1909: Letter, dated May 20, from Gertrude Bell
Wed May 20. [20 May 1909] We had a tremendous day yesterday, not very profitable archaeologically but unforgettable in itself. We set off with a guide from Sare at 6 in the morning and rode for 2 hours and more through oak woods, up and down valleys entirely and absolutely desolate by narrow little rocky paths. And at last we came to a hill top from which we saw in front of us, across a deep valley, the great castle of Hatem Tai which commands the gorge leading up from the Mesopotamian plain. There was no road to it unless we went miles round, which I was determined not to do, so we struggled down the hillside, the horses hopping as best they might over rocks and trees, and got to the foot of the castle hill without mishap. I climbed up with my guide; it was a splendid place, with 2 lines of wall and a citadel on top of all, Byzantine, I should think, in the beginning - one of the outposts of the empire - and then probably a Yezidi stronghold. We came down into a troglodyte Yezidi village where the people gave us bread and sour curds and were very anxious, when they heard I had visited Ali Beg, to kill a sheep for me. And now came a grave disillusion: there was no road through the hills to the place to which I had sent my camp and if we wanted to get there we had to go down into Mesopotamia and up again by another pass. The country is unmapped and in mountains who can tell what difficulties may lie ahead. There was nothing else for it, so we set off at 10.30 and toiled down the rocky valley into the plain and then for hours across the low ground, until at last I made out which was the pass we were heading for and turned up over the pathless foothills towards it, to the great disgust of my soldier and my guide. This determination was justified by the events, there was nothing impassible between us and the gorge and at 5.30 we found ourselves at the foot of another great crag-built castle guarding the second pass. There was no time to climb up to [it], for Heaven alone knew how far the winding mountain paths might yet take us; it remains for me a vision of tower and wall and preciptious rock lifting itself up into the sunlight above a dark gorge full of shadow - a citadel more stern and menacing that any I have ever seen. So we climbed up and up, walking now for our poor horses had done about as much as they could, and a little before 7 we found ourselves once more at the top of the hills, but a long way still from our camp. I left the men to bring the horses along and plunged down through the silent oak woods, on and on through shallow winding valleys where there was never a soul to be seen, and just as I was beginning to feel that I must be walking in a dream, and that nothing would ever put an end to the oak woods and the winding rocky path, the valley opened and there was my camp. I got in at 7.30. But it is bewitched this country; today we rode for 2 hours through the oak woods and found ourselves in the 4th century AD. Just over the lip of the rocky hills, with all Mesopotamia spread out before it, lies the mother monastery of all this country - it was founded by St Eugenius who was a disciple of St Anthony, and the rule he instituted holds good to this day. I have never yet seen one of the earliest monasteries still inhabited. There are 10 monks who live in caves hollowed out of the rock; they eat nothing but bread and lentils and oil and some may see no women, so that they had to lock themselves up in their caves while I was planning the church. The prior made a special exception for me (since, as he explained, very few travellers came that way); not only did he show me all over the monastery and climb with me into the cave-cell of St Eugenius, but he prepared me a lunch of omelet, lentils and raisins (the monastery kitchen is a big cave) and served it for me in his own cell, which is also a cave. High up in the rock, almost unapproachable except by a very athletic climber, lives an old bishop. He has taken a vow of silence, his food is hoisted up by him once a day in a basket, and when his last mortal sickness comes upon him he will send down word (in the basket) that he is about to die and they may come up to fetch his body. The prior was a young man of about 30; he proposes to spend the rest of his life in the monastery and in due time I suppose that he in turn will mount to the bishop's cave. They say the church is 4th century; the greater part of it certainly can't be later than 6th century, I judge, and I don't doubt that the cell of St Eugenius is authentic; so here you have the earliest hermit ideal of monasticism going on uninterrupted and unchanged until today. Half an hour away across the hills is another monastery founded by a disciple of St Eugenius, not quite so interesting, but still very wonderful. Like the first it lay on the steep mountain side, the walls climbing up almost to the top of the hills. There was a bishop here too - they seem to be plentiful - but though he is not quite so exclusive as the other bishop he was too exclusive to wish to see me. Perhaps you wonder why a monk from Egypt should have come so far. I know why: it was because Iris Sasiana grows wild among the rocks. The great grey flowers lift themselves up in masses in the open spaces between the oak bushes, gleaming silver in the strong sun, so perfect in form and so exquisitely delicate in texture that you hold your breath in wonder. I looked at them, too, with despair, for they won't throw up one littlest flower on our rock garden, do what I will. I shall have to come and live here in a cave every spring.
1900-1999 A.D. Assyrian History Archives