Letters

13 May 1905

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

[13 May 1905] Binbirklisse. May 13 My dearest Father. If you had read (and who knows? perhaps you have!) the latest, the very latest, German archaeology books you would be wild with excitement at seeing where I am. Only tell Ambrose and see the electrical effect it produces on him. But I must begin at the beginning and tell you about Konia [Konya (Iconium)]. I stayed 4 days (I'm going back when I've finished this little tour) and enjoyed myself wonderfully. First my friend the German consul (name of Loytved) is extremely intelligent and his little wife very agreeable. The day after I arrived he took me out to see a Greek village in the hills about an hour from Konia, where he said there was a church that he thought might be interesting. It was exceedingly interesting, with a tradition to the effect that it had been founded by the Empress Helena and judging from its architecture I should think the tradition is correct. There was a rock cut church in the same village as old if not older, but as it was Sunday and prayers were going on I could not map them, so I came back next day and spent a busy morning over them. It was a carpet making village and after we had finished our sightseeing, Loytved and I went and had jam and water with a delightful Greek family and inspected their carpets on the looms and were waited on by the prettiest of Greek girls. Next day when I went back the old priest told me of another church in a second Greek village and I spent another morning mapping it, for it was just as interesting as the first. These villages have, I should think, been Christian since the days of St Paul and the Greek population in them is no doubt descended from Greek settlements before the Christian age. When you consider what cataclisms people and religion have suffered and not been wiped out, through how many hands they have passed and how many dispensations they have witnessed, you will admit that their existence is very remarkable. Besides all this, I spent a great many hours photographing and admiring in Konia. It contains 4 or 5 Seljuk mosques which, in their way, are as beautiful as any architecture can be. The domes and the mihrabs are a glory of priceless tiles, the windows and the gateways a miracle of delicate carving. All are falling into ruin - have long since fallen - for the Ottoman govt. is just as indifferent to Muslim traditions as it is to Greek, Roman or Christian. Impartially indifferent to all alike. But I found learned men in the mosques and medressehs who made shift to talk with me in Arabic and I enjoyed my hours among these beautiful ghosts of the glory of Islam. My best friend is a dancing dervish. Konia contains the mother house of the Dervishes and the founder of the order, JelÖl ed Din Rumi the great Persian is buried there. My visit to his tomb was a real pilgrimage for I know some of his poems and there are things in them that are not to be surpassed. He lies under a dome tiled with blue, bluer than heaven or the sea, and adorned inside with rich and sombre Persian enamel and lacquer, and on either side of him are rows and rows of the graves of the chelebis, the Dervish high priests and his direct descendants - all the chelebis who have been since his day, and over each is the high felt hat of the order with a white turban wrapped round it. Beyond the tomb are two great dancing halls with polished floors and the whole is enclosed in a peaceful garden, fountains and flowers set round with the monastic cells of the order. So he lies, Jelal ed Din Rumi, and to my mind the whole quiet air was full of the music of his verses: "Ah listen to the reed as it tells its tale: Listen, ah listen, to the plaint of the reed. 'They reft me from the rushes of my home, my voice is sad with longing, sad and low!'" (But the Persian is the very pipe, the plaintive pipe of the reed, put into words and there is nothing that so invades the soul.) I dined or lunched with Loytveds daily, and he, like the intelligent kind little man he is, invited selections of banished Pashas daily to meet me. The result was some most interesting talks, for the best intelligence of Turkey is in exile and being in exile it speaks out. I will not write, but some day I will tell you, some curious tales. I have now an enormous circle of acquaintances in Konia and I spent my last afternoon there sitting in the Ottoman Bank (which is a sort of social centre for all Konia) and receiving the town. It was almost like Damascus [Dimashq (Esh Sham, Damas)] over again! Another item in my enjoyment is that the hotel is quite excellent, the best in Asia upon my honour! and kept by a delightful French couple who put themselves in fever[?] for me. And - my clothes arrived from Smyrna [Izmir]! If you had roughed it for 4 months with 2 tiny mule trunks you would realize what that meant. All things are by comparison and one evening when I put on a skirt that originally came from Paris, I felt almost too smart to move. I sent my horses on 3 stations down the line and next day took train myself with my camp furniture and some food and Fattuh. We joined the horses on a blazing hot morning, packed our single load onto a hired beast and set off across the plain to Binbirklisse. Its name means the thousand and one churches and the learned have tried to identify it with the classic Barata, but as even the learned know nothing of Barata but the name, it doesn't seem to me to matter much whether the identification is correct or no. It lies at the foot of the Kara Dagh [Kara Dag], a great isolated mountain rising abruptly out of the plain and whatever it was in classic times, it must have been a very important early Christian city for it is full of churches dating back, Strzygowski thinks, to pre Constantinian times. There is a lower town down at the foot of the hills and an upper town about an hour from it on a shoulder of mountain, and Fate and my zaptieh ordered by good luck that our road should lead us to the upper town first. I fell in love with it at once and indeed it is enchanting, a mass of beautiful ruins gathered together in a little rocky cup high up in the hills - with Asia Minor at its feet. We arrived at midday and I established myself in a ruined church to lunch and then the brilliant idea seized me that I would make my headquarters up in the hills and not at Maden Sheher which is the real Binbirklisse down in the plain. I had no tents with me and it was necessary to find out whether there was a possible place to sleep. The village consists of some 15 Yuruk families who have built themselves shanties out of the ruins, but it is Turkish custom that every village however small shall contain a guest room for travellers and we went off to inspect. Yes, of course, said the Sheikh of the village, there was an "oda" in his own house and I was most welcome to it. As soon as I saw it I knew that my best dreams were fulfilled. It was a little bare mud built room, with the name of God scratched up on the walls and before the door a platform looking out over the great plain and the slopes of Kara Dagh. I turned out the felts and mats in it, put in my own furniture and it has proved ideal. It has had the further advantage that while the lower town has been thoroughly mapped, the upper was almost untouched and I have had the pleasure of doing it myself. The first day I rode down to Maden Sheher and spent the day there, photographing and learning from Strzygowski's book what was the nature of the architecture here. The churches were most interesting, but the place horrid, intolerably hot and with execrable water, so that it was a real delight to come back to my mountain and my beautiful spring in the evening. I have had 2´ days' of hard work (we have got to the 14th today by the way) and it has been quite enchanting. This was a fortress city of churches and monasteries. There are 2 large and very important groups of monastic buildings, most exciting in detail, both of which I have photographed and planned. There are further 10 churches, big and little, only one of which has been published as yet, and various forms of tombs and private houses which I have duly noted. It has been most fascinating to work through a whole town and find the same architectureal features recurring or being slightly modified by the originality of the builder. The place is very little, the biggest church is not 80 ft long and the smallest is a little chapel not more than 30, but all are interesting in plan and arrangement and the work is always pretty good. And then it has been very amusing to be for 4 days a Turkish villager. It gives me great pleasure when I come in to tea to find my friend and host, the sheikh, saying his afternoon prayers on a felt mat spread out at his door (he has got his orientation wrong; he prays looking west which can't possibly be the direction of Mecca [Makkah], but I daresay it's all one) and the women weaving coarse cloth in the shadow of the wall and the men driving their wooden ploughs through the stones that are the arable land of the village. Everyone takes me as a matter of course but the dogs who still bark furiously wherever I pass. (They are beasts.) And then my house is so nice with its mud walls and the name of God written up on them: Allah Allah. And my servants are so charming. I have one muleteer (one of those I brought from Adana [(Seyhan, Ataniya)]) who is deeply indebted to me because I saved him from a very serious predicament into which his villainous master, my head muleteer had thrown him. My zaptieh is the most comic figure that ever stepped out of the Turkish army. He has travelled with a European before and learnt all the niceties of our civilization. He addresses me as Mademoiselle Khanum, blacks his boots twice daily, combs his moustache as often (for he is a bit of a dandy) and employs his time while I am puzzling over some difficult bit of wall preparatory to measuring it, in smoking cigarettes and killing snakes. And then Fattuh, bless him! the best servant I have ever had, ready to cook my dinner or pack a mule or dig out an inscription with equal alacrity - the dinner is what he does least well - and to tell me endless tales of travel as we ride, for he began life as a muleteer at the age of ten and knows every inch of ground from Aleppo [Halab] to Van and Baghdad. This morning I ascended Kara Dagh - on horseback! It's a huge volcano the crater of which is about half a mile across, a ring of rocky peaks round the lip of it and the great plain stretching away to snow ranges beyond. There were patches of snow still on Kara Dagh with crocuses on the edges of them, and there were snowdrops in the oak scrub of the higher slopes, and a whole hill side of orange red tulips lower down and the most beautiful frittillary in the world, a bright deep yellow with brown spots. So you see it has made a delightful end to my travels, Binbirklisse. I do regret that I must go down tomorrow, but my work is finished and we have eaten up all our food. Today we succeeded in buying a hen from the Sheikh - there are only 4 in the whole village and I thought it rather greedy of me to eat one of them, but Fattuh said stoutly that they would have 3 left and that was enough. The hen thought otherwise. It took sanctuary in every ruined church in turn and was finally run to earth in a tomb where Fattuh shot it with my gun! It was full of shot in consequence - I might almost have been eating a pheasant. It's been blazing hot and as I have worked on straight through the day, from 7 in the morning till 6 at night, I have realized what sun can be like; but there has always been a little air on my mountain top and the nights are cool. The camels are coming home - it must be dinner time.



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