Gertrude Bell: The Desert and the Sown

November 16, 2015

51aesYOaEwL._AA160_This is a reprint of a travel journal published well over a century ago, part of Virago press efforts to bring back into print the long-lost writings of women writers. It’s not a wonderful effort: the reproduction of the text is like a rather poor photocopy, and the replacement map is very poor, showing merely a linear route and some of the placenames. But the hundreds of original monochrome photographs have all been reproduced, and many of them are wonderful; I suspect many of them are of places that no longer exist.

As a travel journal it’s a bit bald and mechanical: certainly it’s less interesting than Bell’s diaries. But she travels though wonderful territory, from Jerusalem to Antioch, via Amman, Damascus, Homs, Aleppo and lots of other marvellous places; ancient places abound, sites from the earliest years of Christianity as it spread through the Middle East, before being swept away with the spread of Islam from the seventh century onwards.

There’s a certain amount of overlap with the territory covered by William Dalrymple in From The Holy Mountain, which I read earlier this year, and the mental comparison is interesting. He’s far more interested in the people he encounters on the way and questions them, and he provides a good deal of necessary contextual background, too; he’s also travelling in far more perilous times, both for himself and for the remaining Christians in those lands. Bell is writing during the final, relatively impotent years of Ottoman power in the region, before the First World War, and the subsequent Anglo-French carving up of the area, leaving consequences which are still with us today…

Syria comes across as a sleepy, peaceful and welcoming country, full of crumbling Roman towns and Christian churches; there is tension evident between various confessional groups, but no sign of the horrors to come.

This book also underlined for me something which has gradually been becoming clearer to me as I travel and read: the difference between this small and overcrowded country where I live, where space is precious and any building no longer needed or in use is demolished, removed, replaced, and other, more spacious nations where such buildings are merely left, abandoned; they crumble, maybe stones are taken and re-used elsewhere or maybe not, they remain as reminders of the past.

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