Letters

6 February 1900

From/To: Gertrude Bell to her stepmother, Dame Florence Bell

[6 February 1900] Tuesday Feb 6. Jerusalem [(El Quds esh Sherif, Yerushalayim)]. Dearest Mother. It's a profound mystery to me why my letters seem to take 18 days whereas I get yours in 8! One wouldn't think the road to England was so very much uphill. Talking of uphill - it's true I could bicycle to Jericho with my feet up and I'll trouble Mr St Loe S. [Strachey] to come and wheel my bicycle back for me! The country is rather less good for bicycling than the DauphinÇ. There are exactly 3 roads in it and those 3 are tremendously up and down. I prefer a horse. I am much delighted at the recovery of my bangle which you so graphically describe. The idea of B. Loy's "treatery" as my arab master calls it! I was very sorry to lose it. I did advertise for it in Middlesbrough. I am also very glad to hear that you are on the point of departure. Papa's account of your plans sounds most agreeable - I do hope you will have a very satisfactory holiday. Poor Miss Thomson! she now has no home of any kind. Papa's description of Uncle Arthur is heartrending. I suppose it was better that he should go on hoping, but one can't but feel in one's heart that it was better for them both that she should have died, as things were. Of course he does not realise this. What a blank home it will be for them all, poor dear people! It streamed on Sunday after I had finished my letter to you and I seized the occasion to pay my visit of digestion on the AuzÇpys - it had been weighing on my mind for some time. Monday was delicious. In the afternoon Dr R. [Rosen] and I started out directly after lunch and had a charming ride, exploring a new path to Bethlehem [(Beit Lahm)]. It was lovely, a beautiful valley full of olives, but the road shocking, as all the roads are. The kavass we had with us, who is not much of a horseman, came down head over heels, horse and all, but fortunately they were neither of them much the worse. One has to be very careful on these long sheets of rock. My horse is capital for this kind of work, but he is rather frightened sometimes. The rocks were full of oil and wine presses, oblong holes cut deep into them, and these are always from Jewish times - no Arab would ever take the trouble to cut into the living rock. Sometimes one comes across them in places which have now gone out of cultivation and there [sic] presence proves also that the country can never have been much more forested than it is now. One often sees, too, flat threshing floors made in the rock; these, I Bellieve, are still used. They are also Jewish. We passed through the village of Bait Sahur [Beit Sahur] which is the traditional place where the angels appeared to the shepherds - it's about a mile from Bethlehem; Bait Lahm is its Arabic name. A tradition which is at least as old as Constantine's time has fixed the exact spot and we went down to see it. There was a little church on it, built by Constantine what time he was busy with his big basilica in Bethlehem, but the Arabs destroyed it and only a few scattered columns and Byzantine capitals remain. What one sees is a cave which has been turned into a chapel - the shepherds are supposed to have been taking shelter in it from the rain when the angels appeared to them. You know the Giotto frescoes with caves and shepherds? - I remember one in particular, at Padua [Padova] I think, with Joachim sitting with a flock of very small, even sheep in front of a little cave - they are exactly like these places. As Christ was presumably born at Nazareth, it doesn't much matter what spot they select for the vision of the shepherds, and this will do as well as another. We rode up then to Bethlehem and so home along the high road - a most agreeable afternoon. Today I went out walking after lunch into the Valley of Hinnom to get anemones and almond blossom which I found in quantities. It is a most interesting valley full of very elaborate rock tombs, some with flights of steps cut out of the rock leading up to them. There is never any inscription of any sort or kind on any one of these tombs, so that the dating of them is purely conjectural. One can only suppose that they were probably Jewish - after the Captivity most likely - and were subsequently used by everyone in turn as burying places. As an example of this it is curious to see that the French have bought and enclosed a whole series of these old tombs and use them now as their cemetary [sic]. I met Mrs Theodore Bent, but having thrown down the Salaam, as we say in my tongue, I rapidly fled, for I do not like her. She is the sort of woman the refrain of whose conversation is: "You see, I have seen things so much more interesting" or "I have seen so many of these, only bigger and older" in fact: with me it's different, in the Grant Duff phrase. I wonder if Theodore Bent liked her. I have got a lot of prickly pear thorns in one of my arms which is a most painful affliction and, as they are so small I can scarcely see them, I think they will have to remain there for the rest of my days. It comes from trespassing through a prickly pear hedge in search of almond blossom. However, I've got the almond blossom too, so there's balm in Gilead. (I can see Gilead out of my windows!) Some day I will develop to you all my plans for the Spring which are extensive and interesting, but not quite in form yet. I mean to explore the other side of Jordan - it's not difficult - but anyhow I'm going to stay here quietly till the end of March, by which time I ought to be able to talk Arabic a little. I am beginning to stammer along, but it's a bottomless sea of a language. A very odd thing about it is that the Mohammedans use a set of words quite different from the Christians - both being Syrian Arabs, you understand. A Muslim will say for flowers shkul[?] and doesn't so much as understand you if you use the Christian word hannoon, so that you have to ascertain the creed of your interlocutor before you can converse with him. I have a friend who lives at the bottom of the Valley of Hinnom (you realise that is the valley in which the Kings of Judah made their children pass through the fire of Moloch). I met him again today and we were delighted to see each other again. He looked at all the anemones and almond flowers I was carrying and said "What are you going to do with all that grass?"



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