Letters

29 March 1900

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

Thurs 29. [29 March 1900] Wady Musa [Wadi Musa] - for at length we have arrived and it is worth all the long long way. Well we got up at 5.30 and bitter cold it was, and I for one did not raise the average of washing in the camp. However as soon as the sun rose we began to unfreeze. At 7.45 we were all off and down the valley; we committed the mistake of leaving the Roman road and lost our way for a little, but soon came out onto the top of the slope and saw in front of us, purple and black, the rugged line of Mount Hor. With this to guide us, we descended to the village of Wady Musa where we hoped to get provisions, but devil a hen there was, so we despatched a man post haste to the nearest bedouin camp for a lamb, and as yet - 7. PM - none has appeared! However we have got leben and barley and butter so we can support life with our own rice and bread. What the people in Wady Musa live on, I can't imagine. They hadn't so much as milk. These things settled, we rode on and soon got into the entrance of the defile which leads to Petra, the Bab es Sik. We had already passed a couple of rock cut tombs with pillared courts carved in the solid rock, and we pressed forward eagerly. The Bab es Sik is a passage about ´ mile long and in places not more than 8 ft wide; the rocks rise on either side straight up 100 ft or so, they are sandstone of the most exquisite red and sometimes almost arch overhead. The stream runs between, filling all the path though it used to flow through conduits and the road was paved; oleanders grew along the stream and here and there a sheaf of ivy hung down over the red rock. We went on in ecstasies until suddenly between the narrow opening of the rocks, we saw the most beautiful sight I have ever seen. Imagine a temple cut out of the solid rock, the charming facade supported on great Corinthian columns standing clear, soaring upwards to the very top of the cliff in the most exquisite proportions and carved with groups of figures almost as fresh as the chisel left them - all this in the rose red rock, with the sun just touching it and making it look almost transparent. As we went on the gorge widened, on either side the cliffs were cut out into rock tombs of every shape and adorned in every manner, some standing, columned, in the rock, some clear with a pointed roof, some elaborate, some simple, some capped with flauted pyramids, many adorned with a curious form of stair high up over the doorway like this [sketch]. The gorge opened and brought us out into a kind of square between the cliffs with a rock cut theatre in it and tombs on every side. We went on and got into a a great open place the cliffs widening out far on every side and leaving this kind of amphitheatre strewn over with mounds of ruins. And here we camped under a row of the most elaborate tombs, three stories [sic] of pillars and cornices and the whole topped by a great funeral urn. They are extremely rococco, just like the kind of thing you see in a Venitian [sic] church above a 17th cent. Doge leaning on his elbow, but time has worn them and weather has stained the rock with exquisite colours - and in short I never liked Boromini so well! Of the town itself, little remains - a big building with elaborate late ornamentation by the edge of the stream, and a triumphal arch, much ruined, near it, and further on one column and the corner of an apse, which the books say was part of a church. But the rocks all round are like the most fantastic buildings you could imagine; they rise in spires and pyramids and are worn into deep overhanging cornices and columned facades so that you have to look twice before you can determine which is nature and which is art. We walked about all the afternoon and photographed and were lost in wonder. It is like a fairy tale city, all pink and wonderful, as if it had dropped out of the White King's dream and would vanish when he woke! The great paved roads stretch up to a ruined arch and vanish, a solid wall springs up some 6 ft and when you look for the cornice of the palace there is none, and on every side black doorways open in the rock and lead into vast chambers which are only the tombs of Petra. "A rose red city half as old as Time" - that might have been written for it. It was very hot all day and just before sunset I went down to the stream where I had observed some beautiful pools in the solid rock - even the stream follows the example of everyone else and hews its pools in smooth sandstone - and bathed there. The oleanders dropped into my bathroom on one side and on the other there was a long piece of splendid masonry embanking the water. It's warm and heavenly. I can scarcely Bellieve in yesterday's cold. The sunset set the pink rocks ablaze and the sepulchral rooms were as though they were filled with fire. I wish the lamb had come!



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