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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 25th of April to the 9th of May, 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

38.141225, 41.012807

[25 April 1911] Ap 25 Tuesday Dearest Mother. I posted a letter to you the day I arrived in Mardin and told you that the kind American missionaries had taken me in. I spent 2 days with them and enjoyed my visit very much. One of my hosts, an old party called Andrus, is the man who knows the Tur Abdin better than any other person and to him is due most of the mapping of the country. I had profitable talks with him. The first day of my stay I rode out early to a famous monastery called Deir Zafran, about an hour and a half from Mardin. It was a wonderful ride along the face of the hills with the great plain Bellow us. That plain seen from Mardin and the high mountain roads about the town is the most glorious thing I ever beheld, more beautiful than the sea, and, when I saw it, perpetually varied by the storms that came sweeping over it. The monastery was very interesting, 8th century I should think and full of exciting decoration. I photographed diligently, having received permission to do what I liked by an aged bishop, and when I had finished my work and spent the rest of the afternoon sightseeing in Mardin. Next day I went up to the castle which crowns the rock 500 ft above the town - an inconceivably splendid fortress. A missionary boy came with me and in the afternoon we visited a beautiful Moslem medresseh outside the town. Everything is beautiful in Mardin because everything faces the immense plain. But the dirt of the town is past words. The houses are all cut back into the rock, the roof of one on a level with the threshold of the next. The streets are narrow staircases piled with dirt. This winter Mardin was cut off from the rest of the world for 47 days - it was as bad as a siege. The snow, shovelled off the house roofs, filled the narrow streets and was piled up in places above the houses - there was no other place to put it. No one in Europe can realize what a helpless Oriental population suffers under exceptional conditions such as these. Everyone to whom I talked told me how much the American missionaries had done, and indeed it was they who opened the road, the government being paralyzed into complete inaction. I left Mardin on the 21st, and rode eastward into the Tur Abdin. It is no wonder that the armies of Persian [sic] and Byzantine left it in peace; the mountain is to this day almost impassible. We scrambled all day up and down steep and rocky hills. There is no method in them; the deep waterless valleys run in all directions and until you get to Midyat there is no open ground. We camped at a tiny Kurdish village and no sooner had we got our tents up than torrents of rain fell upon us. It was very damp and cold; but that was the end of the bad weather and it has been exquisite ever since. I had an interesting day's ride into Midyat. I had heard at my camping place of ruins and in order to see them went through a district which has I think been visited by no European. The paths were execrable but I was rewarded by finding a pre-Christian building, 3rd century AD I should think (Pagan I mean) with some wonderful decoration on it and secondly two very ancient shrines, partly rock cut and partly build of huge blocks of stone. I can't date these as they are unlike anything I have seen, but they were immensely interesting and I planned and photographed them with great satisfaction. Nearly every village in the Tur Abdin has a sacred grove by it, a stretch of ground where the oak scrub is allowed to grow into respectable trees. They bury their dead in or about it and it is hallowed by a pile of stones which is supposed to represent the grave of a pious person of old times - I wonder into what dim mists of antiquity the sanctity of these sites really extends! We got into Midyat after sunset, having worked and travelled for 13 hours (too long I think) and found the camp pitched and dinner ready. I rode out early next day and worked at two of the churches I had planned before. Thank Heaven I have been over that work again for it was too hastily done and I found many mistakes. Yesterday, on my way to Deir el 'Amr, I called on the Chelabi and thanked him for his kind intervention in the robbery 2 years ago. They never caught the robbers, by the way! But the Govt. seized all the sheep of the village to which they belonged and sold them - for which I am not sorry. We camped at Deir el 'Amr, high up on the tops of the hills and I worked like a nigger all the afternoon. But my plan was not so bad here. It is a fine place. And so today we came on to Kefrzeh and camped again on a hill top under as splendid a 5th century church as you would wish to see. I went over my plan again - it was pretty accurate - and took a lot more photographs. The population is mostly Christian here, charming people who all welcomed me like an old friend. There is an old nun here whom I saw 2 years ago. I accordingly revived our acquaintance with a small tip; whereupon she sent me a gift of eggs and bread and we responded suitably with an offering of sugar. The Sheikh of the village was very kind and attentive and insisted on spending the night near our tents to watch over us. Wed. May 3. [3 May 1911] I rejoiced over the fine weather far too soon. We rode off next morning in cloud and rain and in heavy rain we came to Hakh, where I worked for a couple of hours at the exquisite little church of the Virgin. My friends of 2 years ago all came down to see me and before I went away I made a handsome present to the monastery - I had not been able to give anything last time because all my money had been stolen. So we rode eastwards through the stony valley, mostly in rain which turned into a drenching storm before we reached our tents. It rained in torrents all night and blew furiously, but next morning the clouds lifted gradually, the sun came out and we were in full summer again. And so we climbed up the last of the rocky ridges of the Tur Abdin and reaching its summit saw Bellow us a wide cultivated valley with respectable mountains beyond it and a stream running down its midst. We climbed down into the valley and crossed it, and then we climbed up a steep hill opposite and dropped down into a singular rocky gorge which grew narrower and narrower and fuller and fuller of rock cut dwellings until it turned into the rock cut bazaar of Hasn Keif [Hasankeyf] - with the citadel perched immensely high up on the precipice above it. And at the foot of the cliff rolled the Tigris, in full flood, between the broken piers of a huge stone bridge. We pitched our tents on its bank among the ruins of a lower town which had been a great and famous place in the middle ages; it was a most exquisite camp what with the river and the enormous cliffs honeycombed with caves and the poplar trees in the freshest of young leaves. The first thing we learned was that there would be no crossing of the Tigris till it had run down. The ferry boat is a raft on skins, on which you can't put horses, and neither the raft nor the horses could cross in that flood. We were delayed for two days, but they were not wasted days. Among the ruins of the lower town stood several 14th and 15th century mosques and two tall minarets that soared up almost to the level of the citadel cliff. They were covered with inscriptions and I managed to piece together a very pretty page of Arab history from the names of the rulers who had built or added to the original buildings. I photographed all the inscriptions and planned the two best preserved mosques, and I photographed all the decorations (which were admirable) and the inscribed gates of the citadel and I hope I have got a pretty fair record of Hasn Keif, thanks to the Tigris. On the afternoon of the second day the river had dropped so far that I gave the order to cross. I did not see the beginning of this momentous undertaking for I went up into the hills after lunch to find a reported inscription (it was there). When I got back Fattuh and the baggage had gone over on the raft and everyone was debating how to induce the horses to swim across. The landing place on the opposite side was nearly a quarter of a mile Bellow the bridge - it looked a very long way off and the rush of the water against the piers of the bridge was anything but encouraging. So the horses thought, for when we drove them into the water they struggled about in the deep backwater by the bridge and continually returned to us. Then we devised another scheme. We tied two of them to the raft, which was loaded with the pack saddles and drove the rest in again. They, seeing the raft swirling down the stream, and two of their companions with it, swam after it, all but 2 who again were swept back to our bank. These 2 we tied to the raft on its final journey, when I also crossed, and so we all got over in safety - but I shall long remember the rather too exhilarating sensations of that ferrying, the raft darting down the flood and the two horses panting and groaning in the water beside it. The next day's journey was not very interesting. We rode up Tigris for an hour or two and then turned up a rocky valley which brought us out onto a fertile upland, all cornfields. We camped on the opposite hillside near a monastery which proved to be of very uncertain date - I should say medieval. Now mosques may be medieval but monasteries, if they are to be worth anything, must be much older. Next day we rode through a beautiful fertile country (it was the ancient kingdom of Sophene which was nothing but a vague name for me before, but has turned now into a smiling well watered region of mountains and corn fields.) We crossed the Batman Su [Batman], a large tributary of the Tigris, by a fine old bridge and so came late in the afternoon (it was a 12 hours' ride) to the ruined battlements of Mayafarkin [Silvan]. I had been specially bidden by van Berchem to come and photograph inscriptions here, and I had also heard of a ruined church, reputed to be old; I had therefore determined to make a day's halt. When I went into the town early next day I found, first, the most splendid ruined mosque I have ever seen, secondly the remains of a huge basilica of the 5th century (it might even be 4th) and thirdly a great domed church of the 6th or 7th century, also ruined, but full of deeply interesting decoration. I have had two days' hard work at these 3 (to say nothing of the Arabic inscriptions on the walls of the town) and I feel very triumphant over them. They have not been published - no one knew, any more than I did when I arrived, what a wealth of material there was at Mayafarkin. Moreover the mosque will never be done again as I have done it, for they are busy rebuilding it and the old work will disappear under the new, and under whitewash and other abominations. I felt as if I were receiving the dying will and testament as I worked at it and I only hope I have written down every word. We have suddenly jumped into summer. The temperature is 70¯ in the shade, the trees have all rushed into full leaf and the corn stands high in the fields. The ruined bastions of Mayafarkin, walls and towers of unrivalled Arab masonry, rise out of all this sea of green; the storks nest on every tower and the world is full of the contented clapping of their beaks. It's an amazingly beautiful place. I finished up my day's work with a round of calls on all the captains, priests and municipal authorities who had been to see me in my tent - they had mostly found me out. The kaimmakam's wife sent a special message asking me to visit her and when I arrived she greeted me, rather disconcertingly, with "Addio!" It was the prelude to a very voluble conversation in Turkish, of which I picked up what I could and was much amused. I prefer trying to talk their language to their trying to talk mine. At Hasn Keif I was much assisted by a good little native Protestant pastor who gave me great help in reading the inscriptions. He had learnt a little English at Mardin and was very anxious to practice it, so from time to time I talked English laboriously. G.B.: "Is it more cold here or at Mardin?" Pastor: "Yes." It then became very difficult to take up the thread of the dialogue, as you will readily understand. Sat May 6. [6 May 1911] Diarbekr [Diyarbakir (Amida)]. I got in yesterday afternoon and found a most splendid mail waiting for me. I telegraphed at once to London and after I have had your reply I shall telegraph again telling you I expect to reach Aleppo [Halab] by the 28th and England by June 15th. I don't know what way I shall come home yet; I shall have to find out at Aleppo the dates of boats and according to what is quickest I shall come by C'ple [Istanbul (Constantinople)] or Marseilles [Marseille]. As I shall be home before the Coronation, if anyone invites me to see the procession, you might accept for me. Also perhaps kind Bill Goodenough will remember that he asked me to come to his ship for the naval review. Now for your news: the first and chiefest thing is Sir Alfred's death. I knew 2 years ago that he had heart disease and I always feared that something sudden might happen. That does not make it less bitter when it comes. I shall miss him woefully. Friends such as he are not to be replaced. I had a long and affectionate letter from him here, written in answer to a letter of mine from Baghdad. I am so very glad that letter of mine reached him and that he knew once more how much and how often I thought of him. I am writing to Lady Lyall, poor thing. He told me in his letter that she had been very ill. I am deeply grieved by Lord Airedale's death. He was a good friend, staunch and wise. I know what a loss he will be to Father and I do sympathise with him very much. I felt a very real gratitude and affection for Lord A. and Father will say of him as I say of Sir Alfred that friends of his kind are not to be replaced. I am very very sorry. I will write to Emily at once. Poor dear old Mr Phipps! not that he was so very old. One feels chiefly sad for Mrs Phipps and Rachel. Mrs Phipps has had enough trouble and she bears it all with such a brave spirit. Captain Howell tells me that George Lloyd has had appendicitis. I do hope he is better. There is no post out till next week, so I shall continue this letter. The consul here is away on leave. I heard that he had gone in Mardin and that is why I could not ask him to telegraph to you for me. I found here the dragoman, Thomas Effendi, a great friend of 2 years' ago, who has put me up at the Consulate. It's extraordinarily nice to be in a comfortable house without any hosts! and with the good little Thomas Effendi (he is an Armenian) to do all my jobs for me. All the more as I hope and expect to be very hard at work here. I am sending for permission to the Vali to plan the great mosque and another building which no one has been allowed to plan. I hope to get permission as my request is backed by a letter from the head of the museum at C'ple. I have also a good deal of photography to do for van Berchem. The conditions for work are quite admirable as I am so peaceful and quiet. Your letters were the greatest joy and I can't thank Father enough for his enchanting account of the Roman time. What a success it was! You must tell me a great deal more about it next month - next month! - when we meet. When the 1st of May came I had a great Sehnsucht for the daffodils and the opening beech leaves at Rounton - it's not all beer and skittles, travelling, you know. The splendid finds at Farkin [Silwan] consoled me a little, but I still have an overpowering desire to see my family. However the work here must be done first - one does not pledge oneself to ancient buildings for nothing. I feel out here more like the Heathen than ever, for the passion for storks and stones becomes a positive worship. In spite of heathen ...., I am delighted to be godmother to Muriel and Ernest's baby. I telegraphed to you about it not knowing exactly where Muriel would be and thinking that you would know from Elsa. I can't teach her religion but I shall love to have a little share in her. She is my first god child, if you except a Greek Orthodox baby at Haifa, for whose sake I spat on the Devil many years ago - I hope he was duly discouraged. Your account of the harem skirt fills me with amazement. What are we coming to! I fear we shall not adopt the veil also, which I should like to prescribe for some of us. Lady Selborne, for instance. What an astounding manifestation of folly and impudence - ignorance is perhaps a better word. I can't regret old Moberley Bell much, except for Domnul's sake. Nor can I even pay you tribute to Aunt Sarah Lightfoot's memory, poor old thing; having no black gloves with me. (Your letters make me laugh so much I can scarcely read them in public.) Poor Maurice! his collar bone is really too brittle. And poor Anthony! I have the most delicious post card from Pauline - angel! I do hope she is well again. I must find a picture postcard to send her from here. Romeike sent me Liza's article. I must write and thank her again for it. But oh dearest Mother if you could have seen what it was like before the passages were omitted about my light foot, slender figure and etcetera. A radical difference of taste between one's friends and oneself is the most bewildering thing I know. Not more amazing is the conduct of Mr Loraine and the Wyndhams. What unspeakable behaviour! Tues May 9. [9 May 1911] I have finished the planning of the mosque. It was a big job but very interesting. It took 2 days. I have never before lived for 2 days in a mosque, so to speak, watched the court fill and empty with the calls to prayer all the day through, and the secluded existence of sheikhs and sayyids that goes on under the shadow of its walls. They were all kinder to me than words can say and I felt as if I had come into closer touch with the East than ever before. Now I am waiting for permission to plan the citadel church which is an arsenal. Sami Pasha telegraphed to me yesterday from C'ple [Istanbul (Constantinople)] that orders had been sent to the Commandant to admit me and I expect the telegram to him will come today. The French Consul, M. Talausier[?], dined with me last night, a great traveller and a charming man. I dine with him tonight. By the way do you realize that Marmun, the man who published the Russo German agreement in the Evening Times from documents abstracted from the French F.O., is the same man who offered McClure the correspondence between the Poste and its ambassadors? I do wonder what will happen to those documents. No doubt they were genuine, though when McClure told us about them we scarcely Bellieved. The post goes today. Ever your very affectionate daughter Gertrude

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