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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 20th of December 1913 to the 1st of January, 1914.

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

34.802075, 38.996815

Dec. 20. [i.e. 21] Dearest Mother. Ich fange an: I got off safely on the 16th from the kind Mackinnons', drove out a couple of hours, picked up my camels, loaded water and went off into the desert. We camped early about an hour or more S. of Dumair [Dumayr] and it was as well we did so, for the first night in camp always means a good deal of sorting out, and when you have no single man with you who has ever travelled with a European, you can guess what it is like. I had to show them everthing, and find everything myself, Fattuh not being there, who had packed all. They did not even know how my English tents went up, nor how to boil an egg. But they are all most anxious to please me and most willing to learn, and by dint of patience and timely instruction I am getting things into shape. It rained and blew all the night of the 16th and all the day of the 17th - impossible to travel if the devil had been behind us (and I was a little afraid that the Damascene authorities might look for me) so there we sat and shivered and overhauled all our packs. I have learnt by now to bear rainy days in camp, where you are never for one moment warm or dry and the hours seem endless. We sent to Dumair for firewood for the men, chopped straw for the camels and cotton cloth for me, with which I sat at my needle and made bags for all our provisions. It is long since I have sewed so diligently. Next day was fine, but what with wet tents and unaccustomed men we took 2½ hours to break camp - I despaired, but kept silence until later, and the second morning we were under 1½ hours from the time I woke till the time we marched, and that is as good as anyone can expect. I have good servants, you see; and besides, I know the job and they soon find that out. We struggled on the 18th for an hour through the mud and irrigation canals of the Dumairi husbandry - a horrible business, with the camels slipping and falling. At last we were out in the open desert, with the rising ground of the stony volcanic country, the Region of Tells, under our feet, and mud forgotten. We marched through it all yesterday and all today, a barren region of volcanic stones and tells. We have sighted but one camp of Arabs in all our way - a man rode out from it to see who we were and we found them to be one of the half cultivator tribes from near Damascus [Dimashq (Esh Sham, Damas)]. For water we have an occasional rain pool, very muddy; but I still have drinking water with me from Damascus, and bread and meat, and eggs and butter, so that hardships have not yet begun. It was bitter cold last night; the temp. fell to 28° and I woke up several times shivering. When we set off today, in a dense mist, the sparse grass and shrubs were all white with frost - and we ourselves blue with it. But one takes no harm. The mist did not lift till near midday, which made mapping most tedious, as I could take no long bearings, but we came into camp early in the afternoon (having started early) in glorious sunshine and I am now writing in the long afterglow of a cloudless sunset. Already I have dropped back into the desert as if it were my own place; silence and solitude fall round you like an impenetrable veil; there is no reality but the long hours of riding, shivering in the morning and drowsy in the afternoon, the bustle of getting into camp, the talk round Muhammad's coffee fire after dinner, profounder sleep than civilization ever knows - and then the road again. And as usual one feels as secure and confident in this lawless country as one does in one's own village. We have a rafiq, a comrade, of the Ghiyâth with us - we fetched him from Dumair - to stand surety {with} for us if we meet his tribe. We ought by rights to have a man of the Beni Hasan, with whom our Ghiyâthi is useless, since they are deadly foes; and if we come across the B. Hasan we will take one along. Good, please God! the earth is ours and theirs and I do not think we shall trouble one another. Such good mushrooms grow here. I have them fried for dinner.

Dec 21. [i.e. 20 December 1913] Jebel Sais. We have reached our first goal and a very curious place it is - but I will begin at the beginning. It was horribly cold last night. The temp. dropped to 19° and it was impossible to keep warm in bed. NB I am not cut out for arctic exploration it is clear. Anyhow I kept waking up to shiver. The men's big tent was frozen hard and they had to light fires under it to unfreeze the canvas, otherwise it would have torn when they packed it. But the sun rose gloriously, clearing away the mists, just as we marched and in half an hour we were all warm. We sighted J. Sais at 8 and reached it at 12, marching over almost flat ground covered with volcanic stones - a desolate country which must be a furnace in summer. But the rains have filled all the waterpools and the grass and shrubs are growing. On our way Muhammad saw two men in the distance and was much perturbed; but they were probably only shepherds of the Sayyâd and anyway I didn't bother about them. I have got men enough with me who will recognize and be recognized by all these tribes. J. Sais is a big and very perfect volcano, with a sort of deep moat round the W and S sides, ending, to the S.E. in a lake, now full of water. On the edge of this lake are some interesting ruins, a small mosque, a fort and what I take to have been a bath. They have been visited before, but long ago, before people knew much of these desert places. I had always guessed that they must belong to the early Mohammadan group and now I feel sure of it, so that there is one enigma, at least, cleared away. I took some photographs while the men pitched camp and then climbed with my Ghiyâthi guide to the lip of the volcano to take bearings. "Oh Hamad" said I as we breasted the stony slope "who can have lived in this strange place?" "By God" said he "we would learn from you. But indeed, oh Lady, there is no guide to truth but God." It was a wonderful view from the top - desert, desert and desert; wide stretches of yellow earth, great shining water pools, and miles and miles of stones. We scanned the whole world for Arab tents but saw none anywhere. With that I ran down the hill and had just time to plan all the ruins before sunset. There remains a little photography and taking of angles for tomorrow morning. I have not for a long time enjoyed anything so much as this afternoon's work. Content reigns in my camp and all goes smoothly.

Dec 22. [i.e. 21 December 1913] A preposterous and provoking episode has delayed us today. We had marched about 2 hours when we sighted camels and the smoke of tents. We took them to be (as indeed they were) Arabs of the Mountain, the Jebel Druze [Duruz, Jabal ad], with flocks. I told you we tried in Dumair [Dumayr] to get one of these Jebel Druze Arabs as a companion and failed - now we suffered for it. Presently a horseman came galoping [sic] over the plain, shooting as he came - into the air only. He wheeled round us, shouting that we were foes, that we should not approach with weapons, and the while he aimed his rifle at one or other of us. Muhammad and Ali tried to pacify him, but in vain. He demanded of Ali his rifle and fur cloak which were thrown to him and by this time a dozen or more men had come galoping [sic] or running up, some shooting, all shouting, half dressed - one of them had neglected to put on any clothes at all - with matted black locks falling about their faces. They shrieked and leapt at us like men insane. One of them siezed Muhammad's camel and drew the sword which hangs behind his saddle, with which he danced round me, slashing the air and hitting my camel on the neck to make her kneel. Next they proceeded to strip my men of their revolvers, cartridge Bellts and cloaks. My camel got up again and as there was nothing to be done but to sit quiet and watch events, that's what I did. Things looked rather black, but they took a turn for the better when my camelherd, a negro, was recognized by our assailant, and in a minute or two some shaikhs came up, knew Ali and Muhammad and greeted us with friendship. Our possessions were returned and we rode on together in smiles and serenity. But to avoid the reoccurence of such events, or worse, we are to take with us a man from their tents, and to that end we have been obliged to camp near them that a suitable companion may be found. The shaikhs have drunk coffee with me, enjoyed a long conversation with all of us and been so good as to accept my backshish in token of our gratitude in being rescued from the hands of their shepherds. And they have given us a comprehensive letter to all the Arabs of the Mountain. Good, please God! but I feel not a little impatient at the delay. "Desert!" says Muhammad philosophically. "Sons of Adam!"

Dec 23. [i.e. 22 December 1913] It rained hard till 8 o'clock this morning and the desert turned into paste. But it dries quickly and by 10 we were off, at the bidding of my impatience. All went well however; we had no more rain though it remained cold and grey. We have with us, to guard us against the Arabs of the Mountain, the oldest old man you could wish to see. He crouches upon a camel by day and over the campfire by night. He seldom speaks and I can scarcely think that anyone would respect a party introduced by so lifeless and ragged a guarantor. We are camped in a strange bleak place under a gloomy volcanic hill. A shallow lake of rainwater lies at its foot and the heavy clouds of this morning's storm hang about its head.

Dec 23. [23 December 1913] Winter travel has its trials. We got off an hour before dawn in a sharp frost. No sooner had the sun risen than a thick mist enveloped the world and hung over it till 10.30. My faith but it was cold! far too cold to ride so I walked for some 4 hours, the mist freezing into a thick hoar frost on my clothes. We had passed out of the black hills before sunrise and we walked on and on over an absolutely level plain with the white walls of the fog enclosing us. It was not unpleasant - though I wonder why? One turns into nothing but an animal under these conditions, satisfied with keeping warm by exercise, and going on unwearied, and eating when one is hungry. But I was glad when the sun came out and we could see our way again. I got bearings back to the hills of our camp so that my map will not suffer. This business of mapmaking, far from being a trouble, is a great amusement and alleviation in the long hours of riding and walking. The light came upon us just as we entered a wide and shallow valley up which we shall march till we reach our goal - the fort of Burqu [Qasr el Burqu], which has been heard of but never seen. Neither do I know what it will be like. But the Arabs tell me there is an inscription which fills me with hopes. We are camped in the valley tonight, with plenty of rain pools and scrub for the camels to eat.

Dec 24. [24 December 1913] Burqu [Qasr el Burqu]. We sighted the keep of the fort at 10 this morning and reached it at 1 o'clock - I with an excitement scarcely to be kept in bounds. At the request of my companions I examined it carefully through my glasses when we were still an hour and more away, and my report that there were no tents to be seen was greeted with many Praise Gods. After the harsh welcome we received at the hands of the Masa'Ã¥d we are not anxious to fall in with other tribes. Burqu has proved most interesting. There is a good Kufic inscription, which I have deciphered - it is dated in the year 81 AH, and as inscriptions of the 1st century AH are very rare, it is exceptionally important. But the plan is older for I have found among the ruins a very much battered Greek inscription. I'm afraid from what I can read of it that it is only a tomb stone, but it proves that Burq [sic] is pre Mohammadan, and if further evidence were wanting there is a cross over one of the doors. It must therefore have been a late Roman outpost, amazing though it is to find one so far East of the frontiers of Provincia Arabia.

Dec 25. [25 December 1913] What sort of Xmas Day have you been spending? I have thought of you all unwrapping presents in the Common Room and playing with the children. But you were certainly not breakfasting out of doors in a temperature of 28° which was what I was doing at 7 AM. It was so cold that I could not take rubbings of my inscriptions till late in the morning, because it was impossible to keep the water liquid. I have worked hard all day, planned, photograph [sic], taken a latitude. Late in the afternoon I discovered that the boulders were covered with Safaitic inscriptions and I copied them till night fell. They are pre Mohammadan, the rude inscriptions on [sic] nomad tribes who inhabited these deserts and wrote their names upon the stones in a script peculiar to this region. So you can picture the history of Burqu [Qasr el Burqu] - the Byzantine outpost with Safaitic tribes camping round it; the Mohammadan garrison of the 7th century; then a gentleman who passed along in the 8th century of the Hejdra and wrote his name and the date upon the walls; then the Beduin, laying their dead in the courtyard of the fort - it is full of graves - and scratching their tribe marks on the stones; and lastly me to read the meagre tale. Well, I have had a profitable day. I haven't had time to think whether it has been merry, but I hope yours has been merry - Bless you all!

Dec 26. [26 December 1913] I should like to mention that it was 25° when I breakfasted this morning. The wonder is that one minds it so little. I walk for an hour or two every morning so as to unfreeze, after the painful process of getting up and packing before dawn. We have been doing today the very thing I dreamt of doing. We have been following an ancient road, not metalled, but marked all the way by Safaitic inscriptions. And tonight we are camped in the old halting place where there are quantities of ancient wells and innumerable Safaitic inscriptions. As soon as we got into camp I set to work to read and copy them until it was too dark to see. Now if only we can stick to this track and see where it goes! Heaven be praised it's 10° warmer tonight than it was last night. What with sun and frost I am burnt out of all knowledge, and as you may imagine, I feel like the immortal gods for health. Nor do I Bellieve that they sleep half so well as I, nor eat so much.

Dec 27. [27 December 1913] I copied inscriptions for another 2 hours this morning and then we broke up camp and set off. But the devil took possession of the old old man who is my rafiq and he set off independently or went to sleep somewhere, or I don't know what. Anyhow after ½ an hour's marching we discovered that he was not with us and having spent an hour looking for him, he turned up from quite a different direction and we all cursed him, poor old thing, for wasting our time and energies. It was a horrid march today, in the teeth of a strong wind and over endless stones, with no apparent path through them. There are heaps of little volcanoes to make points for my map and what with taking bearings and copying Safaitic inscriptions on odd stones by the way, I was kept busy. Heaven send us better ground tomorrow.

Dec 28. [28 December 1913] The last prayer was not answered. We marched over stones all day, and marched far, being waterless. At 4 in the afternoon we reached a khabra nearly dry and at the same time we espied the smoke of Arab tents far off and camped hastily, hoping that they would not notice us. At night we watched their distant fires, flickering and sinking - no doubt they watched ours for - Dec 29 [29 December 1913] - we had not been more than a couple of hours on our way today before we heard sounds which meant that our neighbours were stirring. We left Abu 'Ali - my old old rafiq - on top of a stony ridge to tackle them and ourselves descended into low ground and halted. Presently a horseman topped the ridge and greeted us with the customary rifle shot but Abu 'Ali met him and found him to be of his kin. So all was well. Meantime we had lighted a fire round which we sat with the new comer, gave him food and tobacco and exchanged with him information as to the movements of tribes. He told us that we should meet the Serdiyyeh, moving camp and half an hour later we did meet them and went through the usual formulae. It happened to be the chief shaikh, Ghâlib, whose people we had met and he joined us and insisted on our camping with him that night. There was no help for it, since we shall have to take a rafiq from him to guarantee us with his tribe further on. So I have spent the afternoon sitting with him, sitting with the women, drinking coffee, doctoring a man with a horribly bad foot - my only remedy was boric ointment which can work neither harm nor good but if I had said I could do nothing they would not have Bellieved me - and now I am going to dine with Ghâlib who has killed a sheep for us. In return for which I shall give him a cloak. The new moon is just setting in a wonderful clear sky, the fires are all alight in the Arab tents; it's all very lovely and primeval - but I prefer a solitary camp.

Dec 31. [31 December 1913] Yesterday we rode all day over stones. At noon we reached a Roman outpost, a little fort on a hill top. I sent my camels on and keeping 2 men with me, planned and photographed the place. We got into camp late, but once we were without the baggage camels, we trotted our camels wherever the ground permitted. It was a nice camp by some springs - the joy of clean water! - under the last ridge of the volcanic country; I never said farewell to any region with greater alacrity. This morning we moved in to Qasr Azraq [Qasr el Azraq], which stands among palm trees, surrounded by a multitude of springs. I had ridden on with one man, whom I left with my camels while I went into the castle alone. It is inhabited by Arabs, but in the first room I entered I found a Druze who greeted me with the utmost cordiality and gave me coffee. I then began to plan the castle when immediately I was surrounded by Arabs all shouting at the top of their voices that if I wrote a line they would burn my book. I took them all down to my Agail, 'Ali the postman of 3 years ago (they had shut the great stone gate of the castle to keep me prisoner the better while they haggled with me - we sat down under the palm trees and I smoked and left 'Ali to explain, with the result that before long they all declared themselves to be entirely at my service. I've worked at this place all day and shall have another day at it tomorrow. I really don't know if it was worth the trouble, but I dislike leaving things undone in far away places. It's mediaeval, the Mamluk castle having entirely replaced the Roman fortress, of which nothing remains but an inscription of the time of Diocletian. The inscriptions were known - DusSa'ud was here 10 years ago - but I always hoped that in the rebuilding the Mamluks might have preserved the old plan. They did not however. I rather think I have got one new Greek inscription. I must take a rubbing of it tomorrow and see what can be made of it. So the year ends - I wish I could fly to you for an evening and see the New Year in with you, and say to you all the good wishes which I send you, my very dear Belloved step-mother and father, from here. To you and to Maurice and to all my family, my dear dear love and good wishes.

Jan 2. [2 January 1914] They were all outlaws and outcasts at Azraq [Qasr el Azraq] and as 'Ali observed as we rode away this morning "The world would be more restful if they were all dead." We have come today over the rolling Bellqa country which I love to Qasr Azraq [i.e. 'Amra] - do you remember - we looked one evening at the big German book with the drawings of its frescoes? this is the place. And very delightful it is, in a sheltered valley strewn with terebinths; in the midst the little palace in which the Umayyads held their court, the desert-loving Umayyad khalifs. It was really warm today, for the first time; I dined after sunset with my tent all open. But there seems to have been no rain here and the question of water may present difficulties. We can carry - and are carrying today - water for 4 nights if we are careful with it. No baths and very little washing I fear! After dinner I sit for an hour or so at the men's camp fire and they tell tales of raiding or of desert journeying. The fire lights us as we sit in a circle and one after another takes up his story. The negro camelherd, if he is not asleep in a corner (for he takes the first watch at night) looks over the shoulders of us gentry with his face one gleaming smile as the retailed adventures grow more and more blood curdling. When I get up to go they all rise and send me away with a blessing. I often look round the circle and think how closely I resemble Herbert's picture of me.

Jan 5. [5 January 1914] I have had 3 days of very hard work at Kharâneh [Qasr el Kharana], another of the Umayyad pleasure palaces. Nothing so interesting has come my way since Ukhaidir [Ukhaydir]. It's not my discovery, but I have done much more at it than anyone else, in fact it has not been studied at all as yet. It belongs to exactly the same era as Ukhaidir and the really thrilling thing is to see the differences from and the similarities between the work of Mesopotamian and of Syrian builders of the same age. Besides the wonderful architectural details, I have got heaps of Kufic graffiti which I hope Moritz will be able to study from my copies and photographs. One at least is dated A.H. 92. The difficulty here has been water, as we feared. My men have scoured the country round but 4 water skins was all the neighbourhood offered. But with what we brought with us we had enough for 3 nights here which was all I wanted, and we still have tomorrow's supply in case we come across none on our march. Lack of water has unfortunately frustrated my admirable plan of sending in to Madeba [Madaba] while I worked here. As we don't know where the next supply will be found we could arrange no rendezvous. It means, too, no washing and I begin to feel that I shall never be clean again. However Kharâneh is worth it all - delays and dirt and everything. I have worked these days from 6.30 AM till 5 PM, with half an hour off at 11 for lunch. Darkness at either end prevented longer hours. But it has been glorious. So now we march west, towards Madeba, and camp wherever God ordains.

Jan 6. [6 January 1914] My letter goes and I fetch letters. Much love to you. Your affectionate daughter Gertrude

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