[Turkey through a traveler’s eyes] From Cizre to Diyarbakır with Gertrude Bell in 1909
Fifth-century Nestorian monastery complex of Mar Augen (Photo: todayszaman — )
Even today, few foreign women would willingly undertake the journey from Cizre, a fascinating but typically edgy frontier town strategically situated where Turkey, Northern Iraq and Syria meet, to the black-walled city of Diyarbakır, poised on a bluff above a lazy coil of the River Tigris in Turkey’s often unsettled Southeast. For a single Englishwoman to make the trip, on horseback, in the first decade of the 20th century was quite remarkable. But Gertrude Bell, although from a rich and privileged family, was an intelligent, enterprising and forceful character — qualities she put to full use when riding through an area that was, at the time, part of an Ottoman Empire in a precipitous and, for travelers and locals alike, often dangerous decline.
Noah’s mountain and an island in the Tigris
Bell had already spent a considerable amount of time traveling around the former Ottoman provinces that today form parts of Syria and Iraq, and made her way north to Cizre from Zakho, in today’s Iraqi Kurdistan. Although only May, the weather was already uncomfortably hot on the Mesopotamian flatlands, and Bell gazed longingly at the wild peaks ahead of her, straddling what is today the border between Southeast Turkey and Northern Iraq, writing: “Further to the north an endless welter of mountains stretched between us and Lake Van. … The light air breathed sharply off the snows and … the vista of mountains was a feast to the eyes.”
Bell insisted, with the help of local Nestorian Christian guides, clambering around the still snow-flecked slopes of 2,089-meter-high Mt. Judi outside of Cizre, a mountain today perhaps as notorious as a hotbed of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) activity as it is famous for being a more probable resting place of Noah’s Ark than Mt. Ararat. Before long, however, Bell found herself camped outside Cizre, which she refers to by its historical name of Jazirat ibn ‘Umar, a name deriving from the Arabic for island, jazira/jazeera. Built on an island formed by a loop in the Tigris, Cizre is seldom visited by travelers or tourists today despite a wealth of historical remains. These include the supposed tomb of great flood survivor Noah; the Ulu Camii, a venerable mosque notable for its striking minaret that has a rectangular base giving way to a tapering, brick-built cylindrical column; a beautifully restored Islamic theological school; the Kızıl Medrese; and a black basalt riverside fortress awaiting renovation.
Here be dragons
A massive concrete bridge spans the Tigris at Cizre today, filled with trucks heading to and from the proto-Kurdish state in Northern Iraq not far to the southeast, but Bell had to cross by ferry as “the bridge of boats which should have connected us with the town was broken.” Bell, who was the first women to get a first class honors degree in history from Oxford, was naturally interested in Cizre’s past and described the ruined fortress thus: “The castle of masonry is mostly of alternate bands of black basalt and white limestone. Over the doors are carved a couple of rudely executed lions.” The attractive banded masonry survives, though I could find no trace of the lions on my last visit to the town in May last year. Gone, too, is the famous pair of door knockers from the Ulu Camii that Bell commented on. “We stopped at the principal mosque, which has a pair of fine bronze doors, with bronze knockers worked in a design of intertwined dragons.” If you want to see the bronze dragons today, you’ll find one of them in İstanbul’s wonderful Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, flanking the Hippodrome in Sultanahmet — the other is apparently in a museum in Copenhagen.
Across the Tigris to the Mount of the Servants of God
From “stifling hot”’ Cizre, Bell, servant Fettuh and her baggage train headed northwest up the Tigris to Finik, where a picturesquely decrepit castle dominates a narrow gorge. Here, Bell was shown a Parthian relief, after which the guide who had taken her there “hurried back to the village … and when we came back we found him spreading a meal of omelets and bread and bowls of iran (a most delectable drink made of sour curds beaten up in water) under the shade of some mulberry trees.” Crossing the Tigris, here swift and powerful after its surge through the gorge, was less pleasant than lunch, as a sudden maneuver by the ferry carrying Bell’s baggage animals caused them to “tumble over like ninepins, one upon the other,” and she was only saved from being knocked overboard by “the timely clutch of a zaptieh [policeman].”
The intrepid Bell was now delighted to find herself, as many visitors are today, in the Tur Abdin, which means in the Syriac tongue of the Syrian Orthodox Christians for whom it has long been home “The Mount of the Servants of God.” At Azakh (İdil in Turkish), the first settlement she came to after riding for five hours through “downs sweet scented with clover and very thinly populated,” disquieting news of events to the west filtered through to this remote region. “We heard rumours of a massacre of the Christians which had taken place at Adana.” She was referring to the pogroms of 1909, in which up to 30,000 Armenian Christians were killed in the wake of a backlash against the Young Turk (Committee of Union and Progress or CUP) revolution of the previous year. Naturally, the Christians of the region through which Bell was traveling were full of trepidation, though Bell wrote, “I bear testimony to the fact that all that I saw or heard of the agitation of 1909 led me to the conviction that the local authorities had set their faces against bloodshed, and by doing so had averted it.”
Churches, monasteries — and fleas
Perhaps the main attraction of the Tur Abdin for visitors today is its Syrian Orthodox monasteries and churches, the most well-known of which are Deyr-az-Zaferan, just outside Mardin, and Mor Gabriel, near Midyat. Bell was a pioneer in recording the history and architecture of these ancient, little-known monasteries for the West, and some of the ground plans she drew are still used in scholarly texts to this day. From Azakh (İdil), Bell headed west to explore the monastery of Mar Dobo, in the village of Daskan, west of Midyat. Here, she describes the floor of the church as being “black with fleas” and she was forced to “tear off her stockings and plunge them into a tank of water.” The apologetic priest told a disbelieving Bell that “there are a great many, but they are all swept out on a Sunday morning. On a Sunday there are none.”
En route to the fifth century Nestorian monastery complex of Mar Augen, today abandoned but relatively easily visited from Cizre, she met up with colorful Kurdish tribesmen in “short jackets … covered with embroidery, silver daggers stuck into their girdles, and upon their heads they wore immense erections of white felt, wrapped around with a silken handkerchief.” Another group she came into contact with was of the mysterious Yezidis who, like the Kurds but in much smaller numbers, still live in the Tur Abdin. Mar Augen, dramatically set in a cliff of the escarpment that forms the southern boundary of the Tur Abdin plateau, overlooking the Mesopotamian plain, was then still home to few monks. Bell spoke to one of them and wrote movingly: “I felt the centuries drop away and disclose the ascetic life of the early Christian world. They spend their days in meditation; their diet is bread and oil and lentils; no meat, and neither milk nor eggs may pass their lips; they may see no woman.”
Crossing the plateau to Midyat
Bell must have been one of the last foreigners to meet a Nestorian on what is now Turkish soil as they were driven out of their mountain fastnesses (most lived in the wild and remote mountains around Hakkari, well to the east of the Tur Abdin) during World War I for having sided with the invading Russians. Bell continued her journey northeast, across the plateau, to Mor Gabriel. The monastery here, which dates back to the sixth century, remains the spiritual heart of the Syrian Orthodox community of the Tur Abdin, and has been much restored in recent years despite the fact that so many Süriyani (as Syrian Orthodox Christians are known in Turkey) have left their native land for economic and political reasons. Even before the troubles of World War I, when the Süriyani were often seen as fifth-columnists of the Western powers by the ailing Ottoman state and were massacred or fled, Mor Gabriel was in a ruinous condition, and Bell wrote, “One monk and a single nun, well stricken in years, were its sole occupants at the time of my visit.”
Having sketched a ground plan of the monastery and its smoke-blackened church, Bell rode into nearby Midyat. Today, this pretty, church-studded town famed for the skill and number of its silversmiths, is undergoing a Mardin-like makeover. Bell saw a run-down place and was watched by the “population of Midiyad, men, women and children” whilst she measured the walls of a ruined church. She then set out northeast to what she rightly describes as “the jewel of the Tur Abdin,” the Church of the Virgin at Hah (Anıtlı). Like Mor Gabriel, it is today beautifully restored and welcoming to visitors. Unfortunately for Bell, it was here that she suffered her only “misadventure … in Turkey,” when she was robbed by local Kurdish tribesmen. Miraculously, with the help of 50 Ottoman soldiers, her gear was returned and she describes how “the villagers of Khakh assembled around the tents and shed tears of thankfulness over the recovered objects.”
Following a two-and-a-half day ride, Bell and her party approached Diyarbakır, which “stands on a high crest of the Tigris bank, a great fenced city built of basalt.” The Ottoman world was then convulsed by sectarian and religious strife and cosmopolitan, multi-race, multi-faith Diyarbakır was not immune, with Bell noting “there is no peace for the lawless capital of Kurdistan” and “Moslem and Christian were equally persuaded that the other was waiting for an opportunity to spring at his throat.” Despite the tensions within the medieval walls, Bell still had the presence of mind to explore one of Turkey’s most interesting cities before traveling on, as we shall see in a second installment of Bell’s adventures, to distant Konya.
Bell was born in 1868 in County Durham. Her father was a successful and wealthy business magnate, and was three times mayor of Middlesbrough. She graduated with a first from Oxford after just two years’ study, at the age of 18. She went on to travel widely in the Middle East as well as to climb in the Alps. During World War I, she worked for the British government, helping to persuade the Arabs to rebel against Ottoman rule, and in 1922 was responsible for drawing the borders of modern Iraq — a legacy of dubious merit. A keen archaeologist, she died in the state she had helped form in 1926 and is buried in Baghdad.