Letters

22 March 1900

From/To: Gertrude Bell to her father, Sir Hugh Bell

Thurs 22. [22 March 1900] This has been a most wonderful day. Hanna woke me at 5.30, the weather looked promising though there was a good deal of cloud. By 6.30 I had breakfasted and was ready to start when Mr Baker appeared and asked whether he might come too. I cheerfully agreed and sent up to know if my soldier was coming. He arrived in a few minutes, a big handsome cheerful Circassian mounted on a strong white horse, and a little before 7 we started off. I took Tarif and Mr Baker his dragoman and a man carrying his elaborate photographic appliances. We rode across the corn fields for 3 or 4 miles, enveloped part of the time in blowing mists, past a ruined village called Jelul [Jalul], then the mists cleared and {showed us} we saw a most wonderful country - miles and miles of rolling grass stretching far away to a dim horizon of low hills, and dotted over with black tents and white flocks. In a dip we came suddenly upon a great encampment of Christians from Madeba [Madaba] and stopped to photograph them and their sheep. They were milking them, the sheep being tied head to head in a serried line of perhaps 40 at a time. We went on and on, the ground rising and falling and always the same beautiful grass - no road, we went straight across country uninterrupted by fence or tree - till we came to the first builing we had seen since Madeba, a square Khan, half ruined, standing on the edge of a great cistern, broken and empty of water. Bellow it was another big encampment of Christians and we again stopped to photograph while they brought us salted cakes made of goats' milk, rather nasty, and excellent laban. This place is called Ziza [Jiza], it was once a big town, of which the ruins crowned the neighbouring tell. We went to the top of the Khan and saw Mashetta [Qasr el Mushatta] some 5 miles away across the grass. The people were most friendly and one man insisted on mounting his little mare and coming with us, just for love. So we all cantered off together, through many flocks and past companies of dignified storks walking about and eating the locusts, till we came to the next object of interest which was the Haj [Hajj] road, the pilgrim road to Mecca [Makkah]. Road of course it is not; it is about 1/8th[?] of a mile wide and consists of hundreds of parallel tracks trodden out by the immense caravan which passes over it twice a year. We next came to some camps and flocks of the Beni Sakhr, the most redoubted of all the Arab tribes and the last who submited to the Sultan's rule - "very much not pleasant" said Tarif - and now we were almost at the foot of the low hills and before us stood the ruins of Mashetta. It is a Persian palace, begun and never finished by Chosroes I who overran the country in 611 of our era and planned to have a splendid hunting box out in these grassy plains which abound with game. But his reign came to an abrupt close, Mashetta was abandoned and forgotten by all except the Arabs who wintered their flocks under its brick domes, until Canon Tristram rediscovered it. It is four square; a magnificently carved gateway leads into a great open court at the end of which stands the brick palace with a columned door, from which the arch has fallen in some earthquake, and roofed with great gaping vaults of brick, half fallen in. It looked indescribably beautiful and pathetic, standing solitary in the rolling plains with no inhabited place within 30 miles of it but the black tents of the Arabs. The day was soft and warm, the light glorious, with an occasional great soft cloud sending its long shadow over the plains, the beauty of it all was quite past words. We stayed about 2 hours, lunching and photographing - it's a thing one will never forget as long as one lives. At last, most reluctantly, we turned back on our 4 hours' ride home. We hadn't gone more than a few yards, before 3 of the Beni Sakhr came riding towards us, armed to the teeth, black browed and most menacing. When they saw our soldier they threw us the salaam with some disgust and after a short exchange of politenesses, proceeded on their way - we felt that the interview might have turned differently if we had been unescorted, all the more when Tarif told me that one of them was Fa'is, Sheikh of the Sukhur and son of the great Sheikh Zottam whom Tristram talks of. We rode on to the Beni Sakhr tents and were greeted with enthusiasm and given the most excellent sheep's milk. Once past the inspection of the Sheikh all was well. Many of these people were negroes - one of the Sheikh's companions was a full blooded negro to all appearance. They were all armed with pistols, guns and knives. We now parted with our Christian - his name was Salem Yacoub, may god increase his good! - and rode on straight across the plains putting up several foxes, and a little grey wolf. Unfortunately we did not see the white gazelles of which there are said to be many. Tarif says there are also jackals and hyenas. Just as we came to the edge of the cornfields, again two of the Beni Sakhr sprang up seemingly out of the ground and came riding towards us. Exactly the same interview took place as before and they retired in disgust. We got in at 5, quite delighted with our day. The good Hanna had seen me coming from afar and brought me my tea at once. I parted with Mr Baker, who has been a most agreeable companion and a distinct addition to the pleasure and success of the day. The Effendi then came to call and was much pleased to hear that I was so well satisfied. In all the country we have been over today and for Heaven knows how many miles before, there is not a tree or bush, nor any running water till you reach the Euphrates. The nomads depend entirely on their tanks. I don't think I have ever spent such a wonderful day.



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