Letter from Gertrude Bell to her stepmother Florence Bell, written over the course of several days from the 18th to the 27th of March, 1905.
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Kala'at Seijar which is Larissa. March 18. Dearest Mother. I had rather an amusing evening last night. After dinner there appeared a charming Syrian doctor who had been educated at the American College at Beirut [Beyrouth], his brother and the Greek priest and the Station Master and we all talked till past 9. The Greek church are all on the side of the Russians in the war, hold memorial services for their dead after their defeats - it must take them all their time - and are horribly afraid that the results of the Japanese victory may be a recondescence of anti Christian feeling here. Everyone else is for Japan, govt. and people alike. The Muhammadans look on Russia as their chief enemy and rejoice at her defeat and oddly enough the feeling is shared by all the other sects except the Greeks. On these and other matters we talked - my tent is filled with the echoes of strange conversations and my diary, Hugo will be pleased to hear, contains pages of them. I rode off this morning at 7.15, a delicious day. I have 2 soldiers who are to accompany me to Aleppo [Halab] and have orders to go wherever I like. The one who rides with me, Hajj Mahmud, is a very intelligent man who has travelled with German archaeologists and knows the strange tastes of Europeans. "I said to him" he related to me "if you wish to look upon a stone with a horse written upon it and his rider, wallahi I can show it to you. And they wondered much thereat and rewarded me with money." I think I shall find him very useful. He once travelled with a Japanese who could speak no language that Mahmud could understand. He travelled all day and wrote all night, eating only a little bread and drinking tea. When there was anything he did not like he would say "No, no!" which Mahmud took to be French. He had maps and books and I wonder what he made of it all. As we crossed the broad plateau, green with corn, Mahmud also related to me many curious tales about the secret religions of these parts. [Half a line deleted and illegible.] They are immensely interesting and throw a strange light on the origin of the people who hold such beliefs. They seem to spring from dim traditions of Astarte worship, or from that oldest of all creeds, the veneration of a mother goddess, which you find at the f....... root of all. The people that hold them are the Ismailiyeh - people say they descend from the Assassins, and the chief head of them all is our friend the Agha Khan to whom they send yearly tribute. His portrait, I am told, is in all their houses - this for Hugo's benefit. I have met some of them and they are always thrilled to hear I know the Agha Khan and ask a great deal about him - questions which I answer guardedly. After 4 hours' ride we came to Seijar and I camped under a big tree by the banks of the Orontes ['Asi], near a grove of apricots white with flower. Opposite to me, across the bridge is a great rocky bluff on which stands an Arab castle and to the S and W on the plain are traces of the Seleucid town in scraps of finely built wall. At the foot of the bluff is a village of semi nomadic Arabs but the castle itself is inhabited by the family of Sheikh Ahmad Seijari and they have held it for 300 years. I had a letter to them and after lunch I went up to call; but after much knocking at their door - their house is a modern Arab house in the middle of the castle - I received the unpromising information that the lord and master and his brother were both in prison at Hamah, a delightful form, isn't it, of being Not at home! But it presently transpired that an uncle and another brother were to be found and eagerly desired to see me so I went up again later and paid a long visit. What the rights of the matter are I don't know - Mahmud tells me one story and the Seijari another - but with or without cause, the eldest Seijari brother killed one of the Arabs, the govt. was roused to sudden energy, sent troops, shot the eldest brother, imprisoned two more, carried off all their cattle and ordered the rest of the family not to stir outside the castle. So there they have been imprisoned for a year and more with the Arabs at their gate, ready and willing to shoot them at any moment, but not daring to enter. They were all extremely glad to see me, indeed life must be rather monotonous, and I enjoyed my visit, for their tale interested me and moreover the women of the family were exceptionally beautiful. They wore the dark blue Arab dress and lovely gold ornaments on their heads. If it had not been for the number of fleas that were sharing their captivity I might have stayed longer. I have dined out of doors and sat outside all the evening under the moon.
Sunday 19th [19 March 1905] Kala'at el Muddik - Apamea, one of the many, and a most beautiful place, standing on a great bluff over the Orontes ['Asi] valley. Seleucus Nicator built it and a fine thing he must have made of it, for there is near a square mile of fallen columns and temple walls and Heaven knows what besides. Now think how Greece and the East were fused by Alexander's conquests. A Greek king, with his capital on the Euphrates, builds a city on the Orontes and calls it after his Persian wife; and what manner of people walked down its colonnades, keeping touch with Athens [Athinai] and with Babylon? That is the proposition in all the art hereabouts. The chief characteristic of the person that walked down them today - scrambled down them over the huge column boles - was that she was wet. It has rained in heavy showers all day and the deep grass and flowers were dripping wet and I was soaked up to the knees, and drenched from time to time from above. It was not really unpleasant and a sort of bright warm April rain with glints of sun, but damp all the same. The castle, as usual, is Arab, on Greek foundations, I suppose, for I found Greek inscriptions. One of the difficulties of searching for antiquities is that most of the people don't recognise any sort of picture when they see it, so that if you ask a man if there are any stones with the portraits of man or animals on them he replies "Wallahi! we do not know what the picture of a man is like." And if you show him a bit of a relief, however good it is, he hasn't the least idea what the carving represents. Isn't that curious.
Mon. 20. [20 March 1905] El Barah. Today we had - well I can scarcely dignify with the name of adventure - a misadventure. I sent my mules direct to El Barah and rode myself with Mikhail and Mahmud to see some ruins on the way. After 3 or 4 hours we got up into a country of rolling fertile hills which are full of wonderful villages of the 4th to the 6th century, partly reinhabited, and about 4 we came to the one I particularly wanted to see, Khirbet Hass. It was a splendid place, with churches and big stone houses each with its garden enclosed with stone pillars and tombs[?] and rock cut water tanks. I photographed and explored and when I got back to my horses I realised that I had lost my coat. I had taken it off some half an hour before we reached Khirbet Hass and fastened it onto my saddle, it had dropped off and was gone. Mahmud went back to look for it and after an hour and a half came back without it. By this time it was past 6, we had an hour and a quarter's ride over very rough country and clouds were blowing up. So we rode off, picking our way through the stones by an almost invisible path. As ill luck would have it, just as the night fell the storm came upon us, it became quite pitch dark with drenching rain and we missed our Medea thread of a way. At that moment, Mikhail's ears were assailed by the barking of imaginary dogs and we turned off to gain the spot from which the sound came. So we stumbled on and the moon came out a little and it was clear that the path we were on led nowhere and presently returned to the spot from which we had started. Here again that phantom barking deluded us and we set out in another direction on our wild dog chase. This time we went still further afield. Heaven knows where we should ultimately have arrived if I had not demonstrated by the position of the cloudy moon that we were steadily going south whereas our way lay north. We rode half way back and sat down on some stones to eat bread - I shared mine with my horse who was famished - and discuss whether it would not be wiser to spend the night in a neighbouring tomb, for the rain was coming on again. The bread encouraged us; we set off again and in the twinkling of an eye found ourselves back for the second time at our branching off place. We struck off in a third direction and in 5 minutes came to the village and our tents! I must tell you that in the beginning of the 3 hours' wandering we had fired 2 pistol shots as a signal to our servants and the village - to which we were, as we afterwards found, quite near. They had all heard them but, being persuaded that it was a robber taking advantage of the dark night to kill someone, had payed no attention. We got in at 10.30. The incident does credit to no one; I blush to relate it. It was as tiresome as any real adventure (and no one but those who have been through adventures can know how tiresome they are at the time they are happening) and it had not even the merit of a spice of romance to redeem it in memory. At the worst we should have spent the night in someone's empty tomb. But in self defence I must add that it is remarkably difficult to find one's way by dark in a rocky roadless country full of criss cross valleys and ridges.
Tues 21. [21 March 1905] It rained hard till 3 in the afternoon and then it cleared and went out to look at the ruined town by daylight. (I know it pretty well by night.) It is most wonderful and most beautiful, like a city in a fairy story or one of those dream places which one invents for oneself when one is little. One almost sees the dead and gone people living before one, walking down the narrow streets between the splendid houses, sitting under their columned verandahs, riding out of the stables, strolling through the gardens. Christians they were all; they cut the cross thus [diagram of quartered circle, with a small circle between the top two quarters] or thus [quartered circle with A in the top left quarter and W in top right quarter] over every door and window. Greek letters they used, but I think they were not Greeks but Semitic races with a veneer of Greek learning and cultivation. They are unknown to history; they grew rich and built themselves great houses and fine tombs to lie in after they were dead - and the Muhammadan invasion swept them off the face of the earth. The ruined walls are overgrown with an exquisite white clematis and the gardens are planted with olive and with vines, and every bit of untilled ground is covered with iris and hyacinth and anemone - and nothing that I can say will give you any idea of the charm of it all, or of the beauty of the Syrian spring. But I may mention in passing that it hasn't rained so much for 60 years and we are all of opinion that it might well stop. I spent a profitable morning, however, with books and maps planning my future journey, with the result that I have decided that it is better to go straight to Aleppo [Halab] and return to Antioch [Antakya (Hatay)] on my way north. My maps are the greatest joy. They were very expensive and they are worth double the money. I have just got into the big Kiepert map of Asia Minor and I feel that I am master of the situation in whatever direction I wish to travel.
Thursday 23. [23 March 1905] I stayed at El Barah yesterday and spent the day sightseeing there and round about. There are a number of villages scattered round on the hills and I visited some of them. They were all interesting. The Sheikh of El Barah and his son served me as guides. The Sheikh is a very sprightly old party who was guide to de VogÃ…Ã‡ 40 years ago and to every archaeologist since his time. He knows them all by name, or rather by names of his own very far removed from the original. He rode with me this morning - I made a dÃ‡tour with Mahmud and visited 2 villages, one more beautiful than the other. We had an impayable conversation by the way. It began by my asking Yunis whether he ever went to Aleppo [Halab]. Oh yes, he said, he was accustomed to go when his sons were in prison there. I did not relever this remark but edged away from what seemed to me delicate ground by asking how many sons he had. Eight; each of his 2 wives had borne his 4 sons and 2 daughters. I congratulated him warmly on this. Yes, he said, but wallahi! his second wife had cost him a great deal of money. "Yes?" said I. "May God make it Yes upon thee, oh lady! I took her from her husband and by God (may His name be praised and exalted!) I had to pay him 1000 piastres (about 10 napoleons) and to the judge 1500." This was too much for Mahmud's sense of decency. "Wallahi!" said he "that was the deed of a Nosairiyeh or an Ismailiyeh! Does a Muslim take away a man's wife? It is forbidden." "He was my enemy" replied Yunis in explanation. "By God and the Prophet of God! there was enmity between him and me even unto death." "Had she children?" said Mahmud. "Ey wallah" (ie of course) said Yunis, a little put out by Mahmud's disapproval. "By the face of God!" exclaimed Mahmud, still more outraged "It was the deed of a heathen" "I paid 1000 piastres to the man and 1500 to the judge" objected Yunis, and here I put an end to the further discussion of the merits of the case by asking whether the woman had liked being carried off. "Without doubt" said Yunis. "It was her wish." We may conclude that ethics had not much to do with the matter although he did pay 2500 piastres. At noon I came to a wonderful village called Ruweiha and lunched in a tomb like a small temple - there was a violent thunderstorm going on at the time. There is a ruined church there which might almost be Sicilian Gothic. It has stilted arches over the doors and a great columned narthex, and piers like an English cathedral suporting the arches of the aisles. The strange thing is to see half remembered classic motives still finding their way into the decoration, laurel garlands on the lintels and bits of the classic entablature used Ã– tort et a travers everywhere. So I rode down here passing on my way a country house that might have been built by Mr ..... It had a delightful porch with a gable roof facing towards the north in which no doubt the 6th century owner used to sit of an afternoon and enjoy the cool air. I am camping at a place called Dana beside the loveliest of tombs. All their decorations were primarily this OOOO, the circles filled with whorls or wreaths or crosses, but as they grew more skilful, they ran their circles together into a hundred exquisite and fanciful shapes of acanthus and palm and laurel, making a flowing pattern round church or tomb as varied as the imagination of the stone cutter could contrive. A great race of builders they were.
Sunday 26. [26 March 1905] On Friday I rode east across a rolling plain covered with debris or towns but uninhabited except by half settled bedouin. It's a curious and interesting thing to see them all along the western edges of the desert taking to cultiving the soil and establishing themselves therefore of necessity in a given place. In some distant age there will be no nomads left in Arabia - but it is still far off I'm glad to think. In the early stages these new made farmers continue to live in tents, only the tents are stationary and the accompanying dirt cumulative. An Arab settlement is not a spot pleasing to any of the senses. So we came early in the afternoon to a huge stretch of ruin, Tarutin is its modern name, its classic was Tarutia. There were a few families of Arab fellahin living there in tents - very nice people not withstanding the accuracy of my former remarks - and here I camped. I had not been in camp an hour before the American archaeologists came in from the East, you remember I met them in Damascus [Dimashq (Esh Sham, Damas)]. Great rejoicing, especially on my part, for you realize I have not seen a European or heard a word of anything but Arabic for 3 weeks. So I stayed next day at Tarutin and spent the whole day watching them work, an admirable object lesson it was. It's the most amusing game in the world mapping and planning a ruined town. As Mr Butler drew the plans and Mr Prentice and Dr Littmann [see also Littman] deciphered the inscriptions the whole 5th century city rose from its ashes and stood before us. The great triumph was when we found the church which had been built about by the Arabs and turned into a fort, and church and fort only the foundations remained. I dined with them in the evening and we talked without stopping and were very merry, and they are all coming to stay at Rounton - don't be alarmed, they are really charming. Today I have been 9Â´ hours in the saddle - 10 hours' march with Â´ an hour in the middle for lunch. Do you know that's a very long time. We had to made a huge dÃ‡tour to avoid a 12 miles' stretch of flood water in the plain. At one moment I thought that accursed lake would never end. It's a singular country. From the moment we left the high ground on which Tarutin lies there was not a stone to be seen anywhere, not a stone and not a tree, nothing but an endless stretch of unbroken corn field. It's peopled by settled Arabs who live in mud villages, since there is nothing else to make villages of, and each house has a sort of bee hive roof of mud - only more pointed than a beehive. They look like nothing I have ever seen except the pictures of central African villages in travel books. I think if there were a little less mud in the plains and a little fewer stones in the hills it would be better, but He, than whom where is none other, had decided differently. The storks have come, bless them! and also I saw the first scarlet tulips today. Kefr 'Abid my halting place is called.
Moday 27. [27 March 1905] Aleppo [Halab]. Here I am. It's not a very nice place, arid and uninteresting, I shall only stay 2 days. I've put up at the hotel. The Consul and his wife are very friendly and as usual I have a distingued native to pilot me about! The chief news in your letters is of Moll. I'm most delighted and I'm going to write to her. The rest is of MaBell - what a terrible catastrophe! I can't tell you how sorry I am for the poor dear little thing and also very very sorry for us - for you especially. I have a letter from Father from Crete [Kriti], bless him! You sound as if you were being run off your feet with business. I continue to send letters and telegrams to London because country addresses are a difficulty to the officials here. The post goes so goodbye. Your affectionate daughter Gertrude