On the whole I think it’s safe to say that not many Turks have heard of Gertrude Bell, which is probably just as well since if they have heard of her it’s usually in a negative context.
“Casus (spy),” they say, to which my rejoinder would be that, yes, once the First World War started, Bell was indeed a spy. But before the war and especially during her first youthful trips to Turkey the truth is that she was little more than a richer, better-than-averagely-well-connected tourist who went on to become an archaeologist.
In the first few weeks of this trip as I worked my way down the Aegean coast I came across only one man, the brother of a carpetshop-owner in Selçuk, who confessed to knowing anything about Gertrude. A keen local historian who has assembled an impressive collection of postcards of old Selçuk, he came to meet me armed with a file of information about her which cheered me up considerably. But the most startling encounter came later when I’d backtracked up to Aydın.
Aydın is a city that suffered terribly during the later stages of the Turkish War of Independence (1919-22) with the result that little remains of its historic core. Until recently what did remain was in a shocking state of decrepitude but now the Aydın authorities, like authorities all over the country, have cottoned on to the potential of tourism and work has begun on renovating what’s left.
The huge Zincirli Hanı, for example, that was in a very sorry state when last I saw it has been given a complete makeover and should soon be housing small shops. Strolling past, I wondered if it was there that Gertrude had stayed while in Aydın although it seemed rather further from the station than her description seems to suggest.
My path turned then to the Cihanoğlu Cami, my favourite of the town’s many mosques, and clearly described in her diaries. On the steps outside I fell into conversation with a man whom I had mistaken for the imam but who turned out to be an English teacher. No sooner had I started to explain why I was there than his eyes lit up. “Ger-ter-ood!” he said and at once we were rushing into the medrese for a chat.
This man, whose name was also Aydın, turned out to know a fair amount about Gertrude Bell although he was a little confused on a few points – “She was friends with Agatha Christie, yes? Her husband was an archaeologist in Iraq too” – but mainly he wanted to know if it was true that she had travelled alone.
And there I had to disillusion him because although she was certainly alone in the sense that she was the only Westerner in her party – and always the only woman – in reality she almost always had with her her manservant, Fattuh, and an assortment of guides, guards and miscellaneous hangers-on.
“You are the new Gertrude Bell and in another hundred years we will read about where you went!” Aydın exclaimed as we said our goodbyes.
Well, I don’t know about that. But I do know that we had both enjoyed our unexpected meeting enormously. Thankfully, the word “casus” didn’t once cross his lips.