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In pursuit of an explorer

Following Miss Bell
by Pat Yale
Trailblazer Publications

“I don’t suppose there is anyone in the world happier than I am, or any country more lovely than Asia Minor.” So wrote Gertrude Bell in 1907, the year of the seventh of the eleven trips she made to Turkey between 1889 and 1914. It was in that year that she spent some six weeks working at the site known as Binbirkilise, alongside Sir William Ramsay, the respected authority on Anatolia’s ancient churches. Their joint publication, The Thousand and One Churches, inscribed her name in the annals of archaeology, bringing her recognition as an intrepid woman traveller, and a readership eager for further tales of her derring-do.

Gertrude Bell was a polymath and as prolific a writer of letters and diaries as she was a traveller. Her accounts of her visits to Istanbul help recreate for us a vanished city, while the record of her far-ranging journeys across Anatolia inform us of buildings that have since disappeared, and tell of landscapes and cultures that have been effaced. It was the more glamorous aspects of her life that were available to, and caught the imagination of, her earliest fans – besides archaeology, her official career was as an Arabist and an imperial administrator in the wider Middle East at the time of its remaking in the early 20th century. But her recounting of her travels to “the places in between” was more or less inaccessible. The change came with the opening at Newcastle University of a digital archive containing her written output and her photographs: the opportunity to relive Bell’s avid sightseeing and exploration in Turkey, even if vicariously, was hence open to all.

Pat Yale has taken up the challenge with gusto. Her compulsion to follow Bell is unsurprising, for she herself is a travel writer who, like her subject, studied history, and having lived in Turkey for decades is steeped in the life of her adopted homeland. Between 2014 and 2016, with Bell’s recently available writings to hand, and with the imprimatur of a travel grant part-funded by Cornucopia, Pat Yale re-enacted this remarkable woman’s journeys with tenacious detective work and attention to detail, and a considerable dose of fortitude. Bell’s earliest visits to Turkey were brief. The first time she set foot in Istanbul she had spent the winter in Bucharest, where her uncle was British Minister to Romania, while three further trips in the 1890s saw her back in the city, as well as sailing
to Trabzon by ferry and visiting Bursa, Troy and Ephesus. In 1902 she spent a month exploring Izmir and the surrounding region, and it was this foray, plus another in 1905, suggests Yale, that saw her transformed from tourist to explorer.

In 1905, on her return from Syria and Palestine, Bell rode into Antakya from Aleppo, describing leisurely loops through Anatolia to Konya. From there she headed to Istanbul by train before, in 1907, wandering even more circuitously from Izmir to Binbirklilise on the Konya plain. Two years later she returned from points east via Cizre. On this journey, and another in 1911, she visited the Syriac monasteries of the Tur Abdin. Pat Yale’s juxtaposed account of their current state is particularly valuable. Finally, in 1914, on the eve of war, she made brief stops in Izmir and Istanbul on her way home from Arabia. Bell’s writings on the minutiae of her meanderings in Turkey – on foot, on horseback, in a horse-drawn cart, or occasionally by camel – bear comparison with those of her most lauded forerunners.

Such was Yale’s dedication to her task that she spent time with the archaeologists at Carchemish, where Bell had preceded her – though the diggers at Binbirkilise were not evident during her visit. Mountaineering was one of Bell’s pursuits, and Yale more than once found herself scrambling upwards. Her ascent by barely visible goat paths and through thorny thickets to view Ephesus from on high ended with an after-dark rescue by the taxi driver who had deposited her hours earlier. Both women found Hasan Dağı challenging, while Cudi Dağı evaded Yale owing to local security issues. Even lowland adventures had their moments, especially when local people denied all knowledge of monuments that Bell wrote of, or when over-willing helpers refused to give up the quest long after Yale’s energies were spent. 

Weaving in her own experiences and observations with those of Bell, Yale employs telling snatches of her predecessor’s writings, and supplies valuable, informative context. In so doing she creates a link between past and present and coaxes a lost world to yield up its secrets. Both travellers relished their encounters with a host of local people – notably, in Yale’s case, the taxi drivers who eased or impeded her mission.

From a privileged background and a debutante, Gertrude Bell succumbed to the Levantine travel bug, and it framed her life thereafter – as it has Pat Yale’s and those of many of us. Her book is affectionate, entertaining and memory-prompting, a fitting tribute to Gertrude Bell, and a vade-mecum for travellers to Turkey and armchair dreamers alike.

Caroline Finkel is the author of ‘Osman’s Dream, The History of the Ottoman Empire 1300–1923’ (John Murray)

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 66
  • Don McCullin’s Wars and Peace

    The great photojournalist Don McCullin talks to Maureen Freely of the darkness and light that have marked his life and his searingly truthful work

  • The Treasured Shell

    Since the 1940s time has stood still under the pines and palms of this modest Art Deco villa on Istanbul’s Marmara shore. Berrin Torolsan meets Suna Erbil Demirağ, who has fiercely protected it as a tribute to her pioneering father, who carved out a thousand kilometres of Turkey’s railways before building this much-loved haven. Photographs by Monica Fritz

  • The Season Ticket

    In the dead of winter, the photographer and filmmaker Annette Louise Solakoğlu takes the long, slow train journey east from Ankara to the borderland where Turkey meets Armenia and Georgia, scanning the frozen vastness of the north Anatolian landscape

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Issue 66, December 2023 Turkey’s Centenary Issue
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