Letter from Gertrude Bell to her stepmother Florence Bell, written over the course of several days from the 23rd of April to the 2nd of May, 1914.
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Thurs 23 Behold I'm 11 days out from Baghdad and I have not begun to tell you my tale. I have been put to it to get through the long days and I have been too tired at the end of them to write. I drove out from Baghdad to Feluja [Fallujah, Al], on the Euphrates, having arranged that my camels were to leave Baghdad the previous day and meet me at Feluja. The day they left 'Ali made an unjustifiable request - that I should take a cousin of his with me, the cousin wishing to escape military service. I refused and 'Ali struck. Fattuh got him and the camels off with great difficulty late at night; in consequence they had not arrived when I reached Feluja - and when they came 'Ali had brought the cousin with him! I was very angry, 'Ali was in the devil's own temper and I dismissed him on the spot to find his way back to Baghdad with the cousin. He has given me a great deal of trouble. I have put up with a great deal for the sake of his long acquaintance, but gross insubordination I won't stand and there's an end of him. My party therefore was Fattuh, Sayyif and Fellah (the negro) and I was left without a guide for the Syrian desert. I am travelling very light with two small native tents, a bed on the ground, no furniture, not nothing - for speed's sake. We pitched our tiny camp half an hour out of Feluja in the desert by some Dulaim tents - it was blazing hot, and what with the heat and the hardness of the ground (to which I have now grown accustomed) I did not sleep much. Next day we rode along the high road to Ramadi [Ramadi, Ar] on the Euphrates, where lives the chief shaikh of the Dulaim. I went straight to him. He received me most cordially, lodged me in his palm garden, gave me a great feast and a rafiq from his own household, 'Adwân, a charming man. It was blazing hot again and noisy, dogs and people talking, and I slept less than ever. We were off before dawn and struck southwest into the desert to the pitch springs of Abu Jir [Abu el Jir] where I had been, do you remember, when I was looking for Ukheidir [Ukhaydir]. It was there I fell in with Muhammad al Abdullah, the author of the song about the motor. We arrived in a dust storm, the temperature was 91° and it was perfectly disgusting. The following day was better, as hot as ever, but no dust storms. We rode on west into the desert and came after noon to Wizeh, a place I have long wanted to see, where there is a very curious underground spring. Also a small fort which I planned and photographed. Two days more, west and slightly north, with the temperature falling thank Heaven, brought us up onto the post road and here we fell in with the shaikh of the 'Anazeh and I took a new rafiq from him, Assâf is his name, and very reluctantly said goodbye to 'Adwân. We rode down the following day to Muhaiwir [Muhaywir] in the Wadi Hauran [Hawran, Wadi], where I had been 3 years ago. The world was full of 'Anazeh tents and camels - a wonderful sight. It meant, too, that with my 'Anazeh rafiq I was perfectly safe. And in two more days we came to the great shaikh of all these eastern 'Anazeh, Fahd Beg, and I alighted at his tents and claimed his hospitality. He treated me with fatherly kindness, fed me, entertained me, and advised me to take a second rafiq, a man of the Ruwalla, who are the western 'Anazeh. I spent the afternoon planning a ruin near him - a town, actually a town in the heart of the Syrian desert! Only the fortified gate was plannable, the rest was mere stone heaps, but it throws a most unexpected light on the history of the desert. There was most certainly a settled population at one time in these eastern parts. We had violent thunderstorms all night and yesterday, when I left Fahd, a horrible day's journey in the teeth of a violent wind and through great scuds of rain. Today however it has been very pleasant. I have been following the old road which I came out to find and am well content to have my anticipations justified. We came to a small ruin in the middle of the day which I stopped to plan. Fahd told me that the desert from his camp to Bukharra, near Palmyra [Tadmur], is khala, empty, ie there are no Beduin camped in it. I always like solitary camps and the desert all to myself, but it has the drawback of not being very safe. With our two rafiqs no 'Anazeh of any kind will touch us, but there is always the chance of a ghazzu. Very likely they would do us no harm, but one can't be sure. However so far I have run my own show quite satisfactorily and it amuses me to be tongue and voice for myself, as I have been these days. But I am tired, and being anxious to get through and be done with travel, we are making long marches, 9 and 10 hours. Oh but they are long hours, day after day in the open wilderness! I have come in sometimes more dead than alive, too tired to eat and with just enough energy to write my diary. We are now up nearly a couple of thousand feet and I am beginning to feel better.
Ap. 28. [28 April 1914] On the 24th we began the day by sighting something lying in the desert with an ominous flutter of great wings over it. Assaf observed that it was 3 dead mares and 2 dead men, killed ten nights ago - ghazzu met ghazzu, said he. I edged off for I did not want to be haunted by their bloody ghosts. We came down into a valley which was full of traces of habitation, mostly only ruin mounds, but quite clearly buildings. It was a very fertile valley, full of water pools and grass. And then we got out onto an immense barren flat and had great difficulty in finding a hollow place with trees for the camels to eat and shelter for our fire. On the 25th we came at midday to an encampment of Slubba, a strange tribe of whose origin many tales are told. We called at their tents to buy some butter and I was glad to see and photograph them. They are great hunters; one man was clad in a lovely robe of gazelle skins. They pressed us to camp with them, but we rode on for a couple of hours and camped by ourselves. On the 26th a gorgeous storm marched across our path into the hills - for we had sighted the Palmyrene hills the day before. It did not touch us but we rode through a world darkened by it, and watched and heard. After it had passed malicious little rains came on us from every side and troubled us all day. In the middle of the morning we met a man walking solitary in the desert. We rode up to him and addressed him in Arabic, but he made no answer and Assaf, my rafiq, said he thought he must be a Persian dervish. I spoke to him in Turkish and in what words of Persian I could muster, but he made no reply. Fattuh gave him some bread which he accepted and turned away from us into the rainy wilderness, going whither? But we rode on towards the mountains and missed our way, going too far to the north, till at last we came upon some tents and herds of the Sba', an 'Anazeh tribe, and they directed us. We were in sight of Palmyra Tadmur], lying some 10 miles from us in a bay of the hills. Seeing it thus from the desert one realizes the desert town, not the Roman, Tadmur, not Palmyra. And yesterday we rode along under the hills, through Bukarra, an outlying settlement of Palmyra, and camped under the walls of a mediaeval khan. It was without interest, the khan, quite late, I should think - I did not even trouble to plan it; but today I have found milestones all along our way - we must be on a Roman road - the road from the great camp at Dumair [Dumayr] to Palmyra. Only 2 of the milestones were inscribed and they so terribly battered that I could make out nothing but a few letters here and there, not enough to date the road. We are terribly bothered by wind, both marching and in camp, where it shuts us in dust. We march very long hours, and oh, I'm tired!
May 2. [2 May 1914] We rode through the mountains, a beautiful road but I was too tired to enjoy it much. Also we made very long hours, ten and twelve a day. On the 30th we came down to Dumair [Dumayr] and it being early, went on to 'Adra ['Adhra] and camped there, on the very spot where I mounted my camel the day I set out from Damascus [Dimashq (Esh Sham, Damas)], four months and a half ago. Next morning, yesterday, through gardens and orchards to Damascus. I got in at 9 or soon after and stopped at the hospital which is the first house in the town. The kind Mackinnons have kept me, may God reward them. I've strained one foot a little - it's nothing but it has been a confounded nuisance the last week. A day or two of rest will put it right. I can't walk much now, and I lie in a long chair out in the garden which is a bower of roses and do nothing. I have letters from you and Father and two from Elsa. I can't understand why you did not get my telegram from Baghdad. I sent one direct to you. I'm thrilled by the Irish business and immensely grateful to Father for the week of Timeses. I have a message from Louis Mallet telling me to come to him whenever I like. I rather think I shall catch a boat to C'ple [Istanbul (Constantinople)] on the 8th, getting there on the 12th, stay there a week or less, and come on by train, getting to London about the 24th. I am telegraphing to you today. If I make my delay I will let you know, but in any case the the only safe address is C'ple so that my telegram will hold good. I long to hear about your American visit - and all your news.
But Ireland! was there ever anything so fatuous as the Ulster plot, the Govt. plot, so far as as I can understand it. I can scarcely Bellieve that it can be true, but if it isn't true why don't they give a full and clear explanation? Well, I suppose you are beginning to forget all this excitement, but I'm only at the entrance of it remember! Bless Elsa for her letters. I'll write to her.
I don't much like my letters being opened by anyone but you Mother - it's not fair to my correspondents who write about all sorts of things that concern them. However you are there now to deal with them. Any letters that look like real letters might be sent to me at C'ple unopened I should think - you will judge.
I'm writing to you from my bed! Mrs M. has kept me there. I can't sleep much - I ride a camel through my dreams. But all this won't last long. Now I shall get up and lie in the garden. Ever my Belloved parents your very affectionate daughter Gertrude