Gertrude Bell Criticism - Essay

Elizabeth Robins (essay date 1911)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A New Art of Travel," in Fortnightly Review, Vol. 95, No. 8, March 1, 1911, pp. 470-92.

[In the following essay, Robins recounts a trip she took with Bell to Arabia and discusses Bell's writings on Arabia.]

There is a natural freemasonry among travellers. Even he whose journeying has been brief, and scarce beyond the borders of his native land, will nevertheless come home with a better knowledge, not of other places only, but of his own relation to his fellow-man; so little can the best-equipped carry with him, so much at every turn does he find himself in need of the knowledge and goodwill of those he meets.

No amount of couriers or maps will relieve the traveller of dependence upon those, he goes amongst. The situation in which he finds himself, abroad, sets in a high, clear light certain facts that only the stay-at-home may disregard.

I am moved to these reflections by a journey I have just made under conduct of the person whose name is at the head of this paper. The lands through which she led me were as strange to me as they could be to any pilgrim. That they are strange no longer, that I know my way now to new sources of beauty and refreshment, that I come home with a sense of exhilaration so keen, bringing memories of adventure in the desert and Arabian Nights entertainment in Khans and Palaces, I owe to the two volumes named in my sub-title.

Now, the world is yet more full of books than the earth's surface is of roads and bye-paths and blind alleys. "Show me the way," says one traveller. "What shall I read?" says another.

In the name, then, of that confessed freemasonry I am constrained to constitute myself on this occasion a kind of guide-post.

I am here to say: This is the way—and a right good way it is.

The journey in The Desert and the Sown begins where so much else began, at Jerusalem—with a ride round the walls of the Holy City on a stormy February morning. Is your ardour chilled by the strong west wind that comes sweeping in from the Mediterranean? The leader of the expedition says, "No one with life in his body could stay in on such a day." The alternative to "staying in" is to set forth on a journey of many weeks over mountain, river and desert in a land asserted by the local authorities, and reported by special correspondents to The Times, to be unsafe for the European traveller. At dawn the muleteers Miss Bell brought with her from Beyrout had been sent forward with tents and a month's supplies. The only one of her servants with her at the start is Mikhail, native of the Lebanon, engaged as cook, upon the recommendation of "not caring twopence whether he lives or whether he is killed."

That qualification sets the note.

The conversation of this desert chef would seem to bear out his "character." He tells his new employer how with his last he was shipwrecked on Lake Van: "We were as near death as a beggar to poverty, but your excellency knows a man can die but once."

And so, past groups of Russian pilgrims to the Mount of Olives, these two gallop down the road that winds through the wilderness of Judea. They escape out of those slime pits of Genesis to catch up with the caravan on the slope of the last hill which overlooks Jordan valley and the Dead Sea—"backed by the misty steeps of Moab." The first halt is by the Holy River, near what Miss Bell calls "the most inspiring piece of architecture in the world."

Now we have heard that, amongst other things, Miss Bell has been twice round the world. She has visited

"The awful ruins of the days of old:
Athens and Tyre and Balbec, and the waste
Where stood Jerusalem, the fallen towers
Of Babylon, the eternal pyramids,
Memphis and Thebes. …"

We are given, therefore, some measure of what lies before us when we hear that no one of these other wonders is so inspiring as—a wooden bridge across the River Jordan, "because it is the Gate of the Desert." In this tremendous neighbourhood the tents are pitched that first night, and a bonfire lit of tamarisk and willow. In the light of it one of the little handful who shares the solitude of the Turkish toll-taker, dances and lifts his voice out of the babel of Syrian dialect to tell the stranger the latest gossip of the desert.

As by Jordan Bridge you are prepared in some sort for the desert, so are you promptly given a measure of the human experience that lies before you. Your acquaintance in The Desert and the Sown ranges, even in these early hours, from a ragged and renegade Arab recruit, to persons of consideration, like the family at Salt. The region where they dwell on the hem of the desert, has been famed, you are told, since the fourteenth century for its gardens. Not only in the matter of grapes and apricots would the ancient order seem still to be upheld. A magnificent old man in full Arab dress comes out to meet the stranger, who had been commended to his good offices by his kinsman. Habib Faris takes the horse by the bridle; he, and no other, he declares shall offer the lady hospitality. In the guest chamber, where floor and divan are covered with thick carpets, she is soon established before an excellent supper. Others of the family (one she calls "an old acquaintance") come in to"honour themselves" with an evening of talk. "God forbid," says she, "the honour is mine." And so they seat themselves to drink the bitter black coffee of the Arabs, which is better than any nectar. The cup is handed with "deign to accept," you pass it back empty, murmuring "May you live!" As you sip, someone ejaculates, "A double health," and you reply,"Upon your heart."

Presently she introduces her business: How was she to elude the vigilance of the authorities and make her way to the Druze mountains?

It is hers to tell that story, and all that befell in the circuitous route she follows to Damascus, turning aside wherever there were castles or ruined villages to inspect, or sheikhs to gossip with over the coffee cups.

From Damascus she makes her way to Heliopolis, skirting anti-Lebanon to Homs, then with a wide detour westward to the Nosairiyych, and so back to the Orontes at Hama; thence northward to Aleppo, and after that following an irregular course westward, by way of Antioch, to the sea. When in a tea-shop of Damascus she calls for her score, the red-bearded Persian patron answers: "Your Excellency is known to us. For you there is never anything to pay." At Serjilla, Sheikh Yunis presents her with a palace and its adjacent tomb, that she may live and die in his neighbourhood.

Small wonder when, all unwilling, she left unvisited that mysterious castle east of the Rubbeh and the Sheikh of Ghiath had said, "When you next return, oh lady—" she answered promptly, "Yes, when I return."

Her new book shows how she kept the spirit of that pact, and how she did much more.

The advance made in the volume just published is one of the most interesting things about it. Amurath to Amurath is not only better written. It is better thought. It is more than a spirited record of wandering in the East interspersed with random notes on archeology. The traveller comes home from her last five months in the cities and waste-places of Syria and Mesopotamia with an archæological feather in her cap that alone would proclaim her journey memorable.

Miss Bell has been the first to make a scientifically-ordered report of that castle-fortress in the desert which, on first seeing its vast mass against the sky-line, she took for a natural feature of the landscape. She, and now the learned world as well, have come to know it for the finest example of Sassanian architecture which has yet been discovered.

"Of all the wonderful experiences that have fallen my way," she says, "the first sight of Kheidir is the most memorable. It reared its mighty walls out of the sand, almost untouched by time, breaking the long lines of the waste with its huge towers, steadfast and massive, as though it were, as I had at first thought it, the work of nature, not of man. We approached it from the north, on which side a long low building runs out towards the sandy depression of the Wâdy Lebay'ah. A zaptieh caught me up as I reached the first of the vaulted rooms, and out of the northern gateway a man in long robes of white and black came trailing towards us through the hot silence.

"'Peace be upon you,' said he.

"'And upon you peace, Sheikh 'Ali,' returned the zaptieh. This lady is of the English.'

"'Welcome, my lady Khân,' said the sheikh."

And so she enters one of those "palaces, famous in pre-Mohammedan tradition, whose splendours had filled with amazement the invading hordes of the Bedouin, and still shine with a legendary magnificence, from the pages of the chroniclers of the conquest. Even for the Mohammedan writers they had become nothing but a name."

The sheikh who welcomed her was himself in some sort a guest, having, with his friends and followers, taken refuge there upon some political disturbance in his native Nejd. "He and his brothers passed like ghosts along the passages, they trailed their white robes down the stairways that led to the high chambers where they lived with their women, and at night they gathered round the hearth in the great hall where their forefathers had beguiled the hours with tale and song in the same rolling tongue of Nejd. Then they would pile up the desert scrub till the embers glowed under the coffee-pots, while Ma'ashi handed round the delicious bitter draught which was the one luxury left to them. The thorns crackled a couple of oil wicks placed in holes above the columns, which had been contrived for them by the men-at-arms of old, sent a feeble ray into the darkness, and Ghânim took the rebâbah and drew from its single string a wailing melody to which he chanted the stories of his race."

So little of the significance of that singing was lost upon his English guest that she could cap his verses with one from his own poet:

We wither away but they wane not, the stars that
above us rise;
And the mountains remain after us, and the
strong towers when we are gone.

For all the distinguished entertainment offered, she works at her plans of the vast edifice from sunrise until dark—just as later, she turns from contemplation of the glittering domes of that little town of Samarra, "set down like a child's toy upon the waste"—and descending from the spiral tower of the ruined Abbasid city, she sets to work upon the mosque. "To measure a wall would not seem to be a complicated business, yet I do not care to remember how many hours I spent upon the mosque."

A peasant comes to her among the ruins of the elder city, whose bazaars and palaces in the bygone days stretched without a break along the Tigris for one-and-twenty miles. The modern representative of this departed glory comes asking, would she like to see a picture he had just unearthed? It proves to be a beautiful piece of plaster work, doomed to destruction that the bricks behind it might be removed. A reward is offered for any further specimens, and these are duly brought. In the same way the peasants supply the traveller with basketsful of patterned potsherds, innumerable examples of which she drew and photographed.

At Tell Ahmar, where she found a Hittite epigraph cut in basalt, "The whole village turned out to help in the work of masking moulds of the inscriptions, those who were not actively employed with brush and paste and paper sitting round in an attentive circle."

She tells the Arabs at Abu Sáîd what is the origin of the stones they use to mark the graves of their dead. For these bits of basalt are the ancient hand-mills in which the living, long ago, were used to grind their corn.

Near one of Layard's pits at Nimrûd she comes across a stone statue projecting "head and shoulders out of the ground, the face of the king or god which it represents being already terribly battered. The number of Assyrian statues known to us is exceedingly small—not more than seven or eight have been brought to light—yet this splendid example is allowed to fall into decay for want of a handful of earth wherewith to cover it." Not so perhaps, for with fair words and with bakhshish she extracts a promise of a sheikh of the Jebbûr that he would bury it.

And so with those "seeing eyes," that do not fail to note any such resemblance as may exist between Mar Behnam beyond Nineveh and the Coptic Monasteries of Egypt—with the stored mind familiarised by the Orient Gesellschaft with the pictures of Ashur before ever she sets foot in Assyrin, on she goes, skirting in the Tûr Abdin the ancient battle-ground of Persian and Byzantine.

"Into this country I came, entirely ignorant of its architectural wealth, because it was entirely unrecorded. None of the inscriptions collected by Pognon go back earlier than the ninth century; the plans which had been published were lamentably insufficient and were unaccompanied by any photographs. When I entered Mâr Yakûb at Salah and saw upon its walls mouldings and carved string courses which bore the sign manual of the Græco-Asiatic civilisation I scarcely dared to trust the conclusions to which they pointed. But church after church confirmed and strengthened them. The chancel arches, covered with an exquisite lacework of ornament, the delicate grace of the acanthus capitals, hung with garlands and enriched with woven entrelac, the repetition of ancient plans and the mastery of constructive problems which revealed an old architectural tradition, all these assure to the churches of the Tûr Abdin the recognition of their honourable place in the history of the arts."

Work so thorough as that recorded in these pages is not achieved without a price. The archæologist relieves her feelings on one occasion by frankly calling the measuring and planning a "labour of hatred."

Such an outburst emboldens the lay mind to hope that her pursuit of mathematical exactitude was enlivened by the resultant ability to point out the inaccuracies of other folk. If to do this is, as Theodore Hook maintains, the business of a traveller, Miss Bell is not the person to fail him. Kiepert himself she catches out now and then, though she is usually found singing his praises. Herzfeld's plans, on the other hand, are discovered to be "exceedingly inaccurate and his architectural observations seldom to be trusted." Even Ammianus Marcellinus is caught tripping in his march down the Euphrates with the Emperor Julian. Miss Bell discovers at Carrhæ that his account is "irreconcilable with the facts of geography"—which dictum, if he hears of it, must a little disconcert the Græco-Roman shade accustomed for a matter of fifteen centuries to see his authority unquestioned.

Miss Bell's disposition to examine testimony and to try conclusions brings her home, then, with something more than a collection of traveller's tales, however aptly told; something more than an addition to existing stores of archæological knowledge.

In sum, her achievement is that she has developed a new art of travel.

It is an art at which only the dry-as-dusts may cavil, and only because this new kind of traveller returns with other spoils in her saddlebags, besides the notebooks, full of plans and measurements, many hundred photograph films, the rubbings of fading inscriptions and moulds of decoration motif, faint perhaps and crumbling fast—doomed to oblivion but for the timely rescue—yet so full of significance for the instructed eye, that it is traceries such as these that yield up the age-long secrets, telling of the great race movements, of an unguessed efflorescence of human glory, of its blight and ruin.

But these are matters for the expert.

From the point of view of the general reader, Amurath to Amurath is, first and foremost, a many-sided study of a people—or rather of that medley of races, faiths and problems bound up in the Ottoman Empire. This part of the book seems to be offered as a contribution towards Western understanding of the unprecedented political crisis through which the Turks have newly come. In The Desert and the Sown the traveller makes her way through Syria amused by the picture of contemporary life, and quick to seize upon vestiges of a many-storied past. In Syria she was the spectator. In Amurath to Amurath she is friend and partisan.

The motif of the new book is Freedom.

Freedom for the Young Turk, and through him freedom, or some semblance of it, for the motley populations which have hitherto been harried and robbed in the name of the Sultan, and in his name, or his despite, done equal deeds of blood and ruth. Freedom is the immediate jewel, it appears, even of the soul of a Turk. He must be free, we are told, to bring back fertility to his abandoned fields—free to govern without passion, soberly, wisely, as his statecraft-loving soul dictates.

Miss Bell makes out a striking case for the bad economy of social disorder. We hear continually of cornlands lying waste, of folk not daring even to drive the goats to pasture, of every man in the district sitting with his loaded rifle across his knees on watch for the coming of the raiders. Amongst the sorry wealth of similar pictures we have such as this, catching desolation in the act: "Shetâteh is an oasis of 160,000 palms. The number is rapidly diminishing, and on every side there are groups of headless trunks from which the water has been turned off. This is owing to the iniquitous exactions of the tax-gatherers, who levy three and four times in the year the moneys due from each tree, so that the profits on the fruit vanish and even turn to loss."

Finding corn at famine prices, and no fresh meat obtainable for man, nor grass for beast, she is haunted by a sense of that majestic presence of "the river in the midst of uncultivated lands, which, with the help of its waters, would need so little labour" to make those lands productive. That vast tracts of the desert used formerly, and might be made again, to blossom as the rose, is the hopeful reminder reiterated from page to page.

Towards the end of her journey, coming upon the village of Shahr, she finds "its sheltered fields covered with corn, its gardens planted with fruit-trees, but the streets and houses were no less ruined than the temples of the Great Goddess. The hot breath of massacre had passed down the smiling vale and left Shahr a heap of ashes. I found the inhabitants huddled together on a bluff where half a dozen of their dwellings had escaped destruction. A young school-master from the American college of Tarsus told me the story."

For my last extract upon the theme of bad economy in social disorder take this: Miss Bell's caravan is passing through a well-watered valley. "The deep grass through which we journeyed, both on this day and on the next, is looked upon as a sore peril, since it tempts the Kurds down into the lowland pastures. To avoid this annual reign of terror, the peasants are wont to set it on fire as soon as it ripens, leaving but a small patch round each village. For a week the plain is wrapped in flame and smoke, and the stifling heat of the burning rises up to the hill-top monastery of Mâr Yakûb, where the Catholic priests are witnesses to the appalling destruction of what might have been a rich harvest, and to the bitter oppression which turns the bounty of nature into a recurring threat. Jûsef, whose imagination is not to be roused except by considerations of a soundly practical character, cast his eye over the fields and observed thoughtfully: 'The muleteers of Baghdad must starve this year to buy fodder for their cattle, yet here is enough to feed all the Jezîreh.'"

Few things in modern politics are more striking than the evidence that, even in Asia, there is a growing disposition to weary of that old liberty to waste and to be wasted. "No sooner had I landed in Beyrout," says Miss Bell, "than I began to shed European formulas and to look for the Asiatic value of the great catch-words of revolution." Her acquaintance with the Turkey that came into being in July, 1908, she dates from the time of her arrival in Aleppo—that Aleppo which she loves for its architecture and for being the Gate to Asia.

It was there, "sitting at the feet of many masters, who ranged down all the social grades, from the high official to the humblest labourer for hire," that she learnt of the outburst of enthusiasm which had greeted the granting of the constitution—of some of the disappointments that followed, and of their cause. "The Government," she says with a fine discrimination, "was still to the bulk of the population a higher power, disconnected from those upon whom it exercised its will. You might complain—just as you cursed the hailstones that destroyed your crops, but you were in no way answerable for it, nor would you attempt to control or advise it, any more than you would offer advice to the hail-cloud." "Many a time," she says, "I searched for some trace of the Anglo-Saxon acceptance of a common responsibility in the problems that beset the State." She goes through village after village, listening to the echoes of revolution while she looks at tombs and shrines.

Already among the Weldeh tribe she has heard the plaint: "We have neither camels nor sheep, for the Government has eaten all!" Then one asks about the new Government—and "liberty, what is that?"

About an hour from Bâb her caravan was joined by a Circassian "wrapped in a thick black felt cloak, which, with the white woollen hood over an astrachan cap, skirted coat with cartridges ranged across the breast, and high riding-boots, is the invariable costume of these emigrants from the north."

She asks him about the recent elections and finds that he takes a lively interest in the politics of the day. They ride along together, discussing the Arab view of franchise.

And so, past Roman milestones, one bearing the name of the Emperor Septimius Severus, by mosque and pool she follows towards Hieropolis, the same road travelled by that faithful Apostate of whom Anatole France says: "Nourri dans la violence romaine et dans la cruauté byzantine, il semble n'avoir appris que le respect de la vie humaine et le culte de la pensée."

Near Manbij, two days later, she hears a chance-met traveller asking one of her party the meaning of hurrîyeh (liberty). For his part, if it means the right to vote, he has no use for it. He thanks God that no one there is "and el hukûmeh" (on the official register). For to be upon the list of voters is to be compelled to do military service, and too often in Turkey to be marked down for official extortion as well.

In collecting the opinions of all sorts and conditions, Miss Bell has not only at her service the gift of tongues, she has the knack of grasping instantly who (from her point of view) are the people, as well as the things, best worth seeing. She had these advantages already in working order several years ago at Hamah. Without loss of time she learns which are the most powerful Mohammedan families of the town. She has pleasant experience of their feudal hospitality, and on her way home encounters in the street an aged Afghan, with whom she discusses English foreign relations. It might be supposed an aged Afghan would know little of such matters, this one showed himself as well, possibly better, informed than the average Briton. Miss Bell found him cognizant even of the then recent interchange of visits and civilities between Kabul and Calcutta. Here, and later, she is apt at drawing the moral: "The East is one vast sounding-board." Varying the symbol to iterate the truth: "All Asia," she says, "is linked together by fine chains of relationship"—the bond between the western and central parts being the faith of Islam.

That may account, in part, for the fact that she found, even among the intractable hordes in the remote fastnesses of the desert, men as ready to take an interest in Egyptian finance as was the Arab to whom she explained the principles of the Fellahin Bank in Cairo. When she had finished he inquired if such an institution might not be introduced into Syria. Five years earlier still, a similar question had been put in the mountains of the Hauran. "The Druze sheikhs of Kanawat had assembled in my tent under shadow of night, and after much beating about the bush, asked whether, if the Turks again broke their treaties with the Mountain, the Druzes might take refuge with Lord Cromer in Egypt, and whether I would not charge myself with a message to him."

On this later journey, as she rides toward Tell esh Shaïr, the zaptieh and she began to talk of the prospects of good administration under the new order. Mahmud placed great confidence in the Young Turks, and said that every one except the effendis was in favour of the dastur (the constitution). "The effendis fear liberty and justice, for these are to the advantage of the poor. But they, being corrupt and oppressors of the poor, set themselves in secret against the dastur, and because of this we have confusion everywhere."

After being two weeks without news she goes to certain friends of hers at Deir, Mahommedan gentlemen of good birth and education. "They told me that the Grand Vizir, Kiamil Pasha, had fallen, which was...

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Sir E. Denison Ross (essay date 1928)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Preface to Persian Pictures by Gertrude Bell, Boni and Liveright, 1928, pp. 5-11.

[In the following preface to Persian Pictures, Ross discusses Bell's early impressions of Persia and includes a lengthy excerpt from a letter Bell wrote to her cousin Horace Marshall.]

The letters of Gertrude Lowthian Bell are so fresh in the public mind, and seem so clearly destined to become a classic, that there is little need in this place for biographical details. It will suffice to say that she was born on July 14, 1868, at Washington Hall, Durham, then the residence of her grandfather, the late Sir Lowthian Bell. In 1885 she entered Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and in...

(The entire section is 2742 words.)

Michael Swan (essay date 1957)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Emma of the Desert," in A Small Part of Time: Essays on Literature, Art and Travel, 1957. Reprint by Dufour Editions, 1961, pp. 129-37.

[In the following essay, Swan discusses a volume of published letters Bell wrote to her father and stepmother from abroad.]

There is evidently some special quality in the British national character which has produced so long a succession of indomitable women travellers; it is almost impossible to imagine a Lady Mary Wortley Montagu from France recounting her lively stories of adventure in the harems of Stamboul, or a Lady Hester Stanhope from Italy dominating the caravanserais of the Syrian desert. The Latin mind must find...

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Brian Fagan (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Bell of Baghdad," in Archaeology, Vol. 44, No. 4, July/August, 1991, pp. 12, 14, 16.

[In the following essay, Fagan discusses Bell's influence on archeological expeditions in Persia as well as her important role in the creation of the Iraq Museum.]

For all its troubles in recent months, Baghdad's Iraq Museum remains one of the world's great repositories of antiquities. Like so many other major museums, it owes its existence to the vision and drive of an inspired archaeologist, in Baghdad's case the indefatigable Gertrude Bell. Born in 1868, the daughter of a wealthy English industrialist, Bell was accustomed to having her way. She entered Oxford at the age of...

(The entire section is 1440 words.)