nearly a third of Lee’s general officers were killed, wounded, or captured. The casualties for both sides during the entire campaign were 57,225. In addition to being the deadliest battle of the war, Gettysburg also had the highest number of generals killed in action.

The Confederacy lost generals

  1. Paul Jones Semmes
  2. William Barksdale
  3. William Dorsey Pender
  4. Richard Garnett
  5. Lewis Armistead
  6. Johnston Pettigrew during the retreat after the battle

The Union lost Generals

  1. John Reynolds
  2. Samuel K. Zook
  3. Stephen H. Weed
  4. Elon J. Farnsworth
  5. Strong Vincent: who after being mortally wounded was given a deathbed promotion to brigadier general.

 Additional senior officer casualties included the wounding of Union Generals

  1. Dan Sickles (lost a leg)
  2. Francis C. Barlow
  3. Daniel Butterfield
  4. Winfield Scott Hancock.

 For the Confederacy

  • Major General John Bell Hood lost the use of his left arm
  • Major General Henry Heth received a shot to the head on the first day of battle (though incapacitated for the rest of the battle, he remarkably survived without long-term injuries, credited in part due to his hat stuffed full of paper dispatches).


  • General James L. Kemper
  • General Isaac R. Trimble were severely wounded during Pickett’s charge and captured during the Confederate retreat.
  • General James J. Archer, in command of a brigade that most likely was responsible





Union dead on the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, photographed July 5 or July 6, 1863, by Timothy H. O’Sullivan.

Bruce Catton wrote, “The town of Gettysburg looked as if some universal moving day had been interrupted by catastrophe.” But there was only one documented civilian death during the battle: Ginnie Wade (also widely known as Jennie), 20 years old, was hit by a stray bullet that passed through her kitchen in town while she was making bread. Another notable civilian casualty was John L. Burns, a 69-year old veteran of the War of 1812 who walked to the front lines on the first day of battle and participated in heavy combat as a volunteer, receiving numerous wounds in the process. Despite his age and injuries, Burns survived the battle and lived until 1872. Nearly 8,000 had been killed outright; these bodies, lying in the hot summer sun, needed to be buried quickly. Over 3,000 horse carcasses were burned in a series of piles south of town; townsfolk became violently ill from the stench. Meanwhile, the town of Gettysburg, with its population of just 2,400, found itself tasked with taking care of 14,000 wounded Union troops and an additional 8,000 Confederate prisoners.

 Confederate retreat 5 July – 14 July 1863

Gettysburg Campaign Retreat

The armies stared at one another in a heavy rain across the bloody fields on July 4, the same day that, some 900 miles (1,500 km) away, the Vicksburg garrison surrendered to Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Lee had reformed his lines into a defensive position on Seminary Ridge the night of July 3, evacuating the town of Gettysburg. The Confederates remained on the battlefield, hoping that Meade would attack, but the cautious Union commander decided against the risk, a decision for which he would later be criticised. Both armies began to collect their remaining wounded and bury some of the dead. A proposal by Lee for a prisoner exchange was rejected by Meade.

 Lee started his Army of Northern Virginia in motion late the evening of July 4 towards Fairfield and Chambersburg. Cavalry under Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden was entrusted to escort the miles-long wagon train of supplies and wounded men that Lee wanted to take back to Virginia with him, using the route through Cashtown and Hagerstown to Williamsport, Maryland.

Meade’s army followed, although the pursuit was half-spirited. The recently rain-swollen Potomac trapped Lee’s army on the north bank of the river for a time, but when the Union troops finally caught up, the Confederates had forded the river.

The rear-guard action at Falling Waters on July 14 added some more names to the long casualty lists, including General Pettigrew, who was mortally wounded. General James L. Kemper, severely wounded during Pickett’s charge, was captured during Lee’s retreat.

In a brief letter to Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck written on July 7, Lincoln remarked on the two major Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. He continued:

 Now, if Gen. Meade can complete his work so gloriously prosecuted thus far, by the literal or substantial destruction of Lee’s army, the rebellion will be over.

 Halleck then relayed the contents of Lincoln’s letter to Meade in a telegram. However, the Army of the Potomac was exhausted by days of fighting and heavy losses. Furthermore, Meade was forced to detach 4,000 troops North to suppress the New York City Draft Riots, further reducing the effectiveness of his pursuit.

Despite repeated pleas from Lincoln and Halleck, which continued over the next week, Meade did not pursue Lee’s army aggressively enough to destroy it before it crossed back over the Potomac River to safety in the South.

The campaign continued into Virginia with light engagements until July 23, in the minor Battle of Manassas Gap, after which Meade abandoned any attempts at pursuit and the two armies took up positions across from each other on the Rappahannock River.

 Union reaction to the news of the victory

The news of the Union victory electrified the North. A headline in The Philadelphia Inquirer proclaimed “VICTORY! WATERLOO ECLIPSED!” New York diarist George Templeton Strong wrote:

The results of this victory are priceless. … The charm of Robert E. Lee’s invincibility is broken. The Army of the Potomac has at last found a general that can handle it, and has stood nobly up to its terrible work in spite of its long disheartening list of hard-fought failures. … Copperheads are palsied and dumb for the moment at least. … Government is strengthened four-fold at home and abroad — George Templeton Strong, Diary, p. 330.

 However, the Union enthusiasm soon dissipated as the public realised that Lee’s army had escaped destruction and the war would continue. Lincoln complained to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles that “Our army held the war in the hollow of their hand and they would not close it!” Brig. Gen. Alexander S. Webb wrote to his father on July 17, stating that such Washington politicians as “Chase, Seward and others,” disgusted with Meade, “write to me that Lee really won that Battle!”

Effect on the Confederacy

In fact, the Confederates had lost militarily and also politically. During the final hours of the battle, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens was approaching the Union lines at Norfolk, Virginia, under a flag of truce. Although his formal instructions from Confederate President Jefferson Davis had limited his powers to negotiate on prisoner exchanges and other procedural matters, historian James M. McPherson speculates that he had informal goals of presenting peace overtures. Davis had hoped that Stephens would reach Washington from the south while Lee’s victorious army was marching toward it from the north. President Lincoln, upon hearing of the Gettysburg results, refused Stephens’s request to pass through the lines. Furthermore, when the news reached London, any lingering hopes of European recognition of the Confederacy were finally abandoned. Henry Adams, whose father was serving as the U.S ambassador to the United Kingdom at the time, wrote, “The disasters of the rebels are unredeemed by even any hope of success. It is now conceded that all idea of intervention is at an end.”

 Compounding the effects of the defeat would be the end of the Siege of Vicksburg, which surrendered to Grant’s Federal armies in the West on July 4, the day after the Gettysburg battle.

The immediate reaction of the Southern military and public sectors was that Gettysburg was a setback, not a disaster. The sentiment was that Lee had been successful on July 1 and had fought a valiant battle on July 2–3, but could not dislodge the Union Army from the strong defensive position to which it fled. The Confederates successfully stood their ground on July 4 and withdrew only after they realised Meade would not attack them. The withdrawal to the Potomac that could have been a disaster was handled masterfully.

Furthermore, the Army of the Potomac had been kept away from Virginia farmlands for the summer and all predicted that Meade would be too timid to threaten them for the rest of the year. Lee himself had a positive view of the campaign, writing to his wife that the army had returned “rather sooner than I had originally contemplated, but having accomplished what I proposed on leaving the Rappahannock, viz., relieving the Valley of the presence of the enemy and drawing his Army north of the Potomac.”

He was quoted as saying to Maj. John Seddon, brother of the Confederate secretary of war, “Sir, we did whip them at Gettysburg, and it will be seen for the next six months that that army will be as quiet as a sucking dove.” Some Southern publications, such as the Charleston Mercury, were critical of Lee’s actions. On August 8, Lee offered his resignation to President Davis, who quickly rejected it.

 Gettysburg became a postbellum focus of the “Lost Cause”, a movement by writers such as Edward A. Pollard and Jubal Early to explain the reasons for the Confederate defeat in the war. A fundamental premise of their argument was that the South was doomed because of the overwhelming advantage in manpower and industrial might possessed by the North. They also contend that Robert E. Lee, who up until this time had been almost invincible, was betrayed by the failures of some of his key subordinates at Gettysburg:

  • Ewell, for failing to seize Cemetery Hill on July 1
  • Stuart, for depriving the army of cavalry intelligence for a key part of the campaign
  • Longstreet, for failing to attack on July 2 as early and as forcefully as Lee had originally intended.

In this view, Gettysburg was seen as a great lost opportunity, in which a decisive victory by Lee could have meant the end of the war in the Confederacy’s favour.

 After the war, General Pickett was asked why Confederates lost at Gettysburg. He was reported to have said, “I always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”

Gettysburg Address

Gettysburg, November 19, 1863. Crowd of citizens, soldiers, and etc., with a red arrow indicating Abraham Lincoln.

Gettysburg National Cemetery


The ravages of war were still evident in Gettysburg more than four months later when, on November 19, the Soldiers’ National Cemetery was dedicated. During this ceremony, President Abraham Lincoln honoured the fallen and redefined the purpose of the war in his historic Gettysburg Address.

 Medal of Honour

There were 72 Medals of Honour awarded for the Gettysburg Campaign. 64 of the awards were for actions taken during the battle itself, with the first recipient being awarded in December 1864. The last Medal of Honour was posthumously awarded to Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing in 2014.

 Decisive victory controversies

The nature of the result of the Battle of Gettysburg has been the subject of controversy. Although not seen as overwhelmingly significant at the time, particularly since the war continued for almost two years, in retrospect it has often been cited as the “turning point”, usually in combination with the fall of Vicksburg the following day. This is based on the observation that, after Gettysburg, Lee’s army conducted no more strategic offensives—his army merely reacted to the initiative of Ulysses S. Grant in 1864 and 1865

The Army of the Potomac had won a victory. It might be less of a victory than Mr. Lincoln had hoped for, but it was nevertheless a victory—and, because of that, it was no longer possible for the Confederacy to win the war. The North might still lose it, to be sure, if the soldiers or the people should lose heart, but outright defeat was no longer in the cards – Bruce Catton, Glory Road

 It is currently a widely held view that Gettysburg was a decisive victory for the Union, but the term is considered imprecise. It is inarguable that Lee’s offensive on July 3 was turned back decisively and his campaign in Pennsylvania was terminated prematurely, although the Confederates at the time argued that this was a temporary setback and that the goals of the campaign were largely met. However, when the more common definition of “decisive victory” is intended—an indisputable military victory of a battle that determines or significantly influences the ultimate result of a conflict—historians are divided.

For example:

  • David J. Eicher called Gettysburg a “strategic loss for the Confederacy” and James M. McPherson wrote that “Lee and his men would go on to earn further laurels. But they never again possessed the power and reputation they carried into Pennsylvania those palmy summer days of 1863.”
  • However, Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones wrote that the “strategic impact of the Battle of Gettysburg was … fairly limited.” Steven E. Woodworth wrote that “Gettysburg proved only the near impossibility of decisive action in the Eastern action in the eastern theatre.”
  • Edwin Coddington pointed out the heavy toll on the Army of the Potomac and that “after the battle Meade no longer possessed a truly effective instrument for the accomplishments of his task. The army needed a thorough reorganisation with new commanders and fresh troops, but these changes were not made until Grant appeared on the scene in March 1864.”
  • Joseph T. Glatthaar wrote that “Lost opportunities and near successes plagued the Army of Northern Virginia during its Northern invasion,” yet after Gettysburg, “without the distractions of duty as an invading force, without the breakdown of discipline, the Army of Northern Virginia remained an extremely formidable force.”
  • Ed Bearss wrote, “Lee’s invasion of the North had been a costly failure. Nevertheless, at best the Army of the Potomac had simply preserved the strategic stalemate in the Eastern Theater …”
  • Furthermore, the Confederacy soon proved it was still capable of winning significant victories over the Northern forces in both the East, Battle of Cold Harbour, and West. Battle of Chickamauga.
  • Peter Carmichael refers to the military context for the armies, the “horrendous losses at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, which effectively destroyed Lee’s offensive capacity,” implying that these cumulative losses were not the result of a single battle.
  • Thomas Goss, writing in the U.S. Army’s Military Review journal on the definition of “decisive” and the application of that description to Gettysburg, concludes: “For all that was decided and accomplished, the Battle of Gettysburg fails to earn the label ‘decisive battle’.”
  • The military historian John Keegan agrees. Gettysburg was a landmark battle, the largest of the war and it would not be surpassed. The Union had restored to it the belief in certain victory, and the loss dispirited the Confederacy.

If “not exactly a decisive battle”, Gettysburg was the end of Confederate use of Northern Virginia as a military buffer zone, the setting for Grant’s Overland Campaign.

 Lee vs. Meade


Robert Edward Lee
General Robert E. Lee, (Commanding) 

Prior to Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee had established a reputation as an almost invincible general, achieving stunning victories against superior numbers—although usually at the cost of high casualties to his army—during the Seven Days, the Northern Virginia Campaign (including the Second Battle of Bull Run), Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville.

Only the Maryland Campaign, with its tactically inconclusive Battle of Antietam, had been less than successful. Therefore, historians have attempted to explain how Lee’s winning streak was interrupted so dramatically at Gettysburg.

The major factors in Lee’s loss arguably can be attributed to:

  • his overconfidence in the invincibility of his men
  • the performance of his subordinates, and his management thereof
  • his failing health
  • the performance of his opponent, George G. Meade, and the Army of the Potomac.

Throughout the campaign, Lee was influenced by the belief that his men were invincible; most of Lee’s experiences with the Army of Northern Virginia had convinced him of this, including the great victory at Chancellorsville in early May and the rout of the Union troops at Gettysburg on July 1.

Since morale plays an important role in military victory when other factors are equal, Lee did not want to dampen his army’s desire to fight and resisted suggestions, principally by Longstreet, to withdraw from the recently captured Gettysburg to select a ground more favourable to his army. War correspondent Peter W. Alexander wrote that Lee “acted, probably, under the impression that his troops were able to carry any position however formidable. If such was the case, he committed an error, such however as the ablest commanders will sometimes fall into.” Lee himself concurred with this judgment, writing to President Davis, “No blame can be attached to the army for its failure to accomplish what was projected by me, nor should it be censured for the unreasonable expectations of the public—I am alone to blame, in perhaps expecting too much of its prowess and valour.”

 The most controversial assessments of the battle involve the performance of Lee’s subordinates. The dominant theme of many other historians is that Lee’s senior generals failed him in crucial ways, directly causing the loss of the battle; the alternative viewpoint is that Lee did not manage his subordinates adequately, and did not thereby compensate for their shortcomings.

Two of his corps commanders—Richard S. Ewell and A.P. Hill—had only recently been promoted and were not fully accustomed to Lee’s style of command, in which he provided only general objectives and guidance to their former commander, Stonewall Jackson; Jackson translated these into detailed, specific orders to his division commanders. All four of Lee’s principal commanders received criticism during the campaign and battle:

James Longstreet directly criticised Lee in postbellum writings and became a Republican after the war. His critics accuse him of attacking much later than Lee intended on July 2, squandering a chance to hit the Union Army before its defensive positions had firmed up. They also question his lack of motivation to attack strongly on July 2 and 3 because he had argued that the army should have manoeuvred to a place where it would force Meade to attack them. The alternative view is that Lee was in close contact with Longstreet during the battle, agreed to delays on the morning of July 2, and never criticised Longstreet’s performance. There is also considerable speculation about what an attack might have looked like before Dan Sickles moved the III Corps toward the Peach Orchard.

 J.E.B. Stuart deprived Lee of cavalry intelligence during a good part of the campaign by taking his three best brigades on a path away from the army’s. This arguably led to Lee’s surprise at Hooker’s vigorous pursuit; the engagement on July 1 that escalated into the full battle prematurely; and it also prevented Lee from understanding the full disposition of the enemy on July 2. The disagreements regarding Stuart’s culpability for the situation originate in the relatively vague orders issued by Lee, but most modern historians agree that both generals were responsible to some extent for the failure of the cavalry’s mission early in the campaign.

Richard S. Ewell has been universally criticised for failing to seize the high ground on the afternoon of July 1. Once again the disagreement centres on Lee’s orders, which provided general guidance for Ewell to act “if practicable.” A differently worded order from Lee might have made the difference with this subordinate.

 A.P. Hill has received some criticism for his ineffective performance. His actions caused the battle to begin and then escalate on July 1, despite Lee’s orders not to bring on a general engagement (although historians point out that Hill kept Lee well informed of his actions during the day). However, Hill’s illness minimised his personal involvement in the remainder of the battle, and Lee took the explicit step of temporarily removing troops from Hill’s corps and giving them to Longstreet for Pickett’s Charge.

In addition to Hill’s illness, Lee’s performance was affected by heart troubles, which would eventually lead to his death in 1870; he had been diagnosed with pericarditis by his staff physicians in March 1863, though modern doctors believe he had in fact suffered a heart attack. He wrote to Jefferson Davis that his physical condition prevented him from offering full supervision in the field, and said, “I am so dull that in making use of the eyes of others I am frequently misled.”

 As a final factor, Lee faced a new and formidable opponent in George G. Meade, and the Army of the Potomac fought well on its home territory. Although new to his army command, Meade deployed his forces relatively effectively; relied on strong subordinates such as Winfield S. Hancock to make decisions where and when they were needed; took great advantage of defensive positions; nimbly shifted defensive resources on interior lines to parry strong threats; and, unlike some of his predecessors, stood his ground throughout the battle in the face of fierce Confederate attacks.


George G. Meade

Major General George G. Meade, (Commanding) 

George G. Meade

Lee was quoted before the battle as saying Meade “would commit no blunders on my front and if I make one … will make haste to take advantage of it.”

That prediction proved to be correct at Gettysburg.

  • Stephen Sears wrote, “The fact of the matter is that George G. Meade, unexpectedly and against all odds, thoroughly outgeneraled Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg.”
  • Edwin B. Coddington wrote that the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac received a “sense of triumph which grew into an imperishable faith in themselves. The men knew what they could do under an extremely competent general; one of lesser ability and courage could well have lost the battle.”

Meade had his own detractors as well. Similar to the situation with Lee, Meade suffered partisan attacks about his performance at Gettysburg, but he had the misfortune of experiencing them in person. Supporters of his predecessor, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, lambasted Meade before the U.S. Congress’s Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, where Radical Republicans suspected that Meade was a Copperhead and tried in vain to relieve him from command.

Daniel E. Sickles and Daniel Butterfield accused Meade of planning to retreat from Gettysburg during the battle.

Most politicians, including Lincoln, criticised Meade for what they considered to be his half-hearted pursuit of Lee after the battle. A number of Meade’s most competent subordinates:

  • Winfield S. Hancock
  • John Gibbon
  • Gouverneur K. Warren
  • Henry J. Hunt

all heroes of the battle—defended Meade in print, but Meade was embittered by the overall experience.



Union breastworks on Culp’s Hill
The “High Water Mark” on Cemetery Ridge as it appears today. The monument to the 72nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment (“Baxter’s Philadelphia Fire Zouaves”) appears at right, the Copse of Trees to the left

Courtesy of:
By United States, War Department. – United States, War Department. Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1891 (2 vols.)., Public Domain,
By United States, War Department. – United States, War Department. Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1891 (2 vols.)., Public Domain,

Constructing a Portrait of Pakistan through the Stories of Its People

During her travels across Pakistan, Pamela Constable, a veteran foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, dropped in on the campus of Punjab University in Lahore, a city of 10 million, the scene of terrorist bombings and the cultural capital of the nation. By cultural capital, residents generally refer to the fading Mughal monuments and, to a lesser extent, the lively contemporary art scene at the National College of Arts.

The university, the country’s largest, has little to do with these two attributes of Lahore.   The campus has been a crucible of Islamic radicalism for a decade. Ms. Constable’s visit, she recounts in her new book, “Playing With Fire: Pakistan at War With Itself,” was spurred by the news that students belonging to Jamiat-e-Tulaba, a radical Islamic group affiliated with a national religious party, had beaten a dean who dared to expel some of its members.

She had not been on the campus for two years. When she arrived in the spring of 2010, she was amazed, she writes, by how much power the group wielded. A student told her: “We are good Muslims, so when on campus boys cross the limits, we have to check them. Some of the values that come from the West do not belong in our society, and we cannot allow them to be practiced on our campus.” When pressed, the student listed: “Things like drugs, music, media, relations with girls.”

This was not the secular place Ms. Constable once knew. The student’s argument, she noted, “came straight from the Taliban worldview.” Less than a year later an extremist bodyguard assassinated the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, a man who belonged to the old Lahore of tolerance.

The killing was bad enough. More disturbing was the celebration of the killer among lawyers, police officers and clerics as a defender of the faith. “A so-called moderate Muslim society was proving far more fanatical than either its political elite or Western backers had suspected, while its authorities were too intimidated to take on the religious mob,” she writes.

Ms. Constable meets and talks with many different kinds of Pakistanis — students, landowners, clerics, government ministers, poor women, factory managers, even strangers at bus stops — in a book that she says is designed to introduce the general reader to a complex, little understood nation of immense importance to the United States. She does not seek, she explains at the outset, to ferret out “the secrets of powerful institutions or radical movements” or to delineate the complex, and now rapidly sinking, relationship between Pakistan and the United States.

Instead, she focuses on the main themes of Pakistani society. She deals with feudalism, the deplorable situation of most Pakistani women, the rotten justice system, the powerful military, the relentless march of religious extremism, and she weaves in interviews, news events and a touch of history.

For newcomers to Pakistan Ms. Constable’s method may well be satisfying. With deft choices, she illuminates some of the shocking truths about a Muslim country that emerged at the end of Britain’s Indian empire in 1947 with the stated intention of honoring other religions.

In the well-titled chapter “Hate,” she points out that only one Pakistani has won a Nobel Prize. Abdus Salam, a theoretical physicist, received the honor in 1979. But because he belonged to the Ahmadi Muslim sect, a small minority that is basically outlawed in Pakistan, Mr. Salam is an unknown in Pakistan. “To his homeland Salam’s achievements were an embarrassment and a glitch in the official narrative that Ahmadis are enemies of Islam — infidels to be avoided, mistrusted, and despised.” In contrast A. Q. Khan, a scientist who stole nuclear secrets and then peddled them to rogue states, is hailed as a national hero.

An intrepid reporter, Ms. Constable is at her best when she ventures among the underclass, the vast majority of the population trapped, she notes, at the bottom of a deeply hierarchical society. At a brick kiln she uncovers violence and desperation. In heat and dust the laborers reap little but mounting indebtedness to the harsh owners. Some of the workers resort to selling their kidneys to the underground organ trade. One man said he was 45 but, after having sold his kidney, looked 60. “The worst part,” he said, “is that I still haven’t paid off my debt.”

Ms. Constable does not ignore the elite. She writes in general about the corruption of President Asif Ali Zardari and the mixed signals of the chief of army staff, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. She interviews parliamentarians who for the most part are feudal landowners with an interest in perpetuating the status quo rather than seriously working toward a real democracy. She discusses the support given to Lashkar-e-Taiba and other proxy militant groups that the military uses against India and that foment extremism at home.

But her resolve to ignore the long, tortured Pakistani-American relationship, and her decision to avoid drawing conclusions about why Pakistan is on such a downward spiral, sells the reader short. Pakistani society is important for Americans to understand because the United States has a strategic interest in a country fraught with the toxic mix of nuclear weapons and Islamic militancy. That radical Islam is growing so rapidly has much to do with the refusal of the civilian leaders to push back against extremism, to run government for the benefit of the citizens rather than themselves. President Zardari was too afraid to attend the funeral of his friend Mr. Taseer, the murdered governor of Punjab. General Kayani did not appear either. It was an ideal moment for one, or both, to appeal to sanity.

These two leaders have yet to take such a firm stand, and given the anecdotal evidence of the gains of radical Islam accumulated with energy and detail by Ms. Constable, it may be too late.

Constructing a Portrait of Pakistan through the Stories of Its People by Jane Perlez, Aug. 8, 2011

Courtesy of New York Times


Pakistan at war with itself

Pakistan is a vast and diverse society of some 175 million people who inhabit scattered pockets of clan and class, religion and ethnicity, poverty and power. It has a thousand separate worlds that may coexist at close quarters but never intersect. Pakistan is a country of existential as well as cultural contradictions, some of which have not been resolved since it was founded six decades ago. It is a constitutional democracy in which many people they have no access to political power or justice. It is an Islamic republic in which many Muslims feel passionate about their faith but are confused and conflicted over what role Islam should play in their society.

In all these issues lurks the same central question: why is Pakistan, with its huge military establishment, democratic form of government, and tradition of moderate Muslim culture, failing to curb both the growing violent threat and the popular appeal of radical Islam?

The most important thing that I have learned is that many Pakistanis feel they have no power. They see the trappings of representative democracy around them but little tangible evidence of it working in their lives. They feel dependent on, and often at the mercy of forces more powerful then them: landlords, police, tribal jirgas, intelligence services, politicized courts, corrupt bureaucrats, and legislators tied to local power elites. People do not trust the system, so they feel they need a patron to get around it. This in turn makes everyone complicit in corruption, especially its victims.

The second most important thing I learned is that in Pakistan, truth is an elusive and malleable commodity. Many things are gray and murky, and people survive by playing the angles, ducking their heads, and reinventing themselves. Truth is elastic, fleeting, and subject to endless political manipulation.

When those at the top of a society routinely prevaricate and obfuscate, hypocrisy becomes a way of life and the state cannot expect or demand that ordinary citizens will behave honestly. When political pressure and corruption filter down to the pettiest legal case or the smallest bureaucratic transaction, a government cannot ask its citizens to rise above them.

The third thing I began to understand was the deeply–sometimes frighteningly–emotional nature of many Pakistanis attachment to their religion. Pakistan is not a theocracy, but it was founded as a Muslim nation, its laws written in conformity with Islam, and the vast majority of its inhabitants are Muslims. Yet its citizens receive a barrage of confused messages about what it means to be a Muslim, what is the correct meaning of sharia or jihad, and what is the proper relationship between the state and religion.

Many Pakistanis are extremely passionate about Islam and easily roused to anger in its defence. To an extent the fervour correlates with class and education. In a society where millions are barely literate, raised to revere rather than question, and exposed to limited sources of information, they can be easily swept up in mob hysteria against anyone accused of insulting their religion. Police, courts, and political leaders are often reluctant to intervene, either from sympathy or from fear of backlash by powerful Islamic groups and their followers.

There are also influential people in Pakistan, including highly educated opinion makers, who deliberately equate national pride and patriotism with unquestioned support for Islam, no matter what form it takes. Some seem to be promoting a dangerous clash of civilizations with the West for purely domestic political or religious purpose.

This deliberate conflation of religion and state, famously rejected by Jinnah in 1947, was revived and promoted heavily during the Cold War era of the 1980s, when military ruler Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq launched a campaign to “Islamize” the nation. It has continued to filter through society ever since, accompanied by the proliferation of Islamic seminaries, of which there are now more than twenty thousand across the country, teaching an estimated two million students. Many of these establishments are moderate and mainstream, but others are unregulated, unregistered nurseries of hate.

Since the attacks of 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been a growing tendency toward a more muscular or conservative religious attitude among Pakistanis as well as Muslims elsewhere, from pop singers and politicians to cricket players and TV hosts. Many Pakistanis today abhor the primitive extremism of the Taliban, yet they deeply resent the West and feel stridently defensive about Islam.

In the first four months of 2011, a series of events brought Pakistan’s internal contradictions into sharply dramatic relief. They highlighted the violent divergence of religious convictions among ordinary Muslims, the cultural divide between rural and urban notions of justice, the abysmal level of mistrust between allied military and intelligence establishments in Islamabad and Washington, and the official incompetence or perfidy that allowed al Qaeda’s fugitive leader, Osama bin Laden, to live for years just a few blocks from Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point, where he was killed in a secret raid by US Navy Seals.

The first issue exploded just after the New Year, with the successive, hate-driven assassinations of two liberal Pakistani officials, Punjab Province governor Salman Taseer and the Federal Minister for Minority Religious Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti. The two men had little in common: Taseer was a brash, wealthy, and secular Muslim politico; Bhatti, a devout Christian advocate from a Punjabi village. What they shared was an outspoken commitment to religious tolerance, a cornerstone of Jinnah’s founding vision for Pakistan.

Another growing source suspicion and tension between the United States and Pakistan–despite their official partnership in the war on Islamic terrorism–was the role of covert American military and intelligence operations inside Pakistan. They included a campaign of missile strikes by CIA drone planes on military targets near the Afghan border and rumoured ground operations to spy on extremist groups. American officials had long suspected Pakistan of secretly shielding some militants, despite its adamant denials, thus necessitating covert action.

These tensions erupted in a nationwide furor in January, when Raymond Davis, a burly CIA contractor, shot dead two young men who were following his vehicle on motorbikes in Lahore; a third was struck and killed by a US embassy vehicle. The incident confirmed Pakistan’s worst suspicions about US spy activities and created an awkward dilemma for Washington, which needed to placate its allies in Islamabad but prevent Davis from being publicly tried in Pakistan.

Yet for every enduring problem in Pakistan, feudalism or corruption, militancy or injustice–there are signs of change and pockets of hope. Unfortunately forces for change can also become compromised, or work against themselves. The independent judiciary, destroyed by military rule and then restored by the extraordinary lawyer’s movement, has set an inspiring example in some cases but it has proven hidebound in others or provoked political and institutional confrontations that Pakistan can ill afford.

The remarkable rise of the independent media, especially private TV news channels, has exposed sandals and abuses, and it has made officials more accountable than ever before. Yet often news and commentary stray into sensationalism and ad hominem attacks, and influential talk show hosts frequently pander to public fears and prejudices rather than calling for fairness and facts.

But change is not coming fast enough. The majority of Pakistanis still feel excluded from politics, educational opportunities, jobs, and justice. They have become accustomed to paying bribes instead of taxes, and to seeking favour from corrupt politicians instead pf demanding service from the state. They look to someone to blame for their plight, and it is easy for them to be persuaded that foreign enemies of Pakistan and Islam are the cause, when often the problem starts at home.

Most major news in Pakistan comes from its volatile, densely packed cities–suicide bombings in Karachi, protest marches in Lahore, teeming refugee camps in Peshawar. But almost two-thirds of Pakistan’s inhabitants, more than 120 million people, still live in rural areas, and 87 million make their living straight from the land.

Agriculture dominates the national economy, with crop production and livestock contributing 31% of the total gross domestic product (GDP). Of the four provinces, Punjab and Sindh are the big breadbaskets and export producers, with hundred s of thousands of acres planted in cotton and food crops. In 2008-09, Pakistan produced 50 million tons of sugar cane, 24 million tons of wheat, 11.7 million bales of cotton, and 6 million tons of rice.

Much of Pakistan is extremely arid, and its crops are heavily dependent on man-made irrigation, including an elaborate system of canals built by the British a century ago. It also faces a chronic water shortage that is becoming more acute each year and that could seriously jeopardize its ability to feed a population that continues to grow at more than 3% a year. Some analysts call water scarcity the single greatest threat to Pakistan’s stability and survival.

At the time of Partition, land ownership in Pakistan was highly concentrated among a few families, with about 7% of farms occupying more than half the arable land and a handful of vast feudal estates accounting for one-third. In the 1950s and 1970s, two modest land reform programs broke up many large holdings, and today 93% of Pakistani farms are less than 10 acres in size. Yet many wealthy landowning families were able to skirt these limitations by parceling out property among dozens of relatives. Today large plantations still occupy 40% of the total cultivated area, and the power of the landlord class is reinforced by their continued dominance in regional and national politics.

Despite the formal break up of feudal lands, the feudal mind-set persists–especially in southern Punjab and northern Sindh–perpetuating the wide social gulf between the peon and the patron, and reinforcing the bonds of paternalism and loyalty that keep many illiterate villagers trapped on the land rather than seeking education and opportunities elsewhere.

Most rural Pakistanis live and die in small circumscribed worlds that have barely changed for generations. Often their children do not attend school, or drop out after a few years. Families need them to work in the fields and may see little benefit in sending them to class. Girls are married off early to keep them chaste and safe within the clan. Teachers are hard to recruit and keep in remote areas, and thousands of rural “ghost” schools sit empty, while bureaucrats collect their operating fees.

The result is abysmal rural literacy rates and a burgeoning population of unskilled young people who will probably never rise above their parents learning or earning levels. The national literacy rate is officially 57%, but it is only 36% for women. In some rural areas of Sindh and Balochistan, less than 20% of women are able to read, add and subtract, or even write their name. The situation is even worse in the northwest tribal areas, where militant groups often recruit unoccupied young men from poor villages.

Rural life has other priorities. It is ruled by the changing seasons and by unquestioned traditions of honour,duty, and vengeance. Villagers are subject to the decisions of the waderas, hereditary rural chiefs, and sardars, hereditary tribal leaders. In the rural areas, people are bound together by the traditions and kinship of their biraderi, a word whose definition lies somewhere between “caste” and “brotherhood”. The old nomenclature persists too, although it represents a dying way of life. Landless peasants are still known as haris and landowners as zamindars, although some zamindars are also waderas, which makes them responsible for handling the problems of haris in their area: property disputes, illness, debts, crimes, and family crisis.

Even today, many haris have never been to school, never owned a plot of land, and never earned more than a few hundred dollars or a few sacks of grain for a years hard toil. They may own a cow or a buffalo, which they have borrowed heavily to purchase, but their only luxuries are likely to be an electric fan or a bicycle. They turn to their biraderi elders for advice and to the landlord for loans. At election time, they usually vote for the candidate their elders support, and in return they are guaranteed a patron to intervene on their behalf with the police and unblock bureaucratic hurdles. They do not make news, hold protests, travel farther than the nearest city, or dare imagine any other life.

While Pakistan’s rural society remains trapped in the past, its urban class is careering toward a dynamic but perilous future. The population of its cities–especially the large metropolitan magnets such as Karachi and Lahore, and the gritty industrial zones such as Faisalabad and Sialkot–has expanded seven-fold since 1950. Karachi, a sprawling port city on the Arabian Sea is home to 18 million.

The most volatile problem facing the cities is the population explosion. More than half of Pakistanis today are under age fifteen. The number of inhabitants has doubled since the 1960s and increased by 50 million in the last twelve years alone, to an estimated 176 million. Even though families are larger in the countryside, competition for space, jobs, and basic amenities is much greater in the cities.

With formal employment market expanding much more slowly than the population, Pakistan faces an imminent youth explosion that will trap many young people in dead-end urban jobs and may push others into the arms of criminal gangs or Islamic guerrillas.

Bhutto founded the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in 1967, which championed the idea of Islamic socialism, and as prime minister, he proposed a variety of reforms aimed at reducing the power of the wealthy elite. But the antagonisms of class and ideology he aroused were seen as a dangerous threat by the permanent military and civilian establishment.


Excerpts from: Playing with Fire by Pamela Constable, Random House Inc. 2011 New York




Fugitives in the Land of Their Fathers



For centuries the land which we now know today as Saudi Arabia had remained a land unknown and feared by outsiders. Although European and Asian seafarers had for centuries visited its shores, had established trading posts, built harbours and fortresses and even stationed garrisons around its coasts, even in Abd al-Rahman’s day, extremely few Europeans had ever ventured more than a few miles inland. In the whole of the nineteenth century, up until the time when Abd al-Rahman  and the Saudis fled from Riyadh in January 1891, only three Europeans penetrated into the heart of Arabia, so far as Riyadh. Najd and whole of the centre of Arabia remained an impenetrable and forbidding mystery.

The one serious attempt to conquer Arabia began in 26 BCE when the Roman Emperor Augustus, having subjugated Mesopotamia, defeated Cleopatra and taken possession of Egypt and its Red Sea coast, dispatched Aelius Gallus with instructions to cross the Red Sea and either win over the Arab nation as a client state or subjugate it by conquest. Augustus was motivated both by a desire to outdo the achievements of Alexander and by reports, going back over many generations, that the Arabs were very rich as a result of their trade in aromatics, gold, silver and precious stones. But Gallus’s attempt to invade and conquer Arabia failed. Betrayed and misled by his locally recruited guides, his army became lost in the desert and was decimated by disease.

One place where Roman influence seems to have taken hold was Meda’in Saleh (known as Thamud after the people who inhabited it) in the northwest of the peninsula on the old spice route running up from the south along the Red Sea coastal plain through Medina. The Qur’an refers to the people of Meda’in in Saleh as “Companions of the Rocky Tract”. Their city stood in a valley about 2000 feet above sea level, cut into reddish and yellow golden rocks surrounded by sheer cliffs. Although many inscriptions and other artefacts have been found dating from earlier periods, today most of the tombs and domestic dwellings that survive at Meda’in Saleh date from between the second century BCE and the second century CE. Recently designated Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, Meda’in Saleh has been described as the sister to Petra in Jordan. Were it not for the fact that many devout Saudi Muslims consider the place to be cursed and so will not visit it, it would surely be as famous as its sister city, Petra.

By the year of the Prophet Muhammad’s birth, 570 CE, the two dominant powers in the region, were Byzantium (formerly the Eastern Roman Empire) and Persia. Both of the dominant regional powers had by this time adopted monotheistic religions. Byzantium was Christian, Persia Zoroastrian. Under the Byzantines, the land of Palestine had become largely Christian, although well established Jewish communities continued to live both there and throughout Mesopotamia, even in Arabia itself. However for the majority of Arabs living away from the few cities, spiritual life continued to be centred on the tribe. For nomadic peoples, living extremely hazardous, hand-to-mouth lives roaming the wastes with their flocks, searching for pasture and sustenance wherever they might find it, it was only through the tribe, through co-operation and absolute loyalty to the group that they could hope to survive. All law and dedication was centred on the tribal group. The tribe itself, based on blood and kinship, was sacred. Notions of individual survival beyond the grave, of a personal afterlife, did not exist for these people. The only immortality a man or woman could hope for was through the on-going survival of their kin, their tribe. The result was a deep but dignified personal fatalism, an acceptance and stoic endurance of whatever chance, weather or other circumstance fate might bring. Often hungry, the nomad replaced the settler’s concern for material possessions with an absolute dedication to the life and well-being of the group. The tribes could not afford to support castes of priests or shamans. Their role in tribal life was filled by the poets who sang or recited in verse, extolling the tribe’s virtues and retelling its time honoured stories. Poetry occupied an extremely important place in the life of all Arabs and poetry itself was often seen as magical; a poet in the act of reciting was commonly regarded as being possessed by the djinn, a supernatural spirit of the landscape. The Arabs of the desert viewed the new religions, the monotheisms adopted by the settled peoples of the north and far south, with deep suspicion.

However, to the Arabs living in the few cities, those monotheisms, and the empires associated with them, represented progress, modernity, relative wealth and well-being. Yet, while many probably accepted that there was probably one god who was more important or powerful than others, at the time of Muhammad’s birth, most of the Arabs of the peninsula, even the city dwellers, remained nominally polytheists, their gods representing or associated with those forces which were most important to their lives: fertility, health, love, death, rain and so on. As with the Bedouin, illnesses or particular places might be associated with malevolent spirits, the djinn or with the displeasure of a god. By making votive offerings to the appropriate god or at a suitable shrine one could hope to influence that god in one’s own favour. As well as places believed to be cursed or associated with evil spirits, there were also sacred places, trees, springs, valleys, rocks thought to be holy, to be associated with a particular god or legendary event. Archaic rituals were enacted at shrines erected in such places. The most revered of all such shrines was the Ka’aba at Mecca. Mecca was a thriving city, its success based on trade and its position at the intersection of two important trade routes– the one running along the western coastal plain from Yemen north into Syria, the other crossing it from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf.

Muhammad ibn Abdallah was a relatively successful Meccan merchant, the orphaned son of a respected local clan. By the time he was forty, he had gained a reputation for kindness to the poor and to slaves, and for the fact that despite his family’s relative wealth, he ensured that he and his family lived modestly. Muhammad had developed an annual ritual for himself. During the ninth month of every year, called Ramadan, he would withdraw from the town and his family and climb to a cave at the summit of a nearby mountain. There, in solitude, he would devote himself to prayer, fasting, giving alms to the poor and spiritual exercises. During Muhammad’s annual spiritual retreat to the mountain-top cave in Ramadan 610, something extraordinary happened. He said that one night he had been visited by the Angel Gabriel, not some pretty luminous, winged and robed ethereal being of the kind familiar in later Western art, but an overwhelming, towering presence. This figure commanded Muhammad to recite. When he refused, protesting repeatedly that he was “not a reciter”, the Angel simply overwhelmed him by his presence, squeezing him until he heard himself proclaiming the first words of the Qur’an, “the Recitation”. Like some Old Testament prophets before him, Muhammad was not uplifted by his vision but terrified. Further visions followed.

It was not until 612 CE, two years after his first vision that Muhammad began to preach. Even then he did not believe that he was founding a new religion but simply bringing the old faith in the One God to the Arabs. Most of the people Muhammad preached to, already believed, as the Christians and Jews believed, that Allah, or God, had created the world and that on the last day He would judge humanity. God had sent the Christians and Jews their own scripture or revelation, now Muhammad had been entrusted to bring the Arabs their own scripture and revelation in their own language. Arabs referred to the Christians and Jews as the People of the Book but, as most of the Arabs to whom Muhammad preached were illiterate, the Scripture God gave to them through Muhammad was delivered as an ongoing sequence of recitations (or Qur’an). These ‘recitations’ collected together, would come to form the Holy Qur’an. Later there would also come to be collections of Hadiths, reports of the deeds and sayings of Muhammad and his close companions. There would also come to be a series of Sunnah, sanctioned practices, procedures or actions.

The Qur’an did not seek to supersede or replace the other religions ‘of the Book’ but to bring the Word of the One God to Muhammad’s people, the Arabs. His message was the same as that of Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon and Jesus, all of whom are specifically cited in the Quran. What mattered was not whether you were a Jew or a Christian but the quality and totality of your surrender to God. According to a well known Hadith Muhammad declared that the faith he preached was based on five pillars. The first and most important was, and is, the submission by man or woman of their entire being to God, expressed in prostrations on the ground that a Muslim is required to make five times a day together with the profession (shahadad or bearing of witness) to Islam’s central tenet: ‘There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His Prophet’. The others relate to giving alms or charity, making the pilgrimage to Mecca, and fasting during Ramadan. Some versions of the Five Pillars include another alongside prayer, jihad, which means ‘exerting oneself in the path of God’, by such acts as giving charity, freeing slaves, challenging oppression, armed struggle against injustice and creating space in which the Faith and Muslims may flourish. The core teaching of what came to be called Islam, which literally means ‘submission’ or ‘surrender’ in the specific sense of to the will of God, was a call to social justice, practical compassion and a spirit of true community. In many ways Muhammad’s message looked back to the old virtues of the nomadic tribal community, to values that seemed to have become lost in the urban life of Mecca. Unlike Christianity, where acceptance of a specific set of beliefs or doctrines were of central importance, in Islam as in Judaism, the central requirement was that people live and act in a specific moral way and undertake a set of prescribed duties.

After Muhammad’s death in 632 CE, his followers elected his father-in-law, Abu Bakr, Caliph. A number of tribes attempted to secede from the confederacy created by him, but over the next two years Abu Bakr subdued their revolt and went on to unite almost all the tribes of Arabia. Now united in the Muslim Ummah, instead of fighting among themselves the Arabs moved on to achieve a series of astonishing victories. In 637 they defeated the army of the Persian Empire and in 638 captured Jerusalem. Within a hundred years of Muhammad’s death they controlled an empire which stretched east across the former Persian Empire to the Himalayas and Central Asia, west across North Africa, both through Spain to the Pyrenees and up into France as far as the Loire River at Tours. The leader of this formidable Muslim army was named Abd al-Rahman. Al-Rahman’s advance into Europe was only halted in 732 when a Christian army, reportedly numbering up to 60,000 footmen under Frank Charles Martel decisively defeated Abd al-Rahman’s even larger army of Saracen horsemen near Poiters. Fourteen years earlier, outside Constantinople, the Arab advance into the Byzantine Empire toward the Balkans had also been halted.

Although the Muslim advance into Europe had been checked, the next hundred years saw a series of great cultural and scientific advances in the Islamic civilisation. Under the Qur’anic injunction to look, see, learn and understand, Muslim scholars made more scientific discoveries in this time than in the whole of previously recorded history. The works of Greek scholars were translated into Arabic. The Sharia, God’s law revealed to guide humanity, was codified into a unified system and the Hadith and authoritative reports of the deeds and sayings of the Prophet and his close companions anthologised, so that together they would form a coherent body of Islamic law. But as trade and industry blossomed the elite increasingly came to live in luxury separated from the ordinary people. Now the rulers of a large empire, the Caliphs and their entourages lived in splendid isolation and elaborate pomp like absolute monarchs, with vast harems and courtiers kissing the ground whenever they came into the Caliph’s presence. All this was in sharp contrast to the days of the Prophet when the only being in front of whom a man prostrated himself was God. But as more and more of what passed for normal became harder to square with the egalitarian ideals and religious message of Muhammad, tensions and splits began to appear inside the Muslim religious community.

One in particular, which started in 644 over the appointment of the fourth Caliph, Uthman, resulted in full scale civil war. Over time this led to a lasting division within Islam extending well beyond its immediate causes into a range of doctrinal, philosophical and administrative differences. This rupture, between the Sunni followers of Uthman, and the Shia followers of his rival, Ali, has been likened by some commentators to the split between Catholics and Protestants in Christianity.

Over the centuries following the defeat of Abd al-Rahman at Poiters, the lands of the Muslim Ummah became divided into separate kingdoms each under its own Amir, thus weakening Muslim power still further. In 1099 the Christian army of the First Crusade re-captured Jerusalem, the third holiest city of Islam after Mecca and Medina, massacred 30,000 Jews and Muslims and established Christian kingdoms in Palestine and along the eastern fringe of the Mediterranean. Ninety years later the Muslims, under Saladin, retook Jerusalem. They were to hold it for the next eight hundred years, well into the lifetime of Abd al-Aziz.

Early in the fourteenth century a new Islamic power started to rise on the borders of Europe, the Ottoman Turks. Aided by a well disciplined slave army, the Janissaries, they seized most of the old Byzantine Empire and in the 1370s began to advance into the Balkans. In 1389 they defeated the Serbian army at Kosovo Field, sowing seeds of a deep seated and on-going hatred of Muslims among Serbs.

Over the next sixty years they annexed Serbia, laid siege to Belgrade and advanced up the Black Sea coast into the Crimea. In 1453 the Ottomans captured Constantinople itself, which would thereafter become known as Istanbul, and three years later they took Athens. Over the next century they went on to besiege Vienna and, although they failed to take the city, subjugated the whole of Hungary, much of Georgia, Moldova and the southern Ukraine.

As a result there were now three major Islamic empires, the Safavid Shia Empire centred in Persia, the Mughal Empire in India and the Ottoman Empire ruling what is today Turkey, Syria and much of North Africa. There were also other lesser Muslim kingdoms further afield. The fact that the Safavid (Persian) Empire was composed mainly of Shias whereas the Ottomans were mostly Sunnis greatly intensified the schism that already existed in the Islamic faith. This led to an intolerance and aggressive sectarianism between the Sunni and Shia that sometimes led to orgies of bloodshed by both sides.

As with the earlier empires, the Babylonians, the Greeks and the Romans, none of the three powerful Muslim empires had penetrated beyond the peripheries of the Arabian Peninsula itself. But in 1524, having conquered Egypt and seized the title of Caliph, the Ottoman Sultan, Suleyman I (Suleyman the Magnificent) and his successor crossed the Red Sea, took possession of Mecca and Medina and also established their rule in the fertile eastern lands bordering the Persian Gulf. Yet even then the Ottomans, by now probably the greatest power in the world, did not attempt to penetrate the interior of Arabia even though they laid claim to sovereignty over the whole peninsula.

In 1683 the Ottomans were back outside the gates of Vienna, but again they were repulsed. The defeat marked the start of a series of reverses. The other Islamic empires also started suffering setbacks. With the coming of the Enlightenment, the states of Western Europe began growing in wealth, military strength, industrial and organisational know how.

By the early 1740, the Al Sauds, who had moved inland from the Gulf about two hundred and fifty years earlier, had become the Amirs of Diriya. Diriya was a small urban settlement of small farmers, merchants and tradesmen, minor religious scholars and slaves consisting of about seventy families, or perhaps seven hundred people in all. Lying about ten miles north of Riyadh in the southern half of the Wadi Hanifah, Diriya was just one, and not particularly distinguished, among a number of similar small towns in Wadi Hanifah and surrounding area. The wadi itself, notable for its many springs and wells, its abundant supply of good, clean ground water and fertile floor, runs for about eighty miles from the northwest to southeast between steep, jagged, often precipitous, rock strewn sides of varying height, in some places less than 300 feet high and in others more than 3000 feet. Wadi Hanifah lies at the heart of the loosely defined region of central Arabia known as Najd.

The Sauds had moved inland from the Gulf Coast about two hundred and fifty years earlier and were quite possibly among Diriya’s original founding families. As well as owning a number of wells, some cultivated land and date gardens in and around the oasis, the Sauds were merchants and small-time financiers, putting up the money to fund trading journeys by other local merchants. But these factors alone would not have been sufficient to gain them the level of respect needed for their fellow Diriya residents to accept them as Amirs. To be an Amir was not a hereditary thing; an Amir was not the same as a Shaikh or tribal elder. An Amir was the person a community, town group of towns or small region was happy to accept as their leader. He was in effect the head of an entity amounting in modern terms to a political formation. So for a succession of members of the Saudi family to have become Amirs of Diriya, they must, in addition to a certain wealth and material standing, have displayed distinct qualities of political leadership, skill in things as mediation, a capacity to organise and the courage needed to lead the defence of their community against attacks by other neighbouring amirates or marauding tribes. However, the fact that the title of Amir was not hereditary meant that the person holding the title was always open to challenge, both by other members of the same family who felt that they could gain enough support among other members of the community to hold the position or by outsiders. During the early years of the eighteenth century a number of Saudi Amirs of Diriya had faced such challenges. For a few years they were actually deposed by members of a powerful tribe from way out to the east beyond Najd altogether.

Ever since their defeat outside Vienna  in 1683 the Ottoman’s influence had begun to decline. Nowhere was this more pronounced than in Arabia. Yemen had become completely independent. Mecca and the Hijaz, though still nominally under Turkish rule, had fallen under the control of various local noble families. The relative control and stability of Ottoman rule had been replaced by instability and increasingly rapacious demands made on the indigenous population by these local rulers. Money collected in taxes, instead of going to pay for the administration and security of an area, was increasingly confiscated for their own use by local sultans, district and provincial rulers. Landowners and merchants were frequently executed just so that a local official could confiscate their property. Because of the extortionate demands made upon them, small farmers and peasants had begun to leave the land and abandon agriculture upon which so much Ottoman prosperity had been built. With the land falling into disuse and decay, famine and disease became rife. Populations declined and large tracts of land, many settlements and villages became deserted. Raiding nomadic tribes came to dominate the trade routes, decimating not only the income of merchants but ruining the lucrative returns made by people living in Mecca and along the pilgrimage routes from pilgrims undertaking the annual Hajj. In the east, along the Gulf coast, even nominal Ottoman control was ended when the remaining Turkish garrisons were driven out by the most powerful local tribe, the Bani Khalid.

The loss of Ottoman authority, while not affecting the interior of the Arabian Peninsula directly, nevertheless had a powerful destabilising impact. By the early 1740s, the general loss of security in the surrounding areas, decline in trade with their neighbours and consequent loss of prosperity, repeated raids by nomadic tribes and a series of incursions from amirates to the east and west had combined to produce a strong sense of anxiety among the peoples of Najd. It was in this unhappy atmosphere that a new voice began to be heard.

The voice was that of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. A deeply religious young Muslim scholar, he was the son of a distinguished family of local theologians and Islamic jurists. He had recently returned to Najd from an extensive journey around the Islamic Middle East studying with a range of highly respected Islamic scholars. He was an intense young man, a master of logic, a skilled and precise debater and an able and prolific writer. Returning home to al-Uyaynah, a small town about fifteen miles northwest of Diriya, he began to preach. His message was radical, but one which people in Najd, insecure and ill at ease, were ready to hear. He preached a return to the founding principles of Islam as originally preached by Prophet Muhammad and to the ideals of the first Muslim ummah. The present ills of Najd and the wider Muslim world were, he proclaimed, the result of straying from the pure message of Muhammad, from absolute belief in the oneness of God and the doctrine of monotheism. The roots of the degeneration in the social order, of corruption, oppression and injustice, were to be found in a widespread departure from Islam’s absolute and fundamental founding doctrines. Wahhab believed strongly in the importance of living one’s religious beliefs in both one’s public and private lives. He preached a return to Islamic concepts of social justice, to respect for women, the poor and protection for human life and property, the strict application of Islamic law and conformity with Muhammad’s own religious practice. He attacked all forms of corruption, bribery, hypocrisy and oppression. The remedy for the current, essentially socio-political ills of Al-Uyaynah and the wider Najd was a return to strict adherence to Islam’s fundamental founding principles.

At first Wahhab’s message was well received by the rulers of Al-Uyaynah and by its people. He seemed to be preaching a return to the values of community and justice that many hankered for, with the result that Wahhab  was able to enter into an agreement with the Amir under which the Amir would support Wahhab’s call for a return to strict Muslim values and conformity to prescribed religious practice in return for Wahhab’s support in the Amir’s drive to unite all of Najd under his leadership. All went well until Wahhab and the Amir started to put some of his religious prescriptions into practice. The first clash with local people came about over the issue of sacred trees. Around Al-Uyaynah there were a number of special or “sacred” trees on which people would hang offerings or treasured possessions as a way of requesting a blessing or interceding for some particular favour from the deity. To Wahhab this was idolatrous, a serious and visible departure from the doctrine of there being only one God. So taking his example from the Prophet Muhammad, he sent his followers to start cutting the trees down. This sent shock waves around the small community, appearing to signal a disturbing intolerance and extremism. He followed this by destroying with the support of the local Amir and his soldiers, a particularly cherished local tomb belonging to one of the original companions of Muhammad. To Wahhab this tomb breached Muslim doctrine because it honoured a human being than God. Both the tomb and trees he believed might lead people into superstition, animist belief or the worship of objects, beings or spirits other than the One God, Allah. In committing these acts Wahhab was seen by people who did not accept his teaching as trampling on their own most sacred beliefs and traditions. He also seemed to many to risk antagonising the local spirits upon whom they relied for protection. Of course to his followers these acts by Wahhab were inspiring. They could be seen as akin to those of the Prophet when he destroyed the idols around Ka’aba-the act which had led to Muhammad’s exile from Mecca and the forming of the original ummah in Medina.

The final break between Wahhab and the people of Al-Uyaynah came about over a woman who confessed to repeated and unrepentant acts of adultery. After repeated questioning of the woman and her reasons, Wahhab finally responded to the urging of the local Ulema (respected Islamic scholars who fulfil a similar role in Islam to that played by the clergy in Christianity) and ordered that the woman be put death by stoning in accordance with the example set by Prophet Muhammad in a similar case. By these acts, the felling of the trees, the destruction of the tomb and now the stoning of the woman, Wahhab had antagonised a range of local leaders and ordinary people. By his actions and the acclaim he was now receiving from his followers he threatened to undermine the authority of both the religious leaders and the important men of the town. Alarm spread beyond the town to other powerful tribal leaders and Wahhab was forced to leave Al-Uyaynah and seek refuge fifteen miles away, in Diriya.

Wahhab already had followers among some members of the ruling al Saud family and so knew that he was likely to receive a friendly reception in the town. As a result in 1745 Abd al-Rahman’s great-great grandfather, Muhammad ibn Saud, the Amir of Diriya, entered into an alliance with al-Wahhab. Muhammad ibn Saud was to remain Diriya’s political leader but bolstered by the religious authority of al-Wahhab. In return al-Wahhab was to be recognised as the final authority in all religious matters. Together they would embark on a campaign of expansion, gathering more people within the fold of the reformed faith. Their alliance was to lead to the creation of the first Saudi theocratic state.

Their programme of expansion began by Wahhab inviting the leaders of surrounding communities to join his movement. Those who were willing to do so would enter into a formal alliance under which they and their followers accepted the doctrine of the absolute oneness of God and the leadership of Muhammad ibn Saud. If a community or its leaders rejected one or more invitations from Wahhab to join the movement and refused to enter into religious debate with him they would be declared “unbelievers”. Only then could they become subject to jihad, a holy war. The fighting force employed by Muhammad ibn Saud to make those who continued to refuse to join al Wahhab’s religious community submit,  was initially composed mainly of men aged between sixteen and sixty conscripted in Diriya and its immediate neighbourhood. As the Sauds and their religious movement (Wahhabis, as they came to be called pejoratively by their opponents), grew in size and became stronger, increasing numbers of the leaders invited by al-Wahhab to join him did so voluntarily. As often as not this was not so much out of religious conviction as out of self-preservation and the knowledge that al-Wahhab and the Sauds together constituted what the Arabs called “a House of Strength”.

But despite their initial successes, al-Wahhab and Muhammad ibn Saud knew that if they were going to gain real control over the interior of Arabia, they were going to need to enlist the nomadic Bedouin, who were regarded by most Arabs as the true, original Arabs from whom they had all sprung. Living as they did remote, harsh lives wholly dependent on the weather, chance, their own stamina and resourcefulness, Islam had made little impact despite the fact that most of them were probably notionally Muslims. Guided mainly by the sun and the stars as they drove their flocks across the empty desert wastes in search of water and the scant fast-fading patches of pasture that would spring into brief life following one of the very infrequent, short bursts of rain, it is not surprising that the Bedouin continued to place their faith in the tried and tested gods that they could identify with their needs and the universe they knew and could see around them. Their spiritual values, commitment and ideas of the sacred continued, as they had for thousands of years, to be centred on the tribe. They preserved cults of the ancestors, would make sacrifices to them and seek their intervention and assistance when they needed help or a favour from the Almighty. They would still invoke the local djinns and seek guidance from the magicians and clairvoyants before embarking on any hazardous undertaking. To al-Wahhab the Bedouin tribes were a prime target for conversion to his vision of pure Islam.

For Muhammad ibn Saud as well, in his quest for expansion by conquest, the Bedouin were a vital potential military resource. An essential part of sustaining life for the Bedouin was the ghazzu or raid. When a tribe ran short of food, as it often did, the men of the tribe would mount a raid on another tribe or settlement. Mounted on camels or horses, brandishing swords or guns and riding like the wind, throwing up great clouds of dust from the animal’s hooves, they would suddenly appear from out of the desert, behind a dune or hill, and fall without warning on some poor unsuspecting farmer, herdsman, group of travellers or settlement, swiftly drive off some of their livestock, snatch what they could of their possessions and disappear into the desert as fast as they had appeared. There was rarely any serious bloodshed or fatalities on either side as that would lead to a blood feud between the tribes involved and the aim of the raiders was to take enough of their opponents’ possessions to sustain their own tribe’s lives, not to kill the people they raided. The ghazzu was a recognised part of tribal life and had been raised almost to the level of a sport. The Bedouin were widely recognised throughout Arabia as its premier warriors.

The first military actions in Muhammad ibn Saud and al-Wahhab’s expansion amounted in effect to nothing much more ambitious than a series of glorified ghazzu. A swift raid, an ambush by a few dozen men, some camels or sheep driven off or property looted. The proceeds would be distributed a fifth to Muhammad ibn Saud and the rest to those who had taken part in the raid. With the growing success, scale and frequency of these raids, Muhammad ibn Saud was able to finance his nascent but growing state and reduce his reliance on other forms of tax or tithes. He was also able to start providing better support for the poor, reduce injustice and root out corruption. All this was in line with al-Wahhab’s interpretation of a return to Muhammad’s uncontaminated message and also increased support for Muhammad ibn Saud and al Wahhab’s rule. The fact that the ghazzu was carried out in the name of “purified religion” conferred upon them a prestige and air of authority which they could not otherwise have achieved. All of which facilitated Muhammad ibn Saud’s ongoing expansion and helped to undermine resistance in those towns and tribes that he and al-Wahhab had not yet gathered into their fold.

All monotheisms can tend towards fanaticism simply by virtue of their exclusivity. If there is only ‘one god’ and ‘one right way’ then any other god, series of gods or system of beliefs must be ‘wrong’, ‘sinful’, would need to be purged and their adherents converted, punished or made to submit. The narrower the religious prescriptions of a particular monotheism or branch of that monotheism and the greater the rigidity of its religious practices, the more it is likely to be to fanaticism and intolerance. And so it quickly proved with the Wahhabis. They quickly gained a reputation for being particularly harsh in their treatment of other sects or branches of Islam, such as the Shia. Wahhab regarded such people as polytheists and deviationists from the pure Muslim religion as laid down by Muhammad. If, having heard al-Wahhab’s appeal, they did not respond, they would be branded as infidels and treated accordingly. Because Muhammad had said that other “People of the Book” should be shown tolerance, Christians and Jews were usually treated more leniently than Muslims who refused to submit to Wahhabism. Although they were subjected to a tax, Christians and Jews were allowed to continue to pray in their own way provided that they did so in the privacy of their homes.

As Wahhabi control was extended over a wider and wider area they gained a reputation, in part deserved but also much exaggerated by their opponents and detractors, for their cruelty and fanaticism. It was a reputation which would endure and spread well beyond Arabia. Whenever they invaded a place they would smash all the tombs, destroy the shrines of saints, chop down sacred trees, impose strict Wahhabi forms of worship and implement Islamic shari’a law and punishments in all their rigour. Over the next twenty years almost all of Najd was incorporated within Muhammad ibn Saud’s and al-Wahhab’s religious military confederacy through a combination of military conquest and alliances, often reinforced through intermarriage between members of the Saudi family and members of the ruling families of the other amirates.

Despite continued resistance from some neighbouring towns, including Riyadh which was not brought into the Saudi confederation until 1773, when its Amir was defeated in successive battles and forced to flee, the extension of the Saudi state accelerated under Muhammad ibn Saud’s successors. By the mid-1790s, his son Abd al-Aziz ibn Muhammad controlled most of the Arabian Peninsula down to the borders of today’s Oman and Yemen in the south, all of the eastern coastal region of Hasa bordering the Persian Gulf and had started harrying the Hijaz and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

But as they continued their conquests, expanding still further the area they controlled, the Saudi Wahhabis came into steadily greater contact and, inevitably, conflict with the outside world. Isolated and largely insulated for centuries from the world beyond their fierce deserts and barren sun-scorched mountains, they could have little or no concept of the power and organisation of the emerging European empires, of their military might and modern weaponry, nor of the advances in science, industry, commerce and ideas wrought by the Age of Enlightenment. This ignorance, compounded by early successes against the Ottoman Turks who were distracted by insurrections closer to home, would engender in the Wahhabis a dangerous over-confidence. This growing belief in their own military invincibility was exacerbated still further by their religious zeal. The Wahhabi warriors were inspired by the conviction that their cause was holy, that they were engaged upon Allah’s work of converting infidels, disciplining idolaters and enforcing God’s law. Nowhere was this conviction greater than when they began their campaign against the Hijaz and the Ottoman Sultan’s appointed ruler in the region, the Sharif of Mecca. They were outraged by the Ottomans’ religious practices, their gaudy clothes and outward show, by the Ottoman nobility’s way off life, their arrogance, arbitrary rule, corrupt courts and open sexual perversions.


In 1798, when Wahhabi attacks into Iraq and around Basra provoked the Ottoman Empire, the Governor of Baghdad sent a combined force of fifteen thousand troops and local tribesmen to attack the Wahhabi capital. But the Saudis succeeded in defeating the Governor’s army outside the Hasa stronghold of Hofuf and two years later mounted a fresh series of attacks, this time in the south. In 1800 they seized the important oasis trading centre Buraimi and started attacking Oman, Qatar and Bahrain. But in doing so, they now threatened Britain’s vital interests, control over the sea routes to their empire in India and their trade routes and commercial interests in the Persian Gulf and Persia. For the moment, distracted by the Napoleonic war in Europe, Britain did not respond. But in due time, she would.

By now believing themselves more or less invincible, in April 1801, 10,000 Wahhabis attacked the Sh’ite sacred site at Karbala in Iraq and massacred 5,000 Shias, many of them women and children, and destroyed the ancient tombs, including the tomb of The Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Husayn. This horrified not only all Shias but many other Muslims as well. Later in the same year the Wahhabis further extended their control in the west, taking the city of Taif in the Hijaz and slaughtering the inhabitants. Then in April 1803 they seized Mecca itself. Tombs which had become the objects of Muslim pilgrimage were destroyed, new Wahhabi religious leaders installed, religious practices reformed, treasures from The Prophet’s tomb seized, public prayers for the Sultan prohibited and pilgrimage halted for all Muslims except those who professed the Wahhabi doctrine. From now on, the Wahhabis proclaimed, responsibility for the holy cities of Mecca and Medina would be theirs and not the Sultan’s.

By their acts in Mecca, Karbala and elsewhere the Wahhabis had now succeeded in outraging almost the entire Muslim world beyond the Arab peninsula itself. Not only had they antagonised the vast majority of the subjects of the Ottoman Empire, they had inflicted a grave insult upon the Sultan himself. As a result the Sultan, despite continuing problems nearer to his capital in Istanbul, immediately dispatched a force of Turkish troops to the Hijaz and had the Saudis ejected from Mecca. A few months later, in the autumn of 1803, the Saudi Amir himself was assassinated inside the mosque in Diriya by a man whose entire family had been murdered by the Wahhabis at Karbala.

Undeterred, the following year the Saudis returned to the attack in the Hijaz, extended their operations in the north and by the end of 1805 they had retaken Mecca and conquered the whole of the Hijaz all the way westwards to the shores of the Red Sea. By 1809-10 their armies had almost reached the gates of Baghdad and Damascus, advanced deep into North Yemen and had taken control of Oman. They even imposed duties on British ships of the East India Company trading across the Arabian Sea and through the Persian Gulf between Bombay and Basra. But now, their original alliance, their theocratic empire had reached its apogee. Not only they had amassed a greater area of territory than they could control, they had made a whole host of enemies, some of whom could exercise the kind of military power which the Najdis, shut off from the outside world for centuries, could barely imagine, let alone match.

Already alarmed by the threat posed to their interests by growing Saudi power, the British had dispatched warships to protect their trade routes in the Indian Ocean. In 1809, in an exemplary display of power intended to strike fear into anyone who contemplated allying themselves with the Wahhabis, the Royal Navy bombarded the Omani port of Ras al Khaima near the entrance to the Persian Gulf, landed troops, destroyed the shipyards, blew up the warehouses, razed the town to the ground and massacred its inhabitants.

In 1811 an Egyptian army of the Ottoman Empire landed on the Red Sea coast and captured the port of Yanbu. Although the Saudis immediately counter-attacked and defeated them, in 1812 a fresh Egyptian army invaded and seized Medina and early the following year took Jeddah, Mecca and Taif. Meanwhile in the south, the Wahhabis were routed and forced to withdraw completely from Oman. Although the Saudis mounted a number of successful counter-attacks-one against the Egyptians in the west being led by a woman called Ghaliya,  whom the Egyptians immediately branded as a sorceress who had put an evil eye upon them; the Wahhabi success was short lived.

The forces now aligned against them were simply too great and by 1815 Egyptian troops had regained control of most of Hijaz and Asir in the southwest. Finally in 1818 the Egyptians dispatched an army of almost 3500 cavalry and 4500 infantrymen, plus artillery, sappers and engineers against Najd itself. Regularly re-supplied with food, munitions and reinforcements, the Egyptians systemically subdued settlements and fortified towns across Najd and along the length of Wadi Hanifah until they reached Diriya itself. They surrounded and started to bombard it, killing many of the inhabitants including a lot of members of the al Saud family. Realising that their position was hopeless the Saudis surrendered. The Amir, Abdullah ibn Saud was taken to the Ottoman capital, Istanbul, publicly beheaded and his body thrown into the sea, the other surviving members of the al Saud family wee exiled to Egypt. Diriya and all its fortifications were completely destroyed.

The destruction of the Wahhabi state triggered widespread rejoicing across much of the Muslim world. There were fireworks displays in Cairo and Istanbul. There was particular joy in the Shia heartland, Persia, and even parts of the Arabian Peninsula itself. Nowhere was this greater than in Mecca and Medina where the Wahhabi ban on Muslims, other than those professing their own puritan beliefs, had deprived people in the holy cities of much of their lucrative income from pilgrims making the annual hajj to the sacred sites. Many other tribes across Arabia, especially those who had allied themselves with the Sauds only reluctantly out of self-interest or self-preservation, were relieved to see the back of them and their stern religious and moral code.

However, the Egyptians rapidly squandered this reservoir of goodwill. They destroyed the walls and fortifications of every village and town in Najd. Members of noble families and the leaders of those who had fought on the Saudi side were killed all across Arabia, some being tied to the mouths of cannons and blasted apart, and their families’ lands confiscated. Crops were uprooted, trees chopped down, possessions looted, all the horses stolen and unjust taxes imposed. As a British officer, Captain George Sadleir, who travelled across central Arabia in 1819 observed. The Egyptian commander’s campaign amounted to a series of barbaric atrocities and violation of his sacred duties. Soon the Sauds’ former subjects were wishing for a return to the stability and security, no matter how austere, they had enjoyed under the Wahhabis.

Captain George Sadleir of the 47th Foot arrived in Arabia in May 1819 on a mission. The British, having been alarmed at the growing power of the Saudi state were delighted to see it crushed but, in keeping with their policy of trying to make sure that no one power ever became strong enough to pose a serious threat to their interests, were now concerned to ensure that the Wahhabis did not make a comeback but also that Egypt and the Ottoman Empire would not now pose a new threat. Sadleir’s mission was to carry a personal message of congratulations upon his defeat of the Wahhabis to the Egyptian leader, Ibrahim Pasha, from the Governor General of India, Lord Hastings, and to try to persuade the Egyptians to enter into an alliance with Britain. Under the treaty that it was Sadleir’s mission to propose, the British navy and the Egyptians would work in conjunct to make sure that the Sauds and Wahhabis never again posed a threat to either of them. The British navy was to stamp out piracy in the waters around Arabia and ensure that no other power threatened the region’s maritime trade routes, while the Egyptian army was to assist the British in establishing a series of strategically placed garrisons in ports along the Arab coast of the Persian Gulf and to ensure that the Sauds and Wahhabis could never again come to exercise control over the Arabian mainland.

When Sadleir did finally catch up with Ibrahim Pasha outside Medina in September their discussions came to nothing. So with no agreement Sadleir went to Jeddah and finally sailed back to Bombay in January 1820. Although he had failed in his intended mission, Sadleir had in the process become almost certainly the first European ever to cross the whole Arabian Peninsula and the first person to bring out a firsthand account of the people and life in the heart of Arabia since the luckless Roman general, Aelius Gallus, almost nineteen hundred years earlier. Arrogant but conscientious, the geographical and solar observations and descriptions recorded by Sadleir during his frustrating journey across Arabia would remain for near on a century almost the only reliable source of information available to later travellers.

Although Sadleir’s mission failed, its aims remained the basis of British policy in the region for the next hundred years and would play a major part in the life and fortunes of Abd al-Aziz. Unable to reach agreement with the Egyptians, over the next few years the British through a combination of military action and treaties with local amirs, established a position of dominance throughout the Persian Gulf, in the Indian Ocean and along the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula. At the same time, the Egyptians, having as they thought reduced Najd and the central regions of the Arabian Peninsula to impotence, withdrew most of their forces. Now, while remaining in nominal charge of the whole area that had belonged to the Saudi state, they concentrated the remaining forces they kept in Arabia in the Hijaz, so ensuring their continued control of the holy cities, the safety of pilgrims making the hajj and the Ottoman sultan’s hold on the caliphate.

Over the next few years Najd and much of central Arabia was reduced to a state of virtual anarchy, riven by local wars and feuds within the families of many of the local amirs. But in 1820, Turki, a cousin of Abdullah ibn Saud, the Amir beheaded by the Turks, escaped from captivity in Egypt and began secretly to make his way to Najd. After living in hiding for a couple of years, in 1823 he began to make himself known to the people of Najd and started to build up a fighting force. Profiting from the unpopularity of the Egyptians, he quickly gained control of a number of settlements in and around Wadi Hanifa and by 1824 had succeeded in establishing himself in Riyadh which, following the destruction of Diriya, had become Najd’s capital. Turki would turn out to be the great-grandfather of the boy Abd al-Aziz. One of Turki’s first actions on taking control in Riyadh was to build a new mosque and construct the strong town walls and palace from out of which Abd al-Rahman and his family were to escape almost seventy years later. With Turki now firmly in control, stability began to return to Najd and with it many of those who had fled. One of these returning refugees was the grandson of al-Wahhab. He strengthened Turki’s authority still further by issuing messages to faithful Muslims throughout Najd that called upon them to reject the polytheistic practices of ‘so called Muslims’ and return to the ‘genuine Islam’. However , Turki was careful to ensure that the cruel fanaticism which had been associated with the first period of Wahhabi power did not re-surface.

By the 1830s, Turki had re-established Saudi control over much of the territory ruled by his grandfather Muhammad ibn Saud except for the Hijaz and parts of the south. However, he was weakened by the growing dissension within the Saudi family, and in May 1834 he was murdered coming out of Friday prayers in the mosque in Riyadh by assassins engaged by his cousin, Mishari, who then attempted to seize power. For nine long years after that Najd was wracked by civil war, during which time no fewer than four different members of the Saudi family displaced and replaced each other as rulers. For a period of three years, from 1838, the Egyptians returned and re-asserted their control. Finally in 1843, Turki’s eldest son, Faisal, succeeded in regaining undisputed ascendancy. One of his most loyal allies throughout these long war-torn tears had been Abdullah ibn Rashid, who amongst his many other deeds had himself killed Mishari with his own sword. The Rashids were the leaders of the powerful Shammar tribe, whose capital was the ancient oasis city of Ha’il, almost five hundred miles northwest of Riyadh and an important stopping on the caravan route from Iraq, Syria and Persia to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. In recognition of Abdullah ibn Rashid’s loyalty, Faisal gave him rule of the whole Shammar region from the northern end of the wadi Hanifah up to the great Al Nafud Desert bordering Iraq.

Over the next decade and a half Faisal set about regaining control over the rest of the territory that had been controlled by Abd al-Aziz ibn Muhammad forty years earlier. However, he was careful not to provoke an all-out conflict with either the British or the Ottoman Empire, continuing to pay nominal tribute to the Ottomans in the north and the Egyptians in the Hijaz. Although in the south his troops re-took Buraimi, he held back from attacking important ports along the Persian Gulf and Omani coasts which had recently been seized by Britain in order to be better able to protect her important trade routes to her growing empire in India and the Far East. Faisal was aware of the power of British arms and astute enough not to risk provoking their use against him.

Despite ongoing clashes with some of his tribal neighbours, Faisal brought about a return of stability and prosperity to his territory. People were once again able to go about their lives without fear for themselves or their property. He also developed a profitable international trade in exporting pedigree Arab horses to surrounding countries and beyond. But throughout the 1850s while Faisal was restoring the fortunes of Najd, the Shammar, though still Faisal’s allies and still headed by the Rashids, were also gaining in strength. More distant, but no less significant, the British were establishing a virtual hoop of alliances, backed when needed by Royal Navy patrols, armed interventions and British military garrisons, with almost every ruler around the entire coastline of the Arabian Peninsula from Oman in the south, round Cape Musandum at the mouth of the Persian Gulf and all the way up the east coast northwards almost to the mouth of the Euphrates. More ominously still, by the end of the 1850s, dangerous rifts had once again started to open up within the al-Saud family itself. The most serious was an increasingly bitter rivalry between Faisal’s eldest son Abdullah backed by Faisal’s third son, Muhammad, and his second son, Saud, His fourth son, Abd al-Rahman (the future father of Abd al-Aziz) was only born in 1850 and so was still too young to be actively involved.

In 1862 William Palgrave, a Catholic with a penchant for disguises, who had undergone instruction in a Jesuit seminary after converting from the Church of England and now entertained ideas of converting Muslims and Jews to Christianity, became the first European to succeed in reaching Riyadh. Palgrave travelled into Arabia from Gaza on the Mediterranean coast of Palestine disguised as a Syrian travelling doctor. His purpose in making this extremely dangerous journey was “to fill up blank” in European knowledge of the vast interior of Arabia. Palgrave succeeded in his self-imposed task to an extraordinary degree for generations to come. He has also provided us with a unique detailed and personal portray of the Najd and Riyadh as it was in the last years of the reign of Amir Faisal.

Because of Palgrave’s own religious zeal, one should treat his observations on Wahhabism and Muslim religious practice with caution, but he does record one particularly enlightening conversation he had in Riyadh with a leading Wahhabi scholar who was married to a descendant of al-Wahhab himself. Palgrave asked the old scholar which were the “great” sins and which were the lesser ones. The old scholar said that “The first and great sin is giving divine honours to a creature”.

Palgrave replied that “of course the enormity of such a sin is beyond all doubt. But if this be the first, what must be the second; what is it? “Drinking the shameful, smoking tobacco”, came the unhesitating answer.

“And murder, and adultery, and false witness?” Palgrave suggested. “God is merciful and forgiving“, rejoined his friend; that is, these are merely little sins. “Hence the two sins alone are great, polytheism and smoking.”

Less than two-and-a-half years later Riyadh received three more British visitors who this time did not hide their true identity or purpose. They were Lt. Colonel Lewis Pelly, Her Majesty’s Political Resident in the Gulf, and two Royal Navy Officers, a Dr. Colville and Lt. Dawes. They were members of the British government in India, based at the British Residence at Bushire on the Persian side of the Gulf. They landed in Kuwait in February 1865 and travelled on camels south to Riyadh. Taking care not to be observed they took bearings, estimated distances and collected plants and rock specimens as they went.

Pelly’s purpose in visiting Riyadh was to try to reduce what was perceived by the British as Saudi animosity towards them, negotiate a treaty with Faisal to assist in suppressing piracy and the slave trade in the Persian Gulf, and to warn him off making any further attacks on the Oman and Gulf coast shaikhs with whom the Britain had signed treaties of protection. Pelly found Faisal pleasant but while he was prepared to help in suppressing piracy, he remained inflexible on the other major issues which were central concern of Pelly’s visit. He told Pelly that he wanted friendly relations with Britain but insisted that he had sovereignty over the whole Eastern Arabia and the coast from Kuwait at its northern end all the way down to Sur on the Indian Ocean coast at the extreme eastern tip of Oman and beyond into Yemen “which God has given us . . . Be Arabia what it may, it is all ours.”

In December 1865 Faisal died and the state was plunged into long and bloody confusion as all four of Faisal’s sons fought for his throne.Between April 1871 and the end of March 1876, Riyadh had no fewer than six different rulers, one following the other in violent and disorderly succession. As Faisal’s sons, together with the greedy assortment of other branches of the Saudi family and ever shifting alliances of neighbouring tribal leaders fought each other for supremacy, Faisal’s former kingdom disintegrated.

As Saudi power became weaker, neighbouring rulers seized their chance to become stronger. Subject tribes and local rulers seceded from Najd and became independent, formed alliances with other local leaders or placed themselves under the protection of more powerful leaders and tribes.

Meanwhile the great powers increased their grip on the whole region. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 had rendered the region much more accessible to the European powers and greatly increased the strategic and trading importance of the entire peninsula. As a result, the Ottoman Empire, even though still riven with dissension and revolt much closer to home, restarted its authority in the area. In 1871, the Ottomans occupied Asir in the southwest of the peninsula, bordering Yemen and the Red Sea, and Hasa, bordering the Persian Gulf and almost as far north as the mouth of the Euphrates. Although the Ottomans, wishing to conserve their military strength, pulled their forces in Hasa back to Baghdad, a few years later, they appointed a governor, supported by the promise of their military backing, to rule for them.

During the 1880s, the British, through their government in India, came steadily to exercise almost total control over the whole of the Persian Gulf, turning it in effect into a British inland lake. They also came to dominate the trade of the amirates and sultanates around all of southern and eastern Arabia. In 1882, the British sent troops to occupy Egypt.

Closer to Riyadh itself, it was the Rashids, rulers of the Shammar, who benefited most from Najd’s collapse into civil war, integrating more and more of the surrounding territory and tribes into their domain.

Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud was born into the bloody chaos that was Riyadh in 1880, the second son to the Amir Faisal’s youngest son Abd al-Rahman and Sarah Sudairi, a daughter of the Duwasir tribe from the south of Najd.

By courtesy: Ibn Saud by Michael Darrow and Barbara Bray; Published by Quartet Ltd in UK, 2010