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Letter from Gertrude Bell to her stepmother, Dame Florence Bell

Letter from Gertrude Bell to her stepmother Florence Bell, written over the course of several days from the 12th to the 16th of March, 1905.

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Bell, Dame Florence Eveleen Eleanore
Bell, Gertrude Margaret Lowthian
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1 letter, paper

34.787109, 36.272121

Kala'at el Husn [Qal'at al Hisn]. Sunday March 12. My dearest Mother. I am now living in perhaps the largest castle known - no, it's not quite so large as Windsor castle, but very nearly. It's Crusader - but I must tell you how it all came about. I left Homs [Hims] at an early hour yesterday - not early enough, however, to prevent my having a large eager crowd to watch my departure. It is one of the most difficult things I know to keep one's temper when one is constantly surrounded and mobbed. The aggravation is quite as great when they are friendly; it's the fact of not being able to move without hundreds of people on every side that is so irritating. Only a fixed determination not to afford more amusement than I could help to the inhabitants of Homs kept me outwardly calm. My escort consisted of 2 mounted Kurds and 2 prisoners whom the Kaimakam was sending to the prison of Husn - my journey offered a good opportunity of convoying them. They were handcuffed together, poor wretches, and they trudged along bravely through dust and mud. I proffered a few words of sympathy to which they replied that they hoped God might preserve me, but as for them it was the will of their Lord the Sultan. They were deserters. We had a very long day, 10/½ hours, but when we left the carriage road that goes to Tripoli [Trâblous] our way lay through such delicious country that every step of it was delightful. It was beautiful weather, there were flowers everywhere, hyacinths, irises, crocuses, anemones and whole carpets of a yellow hawksweed, and what was still more remarkable, all the hills into which we rode were green with grass. Late in the afternoon clouds blew up and before we got in we were caught in a sharp thunderstorm. The great castle on the top of the hill was before us for 5 or 6 hours. The sun shone on it and the black clouds hung round it as we rode up and up through flowers and grass and across running streams. But it was a long way and the animals grew very tired. At sunset we came to the dark tower. I rode in through a splendid Arab gateway into a vaulted corridor which covered a broad winding stair. It was almost pitch dark, lighted only by a few loop holes, the horses stumbled and clanked[?] over the stone steps - they were shallow and wide but very much broken - and we turned corner after corner and passed under gateway after gateway until at length we came out into the court in the centre of the keep. I felt as if I were somebody in the Fairy Queen and almost expected to see written upon the last arch "Be not too bold." But there was no monster inside, only a crowd of people craning their necks to see me and the Kaimakam, very smiling and friendly, announcing that he could not think of letting me pitch my tents and had prepared my lodging for the night. So we went up into the round tower in which he lives and he took me into his guest room which was commodiously fitted with carpets a divan and a bed - I supplied the washing appliances and the table - and he offered me weak tea while he engaged me in conversation. He is a man of some distinction, a renowned poet I believe - but his hospitality outweighs all his other qualities. My men and my horses and me, he has taken us all in and provided for us all. He has just had a terrible domestic tragedy. His eldest son was shot by a schoolfellow at Tripoli, a schoolboy quarrel apparently, but that's the form it takes here. This happened only 10 days ago. When he left I changed my clothes which were rather wet and then the women of the family appeared and invited me to dinner. There is a newly married wife - the mother of the children died a year ago. She is a young woman, rather pretty, but immensely fat. There were 2 other guests besides me, one an old Muslem [sic] woman and the other a very genteel Christian lady, the wife of a government official. She was educated in a mission school and talks English of an extremely florid kind. She is also an authoress, having translated the Last Days of Pompeii into Arabic. We had an enormous dinner, soup and 4 huge dishes of meats and vegetables and a sweet. We returned to my room after it and sat on the divan drinking coffee, while the ladies smoked a hubble bubble. The old Muslim woman was a nice old thing. Her son has recently been murdered in the mountains by a casual robber and our talk turned mostly upon similar incidents which are very common here. The old lady crouched over a charcoal brazier and murmured at intervals: "Murder is like the drinking of milk here. God! there is none other but Thee!" The talk seemed to fit the surroundings; my tower room must have heard the like of it often. "Murder is like the drinking of water" muttered the old woman "Oh Merciful!" At 9 they all left me - one offered to spend the night with me, but I declined politely but firmly. Today is devilish weather, a strong wind and hailstones and thunder storms. I have spent it in exploring the castle; there is a chapel and a refectory and great vaulted rooms and two stories [sic] of vaulted substructures supporting the whole, a mighty fine place. Though, mind you, I don't feel any sympathy with the Crusaders {at all}. I think they did nothing but harm here and some wise man says, probably with truth, that their iniquities are the origin of most of the bitterness between Christianity and Islam in this country. I spent a very agreeable evening in the company of my host and hostess. We all dined together and he and I talked. We got onto such terms that he ended by producing his latest copy of verses - I told you he was a poet - and reading it aloud to me. I don't think it was very great literature as far as I can judge. We then fell to discussing the poets with much satisfaction and he forgot his sorrows, poor man, and became quite brisk and excited. As we have often remarked there is no solace in misfortune like authorship, be it ever so modest. May we long be spared to burn our sacrificial fires at its shrine! But it was really a delightful evening; I could have laughed to find myself talking the same sort of enjoyable rubbish in Arabic that I have so frequently talked in English and offering the same kind of sympathy and praise to my friend's efforts. Yes, it might just as well have been London and the world is, after all, made of the same piece. Monday 13. [13 March 1905] Burj Safitah [Burj Safita]. At dawn it was raining for all it was worth and I got up and breakfasted in the lowest of spirits. And then of a sudden someone waved a magic wand, and all the clouds cleared away and we set off at half past 7 in exquisite sunshine loaded with the blessings of our hosts and parting gifts of a more substantial nature for he insisted on supplying us with our food for the day. At the bottom of the steep hill on which the castle stands there lies in an olive grove a big Greek monastery. I got off and went in to salute the abbot, and behold he was a friend of 5 years ago for I had seen him in a place on the road from Palmyra [Tadmur]. Great rejoicing[?] and much jam and coffee to celebrate the occasion. The monastery had all been rebuilt but there is a little underground chapel in the foundations of it which is very old, older than the Crusaders a great deal I should think. My day's journey lay through charming country, shallow, wooded valleys full of flowers, the fruit trees coming into blossom and the honeysuckle into leaf. At midday we came to a river which the rains had turned into a rushing torrent. Safitah was just in front of us, but I need hardly say the bridge was broken. So we had to ride near 2 hours down stream and we were just in time with the second bridge for it was in the very last stage of decrepitude and in the middle it hung by 2 stones. We got the animals safely across, however and rode up to Safitah rejoicing, getting in at 4 o'clock. There is a splendid tall Crusader tower here on the top of the hill round which the village is clustered. I went up to it, followed as usual by excited multitudes of little boys (may their dwellings be destroyed!) and when I went in, expecting to find a vaulted hall perhaps, I found myself in a great church with a Greek service going on and the people all at their prayers. It's a most effective bit of architectural duplicity. Late this evening just as I was beginning to write to you, there appeared 2 high officials sent up by the Kaimakam of Drekish [Ad Duraykish], where I go tomorrow, to welcome me and to put the whole of the forces of the Kaimakamlik at my disposal. I hereby renounce in despair the hope of ever again being a simple happy traveller. The Turkish government has decided that I am a great swell and nothing will persuade them to the contrary. It's boring to tears, and also very expensive, but what can I do? Next time I travel here I shall tell the officials that all my relations are pork butchers - perhaps that will discourage the Muhammadan mind. As it is they all ask me after my uncle the ambassador - how they know about him I can't imagine, unless he was in that fatal Turkish letter I presented to the Vali of Damascus [Dimashq (Esh Sham, Damas)]. I never thought to have regretted his existence, bless him! but I could wish now that he were an obscurer person. I hope he will resign before I next journey in Turkey. {Meantime} I think however that a part of all this is due to the state of extreme alarm into which the Vali fell when he heard of my unexpected appearance in the heart of the JeBell ed Druze [Duruz, Jabal ad]. Meantime the two soldiers I had with me today are without doubt the nicest soldiers in the world. One of them in particular - I shall break my heart at parting with him tomorrow. He is a smart little Kurd with a very military bearing and a flourishing moustache. Besides the moustache he is the master of the most eloquent vocabulary of objurgation I have yet come across. He used it all for the benefit of the little boys. Tuesday 14. [14 March 1905] Husn Suleiman. Well, it has really been the greatest fun after all. I set off this morning at 7 o'clock with my 2 friends of last night (one of them is the Zabit, the head military officer of the district) 2 soldiers and the admirable Mikhail and we rode 2 hours over the hills to the village of the Kaimakam, Drekish [Ad Duraykish]. In an olive grove Bellow the village I found 4 in frock coats and tarbushes awaiting me; they got onto their horses and fell into my procession. It was further swelled by various other notabilities as we rode up till it reached the sum total of 13. The Kaimakam was waiting for me on his doorstep, frock coated, träs correct. We went into a official reception room, drank coffee and conversed. By this time we were some 30 persons, all of importance! He then took me into his private house and introduced me to his wife, a very charming little lady, and to his most delightful children. She retired after a little and lunch was served. We were 6; the Kaimakam and I, the Kady, the Zabit and 2 more. It was perfectly enchanting. The Kaimakam is an extremely able man, cousin to one of the most important of the Sultan's advisers in C'ple [Istanbul (Constantinople)]. The conversation was exceedingly amusing, not to say brilliant; I enjoyed it immensely. Also the lunch was good - it consisted of some 12 to 14 courses and lasted an hour and a quarter. When it was over I sat a little talking to my host, then my hostess appeared, the men having gone, and at 12 I rode away accompanied by the Zabit and another and 2 soldiers. We rode over the tops of the hills, very beautiful it was, and at 2.30 we came to this most enchanting of places. It is a great temple at the head of a valley high up in the mountains. I should think it was built by the builders of Baalbek for the decoration is exactly similar and the style of building. My tents are pitched on a green lawn under the temple wall and just Bellow them a clear stream springs up from under the wall. There are almost no people - one or two Nosairieh hovels and that is all. I found a cousin of the Kaimakam's here to receive me; he had been sent on in the morning. They have offered up whole holocausts of lambs and hens for me and we are now going to dine on the results, I and the Zabit, the cousin and the other party - I don't know his name. I have spent the afternoon since we arrived taking inscriptions and photographs and making notes and in the course of our labours I provided my 3 friends with a very good tea, though I say it as shouldn't. The only blot on my happiness is that Kurt has finally disappeared. We must have lost him somwhere on our road yesterday - I suppose he was tempted away by someone who offered him food and then stole him. I feel very sad. I ought to have taught him to be more serious, as our German friend would say. My Arabic is becoming very fluent, thank heaven, but I wish I talked with more eloquence. Wed 15. [15 March 1905] MasyÖt [Masyaf]. My 3 friends accompanied me this morning to the edge of their district. It was a beautiful shining day - the views over sea and land as we rode upon the tops of the hills were delightful. There was also a fine harvest of flowers almost alpine, a small red cyclamen, white primroses, countless {hyacinths} crocuses and laden[?] down irises, anemones of all colours, and an undergrowth of myrtle. The Nosairiyeh have no mosque or church, but on every mountain top they build a white dome which is the shrine that marks a burial ground, and the dead are best protectors of the trees, indeed the only protectors, for wherever they lie the trees grow untouched and you may know a graveyard from afar on these bare hills. The roads are, I think, the worst I have yet met with and my experience is wide. So we clambered down into the eastern plain again and skirted the foot of the steep hills till we reached MasyÖt. Now MasyÖt has proved a disappointment. There is indeed, a great castle, but it is Arab and of no great age, and the town is walled with Arab walls. There must have been more. There are traces of a Roman Road from Hamah to MasyÖt, but except for some tantalizing Corinthian capitals and a great bit of a column built at haphazard into the castle walls, I should say without question pre Muhammadan, I could find nothing. Inscriptions niente, except Arabic and those not very old. I paid an official visit on the Kaimakam who returned my call and there is nothing more to record. Thurs 16. [16 March 1905] A long and tedious ride today across the foothills and the plain to Hamah. The hills were nice enough for they were covered with flowers, but the huge stretches of corn and plough that followed were extremely tiresome. You do not see Hamah at all until you have actually arrived, for it lies Bellow the level of the plain on the two sides of the deep Orontes ['Asi] valley. I have a heavenly camping ground on the very edge of the plateau - 6 feet from the door of my tent the ground falls almost precipitously to the river and the whole town with its minarets and gardens lies Bellow me. It is moreover warm and I have dined out of doors on my narrow platform, the river and its bridges spread out before me under the moon. I have just had a struggle with the authorities who insisted on giving me 8 watchmen for the night. I refused to have more than 2 which is all one ever has anywhere, and the rest have gone away. It's a perfect pest having so many for in the first place they talk all night and in the second one has to tip them all. Only I do hope I have not created a diplomatic incident. I shall call on the Muteserrif tomorrow and thank him for his kind thought! I have come into the land of huge Persian water wheels, na'oura they are called. There is one Bellow, where the river leaves the town, pumping up water into acqueduct [sic]. It fills the air as it turns with a sort of grumble, rather soothing. Friday 14. [i.e. 17 March 1905] It's an enchanting place Hamah, though I saw it under the auspices of a little half Europeanised Syrian who is station master and insisted on being my guide. It's character is given to it by the river which runs through it, set with huge Persian wheels, and by the great mound of the Greek citadel which stands up by the river bank in the middle of the town. All the buildings are black and white stripes and all the lovely minarets are decorated with courses and patterns of black, and some of the houses stand in the river like the houses at Florence [Firenze] and everywhere the willows are coming into leaf and the apricots are in flower. I called on the notables and received their visit in the afternoon and tomorrow morning I'm off to Antioch [Antakya (Hatay)]. Ever your affectionate daughter Gertrude

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