Indirections: A Memoir 1909-1947
Chapter Ten — Greece, Crete, Palestine — 31
Greece, Crete, Palestine
at the end of my first season in Egypt, John invited Ralph Lavers and me to stay with him and his wife Hilda at Knossos on our way back to England. I left Cairo first, arranging to meet them in Athens.
The Turkish ship plied between Alexandria, Athens and Constantinople, carrying passengers and cargo. I was almost alone in the second class, where in spite of encouraging notices — 'Electric Lambs to be extinguished at 24 Midnight', Passangers announce to waiter for intention if desired to take bath', 'Not to touch piano if can not play well', no one spoke or understood English German French Italian or even Arabic — perhaps not modern Greek either — while I knew no word of Turkish. The food was equally strange; the only thing I recognized in the breakfast set before me was plum cake.
Athens was cold at first, with a strong bitter north wind, then grew mild, but the horizon remained misty, and it was never really clear. After Cairo, which I had not yet come to like, I thought it paradisal — clean, soft-coloured, with flowering weeds growing over the rocky hills in the town and on the Acropolis, and cypresses, small pines, olives and other leafless trees in the streets and squares. John had given me an introduction to Humfry Payne, Director of the British School of Archaeology, where I read sometimes when not sight-seeing. I liked climbing Lycabettos, the hill rising almost from the centre of the town, at sunset, and once or twice I spent a day on Hymettus, the mountain which bounds Athens to the east. Hymettus is all grey marble, very seamed, pitted and broken, mostly bare except for shrubs in crevices, its only trees a few thin pines here page 211and there. At that time of year it was alive with wild flowers. Rich dark cyclamen leaves grew everywhere out of the rock, but no flowers with them yet. On the lower slopes scarlet anemones were in full flower, growing in large colonies, and grape hyacinths crowded densely and so wide-spreading I could not jump across and had to tread them down, which I hated doing. The anemones and cyclamen kept reminding me of Grandfather and of those at Manono, which he had brought from Greece and Italy.
In England, wild flowers spring from the abundance of the earth, and belong with the luxuriant trees, wide-arching, voluptuous, bosomy, rich with deep shadow and peace and solitude, fresh and yet ageless. Although English winters are hard, and summers often wet, sunless, or very broken, the flowers breathe warmth and lavish ease among their wealth of many-shaped leaves darker and lighter. But in countries of the eastern Mediterranean, flowers are born of poverty — from thin and poor soil, crevices in the rock. They are less opulent, without wreaths and bowers of green to show them off; being more exposed and naked, their colours burn headily in the clear light; the strong sun opens them out quickly, and they wither sooner. Poppies in English cornfields echo the larks overhead, singing radiantly clear. In Greece, poppies are darker, blood-coloured, burning with the silent ferocity of that ardent love of country which has kept Greece alive and itself through so many centuries of feud, conquest, oppression and humiliation.
I liked sitting in the colonnade of the temple of Athena Nike on the Acropolis and looking out to sea — the place from which Aegeus is said to have watched for the return of Theseus after he sailed to Crete to kill the Minotaur. Wherever you stand in Greece the earth and the air are thick with legend and history; they populate it even more densely than in Italy; only in Palestine are they so dense. This is deeply stirring but also intimidating; it takes a fine poet or painter to engage and master such riches and not be overwhelmed. Greek poets and painters were engaging them just then, but I did not know that Greece had any modern literature or art (if Pendlebury knew, he did not mention it). New Zealand was the exact antithesis of this; there, every hill, plain, lake and stream was encountering man's gaze for the first time — for it was only in the north that the Maoris had left page 212any imprint on the country; and that first raw meeting of man and nature was shocking and sterile. *
A general election took place soon after my arrival. I spent the next morning on the Acropolis, and the afternoon at the British School. Rifle and machine-gun fire broke out in the town and continued sporadically, tanks drove about, aeroplanes roared overhead. I walked home after dark. To reach my hotel in Bucarest Street I had to cross one of the main streets. It was unusually empty, but behind every lamp-post or telegraph-post stood an armed soldier, one of whom covered me with his rifle while I crossed. It seemed play-acting. A great crowd of well-dressed Greeks was dining at the hotel, very animated and gay. I soon learned that the Venizelists, the government party, had lost the election and that very early this morning a general had seized the War Office, suspended the constitution, proclaimed martial law, and closed the newspaper offices. The Greeks round me were enjoying the situation. But almost no one supported General Plastiras, his rising collapsed, and he fled eventually to Paris. It was an almost bloodless affair.
It was an overnight crossing to Crete. The small crowded ship sailed from Piraeus in the evening, pitching into the rough Aegean. We sat in the saloon drinking wine — John's favourite retzina probably, but one by one grew sea-sick and made for bed. The pitching did not stop until we entered the harbour of Candia in the morning.
* See 'The Silent Land' in The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1960)
Soon we set off to walk across the island to Gortyna and Phaestos, ancient sites near the south coast. One of John's retainers, Kronis, had charge of a mule and a mare that carried our belongings; Hilda rode one of them occasionally, sitting sidesaddle. Kronis was an imposing man of middle-aged solidity. Many of the peasants we met on the way wore partly European clothing, but he was all Cretan; black or blue-black baggy trousers tucked into knee-high boots, dark loose jacket over white shirt, broad untidy cummerbund holding jacket and trousers together, with a black cloth turban wound round his head; his large grey moustache swept across his face like a scimitar. He held himself very erect, carrying a short switch. John looked as correct as always in tidy shorts and jacket and grey London hat; Ralph's stockings usually fell down to his ankles, his jacket might have been slept in, the wind tousled his hair. Hilda was the English spinster got up doggedly for an expedition.
We walked by winding hill paths upward to cross the spine of the island, climbing the small Mt Iuktas on the way. This gave us a fine view on the cloudless clear morning — north over lower country to the sea and the island of Dia; and across a valley westward to Mt Ida with a large smooth snowfield, the eastern buttress of the central mountain mass of Crete, where Zeus was hidden in the cave of Dicte. On our first day, we lunched at a wine shop in a small village beyond Iuktas; the hostess, a refugee from near Smyrna after the Greco-Turkish war of 1922, gave each of us a spray of sharp-sweet freesias, creamy white with gold centre, grown from roots she had brought with her from Asia Minor. I carried my spray with me all that day, and perhaps the next. I think I first learned then about the miseries of that particular uprooting of peoples from their ancient home, and understood more keenly what all exiles feel.
But the country was little cultivated, and the villages Wretchedly poor. We spent the night at a small village on the Minoan road across the island, Kanli Kasteli, which had an ancient hilltop citadel and Byzantine walls; the Emperor Nicephorus Phocas page 214had fought a battle with the Turks there — history and misery again. The hostess at the café-inn wore a white cloth about her head, as if she had walked out of a Flemish painting; she gave us an upper room to sleep in, reached by an outside staircase, with a window looking west to Mt Ida. Hilda had a couch, and the hostess's bridal linen, taken from a chest where it was kept for very special occasions; We had mattresses on the floor. There was one weak lamp, and we lit candles and stuck them in beer bottles; I was reading Charles Morgan's The Fountain. The wind blew violently all that clear starry night, so that I felt as if being buffeted at sea.
Next day was showery, the going constantly up and down. To the west, clouds swept across the precipitous south-east wall of Ida, showing streaks of snow when they opened. We passed whole fields of scarlet and of purple anemones; a deserted Turkish village, and several inhabited villages, stopping for the night at one of them, Hagia Varvara, St Barbara. Down one valley we followed a stretch of Turkish road; we visited the remains of a beehive tomb, attended by some village men who seemed simple and charming and had rarely if ever seen foreigners before, so that our colour, our clothes and everything about us interested them. In the afternoon we were walking steadily downhill to the long narrow Messara plain, which lies at sea level between the foothills of Ida we had been crossing and a coastal range. The plain grew barley and other crops, the hillside beyond it leading up to the remains of Phaestos was thick with creamy and yellow daisies. The guardians of the palace and the rest-house, in which we spent the night, brought us little bouquets of sweet jasmine, violets, lemon-flower, and stock.
Next morning, while John and Hilda walked to Hagia Triada to see the remains, Ralph and I wandered separately about the palace. In the sunny windy air white clouds were moving across the mountains, lifting now and then but not leaving them free. I sat to read and daydream over The Fountain in a sheltered corner, where the wind just touched the scarlet poppies and white ranunculus, moving farther off with a vast low solemn noise. After lunch, we drove back to Knossos, stopping to see a church and ancient theatre at Gortyna; the road climbed steadily in curves to about eighteen hundred feet, where the air was page 215snowy cold. Kronis was to walk back with the now unladen mule and mare. At Villa Ariadne we were greeted by a sweet-smoking wood fire in the stove.
After my two later seasons at Amarna I returned to England by way of Palestine. I had taken our find of cuneiform tablets to Cairo at the end of my second season, going ahead of the rest of the party, so that they could be read and identified by Cyrus Gordon, who had come from Jerusalem for the purpose. He was not much older than myself, we got on well, and I moved to his pension where I found several archaeologists staying, Swedish, German, Dutch. During his week in Cairo we spent a lot of time together. He proposed my going to Jerusalem and staying at the American School of Archaeology, although he himself would no longer be there. When I hesitated, doubtful of calling myself an archaeologist, let alone a scholar, he assured me I would be welcome, so I took his word, and got the train to Jerusalem.
As another Arabic-speaking country, in which I had just enough of the language to find my way round, Palestine made me feel at home. Any European will have a certain familiarity and range of associations with the country, because of Christianity, because the Bible — Latin first, vernacular later — lies behind all European literature. Whether a professing Christian or not, whether or not he has Jewish blood, any European finds himself there in some sense on ground deeply familiar.
For me in addition the country had a strong affinity with Central Otago. I saw this at once, as the train wound up a narrow monotonous labyrinth of barren wadis from Lydda to Jerusalem, and even more markedly when I looked down across the brown and reddish rock of the wilderness of Judaea to the Dead Sea and the great wall of the Mountains of Moab beyond. From Hebron to Damascus one might almost be in Central Otago; and the hills beyond, all the way to Antioch, have some quality of Central Otago hills, especially those between Cromwell and Wanaka. The strong light, clear air, the hot rich rocky barrenness, were such as I knew and loved at home, although the colour of soil and rocks is often richer and more varied than there. Only page 216two things proclaimed at once that this was not New Zealand. The flowers that sprang up brave and brilliant from every pinch of soil; and the olive trees, which no one had yet been wise enough to plant in Central Otago.
The Americans at their School were as welcoming and kind as Gordon had promised — and he himself was still there after all. An American of Jewish family, he was proud that the Jews in Palestine had revived Hebrew and made it a living language, had built roads, planted orchards, and made the country prosperous. That it certainly looked in the planted country about Lydda and the pleasant railway stations, each with gum-trees and pepper-trees, and the well-built clean straggling new parts of Jerusalem; while the Palestinian Arabs, as I saw them first, dressed more picturesquely and were finer in build and feature than the Egyptians. Gordon showed me about the town, and took me up to the Hebrew University on Mt Scopus. Its library was placed on the highest point, overlooking the town westward and the great hollow valley of eastern Palestine, at the bottom of which the Jordan runs into the Dead Sea. Far below, Jericho lay hidden by small hills on this side of the Jordan; the village of Nebi Samwîl, Prophet Samuel, crowned a prominent height to the north, Samuel's home of Mizpah; east of that the broad sweep of hills on which lay Michmash and Anathoth, Jeremiah's home, broke off in cliffs above the Jordan valley. Southward rose the square round-topped hill called Frank Mountain (to the Arabs Jebel el-Fureidis, Little Paradise Mountain, because it was near the site of Solomon's gardens in the Wadi Urtas), where the Crusaders were popularly believed to have made their last stand.
I was taken there one day from Urtas, south of Bethlehem, two hours leisurely walking by a rough stony path. Frank Mountain turned out to be an isolated, steeply conical hill flattened on top, with the ruins of walls and towers, a vaulted room, a piece of mosaic floor quite drained of colour. The position is wonderfully romantic and beautiful, in sight of Jerusalem yet surrounded by desolation. It commands the lower country on all sides, and looks impregnable as a fortress; but there is no spring on top. Near at hand are the higher hills of Tekoa (Amos of the herdmen of Tekoa — and I remembered the sharp-pointed Tekoa some-page 217where north of Amberley, snowy in winter). Eastward you look down ragged barren hills and cliffs to the Dead Sea and the mountains of Moab, hazy that day. The southern faces of the hills were of white and pale brown rock, quite worn and bare. Everywhere we saw encampments of black Beduin tents, some built round with stones and guarded by dogs. The only flowers were asphodels in their early tender pale pink, and short-stemmed scarlet anemones; in the sheltered Wadi Urtas grew a few flowering cherry trees.
Gordon had introduced me to several people, American and English, who took me about in turn. With three Americans I made a long day's expedition to Jerash, by car and lorry, to bring back antiquities. We plunged down through the Wilderness of Judaea, and from the sloping plain between Jericho and the Jordan could see far up the valley a snowy ridge of Mt Hermon; the valley floor near the river is broken into great rough hills of yellow clay, wild and irregular. The Jordan flowed like the Taieri, thick and muddy between bare willows, though smaller and swirling near the bridge.
I kept walking in and round Jerusalem until its topography was clear to me and the landscape and atmosphere familiar. Buff and ochre country under clear blue sky; Bethany and other nearby villages creamy white, the low-domed roofs of their houses reminiscent of those at Positano; rocks of greyer silvery white, silver-grey olives with scarred spreading roots, bare silvery intricate fig-trees — so much whiteness that it dazzled. When a sand-storm blew, it was greyish-white also, but dull, and sometimes hid the sun; or it brought a dark-brown haze. From Bethlehem south to Hebron the road ran through barren featureless country of grey and golden-brown rock, stone walls enclosing stony ground on which vines lay, a few red anemones and large daisies and fruit-trees in blossom, and no distant views either east or west. The lines of the hills were smooth for all their rough surface. I could see no trace of Abraham's green oaks at Mamre.
Samaria, the land of Ephraim, was tame and uninteresting by comparison. Hills smoothly rounded, barren, monotonous, of a fairly uniform grey and brown, with small plains of green corn between. The olive trees, leaden sober, showed solid trunks beneath a broad airy crown of leaves. At Nablus, which had small page 218orchards of flowering trees, I went with a party from the American School to visit the synagogue of the Samaritans. This very ancient sect, originally of mixed race, was treated by the Jews with a suspicion and even hostility that may have helped it to survive from the time of the Exile until that of Jesus seven centuries later, then it endured Roman rule, early Christianity, Arab conquest, and the Middle Ages, and was now dying out in a time of tolerance. Its synagogue consisted of one small plain white-washed room, mats and carpets on the floor and on a dais at one end, a few Aramaic inscriptions on stone let into the walls of the room and of the porch and courtyard outside. Two priests showed us an ancient roll of the Pentateuch in Hebrew. They were very tall, with long delicate parchment-pale faces and long thin fingers, fine long hair and beards; one was old, grey, ascetic, in his eyes and expression a childlike untouchable simplicity; the younger black-haired one looked equally frail and unworldly. Since the sect kept strictly to itself, inbreeding had led to this extreme refinement of feature and to the debility of a dying race.
Galilee, the country between the long ridge of Mt Carmel, the upper Jordan with the Sea of Galilee and Lake Huleh, and the Mediterranean, was again much more varied and interesting. Running south-east from Haifa across the rich plain of Esdraelon, the train sailed through a sea of anemones of all colours, and past streams where oleanders grew, leaving to the north the large evenly rounded hill of Mt Tabor, which although less than two thousand feet high is the most striking in Galilee. The line then plunges surprisingly downwards in the valley of the Nahr Jalud between a hill known as Little Hermon and Mt Gilboa, a valley as deep-soiled and rich as the plain above, with settlements set among gums and other trees. It comes out into the Jordan valley at the much-excavated town of Beisan, and turns sharply north along the feet of the western hills above the wide valley, which was also rich and green, with thick fields of white and mauve flowers. From a splendid height in the western hills the ruins of Belvoir commanded the fords of the Jordan; this was one of the castles of that great builder Fulk of Anjou, King of Jerusalem, built about 1140 and captured by Saladin forty years later.page 219
These castles, which are the surviving evidence of the country's close link with the western Middle Ages and of a rich and tragic period of its history, give the landscape a fresh dimension and depth of meaning. Self-existent, the country has a further existence as an outlying province of the mediaeval west. The whole Levant coast became Outremer, part of Christian Europe beyond the sea; its landscape entered the consciousness of the west — not the Holy Places alone, but the entire magnificent country from the Cilician Gates and the Syrian Desert to the river of Egypt; and for everyone whose imagination holds present the history of Europe and the Mediterranean lands, it remains western as well as eastern ground, deeply resonant, beautiful and tragic.
From Semakh, a mud-brick muddy village at the south end of the Sea of Galilee, the railway turns east to climb the Yarmuk valley onto the desert plateau, and I took a bus round the west shore to Tiberias. This was a small rather squalid town muddy with half-built roads; a few minarets, and walls with many round towers of the Roman period, made it picturesque. The Sea of Galilee, as you look from Tiberias towards Semakh, where the Jordan valley falls away, appears to be poised high up like an artificial lake, rounded and full, yet it lies nearly seven hundred feet below the Mediterranean.
Early in 1935 Aunt Agnes joined me at Haifa, and we stayed for a few days at a German hospice with a pension run by a well-known Father Tapper at Tabgha, near the north end of the lake. From there we could see almost the whole lake, which is only thirteen miles long and at most about half as wide. We used to walk or row to see the places of interest nearby — a mosaic pavement where the five thousand were fed; remains of a synagogue at Capernaum, possibly the one mentioned by St Luke. It was calm weather, with rainy days, the lake mostly still. Thick borders of rosemary grew in the hospice garden, where crickets sang; fish jumped in the lake — the fish that we ate for every meal, small usually and good; turtles swam in the lake; there were many kingfishers, black and white as well as the commoner blue-green ones.
Acre, ten miles north of Haifa across the bay, has been captured, destroyed and rebuilt so often that it is virtually a nine-page 220teenth-century town, but built of old stone, it looks ancient. It had its day of fame as the chief port of the Crusaders. Saladin took it from them after his great victory at the Horns of Hattin, near Nazareth, and lost it four years later when Richard Coeurde-Lion came to put heart into the Crusaders' siege; the Moslems captured it again finally only after another century. The Mediterranean breaks against its golden-brown sea walls, from which huge fragments have fallen. Everywhere imposing walls, solid buildings, old stairs, old courtyards, all of stone and often hung with green weeds; the courtyard of the nineteenth-century mosque is planted with palms and cypresses. You look across the bay and the plain of Acre to the long line of Carmel stretching south-east towards the Jordan.
A few miles north of the Sea of Galilee, a long road winds up to the town of Safed, the earlier Saphet, nearly 2,800 feet high. It is built round a small hill among higher hills east and west, looking down over the lake and to Carmel and Tabor, which we saw only in glimpses through blowing cloud below. Beyond a steep gorge beneath the west side of the town lies a very beautiful hollow plain of grey rock and rich reddish earth with a few trees, among smooth rounded hills. Many of the houses in Safed were painted blue, and sported a little green grass or moss on their flat roofs; there were stone houses roofed with soft red tiles; a few cypresses and pines, and peach and almond blossom, pink and white. I saw no lovelier town in Palestine, none more finely situated.
We drove to Damascus by way of Banias, to see the castle and the sources of the Jordan. The road crossed the Jordan south of Lake Huleh by the famous Bridge of the Daughters of Jacob on the ancient caravan route from Egypt to Damascus; a stone bridge of four arches. It was here traditionally that Jacob wrestled with the angel; the ford was Jacob's Ford before a bridge was built. Here the Crusaders had built a castle, which was captured and razed very soon after by Saladin. Crusaders were our frequent company from Galilee northwards; at the Jordan, we left the Old Testament behind.
and that it is watered by Abana and Pharphar, lucid streams. But not Milton, Flecker and Lawrence combined had prepared me for the city and its setting, and I think I had not then read Doughty. We approached over the rocky upland from Kuneitra, to find it lying close beneath barren hills to the north, with lower hills farther away south, all in colourless fawn and grey, the deciduous trees leafless, the olives dulled. From Jebel Kasyûn, an outlying spur of Anti-Lebanon immediately above the town's northern suburb, you see that it lies on a plain enclosed by orchards and fields stretching for miles all round among the grey of poplars, brown of willows, a city on a green island in the bare sand-pale landscape. Snowy Hermon rises over everything some way off to the west.
Four great gates has the city of Damascus,
And four Grand Wardens, on their spears reclining,
The line of Anti-Lebanon from south-west to north-east forms a wall or curtain behind; east and south-east lies the open plain of the Field or Territory of Damascus, fertile from ancient times, running away beyond a string of shallow lakes into the Syrian Desert. The plentiful streams falling from Anti-Lebanon and from smaller scattered hills to the south wind everywhere through orchards and fields across the plain to lose themselves in those Meadow Lakes. Far south lies the long blue range of Jebel Druz, touched with snow, and over the plain eastward are scattered the low domes of crater hills. The prophet Mohamed was transported in dream or vision to Jebel Kasyûn to look down on the earthly paradise of Damascus which he was not allowed to enter; there Abraham was shown that God is a unity; there Adam lived once. No wonder such beliefs grew up. I have seen no inland town with a more magnificent setting.
We turned north and took the train to Baalbek, climbing the valley of the Barada rushing among poplars through the AntiLebanon, high and barren and snow-streaked; at the watershed, about 4,500 feet up, we were nearly among snow and it was cloudy and cold. Descending, the line comes out into the big page 222plain of the Litani River between Anti-Lebanon and Lebanon; a stony but fertile plain reddish like the mountains, taking colour richly from clouds, light and shadow. Thick snow lay on the higher slopes of Lebanon too and fell down in long white claws, brilliant as we climbed the valley to Baalbek, which lies nearly four thousand feet up at the watershed of the Litani and the Orontes. The lower slopes of the range are wrinkled by a maze of terraces. The cold exhilarating air between those great ranges sharpened the grandeur of the enormous temples, colossal even by Roman standards, which stood among grey and silver and brown trees under hot sun in a sky of almost gentian blue.
The long Orontes runs almost the whole length of Syria. Following it to Horns, we left the two ranges behind, and looking back saw Lebanon in cloud, made hazy by the sun standing above, and looking fantastically high and shadow white, like the moon by day. Since Aunt Agnes was ready for anything, we made an excursion to Palmyra, about ninety miles into the desert, and spent a couple of days there. Forklos was a French military station with barracks and no doubt wells. Later, the plain became a broad wadi of gravel and brown camel-thorn; the hills came nearer, and then we ran between sand slopes into the valley of tombs which leads into Palmyra.
The north Syrian desert is really steppe land, which has enough growth to provide pasture for camels and sheep; wells and local irrigation have given life at different times to a number of caravan stations, towns and castles between coastal Syria and the Euphrates. Greatest of these was Palmyra, which became a client state on the borders of the Roman Empire in the third century a.d., until its celebrated queen Zenobia over-reached herself and was defeated and deposed by Aurelian. What one sees now is the ruins of a considerable town among sandy and stony hills; square towers and stumps of towers, groups of a few standing columns still joined by their architraves, many fallen columns, huge acanthus-leaf capitals sitting heavily on the ground, walls with pilasters and windows opening from nothing onto nothing, arches that stand isolated like question marks — the remains of town walls, temples, porticos, forums, streets with shops, reservoirs and conduits, houses, a cemetery; with inscriptions here and there in Greek and in the flowing Palmyrene script. Strangest of all are the square tower-tombs scattered over the page 223slopes, like castles on some enormous disordered chess-board, crumpled by earthquake and long abandoned.
Our other excursion from Horns was to Krak of the Knights, grandest of all the Crusaders' castles. It was the chief defence of the only gap in the coastal ranges which run from the Litani River almost to Antioch, virtually the whole length of Syria; a position of crucial importance, guarded by five castles so placed that their defenders were able to signal to one another. Krak stands on a narrow southern spur of the Jebel Alawi, the Nosairi Mountains, commanding the hills for many miles round and immediately below it the small plain of the Buqaa, alive with thick green corn and white and pink flowers, the way from the sea to the desert. The castle has a perpendicular outer wall with round buttresses, and a moat beyond on the only side from which the spur does not fall steeply away. The inner castle on its two more exposed sides has immense sloping walls of masonry which were known as the Mountain, crowned by perpendicular walls and buttressed by round towers; on its most exposed side the Mountain itself is defended by a moat filled with water. Under the Hospitallers, the castle survived many sieges; it surrendered to Sultan Beibars in the end only by stratagem, twenty years before the fall of Acre.
The Crusaders chose their lonely sites, their eagle eyries, for strategic reasons. Hermits and contemplatives chose sites for their solitude; but the solitude which St Simeon Stylites elected became a great pilgrimage centre, crowds flocking to see him on the last of his columns, thirty-eight or even sixty feet high (accounts differ), where he stayed for thirty years, fasting, preaching, and performing miracles. A church of great beauty built soon after the saint's death surrounds the fallen column, in a very strange landscape.
From Aleppo we drove through undulating country of light grey rock and red earth and budding asphodels, with occasional small hollow plains of corn; and there were flowers of mauve, buttercup yellow and mustard yellow, grape hyacinths, pale blue irises and a few late red anemones. The rock spread, the earth shrank; we came to a mountain all of grey rock except for one reddish stretch near the summit, Jebel Siman, crossed its low eastern shoulder, and then saw on a ridge of the same heaped-up grey rock the great church, and two or three other ruined page 224churches a mile or so round about. The whole scene was rock, a sea of it, rough, broken by small wadis. It is as if the saint had chosen to live at the edge of that monastic rock sea, and to speak from it to the green world beyond, the world of growth and decay. His retreat on the top of his column is perhaps the most spectacular solitude on record — spectacular indeed because he became one of the great sights of the Christian world, and his column continued to draw pilgrims after Antioch had claimed his bones, revered, in Gibbon's words, 'as her glorious monument and impregnable defence'.*
There could scarcely be a greater contrast than between the austere silver-greys of Simeon's stone world and luxurious Antioch, although the Antioch which had been one of the sumptuous capitals of the eastern Mediterranean was a long-dead dream. The town lies among orchards at the foot of a rugged green flowery hill, Mt Silpius, round the crest of which ran the ancient walls, and is bounded to the north by the grey torrent of the Orontes; a small shrunken country town covering a fraction of the site of the city which the walls enclosed. Small, poor, but so beautifully set that it seems to glow.
At Antioch Aunt Agnes and I parted company. She was going by way of Latakia and Tripoli to Jerusalem, then taking ship from Haifa to Brindisi, and so back to Rome, She was as good a fellow-traveller as always, ready to go anywhere and stay anywhere and never easily tired, quite content if I wanted to forage solo; always interested and appreciative, good tempered and with a quick sense of humour, and at the same time decided, an occasional sharp turn of phrase showing her keen nose for bluff, hocus-pocus, pretence, and plain dishonesty. While she turned south I took the Taurus Express from Aleppo, wound up through the Cilician Gates onto the sparse uplands of Asia Minor, and at the end of two long days crossed the Bosporus to Constantinople. There were two or three English on the train with whom I exchanged archaeological small talk. A comfortable prosperous Turk in my compartment talked to me in French; he was bound for a skiing resort somewhere east of Afiun Karahissar (irresistible name!), there to meet his daughter who — he told me with smiling complacence — was Miss Turkey 1935.
* See poem 'Simeon's Land' in The Land and the People