Letters

20 February 1909

From/To: Gertrude Bell to her stepmother, Dame Florence Bell

[20 February 1909] Sat. Feb. 20. Tell Ahmar [Tall al Ahmar] - which by the way is very likely Balaam's city of Pethor. Dearest Mother. The water of the Euphrates is much esteemed by the inhabitants of the river banks; I think it is an acquired taste. In my cup it has the colour of rather dingy coffee - I boil it sedulously before drinking it and though the foreign ingredients remain, they are I hope tolerably innocuous. But whatever you may think of the Euphrates as a table river, your respect for him from other points of view increases on better acquaintance, if only because of the trouble he gives you. He has behaved very kindly to us, and indeed today I crossed him twice, but I begin to realize what he might do if he liked. The fact is I am much taken up with the Euphrates; in these parts he runs through your mind as ceaselessly as he runs actually at your feet, and your doings and not doings depend a great deal upon him. Last night brought still and cloudless weather and before dawn we sent a villager up the river to bring down a boat for us to a point about half an hour above my camp; if we had crossed at Tell Ahmar ferry we should have had the boatless Sajur [Nahr Sajur] to ford on our way north and the water is said to be deep. We rode off at 7.30, Fattuh, Hajj Muhammad and I, and took the road to Carchemish [Barak (Karkemis)] in complete uncertainty as to whether the River would allow us to come back to our tents at sunset. The boat, rather to my surprise, was waiting for us at the foot of a neighbouring Tell - but not ready, that would indeed have been miraculous; it was half full of water and we had to send up to a village near at hand for a tin to bail it out. Meantime I rode off to look at another Tell, a quarter of an hour away; it must have been a big town but nothing remained above ground. When I came back the water was bailed out and we drove our 3 horses into the boat. Whereupon Hajj Muhammad's animal began to fight so energetically with Fattuh's that I thought we should all come through the bottom of our craft. Moreover a little sharp west wind had got up and the boatmen began to shake their heads and eye the ruffled Euphrates gloomily. In the end we made Hajj M. take himself and his horse out and Fattuh and I went on alone. The wind drove us a quarter of a mile and more down stream; what with wind and stream we made very slow progress and at one moment I thought we should be forced to return, but with a good deal of labour and much invocation of God and the Prophet we were at length landed on the other side. You think our troubles were over? not at all. We were on an island and had still an arm of the river to ford - we and 4 nondescript foot passengers who had taken the opportunity to cross with us. When we got to the water it was very wide and deep, for the river had come down in the night after yesterday's rain, and some boys on the other side shouted to us that we could not ford it. This would have been almost too provoking to bear so we exhorted our companions to show us the way, they gathered up their skirts and in we went. We had to make a long round over the shallows; it wasn't really very deep, just over our girths, but the stream was swift and we were none of us sorry to come out of it. We left a message that the boat was to be told to come across to this point and wait for us, and so rode off over the top of a high bluff above the river. In that rocky upland country we met a cheerful old man with a donkey and a rifle who said: "Whither going, in peace?" We said: "To Carchemish, please God" (only we called it Jerablus) and suddenly I thought how often the bare hills must have heard the same answer given to the same question when Balaam and his people rode up and down from Pethor to see what was doing in the capital. As for us we pushed on with a steady jog trot for 2 hours, past a little tell by the river and across the arc of a great bend till we came to the huge mound of Carchemish. It is covered with immense blocks of stone - later than Hittite I imagine - and sometimes you can see clearly the line of the streets and sometimes the pavements of temple or palace courts (for the mound was the royal city and over the plain Bellow lay the city of merchants and poorer people) and all round are huge earthworks marking the line of the walls, while at the NE corner stands the citadel, a great hill of earth washed on two sides by the Euphrates. It is one of the most splendid sites I have ever seen. The British Museum dug here rather spasmodically some years ago and removed those Hittite inscribed stones we saw in the Museum - do you remember? Two great slabs carved in relief were also uncovered and left at Carchemish, being I suppose too heavy to transport. At any rather there they are and one of them was the priest and his attendant standing on the back of a huge lion which I showed you once in Perrot. I lunched there, for it was midday and spent a couple of hours walking about the mound with a friend of Fattuh's, a landowner who lives in a village close by, and then we rode back by the way we had come. Fortunately the wind had gone down; but when we got back to the boat we found some 20 persons with 4 donkeys waiting to cross with us and as soon as we were fairly in they precipitated themselves after us. At this Fattuh rose up in wrath and ejected half of them and we set off upon our voyage, grounding presently (as it was obvious we should do) upon the upper end of the big island on which we had landed in the morning. Our fellow travellers then proved useful for they got out into the water and pushed and tugged till we floated out into the main stream. So we recrossed without mishap and got back to our tents soon after 5. It has been well worth doing, one can't be within a few hours of the capital of an empire without visiting it; but it has been a long hard day. I gave Fattuh's friend a letter to you telling him to send it to be posted at Aleppo [Halab]. I hope it will reach you. There is no way of sending letters here.



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