Tales from the Queen of the Desert is a set of excerpts from two books by a remarkable woman, Gertrude Bell. Bell was a travel writer, diplomat, linguist, archaeologist, even a spy during World War I. She was widely regarded as an expert on the Near and Middle East and helped establish the country of Iraq.
She wrote the first book, Persian Pictures, after she visited her uncle in Persia (modern-day Iran) in 1892. She was very observant, and whether she is describing the landscape, the bazaar, or her impressions of Tehran, her descriptions are so vivid that it’s possible to imagine exactly what she saw.
In this book, she is sometimes a little snide, in a superior sort of way, although sometimes funnily so, as when she reports her impressions of the famous Peacock Throne of the Shah. At first she is astounded when she realizes that every inch of the room, including the carpet, is encrusted with jewels. But then she notices other objects among the jewels—patent medicine pills and toothbrushes, for example, which are also treated as treasures. As a final touch, she notes that the room is lined with boxes, which turn out to be music boxes. She understands that the Shah likes to turn them on all at the same time.
Some of her observations resound strongly even today. For example, at the beginning of the first chapter, she describes entering Tehran from the west gate. From that side, the city at the time was relatively unpopulated, the desert creeping in. But by the east gate, the town was vibrant and full of people. She concludes, “The East looks to itself, it knows nothing of the greater world of which you are a citizen, asks nothing of you and your civilization.”
Syria: The Desert and the Sown was published in 1907 after what was apparently Bell’s second trip to Syria, as she references a visit five years before. In this book, although she visits some of the area’s most important cities, the excerpts concentrate more on her travels in the hinterlands, where she meets many interesting people and examines archaeological sites. She also has another errand, which she does not discuss.
The excerpts from this book seem more fragmentary, for she begins chapters in different locations than she left off. Again, her descriptive powers are notable. By now, she gets by very well in Arabic and has studied the customs and courtesies of the area. Her attitude of slightly amused superiority is gone.
In both books, Bell’s writing is almost poetic at times. It’s easy to feel the romance and dangers of the East. There is nothing like some books for taking you to another place and time.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
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