Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Saturday 10th January 1942

We ascended to Shangi-la and beyond it – and were not disappointed. Carried a pack containing scarves, camera, spare films, chocolate and a bottle of Worcestershire sauce. On top of the pack was strapped a water bottle (full). Oh yes! We made a proper expedition of it, although the journey prove far less arduous than it had seemed when I used to dream about it in Tobruch and other places. However we were prepared if necessary. Soon after reaching the green valley we removed our pullovers and put them in the pack and I carried the camera in my hand. Even so, it was warm. A few days ago we were huddling around in greatcoats, pullovers and scarves; now we went hatless and glove-less, just wearing canvas slacks and battle-dress blouses over our underclothes.

I took photographs of the cliff dwellings as we slowly approached. The last one, before we began to work on to the wrong side of the sun, was taken at a steep angle, from almost directly below. In front of us now was a steep slope crossed by a zig-zag track. On our left was a precipitous wadi which ran well into the mountain. Some parts of the buildings overhung this wadi, therfore adding to their dizziness. The ascent of the zig-zag track took about half an hour; we did not hurry.

At last we came to the entrance – a heavy wooden door in a stone tower. It was open; we went inside and up some steps. Around the corner was a monk, very old, bearded, with sunken cheeks. He seemed to be waiting for us (they'd watched us coming up the track) and beckoned us to follow him. As we went along a narrow roofless passage, with a sheer cliff towering above us on our right, and the doors of cells on our left, we noted with surprise that the present building was quite modern – only about 50 years old – and that the place was, as we'd expected, a Greek Orthodox Monastery. The aged monk handed us over to two more, who were bearded, middle aged and jovial. They could speak Arabic, Greek and Turkish only. Taking us through a spotlessly clean room which appeared to be the eating place they gestured us to sit down and rest on a balcony outside.

We sat there mopping our brows and after a glance below were convinced that there was nothing underneath us at the present moment, for a couple of hundred feet or so. It was lovely there in the sunshine, warm and strangely windless; and what a view! A monk beckoned us inside, “Cafe”. It was Turkish coffee of course, in little cups, but I've quite acquired the taste for that now. (Once it seemed noxious.) This was followed, with much eye winking, by noggins of a colourless but heart-warming liquid which we later found was arac. (“British troops will not drink native spirits such as arac”.)

I produced a bar of chocolate which we all ate; this seemed popular, so I gave them what was left, also a bar of our reserve chocolate. There was much satisfied monastic munching. Finally I handed over my bottle of sauce (bought for this purpose) despite cries of la! la! minfadlak! and Lord knows what else. I was afraid they might drink this so tried to explain it was for “Mungeriah”; it seemed strange to them. They were impressed when Jack (he's an absolute bundle of scholastic knowledge and I'm sometimes lost in admiration) slowly and carefully read a Greek prayer on a board.

We were shaken when one of the monks shook his fists, but jovially, and said, “Allemand mush qwise!” However, I suppose it was just done for our benefit.

Eventually we gestured towards the summit; they nodded and led us out through various passages and along a balcony which seemed at least 500 feet above the bottom of the wadi, to another heavy door in the wall. They gave us a monstrous key and left us. Outside on the path we found we were just against the little belfry which I saw, long ago through a telescope. (So it had not lied!)

I had the sun behind me again and took several photographs of the precipice, the path and the belfry, as we went up. Right at the top of the hill, enclosed by a wall, were the ruins of a church and some excavations. Since this was, as we found badin, the Mount of Temptation, the presence of holy ruins was not surprising. We had lunch here, sitting on a flat rock – a frugal lunch of chocolate, oranges and water. My pipe tasted fine. Eventually we locked the door in the wall of the ruins again (the lock was oiled, I noticed) and strolled down leisurely – pipe drawing well – in the almost windless sunshine.

We didn't immediately go back to the monastery but wandered off to the left, following the narrow, damp bed of a stream. Never seen a stream like that before; it had obviously been running only a few hours previously. It's course led us, carefully but quite safely right across cliff faces! Couldn't have been altogether natural, the course of a stream just wouldn't run that way normally. It would find the easiest way down – over the edge. Once I knocked a stone over; it fell for grim seconds and started crashings and echoes in the wadi below.

From some point half way between the ledge made by the stream and the top of the cliffs, we saw three people leave the monastery gate and start climbing up the mountain towards the ruins. “They'll need this key!” cried Jack and set off across the cliff face again. I snapped him as he scrambled off, then re-packed the camera and followed at leisure.

Some time later I found the path that led from monastery to ruins and sat down for a smoke. There was no sign of anyone above but I heard the occasional clatter of small stones. Presently the three tourists appeared – two men and a girl – and at the same instant, about 10 yards away from them, Jack came into view, leaping from rock to rock like a gazelle. Thus, five met. “Here's the key!” panted Jack. “Eet does not mattaire now, thank you. They are worried about you below; they say two came up long ago, and still they do not return.” The bells, just underneath us, began to ring for 3 o'clock service. We went down and handed over the ruins key and the even larger key of the monastery door and sat down on a giddy balcony to rest awhile. I assured Jack that I was impressed by his recent display of energy – normally he is even more lazy than I.

That evening, however, after we'd washed, changed, and had tea in the garden, he was mentally rather than physically virile. With a few promptings from me he outlined the history of the Jewish race, from Abraham, Jacob and Joseph, to the expulsion from Palestine in 70 AD. Then, warming up, he talked for some hours on the rise and fall of all the great empires of the Middle and Near East – the Egyptians, Greeks, Babylonians, Persians, Assyrians, Romans, Carthaginians – right up to the grim edict of Rome: “Carthage must be destroyed.”

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