Letters

21 March 1900

From/To: Gertrude Bell to her father, Sir Hugh Bell

Wed 21. [21 March 1900] Well, I can now show you the reverse side of camping, but it's not been very bad so far. I woke this morning at dawn to find a strong wind blowing up clouds from the east. It looked like varying weather so I got up and breakfasted and walked down to the cave Bellow the waterfall which I found to be very beautiful and hung with maidenhair. At 7 it began to rain but I nevertheless started off for the top of Siagheh, which is Pisgah [Pisga], sending the others straight to Madeba [Madaba]. At the top of the hill the rain ceased, the clouds blew northwards up the Ghor [El Ghor], leaving the Dead Sea [(Yam Hamelah, Bahret Lut)] and half the Judean hills in sunshine while the mists that hung over Jerusalem [(El Quds esh Sherif, Yerushalayim)], though they obscured my view made what I saw more wonderful. There are 2 tops to Siagheh, one crowned with the ruins of what was apparently a fort, the other nearer the valley and commanding a still more beautiful view. I could see from it 2 of the places from which Balaam is supposed to have attempted the cursing of Israel and behind me lay the third, Nebo [Mt. Nebo] - Naba in Arabic. The Moses legend is a very touching one. I stood on the top of Pisgah and looked out over the wonderful Jordan valley and the blue sea and the barren hills, veiled and beautified by cloud and thought it was one of the most pathetic stories that have ever been told. I then rode to Nebo, the clouds sweeping down behind me and swallowing up the whole Ghor, as though the valley and the hills themselves were only a legend into which I had accidentally stepped. I past a splendid menhir and the top of Nebo was crowned by a circle of stones and all around the stones were laid in curious orders, for this was a high place sacred to Baal and these the vestiges of a faith that has gone under. As I left Nebo it began to stream. We cantered across rolling slopes of corn, through a ruined village - the whole country is full of them - picked up the mules and passed them and arrived at Madeba about 11.30, wet through. As I rode through the squalid muddy little streets, to my surprise I was greeted in American by a man in a waterproof. He's a photographer, semi-professional, and his name is Baker and he is very cheerful and nice. He is travelling with a dragoman. I selected my camping ground on the lee side of the village and Mr Baker took me to the Latin monastery where he is lodging to keep out of the wet while my camp was being put up. To beguile the time he showed me photographs and dressed up in Bedouin clothes. I was very fortunate in getting here early, before the ground was too wet. I had my tent thoroughly well trenched all round - though it streamed steadily till 2, I was quite comfy. I changed into dry clothes, lunched and read books about Madeba. At 2 Mr Baker came to fetch me, dressed me in his waterproof as it was still raining a little and we were both shown all the sights by his dragoman. It's an extraordinary place; every time they turn up a clod of ground they find a Roman capital, or a Byzantine mosaic. It dates from the earliest Jewish times, there was a Roman town, then a Christian with 7 big churches - and now is a miserable cluster of hovels built up with the columns and squared stones of former times and resting on acres of mosaic. I should think we saw 10 separate pieces - and these are only what they have happened to discover. The homes are vaulted caves innocent of windows, and but for a few holes in the roof would be quite dark. One was actually the apse of a Byzantine church, another had a Greek inscription in the middle of its pavement to say that it was dedicated to "the mother of our Lord Christ" - here the inhabitants were very friendly and made us coffee while we examined their house - and the most interesting of all is now covered by a modern church and well protected. It is a map of Syria, and fortunately the part containing a picture of Jerusalem, the Jordan, Madeba and far out into the desert eastwards is perfect. I came home to tea and sent up to Government House, so to speak, to find out what my Mudir's letter had done for me in the matter of tomorrow's escort. The answer came that this Mudir was away but that Amr Effendi was coming to see me. He appeared, a tall middle aged Turk; I invited him into my tent with all politeness and offered him cigarettes (you see a bad habit may have its merits!) while Hanna brought him a cup of coffee. But - the soldier was not to be had! No, another English lady had come, an old one (Mrs Th. Bent!) and asked for a soldier for Mashetta [Qasr el Mushatta] and hadn't got one. There weren't enough. I determined to wait till the coffee and cigarettes begun to work and turned the conversation to other matters - with as many polite phrases as I could remember. Fortunately I fell upon photography and found that his great desire was to be photographed with his soldiers. I jumped at this and offered to do him and send him copies and so forth and the upshot of it was that for me (this was much underlined) he willl send a soldier tomorrow at dawn. This being satisfactorily settled, our talk proceeded most swimmingly for another half hour. Amr Effendi took another cigarette and told me the story of his life which was most interesting. He is a Circassian and left his country when the Russians took it, has been here 7 years and is heartily sick of it, poor dear - and lots more besides. We then discussed the advantages and disadvantages of marriage with myself as an example and parted the very best of friends. I think it's rather a triumph to have conducted so successful a piece of diplomacy in Arabic, don't you. The wind has dropped and the sky is clear, but it's cold and dampish. I had however the brilliant idea of sending into the town for a brazier which was brought me full of charcoal and put into my tent. I have been drying my habit over it. From my camp I look over great rolling plains of cornfield stretching eastwards.



Previous page