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Letter from Gertrude Bell to her stepmother, Dame Florence Bell

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Bell, Dame Florence Eveleen Eleanore
Bell, Gertrude Margaret Lowthian
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1 letter plus envelope, paper

33.5138073, 36.2765279

Damascus [Dimashq (Esh Sham, Damas)]. Wed. Dearest Mother. I left Beyrout [Beyrouth (Beirut)] yesterday morning early. It is the most beautiful journey here. The line crosses Lebanon [Liban, Jebel and Anti Libanus [Jebel esh Sharqi (Anti-Lebanon)], both passes being over 4500 ft high and covered with snow. On Lebanon the snow was falling and sifting in through the badly fitting carriage windows - I don't deny it was cold. Half way, at the branch line for Baalbek, I met my old bishop and some other English people who had been on the boat. They are now here in my hotel. I had for companion in my carriage a charming old Persian, Hussein Pasha Khan - who or what he is I can't guess, but he was just returning from a journey from Paris and Vienna [Wien]. He talked Turkish, a few words of French and no Arabic - we made shift to keep up something of a conversation in Turkish at which tongue I do not excel. He never bought anything to eat but he insisted on sharing it with me, and he was much distressed at my refusing to smoke the hubble bubble which his servant brought him from time to time. He asked me what I thought to be the best hotel in Damascus, and I told him the Victoria: thereby hangs the rest of this sad tale. When we arrived and I had taken my room at the hotel, I hurried out to refresh my eyes with a glance at the Great Mosque. It was past sunset, the mosque was all lighted for the evening prayer and the wide porticoed court was full of silence and starlight. I rejoiced to see it again after 6 years and to find it more beautiful than ever. So I came back to the hotel and was greeted by the landlord (who is an impertinent beast) with the remark that he was obliged for the recommendation but he could not take in my friend. I was at a loss to think what he meant when suddenly I remembered the old Persian. He had come and given my name and no sooner had he done that than he had proceeded to say the evening prayer in the salon; after which he had called for a hubble bubble. Upon that the landlord had packed him off, incontinently and he has vanished into space. I misdoubt me he does not gain much wisdom by travel. He told me his age was 58 and that he guessed mine to be 30; I let it stand at that and he repeated to himself for a full ten minutes "Terente, terente", I meantime turning over in my mind whether all the information he acquired was equally trustworthy. It froze hard last night and this morning was bitter cold but bright with sun. I went out with Fattuh and my telephoto camera and tried experiments on the capitals of the Great Mosque. After which I went to a neighbouring photographer's and developed them. They were splendid, so now I think I need feel no more anxiety about that. You can't think how beautiful they are: all the details immensely large and clear. I feel inclined to do nothing else but take them! So to the bank where I met the consul, Mr Devey who had just come from calling on me, I having left a letter of introduction to him yesterday. He was very friendly, introduced me to the manager, M. Naville, and invited me to tea and bridge at the Club this afternoon. He is, poor man, married to a completely impossible wife, an Italian ballet girl or worse, with whom he lived for many years in Jedda [Jiddah] before the marriage. So I wd rather accept his hospitalities at the club than elsewhere. Well, so then I thought I had better begin to see about my journey, so I went off to the quarter where the sons of 'Abdul Kadir live. They are the great people here and if anyone knows the desert it is the Amir 'Umar, 'Abdul Kadir's son, and the Amir Tahir, his grandson. I found them both in the Amir Tahir's house, together with various other members of the family, and we had a long talk, the upshot of which is that the Amir is going to seek out a sheikh of the Wulud 'Ali, who is now in Damascus, and we are all to meet and discuss matters. I have gone to the right people for advice, but I expect it will take some arranging. It was then so late that I lunched in the bazaars at a most excellent Greek cook shop, well known to me from of old. And then I took a camera and strolled about by myself for an hour or two looking at mosques, but most of them are very late Mamluk stuff, not specially interesting. Just as I was writing this Mr Devey came in and on his heels the Amir Tahir and his uncle, the Emir 'Ali, who is the eldest son of 'Abdul Kadir. I had not met the Amir 'Ali before, for he was away when I was last in Damascus. He is a great big, splendid looking man, with hair and beard as black as a coal and that directness of address which is very typical of the 'Abdul Kadirs and makes one feel as if one were dealing with Europeans when one is talking to them. He said he had come to hear what help I wanted and I brought a map and explained to him how I proposed to go. He promised me every assistance and said he could manage the business for me; he looks as if he could manage most businesses. On this he left and I went off to the club and played bridge with Mr Devey and the Navilles. Naville is a cousin of the archaeologist.

Thursday. [19 January 1911] I spent the greater part of the day with the Great Mosque, photographing lots of the old work in the outer wall and generally taking a look round. Mr Devey brought his wife to see me - so that settles the question of our acquaintance and I must go and leave a card on her. Late in the afternoon I went to call on the MacKinnons - he is doctor of the hospital here and they are old friends of mine. He knows the desert well and I told him my plans and received from him the comfortable assurance that if the Abdul Kadirs were arranging the business for me I need have no hesitations about it.

Friday. [20 Janaury 1911] I spent rather a silly morning for Mr Devey wanted me to go and see the Vali and had not found out beforehand whether he would be there, so we waited about for 3/4 of an hour and were then told that he could not see us because he was out! So I went off in rather a huff and visited a delightful old parson called Hannoner[?] who is an enthusiastic archaeologist. We went off together and wandered about the precincts of the mosque, traced the temenos of the oldest temple, lunched in the bazaars and were very happy. Then I took a cab and drove off to the station of the Hajj railway to see an English engineer, Mr Perrin and on the way I met a great procession of people, all the notables of Damascus [Dimashq (Esh Sham, Damas)] and the Vali who had gone down to welcome Sami Pasha, the Turkish general, who was just returned from the campaign against the Bedouin. A good part of the garrison of Damascus had gone down to take part in the reception; it was most interesting to see them: well clothed and well set up and well appointed - I never saw the like outside C'ple [Istanbul (Constantinople)] before. The country is changing slowly. The army is paid and the police are paid and there is a general concensus of opinion that Syria has never been so well policed before. Mr Perrin and his wife were nice little people. He told me all about the Bedouin reBellion down in the south, a most curious tale it was. They broke the railway, destroyed the stations, burned the carriages and turned out the passengers stark naked, men and women. I don't think the Ottoman Govt will get much further in the desert. Now I must tell you another friend has turned up, Selim Tabit (see the Desert and the Sown). He is, I think, a bit of a rogue, but he is amusing and he knows everyone and takes a great deal of trouble to be agreeable, so I'm quite glad he has come. I found him waiting for me when I came in and we went to a neighbouring hotel where he lodges and found there the Amir 'Umar and the Amir Tahir whom I presently took aside and conversed at length about my journey. All is going well, the negotiations are progressing and in a day or two I hope we shall see our way clear. It's still pretty cold, but the weather is improving.
- I have just come in from dining with Selim Tabit. He is, I must say, a very amusing companion. He told me the gossip of Syria by the yard and as the dinner drew to a close it occurred to me to ask after my old friend Muhammad Pasha Jerudi. "Oh" said Tabit Beg "he has just come in from Jerud [Jayrud] - shall we go and see him?" So we stepped round to old Jerudi's house: our entry must have been a great boon to him. He was sitting all alone in a great coat, running a rosary through his fingers and with nothing else to amuse him. The night was bitter cold and the room, which was all window, was warmed by one charcoal brazier. Fortunately it was not necessary to take off one's coat either. So we sat down and Tabit Beg talked uninterruptedly for an hour and a half. I doubt if Jerudi can read, but anyway Selim is better than any newspaper. He related what was happening in Macedonia and what in the Yemen, the latest news from the Jebel Druze [Duruz, Jabal ad] and from Persia - I don't waiver that he has the entry in every house in Damascus: such a man is invaluable in the East. It interested me just as much as it interested Jerudi and by the time we left I found that I had even forgotten that I was shivering with cold.

So you see Damascus is as delightful as ever. Your affectionate daughter Gertrude

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