No more mails in yet & so far no news of any. I see some of ours of June & thereabouts have arrived home safely which is a good thing. I hope you got my wire about my new address, also my letter telling you all about my new appointment.
I have had a 3 days jaunt, sight-seeing. One Gibbon, a fellow-instructor here, and I have been round to all the local sights ancient and modern. The first day we went 60 miles along a railway in a motor trolley, which we wangled out of a pal in the railways, and then went by car over a most appallingly bumpy and dusty road for 18 miles or so to a place called Kufah* on the Euphrates. Here a pal of mine, by name Fisher, is political officer & we stayed with him. We had been travelling since 5.30 a.m. & reached his house about 3 am & so were very tired & hungry – not to say thirsty! – especially as it is August and none too cool as you may imagine, 110º in the shade about, & travelling in the back of a ford van with no hood over a bad road is no joke! However we had come out to enjoy ourselves & enjoy ourselves we meant to whatever happened.
Kufah is a really charming place. Built along the river bank it is nice & cool & refreshing, with green palms & willows everywhere, & green scrub & thorn all round. About 6 miles off, bang in the middle of the desert, is a place called Nejef, the 2nd most holy Mohamedan city in the world, the first of course being Mecca. Here the prophet Mahomet’s son Ali is buried, & his mosque is a magnificent affair with a dome of gold – real gold, thin plates of it fastened over a brick-work mold – Ali is supposed to have been wounded in battle at Kufah, & then crawled away to die, & there right out in the desert where he died they buried him & the city of Nejef rose round his tomb.
*rhymes with Loofah
It lies right out in the desert, absolutely alone, & the golden dome sticks up out of the drab-coloured mud houses and is visible for miles and miles round. It is a lovely sight, with the sun shining on it, as it does all day out here, and on the horizon it shows up as a pin-point of light in the middle of the bare brown parched desert.
Thousands and thousands of Mohamedans are buried here every year, & they bring their dead from hundreds of miles, from all parts of India & Persia.
At Kufah there is Jonah’s mosque, on the traditional site of the spot where the whale deposited him. In those days I suppose seas & lakes existed round about here and after all it is only a traditional spot. We saw all these places of course, & went round Kufah bazaar, the usual arab covered in affair, & the usual mixed crowd and smells, and funny pokey little shops. The river is most awfully pretty there, with islands & creeks, & any amount of willows. But the surrounding country is all a howling waste, and in time with irrigation & improved conditions large tracts of it will become cultivated land once more.
All this land teems with history of course, Biblical, classical, mythical, and romantic. On our way back yesterday we came part of the way by car, about 37 miles over awful roads again. En route we passed the reputed site of the Tower of Babel, a huge mound with a ruin on the top. The mound must be 200 or 300 feet high, & is composed of ruined masonry and cement sort of stuff, which all looks as if at one time it had been subjected to tremendous heat of some sort, a colossal fire or something like that. Considerable doubt exists as to whether it has any real claim to be Babel, but there it is & it is certainly the ruins of some big building and it is visible for miles and miles.
We then went to Hillah, the centre of a very fertile district & sometimes called the Granary of Mesopotamia. We are making tremendous improvements there, irrigating it & sowing acres of grain and in time it will be restored to its former prosperity no doubt. It is extraordinarily rich soil all round there and anything & everything will grow there, with remarkable rapidity, & 2 or 3 crops a year are possible. Irrigation & science will work wonders, for the water is there in the Euphrates, but millions & millions of tons of it runs to waste into the sea every year instead of being used to make this wonderful soil productive. But we are rapidly changing all that & already a big harvest has been reaped this first year.
Near Hillah are the ruins of Babylon. I know very little about them, it seems there are several cities buried one on top of the other, as successive conquerors destroyed the place & rebuilt it. The mounds under which all this ancient civilisation lies stretch for miles, but it is only in one place that any attempt at excavation has been made, by a Boche archeologist who was here for 17 years before the war.
There is not much to be seen but it is I think extraordinarily interesting, even to people like ourselves entirely ignorant of Babylonian history. As I say the ruins are all buried & a series of huge mounds of masonry & broken pottery marks the spot. To reveal the old buildings it has been necessary to dig down deep into the earth 30 or 40 feet in places, & doubtless there is lots more below. So far several walls & ruined buildings have been brought to light, in wonderful state of preservation too. Paved roads are visible in parts, & the shells of houses, showing windows & doors, with weeds & scrub growing all over them. In one place they unearthed a remarkable well-preserved granite statue of a lion, which has been mounted on a pedestal in the midst of the ruins.
It is believed that there were 50 of these, covered in precious stones, lining each side of a triumphal road in the old days, but no trace of this has yet been unearthed. Then there are some extraordinary mural decorations on the walls of an old triumphal gate. Weird beasts & horses in bas relief, about ¼ – ½ life size, not carved in one piece of stone, but a little bit of each picture on each separate brick, so that they have to be buiilt into the wall like a puzzle; it must have been tricky work building those walls!
Beyond those few odds & ends there is nothing for the casual visitor to see, though doubtless there is enough material there to keep the world’s archeologists busy for centuries. But I thought it was all very impressive, & one could’nt help thinking & wondering what Nebuchadnezzar & his court and all the millions of inhabitants were doing 3000 years ago on the very spot where we stood yesterday-
We came back by motor trolley & reached home at 9.30 a.m. thoroughly tired & weary. Not a bad day the last one, Nejef, Jonah’s mosque, Ezekiel’s tomb, Babel, Babylon & Baghdad – for we saw all of these in the course of the day – a grand round tour with a vengeance. I forgot to mention Ezekiel’s tomb, it is at a place called Kifl*, one of the places we passed both on our journey out & home. Of course it was a rush, & we had a lot to see, but we did it in true American style; there was no other way to do it in the time at our disposal. But I thought I could’nt leave the country without seing Babylon & Babel at one’s front door so to speak – & one might’nt get another chance. I go to join my new brigade tomorrow. I’m still tired after my strenuous days!
Best love to all
yr loving son
I took some photos of Babylon I hope to send some along some time, if they ever come out
*rhymes with ‘piffle’
Site of the Imam Ali foundation
Archaeology projects in Iraq (map locations lead to photos)