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Gertrude Bell is my hero. I’ve never had a hero before and it’s amazing to discover one at the age of 39! In 1909 she travelled from Aleppo in Syria following the Euphrates River to Baghdad, across to Mosul, up into the Kudish mountains then across the watershed divide that separates Asia from Europe and on to Karadagh in Turkey, during the great turmoil of the dying days of the Ottoman Empire. Can you imagine that? What a woman! Sadly she also set-up modern Iraq in all its troubled state and that’s a terrible legacy to leave behind. So, I should clarify that I do not admire that aspect of her life but instead I admire her indomitable spirit of seeking connections and adventures.
One of Oxford University’s most brilliant students, the greatest woman mountaineer of her age, an archaeologist and linguist, passionate, unhappy and rich, Bell saw in Arab male society, and what US President Woodrow Wilson called “the whole disgusting scramble” for the Middle East after the first world war, opportunities that were unthinkable at home.
Bell travelled with a small caravan and guides and helpers who set up her camp, cooked for her and assisted with archeological work along the way. Bell followed a route that took her to many significant sites of archeological interest of Roman, early Christian, Byzantine, early Arab, Assyrian and other civilizations.
Below are a collection of my reflections and quotes from the book, all fascinated me and I hope will be of interest to you too. I very much enjoyed reading this great book in ebook format. Bell has a clear and entertaining writing style. I loved reading about her interactions with local people. I skipped over some of the archeological and political details and focused on the journey and the vignettes. Bell describes the countryside and rejoices in the wildflowers, like ranunculi and irises that she encounters. She doesn’t complain about long days riding her horse through desert and mountain passes despite the many hardships that she must have endured every day. She is kind and affectionate with her words about most of the people she encounters.
She daily encounters blood feuds and other stupidity among otherwise gracious people. She passes through ancient Christian communities at the time of the 1909 massacres, when Arab, Kurdish and Circassian muslim mobs rode into Christian communities and killed everyone. It is disgraceful but that kind of bigotry persists today and continues to prevent peace in the entire region.
Pluralism and democracy have not yet flourished in Iraq and Syria and in 1909 when Bell travelled through the ashes of the poorly administered Ottoman Empire she asked a local Bedouin Arab what he thought of liberty and the concept of being governed. His response was worse than dismissive and I wonder how long it will take after Assad and IS are dead and buried before these ancient civilizations will flourish again
“We will not bow our heads to any government. To the Arabs belongs command.” And he slashed the air defiantly with his tamarisk switch as he proclaimed the liberties of the wilderness, the right of feud, the right of raid, the right of revenge—the only liberty the desert knows.
In 1909 Bell had this to say about Mosul
The city of Mosul has a turbulent record… It lies upon the frontier of the Arab and the Kurdish populations, and the meeting between those two is seldom accompanied by cordiality or good-will on either side. Upon the unhappy province of Mosul hatred and the lust of slaughter weigh like inherited evils.
Bell is treated with deference and kindness by her Arab, Kurdish, Armenian, Assyrian, Circassian and Turkish hosts, for example when she reaches the ferry to cross the great Euphrates River to Tell Ahmar, she encounters a camel caravan that has been waiting for 2 days for the ferry, which couldn’t travel due to bad weather. The camel driver sighed and told Bell that they had eaten misery for the past 2 days, with no bread, fire or tobacco and bad weather. Yet, when the first ferry arrived it was Bell’s group that boarded first, due to the deference of the bedraggled camel driver.
At Tell Ahmar, Bell convinces villagers to unearth the fragments of a Hittite stela and spend 3 days making impressions of the inscriptions. The villagers gather around the carving of a king standing upon a bull and one proposes that the animal must be a pig. This is greeted with approbation and shakes of the head because the ancients would not have depicted a pig (pigs are Haram in Islam).
The thin blue smoke of the morning camp fires rose out of the hollows and my heart rose with it, for here was the life of the desert, in open spaces under the open sky, and when once you have known it, the eternal savage in your breast rejoices at the return to it.
The Museum of Islamic Art at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin has some exquisite pieces of Raqqa ware. When we visited the museum in January I didn’t know anything about Raqqa but Bell brought it it to life for me an put it it in historical context
perfect specimens are occasionally unearthed, and I saw a considerable number, together with one or two fragments of exquisite glass embossed with gold, during the two days I spent at Rakkah. In some instances the original factories and kilns have been brought to light, and it is not unusual to see bowls or jars which have been spoilt in the baking and thrown away by the potter. No exhaustive study of Rakkah ware has as yet been made, though it is of the utmost importance in the history of the arts of Islam. The fabrication of it must have reached a high state of perfection during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, to which period the pieces which have been preserved are usually assigned.
I enjoyed reading about Bell watching Bedouin crossing the Euphrates River in Deir
I had not seen this entertaining process, except on the Assyrian reliefs in the British Museum, and I watched it with unabated zest during the greater part of an afternoon. You blow out your goat-skin by the river’s edge, roll up your cloak and place it upon your head, tuck your shirt into your waistcloth and so embark, with your arms resting upon the skin and your legs swimming in the water. The current carries you down, and you make what progress you can athwart it. On the further side you have only to wring out your shirt, don your cloak and deflate your goat-skin, and all is done.
Bell is mostly very positive except when she reaches the Iraqi town of Heet, famous for its bubbling tar pits
… a more malodorous little dirty spot I hope I may never see.
This exchange as Bell and her entourage rode through the desert during drought made me chuckle. I do love the Arabic language and I miss learning it.
I noticed that the ground was strewn with yellow gourds larger than an orange.
‘It is hanzal,’ said Muhammad. ‘It grows only where the plain is very dry, and best in rainless years. Wallah, so bitter is the fruit that, if you hold dates in your hand and crush the hanzal with your foot, they say you cannot eat the dates for the flavour of the hanzal. God knows.’
Considering that Syria is currently being destroyed by Assad, IS, Russia and NATO, I decided to copy this quote:
I have never come to know an Oriental city without finding that it possesses a distinctive personality much more strongly accentuated than is usually the case in Europe, and this is essentially true of the Syrian towns. To compare Damascus, for example, with Aleppo, would be to set side by side two different conceptions of civilization. Damascus is the capital of the desert, Aleppo of the fertile plain. Damascus is the city of the Arab tribes who conquered her and set their stamp upon her; Aleppo, standing astride the trade routes of northern Mesopotamia, is a city of merchants quick to defend the wealth that they had gathered afar. So I read the history that is written upon her walls and impressed deep into the character of her adventurous sons.
Throughout the book Bell included photographs that she took in 1909 and I made internet searches to see modern photos as well. When I looked up the Assyrian city Assur I was devastated to find that IS had deliberately destroyed part of it in 2015. I read on in Bell’s book that Assyrian carved and inscribed blocks had been maliciously attacked by Arab boys before Bell visited in 1909. She said that the boys
Hold it a meritorious act to deface an idol.
Some things have only gotten worse in the past century…
It was fascinating to read about the early Christian sects in Iraq that broke off from Rome and follow the original Christian ways, for example the Nestorians. Bell visited a remote monastery founded at the beginning of the 4th century by a pupil of St Antony whose name was St Eugenius.
He had learnt from his master the rule of solitude… among the rocks of Mount Izala he laid down his pilgrim’s staff, gathered disciples about him and founded the monastery… at first no more than a group of cells hollowed out of the cliff… the cave cells increased in number until the rocks were honeycombed on every side.
When Bell visited in May 1909 (days after the Turkish massacre of Armenians which she mentions hearing about), she met a 30 year old monk living in the ancient way
The ascetic life of the early Christian world. They spend their days in meditation; their diet is bread and oil and lentils; no meat, and neither milk nor eggs may pass their lips; they may see no woman
“But you may see me?”
“We have made an exception for you. Travellers come here so seldom. But some of the monks have shut themselves into their cells until you go.”
Do you know if the monastery has been destroyed by IS? I tried searching the Internet for it but only found some photos without a date and no news reports.
This is now one of my favourite books, drawing together most of my interests. I hope that you have enjoyed reading my reflections and I’d love to read your thoughts about the book too!
You can read my thoughts on related reading: Colin Thubron’s interesting book Mirror to Damascus here, some insights from Paul Theroux’s book the Pillars of Hercules here, Eugene Rogan’s excellent history book The Arab’s here and Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana here.