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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 14th to the 18th of April, 1911.

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

37.177368, 40.95254

Ap. 14. Dearest Mother. I posted a long letter to you on April 3, the day I arived at K. Shergat [Sharqat], since when I regret to observe that I have not written at all. I spent three enchanting days at K. Shergat and would gladly have stayed longer - they, also, wd gladly have kept me - but I had on my conscience much work to be done in the Tur 'Abdin. Three of the 4 who were there 2 years ago I found this year, and two others whom I had not seen before. One of them, Herr Preusser, had visited two of my Tur 'Abdin churches and is publishing them, so we had a great time comparing plans and discussing the various theories we had formed. But chiefly I found this year, as I found 2 years ago, great profit from endless talks with Dr Andrae. His knowledge of Mesopotamian problems is so great and his views so brilliant and comprehensive. We went over the whole ground again with such additional matter as I had brought from Kasr i Shirin [Qasr-e-Shirin] (it is all a part of the same story) and as he had derived from two more years of digging at Assur [Ashur] and from his work at Hatra [Hadr, Al]. He put everything at my disposal, photographs and unpublished plans and his own unpublished ideas. I don't think that many people are so generous. Also they taught me to photograph by flash light and provided me with the material for doing so, which I shall find very useful in some of my pitch dark churches. And we went over the last two years' work stone by stone and discussed it in all its bearings. K. Shergat was looking its best, all clothed in grass and flowers. I love it better than any ruined site in the world, but perhaps that is mainly because of the gratitude and affection which I feel towards my hosts there. The only drawback of my visit was that I was so reluctant to go away, and I carried a heavy heart over the high desert to Hatra - which is a long way. But one can't be heavy hearted at Hatra; it is too wonderfully interesting. It was (perhaps you know?) the capital city of the Parthian kings, about whom we know so little. Septimus Severus besieged it and it was finally overthrown by the Sasanian Sapor, in the year AD 360, if I remember right. Sapor's ditch and mound are still to be seen enclosing the ruins of the city wall. It was never reinhabited and it lies out on the stretching downs like the great ground plan of a city, grass grown walls and mounds marking the line of fortification, street and market. In the centre stands the palace - you can see it for 5 hours away on every side - immense stone built halls, roofed with huge vaults and decorated with the strangest carved ornaments that have ever grown out under oriental chisels. The Parthians were an eclectic folk; their arts sprang up on ground that had already been strongly Hellenized by the Alexandrids, and they learnt, no doubt, from the Romans, with whom they were always at war. They worked out these new ideas upon old oriental foundations and the palace at Hatra is the one building left out of all their cities, where you can see the results at which they arrived, for it stands to this day. We arrived late on a grey and stormy afternoon and were received with acclamation by the Turkish army. The modern conditions at Hatra were this year almost as exciting as the ancient. It had been the centre of comprehensive and entirely successful operations for the pacification of the desert and about 300 of the 1500 men who had been sent up from Baghdad in January were still there when I arrived. The object of the expedition had been to bring the Shammar to order, and the Shammar are the most important of the N. Mesopotamian tribes. Riza Beg, who was in command, took the sheikhs by surprise. Without firing a shot he forced about 15000 of the tribe to come in to Hatra, levied, in kind, the long unpaid taxes, settled all grievances and appointed a single sheikh over the whole tribe who is to be responsible for the good behaviour of all. He himself returned to Baghdad - summoned in haste by Nazim Pasha, but too late to prevent his fall - and the greater part of the troops have gone further west to treat with those sheikhs who could not come to Hatra on account of inter tribal blood feud. The whole business has been brilliantly well done and I think that if the government has a few more men like Riza Beg (which it has) and knows how to use them, the whole desert will shortly be as safe as any city. I shall write a long article for some leading journal when I get home and call it The Pacification of the Desert, for it should be known how well and wisely the Turks are handling matters here. The men whom I saw at Hatra had been 3 months in camp under exceptionally difficult conditions, for no sooner had Riza Beg arrived than the snow fell and all communications were blocked for 3 weeks. The Pasha did not turn a hair. He kept his men alive for 3 weeks on sheep and dates, he kept them in good spirits by his own intrepid example and he carried his job through as though it were a picnic party. I wish I had seen him; he must be a very remarkable man. The troops when I came were in excellent trim, saddlery all clean, arms all bright; they had lost only one man from sickness, but they had had, not unnaturally, a pretty heavy loss in horses. The only criticism one can make is that the whole camp was absolutely innocent of sanitary arrangements; the ruins were unspeakably dirty and even the dead horses lay half buried (if buried at all) in close proximity to the tents. Hatra had been turned into a base camp for the further operations on the Khabur, where the rest of the troops had gone, and the officers and men were having rather a dull time; they were therefore very glad to see me and to hear the news from Baghdad. I had plenty to give them. There were Turks and Arabs and Kurds among them, at every stage of civilization, so to speak: some fresh from a German schooling in Constantinople [Istanbul] and some who had never had any schooling at all. They were all delightful. I made special friends with a young lieutenant of a mountain battery who had joined two years ago and had spent the whole time of his service on important military expeditions against the Arabs. A more charming boy, you can't imagine. The immediate future of the Turkish empire depends, to my mind, entirely on what the soldiers are like, for it is carefully to be remembered that the whole work of government is at this moment military, and will be for some time to come, that is till the country is internally at peace. And for education and integrity the officers are head and shoulders above every other body of men in Turkey. But perhaps I might as well reserve the rest of my observations for the article. So I spent a day at Hatra, mainly in photographing, a terrible business because there was so much of it. The Parthians had carved round every arched doorway of their halls heads of men and animals, and sometimes little figures, dimly reminiscent of classical reliefs: there was one Eros that might almost have come from a Greek hand. These strings of heads over Roman mouldings and barbaric acanthus leaves give me the most bewildering impression of a jumble of the arts. And more curious still, high up on the walls in the interior of the halls they set huge heads in groups of three, and these too are sometimes dimly classical, a Medusa head, a bearded river god; and sometimes they are wild and staring masks, scarcely human. But the abiding impression of the place is its immense size, the splendid solidity of its stone work and the daring sweep of its vaults. We pitched our camp close to Riza Beg's empty tent, outside the military lines, and I was nearly shot down by a sentinel when I strolled in innocently the first night to drink a cup of coffee with the Commandant. After I had done my work we paraded the army, cavalry, infantry and artillery, and I photographed them all, to their great satisfaction - and to mine. The drawback of Hatra is the water. It's all salt. The town stands about half an hour from the river Tharthar [Tharthar, Wadi ath] which is so bitter salt that no one drinks it but the Arabs; we drank from wells, but they were exceedingly nasty. When I left I was escorted for a couple of hours by half a dozen officers who galoped [sic] with me across the beautiful grass plains; we drew up on a mound and waited for the caravan, and then we took a tender farewell of one another and I went on more soberly with my own men. We followed the Tharthar valley and fortunately in an hour or two came to a rain water pool (there had been a good deal of rain the day before) at which we filled a skin. It was even more horrid, I thought, than the Hatra salt water, sticky greasy standing water, tasting strongly of decayed grass. But we had nothing else. There were Arab camps and flocks all along the shallow valley and we camped at evening near some of these. There was abundant grass, but we had no fresh water for the horses, and all but my mare refused to drink the Tharthar water. I could not wonder, for it tasted like the sea. It was a very delicious camping ground but I was rather disturbed because Fattuh was ill. He has from time to time terribly violent neuralgia - I suppose it is - and it breaks my heart to see him in such dreadful pain. We had a difficult journey next day. Fattuh was very ill and we had a march of nearly 11 hours which we could not shorten because there was no fresh water. We passed a rain pool in the morning, watered our horses and took a skinful with us, but the day was hot and the men thirsty and by 5 o'clock there was scarcely any left. The Jebel Sinjar [Sinjar, Jabal], to which we were going, was still an immense way off and I began to wonder whether Fattuh would get through the day. He never complained, bless him, but every now and then he stopped and lay down for a minute or two and then caught us up silently. At last we saw Arab tents ahead and knew that there must be drinkable water near at hand. We put up our tents near them, boiled water and made hot compresses for Fattuh and forced him to lie down while the muleteers made shift to cook some sort of dinner. The Arabs were very sympathetic and brought us some curds and milk, but the water they had was next to undrinkable, drawn from standing rain pools. Next morning Fattuh was a little better. I sent him with the caravan straight to Balad Sinjar [Sinjar] - it was only about 6 hours away - and taking one of the muleteers with me and an Arab guide rode off to a more eastern point where there stands a very interesting ruined Khan which I wanted to photograph. I was well rewarded for besides the carved gateway which I knew of there was a most exciting parallel to the Ukheidir [Ukhaydir] vaulting system which I have never found before in any later building. And I don't suppose it has struck other people, because, not knowing Ukheidir, they can't have been on the watch for it. Moreover we joined company with a body of the Shammar who were on their way northwards from Riza Beg's gathering of the clan at Hatra. They were moving camp when I came up to them and the whole world was alive with their camels. Now the Shammar are Bedu; only the Shammar and the 'Anazeh are real Bedawin, the others are just Arabs. Ahl el ba'Ã¥r we call the Bedu, the People of the Camel. They never cultivate the soil or stay more than a night or two in one place, but wander ceaselessly over the inner desert. It was delightful to see their women and children travelling in the camel howdahs and their men carrying the long spears that are planted before the tent door. They talk a speech of their own: we had a long conversation at the Khan where some of them stopped to watch me photograph. When that was done I sent back my guide and 'Abud and I jogged peacefully along under the hills till we came to Balad Sinjar, early in the afternoon, and found our camp pitched under the town near to a swift clear mountain stream. Fattuh had called in the services of a native doctor who had copiously bled him, not a cure I should have recommended, but it (or time) seems to have been effective, for the neuralgia has gone. The Sinjar mountains are inhabited mainly by Yezidis, which, you remember, are devil worshippers. Until a couple of years ago the Yezidis were ceaselessly at war with the Arabs, and with everybody else, but the Turks have now put in what seems to be a really effectual government, raiding has almost stopped and the roads are quite safe. It is the same story everywhere you see. I should have had nothing to fear in any case for being a friend (and lately a guest) of 'Ali Beg, the head of all Yezidis, I should have been certain of a good reception. However it was not necessary to press my claims upon their hospitality; the government officials were more than sufficient. I paid, however, a visit on the head Yezidi sheikh, but as he could talk nothing but Kurdish, we had to converse through the medium of an official who had come with me. The officer in command was a very pleasant young Turk who had come out with Nazim Pasha and much regretted his fall. There was also a charming kaimmakam, a Damascene, who was deeply interested in the antiquities of the mountain, had read all the Arab inscriptions on the old buildings and gave me a lot of information. The town itself, though it is now a mean village hanging on the slopes of a little foothill, was in the Middle Ages a very considerable place, and its ruins stretch far down into the plain, minarets and tombs of fine Arab work. It was a frontier fort of the Roman Empire when Septimus Severus carried his rule into Mesopotamia, and it was held by the Persians before it fell to the Arabs. It was raining heavily the next morning and I wanted to see more of Balad Sinjar, so I was glad of the excuse for staying a day there. I spent most of the morning with the kaimmakam and after lunch rode up a wild rocky gorge to a place called Deir el 'Asi, the {Rebellious} Unruly Cloister - so called, I suppose, because of its situation for the road to it is almost impassable. The monastery, if monastery it was, consists of a number of caves, finely hollowed out of the rock, great chambers leading the one into the other, and sometimes two storeys of them. A little spring breaks out of the rock below and a few trees grow by it. There is no road beyond, though you can climb up into the mountain top over the crags. The caves are inhabited by Yezidis who scrape together some sort of subsistence among the rocks - Heaven knows how they contrive to live. We got back to our tents just as a very heavy shower of rain fell, and congratulated ourselves on having escaped the worst of it. I had tea and was sitting waiting for the Kaimmakam, who was coming to call, when suddenly a hail storm battered onto my tent roof. I began hastily to fasten the door and before you could wink a hurricane of wind swept down upon us and every tent was flat. My books and papers went flying out into the universe, Fattuh and Abud flying after them, while I, half blinded with wind and hail, strapped up our open boxes. It only lasted for a minute or two, but we were all wet through. We gathered ourselves together and began putting up the tents again - the casualties were extraordinarily small: a tent pole, an eyeglass and a comb, and a good many odds and ends of papers, nothing very important. The 2 muleteers came running down from the town, where they had (fortunately for themselves) been buying corn, the tents were got up again, the sun came out and we changed and spread out our wet things to dry. It was an extremely disagreeable experience, but what we should have done if it had happened at night I can't think. You may imagine how we lay awake and listened to every gust of wind! There were plenty, but none so bad as the tornado of the afternoon. I had wanted to cut straight across the mountains and make a bee line to Nisibin [Nusaybin (Nisibis)], but I was told that I could not take a caravan over and from what I had seen of the roads I thought it probable that this was true. So we rode westwards under the southern slope of the mountain and late in the afternoon turned north over a low pass and camped just over the brow of it by a stream. There was a Yezidi tent village above us and great fine crags on either side. Also it was mountain cold. It had rained on and off all day and it rained and blew all night, but our tents were firmly anchored. I have two delightful zaptiehs with me from Balad Sinjar - gendarmes we call them in these modern days. One of them explained to me as we rode the whole duty of the Jon Darma, upon whom, as he rightly said, the working of the Ottoman Empire mainly rests. "And that is why we are called Jon Darma" said Muhammad Chowwish. "It is because they say to us 'Darma!' Darma in Turkish means don't stop. I did not ask what he thought Jon meant. Today it was mostly fine but very cold. We came down out of our mountain and rode straight north over wonderful grass plains with black tents scattered over them, and herds of grazing camels - the tents of the Tayy Arabs with a few Shammar skulking among them in the hope that they may escape the soldiers on the Khabur; we know them by their speech. We have camped under a big mound, or rather on the slopes of it to avoid the marsh which occupies all the low ground here. We have the Sinjar mountains to the south and the Tur Abdin, which ends Mesopotamia, to the north, but I doubt we shall have weary riding through the marsh tomorrow. Meantime we have completed our drying; my shoes and books were still sopping wet from the Sinjar storm. The camp fires of the Tayy gleam round the horizon like glow worms: at its best moments the desert is a difficult place to beat for beauty. But it was not at its best this morning. We rode for 3 hours almost continuously through heaps of dead sheep and donkeys. They had died in the snow, whole flocks of the them together, and there they lay. I saw one or two dead gazelles and in places the ground was strewn with dead birds. The cold, however, had done no harm to the scorpions which abound in this district. We killed 5 round about our tents - too many.

Saturday Ap 15. [15 April 1911] After all we had no trouble from the mud, but arrived at Nisibin [Nusaybin (Nisibis)] after a pleasant and easy march of 8 hours, all across grass plains. Nisibin is now a tiny village lying in the midst of the ruin heaps which were once the greatest fortified city of the Roman frontier. There is a vivid account in Ammianus Marcellinus of the despair of the inhabitants when they heard that Jovian had handed over their city to Sapor in the disgraceful peace he made with the Persians after Julian's death. I wish I had the book with me; I should like to read it again here. A. Marcellinus is a great scene painter; the story lives again as you read him. We have camped by some big columns that stand knee deep in the ground, crowned with battered Corinthian capitals. No one knows to what building they Bellonged. The only other thing that remains here is a fragment of a wonderfully interesting church at which I propose to work tomorrow morning. It is sister to my Tur Abdin churches but I think a younger sister. The Tur Abdin mountains are about 4 miles to the north of us - wonderfully beautiful now in a soft evening light. A pair of storks are nesting on top of my columns. They are a little doubtful as to whether they like us.

Monday Ap 17. [17 April 1911] There is a charming passage in Sir Edward Grey's book on fly fishing in which he praises the various moods of Nature. "Rain" says he "is delightful" and I remember when I read it, thinking of warm May rain on our opening beech leaves at home and thoroughly agreeing with him. But one begins to feel rather differently about it when one is camping in pitiless torrents. It rained like the devil on Saturday night and like ten thousand devils on Sunday. The wind howled through my tent ropes till it sounded like a hurricane on board ship, and the rain thundered against the canvass [sic]. I thought my tent would go down more than once, but my excellent servants kept the pegs firm by piling stones onto them. The storks were less fortunate: their house was blown away. The wind went down a little at midday and I spent the afternoon working at the church which is windowless anyway and therefore no darker in cloudy weather than in fine. The rain stopped after a bit and the evening was fine, but you have a comfortless damp sort of feeling in tents that have been so thoroughly drenched. It rained on and off all today but fortunately the 5 hours during which we were on the road to Dara was an off time. About an hour or so out of Nisibin [Nusaybin (Nisibis)] I caught sight of 5 European tents pitched near a village a mile from the road. I galoped [sic] down to see who those travellers were and was made welcome by 5 engineers, 2 Frenchmen and 3 Germans who are making the final survey for this bit of the Baghdad rly. It is to reach Nisibin in 3 years. I spent an hour talking to them and longed to ask what agreement, if any, has been reached with us on the subject of the Baghdad section, but I did not like to open that thorny issue and probably they knew no more than I. What a change the coming of the rly will make here! I cannot help regretting, in a way, the passing of the old order, but it is passed and it is high time that the rly came to strengthen the new. So we rode on by tracks deep in mud to Dara, which was one of the strongest of Justinian's frontier fortresses. I found my camp pitched just inside the ruined wall and though it was raining a little I took a guide and wandered about for a couple of hours among the ruins. There is not very much above ground, but underground you can still see the huge vaulted cisterns which were planned and built by a Greek architect from Alexandria whom Justinian employed on this job. There is a small Christian community and I called upon the Armenian priest and then hurried home because the rain was beginning to fall again so heavily. It's going to be a pig of a night.

Tues Ap 18. [18 April 1911] No it wasn't so bad after all and this morning I had sun and was able to take the photographs I wanted at Dara. My caravan went on and reached Mardin before me. I got in in streaming rain, I need scarcely say and found that the kind Americans, who have a mission here, had told Fattuh to put up no tents as I must stay with them. So I am lodged in the house of Dr and Mrs Thom and fed by Mr and Mrs Emrichs - that is the arrangement they made. Mardin stands more splendidly than any place I have ever seen. The town lies on the steep hillside Bellow a great crown of rock which is girdled with towers and broken walls. You cannot imagine a city more boldly seated among the hills. I look forward to seeing something of it tomorrow. Ever your affectionate daughter Gertrude

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