Letters

20 May 1900

From/To: Gertrude Bell to unknown

Sun 20. [20 May 1900] Palmyra [Tadmur], for I've got here at last, though after such a ride! We left Karyatein [Al Qaryatayn] on Friday evening at 5.30. It was a heavy cloudy night and though I put on a thick coat it was scarcely necessary. We rode round the town and struck out to the SE very soon passing the last water and the last yellow cornfield; at dusk we found ourselves in the desert again. The night closed in very dark, the west being thick with cloud. My rolling stone which gathers moss all the way had picked up another companion, one Ahmed, white robed and perched up on the top of a camel. The Agha had provided him as as guide. I was not on the ordinary road, I must tell you, having decided to make a detour to the S in order to avoid going and coming by the same route. No tourist ever goes this way. It leads to a spring called Ain el Wu'ul, the Spring of the Deer, in the S hills, which is halfway between Karyatein and Palmyra. This we had to make as soon as possible after sunrise for the sake of the beasts for whom we had no water. It was very strange pacing on in the silent dark behind my white robed guide, the 3 soldiers, black shadows, beside me and the mules tinkling behind. For the first few hours there was a sort of path which one could see white and clear through the scrubby desert plants; when it left off Ahmed turned off resolutely into the broken ground under the hills, guiding himself by the stars in the clear east and by a black hill which stood out in front of us and from which, he said, the spring was 7 hours away. The ground was very rocky; the horses hoofs rang out on the rough slabs of stone. There were continually deep furrows, ineffective waterless valleys from the hills, sometimes breaking open into big white gulfs - the "white earth" of which nothing can grow and which we had to skirt round. We hadn't been gone more than 4 hours before Ali, poor dear, was taken deadly sick. I could do nothing for him, the desert is not to be tampered with - we had either to go straight on or straight back, so we went on and in an hour or two he recovered and was none the worse. At 10 the moon rose and though big clouds kept drifting across it, it was light enough to see the ground under one's horse's feet and the bare hills to the S and Ahmed's white figure, swaying as his camel walked. The camel behaved shockingly - it growled all night because it wasn't allowed to eat as much as it wanted. Otherwise it's a nice camel, dromedary rather, and it goes a tremendous pace without tiring. About an hour before midnight we rounded the black hill which had been our landmark, JeBell el Baridah it is called. There is a cistern on it somewhere, but 3 or 4 hours out of our road. Behind it, the range of low hills to our right, stood back somewhat; to our left there was still in the dim wide stretching desert with gleaming patches on it - the "white earth" shining under the moon. So we went on and on and I talked first with one of my men and then with another and at intervals I half fell asleep and woke up to see Ahmed's swaying figure like a kind of beckoning Fate leading us into a grim waterless world. Across the range of hills there is a country that no one ever travels over - right away to Nejd [Najd] there is not a spring and not a well, 44 waterless days, said Ahmed. He imparted me scraps of information at intervals, he knew the name of every hill and every bare furrow - I was surprised to find that they had names, but it seems they have. This was the sort of conversation: "Where is the Lady?" "Here, oh Ahmed." "Oh Lady, this is the Valley of the Wild Boar" There didn't seem anything to say about it except that it was a horrid sandy little place, so I replied that God had made it. Ahmed accepted this doubtful statement with a "God the Exalted is merciful!" on which 'Ali, the 5 times hadgi, would break in with "Praise be to God who is Great! may he prolong the life of the Sultan!" Soon after 3, Ahmed said "Oh Lady! the light rises." I looked and the east was beginning to pale. I felt as if I had been sitting in my saddle for a lifetime and my horse felt so too. He was so hungry that he began to snatch at the camel's food as he passed - now the names of these plants I know, but only in Arabic, so I think it best not to tell. I was also hungry and I had a light refection of chocolate and an orange and then I got off and walked for near an hour, Ahmed walking too to keep me company. The light came quickly across the stony ground and the furrows. There were still a few flowers in them, white hollyhocks and the exquisite white caper and some big thistles and other things I didn't know, and lots of withered grass. There had been water from the hills a month ago. We mounted and rode on till 5, when the sun rose behind some clouds. We were now coasting along the foot of the hills and Ahmed began to look about and wonder where the spring was. He had only been there once in his life before. The hills consisted of a long range of little stony peaks with a valley running up between them every quarter of a mile or so; in one of these valleys, high up, was the spring; the question was which. Ahmed wasn't sure so he left me with the camel and set off running into the hills to explore. The others came up and I made Hannah give me a bit of bread and a cup of milk that had turned into butter and whey (but awfully good) and I fell asleep almost while I was eating it. I had been riding for 12 hours. Half an hour later I heard my man say that Ahmed was beckoning to us. This was rather a relief for I had considered what would happen if we had to search through all the little hills and valleys - they were all exactly alike and stretched for miles - and had come to no conclusion except that the mules would probably die. As it turned out, we had gone a good bit too far. We rode back half an hour, entered one of the valleys and climbed up it nearly to the top and there on a tiny platform between rocks, we found the spring. It was only a very small cup, 6 or 8 ft across, more perhaps, and about 10 ft deep of water, the cup being barely half full. The water was clear and cold but covered with masses of weed and full of swimming things of all kinds. The soldiers and the beasts didn't seem to mind, however, and I shut my eyes and drank too. It was past 7 when we got to it. I had something to eat, climbed up to a shady cave and slept till 1, quite indifferent to the fact that my bed was thistles and my bedfellows stinging flies. 'Ain el Wu'ul is a favourite Arab camping ground in the Spring. There's lots of water there and the grass and flowers must be lovely. I gathered some iris pods of a kind which I think I have not yet seen; it will be interesting to see how they turn out. We were not too sorry that the Arabs had all gone, for they are a very dangerous lot and embitter the lives of the merchants of Baghdad, but the hills must be charming when the black tents are scattered over them and the flocks pasturing down into the plain. From my cave I could see far far away over the desert, white and greenish brown and yellow with the camels plants and the faded sprinkling of grass. The only spot of life in it all was the well Bellow me and my men and animals gathered eagerly round it and within 12 hours of us there was no other. If we had missed this one spring hidden in the hills, we should have been hard put to it. The good Hannah gave me an excellent lunch of fried croquettes and a partridge that he had killed, and tea. I had told him to cook nothing, but his conscience was too much for him and he had made a charcoal fire between some stones and prepared these masterpieces, bless him! At 3 we were off again, down into the plain and then straight east at the foot of the hills. It had never been really hot all day, fortunately; the sun set without a cloud and it began to be very cold. We rode till 7 and then stopped for the animals to eat, and for us to eat too. I put on gaiters, a second pair of nickerbockers and a over coat under my thick winter coat, rolled myself up in a blanket and a cape and went to sleep, all the men following my example, rolled up in their long cloaks. The cold and the bright moon woke me at midnight and I roused all my people (with some difficulty!) and at 1 we were off. Again, you see, we had to reach water as soon as possible after the sun so that the animals might not suffer too much from thirst. We went on and on; the dawn came and the sun rose - the evening and the morning of the second day, but I seemed to have been riding since the beginning of time. At sunrise, far away in the distance, on top of one of group of low hills, I saw the castle of Palmyra. We were still 5 hours away. They were long hours. The further we went, the further the hill retreated. The wide plain gradually narrowed and we approached the N Bellt of hills, rocky and broken and waterless. It's a fine approach, the hills forming a kind of gigantic avenue with a low range at the end behind which Palmyra stands and the flat desert, very sandy here, running up to them. My horse was very tired and I was half dazed with sleep. I did sleep as we crossed the col leading over the Palmyra hills and dreamt that I was talking to one in a long white robe. I said "Where did Soloman imprison the Jinns?" To which he replied "In infinity of Time and infinity of Space" and with that he went to a corner of the room in which we were standing and took from a shelf two little glass bottles, like tear bottles. He held them out to me and said "One of these contains Infinity of Time and the other Infinity of Space." I was pondering this remark when my horse stopped and woke me to the realization that if I didn't contrive to remain awake not all the Infinity of Time contained in the glass bottle would get me to Palmyra. When I thought of my dream, it seemed most suitable to the occasion. The Queen of Sheba must have asked just that kind of question when she came to visit Soloman here, as according, to Arab tradition, she did. As we drew near Palmyra, the hills were covered with the strangest buildings, great stone towers, 4 stories [sic] high, some more ruined and some less, standing together in groups or bordering the road. They are the famous Palmyrene tower tombs. At length we stood on the end of the col and looked over Palmyra. I wonder if the wide world presents a more singular landscape. It is a mass of columns, ranged into long avenues, grouped into temples, lying broken on the sand or pointing one long solitary finger to Heaven. Beyond them is the immense Temple of Baal; the modern town is built inside it and its rows of columns rise out of a mass of mud roofs. And beyond, all is the desert, sand and white stretches of salt and sand again, with the dust clouds whirling over it and the Euphrates 5 days away. It looks like the white skeleton of a town, standing knee deep in the blown sand. We rode down to one of the two springs to which it owes its existence, a plentiful supply of the clearest water, but so much impregnated with sulphur that the whole world round it smells of sulphur. The horses drank eagerly however and we went on down a line of columns to the second spring which is much purer though it, too, tastes stongly of sulphur. If you let it stand for 12 hours the taste almost goes away, but it remains flat and disagreeable and I add some lemon juice to it before I drink it. It's very clean which is a blessing. We pitched our tents by a charming temple in the very middle of the ruins - it was 10.30 before the mules came up, we having got in at 10. I was too sleepy to be very hungry, but someone bought a big bowl of milk and I eat some bread and dibis, while the brother of the Sheikh talked to me and the howling wind scattered the sand over us. There seems to be always a wind here; it was such a hurricane in the afternoon and evening that I thought my tent would go, but it held fine. What with one thing and another it was 11.30 before I could retire and wash and go to bed and then I slept most blissfully for a couple of hours. After which I had tea and received all the worthies of the town - the Mudir is an old Turk who talks much less Arabic than I do - and when I had sent them away happy I walked out and down the Street of Columns into the Temple of the Sun - the town, I should say, for it is nearly all included within its enormous outer walls. A few suburbs extend outside and lots of gardens with fruit trees and date palms in them, but the wind is so strong that the fruit mostly blows off before it has time to ripen. The stone used here is a beautiful white limestone that looks like marble and weathers a golden yellow like the Acropolis. The net result of our journey is that we marched 27 hours out of 41 and that I'm looking forward to sleeping in a bed instead of a saddle and to having a full complement of meals tomorrow. But it's been an interesting experience and my men and beasts have all exhibited patience and endurance.



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