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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 18th to the 29th of April, 1909.

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Reference code
Bell, Dame Florence Eveleen Eleanore
Bell, Gertrude Margaret Lowthian
Person(s) mentioned
Grey, Edward
Strzygowski, Josef
Herzfeld, Ernst
Chirol, Valentine
Andrae, Walter
Creation Date
Extent and medium
1 letter plus envelope, paper

34.1660043, 43.9055155

Sunday Ap 18. Samarra still. Dearest Mother. As I feared, all Herzfeld's work has had to be redone and I have been at it hard for 3 days and a half. However it's all finished now and I don't regret it because one learns more about buildings when one goes over them brick by brick with the measuring tape than in any other way. Also (but this is an unworthy consideration!) I shall have a merry time showing up Herzfeld. He deserves it however. I have had great good luck. Yesterday while I was planning a palace of one of the khalifs, a man who was digging for bricks among the ruins, uncovered a most beautiful bit of plaster decoration, still in place. I had already found and drawn several fragments of stucco relief in the palace and when I saw this one I promised bakhshish to anyone who would bring me more. The result was that I got two other wall decorations, in fragments, but enough to be able to reconstruct the lovely running patterns on them. They are very important. I know no other examples of early stucco patterns of this kind, except in Egypt. Strzygowski will be wild with joy over them. Meantime I had collected a mountain of pottery fragments, very rough but all covered with interesting patterns. Fortunately yesterday afternoon it rained and blew so hard that it was impossible to work out of doors, so I sat in my tent and drew all the pottery, I've got 44 different patterns besides one or two particularly good bits that I have taken with me. I confidently expect to make a sensation when I publish them! this pottery has never been studied. One fragment - I've carried if off with me besides drawing it - is too delightful. It is decorated with a beautiful goose drawn in the clay. So much for the Prophet's prohibition: they didn't care tuppence in the early days of Islam whether they drew live things or not. The buildings are scattered over an immense area; this town stretches for 30 miles along the river and I'm going on working at it for 2 days' more on my way to Tekrit [Tikrit]. This morning I crossed the river and planned a little palace on the other side. I had been there before and knew what a horrible long way off it was, so today we sent a kuffa an hour up stream (you remember about kuffas - they are big baskets, pitched outside) rode up to it, sent back the horses and ferried over to the palace. When I had finished my plan we got into the kuffa and I lunched while we dropped peacefully down the river to where my camp stands on the high bank. It was very delicious. Samarra town is like a toy - a broken toy. It stands in the open plain above the river, all walled round with a high wall above which rise the tiled minarets and golden dome of the Mahdi's tomb. But when you get inside you find the enclosure is half empty and inide the wall are large open spaces covered with dirt and ruins. A large part of the population consists of very fanatical Persians - they have been quite nice to me, but then I haven't bothered them much. All the windows looking onto the streets are bricked up and most of the dwellers in the houses are I think dead, anyway there is no one and nothing to be seen as you ride down the silent little ways. But just at the mosque door there are a few tea houses with grave Persians and ragged Arabs sitting in them and smoking narghilehs. They all gave me the salaam as I passed and I was careful not to look too curiously through the gate of the mosque where the big chain hangs under the blue and yellow tiled archway. For you may not enter unless you are of the Faith.

Wed Ap 21. [21 April 1909] I don't seem able to write this letter with any regularity. The fact is I'm so busy all day. We left Samarra on Monday and I drew plaster patterns up till the last moment while the baggage was being loaded. We rode about 4 hours up the river, and the whole way the bank was covered with remains of palaces. They are mostly only great crumbling walls of unburnt brick, set with towers and standing round immense rectangular enclosures. About half past ten we came to a mosque almost as big as the Samarra mosque (and it is 157 metres x 230, a respectable size) but whereas in Samarra the outer walls are standing and the colonnades have all disappeared - to build modern Samarra - at Abu Dalaf the outer walls, being of unburnt brick, have gone and the colonnades stand. So that the one mosque supplements the other admirably. The worthy old French general who published a plan of Abu Dalaf observed innocently that he had unfortunately lost all his notes and measurements. Nevertheless he blandly gave the plan! It seemed to me therefore that it ought to be redone and I worked at it for 5 long and very hot hours. It was quite simple, but so very large and the unspeakable colonnades weren't even which caused some trouble. However there it is, safely in my notebook and whatever happens to it there is now a trustworthy record of it. But I hope nothing will happen to it, for it's a very splendid place. That done, I went down to my camp a quarter of an hour away and found it pitched on a high bank above the Tigris in the very middle of the huge enclosing wall of someone's palace. I had got myself so deeply buried, by that time, in the age of Harun er Rashid that I felt it all quite natural that we should be, for the night, the guests of one of his sons. And a very lavish hospitality he gave us as regards sunset and rising stars and gleaming curves of the Tigris. Next day was very satisfactory too. I went back to my mosque to get some photographs with the eastern light and then we rode on through the northern parts of Samarra (this suburb was called Karkh) till we came to the place where the Nahrawan Canal takes off from the river and there, just where they should be, were the huge enclosing walls of the Khalif Mutawakkil's palace and the remains of the bridge over the canal and everything complete. That was the end of Samarra, but we had one other delightful building, the tomb of an Imam at a place called Dur. It was square with a curious sort of niched and pointed dome, which is typically late Arab and, outside, it was a town of storks who had built their nests on the shoulders of the niches (the niches are inside, convex outside therefore). I despatched a casual person to get the key and after due delay there arrrived a most charming old Sheikh - I daresay he was the direct descendant of the Imam - and opened for me. My soldier told me afterwards that there was great hesitation about letting me go in but he had declared I was a government official and all doors must stand wide. So I took off my boots to the immense interest of a large crowd of spectators and went in. To the very top of the pointed dome it was all covered with plaster work, the direct descendant of the Samarra plaster though it lacked the beauty and delicacy of the earlier decoration. And to add to the completeness of everything, I found the building inscription on a marble slab by the door, half covered with whitewash, and we scraped it and washed it and got the date, AH 871, the very end of the days of the Khalifs. A blight followed after this, for when I took out my purse to give liberal tips all round, there was nothing in it but a few piastres. I had paid off a guide the night before and forgotton to provide myself with more money. I apologized deeply to the sheikh and everyone else and gave them every farthing I had and they took it in very good part, though they were naturally a little disappointed. The money bags, you see, had gone on with the caravan which was 2 hours' away by that time. The rest of the day must have been meant for a judgement upon me. We arrived opposite Tekrit [Tikrit] about 1, there was a stormy wind blowing and a very bad ferry boat and we had the devil's own business getting across. I went over with the luggage in the first boat load and sat for two full hours on the smelly shore Bellow the town, reading the Weekly Times, while my soldier kept off the little boys and the women, classes of the population whom I hate equally. At last Fattuh came over with the baggage animals and we reloaded and got into camp above the town about 5.30. But the riding horses and the remaining muleteer did not get in till 6.30. I meantime was entertaining a great sheikh, Hameidi Beg ibn Farhan. Farhan was the very famous sheikh of all the Shammar - now the Shammar and the 'Anazeh for all practical purposes divide the desert between them, without amity, and all the little tribes tremble at their nod - and Hameidi is one of his 14 sons. He happened to be in Tekrit on some business connected with sheepstealing and when I arrived he came up at once to call. He is a handsome man of about 35, with a gentle, rather indolent, expression (he is said to be the mildest of all Farhan's brood) and we had an interesting talk about the desert, at the end of which I gave him my visiting card and he bade me welcome to all the Shammar tents. Some day I shall profit by the invitation. I like making the acquaintance of these desert lords, it may always come in useful. The Shammar rule this country with a rod of iron. Not a caravan that passes up and down from Tekrit to Mosul [Mawsil, Al] but pays them tribute on every animal, unless, of course, they happen to be under government protection as I am. But muleteers can't afford government protection. The result of getting into camp late last night was that we had to do all our shopping for 3 days' desert journey this morning and so we didn't get off till 7.30, an hour later than usual. I spent the time in looking at where the Tekrit of the great Arab days had been - nothing whatever remains of it - and in buying for a few pence an extremely interesting fragment of plaster work. It represents a woman standing between two small arched niches; it is very roughly worked and a good deal battered, but I think it's Mohammadan and if so it's really very valuable. The problem is now to carry it without damaging it more. We had a 7 hours' ride through very desolate country, mostly by the Tigris bank, and are now camped by the river about a mile away from a guard house which has recently been built at the expense of a wonderful Khan of the finest Mohammadan work - I don't doubt that it is of the great Arab period. Unfortunately very little of it remains but that little is quite extraordinarily valuable from the point of view of construction - all the more because it's ruined, for one can see exactly how things were built in a way one can't understand unless one can get the walls in section, that is when half of them have fallen down. I took a good many photographs and am going back at dawn to get more with the opposite light. We are much bothered by wind. It's blowing again like mad this afternoon. Wind and dust in a temperature of 85¯ are always trying. Otherwise, I've enjoyed this Tigris journey immensely; it has been exceptionally lohnend. I'm planning a book now; it's to be called "Khethar [Ukhaydir], Samarra and Rakka [Ar Raqqah]: a study in Mesopotamian architecture." What do you think of that? And all the pottery fragments and the plaster work and the Rakka pots will come in too. It would be wonderfully interesting to write, but it will take a long time. I feel very much excited about it however. The only drawback is it won't pay! but don't mention that to Heinemann - nor to my bankers.

Thurs Ap 22. [22 April 1909] Above our camping ground last night a line of barren hills comes down to the Tigris from the NW, crosses the river and stretches away towards the Persian frontier. There is no road along the river bank on the W side and we have ridden today for 8 hours outside the hills over an absolutely arid, desolate plain and are now camped beneath the hills, the JeBell Makhal [Makhul, Jabal], by a brackish spring. As soon as we arrived I walked to the top of the river and found flowers growing in watercourses that must have only recently dried. I send two packets of seed which might be given to Albert - so that in due time we may sow them and try them on the rock garden - if we can find a place hot and dry enough. One is a gentian - I saw it in flower - the other I guess to be an anemone but I only found one plant of it. From the way both were behaving I fear they may be annuals, indeed I don't see how any reasonable plant here can be anything else, with so cruel a summer. We are the strangest party camped here under the hills. Everyone who happened to be going north has joined us so as to enjoy our protection - and our charity. We left Tekrit [Tikrit] with 3 or 4 Chaldaeans from about Mosul [Mawsil, Al] and as many Kurds from above Mardin. These hill men wear quite different clothes and are quite different in type from any people I have yet seen. It's very exciting to find oneself among new races. Last night several more wayfarers joined us: a young Sayyid from Kal'at Shergat [Sharqat], an intelligent and amusing person who always addresses me as "Queen" (I've not been higher than Consul up to now) and 2 men with monkeys who are to play tricks for the benefit of the inhabitants of Mosul. One of the monkeys is ill and travels on his master's shoulder the other trotted along in the dust till we took pity on him and mounted him on a baggage horse. I don't like monkeys, but to see him trotting for 8 hours through the desert was more than could be borne.

Monday Ap 26. [26 April 1909] I spent at Assur [Ashur] the most delightful days of my whole journey. I arrived on Friday at midday just in time for lunch and was warmly welcomed by Dr Andrae, who is head of the excavators there. He has 3 men with him, a charming merry Mr Jordans who has been with him since the beginning - they have worked at Assur since 1903 - and two boys who have recently come out and are as keen as mustard. Assur is a stupendous great tell, washed on the E. side by the Tigris; it was the oldest Assyrian capital and remained one of the most important of the cities until the Babylonian conquest in the 7th century. About the 4th century it rose again as a Parthian capital and for 400 years was as large and as splendid as it had been under the Assyrians. It ceased to exist when the Persians put an end to the Parthian empire. I spent the first day and a half going over the excavations inch by inch with Dr Andrae. During all the time I was there, every moment when we were not actually looking at ruins we were deep in unpublished photographs and plans, and at lunch and in the evening Dr Andrae, Mr Jordans and I eagerly discussed the conclusions at which they are arriving. Their Parthian work was to me quite extraordinarily interesting. It's been up to now an absolutely blank period on which they for the first time are throwing light. It lies at the root of the Sassanian, Lakhmid and early Mohammadan things which I have been busy with, and what I saw and learnt at Assur goes far to clear up the difficult problems of Khethar [Ukhaydir]. Khethar, on the other hand, helps the Assur work, for though it is later, it shows how things were tending. Dr Andrae entirely agrees with me as to its date and its importance; I don't doubt Strzygowski will too. I made great friends with Andrae - he'll probably turn up at Rounton some day! He's a big, shy, silent man, who has spent the best part of 15 years digging in Mesopotamia, and until you have seen them at it you can scarcely guess what labour and self denial that means. The task he is engaged on now is one from which he can't get any popular fame. They find no splendid museum objects - Assur was too often destroyed and reconstructed; but they are laying the sure basis of sound archaeology, both here and at Babylon, in a way that has never been done before. And if you happen to be mostly thinking yourself about the Asiatic origins, you can't be sufficiently grateful to them. There is no guess-work here and no scamping, but observation so minute that nothing can escape it, and the true respect for ancient monuments and ancient art which makes no toil seem too long or too heavy. Assur was looking its best while I was there. The Tigris floods came down and the river spread itself out under our windows like an immense rushing sea, and at night when we all walked up and down the roof of the Expeditionshaus, the little moon shone upon the water and upon the huge temple tower that stands up black and enormous on the highest ridge of the tell, and Dr Andrae reconstructed for us the city of the Assyrians till all the thousands of years dropped away and Shalmanassar and the priest kings joined our company and looked out with us over the Tigris and the hills of Assyria. Yes, these have been wonderful days. I was very very sorry to come away and they pressed me to stay, but I thought if I once began staying there was no reason why I should ever leave off; I had seen all that I came to see and more, and there is still so much ahead. So, reluctantly, I rode away this morning and we travelled another 8 hours up the river and camped on its bank. We have left the region of the drought behind. The day I rode into Assur, all of a sudden we came to grass and flowers and pools of rain water, none of which we had seen for 6 or 7 weeks - not indeed since we left Der [Dayr az Zawr]; and tonight the horses are all tethered in knee deep grass, as happy as they can be. This has more than an esthetic [sic] or than a benevolent significance; it's bearing upon the cost of travel is of the first importance, for the cost of keeping my animals in the famine districts has been preposterously high. Now, we hope that corn will be cheap and plentiful. I heard in Assur rumours of alarums and excursions in C'ple [Istanbul (Constantinople)] and am longing to know what has happened. But I shan't have any news till I reach Mosul [Mawsil, Al]; no one cares a farthing here who is Sultan or who rules, and they might overturn six governments without a single peasant or Arab being any the wiser.

Tuesday Ap 27. [27 April 1909] I've had a most wonderful day. It was a bright clear morning and very cold. Fattuh and I and a soldier set off at 6.15 and rode along the Tigris banks and a little inland to avoid the floods. Our path was all through deep grass and crops where the people were already harvesting the barley. But alas! the country was hopping with newly born locusts. Presently we met a Turkish effendi with his umbrella held carefully over his head. He addressed me in French and asked me how I liked the desert, foolish man. I replied by asking for news from C'ple [Istanbul (Constantinople)] to which he answered that the Committee's troops had entered the town. "Without difficulty?" said I. "We do not know" said he. "Please God!" said I, at which he bade me a hasty farewell lest I should draw him into an expression of opinion. They are all waiting to see where they shall nail their flags, but Mosul [Mawsil, Al] is very reactionary and my interlocutor was an official. He had been sent out to pursue an inquiry into some murders that occurred 5 days ago, arising out of a dispute over crops. So we rode on till we came to the river again, looking down on it from the top of a hill. An unforgettable landscape it was. We were just above the junction of the greater Zab [Zab, Great (Zei Badinan)] with the Tigris. The whole world shone like a jewel, green crops, and blue waters and far away the gleaming snows of the mountains that bound Mesopotamia to the north - we saw them today for the first time. I sat on the hill top for half an hour and considered the history of Asia that was spread out before me. Here Mithridates murdered the Greek generals, here Xenophen began his command, and just beyond the Zab the Greeks turned and defeated the archers of Mithridates, marching then on to Larissa, the mound of Nimrud, where Xenophon saw the great Assyrian city of Calah standing in ruins. Nimrud stood out among the cornfields at my feet. A little further east I could see the plain of ArBella where Alexander conquered Asia. We people of the west can always conquer, but we can never hold Asia - that seemed to me to be the legend written across the landscape. So we rode down to the river and were just in time to catch the boat, so to speak. The Jebur Arabs were all ferrying across to the E. side to escape from locusts and the ferry boat was pushing off as we arrived. We turned out 2 calves, a mare and a few goats and installed ourselves in their place, and then, everybody talking at once (the ferry boat was as packed as the ark and the passengers almost as varied) we rowed out into the swift stream. Nimrud tell lies about a quarter of an hour from the river. The Sheikh of the Jebur accompanied us and we cantered through his corn fields to the foot of the mound. This was where Layard excavated you remember; the holes and pits of his diggings are full now of deep grass and flowers. But the state of the mound is a disgrace to us. The Brit. Museum has the right to carry on excavations; it does nothing and allows no one else to do anything. Huge slabs covered with inscriptions are lying as Layard left them. The heads of sphinxes and winged lions stick up out of the ground at the mercy of the weather and the Arabs. There is even a statue, over life size, standing, head and shoulders, above the earth - the Arabs have broken off the nose and ears of it and the rain is completing their work. Assyrian statues are incredibly rare; there are only 6 or 7 known and yet we leave this one to rot away unprotected. I gave the sheikh a large tip and begged him to cover up the most beautiful of the winged beasts, and then we rode down together to his tents, drank coffee and eat bread and stewed apricots (it was 4 o'clock and I was beginning to be very hungry) till the ferry boat returned. So we crossed again and cantered for an hour and more through corn fields till we reached our tents. We got in at 6.15 after a well spent 12 hours.

Wed Ap 28. [28 April 1909] This morning we woke up in the middle of the corn fields where we had camped and everything smelt sweet of crops and growing things. Very cheerfully we packed and breakfasted for we were only 4 hours out of Mosul [Mawsil, Al] and it is always exciting to reach another stage of one's journey. So we rode off and we had not been riding more than an hour before, from behind the little ridge that separated us from the town, we heard the boom of a cannon, and then another and more and more. We all looked at each other doubtfully and Fattuh said: "What is that?" but there was no one to answer. We rode on through the green corn and the smiling sunny landscape till we met an old man. I stopped and said "Why are they firing cannon in Mosul?" He lifted up his hands and said "God knows! perhaps it is news from Stambul [Istanbul (Constantinople)]. One man says one thing and one another. God knows what is true." We rode on a little further and met two ragged people coming down the road. Fattuh said "When did you leave Mosul?" "At the first dawn" they answered. "What was happening then?" said Fattuh. "Nothing" said they "when we left, wallahi! nothing." So we left them standing in the road with anxious faces turned towards Mosul where the cannon still boomed out from behind the hills. After a few minutes two Arabs came hurrying up behind us on their mares, one carried a great lance. Fattuh called out "Whither going?" "To Mosul" they said. "What is your business?" said Fattuh. "We heard the sound of the cannon" they shouted back as they galopped [sic] up the hill. We were very near the top now and my soldier went with them. But just before they reached the top, a party of 4 or 5 horsemen came riding slowly over the ridge, and they stopped and talked for a moment and then they all rode back towards us. "These have news" said Fattuh. We gave the salaam and I said "What is the news?" They answered "Reshad is Sultan." "God preserve him!" said I. And so we parted and went on our way. After a minute or two my soldier said: "All the days that Abd ul Hamid was Sultan we never got our pay." And that is the only native comment I have yet heard on the news from Stambul. But we rode on with light hearts and after we had crossed the ridge and seen the beautiful peaceful plain with the city standing by the riverbanks and the snow mountains behind, we all began to talk and Fattuh told tales of the time of the massacres in Diarbekr [Diyarbakir (Amida)] and of how everyone had taken him for a Moslem and he had passed through unharmed though the streets were running with the blood of Christians. We discussed too what would happen now in Turkey and I said "There will be military rule." "That is what they desire in Aleppo [Halab]" said Fattuh. "They do not wish for the constitution but for a government of soldiers." And really I can't help thinking that that would be best; the country is so singularly unfitted for anything else. Near Mosul quantities of big white tents were set out among the cornfields, for fantasia as Fattuh said: in the spring the people of Mosul pitch tents among the crops and sit there all day drinking coffee. But today they were empty; everybody kept to his house all day, waiting for what might happen next. My soldier did not know where the English consulate was but I met the German consul as I rode in and he told me that they were all going to offer their good wishes to the Vali in an hour's time, and gave me his cavass to show me the way. The English consulate stands on some high ground to the N of the town. Mr Wilkie Young is a tall pleasant young man of about 33 or 34. I'm staying with him - we are quite a large party for there are here too Captain Dixon our vice consul at Van, and Mr Wigram of the Archbishop's Nestorian Mission in Van, both very nice, especially the latter. They have certainly been sent here by Providence, for they know all the hills and are giving me advice and information as to my route. This is most useful; the mountains are scarcely mapped and they are a welter of huge snow ranges and deep precipitous valleys in some of which the Kurds kill all the Arabs they can see, so it is as well to know where not to take Arab servants. Do you remember that I met in Aleppo a Dr and Mrs Griffith? he is the doctor of the CMS mission here and I was to have stayed with them, but he has been very ill and has been ordered home at once and they are leaving next Monday. I am very sorry for they are both extremely nice and I should have liked staying with them. However it's most fortunate that Dr Griffith has not yet left; he's going to introduce me to various natives here.

Thursday Ap 29. [29 April 1909] The way the embassy at C'ple [Istanbul (Constantinople)] behaves is very extraordinary. {After} 36 hours have passed and Mr Young has had no intimation of the change of sovereigns. Yesterday the Vali sent round to all the consuls to say he would receive them at noon. As Mr Young said, he could not refuse to go, for that would have been so very marked, but it will be rather awkward if he finds out, whenever the Embassy sees fit to telegraph, that Reshad is not recognised by our government. And for ought he knows officially, the news may not be true. As far as we have heard the story, but of course we have only heard the barest outlines, it has been Salonica [Thessaloniki (Saloniki)] to the rescue again, and the Committee of U. and P. has saved Turkey a second time. So much for all the wise politicians in England who said that its work was done. Your affectionate daughter Gertrude

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