Request a high resolution copy

Letter from Gertrude Bell to her father, Sir Hugh Bell

There is currently no summary available for this item.
Reference code
Bell, Sir Thomas Hugh Lowthian
Bell, Gertrude Margaret Lowthian
Person(s) mentioned
Hashimi, Yasin al-
Suwaydi, Naji al-
Dobbs, Henry
Cox, Percy
Wilson, J.M.
Lawrence, T.E.
Cornwallis, Ken
Woolley, Leonard
Creation Date
Extent and medium
1 letter, paper

33.315241, 44.3660671

Baghdad Jan. 16. Dearest Father. The chief news is that Sir Percy is going home by this airmail to help the Cabinet to come to a conclusion about 'Iraq policy. Except for personal reasons I'm very glad he is going and I think he also is pleased. It is far more satisfactory that he in person should put the whole case to the authorities, for you see, even if they don't want to shoulder the burden they have got to learn that it's amazingly difficult to let it drop with a bump. Even the evacuation of Mosul [Mawsil, Al] would mean, I am convinced, that we should be faced with the problem of sixty to seventy thousand Christian refugees who would certainly not wait the coming of the Kamalists. As you know the Christian population is being herded out of Asia Minor and the Christians of Mosul have no reason to suppose that they will meet with different treatment. There would be a quite considerable Moslem exodus also, men who are too deeply compromised by their service either to the 'Iraq or the British Govt. Retirement to Basrah [Basrah, Al (Basra)] would only enhance the difficulty for, in increasing numbers, they would follow us there. And how retirement could be effected, no one has ever really considered. It isn't in fact a possible manoeuvre even if we hadn't clouds of refugees at our skirts.
Anyhow Sir Percy will be there to state the facts. He is very anxious to see you and Mother; I expect you will be in London but in any case you'll manage to see him, won't you? The Colonial Office will give you his address. He also wants to see Elsa of whom he retains most agreeable recollections and I've given him special messages from me to Bill whom he'll love. I don't know how long he will remain, it depends on how quickly a decision is reached.

The world seems to me to have become so insane that I can't take much interest in its doings. Mad people aren't interesting and I read with languid indifference the tale of Irish chaos, German indignation at the occupation of the Ruhr, Turkish pretensions at Lausanne and all the other imbecile actions which fill the telegrams and the papers. It is almost impossible to believe that a few years ago the human race was more or less governed by reason and considered consequences before it did things. I don't feel reasonable myself - how can one when political values are as fluctuating as the currency? But impotently I try to think out what will happen under various circumstances and upon my soul every one of them seems as unpromising as any other. I take refuge in the daily round of work and do my best not to look ahead too much; what's the use when some frantic gesture may upset all your calculations? But at the back of my mind I've a feeling that we people of the war can never return to complete sanity. The shock has been too great; we've unbalanced. I'm aware that I myself have much less control over my own emotions than I used to have. I don't really feel quite certain about what I might do next and I can only hope that the opportunity for doing impossibly reckless things won't arise. If it did, I should probably do them; at least I can't be sure I shouldn't.

Meantime I've been pursuing a blameless and quite unexciting course. The Sunday after I last wrote to you, i.e. Jan. 7, I had a number of official visitors. First came my Minister, Yasin Pasha (he's my Minister in my capacity as Hon. Director of Antiquities). He is, you know, the darkest of dark horses, completely unscrupulous, bitterly ante-foreign and yet possessed by a curious respect for us and an anxiety to get on with us, which accounts for his assiduousness in coming to see me. I rather like him in a way; his wits are by no means inconsiderable, and he is a perpetual enigma. He found me potting hyacinths into china bowls and ran about with the pots and bowls in the most obliging manner. We were presently interrupted by Sabih Beg who had come to consult me as to whether he should accept the post of Mayor of Baghdad. This was sufficiently entertaining because the happy thought of making him Mayor had been mine and after ascertaining that Mr Cornwallis approved I had presented it with such tact to the King and the Minister of Interior that they are now persuaded it was theirs. I exhibited surprise and delight when Sabih Beg imparted his news and warmly urged upon him that it was his duty to serve his country in this manner. Yasin chimed in and I've since heard that he is going to take the job. The Prime Minister, Naji Suwaidi (Minister of Interior) and 'Abdul Latif Mandil (Minister of Auqaf) came to lunch. The Prime Minister on arrival announced that he feared he had got a chill. I replied that cherry brandy was an excellent cure for chills - fortunately I had some left over from a dinner party. So they all partook of a liberal go of it, even the two who hadn't chills; after which we had an extremely cordial lunch at the end of which they confided to me that they contemplated a shuffle in the Cabinet, making Naji Beg Minister of Justice (a portfolio not yet alloted) and giving the Interior to the Prime Minister, Muhsin Beg, in addition to his other duties. They asked me if I would prepare the High Commissioner's mind for the arrangement, which I readily agreed to, for Muhsin Beg will be a much better Minister of Interior than Naji, being far less susceptible to political influences. I told Sir Percy about it next day, he entirely approved and the appointments have now been made. It will be dreadfully flat, when I return to London, not to be consulted about all Cabinet appointments!

Next came Sir Henry Dobbs for a good talk, for which we really hadn't yet had opportunity, and we discussed Mesopotamian history since the early days of the Occupation.

Then Major Jeffries from Diwaniyah [Diwaniyah, Ad], and finally I dined with him and Mr Cornwallis, after which I felt that I had temporarily exhausted all that there was to be said about the past, present and future of this country.

On Tuesday 9th I went to Diwaniyah with Major J.M. Wilson and Major Jeffries. Our object was to see the mound of Niffar [Nippur] - which we did on the following day, motoring an hour and a half to 'Afaj ['Afak] where we found horses waiting for the 8 mile ride to Niffar. This is all the country watered by the Dagharah Canal which I hadn't seen before. It was rather disappointing as country there being now not very much water in the Dagharah. But Niffar is by far the most striking site I've seen here. It's so enormously big and the temple pyramid soars so high above the plain. Moreover you get a very clear impression of the topography of the town, for the old Nil canal, the forerunner of the Dagharah, cut right through it and it's easy to picture the huge temple with its library and divinity school on one bank and the commercial city on the other. The Americans excavated it, rather badly I believe, some 20 years ago; but at least they did a tremendous amount of work and cleared the temple court down to the beginning of historic time, so that you see in section age after age of civilization extending over a period of three or four thousand years. It's amazing and rather horrible to be brought face to face with milleniums of human effort and then to consider what a mess we've made of it, as I remarked above.

We lunched, however, very happily in the sun on the top of the temple pyramid but we were less happy when we found that a Shaikh of the Hamzah, whose straw village lay at the spot where we forded the Dagharah, had prepared another enormous lunch for us. Politeness demanded that we should make at least a show of eating so that our accompanying police, shaikhs and municipal dignitaries of 'Afaj might be permitted to polish off the ample remains, which they did. There was also an old party from Najaf [Najaf, An], the object of whose journeyings was I think the quest for a free meal. He was bien tombé on that day and he marked the fact by hastily composing a poem in my honour - if it wasn't in the honour of the Virgin Mary, for we were so inextricably mixed up that I couldn't quite distinguish which of us he alluded to.

Next day we motored out to Dagharah [Daghgharah, Ad] village where we called on the Qaimmaqam, a gentleman rich in irreproachable sentiments but otherwise, I understand, negligable. And so on to lunch with Haji Mukhif, a very remarkable man and a great friend of mine. His family, which is by origin of the Shammar, has been settled on the Dagharah for some 200 years and by sedulous attention to its own interests has become the arbitor of all the tribes along the canal. Haji Mukhif is a very striking person, well educated and much travelled - he has made the pilgrimage both to Mecca [Makkah] and to Mashhad [(Meshed)] in Persia. He was one of the leaders of the revolt of 1920, urged thereto by his hatred of the Political Officer, Major Daly, who had handled him very tactlessly, but since his return from internment in Henjam [Henqam] he has thrown himself heart and soul onto our side and is one of the warmest advocates of the treaty - quite genuinely; he has great possessions and he wants stable government. He gave us the most colossal lunch I've ever set eyes on. It was served in his charming garden by the canal in a little straw summer house in the midst of fruit trees, and it was certainly very good. His house we destroyed in 1920; his two daughters, whom I went to visit (plain but intelligent women) live in mud huts in the midst of the ruins, but he bears no malice and when I returned he observed cheerfully "You saw the remains of my house?" "Yes" I said "and I ask pardon. It was a misunderstanding." "God forbid!" he replied and smiled.

When he came back and found his house in ruins, he went to the Political Officer, Mr Thomson, who had given the order for its destruction and thanked him for the courtesy and care which he had shown to his womenkind.

Major Wilson and I left that night for Ur. We ought to have got there at dawn next day but the engine broke down, as is not uncommon, our poor engines being all on their last wheels, and we were exactly 10 hours late. It might have been worse for the good Major Wilson is the pleasantest of travelling companions. I had plenty of books and Zaya provided us with excellent meals. We found a motor waiting for us at Ur Junction and went straight up to the mound. You know the British Museum and Pennsylvania University are digging there. The expedition consists of Mr Woolley, who excavated Carchemish [Barak (Karkemis)], Mr Newton, an architect whom you probably won't remember at the School of Rome [Roma], Mr Smith, an epigraphist and a tall and dull younger brother of T.E. Lawrence who does the odd jobs. They are a very competent party. They put us up in the little house which they built in 3 weeks with bricks scattered over the mound and we spent a very profitable evening and morning seeing their excavations and their finds and hearing their tale. I won't tell you about it now because I must write an article for the local papers which I will send you in due course. After lunch the next day, Sat 13th, we motored into Nasiriyah [Nasiriyah, An] and spent the afternoon and evening talking to Major Yetts - you remembered the little house where we stayed with Major Ditchburn? I left Major Wilson there - he was going on to Basrah and returned to Ur Junction where I ought to have caught a train at 7 p.m. But it was two hours late and when we finally got off the engine immediately broke down again so that the net result was that we arrived at Baghdad 6 hours late. I got back to {Baghdad} my house a little before midnight on Sunday feeling as if I had travelled in nightmare trains for 10,000 hours at least.

I've been pretty busy these last two days picking up threads, writing reports for the mail and preparing things which Sir Percy wants to take with him. It's always the greatest pleasure to work for him and the fact remains that whatever I may do in the future I shall never have a chief whom I serve more wholeheartedly than I serve him. The sense that one has gained his confidence is I think the thing that I'm more proud of than anything else. He has, you know, been an angel of kindness and consideration to me. I do love him very much though he would be horribly surprised if I were to tell him so, dear old thing.

Tonight as I was coming back from the office very dirty and tired, I met Sir John Salmond and Air Commodore Borton on their doorstep and they dragged me in to a very merry tea. He is an attractive creature, Sir John; I came home feeling quite cheerful and rested, and I sent him a bowl of hyacinths as a token of gratitude. I'm much attached to the Air Force; they have the same sort of charm that sailors have. They are so keen and so busy with their job; and it's a job that they are always at, just as sailors are. And they are so amazingly gallant. The things that they've done in this country, without anything said about them, might be the theme for epics.

It's half past eleven and I began life this morning at five, having a perverse Oriental habit of early waking, so I think I'll go to bed.

Jan. 18. [18 January 1923] I'm very glad to gather from your letter of Dec 27 that there's every prospect of my predeceasing you which is what I should wish to do. Darling it is nice to hear of your being so sound and well. The world would be a poor place without you. I must have a talk with Sir Henry some day about plans. As at present arranged I've engaged berths for Marie and me on a ship that leaves Bombay on May 5, I think that's the date - it may be the 3rd. I don't intend to use mine if I can help it; I would far rather come by air or by motor if it's not too expensive. I should love to go to C'ple [Istanbul (Constantinople)] if we're not at war with the Turks! It would be immensely interesting. Meantime I must break to Sir Henry that I'm going on leave and find out whether he wants me to come back. I don't like going just as he takes over but apart from seeing my family I think 3 consecutive summers here is enough. Of course we would have a wonderful time if we met in Syria and went up to C'ple. Would early in May suit you? I don't want to be away too long and I do want my absence to coincide with the hottest weather. If I fly you would have to bring me out a few clothes as I can take so little with me. But I shouldn't want much.
I forgot if I thanked Mother for sending me the P. Phillips cutting - it made me however fearfully raging. It's a fortunate thing that Sir Percy isn't likely to think that anyone can derive that sort of idiot stuff from me myself. It's silly and up to a point it's harmful. He began saying some nonsense of the kind the day he lunched with me but I thought I had choked him off. It's just copy he's out for and it makes better copy to weave romances round a woman than round a man.

Your Xmas party sounded very nice. What a good plan it was to have the whole family. I loved having your letter and Mother's about it.

Capt. Wilkingson writes that he has been kept in India so I'll send him your letter.

I'm very sorry about Mr Constantine; it's a horrible way of dying and lucky when like Major Marshall it's so quick. Dearest goodbye; I love you very much. Your daughter Gertrude.

IIIF Manifest