Louisa (Jebb) Mrs. Roland Wilkins. Wilkins.

By desert ways to Baghdad online

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We made a detour round the edge to avoid the
embankments and marshy places, and then struck to
the right across the uneven ground, at a jolting foot's
pace, towards a clump of palms on the banks of the
river. The trees partially concealed the one stone
house of the district, the home of three German
professors who are superintending the work of


excavation now going on. A mud wall separated it
from a collection of mud huts ; here live the natives
employed in removing the sand which buries the
architectural monuments of ancient times.

We were at the foot of one of the larger mounds ;
it is called the Kasr by travellers and Mujelibe (the
overturned) by the Arabs, and represents the only
part of Babylon which is not altogether buried. We
climbed up the great square mass composed entirely
of the debris of former habitations ; the surface was
strewn with broken bricks and tiles ; in the centre
stood the remains of solid blocks of masonry. Look-
ing down into a lar^e ravine at the further end we
saw — half-blocked with rubbish — walls, courtyards,
doorways, pilasters, and buttresses built of pale yellow-
coloured bricks, each bearing the name of Nebu-
chadnezzar. Here and there architectural ornaments
were built in with the walls ; bits of bright coloured
enamel and pieces of broken pottery lay about. We
wandered amongst the huge ruin, balancing ourselves
on the edges of low remaining walls and clambering
from one courtyard to another. A jackal darted from
under our feet with a shrill bark ; he was answered
from behind distant walls by innumerable hidden com-
panions. An owl flew out of a dark corner and perched,
blinking, a little way off ; a great black crow hovered
uneasily overhead. The broad walls of Babylon were
indeed utterly broken, and her houses were indeed full
of doleful creatures. We sat down and listened to the
wild beasts crying in her desolate houses ; it was
indeed "a dwelling-place for dragons, an astonishment,
and an hissing without an inhabitant."

Gate oi Ishtar. Nebuchadnezzar's Palace.



Shamash, the Sun-god, was nearing the western
gate of heaven. The gate-bolts of the bright
heavens were giving him greeting.

The Euphrates and its wooded banks lay between
us and the horizon ; above the river-line we saw a
row of jet black palms in an orange setting, and below
it a row of jet black palms standing on their heads in
the rippled golden water. Shamash has reached the
summit of the Mount of Sunset ; he slowly descends ;
the orange changes to red, the general conflagration
becomes streaked and barred ; the waters of the river
grow black, almost as black as the reflected palms,
the streaks slowly die away. Shamash has entered
into the Kirib Shame, the " innermost part of
heaven, that mysterious realm beyond the heavenly
ocean, where the great gods dwell apart from

"O Shamash, thou art the judge of the world,
Thou directest the decisions thereof. . . ."

Thus prayed the dwellers of the city four thousand
years ago. And with the same light with which you
lit the pomp and splendour of the works of their time,
you light the decay and ruin and hideous desolation
of the present.

" Verily there is a God which judgeth the earth,"
say we, four thousand years later.

And as you smiled on those who worshipped you
as the supreme God and Creator of all things, so you
smile on us who look upon you, bound and fixed, with
no will of your own, following the inevitable laws of


Nature. Will you, four thousand years hence, light
with the same light sojourners in this land, and will
they wonder at our conception of your nature and
function, as we wonder at the faith that your ancient
worshippers had in you ? Or will you, before them,
have run your allotted course and consumed the
whole world, whether in the fiery furnace of your
wrath or in the uncontrolled madness of your broken
bonds ?

The next morning we visited Babel, the mound we
had passed the day before. We walked for more
than a mile through the palm-groves by the river.
Under the shade of the trees were numerous huts made
of mud, covered and enclosed with piles of fine brush-
wood. There were various signs of human occupa-
tions. Two cows were toiling peacefully up and down
an entrenchment, drawing water in skins over a rough
windlass ; the skins emptied themselves into a channel,
and the water wandered about in vaguely directed
irrigation. On the bank beside them lolled an Arab with
a long pole, who prodded the sleepy beasts in the
moments when he was more awake than they were.
A large mass of brushwood was moving in front of
us ; it looked like one of the huts endowed with a pair
of very thin brown legs. As we overtook it the mass
half turned towards us, and a woman's form, doubled
in two, looked small in the middle of it.

At the doors of the enclosures naked children
sprawled about, all with gleaming white teeth and
closely shaven heads, save for the one lock of hair,
with which they are to be pulled up to heaven ; women
with tattooed faces and dangling ornaments pounded

A Large Mass or Brushwood was Moving in Frokt of Us.

face f-igc 252.


barley in primitive stone mortars, and baked thin
cakes of bread on flat stones.

Leaving the river-side we struck out to the right
for half a mile across the bare, parched ground, where
tufts of rough grass were trying to get a footing in
the white, barren soil. We climbed up the mound,
passing bands of workmen tunnelling in the sides and
removing the bricks which lay about in tumbled heaps
or in bits of standing walls.

From the top of Babel we could look right over
the tract of land once enclosed by the walls of
Babylon. The descriptions of Herodotus enable the
traveller to call up some sort of idea of the scene in
his time. We learn from him that the city was built
in the form of a square, surrounded by walls of enor-
mous strength ; each side of the square was fourteen
miles long, each side had twenty-five gates of solid
brass and was defended by square towers built above
the wall ; twenty-five streets went straight across the
city each way from gate to gate. The city was thus
cut into squares. The houses, three or four stories
high, faced the street and were built at a little distance
apart from each other ; between them were gardens
and plantations. A branch of the river ran through
the city ; its banks were one long quay. The larger
buildings stood in the centre of a square, each
apparently fortified and surrounded by walls of its
own. It is of these smaller walls only that any trace
can be detected. From the foot of Babel, where we
stood, remains of earthern ramparts could be traced
for two or three miles southwards ; they then turned
at right angles towards the river and extended as far


as its eastern bank. The mounds they enclosed were
presumably the site of the more important buildings.
Babel itself is supposed to represent the temple of
Belus. The Mujelibe, or Kasr, lying to the south of
us, is identified with the Palace of Nebuchadnezzar
and the hanging gardens ; further south still was a
lesser mound, Amram. We knew that Birs Nimroud,
the great ruin which is looked upon as the Tower of
Babel, lay beyond this again, although we could not
see it from where we stood.

The whole gleamed white in the strong sunshine. On
our right the Euphrates rolled along, as unconcerned in
his course as the Sun-god overhead. We could trace
the direction of the river southwards to the horizon,
marked by the palms along its banks. They made
a thin, dark line across a wide, light plain — an alluvial
tract which is only waiting to yield its hidden gifts on
the day when Man joins hands with Nature and
distributes the waters of the river. But not so the
actual soil of Babylon ; that soil, consisting as it does
of building dust and debris, is of a nature which
destroys vegetation. " The Lord of Hosts hath
swept it with the besom of destruction," and it is
doomed perpetually to be a "dry land, a wilderness,
a land wherein no man dwelleth."

As we looked upon the great plain which stretched
away all round until it carried the eye on into the
sky above, we could almost believe with the ancients
that the edge of the earth joined the dome of heaven
and that both were supported by the waters of Apsn
— the deep.

A great wave of silence rolled out of the desert and


broke over us. It seemed natural to be immersed in
silence ; could anything else be expected from a land
which had never been alive with the stir of humanity-
even in far-off ages, of which one might now feel the
hush while listening for the echo? The desert had
always been silent and would be silent for ever more
— a dead, unconscious silence, with no significance
save of absence of life. But when we looked at the
site of Babylon stretched just beneath us, we became
vividly conscious of a real, living silence ; we were
listening to the " hum of mighty workings"; voices
of souls long since dead, the dust of whose bodies lay
at our feet, were " wakening the slumbering ages."
Had not Nebuchadnezzar entered into the House of
the Dead in the great cavern Araltu, the Land of No
Return ? The dead had been stirred up, even the
chief ones of earth, to greet him as he entered hell :
"Art thou also become weak as we? Art thou
become like unto us ? Thy pomp is brought down to
the grave, and the noise of thy viols : the worm is
spread under thee, and the worms cover thee, ..."
and they looked at him narrowly, saying, " Is this
the man that made the earth to tremble ? "

And yet still for us " the wind uttered " and " the
spirit heard" his vainglorious cry: "Is not this the
great Babylon that I have built for the house of the
kingdom by the might of my power and for the
honour of my majesty ? "

The silent answer to it lay at our feet. And, listen-
ing, we heard the solemn warnings of Daniel, the
sorrowful forebodings of Jeremiah, and, above all, the
ironical voice of Isaiah: —


" Let them stand up and save thee,
Mappers of heavens, Planet observers, Tellers of new moons,
From what must befall thee."

As we listened again we heard the noise " like as
of a great people; a tumultuous noise of the kingdoms
of nations gathered together . . .

"A sound of battle is in the land and of great
destruction . . .

"A sound of a cry cometh from Babylon and great
destruction from the land of the Chaldeans . . .

" One post ran to meet another post, and one
messenger to meet another to shew the king of
Babylon that his city is taken."

Then we heard a sound of much feasting and
revelling ; we heard a solemn hush when there came
forth fingers of a man's hand and wrote upon the
wall. Even as we listened to the hush it seemed to
grow into the great hush of ages, and we remembered
that we stood alone in the living silence of these great
dead, surrounded by the dead silence of an uninhabited


Overhead the Sun-god silently vaunted his eternal
existence ; at our feet the Euphrates rolled fresh
waters of oblivion from an eternal source to an
eternal sea.



THE Syrian desert between Baghdad and
Damascus ; two white tents, a prowling jackal,
and a starry sky.

There was a sense of stir in camp ; a rattle of tins
and a neighing of animals ; a faint odour of lighted
charcoal was wafted in at the tent door. I opened
one eye ; X still slumbered peacefully at the opposite
side of the tent. Arten appeared at the door with a
jug of water and a light. "One o'clock," he said
laconically as he placed them on the ground and
retired. The stars were still shining, my bed was very
warm. True, it was one o'clock in Turkish time only,
but no Christian ought to be roused at that hour. X
fell out of bed with a determined thump. " It's late,"
she said. I made no response, but, knowing from
experience that X was always right, tried to recon-
struct my ideas about time and reconcile the fact that
it was late with its being one o'clock in the morning.
Besides, if X ordained that it was late, in another half-
hour the tent ropes would be loosened regardless of
the stage our toilet had reached, and a falling tent,




when one has just got one's back hair into shape, is
exasperating if not damaging. I got up, and just
managed to hurl myself through the door, mostly
clothed, as the tent collapsed on the ground. X was
already seated cross-legged on a rug outside, holding
one blue hand over a few charcoal embers while she
munched a piece of dry bread held in the other.
" You need not think I have eaten all the butter," she
said, " because there wasn't any." Satisfied with the
explanation, I munched my bread in silence and
swallowed a cup of thick tea ; we had been carrying
water for three days and it was getting opaque.

The stillness of the night which reigned outside
was being invaded by the cries and movements of
men ; dark forms flitted about as they watered the
animals and adjusted the nose-bags for the morning's
feed. A horse, impatient of his tether, had broken
loose and was galloping defiantly round the camp,
inspired to further mischief by the methods of his
pursuers, whose idea of reassuming their authority
over him was to rush in his direction flourishing whips
and uttering piercing cries. He was finally brought
to bay entangled in some tent ropes, and a sudden
lull fell on the disturbed atmosphere. The Oriental
can work himself into a pitch of excitement which
would keep a European in hysterics for several hours,
and then suddenly drop the matter and become
instantly silent and unconcerned. There seems no
half-way stage between excessive noise and an in-
different silence.

Somewhat awakened by this incident, the men set
to work to pack up the camp ; the mules were


■ -*.:■-■- I

» * ^% ^


Babel. Mound of Nabopolassar's Palace

Our Muletbers. Syrian Desert.


unloosed and stood about with looks of resignation
as the loads were adjusted on the creaking pack-
saddles and secured with copes. There was a subdued
din and confusion without any sense of hurry.
"Allah! Allah!" the native cries when he exerts
himself in any way. "Aha, aha!" he cries with
equal ardour, mingled with satisfaction, when his task
is accomplished.

And now the last knot has been tied, the last cloak
laid across the saddle ; the last ember of the dying
charcoal fire has been carefully raked out to light the
cigarette, and we straggle slowly out into the gloom,
leaving one charred spot and a sardine tin in the
sandy w T aste.

There had been a suggestion of redness in the
gathering light for the last few moments ; streaks
of silver and bars of gold lined the dusky sky. It is
disconcerting to be travelling westwards when one
wishes to be aware of a rising sun. I twisted myself
round in the saddle and, leaving my horse to pick
his way, advanced backwards. The whole scene was
soon a vast glow of colour, the yellow sand of the
desert holding: and reflecting the brilliant reds and

o o

yellows ; and now the sun appeared on the horizon
line and slowly rose, until the whole disc of fire stood
out in glowing magnificence and then gradually grew
paler as he shared his substance with the surrounding
sky. The long straggling line of our caravan, which
had looked like a black serpent twisting through a sea
of fire, became less black in the growing light, and
men and animals assumed individual shapes.

In another half-hour the broad light of day showed


the surroundings in their common aspect. I twisted
round again in the saddle, and, having turned my back
on poetry and romance, became only conscious of
the temperature of my extremities. The cold was
intense ; X and the soldiers were far ahead ; the
caravan lagged behind ; I was alone with cold hands
and feet. Poets and philosophers have talked of
being alone with the sun and the earth : if ever
conditions were favourable for enjoying the sole
companionship of these two elements, it might seem
to be under the present circumstances. But in the
desert one can be more alone even than this, for in
some frames of mind the sky and the earth give one
no sense of companionship. Cold and implacable the
grim silent desert stretched away in front beyond the
realms of space ; the hard blue sky overhead stared
into the abyss of Time, offering no link between
Nature and Man. There was nothing one could take
hold of; no cloud in the sky of which to ask the
question " Whither ? " ; no shadow on the earth to
which one could say " Whence ? " You were thrown
back on yourself, were only conscious of your beating
heart and a void. The words of a great lover of
nature rose up in my mind : " There is nothing
human in nature. The earth, though loved so dearly,
would let you perish on the ground and neither bring-
forth food nor water. Burning in the sky the great
sun, of whose company I have been so fond, would
merely burn on and make no motion to assist me."
You felt keenly alive in the middle of this cold dead
space, and you knew there w T as something alive in
you which demanded something of it ; had you no


place in the economy of this great silent Universe,
was there no way of making yourself heard or felt ?
Is it that the soul of man must be there to make
things alive, and you were now crossing earth where
no soul of man had crossed before, and all things
were dead ? From sheer agony I cried out ; no
answering echo followed ; the sound fell flat and dead.
The cold heavens stared placidly on, the surface of
the earth was unruffled. I drew rein and listened
intently : I heard the roar of London streets ; the cry
of the newsboy, the milkman's call, the tramp of a
million hurrying feet ; I heard the rush of trains
and the screech of engines ; I heard a thousand
discordant voices in divers tongues where men were
struggling and rushing after material ends. And
dominating all this, infinitely louder and more distinct,
making itself heard supreme and all powerful, filling
the great space in which one had seemed eternally
lost, I heard — the Silence of the desert. Why wish
to make one's self heard ? — better be still and listen
to the voice of silence ; let its words sink into you
and become part of you, and so take some of its quiet
and peace back with you into those crowded cities
of men.

If there is a link between anything in you and
this grim stretch of barren sand and impassive depth
of distant sky, it is the response of its silence to the
silence in you. It is the material aspect of silence
in its crudest form appealing to and recognising in
you the unspeakable realms of silence which exist in
the region you are dimly conscious of beyond your
senses. As we pray to the sea for its depth and calm,


to the wind for its freedom, to the sun for its light,
so we pray to the desert for its silence. Let your
nature expand to the width of this horizon, to the
height and depth of this sky, and fill it all with the
eternity of this silence.

Ask of the sun why it shines, and if there is light in
you it will answer ; ask of the wind why it blows, and
to fettered and free alike it gives its answer ; ask of
the desert why it is silent, and if there is silence in
you you need no answer.

Is there any calm for you in the sea until you put
it there ? Do you feel any freedom in the wind until
you have created it ? But can you, in any mood or
under any circumstance, evade the silence of the
desert? Its influence extends alike to those who
receive it and those who resent it.

The men who have no region of silence in them-
selves are under the power of its physical aspect ; to
them it is oppressive, wearying, and deadening ; there
is an absence of life, a presence of monotony from
which there is no escape. But once we recognise its
silence as being of the nature of what we possess in
ourselves, the shadow of monotony and oppressiveness
is lifted. Can its effect be better described than it is
in that fundamental doctrine of Islam, where it almost
coincides with the teachings of Christianity in its
endeavour to give expression to the truth ? " Islam,"
that is the resignation of our own will to that of one
great power, the effacement of self, the futility of
putting our own will or mind against that of the
great, silent, all powerful, inevitable laws of Nature —
the Moslem idea of Fate and Power — the Christian's



blending of his own will with the Divine will —
the scientist's recognition of Law — you may put it
how you will ; are they not but different interpreta-
tions of the unseen power, which, silent in itself and
only understood in silence, holds supreme sway in
moments of silence, and, when expressed in its
physical aspect in these barren regions of the earth,
appeals through our eyes and ears to the regions
in us, beyond these senses, where it exists in its
essential condition ?

I rode on ; the sun had warmed my left side
through and the right was beginning to thaw. My
shadow, which had been keeping pace with the horse
on the right, now began to creep in front as the sun
rose higher. By the time its burning rays poured
straight down overhead the foreshortened shadow
seemed to be leading the way along the desert track.
In time the heat became almost unbearable, and,
suddenly awakening to the stern realities of physical
discomfort, I brought my whip down on the horse's
flank ; he leaped, startled, in the air, and then flew
after his shadow in a settled gallop. Air, of which
one had become unconscious, rushed past one's face,
and the muffled thud of his hoofs on the sand seemed
to measure time and space. I dashed up to X and
stopped dead beside her. She looked round inquir-
ingly. " Let's eat," I said. She looked at her watch.
"We have been riding four hours," she said; "we
might stop at the next good place." I looked ahead
significantly. "One place looks much the same as
another," I said. " I think there is a dip in the
ground further on," she answered, " where we might


get a little shelter." There did seem to be a slight
wave in the flat expanse and we rode on to it, but, like
all dips in this country, when we arrived at it, it did
not seem to be there. We had had so much experi-
ence in riding after delusive dips that we decided to
stop here, and slid off our horses. The cook
unpacked the lunch from his saddle-bags and placed
hard-boiled eggs, biscuits, and dates beside us. He
carefully filled a cup with a thick, brown liquid from
the bottom of his waterskin. " Bitdi," he said, by
which expression he conveyed that the fresh water
was now finished. Then he and the men retired
a few yards and ate their lunch. Nothing was heard
but the steady munch of human jaws. Then they
stretched themselves on the sand and absolute silence
reigned, broken by occasional snores. We too lay
back, each concealed from the other under two huge
umbrellas, which seemed rather to focus the sun's rays
than shade them from us.

When one was alone the desert had seemed full of
unqualified silence ; in company with others the
silence seemed even greater, for the slight sounds
which there were made one more conscious of the
sound which was not. The clank of the horses' bits,
the quiet breathing of one's companions, the stir of a
foot, made one realise the intensity of the silence
of the whole vast expanse. The far-off tinkling of the
mule bells in the approaching caravan gave one a
sense of distance in a way one would hardly experi-
ence by simply gazing at an unapproachable horizon.
The heat and the slight fatigue added a feeling of
drowsiness which would make even the solid things


around one seem shadowy and distant. It was a
waking sleep ; one's senses were numb because of the
absence of anything to call them into play, though
one might "see, hear, feel, outside the senses." In
the same way that one is alone in a London street one
can live in a whirl in the desert ; the throb of

humanity X's umbrella shut with a bang.

" Wake up, the caravan is coming." A cloud of dust,
a stamping of animals, a shouting of men, and we
were off once more. It was our habit to keep pace
with the camp in the latter half of the day, and for

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Online LibraryLouisa (Jebb) Mrs. Roland Wilkins. WilkinsBy desert ways to Baghdad → online text (page 15 of 18)