George Antonius

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George Antonius.
Tombstone of George Antonius at the Orthdox cemetery on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. The epitaph says "heed and awaken, O Arabs"

George Habib Antonius, CBE (hon.) (Arabic: جورج حبيب أنطونيوس‎‎; October 19, 1891 – May 21, 1942) was a Lebanese-Egyptian author and diplomat, settled in Jerusalem, one of the first historians of Arab nationalism. Born in Deir al Qamar in a Lebanese Eastern Orthodox Christian family, he served as a civil servant in the British Mandate of Palestine. His 1938 book The Arab Awakening generated an ongoing debate over such issues as the origins of Arab nationalism, the significance of the Arab Revolt of 1916, and the machinations behind the post-World War I political settlement in the Middle East.


Antonius graduated from Cambridge University and joined the newly formed British Mandate Administration in Palestine as the deputy in the Education Department. His wife, Katy, was a daughter of Faris Nimr Pasha a wealthy Syrian Christian and cultural activist. Antonius had a difficult relationship with the British. Despite his senior position he and his wife were refused membership of the Jerusalem sports club which had a "No Natives" policy.[1]

He resigned his position in 1930 to join the Institute of Current World Affairs in New York. His 1938 book was published in London by Hamish Hamilton. He was secretary general to the Arab Delegation to the London Conference (1939).[2]


Antonius traced Arab nationalism to the reign of Muhammad Ali Pasha in Egypt. He argued that the Arab nation (which consists of racial and cultural-linguistic elements) has been "dormant" for centuries, and that Protestant missionaries from United States had a specific role in the renewal and "awakening" of the Arabic as a national language. He saw the role of the American University of Beirut (originally the Syrian Protestant College) as central to this development, although he notes that later on, by the end of the 19th century, that role has diminished, since the college initiated instruction in English. By then the torch of the movement had been passed to Arab intellectuals (residing in Greater Syria and in Europe) and to Arab officers in the Ottoman army that formed a secret society to ultimately promote Arab nationalist interests. These officers proved particularly useful later during World War I after the leadership of the movement openly shifted allegiance to support the Entente. Other than tracing the birth of the Arab national movement, Antonius also argues that it was Great Britain that dishonoured its prior commitments to the Arabs, and instead pursued its own colonial interests at the expense of what Antonius calls the "true will of the people," namely unity and independence of the would-be Arab state.

The book was only the second time that an authoritative translation of the McMahon letters had been published. This correspondence between the British High Commissioner in Egypt and the Sherif of Mecca occurred between October 1915 and January 1916 and was not officially released until the London Conference (1939).[3] Antonius concluded that Sherif Hussein understood these documents to mean that the British Government was offering him an independent state - if he joined the British side in the war against the Ottoman regime. This state would include Palestine. It was with these assurances that, on June 10 1916, the Sherif ordered his army to attack the garrison in Mecca.[4]

According to Antonius, the foundation of educational and cultural institutions by American Christian missionaries and educators played a critical part in the development of American soft power in the Edwardian era and after World War I.

George Antonius is viewed as the founder of modern Arab nationalist history. According to Martin Kramer, The Arab Awakening "became the preferred textbook for successive generations of British and American historians and their students".[5]


  1. ^ Larsson, Theo (1995) Seven Passports for Palestine. Sixty Years in the Levant. Longfield. ISBN 0-9525-379-0-7. p.27.
  2. ^ Khalidi, Walid (1984) Before their Diaspora: A photographic history of the Palestinians, 1876-1948. Institute of Palestine Studies. ISBN 0-88728-143-5. p.290.
  3. ^ Sykes, Christopher (1965) Cross Roads to Israel: Palestine from Balfour to Bevin. New English Library Edition (pb) 1967. p.205. An accurate translation had been printed in Antonius' "The Arab Awaking", 1938, as well as extracts in the Daily Mail in 1922
  4. ^ Cohen, Aharon (1970) Israel and the Arab World. W.H. Allen. ISBN 0-491-00003-0. pp.135,136
  5. ^ Kramer, Martin (1996). "Ambition, Arabism, and George Antonius" in Arab Awakening and Islamic Revival: The Politics of Ideas in the Middle East, ed. Martin Kramer (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1996), 112–23.

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