Come, Tell Me How You Live: An Archaeological Memoir
AGATHA CHRISTIE MALLOWAN
Come, Tell Me How You Live
With an Introduction
by Jacquetta Hawkes
Published by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd
1 London Bridge Street
London SE1 9GF
First published in Great Britain by
William Collins Sons & Co Ltd 1946
Copyright © Agatha Christie Mallowan 1946
Agatha Christie® copyright © Agatha Christie Limited. All rights reserved.
A catalogue record of this book is available from the British Library.
Cover photograph© Christie Archive Trust 2015
Cover design © HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 2015
Agatha Christie asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library.
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins.
Source ISBN: 9780008129460
Ebook Edition © July 2015 ISBN: 9780007487202
To my husband, Max Mallowan; to the Colonel, Bumps, Mac and Guilford, this meandering chronicle is affectionately dedicated
There are books that one reads with a persistent inner smile which from time to time becomes visible and occasionally audible. Come, Tell Me How You Live is one of them, and to read it is pure pleasure.
It was in 1930 that a happy chance had brought a young archaeologist, Max Mallowan, together with Agatha Christie, then already a well-known author. Visiting Baghdad, she had met Leonard and Katharine Woolley and accepted their invitation to stay with them at Ur where they had been digging for several seasons. Max, their assistant, was charged to escort Agatha homeward, sight-seeing on the way. Thus agreeably thrown together they were to be married before the end of the year and so to enter their long and extraordinarily creative union.
Agatha did not see her own renown as any bar to sharing in her husband’s work. From the first she took a full part in every one of Max’s excavations in Syria and Iraq, enduring discomforts and finding comedy in all such disasters as an archaeologist is heir to. Inevitably her personal acquaintance, who knew nothing of the mysteries of digging in foreign lands, asked her what this strange life was like—and she determined to answer their questions in a light-hearted book.
Agatha began Come, Tell Me How You Live before the war, and although she was to lay it aside during four years of war-work, in both spirit and content it belongs to the thirties. Like the balanced, bien élevée bourgeoise that she was, she did not think the tragedies of human existence more significant than its comedies and delights. Nor at that time was archaeology in the Middle East weighed down with science and laborious technique. It was a world where one mounted a Pullman at Victoria in a ‘big snorting, hurrying, companionable train, with its big, puffing engine’, was waved away by crowds of relatives, at Calais caught the Orient Express to Istanbul, and so arrived at last in a Syria where good order, good food and generous permits for digging were provided by the French. Moreover, it was a world where Agatha could make fun of the Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Turks and Yezidi devil-worshippers who worked on the excavations as freely as she could of Oxford scholars, of her husband and herself.
The author calls her book, ‘small beer… full of everyday doings and happenings’ and an ‘inconsequent chronicle’. In fact it is most deftly knit together, making a seamless fabric of five varied seasons in the field. These began late in 1934 with a survey of the ancient city mounds, or tells, studding the banks of the Habur in northern Syria—its purpose being to select the most promising for excavation.
Max showed his sound judgement in choosing Chagar Bazar and Tell Brak out of the fifty Come, Tell Me How You Live examined, for both, when excavated during the four following seasons, added vastly to our knowledge of early Mesopotamia. Agatha, on her side, showed characteristic discipline by denying herself all archaeological particularities in her book, so preserving its lightness and consistency.
In the primitive and culture-clashing conditions of the time and place ‘everyday doings and happenings’ were sufficiently extraordinary to occupy the reader: men and machines were equally liable to give trouble, and so, too, did mice, bats, spiders, fleas and the stealthy carriers of what was then called Gippy tummy. Not only is episode after episode most amusingly told, but there emerges from the telling some excellent characterisation. If Agatha Christie the detective writer can be said to have taken characters out of a box, here in a few pages she shows how deftly she could bring individuals to life.
One interesting subject which the author, in her modesty, has not sufficiently emphasized is the very considerable part she played in the practical work of the expeditions. She mentions in passing her struggles to produce photographs without a darkroom and her labelling of finds, but that is not enough. When, later, I was fortunate enough to spend a week with the Mallowans at Nimrud, near Mosul, I was surprised how much she did in addition to securing domestic order and good food. At the beginning of each season she would retire to her own little room to write, but as soon as the pressure of work on the dig had mounted she shut the door on her profession and devoted herself to antiquity. She rose early to go the rounds with Max, catalogued and labelled, and on this occasion busied herself with the preliminary cleaning of the exquisite ivories which were coming from Fort Shalmaneser. I have a vivid picture of her confronting one of these carvings, with her dusting brush poised and head tilted, smiling quizzically at the results of her handiwork.
This remembered moment adds to my conviction that although she gave so much time to it, Agatha Christie remained inwardly detached from archaeology. She relished the archaeological life in remote country and made good use of its experiences in her own work. She had a sound knowledge of the subject, yet remained outside it, a happily amused onlooker.
That Agatha could find intense enjoyment from the wild Mesopotamian countryside and its peoples emerges from many of the pages of Come, Tell Me How You Live. There is, for one instance, her account of the picnic when she and Max sat among flowers on the lip of a little volcano. ‘The utter peace is wonderful. A great wave of happiness surges over me, and I realize how much I love this country, and how complete and satisfying this life is…’ So, in her short Epilogue looking back across the war years to recall the best memories of the Habur she declares: ‘Writing this simple record has not been a task, but a labour of love.’ This is evidently true, for some radiance lights all those everyday doings however painful or absurd. It is a quality which explains why, as I said at the beginning, this book is a pure pleasure to read.
A-SITTING ON A TELL
(With apologies to Lewis Carroll)
I’ll tell you everything I can
If you will listen well:
I met an erudite young man
A-sitting on a Tell.
‘Who are you, sir?’ to him I said,
‘For what is it you look?’
His answer trickled through my head
Like bloodstains in a book.
He said: ‘I look for aged pots
Of prehistoric days,
And then I measure them in lots
And lots of different ways.
And then (like you) I start to write,
My words are twice as long
As yours, and far more erudite.
They prove my colleagues wrong!’
But I was thinking of a plan
To kill a millionaire
And hide the body in a van
Or some large Frigidaire.
So, having no reply to give,
And feeling rather shy,
I cried: ‘Come, tell me how you live!
And when, and where, and why?’
His accents mild were full of wit:
‘Five thousand years ago
Is really, when I think of it,
The choicest Age I know.
And once you learn to scorn A.D.
And you have got the knack,
Then you could come and dig with me
And never wander back.’
But I was thinking how to thrust
Some arsenic into tea,
And could not all at once adjust
My mind so far B.C.
I looked at him and softly sighed,
His face was pleasant too…
‘Come, tell me how you live?’ I cried,
‘And what it is you do?’
He said: ‘I hunt for objects made
By men where’er they roam,
I photograph and catalogue
And pack and send them home.
These things we do not sell for gold
(Nor yet, indeed, for copper!),
But place them on Museum shelves
As only right and proper.
‘I sometimes dig up amulets
And figurines most lewd,
For in those prehistoric days
They were extremely rude!
And that’s the way we take our fun,
’Tis not the way of wealth.
But archaeologists live long
And have the rudest health.’
I heard him then, for I had just
Completed a design
To keep a body free from dust
By boiling it in brine.
I thanked him much for telling me
With so much erudition,
And said that I would go with him
Upon an Expedition…
And now, if e’er by chance I dip
My fingers into acid,
Or smash some pottery (with slip!)
Because I am not placid,
Or if I see a river flow
And hear a far-off yell,
I sigh, for it reminds me so
Of that young man I learned to know—
Whose look was mild, whose speech was slow,
Whose thoughts were in the long ago,
Whose pockets sagged with potsherds so,
Who lectured learnedly and low,
Who used long words I didn’t know,
Whose eyes, with fervour all a-glow,
Upon the ground looked to and fro,
Who sought conclusively to show
That there were things I ought to know
And that with him I ought to go
And dig upon a Tell!
This book is an answer. It is the answer to a question that is asked me very often.
‘So you dig in Syria, do you? Do tell me all about it. How do you live? In a tent?’ etc., etc.
Most people, probably, do not want to know. It is just the small change of conversation. But there are, now and then, one or two people who are really interested.
It is the question, too, that Archaeology asks of the Past—Come, tell me how you lived?
And with picks and spades and baskets we find the answer.
‘These were our cooking pots.’ ‘In this big silo we kept our grain.’ ‘With these bone needles we sewed our clothes.’ ‘These were our houses, this our bathroom, here our system of sanitation!’ ‘Here, in this pot, are the gold earrings of my daughter’s dowry.’ ‘Here, in this little jar, is my make-up.’ ‘All these cook-pots are of a very common type. You’ll find them by the hundred. We get them from the Potter at the corner. Woolworth’s, did you say? Is that what you call him in your time?’
Occasionally there is a Royal Palace, sometimes a Temple, much more rarely a Royal burial. These things are spectacular. They appear in newspapers in headlines, are lectured about, shown on screens, everybody hears of them! Yet I think to one engaged in digging, the real interest is in the everyday life—the life of the potter, the farmer, the tool-maker, the expert cutter of animal seals and amulets—in fact, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker.
A final warning, so that there will be no disappointment. This is not a profound book—it will give you no interesting sidelights on archaeology, there will be no beautiful descriptions of scenery, no treating of economic problems, no racial reflections, no history.
It is, in fact, small beer—a very little book, full of everyday doings and happenings.
AGATHA CHRISTIE MALLOWAN
In a few weeks’ time we are starting for Syria!
Shopping for a hot climate in autumn or winter presents certain difficulties. One’s last year’s summer clothes, which one has optimistically hoped will ‘do’, do not ‘do’ now the time has come. For one thing they appear to be (like the depressing annotations in furniture removers’ lists) ‘Bruised, Scratched and Marked’. (And also Shrunk, Faded and Peculiar!) For another—alas, alas that one has to say it!—they are too tight everywhere.
So—to the shops and the stores, and:
‘Of course, Modom, we are not being asked for that kind of thing just now! We have some very charming little suits here—O.S. in the darker colours.’
Oh, loathsome O.S.! How humiliating to be O.S.! How even more humiliating to be recognized at once as O.S.!
(Although there are better days when, wrapped in a lean long black coat with a large fur collar, a saleswoman says cheeringly:
‘But surely Modom is only a Full Woman?’)
I look at the little suits, with their dabs of unexpected fur and their pleated skirts. I explain sadly that what I want is a washing silk or cotton.
‘Modom might try Our Cruising Department.’
Modom tries Our Cruising Department—but without any exaggerated hopes. Cruising is still enveloped in the realms of romantic fancy. It has a touch of Arcady about it. It is girls who go cruising—girls who are slim and young and wear uncrushable linen trousers, immensely wide round the feet and skintight round the hips. It is girls who sport delightfully in Play Suits. It is girls for whom Shorts of eighteen different varieties are kept!
The lovely creature in charge of Our Cruising Department is barely sympathetic.
‘Oh, no, Modom, we do not keep out-sizes.’ (Faint horror! Outsizes and Cruising? Where is the romance there?)
‘It would hardly be suitable, would it?’
I agree sadly that it would not be suitable.
There is still one hope. There is Our Tropical Department.
Our Tropical Department consists principally of Topees—Brown Topees, White Topees; Special Patent Topees. A little to one side, as being slightly frivolous, are Double Terais, blossoming in pinks and blues and yellows like blooms of strange tropical flowers. There is also an immense wooden horse and an assortment of jodhpurs.
But—yes—there are other things. Here is suitable wear for the wives of Empire Builders. Shantung! Plainly cut shantung coats and skirts—no girlish nonsense here—bulk is accommodated as well as scragginess! I depart into a cubicle with various styles and sizes. A few minutes later I am transformed into a memsahib!
I have certain qualms—but stifle them. After all, it is cool and practical and I can get into it.
I turn my attention to the selection of the right kind of hat. The right kind of hat not existing in these days, I have to have it made for me. This is not so easy as it sounds.
What I want, and what I mean to have, and what I shall almost certainly not get, is a felt hat of reasonable proportions that will fit on my head. It is the kind of hat that was worn some twenty years ago for taking the dogs for a walk or playing a round of golf. Now, alas, there are only the Things one attaches to one’s head—over one eye, one ear, on the nape of one’s neck—as the fashion of the moment dictates—or the Double Terai, measuring at least a yard across.
I explain that I want a hat with a crown like a Double Terai and about a quarter of its brim.
‘But they are made wide to protect fully from the sun, Modom.’
‘Yes, but where I am going there is nearly always a terrific wind, and a hat with a brim won’t stay on one’s head for a minute.’
‘We could put Modom on an elastic.’
‘I want a hat with a brim no larger than this that I’ve got on.’
‘Of course, Modom, with a shallow crown that would look quite well.’
‘Not a shallow crown! The hat has got To Keep On!’
Victory! We select the colour—one of those new shades with the pretty names: Dirt, Rust, Mud, Pavement, Dust, etc.
A few minor purchases—purchases that I know instinctively will either be useless or land me in trouble. A Zip travelling bag, for instance. Life nowadays is dominated and complicated by the remorseless Zip. Blouses zip up, skirts zip down, ski-ing suits zip everywhere. ‘Little frocks’ have perfectly unnecessary bits of zipping on them just for fun.
Why? Is there anything more deadly than a Zip that turns nasty on you? It involves you in a far worse predicament than any ordinary button, clip, snap, buckle or hook and eye.
In the early days of Zips, my mother, thrilled by this delicious novelty, had a pair of corsets fashioned for her which zipped up the front. The results were unfortunate in the extreme! Not only was the original zipping-up fraught with extreme agony, but the corsets then obstinately refused to de-zip! Their removal was practically a surgical operation! And owing to my mother’s delightful Victorian modesty, it seemed possible for a while that she would live in these corsets for the remainder of her life—a kind of modern Woman in the Iron Corset!
I have therefore always regarded the Zip with a wary eye. But it appears that all travelling bags have Zips.
‘The old-fashioned fastening is quite superseded, Modom,’ says the salesman, regarding me with a pitying look.
‘This, you see, is so simple,’ he says, demonstrating.
There is no doubt about its simplicity—but then, I think to myself, the bag is empty.
‘Well,’ I say, sighing, ‘one must move with the times.’
With some misgivings I buy the bag.
I am now the proud possessor of a Zip travelling bag, an Empire Builder’s Wife’s coat and skirt, and a possibly satisfactory hat.
There is still much to be done.
I pass to the Stationery Department. I buy several fountain and stylographic pens—it being my experience that, though a fountain pen in England behaves in an exemplary manner, the moment it is let loose in desert surroundings it perceives that it is at liberty to go on strike and behaves accordingly, either spouting ink indiscriminately over me, my clothes, my notebook and anything else handy, or else coyly refusing to do anything but scratch invisibly across the surface of the paper. I also buy a modest two pencils. Pencils are, fortunately, not temperamental, and though given to a knack of quiet disappearance, I have always a resource at hand. After all, what is the use of an architect if not to borrow pencils from?
Four wrist-watches is the next purchase. The desert is not kind to watches. After a few weeks there, one’s watch gives up steady everyday work. Time, it says, is only a mode of thought. It then takes its choice between stopping eight or nine times a day for periods of twenty minutes, or of racing indiscriminately ahead. Sometimes it alternates coyly between the two. It finally stops altogether. One then goes on to wrist-watch No. 2, and so on. There is also a purchase of two four and six watches in readiness for that moment when my husband will say to me: ‘Just lend me a watch to give to the foreman, will you?’
Our Arab foremen, excellent though they are, have what might be described as a heavy hand with any kind of timepiece. Telling the time, anyway, calls for a good deal of mental strain on their part. They can be seen holding a large round moon-faced watch earnestly upside down, and gazing at it with really painful concentration while they get the answer wrong! Their winding of these treasures is energetic and so thorough that few mainsprings can stand up to the strain!
It therefore happens that by the end of the season the watches of the expedition staff have been sacrificed one by one. My two four and six watches are a means of putting off the evil day.
There are several schools of thought as to packing. There are the people who begin packing at anything from a week or a fortnight beforehand. There are the people who throw a few things together half an hour before departure. There are the careful packers, insatiable for tissue paper! There are those who scorn tissue paper and just throw the things in and hope for the best! There are the packers who leave practically everything that they want behind! And there are the packers who take immense quantities of things that they never will need!
One thing can safely be said about an archaeological packing. It consists mainly of books. What books to take, what books can be taken, what books there are room for, what books can (with agony!) be left behind. I am firmly convinced that all archaeologists pack in the following manner: They decide on the maximum number of suitcases that a long-suffering Wagon Lit Company will permit them to take. They then fill these suitcases to the brim with books. They then, reluctantly, take out a few books, and fill in the space thus obtained with shirt, pyjamas, socks, etc.
Looking into Max’s room, I am under the impression that the whole cubic space is filled with books! Through a chink in the books I catch sight of Max’s worried face.
‘Do you think,’ he asks, ‘that I shall have room for all these?’
The answer is so obviously in the negative that it seems sheer cruelty to say it.
At four-thirty p.m. he arrives in my room and asks hopefully:
‘Any room in your suitcases?’
Long experience should have warned me to answer firmly ‘No,’ but I hesitate, and immediately doom falls upon me.
‘If you could just get one or two things—’
Max looks faintly surprised and says: ‘Of course books—what else?’
Advancing, he rams down two immense tomes on top of the Empire Builder’s Wife’s suit which has been lying smugly on top of a suitcase.
I utter a cry of protest, but too late.
‘Nonsense,’ says Max, ‘lots of room!’ And forces down the lid, which refuses spiritedly to shut.
‘It’s not really full even now,’ says Max optimistically.
He is, fortunately, diverted at this moment by a printed linen frock lying folded in another suitcase. ‘What’s that?’
I reply that it is a dress.
‘Interesting,’ says Max. ‘It’s got fertility motifs all down the front.’
One of the more uncomfortable things about being married to an archaeologist is their expert knowledge of the derivation of the most harmless-looking patterns!
At five-thirty Max casually remarks that he’d better go out and buy a few shirts and socks and things. He returns three-quarters of an hour later, indignant because the shops all shut at six. When I say they always do, he replies that he had never noticed it before.
Now, he says, he has nothing to do but ‘clear up his papers’.
At eleven p.m. I retire to bed, leaving Max at his desk (never to be tidied or dusted under the most dire penalties), up to the elbows in letters, bills, pamphlets, drawings of pots, innumerable potsherds, and various match-boxes, none of them containing matches, but instead odd beads of great antiquity.
At four a.m. he comes excitedly into the bedroom, cup of tea in hand, to announce that he has at last found that very interesting article on Anatolian finds which he had lost last July. He adds that he hopes that he hasn’t woken me up.
I say that of course he has woken me up, and he’d better get me a cup of tea too!
Returning with the tea, Max says he has also found a great many bills which he thought he had paid. I, too, have had that experience. We agree that it is depressing.
At nine a.m. I am called in as the heavy-weight to sit on Max’s bulging suitcases.
‘If you can’t make them shut,’ says Max ungallantly, ‘nobody can!’
The superhuman feat is finally accomplished by the aid of sheer avoirdupois, and I return to contend with my own difficulty, which is, as prophetic vision had told me it would be, the Zip bag. Empty in Mr Gooch’s shop, it had looked simple, attractive, and labour-saving. How merrily then had the Zip run to and fro! Now, full to the brim, the closing of it is a miracle of superhuman adjustment. The two edges have to be brought together with mathematical precision, and then, just as the Zip is travelling slowly across, complications set in, due to the corner of a sponge-bag. When at last it closes, I vow not to open it again until I get to Syria!
On reflection, however, this is hardly possible. What about the aforementioned sponge-bag? Am I to travel for five days unwashed? At the moment even that seems preferable to unzipping the Zip bag!
Yes, now the moment has come and we are really off. Quantities of important things have been left undone: the Laundry, as usual, has let us down; the Cleaners, to Max’s chagrin, have not kept their promises—but what does anything matter? We are going!
Just for a moment or two it looks as though we aren’t going! Max’s suitcases, delusive in appearance, are beyond the powers of the taximan to lift. He and Max struggle with them, and finally, with the assistance of a passer-by, they are hoisted on to the taxi.
We drive off for Victoria.
Dear Victoria—gateway to the world beyond England—how I love your continental platform. And how I love trains, anyway! Snuffing up the sulphurous smell ecstatically—so different from the faint, aloof, distantly oily smell of a boat, which always depresses my spirits with its prophecy of nauseous days to come. But a train—a big snorting, hurrying, companionable train, with its big puffing engine, sending up clouds of steam, and seeming to say impatiently: ‘I’ve got to be off, I’ve got to be off, I’ve got to be off!’—is a friend! It shares your mood, for you, too, are saying: ‘I’m going to be off, I’m going, I’m going, I’m going…’
By the door of our Pullman, friends are waiting to see us off. The usual idiotic conversations take place. Famous last words pour from my lips—instructions about dogs, about children, about forwarding letters, about sending out books, about forgotten items, ‘and I think you’ll find it on the piano, but it may be on the bathroom shelf’. All the things that have been said before, and do not in the least need saying again!
Max is surrounded by his relations, I by mine.
My sister says tearfully that she has a feeling that she will never see me again. I am not very much impressed, because she has felt this every time I go to the East. And what, she asks, is she to do if Rosalind gets appendicitis? There seems no reason why my fourteen-year-old daughter should get appendicitis, and all I can think of to reply is: ‘Don’t operate on her yourself!’ For my sister has a great reputation for hasty action with her scissors, attacking impartially boils, haircutting, and dressmaking—usually, I must admit, with great success.
Max and I exchange relations, and my dear mother-in-law urges me to take great care of myself, implying that I am nobly going into great personal danger.
Whistles blow, and I have a last few frenzied words with my friend and secretary. Will she do all the things I have left undone, and upbraid suitably the Laundry and the Cleaners and give a good reference to the cook and send off those books I couldn’t pack, and get back my umbrella from Scotland Yard, and write appropriately to the clergy-man who has discovered forty-three grammatical errors in my last book, and go through the seed-list for the garden and cross off vegetable marrows and parsnips? Yes, she will do all those things, and if any crisis occurs in the Home or the Literary World she will cable me. It doesn’t matter, I say. She has a power of attorney. She can do anything she likes. She looks rather alarmed and says she shall be most careful. Another whistle! I say good-bye to my sister, and say wildly that I, too, feel I shall never see her again, and perhaps Rosalind will get appendicitis. Nonsense, says my sister; why should she? We climb into the Pullman, the train grunts and starts—we are OFF.
For about forty-five seconds I feel terrible, and then as Victoria Station is left behind, exultation springs up once more. We have begun the lovely, exciting journey to Syria.
There is something grand and stuck-up about a Pullman, though it is not nearly as comfortable as a corner of an ordinary first-class carriage. We always go by Pullman solely on account of Max’s suitcases, which an ordinary carriage would not tolerate. Having once had registered luggage go astray, Max takes no chances with his precious books.
We arrive at Dover, to find the sea moderately calm. Nevertheless, I retire to the Salon des Dames, and lie and meditate with the pessimism always induced in me by the motion of the waves. But we are soon at Calais, and the French steward produces a large blue-bloused man to deal with my luggage. ‘Madame will find him in the Douane,’ he says.
‘What is his number?’ I ask. The steward is immediately reproachful.
‘Madame! Mais c’est le charpentier du bateau!’
I become properly abashed—to reflect a few minutes later that that is not really an answer. Why, because he is the charpentier du bateau, does it make it any easier to pick him out from several hundred other blue-bloused men, all shouting: ‘Quatre-vingt treize?’ etc? His mere silence will not be sufficient identification. Moreover, does his being the charpentier du bateau enable him to pick out with unerring certainty one middle-aged Englishwoman from a whole crowd of middle-aged Englishwomen?
At this point in my reflections Max joins me, and says he has a porter for my luggage. I explain that the charpentier du bateau has taken mine, and Max asks why I let him. All the luggage should go together. I agree, but plead that my intellect is always weakened by sea-crossings. Max says: ‘Oh, well; we shall collect it all in the Douane.’ And we proceed to that inferno of yelling porters and to the inevitable encounter with the only type of really unpleasant Frenchwoman that exists—the Customs House Female; a being devoid of charm, of chic, of any feminine grace. She prods, she peers, she says, ‘Pas de cigarettes?’ unbelievingly, and finally, with a reluctant grunt, she scrawls the mystic hieroglyphics in chalk on our baggage, and we pass through the barrier and out on to the platform, and so to the Simplon Orient Express and the journey across Europe.
Many, many years ago, when going to the Riviera or to Paris, I used to be fascinated by the sight of the Orient Express at Calais and longed to be travelling by it. Now it has become an old familiar friend, but the thrill has never quite died down. I am going by it! I am in it! I am actually in the blue coach, with the simple legend outside: CALAIS–INSTANBUL. It is, undoubtedly, my favourite train. I like its tempo, which, starting Allegro con furore, swaying and rattling and hurling one from side to side in its mad haste to leave Calais and the Occident, gradually slows down in a rallentando as it proceeds eastwards till it becomes definitely legato.
In the early morning of the next day I let the blind up, and watch the dim shapes of the mountains in Switzerland, then the descent into the plains of Italy, passing by lovely Stresa and its blue lake. Then, later, into the smart station that is all we see of Venice and out again, and along by the sea to Trieste and so into Yugoslavia. The pace gets slower and slower, the stops are longer, the station clocks display conflicting times. H.E.O. is succeeded by C.E. The names of the stations are written in exciting and improbable-looking letters. The engines are fat and comfortable-looking, and belch forth a particularly black and evil smoke. Bills in the dining-cars are written out in perplexing currencies and bottles of strange mineral water appear. A small Frenchman who sits opposite us at table studies his bill in silence for some minutes, then he raises his head and catches Max’s eye. His voice, charged with emotion, rises plaintively: ‘Le change des Wagons Lits, c’est incroyable!’ Across the aisle a dark man with a hooked nose demands to be told the amount of his bill in (a) francs, (b) lire, (c) dinars, (d) Turkish pounds, (e) dollars. When this has been done by the long-suffering restaurant attendant, the traveller calculates silently and, evidently a master financial brain, produces the currency most advantageous to his pocket. By this method, he explains to us, he has saved fivepence in English money!
In the morning Turkish Customs officials appear on the train. They are leisurely, and deeply interested in our baggage. Why, they ask me, have I so many pairs of shoes? It is too many. But, I reply, I have no cigarettes, because I do not smoke, so why not a few more shoes? The douanier accepts the explanation. It appears to him reasonable. What, he asks, is the powder in this little tin?
It is bug powder, I say; but find that this is not understood. He frowns and looks suspicious. He is obviously suspecting me of being a drug-smuggler. It is not powder for the teeth, he says accusingly, nor for the face; for what, then? Vivid pantomime by me! I scratch myself realistically, I catch the interloper. I sprinkle the woodwork. Ah, all is understood! He throws back his head and roars with laughter, repeating a Turkish word. It is for them, the powder! He repeats the joke to a colleague. They pass on, enjoying it very much. The Wagon Lit conductor now appears to coach us. They will come with our passports to demand how much money we have, ‘effectif, vous comprenez?’ I love the word effectif—it is so exactly descriptive of actual cash in hand. ‘You will have,’ the conductor proceeds, ‘exactly so much effectif!’ He names the sum. Max objects that we have more than that. ‘It does not matter. To say so will cause you embarrassments. You will say you have the letter of credit or the travellers’ cheques and of effectif so much.’ He adds in explanation: ‘They do not mind, you comprehend, what you have, but the answer must be en règle. You will say—so much.’
Presently the gentleman in charge of the financial questions comes along. He writes down our answer before we actually say it. All is en règle. And now we are arriving at Stamboul, winding in and out through strange wooden slatted houses, with glimpses of heavy stone bastions and glimpses of sea at our right.
A maddening city, Stamboul—since when you are in it you can never see it! Only when you have left the European side and are crossing the Bosphorus to the Asian coast do you really see Stamboul. Very beautiful it is this morning—a clear, shining pale morning, with no mist, and the mosques with their minarets standing up against the sky.
‘La Sainte Sophie, it is very fine,’ says a French gentleman.
Everybody agrees, with the regrettable exception of myself. I, alas, have never admired Sainte Sophie! An unfortunate lapse of taste; but there it is. It has always seemed definitely to me the wrong size. Ashamed of my perverted ideas, I keep silent.
Now into the waiting train at Haidar Pacha, and, when at last the train starts, breakfast—a breakfast for which one is by now quite ravenous! Then a lovely day’s journey along the winding coast of the Sea of Marmora, with islands dotted about looking dim and lovely. I think for the hundredth time that I should like to own one of those islands. Strange, the desire for an island of one’s own! Most people suffer from it sooner or later. It symbolizes in one’s mind liberty, solitude, freedom from all cares. Yet actually, I suppose, it would mean not liberty but imprisonment. One’s housekeeping would probably depend entirely on the mainland. One would be continually writing long lists of grocery orders for the stores, arranging for meat and bread, doing all one’s housework, since few domestics would care to live on an island far from friends or cinemas, without even a bus communication with their fellow-kind. A South Sea island, I always imagined, would be different! There one would sit, idly eating the best kinds of fruit, dispensing with plates, knives, forks, washing up, and the problem of grease on the sink! Actually the only South Sea islanders I ever saw having a meal were eating platefuls of hot beef stew rolling in grease, all set on a very dirty table-cloth.
No; an island is, and should be, a dream island! On that island there is no sweeping, dusting, bedmaking, laundry, washing up, grease, food problems, lists of groceries, lamp-trimming, potato-peeling, dustbins. On the dream island there is white sand and blue sea—and a fairy house, perhaps, built between sunrise and sunset; the apple tree, the singing and the gold…
At this point in my reflections, Max asks me what I am thinking about. I say, simply: ‘Paradise!’
Max says: ‘Ah, wait till you see the Jaghjagha!’
I ask if it is very beautiful; and Max says he has no idea, but it is a remarkably interesting part of the world and nobody really knows anything about it!
The train winds its way up a gorge, and we leave the sea behind us.
The next morning we reach the Cilician Gates, and look out over one of the most beautiful views I know. It is like standing on the rim of the world and looking down on the promised land, and one feels much as Moses must have felt. For here, too, there is no entering in… The soft, hazy dark blue loveliness is a land one will never reach; the actual towns and villages when one gets there will be only the ordinary everyday world—not this enchanted beauty that beckons you down…
The train whistles. We climb back into our compartment.
On to Alep. And from Alep to Beyrout, where our architect is to meet us and where things are to get under way, for our preliminary survey of the Habur and Jaghjagha region, which will lead to the selection of a mound suitable for excavation.
For this, like Mrs Beeton, is the start of the whole business. First catch your hare, says that estimable lady.
So, in our case, first find your mound. That is what we are about to do.
Beyrout! Blue sea, a curving bay, a long coastline of hazy blue mountains. Such is the view from the terrace of the Hotel. From my bedroom, which looks inland, I see a garden of scarlet poinsettias. The room is high, distempered white, slightly prison-like in aspect. A modern wash-basin complete with taps and waste-pipe strikes a dashing modern note. Above the basin and connected to the taps is a large square tank with removable lid. Inside, it is full of stale-smelling water, connected to the cold tap only!
The arrival of plumbing in the East is full of pitfalls. How often does the cold tap produce hot water, and the hot tap cold! And how well do I remember a bath in a newly equipped ‘Western’ bathroom where an intimidating hot-water system produced scalding water in terrific quantities, no cold water was obtainable, the hot-water tap would not turn off, and the bolt of the door had stuck!
As I contemplate the poinsettias enthusiastically and the washing facilities distastefully, there is a knock at the door. A short, squat Armenian appears, smiling ingratiatingly. He opens his mouth, points a finger down his throat, and utters encouragingly ‘Manger!’
By this simple expedient he makes it clear to the meanest intelligence that luncheon is served in the dining-room.
There I find Max awaiting me, and our new architect, Mac (Robin Macartney), whom as yet I hardly know. In a few days’ time we are to set off on a three months’ camping expedition to examine the country for likely sites. With us, as guide, philosopher, and friend, is to go Hamoudi, for many years foreman at Ur, an old friend of my husband’s, and who is to come with us between seasons in these autumn months.
Mac rises and greets me politely, and we sit down to a very good if slightly greasy meal. I make a few would-be amiable remarks to Mac, who blocks them effectively by replying: ‘Oh, yes?’ ‘Really?’ ‘Indeed?’
I find myself somewhat damped. An uneasy conviction sweeps over me that our young architect is going to prove one of those people who from time to time succeed in rendering me completely imbecile with shyness. I have, thank goodness, long left behind me the days when I was shy of everyone. I have attained, with middle age, a fair amount of poise and savoir faire. Every now and then I congratulate myself that all that silly business is over and done with! ‘I’ve got over it,’ I say to myself happily. And as surely as I think so, some unexpected individual reduces me once more to nervous idiocy.
Useless to tell myself that young Mac is probably extremely shy himself and that it is his own shyness which produces his defensive armour, the fact remains that, before his coldly superior manner, his gently raised eyebrows, his air of polite attention to words that I realize cannot possibly be worth listening to, I wilt visibly, and find myself talking what I fully realize is sheer nonsense. Towards the end of the meal Mac administers a reproof.
‘Surely,’ he says gently in reply to a desperate statement of mine about the French Horn, ‘that is not so?’
He is, of course, perfectly right. It is not so.
After lunch, Max asks me what I think of Mac. I reply guardedly that he doesn’t seem to talk much. That, says Max, is an excellent thing. I have no idea, he says, what it is like to be stuck in the desert with someone who never stops talking! ‘I chose him because he seemed a silent sort of fellow.’
I admit there is something in that. Max goes on to say that he is probably shy, but will soon open up. ‘He’s probably terrified of you,’ he adds kindly.
I consider this heartening thought, but don’t feel convinced by it.
I try, however, to give myself a little mental treatment.
First of all, I say to myself, you are old enough to be Mac’s mother. You are also an authoress—a well-known authoress. Why, one of your characters has even been the clue in a Times crossword. (High-water mark of fame!) And what is more, you are the wife of the Leader of the Expedition! Come now, if anyone is to snub anyone, it is you who will snub the young man, not the young man who will snub you.
Later, we decide to go out to tea, and I go along to Mac’s room to ask him to come with us. I determine to be natural and friendly.
The room is unbelievably neat, and Mac is sitting on a folded plaid rug writing in his diary. He looks up in polite inquiry.
‘Won’t you come out with us and have tea?’
‘Afterwards, I expect you’d like to explore the town,’ I suggest. ‘It’s fun poking round a new place.’
Mac raises his eyebrows gently and says coldly: ‘Is it?’
Somewhat deflated, I lead the way to the hall where Max is waiting for us. Mac consumes a large tea in happy silence. Max is eating tea in the present, but his mind is roughly about 4000 B.C.
He comes out of his reverie with a sudden start as the last cake is eaten, and suggests that we go and see how our lorry is getting on.
We go forthwith to look at our lorry—a Ford chassis, to which a native body is being built. We have had to fall back on this as no second-hand one was to be obtained in sufficiently good condition.
The bodywork seems definitely optimistic, of the Inshallah nature, and the whole thing has a high and dignified appearance that is suspiciously too good to be true. Max is a little worried at the non-appearance of Hamoudi, who was to have met us in Beyrout by this date.
Mac scorns to look at the town and returns to his bedroom to sit on his rug and write in his diary. Interested speculation on my part as to what he writes in the diary.
An early awakening. At five a.m. our bedroom door opens, and a voice announces in Arabic: ‘Your foremen have come!’
Hamoudi and his two sons surge into the room with the eager charm that distinguishes them, seizing our hands, pressing them against their foreheads. ‘Shlon kefek?’ (How is your comfort?) ‘Kullish zen.’ (Very well.) ‘El hamdu lillah! El hamdu lillah!’ (We all praise God together!)
Shaking off the mists of sleep, we order tea, and Hamoudi and his sons squat down comfortably on the floor and proceed to exchange news with Max. The language barrier excludes me from this conversation. I have used all the Arabic I know. I long wistfully for sleep, and even wish that the Hamoudi family had postponed their greetings to a more seasonable hour. Still, I realize that to them it is the most natural thing in the world thus to arrive.
Tea dispels the mists of sleep, and Hamoudi addresses various remarks to me, which Max translates, as also my replies. All three of them beam with happiness, and I realize anew what very delightful people they are.
Preparations are now in full swing—buying of stores; engaging of a chauffeur and cook; visits to the Service des Antiquités; a delightful lunch with M. Seyrig, the Director, and his very charming wife. Nobody could be kinder to us than they are—and, incidentally, the lunch is delicious.
Disagreeing with the Turkish douanier’s opinion that I have too many shoes, I proceed to buy more shoes! Shoes in Beyrout are a delight to buy. If your size is not available, they are made for you in a couple of days—of good leather, perfectly fitting. It must be admitted that buying shoes is a weakness of mine. I shall not dare to return home through Turkey!
We wander through the native quarters and buy interesting lengths of material—a kind of thick white silk, embroidered in golden thread or in dark blue. We buy silk abas to send home as presents. Max is fascinated with all the different kinds of bread. Anyone with French blood in him loves good bread. Bread to a Frenchman means more than any other kind of food. I have heard an officer of the Services Spéciaux say of a colleague in a lonely frontier outpost: ‘Ce pauvre garçon! Il n’a même pas de pain là bas, seulement la galette Kurde!’ with deep and heartfelt pity.
We also have long and complicated dealings with the Bank. I am struck, as always in the East, with the reluctance of banks to do any business whatever. They are polite, charming, but anxious to evade any actual transaction. ‘Oui, oui!’ they murmur sympathetically. ‘Ecrivez une letter!’ And they settle down again with a sigh of relief at having postponed any action.
When action has been reluctantly forced upon them, they take revenge by a complicated system of ‘les timbres’. Every document, every cheque, every transaction whatever, is held up and complicated by a demand for ‘les timbres’. Continual small sums are disbursed. When everything is, as you think, finished, once more comes a hold-up!
‘Et deux francs cinquante centimes pour les timbres, s’il vous plaît.’
Still, at last transactions are completed, innumerable letters are written, incredible numbers of stamps are affixed. With a sigh of relief the Bank clerk sees a prospect of finally getting rid of us. As we leave the Bank, we hear him say firmly to another importunate client: ‘Ecrivez une lettre, s’il vous plaît.’
There still remains the engaging of a cook and chauffeur.
The chauffeur problem is solved first. Hamoudi arrives, beaming, and informs us that we are in good fortune—he has secured for us an excellent chauffeur.
How, Max asks, has Hamoudi obtained this treasure?
Very simply, it appears. He was standing on the water-front, and having had no job for some time, and being completely destitute, he will come very cheap. Thus, at once, we have effected an economy!
But is there any means of knowing whether he is a good chauffeur? Hamoudi waves such a question aside. A baker is a man who puts bread in an oven and bakes it. A chauffeur is a man who takes a car out and drives it!
Max, without any undue enthusiasm, agrees to engage Abdullah if nothing better offers, and Abdullah is summoned to an interview. He bears a remarkable resemblance to a camel, and Max says with a sigh that at any rate he seems stupid, and that is always satisfactory. I ask why, and Max says because he won’t have the brains to be dishonest.
On our last afternoon in Beyrout, we drive out to the Dog River, the Nahr el Kelb. Here, in a wooded gully running inland, is a café where you can drink coffee, and then wander pleasantly along a shady path.
But the real fascination of the Nahr el Kelb lies in the carved inscriptions on the rock where a pathway leads up to the pass over the Lebanon. For here, in countless wars, armies have marched and left their record. Here are Egyptian hieroglyphics—of Rameses II—and boasts made by Assyrian and Babylonian armies. There is the figure of Tiglathpileser I. Sennacherib left an inscription in 701 B.C. Alexander passed and left his record. Esarhaddon and Nebuchadnezzar have commemorated their victories and finally, linking up with antiquity, Allenby’s army wrote names and initials in 1917. I never tire of looking at that carved surface of rock. Here is history made manifest…
I am so far carried away as to remark enthusiastically to Mac that it is really very thrilling, and doesn’t he think so?
Mac raises his polite eyebrows, and says in a completely uninterested voice that it is, of course, very interesting…
The arrival and loading up of our lorry is the next excitement. The body of the lorry looks definitely top-heavy. It sways and dips, but has withal such an air of dignity—indeed of majesty—that it is promptly christened Queen Mary.
In addition to Queen Mary we hire a ‘taxi’—a Citröen, driven by an amiable Armenian called Aristide. We engage a somewhat melancholy-looking cook (’Isa), whose testimonials are so good as to be highly suspicious. And finally, the great day comes, and we set out—Max, Hamoudi, myself, Mac, Abdullah, Aristide and ’Isa—to be companions, for better, for worse, for the next three months.
Our first discovery is that Abdullah is quite the worst driver imaginable, our second is that the cook is a pretty bad cook, our third is that Aristide is a good driver but has an incredibly bad taxi!
We drive out of Beyrout along the coast road. We pass the Nahr el Kelb, and continue on with the sea on our left. We pass small clusters of white houses and entrancing little sandy bays, and small coves between rocks. I long to stop and bathe, but we have started now on the real business of life. Soon, too soon, we shall turn inland from the sea, and after that, for many months, we shall not see the sea again.
Aristide honks his horn ceaselessly in the Syrian fashion. Behind us Queen Mary is following, dipping and bending like a ship at sea with her top-heavy bodywork.
We pass Byblos, and now the little clusters of white houses are few and far between. On our right is the rocky hillside.
And at last we turn off and strike inland for Homs.
There is a good hotel at Homs—a very fine hotel, Hamoudi has told us.
The grandeur of the hotel proves to be mainly in the building itself. It is spacious, with immense stone corridors. Its plumbing, alas, is not functioning very well! Its vast bedrooms contain little in the way of comfort. We look at ours respectfully, and then Max and I go out to see the town. Mac, we find, is sitting on the side of his bed, folded rug beside him, writing earnestly in his diary.
(What does Mac put in his diary? He displays no enthusiasm to have a look at Homs.)
Perhaps he is right, for there is not very much to see.
We have a badly cooked pseudo-European meal and retire to bed.
Yesterday we were travelling within the confines of civilization. Today, abruptly, we leave civilization behind. Within an hour or two there is no green to be seen anywhere. Everything is brown sandy waste. The tracks seem confusing. Sometimes at rare intervals we meet a lorry that comes up suddenly out of nothingness.
It is very hot. What with the heat and the unevenness of the track and the badness of the taxi’s springs, and the dust that you swallow and which makes your face stiff and hard, I start a furious headache.
There is something frightening, and yet fascinating, about this vast world denuded of vegetation. It is not flat like the desert between Damascus and Baghdad. Instead, you climb up and down. It feels a little as though you had become a grain of sand among the sand-castles you built on the beach as a child.
And then, after seven hours of heat and monotony and a lonely world—Palmyra!
That, I think, is the charm of Palmyra—its slender creamy beauty rising up fantastically in the middle of hot sand. It is lovely and fantastic and unbelievable, with all the theatrical implausibility of a dream. Courts and temples and ruined columns…
I have never been able to decide what I really think of Palmyra. It has always for me the dream-like quality of that first vision. My aching head and eyes made it more than ever seem a feverish delusion! It isn’t—it can’t be—real.
But suddenly we are in the middle of people—a crowd of cheerful French tourists, laughing and talking and snapping cameras. We pull up in front of a handsome building—the Hotel.
Max warns me hurriedly: ‘You mustn’t mind the smell. It takes a little getting used to.’
It certainly does! The Hotel is charming inside, arranged with real taste and charm. But the smell of stale water in the bedroom is very strong.
‘It’s quite a healthy smell,’ Max assures me.
And the charming elderly gentleman, who is, I understand, the Hotel proprietor, says with great emphasis:
‘Mauvaise odeur, oui! Malsain, non!’
So that is settled! And, anyway, I do not care. I take aspirin and drink tea and lie down on the bed. Later, I say, I will do sight-seeing—just now I care for nothing but darkness and rest.
Inwardly I feel a little dismayed. Am I going to be a bad traveller—I, who have always enjoyed motoring?
However, I wake up an hour later, feeling perfectly restored and eager to see what can be seen.
Mac, even, for once submits to being torn from his diary.
We go out sight-seeing, and spend a delightful afternoon.
When we are at the farthest point from the Hotel we run into the party of French people. They are in distress. One of the women, who is wearing (as all are) high-heeled shoes, has torn off the heel of her shoe, and is faced with the impossibility of walking back the distance to the Hotel. They have driven out to this point, it appears, in a taxi, and the taxi has now broken down. We cast an eye over it. There appears to be but one kind of taxi in this country. This vehicle is indistinguishable from ours—the same dilapidated upholstery and general air of being tied up with string. The driver, a tall, lank Syrian, is poking in a dispirited fashion into the bonnet.
He shakes his head. The French party explain all. They have arrived here by ’plane yesterday, and will leave the same way tomorrow. This taxi they have hired for the afternoon at the Hotel, and now it has broken down. What will poor Madame do? ‘Impossible de marcher, n’est ce pas, avec un soulier seulement.’
We pour out condolences, and Max gallantly offers our taxi. He will return to the Hotel and bring it out here. It can make two journeys and take us all back.
The suggestion is received with acclamations and profuse thanks, and Max sets off.
I fraternize with the French ladies, and Mac retires behind an impenetrable wall of reserve. He produces a stark ‘Oui’ or ‘Non’ to any conversational openings, and is soon mercifully left in peace. The French ladies profess a charming interest in our journeyings.
‘Ah, Madame, vous faites le camping?’
I am fascinated by the phrase. Le camping! It classes our adventure definitely as a sport!
How agreeable it will be, says another lady, to do le camping.
Yes, I say, it will be very agreeable.
The time passes; we chat and laugh. Suddenly, to my great surprise, Queen Mary comes lurching along. Max, with an angry face, is at the wheel.
I demand why he hasn’t brought the taxi?
‘Because,’ says Max furiously, ‘the taxi is here.’ And he points a dramatic finger at the obdurate car, into which the lank Syrian is still optimistically peering.
There is a chorus of surprised exclamations, and I realize why the car has looked so familiar! ‘But,’ cries the French lady, ‘this is the car we hired at the Hotel.’ Nevertheless, Max explains, it is our taxi.
Explanations with Aristide have been painful. Neither side has appreciated the other’s point of view.
‘Have I not hired the taxi and you for three months?’ demands Max. ‘And must you let it out to others behind my back in this shameful way?’
‘But,’ says Aristide, all injured innocence, ‘did you not tell me that you yourself would not use it this afternoon? Naturally, then, I have the chance to make a little extra money. I arrange with a friend, and he drives this party round Palmyra. How can it injure you, since you do not want to sit in the car yourself?’
‘It injures me,’ replies Max, ‘since in the first place it was not our arrangement; and in the second place the car is now in need of repair, and in all probability will not be able to proceed tomorrow!’
‘As to that,’ says Aristide, ‘do not disquiet yourself. My friend and I will, if necessary, sit up all night!’
Max replies briefly that they’d better.
Sure enough, the next morning the faithful taxi awaits us in front of the door, with Aristide smiling, and still quite unconvinced of sin, at the wheel.
Today we arrive at Der-ez-Zor, on the Euphrates. It is very hot. The town smells and is not attractive. The Services Spéciaux kindly puts some rooms at our disposal, since there is no European hotel. There is an attractive view over the wide brown flow of the river. The French officer inquires tenderly after my health and hopes I have not found motoring in the heat too much for me. ‘Madame Jacquot, the wife of our General, was complètement knock out when she arrived.’
The term takes my fancy. I hope that I, in my turn, shall not be complètement knock out by the end of our survey!
We buy vegetables and large quantities of eggs, and with Queen Mary full to the point of breaking her springs, we set off, this time to start on the survey proper.
Busaira! Here there is a police post. It is a spot of which Max has had high hopes, since it is at the junction of the Euphrates with the Habur. Roman Circesium is on the opposite bank.
Busaira proves, however, disappointing. There are no signs of any antique settlement other than Roman, which is treated with the proper disgust. ‘Min Ziman er Rum,’ says Hamoudi, shaking his head distastefully, and I echo him dutifully.
For to our point of view the Romans are hopelessly modern—children of yesterday. Our interest begins at the second millennium B.C., with the varying fortunes of the Hittites, and in particular we want to find out more about the military dynasty of Mitanni, foreign adventurers about whom little is known, but who flourished in this part of the world, and whose capital city of Washshukkanni has yet to be identified. A ruling caste of warriors, who imposed their rule on the country, and who intermarried with the Royal House of Egypt, and who were, it seems, good horsemen, since a treatise upon the care and training of horses is ascribed to a certain Kikkouli, a man of Mitanni.
And from that period backwards, of course, into the dim ages of pre-history—an age without written records, when only pots and house plans, and amulets, ornaments, and beads, remain to give their dumb witness to the life the people lived.
Busaira having been disappointing, we go on to Meyadin, farther south, though Max has not much hope of it. After that we will strike northward up the left bank of the Habur river.
It is at Busaira that I get my first sight of the Habur, which has so far been only a name to me—though a name that has been repeatedly on Max’s lips.
‘The Habur—that’s the place. Hundreds of Tells!’
He goes on: ‘And if we don’t find what we want on the Habur, we will on the Jaghjagha!’
‘What,’ I ask, the first time I hear the name, ‘is the Jaghjagha?’
The name seems to me quite fantastic!
Max says kindly that he supposes I have never heard of the Jaghjagha? A good many people haven’t, he concedes.
I admit the charge and add that until he mentioned it, I had not even heard of the Habur. That does surprise him.
‘Didn’t you know,’ says Max, marvelling at my shocking ignorance, ‘that Tell Halaf is on the Habur?’
His voice is lowered in reverence as he speaks of that famous site of prehistoric pottery.
I shake my head and forbear to point out that if I had not happened to marry him I should probably never have heard of Tell Halaf!
I may say that explaining the places where we dig to people is always fraught with a good deal of difficulty.
My first answer is usually one word—‘Syria’.
‘Oh!’ says the average inquirer, already slightly taken aback. A frown forms on his or her forehead. ‘Yes, of course—Syria…’ Biblical memories stir. ‘Let me see, that’s Palestine, isn’t it?’
‘It’s next to Palestine,’ I say encouragingly. ‘You know—farther up the coast.’
This doesn’t really help, because Palestine, being usually connected with Bible history and the lessons on Sunday rather than a geographical situation, has associations that are purely literary and religious.
‘I can’t quite place it.’ The frown deepens. ‘Whereabouts do you dig—I mean near what town?’
‘Not near any town. Near the Turkish and Iraq border.’
A hopeless expression then comes across the friend’s face.
‘But surely you must be near some town!’
‘Alep,’ I say, ‘is about two hundred miles away.’
They sigh and give it up. Then, brightening, they ask what we eat. ‘Just dates, I suppose?’
When I say that we have mutton, chickens, eggs, rice, French beans, aubergines, cucumbers, oranges in season and bananas, they look at me reproachfully. ‘I don’t call that roughing it,’ they say.
At Meyadin le camping begins.
A chair is set up for me, and I sit in it grandly in the midst of a large courtyard, or khan, whilst Max, Mac, Aristide, Hamoudi and Abdullah struggle to set up our tents.
There is no doubt that I have the best of it. It is a richly entertaining spectacle. There is a strong desert wind blowing, which does not help, and everybody is raw to the job. Appeals to the compassion and mercy of God rise from Abdullah, demands to be assisted by the saints from Armenian Aristide, wild yells of encouragement and laughter are offered by Hamoudi, furious imprecations come from Max. Only Mac toils in silence, though even he occasionally mutters a quiet word under his breath.
At last all is ready. The tents look a little drunken, a little out of the true, but they have arisen. We all unite in cursing the cook, who, instead of starting to prepare a meal, has been enjoying the spectacle. However, we have some useful tins, which are opened, tea is made, and now, as the sun sinks and the wind drops and a sudden chill arises, we go to bed. It is my first experience of struggling into a sleeping-bag. It takes the united efforts of Max and myself, but, once inside, I am enchantingly comfortable. I always take abroad with me one really good soft down pillow—to me it makes all the difference between comfort and misery.
I say happily to Max: ‘I think I like sleeping in a tent!’
Then a sudden thought occurs to me.
‘You don’t think, do you, that rats or mice or something will run across me in the night?’
‘Sure to,’ says Max cheerfully and sleepily.
I am digesting this thought when sleep overtakes me, and I wake to find it is five a.m.—sunrise, and time to get up and start a new day.
The mounds in the immediate neighbourhood of Meyadin prove unattractive.
‘Roman!’ murmurs Max disgustedly. It is his last word of contempt. Stifling any lingering feeling I may have that the Romans were an interesting people, I echo his tone, and say ‘Roman’, and cast down a fragment of the despised pottery. ‘Min Ziman… er Rum,’ says Hamoudi.
In the afternoon we go to visit the American dig at Doura. It is a pleasant visit, and they are charming to us. Yet I find my interest in the finds flagging, and an increasing difficulty in listening or in taking part in the conversation.
Their account of their original difficulties in getting workmen is amusing.
Working for wages in this out-of-the-way part of the world is an idea that is entirely new. The expedition found itself faced with blank refusal or non-comprehension. In despair they appealed to the French military authorities. The response was prompt and efficient. The French arrested two hundred, or whatever the number needed was, and delivered them at work. The prisoners were amiable, in the highest good humour, and seemed to enjoy the work. They were told to return on the following day, but did not turn up. Again the French were asked to help, and once again they arrested the workmen. Again the men worked with evident satisfaction. But yet again they failed to turn up, and once again military arrest was resorted to.
Finally the matter was elucidated.
‘Do you not like working for us?’
‘Yes, indeed, why not? We have nothing to do at home.’
‘Then why do you not come every day?’
‘We wish to come, but naturally we have to wait for the ’asker (soldiers) to fetch us. I can tell you, we were very indignant when they did not come to fetch us! It is their duty!’
‘But we want you to work for us without the ’asker fetching you!’
‘That is a very curious idea!’
At the end of a week they were paid, and that finally set the seal on their bewilderment.
Truly, they said, they could not understand the ways of foreigners!
‘The French ’asker are in command here. Naturally, it is their right to fetch us, and put us in prison or send us to dig up the ground for you. But why do you give us money? What is the money for? It does not make sense!’
However, in the end the strange customs of the West were accepted, howbeit with head shakings and mutterings. Once a week money was paid them. But a vague grudge against the ’asker remained. The ’asker’s job was to fetch them every day!
Whether true or not, this makes a good story! I only wish I could feel more intelligent. What is the matter with me? When I get back to camp my head is swimming. I take my temperature, and find that it is a hundred and two! Also, I have a pain in my middle, and feel extremely sick. I am very glad to crawl into my flea-bag, and go to sleep, spurning the thought of dinner.
Max looks worried this morning and asks me how I feel. I groan and say: ‘Like death!’ He looks more worried. He asks me if I think I am really ill.
I reassure him on that point. I have what is called in Egypt a Gippy tummy and in Baghdad a Baghdad tummy. It is not a very amusing complaint to have when you are right out in the desert. Max cannot leave me behind alone, and in any case the inside of the tent in the day-time registers about a hundred and thirty! The survey must go on. I sit huddled up in the car, swaying about in a feverish dream. When we reach a mound, I get out and lie down in what shade the height of Queen Mary affords, whilst Max and Mac tramp over the mound, examining it.
Frankly, the next four days are sheer unmitigated hell! One of Hamoudi’s stories seems particularly apposite—that of a Sultan’s lovely wife, whom he carried off, and who bewailed to Allah night and day that she had no companions and was alone in the desert. ‘And at last Allah, weary of her moanings, sent her companions. He sent her the flies!’
I feel particularly venomous towards the lovely lady for incurring the wrath of Allah! All day long flies settling in clouds make it impossible to rest.
I regret bitterly that I have ever come on this expedition, but just manage not to say so.
After four days, with nothing but weak tea without milk, I suddenly revive. Life is good again. I eat a colossal meal of rice and stew of vegetables swimming in grease. It seems the most delicious thing I have ever tasted!
After it, we climb up the mound at which we have pitched our camp—Tell Suwar, on the left bank of the Habur. Here there is nothing—no village, no habitation of any kind, not even any Beduin tents.
There is a moon above, and below us the Habur winds in a great S-shaped curve. The night air smells sweet after the heat of the day.
I say: ‘What a lovely mound! Can’t we dig here?’
Max shakes his head sadly and pronounces the word of doom.
‘What a pity. It’s such a lovely spot.’
‘I told you,’ said Max, ‘that the Habur was the place! Tells all along it on either side.’
I have taken no interest in Tells for several days, but I am glad to find I have not missed much.
‘Are you sure there isn’t any of the stuff you want here?’ I ask wistfully. I have taken a fancy to Tell Suwar.
‘Yes, of course there is, but it’s underneath. We’d have to dig right down through the Roman stuff. We can do better than that.’
I sigh and murmur: ‘It’s so still here and so peaceful—not a soul in sight.’
At that moment a very old man appears from nowhere at all.
Where has he come from? He walks up the side of the mound slowly, without haste. He has a long white beard and ineffable dignity.
He salutes Max politely. ‘How is your comfort?’ ‘Well. And yours?’ ‘Well.’ ‘Praise God!’ ‘Praise God!’
He sits down beside us. There is a long silence—that courteous silence of good manners that is so restful after Western haste.
Finally the old man inquires Max’s name. Max tells it him. He considers it.
‘Milwan,’ he repeats. ‘Milwan… How light! How bright! How beautiful!’
He sits with us a little longer. Then, as quietly as he has come, he leaves us. We never see him again.
Restored to health, I now really begin to enjoy myself. We start every morning at early dawn, examining each mound as we come to it, walking round and round it, picking up any sherds of pottery. Then we compare results on the top, and Max keeps such specimens as are useful, putting them in a little linen bag and labelling them.
There is a great competition between us as to who gets the prize find of the day.
I begin to understand why archaeologists have a habit of walking with eyes downcast to the ground. Soon, I feel, I myself shall forget to look around me, or out to the horizon. I shall walk looking down at my feet as though there only any interest lies.
I am struck as often before by the fundamental difference of race. Nothing could differ more widely than the attitude of our two chauffeurs to money. Abdullah lets hardly a day pass without clamouring for an advance of salary. If he had had his way he would have had the entire amount in advance, and it would, I rather imagine, have been dissipated before a week was out. With Arab prodigality Abdullah would have splashed it about in the coffee-house. He would have cut a figure! He would have ‘made a reputation for himself’.
Aristide, the Armenian, has displayed the greatest reluctance to have a penny of his salary paid him. ‘You will keep it for me, Khwaja, until the journey is finished. If I want money for some little expense I will come to you.’ So far he has demanded only fourpence of his salary—to purchase a pair of socks!
His chin is now adorned by a sprouting beard, which makes him look quite a Biblical figure. It is cheaper, he explains, not to shave. One saves the money one might have to spend on a razor blade. And it does not matter here in the desert.
At the end of the trip Abdullah will be penniless once more, and will doubtless be again adorning the water-front of Beyrout, waiting with Arab fatalism for the goodness of God to provide him with another job. Aristide will have the money he has earned untouched.
‘And what will you do with it?’ Max asks him.
‘It will go towards buying a better taxi,’ replies Aristide.
‘And when you have a better taxi?’
‘Then I shall earn more and have two taxis.’
I can quite easily foresee returning to Syria in twenty years’ time, and finding Aristide the immensely rich owner of a large garage, and probably living in a big house in Beyrout. And even then, I dare say, he will avoid shaving in the desert because it saves the price of a razor blade.
And yet, Aristide has not been brought up by his own people. One day, as we pass some Beduin, he is hailed by them, and cries back to them, waving and shouting affectionately.
‘That,’ he explains, ‘is the Anaizah tribe, of whom I am one.’
‘How is that?’ Max asks.
And then Aristide, in his gentle, happy voice, with his quiet, cheerful smile, tells the story. The story of a little boy of seven, who with his family and other Armenian families was thrown by the Turks alive into a deep pit. Tar was poured on them and set alight. His father and mother and two brothers and sisters were all burnt alive. But he, who was below them all, was still alive when the Turks left, and he was found later by some of the Anaizah Arabs. They took the little boy with them and adopted him into the Anaizah tribe. He was brought up as an Arab, wandering with them over their pastures. But when he was eighteen he went into Mosul, and there demanded that papers be given him to show his nationality. He was an Armenian, not an Arab! Yet the blood brotherhood still holds, and to members of the Anaizah he still is one of them.
Hamoudi and Max are very gay together. They laugh and sing and cap stories. Sometimes I ask for a translation when the mirth is particularly hilarious. There are moments when I feel envious of the fun they are having. Mac is still separated from me by an impassable barrier. We sit together at the back of the car in silence. Any remark I make is considered gravely on its merits by Mac and disposed of accordingly. Never have I felt less of a social success! Mac, on the other hand, seems quite happy. There is about him a beautiful self-sufficiency which I cannot but admire.
Nevertheless, when, encased in my sleeping-bag at night in the privacy of our tent, I hold forth to Max on the incidents of the day, I strenuously maintain that Mac is not quite human!
When Mac does advance an original comment it is usually of a damping nature. Adverse criticism seems to afford him a definite gloomy satisfaction.
Am perplexed today by the growing uncertainty of my walking powers. In some curious way my feet don’t seem to match. I am puzzled by a decided list to port. Is it, I wonder fearfully, the first symptom of some tropical disease?
I ask Max if he has noticed that I can’t walk straight.
‘But you never drink,’ he replies. ‘Heaven knows,’ he adds reproachfully, ‘I’ve tried hard enough with you.’
This introduces a second and controversial subject. Every-one struggles through life with some unfortunate disability. Mine is to be unable to appreciate either alcohol or tobacco.
If I could only bring myself to disapprove of these essential products my self-respect would be saved. But, on the contrary, I look with envy at self-possessed women flipping cigarette ash here, there and everywhere, and creep miserably round the room at cocktail parties finding a place to hide my untasted glass.
Perseverance has not availed. For six months I religiously smoked a cigarette after lunch and after dinner, choking a little, biting fragments of tobacco, and blinking as the ascending smoke pricked my eyelids. Soon, I told myself, I should learn to like smoking. I did not learn to like it, and my performance was criticized severely as being inartistic and painful to watch. I accepted defeat.
When I married Max we enjoyed the pleasures of the table in perfect harmony, eating wisely but much too well. He was distressed to find that my appreciation of good drink—or, indeed, of any drink—was nil. He set to work to educate me, trying me perseveringly with clarets, burgundies, sauternes, graves, and, more desperately, with tokay, vodka, and absinthe! In the end he acknowledged defeat. My only reaction was that some tasted worse than others! With a weary sigh, Max contemplated a life in which he should be for ever condemned to the battle of obtaining water for me in a restaurant! It has added, he says, years to his life.
Hence his remarks when I enlist his sympathy for my drunken progress.
‘I seem,’ I explain, ‘to be always falling over to the left.’
Max says it is probably one of these very rare tropical diseases that are distinguished by just being called by somebody’s name. Stephenson’s disease—or Hartley’s. The sort of thing, he goes on cheerfully, which will probably end with your toes falling off one by one.
I contemplate this pleasing prospect. Then it occurs to me to look at my shoes. The mystery is at once explained. The outer sole of my left foot and the inner sole of the right foot are worn right down. As I stare at them the full solution dawns on me. Since leaving Der-ez-Zor I have walked round about fifty mounds, at different levels, on the side of a steep slope, but always with the hill on my left. All that is needed is to go into reverse, and go round mounds to the right instead of the left. In due course my shoes will then be worn even.
Today we arrive at Tell Ajaja, the former Arban, a large and important Tell.
The main track from Der-ez-Zor joins in near here, so we feel now we are practically on a main road. Actually we pass three cars, all going hell-for-leather in the direction of Der-ez-Zor!
Small clusters of mud houses adorn the Tell, and various people pass the time of day with us upon the big mound. This is practically civilization. Tomorrow we shall arrive at Hasetshe, the junction of the Habur and the Jaghjagha. There we shall be in civilization. It is a French military post, and an important town in this part of the world. There I shall have my first sight of the legendary and long-promised Jaghjagha river! I feel quite excited.
Our arrival at Hasetshe is full of excitement! It is an unattractive place, with streets and a few shops and a post office. We pay two ceremonious visits—one to the Military and one to the Post Office.
The French Lieutenant is most kind and helpful. He offers us hospitality, but we assure him that our tents are quite comfortable where we have pitched them by the river bank. We accept, however, an invitation to dinner on the following day. The Post Office, where we go for letters, is a longer business. The Postmaster is out, and everything is consequently locked up. However, a small boy goes in search of him, and in due course (half an hour!) he arrives, full of urbanity, bids us welcome to Hasetshe, orders coffee for us, and only after a prolonged exchange of compliments comes to the business in hand—letters.
‘But there is no hurry,’ he says, beaming. ‘Come again tomorrow. I shall be delighted to entertain you.’
‘Tomorrow,’ Max says, ‘we have work to do. We should like our letters tonight.’
Ah, but here is the coffee! We sit and sip. At long last, after polite exhortations, the Postmaster unlocks his private office and starts to search. In the generosity of his heart he urges on us additional letters addressed to other Europeans. ‘You had better have these,’ he says. ‘They have been here six months. No one has come for them. Yes, yes, surely they will be for you.’
Politely but firmly we refuse the correspondence of Mr Johnson, M. Mavrogordata, and Mr Pye. The Postmaster is disappointed.
‘So few?’ he says. ‘But come, will you not have this large one here?’
But we insist on sticking strictly to those letters and papers that bear our own names. A money order has come, as arranged, and Max now goes into the question of cashing it. This, it seems, is incredibly complicated. The Postmaster has never seen a money order before, we gather, and is very properly suspicious of it. He calls in two assistants, and the question is debated thoroughly, though with great good humour. Here is something entirely novel and delightful on which everyone can have a different opinion.
The matter is finally settled and various forms signed when the discovery is made that there is no actual cash in the Post Office! This, the Postmaster says, can be remedied on the morrow! He will send out and collect it from the Bazaar.
We leave the Post Office somewhat exhausted, and walk back to the spot by the river which we have chosen—a little way from the dust and dirt of Hasetshe. A sad spectacle greets us. ’Isa, the cook, is sitting by the cooking-tent, his head in his hands, weeping bitterly.
What has happened?
Alas, he replies, he is disgraced. Little boys have collected round to jeer at him. His honour has gone! In a moment of inattention dogs have devoured the dinner he had prepared. There is nothing left, nothing at all but some rice.
Gloomily we eat plain rice, whilst Hamoudi, Aristide and Abdullah reiterate to the wretched ’Isa that the principal duty of a cook is never to let his attention wander from the dinner he is cooking until the moment when that dinner is safely set before those for whom it is destined.
’Isa says that he feels he is unequal to the strain of being a cook. He has never been one before (‘That explains a good deal!’ says Max), and would prefer to go into a garage. Will Max give him a recommendation as a first-class driver?
Max says certainly not, as he has never seen him drive.
‘But,’ says ’Isa, ‘I have wound the handle of Big Mary on a cold morning. You have seen that?’
Max admits that he has seen that.
‘Then,’ says ’Isa, ‘you can recommend me!’
These autumn days are some of the most perfect I have ever known. We get up early, soon after sunrise, drink hot tea, and eat eggs and start off. It is cold then, and I wear two jerseys and a big woolly coat. The light is lovely—a very faint soft rose softens the browns and greys. From the top of a mound one looks out over an apparently deserted world. Mounds rise everywhere—one can see perhaps sixty if one counts. Sixty ancient settlements, that is to say. Here, where nowadays only the tribesmen move with their brown tents, was once a busy part of the world. Here, some five thousand years ago, was the busy part of the world. Here were the beginnings of civilization, and here, picked up by me, this broken fragment of a clay pot, hand-made, with a design of dots and cross-hatching in black paint, is the forerunner of the Woolworth cup out of which this very morning I have drunk my tea…
I sort through the collection of sherds which are bulging the pockets of my coat (I have already had to mend the lining twice), throwing away duplicate types, and see what I can offer in competition with Mac and Hamoudi to the Master for judgement.
Now then, what have I got?
A thickish grey ware, part of the rim of a pot (valuable as showing shape), some coarse red stuff, two fragments of painted pots, hand-made and one with the dot design (the oldest Tell Halaf!), a flint knife, part of the base of a thin grey pot, several other nondescript bits of painted pottery, a little bit of obsidian.
Max makes his selection, flinging most pieces ruthlessly away, uttering appreciative grunts at others. Hamoudi has the clay wheel of a chariot, and Mac has a fragment of incised ware and a portion of a figurine.
Gathering the united collection together, Max sweeps it into a little linen bag, ties it carefully up, and labels it as usual with the name of the Tell on which it was found. This particular Tell is not marked on the map. It is christened Tell Mak in honour of Macartney, who has had the first find.
So far as Mac’s countenance can express anything at all, it seems to express faint gratification.
We run down the side of the Tell and climb into the car. I peel off a jersey. The sun is getting hot.
We visit two more small Tells, and at the third, which overlooks the Habur, we have lunch—hard-boiled eggs, a tin of bully beef, oranges, and extremely stale bread. Aristide makes tea on the primus. It is very hot now, and the shadows and colours have gone. All is a uniform soft pale buff.
Max says it is lucky we are doing the survey now and not in spring. I ask why? And he says, because it would be far more difficult to find sherds when there is vegetation everywhere. All this, he says, will be green in the spring. It is, he says, the fertile Steppe. I say admiringly that that is a very grand way of putting it. Max says, well, it is the fertile Steppe!
Today we take Mary up the right bank of the Habur to Tell Halaf, visiting Tell Ruman (sinister name, but actually not noticeably Roman) and Tell Juma on the way.
All the Tells in this region have possibilities, unlike the ones farther south. Sherds of pottery of the second and third millennium are frequent and Roman remains are scanty. There is early prehistoric painted hand-made pottery as well. The difficulty will be to choose between so many Tells. Max repeats again and again with jubilation and a complete lack of originality that this is undoubtedly the place!
Our visit to Tell Halaf has something of the reverence of a pilgrimage to a shrine! Tell Halaf is a name that has been so constantly dinned into my ears for the last few years that I can hardly believe I am actually going to see the actual spot. A very lovely spot it is, with the Habur winding round the base of it.
I recall a visit we paid to Baron von Oppenheim in Berlin when he took us to the Museum of his finds. Max and he talked excitedly for (I think) five solid hours. There was nowhere to sit down. My interest, at first acute, flagged, and finally died down completely. With lack-lustre eyes I examined the various extremely ugly statues which had come from Tell Halaf, and which in the Baron’s view were contemporary with the extremely interesting pottery. Max was endeavouring to differ politely on this point without contradicting him flatly. To my dazed glance all the statues seemed strangely alike. It was only after a little while that I made the discovery that they were alike, since all but one were plaster reproductions.
Baron von Oppenheim stopped in his eager dissertation to say lovingly: ‘Ah, my beautiful Venus’, and stroke the figure affectionately. Then he plunged back into discussion, and I wished sadly that I could, in the old nursery phrase, cut off my feet and turn up the ends!
We have many local conversations on the various mounds approaching Tell Halaf. All hereabouts are various legends of El Baron—mainly the incredible sums he paid out in gold. Time has exaggerated the amount of gold. Even the German government, one feels, cannot have poured out the streams of precious metal in the way tradition has it! Everywhere north of Hasetshe are small villages and signs of cultivation. Since the arrival of the French and the departure of the Turkish rule, the country is being occupied again for the first time since Roman days.
We get home late. The weather is changing, a wind starts blowing, and it is very unpleasant, dust and sand flying in one’s face and making one’s eyes smart. We have a pleasant dinner with the French, though it has been a difficult business smartening oneself up, or rather, I should say, cleaning oneself up, since a clean blouse for myself and clean shirts for the men is all one can do! We have an excellent dinner and spend a very pleasant evening. We return through driving rain to our tents. An unquiet night, with dogs howling and the tents flapping and straining in the wind.
Forsaking the Habur for the time being, we make an excursion today on the Jaghjagha. An immense mound quite near at hand has excited my interest, until I discover that it is an extinct volcano—the Kawkab.
Our particular objective is one Tell Hamidi, of which we have heard good accounts, but it is difficult to reach, as there is no direct track. It means taking a line across country and the crossing of innumerable little ditches and wadis. Hamoudi is in great spirits this morning. Mac is quietly gloomy, and opines that we shall never get to the mound.
It takes us seven hours of motoring—a very tiring seven hours, with the car sticking more than once and having to be dug out.
Hamoudi surpasses himself on these occasions. He always considers a car as a kind of inferior though swifter horse. In any moment of uncertainty with a wadi ahead, Hamoudi’s voice rises excitedly, giving frenzied orders to Aristide.
‘Quickly—quickly! Give the machine no time to refuse! Rush at it! Rush at it!’
His disgust when Max stops the car and walks ahead to examine the difficulty is extreme. He shakes his head in utter dissatisfaction.
Not so, he seems to say, should you treat a high-mettled and nervous car! Give it no time to reflect and all will be well.
After detours, checks, and the taking on of local guides, we do at last reach the goal. Very beautiful Tell Hamidi looks in the afternoon sun, and it is with a sense of achievement that the car drives proudly up the gentle incline to its summit where we look down on a marsh teeming with wild duck.
Конец ознакомительного фрагмента.