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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 28th of April to the 11th of May, 1907.

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Reference code
Bell, Dame Florence Eveleen Eleanore
Bell, Gertrude Margaret Lowthian
Person(s) mentioned
Wylie, Charles Doughty-
Wylie, Lilian [Judith] Doughty-
Ramsay, W.M.
Creation Date
Extent and medium
1 letter plus envelope, paper

37.7626487, 30.553705

Isbarta [Isparta (Hamitabat)] Ap 28. Dearest Mother. I don't suppose there is anyone in the world happier than I am or any country more lovely than Asia Minor. I just mention these facts in passing so that you may bear them in mind. I left Dineir [Dinar (Apamea)] yesterday and all the storm had passed away; the snows lay very low on the hills and the sun shone very bright above them and such a morning for travel was never seen. So we rode and rode over the hills and down to the edge of a great lake and along its eastern shore, the Lake of Buldur [Burdur Gölü]. Bitter salt it is and very blue, and the mountains stand all round it, white with snow, and the fruit gardens border it, pink and white with peach and cherry. And so we came to Buldur [Burdur], a fine town standing in a rich land and there we pitched camp in a green field at the edge of the town, and the sun went down very red over the lake and the moon came up over the hills and it was all most beautiful. All the authorities came down in turn and begged me not to spend the night in the wilderness and entreated me to share their fleay houses and told me that my next day's journey was quite out of the question because of the snow and the mountains and I don't know what, till finally I said I was going to bed and sent them all away. Said Fattuh: "What sort of soldiers are these? they fear the cold, and they fear the mountains and they fear the rivers - perhaps they fear the rabbits and the foxes." And he went away shaking his head mournfully over the degeneracy of the Turkish army and muttering in Turkish "Nassl askar! nassl askar! - what sort, what sort of soldiers!" Today I started off at 5.30 and, leaving Fattuh to bring the camp by the straight road, I took a soldier (as Mrs Ernie Pease's maid wd fully expect) and rode into the hills, a wonderful wonderful ride. We found a high pass near the snow and dropped down into a little plain set about with mountains - I wonder if there is any way of getting into it except by climbing up to heaven; I have tried 2 of the roads that lead to it and the second was hillier than the first. Here there were villages again and fruit trees and the young corn just springing, and the mountain torrents splashed into tumble down wooden mills. The last village was Aghlasun; all its fountains and grave yards were full of worked stones, pediments, sarcophagi, friezes brought down from the ruins I was going to see. And behind it stood the high mountains all snow, with a little crick in the very top of them through which ran the road to Isbarta - we call such things roads in Turkey. We turned into the hills and climbed and climbed till I thought no town could ever have been built so high, and at noon beheld suddenly a splendid theatre and it was half full of snow. "Nassl" players as Fattuh would say, whose theatre was snow bound still at the end of April! Sagalassos [Sagalassus] was the name of the city: Alexander took it and then they rebuilt it and it continued to be a very popular place to live in, for it was a Christian town (there's a big church in it) and finally it was destroyed by earthquakes and they built Aghlasun out of its ruins, two miles lower down the hill. I spent 3 enchanting hours in Sagalassos and quite understood at the end of them why the Pisidians had built their town so high among the mountains. The snow had just melted, the yellow spurge that grows on all these hills and covers them with a rather melancholy luxuriance, had not yet come into bloom, but masses of tiny purple crocuses had spread their brave petals against the sun and here and there under a warm stone there was a patch of blue scilla. Then we dragged our horses up to the top of the pass through melting snow, and we plunged with them for half an hour down the north side of the hills, through drifts that took them up to their girths - now a horse is not constructed for walking through snow drifts - and then we followed for 2 hours the course of a rushing strem, crossing and recrossing it, for there was really no road, and at last the spurge came into bloom again and the cherry trees flowered and we reached Isbarta. I found my tents pitched at the edge of a vineyard above the town, looking north towards the white mountains of Egerdir [Egridir], and I was rather surly to all the military and civil authorities of the town, who were gathered round, so that they left me to my excellent tea and the still more excellent beauty of my camp. And that is why I began this letter as I have begun it. But I don't think the ladies of Sagalassus can have had very good complexions - not if they were at all like mine after a day spent in their sun and their snows. I have next to no skin left.

Mon 29. [29 April 1907] At a quarter to 6 this morning, just as I was breakfasting, the Commandant came to call. There he was, all in his blue coat lined with astrachan [sic], with 2 men riding behind him. I thought it rather too early for society myself and left him mainly to Fattuh's care. For as soon as I had finished breakfast I played the part of a really virtuous traveller - for 3 mortal hours did I tramp the town (in the incongruous company of a shoemaker who for some reason unknown had spent the night in our camp) in search of inscriptions. I didn't find much except a curious Mithra relief which I photographed with care - it was in a Greek house so perhaps it has not been seen yet. We had a dullish 20 mile ride to Egerdir [Egridir] round the foot of the hills and over a low pass. Also it was bitter hot, the hottest day we have had. At the top of the pass suddenly there was the great lake in front of us and Egerdir village clinging to the slopes of the steep hills. There would indeed be no room for it if it were not that the land runs out into a long narrow spur and then breaks off and begins again as an island in the middle of the lake. The spur is fortified by a ruinous old castle and thickly inhabited - most picturesque and smelly - and the island is inhabited too and contains a very old church, with a miracle working spring, a great place of pilgrimage. I rowed out to it. The hills are so steep that we could find no camping ground for another half mile, the result is that we have a most beautiful camp far from the town and looking over the lake. It is now night and the moon has not yet risen. Fattuh has gone to look for horses and I am left with the soldier who is our guard tonight. I think he feels rather anxious at being left alone here in the dark for he has crept in close to the light of my tent and has been telling me, half in Turkish and half in broken Arabic, of his 10 years in Yemen and of how, praise be to God! he did not die there though he was wounded twice. "Effendim" said he "1000 men went out from our town and 300 returned." He looks himself a broken man. He has one child, a girl, but he has only been married 2 years, since he came back from the Yemen. You see how these disastrous wars destroy the Turkish population. They increase the death rate and keep down the birth rate. The Yemen is eating the heart out of Turkey.

Tues Ap 30. [30 April 1907] We have not made much way today as the crow flies because the road along the eastern shore of the lake is not yet finished and we had very rough going which delayed the baggage animals. I had a hard day myself, for I made several détours from the road to visit villages where there might have been inscriptions - but there weren't. I did however find a ruined site of some size with two churches, one of a rather curious plan. This one I measured roughly and have just drawn out. So my day was not wasted. It was instructive also to see how road making is conducted in Turkey. It's a very hilly road, up and down and in and out over the mountains. They had one old man and 3 younger ones with a few little boys working at one end and at the other unfinished end there were some 30 men who were engaged in baking and eating bread on the hill side. Also they take no count of the streams that cross the road continuously, the country being mountains as you will understand. These streams therefore wash away the work as soon as it is done. I think it will be some time before this road is joined up. At length we came out of the hills and down to the shore of the lake again, and presently we reached a splendid old Seljuk Khan, in ruins I need not say. Here we camped, a most excellent site with the lake in front of us and snow mountains behind it. I have just been swimming in the lake, which was most delicious. It's ideal weather.

Wed May 1. [1 May 1907] I haven't really done much today though I have taken a good deal of trouble about it. I had to find a fountain with a Latin inscrip. of which Ramsay wanted a new copy. I found it, inscription and all complete, and worked 2 hours at the latter without a very satisfactory result as it was much broken and lay too under the splash of the fountain so that I could not take a good rubbing. The oldest and most decrepit soldier in the world was told off at Egerdir [Egridir] to bear me company. He knows nothing of the country and our intercourse is confined to something like the following: Me "Where does this road go to?" He "Effendim, I do not know." Me: "What is the name of that village?" He: "Effendim? I could not say." Me: "How far is it to so and so?" Effendim, I have not been." The result of which is that I have to find all my own routes by asking the people by the wayside. We have had to take a long détour from the lake because the mts drop steeply into it and there is no road along the water's edge. The mts at this point almost divide the lake into 2 halves. Tomorrow we shall be back on the northern edge as I have some work to do there for Ramsay.

Friday May 3. [3 May 1907] Yalovach [Yalvaá], which is Antioch in Pisidia [Antiochia Pisidiae]. I had such a long day yesterday that when I got in I eat my dinner and dropped into bed without writing my diary or anything. I started at 5.45 taking with me an intelligent villager of Tokmajik, the place where I had spent the night. He knew the country and was a satisfactory guide and an agreeable companion. He had been a soldier and had served mainly in Crete [Ktiti], an island of which he thought highly. We took a path hitherto untravelled over the hills, past 2 villages unknown to Kiepert (there were unfortunately no inscriptions in them though there were old worked stones) and dropped down onto the northern end of the Lake of Egerdir [Egridir Gölü]. There was a place which Ramsay had begged me to try and visit on the eastern shore of the lake. It is a place of pilgrimage where the Christians come once a year, in September, from all the country side and the probability is that it was a holy site long before the Xian era, sacred to Artemis of the lake who was herself a Pisidian deity rebaptised by the Greeks. I found the place, about 2 miles down the lake, and a very striking place it was. The rocks drop here straight into the lake and at their foot there is a great natural arch some 15 ft high through which glistens the blue water of the lake. In the rock above is a small rock cut chamber into which I scrambled with some difficulty and found a slab like a loculus in it. It may have been a tomb at some time but I think more probably the slab was sacrificial; at any rate the Xians use the chamber now to celebrate their yearly mass. So we rode back along the beautiful grassy shores of the lake, where the Yuruks were watching their flocks and herds, and all round the swampy northern end of the lake. Almost joined to the shore by beds of immensely tall reeds there is a little island which no one had yet succeeded in visiting. I however found a fisherman's hut in the swamp and near it a very old and smelly boat, so I hired the 3 fishermen for an infinitesimal sum and rowed out to the island with Nazmi, my Tokmajik man. It was completely surrounded by ruined Byzantine walls dropping into the water in great blocks of masonry; here and there there was a bit of an older column built into them and they were densely populated by snakes. There was only one thing of real interest, a very curious stele with a female figure carved on it, bearing what looked like water skins, and two lines of inscription above. She might have been Artemis of the lake herself and perhaps the inscription said so, but unfortunately the whole stone was covered by 18 inches or more of shimmering water. It had fallen into the lake and there it lay. I did all I knew to get the inscription. I waded into the water and tried to scrub the slime off the stone, but the water glittered and the slime floated back and finally I gave it up and came out very wet and more than a little annoyed. It was provoking after I had taken so much trouble, wasn't it? However at any rate now we know that it's there and someone can go and fish it out. So we punted back through the reeds. One of my boatmen had been though the Russo Turkish war - Nish, Plevna, he rambled on about all the things he had seen and done while we brushed through the reeds, looking sometimes for fish in the traps they had set, and sometimes for birds' eggs, and I sat in the sun and dried myself. It was so hot that I was quite dry before I got into camp. Then we rode north up the plain and explored a village for inscriptions as we went. There was a large farm here kept by an agreeable Greek who helped me in my search and invited me into his house where his wife gave me milk; and at last at a quarter to 7 we got to Kundanly [Kumdanli] where I found my camp pitched and my dinner ready. In and around Kundanly have been found (mainly by Ramsay) a very curious series of inscriptions relating to an anti-Christian Society of the 2nd century. It was called the Society of those who showed the Sign, and the Sign was probably some act of worship of the Emperor and the old gods. I had all the published inscriptions with me and I hunted round this morning for a couple of hours and found a new one in a Turkish house - very short and I fear not very important, but I took a rubbing, to the surprise and joy of the inhabitants, and shall give it to Ramsay. It was very hot again today. I made a détour to see some places that might have been interesting (but were not) and got into camp at 3, since when I have done nothing but sleep and eat and write my diary. Tomorrow is an off day and I can't say I regret it. It's very laborious being the careful traveller and I don't think I do it well either. There are probably lots of things that I don't see because I don't know how to look. I remember Ramsay's telling me that the first journey he made in A. Minor he found nothing at all. And you see I only find things under water! Fattuh loq: "Never in my life did I see such a town! May God send them to their fathers and may their women be taken captive! I paid 5 piastres for your Excellency's beans. No meat in all the town - may it be destroyed!" I: "And the chicken is less good than the chicken of Tokmajik." Fattuh (with indignant reminiscence of his culinary experiences at Tokmajik) "That chicken! she eat 4 piastres of fire wood - then I cooked her 3 hours at Kundanly - God send all chickens to their fathers!" I'm not at all sure that I don't wish He would - except that then I should starve.

Sat May 4. [4 May 1907] I have spent an extremely agreeable day in idleness. I had a few notes to take for Ramsay on the site of the old town, but I did all that from 7 to 10 AM and then came back to my tent and read in comfort and learnt some Turkish. In the afternoon I called on the Kaimakam - I must tell you about the Kaimakam. Fattuh went down into the town early to get some stuff for his eye which is swollen. The barber's shop (that's where he went) is as you know the fashionable lounge and there I found the Kaimakam, the Binbashi, the Imam, the Kadi and a few more all sitting together. In the afternoon I go to the Konak; the Kaimakam, the Binbashi, the Imam, the Kadi etc are still all sitting together drinking coffee and smoking. An hour later comes a message to say that the Kaimakam, the Binbashi etc wished to call on me. So up they came, 6 of them, all in a serried row and sat in my tent and drank more coffee and smoked more cigarettes. It's my private conviction that that's all they ever do, any of them, and they all do it together every day. They appear to have given their advice collectively as regards the hiring of a cart for my luggage and even the buying of candles and rice, so today they have been unusually busy. I've bought another horse, this time for úT10 which is not dear. I like the look of him very much. The first one has turned out excellently - I think this one is even better. Now I'm provided. In this transaction I did not ask the advice of the Kaimakam, the Binbashi, the Imam or the Kadi.

Tues May 7. [7 May 1907] Here are several days that I have not written to you. We've had laborious travelling, but it has all ended successfully. We left Yalovach [Yalvaá] early on Sunday, 6 AM which is the appointed hour. I had hired a cart for my luggage since there was a cart road all the way to Kyzyl Euren [Kizilviran] where I now am. I had always been told by the authorities on the subject that that was the proper way to travel in Asia M. Now I know it isn't. One has to learn these things for oneself. So we set out, and I was riding my new horse which was as wild as a hawk and as timid as a lizard, so I had enough to think of for the first hour or two. (He is settling down now he has got into good hands and is becoming a capital little animal, I think the best horse for travel I have ever had.) It was a dullish road. In 4´ hours we came to a dullish place called Karagash [Sarkikaraagaá]; it was once a great Seljuk town and is now a miserable little village with a few Roman stones and Greek inscriptions in it. The day was blazing hot and I had a pain, due to indigestion. Fattuh ascribed my pain and his swollen eye to the heaviness of the air at Yalovach, but I think my malady should rather be attributed to the toughness of the chicken. So we went to the khan and determined to wait anyhow till the cart arrived and then set out again. We waited and waited and at noon we lunched, and then there came a most furious thunderstorm with sheets of rain and batterings of hail and at length came news that the cart had broken down an hour from Yalovach and the man had gone back to fetch another. By this time the road was deep in water and mud and the end of it was that the luggage arrived at 5 and there was no more thought of travel for that day. On the whole perhaps it was as well for it rained without stopping till 7 so that we shd have got very wet, and I was feeling a dog besides. So I eat some of the curious soup that Fattuh makes out of the Lord knows what and went to bed. I may mention that my room was crowded with bugs and fleas, but I had my own bed at least. There were no horses to be got at Karagash, no baggage horse, so there was nothing for it but to hire another cart next day and again we set out at 6 o'clock full of hope. For the first hour or two the road was deep in mud owing to the rain of the day before but presently we came to a little pass and the ground hardened and cleared. Here Fattuh stopped to wait for the cart and I rode on with my soldiers. Through the pass at intervals, clear for all eyes to see, there was the pavement of the Roman road and just after we crossed the low summit there were some peasants digging up dressed stones out of a big mound by the roadside. I went to see and found it to be the foundations of a square building they were digging out, of fine dressed stones, no doubt a guard house at the gate of the pass. For this was the great eastern road that carried all the traffic from Europe to Asia and Asia to Europe for many many centuries. Then I made a little round in order to ride over the site of Misthia where there was a bishop in Byz. times and so at 10.15 I got to Kirili Kassaba [Kireli], another miserable little hole not far from the shores of the great Bey Sheher Lake [Beysehir Gölü], and again I went to the khan and again I waited. This time after an hour and a half came a messenger sent by Fattuh to say that the cart had stuck in the mud and he had gone back to Karagash for another. I ordered eggs and bread and curds and lunched and did my best to be patient and at 1.30 up came Fattuh triumphantly with 2 carts, having pulled the first out of the mud with buffaloes and then driven it into Kassaba. But I was not going to be put off again with half a day's journey, so I left the carts and Fattuh to rest for an hour and rode on down the flat plain by Bey Sheher Lake. It is not so fine as the other lakes though the mts drop steeply into it on the W side but it is very typically of this country and of no other. A melancholy land, in spite of its lakes and mountains, though I like it. You leave the bright and varied coast line which was Greece, full of vitality, full of the breath of the sea and the memory of an active enterprizing race, and with every step into the interior you feel Asia, the real heart of Asia. Monotonous, colourless, lifeless, unsubdued by a people whose thoughts travel no further than to the next furrow, who live and die and leave no mark upon the great plains and the barren hills - such is central Asia, of which this country is a true part. And that is why the Roman roads make so deep an impression on one's mind. They impressed the country itself, they implied a great domination, they tell of a people that overcame the universal stagnation. It was very hot and still; clouds of butterflies drifted across the path and there was no other living thing except a stork or two in the marshy ground and here and there a herd of buffaloes with a shepherd boy asleep beside them. At the end of the lake a heavy thunder storm gathered and crept along the low hills to the east and up into the middle of the sky. And so we came to the earliest record of what was probably the earliest trade road in the world and the forerunner of the Roman road, and here the clouds broke upon us in thunder and lightning and hail and rain and I saw the four Hittite kings, carved in massive stone, against a background of all the fury of the storm. They are seated by the edge of a wide pool, a spring bubbling out of the hillside, from which a swift river flows away to the lake; and above them are figures with uplifted hands, as though they praised the god of great waters. This is not the only track[?] of the Hittite road; there is another at the foot of Taurus [Toros Daglari], a king and a god carved also above a mighty spring; that way the road came out of Asia and crossed Anatolia going westward to the sea. We rode back for an hour through the rain and the swamps and when we came to the village where we were to camp, I thought at first it was uninhabited, so ruined and miserable did it seem. Then a pack of furious dogs set upon me and next I saw Fattuh with a group of villagers gathered round in the wet dusk. It is generally in the poorest village that you find the best lodging and so it was here. There was the most charming guest house, seeing which they had not set up my tents in the swamp but had put my furniture into a clean white washed room. There was a room next it for Fattuh to cook in and a stable underneath for the horses and that was all the house. The Sheikh of the village apologized humbly for the poor accomodation which was all he could offer and wd not Bellieve I had more than all I wanted. I told you the village was set in a marsh; this morning the problem was to get the luggage cart onto dry ground again. Fattuh solved it with his usual energy - Fattuh would have been a prime minister or a commander in chief if he hadn't happened to be born an ignorant Syrian peasant. He disappeared with the cart in a storm of water and mud and presently reappeared safe and sound on the other side. We had a long day, but without misadventure. We came about 30 miles I should think and that is good going. The last hour or so we were on the Roman road again, the causeway quite clear for a couple of miles and a milestone at one place. Tomorrow I have to try and find where it went from here.

Thurs May 9. [9 May 1907] Kilisra. I meant to be in Konia [Konya (Iconium)] today but I found some interesting work which has kept me here a day. We rode over the mountain tops yesterday through rain and driving mists. I followed for the first hour the probable line of the R. road but found nothing to make it certain except a village all built out of old stones and surrounded by ruins - it must have been an important town and therefore probably lay on the road. No one, apparently, had been there before, for it was marked dubiously by Kiepert, so I copied inscriptions and rode away rejoicing. Our path led us through very wild rocky country and then over great uplands, summer pasturages, but the weather was disagreeable and I was not sorry when our 7 hours' journey was done. Now this place lies in the middle of a volcanic country. The hill on which it stands and all the edges of the valleys round, break off into most curious pillars and turrets of soft rock and they are all honey combed with cave dwellings. I had sent my tents straight to Konia and packed what we needed on the backs of 2 donkeys, which were driven across the hills by an affable old man whom Fattuh speaks of as the Fattuh [sic] of Donkeys, and I know no other name for him. We arrived long before the donkeys at 2 o'clock and I was starving, for in an evil hour we had entrusted the luncheon saddle bags to the Father of Donkeys. So we set about to look for a lodging and were shown two rooms one more disgustingly dirty than another and both approached by extremely smelly stables. I refused, with an indignation sharpened by hunger, to sleep in either and finally we were taken to a charming house on the outskirts of the village where there were 2 empty rooms with a wide roof that forms a balcony in front, and a delightful view. So here I determined to stay and after eating some bread I went out and looked at the cave houses - it was now quite fine. They are really houses, each with 2 or 3 rooms, one above the other, with flights of rock cut steps leading into the upper stories [sic]. Moreover the valley Bellow the village is quite full of flowering fruit trees and heavy with the scent of apple blossom. A nice place you see. It was a rumour of old churches that had brought me, however, and this morning I rode out early with my host as a guide and Fattuh to hold the measuring tape. The 2 churches were on the very top of a rocky mountain; they were both most interesting and I worked at them all day. Only the weather was horrible, cold and storms of rain. When we came to the second, which was even higher and more exposed than the first, the rain came down in torrents. But I saw with half a glance that it was a true cruciform of very early work, and such things are extremely rare, so no amount of rain could drive me away. We crouched for a miserable hour under what shelter of fallen stones we could find (I was under the lintel of the narthex door) and tried to pretend that the bitter wind did not drive in the rain to the furthest corner; but at last it cleared and my guide, with great skill, made a fire out of the damp branches of the oak scrub, at which we warmed ourselves, and then I measured the church. I have just drawn it out to scale and find that my measurements are perfectly exact. So that is a good day's work.

Konia [Konya (Iconium)] Sat 11. [11 May 1907] I arrived yesterday about noon and found all your letters to my great joy. And then I went off and saw the English Consul, Doughty Wylie and his wife, and so to my dear good Löytved, the German Consul and we fell into talk and I stayed on to dinner and didn't get back to my hotel till 11 at night. I'm writing to Elsa about plans (I can scarcely bear the idea of not being at her wedding) and to Father about money. Ramsay arrives in 3 days and I've got a hundred thousand things to do so I'll write no more now. I've just telegraphed to you. Your affectionate daughter Gertrude.
All right, I'll tell the great Mogul I'm coming all the same. Thank you for the German proofs. The translation is fairly good. I must write to Heinemann and ask him if I can make some corrections. "Madame" is ridiculous for "Lady", "Grünige Frau" wd be better don't you think?

I'm enchanted your book is such a success. But I knew it before the reviews came, out of my own head.

IIIF Manifest