A Journey Through the Near East, 1955-56

By Corrie Commisso. Published: 21st June 2017

Christmas Day, 1955
Arrived in Beirut on the evening of the 23rd and got a taxi to carry us to Damascus for 3.00 each. … But we never got there — one of the girls had a visa for Cyprus in her passport, and a new law has just been passed in Syria that no one with a Cypriot visa may enter the country.…We drove back to Beirut…went to the airport and got the last 3 seats possible [to Jordan] for the next day. 

My first flight since I was about four, and didn’t remember that one. At first we flew over the sea, and then turned back and crossed Lebanon and its snow covered mountains, then Syria, and lastly Jordan. We could see out of the windows very well and could see the Sea of Galilee…and the entire Jordan valley. Beautiful…We landed at Amman, the capital of Jordan, changed planes, and then flew on to Jerusalem…We leave [tomorrow] for Jericho and Jerash.

I bought for $1.50 an Arab headdress — everyone here wears them.

P.S. Don’t worry about riots. 

Between Beirut and Amman (aerial view)

December 26, 1955
Today I went to Jerash! It took the whole day (the car we rented, with a driver, had two flat tires) and rained much of the time, but it was well worth it. Nothing is as well preserved in Greece. It’s a Roman caravan city, deserted in the middle of the wilderness for 1,500 years and really fantastic…it’s as well preserved as Pompeii. A huge street runs for a half mile with huge columns on either side, ending in a large paved and colonnaded circle where the caravans came out of the desert — what a rich city it must have been! The colors of the paving stones and the intricate carvings on the buildings were beautiful.

Oval Piazza from Roman Theater, Jerash, Jordan. 

Jerash is considered to be one of the most original and best preserved Roman cities in the Near East. Here, columns line the colonnaded street in Jerash.

The Emperor Hadrian visited Jerash in AD 129–130. This Arch of Hadrian, at the South Gate of Jerash, was built to celebrate his visit.

December 27, 1955
Ray, an Arab named Othman, and I got as far as Amman, where we spent last night, but not only are the roads washed out but a railway bridge collapsed last night so there is no way to get [to Petra]. However, our trip was well worth it at any rate. We went to Jericho (modern) by bus and rented three bicycles and biked down to the Dead Sea. Othman had a knife ready when a Bedouin came up to us and Ray tells me that village people are terribly afraid of the Bedouins. But he was friendly and I gave him part of my lunch.

Transjordan across the Dead Sea.

We biked a few miles to the site of Biblical Jericho, which was a walled city 7,000 years ago! The oldest city in the world. Some of the archaeological trenches go down 70 feet. We went to a nearby 8th century A.D. palace of an Arab caliph, with the most beautiful floor mosaics that I have ever seen.

Ray Cleveland (left) and Bass at Hisham Palace, an important early Islamic archaeological site five kilometers north of the town of Jericho, at Khirbat al-Mafjar in the West Bank.

 

Mosaic floors at Hisham Palace / Khirbet al-Mafjar, Jericho. 

Mount of Temptation, as seen from a trench, Jericho. 

Bass urges reconsideration of American attitudes toward the conflict in the Middle East on the back of this pamphlet about Palestinian refugees.

Nearby live relatives of Othman, and we visited their house. The husband has two wives, but we only met one, who fixed us tea, with mint boiled in it, and nuts. There was no furniture in the house – we took off our shoes and walked across reed mats and they put down long cushions so we could sit on the floor. The roof of the house was of mud, as were the walls, but the latter were painted and very clean. His aunt spoke no English, but was very pleasant. Nearby we had seen hundreds of brightly dressed women with veils going to a spring and balancing huge jars on their heads. I wanted to take a picture badly, but it is terrible to take a picture of a Moslem woman. We were stoned a couple of times near the refugee camps, but only by little children with bad aim. If you knew the political situation here, you couldn’t blame them for stoning Westerners.

Othman is a refugee also and his family has nothing now. The Jews killed his father and took the land in their expansion of Israel and the U.N. has done nothing for these homeless people except give them a little money. The same thing happened in Korea and the U.N. stepped in — but it seems that Israel swings too much influence with the Western powers. No wonder most Near Eastern archaeologists are anti-Zionist, it was certainly blatant aggression.

I was guest of honor at Othman’s home tonight and sat on the floor of the house (one room about the size of our bathroom) where they live. Othman, his mother and his 5 younger brothers and sisters all live there – sleeping on the floor and cooking either outside or on a portable stove. The children kissed the back of my hand and pressed it to their foreheads. Only grown men (several other Arabs were there) ate, and we all dug into central plates on a wicker mat with our hands.

Dinner with Othman, his mother and siblings, Jerusalem.

 

December 30, 1955
By moon-light, Ray and Othman and I went down to the Siloam Tunnel (I also remembered it from Richard Haliburton) and went through it. Quarter of a mile long, so narrow that your shoulders always touch the sides and often so low you have to stoop way over, and full of water up to your crotch (we went at night so we could take off our clothes and go through in underwear and tennis shoes), and bats on the ceiling. You can see the pick-marks of the workmen, who started from either end almost 3,000 years ago, when Sennacherib, the Assyrian king, was besieging Jerusalem. The tunnel was to connect the city with a spring outside the city wall. Many times the workmen would go in the wrong direction, but turn and go straight again until they finally met in the center. Thrilling, but cold!

I’m really living Arab style. Last night we went into an Arab coffee shop and rented an Oriental water pipe and smoked it with my tea. Tomorrow I’m going back to Othman’s house for a meal. The Arabs must really be surprised to see us in these places where no tourists ever appear.

If you read TIME don’t pay attention to their Near Eastern reports. They are really garbled. The riots were not communist-led or anti-Israel. Ray knew some of the students in it and everyone here knows that they were a spontaneous thing against British imperialism and the Baghdad pact. The U.S. articles are ludicrous – the entire school saw the whole thing.

 

Othman, Siloam tunnel.

January 1, 1955
I’ve been leading a real Richard Haliburton existence, crawling through 3,000 year old tunnels in the middle of the night (1/4 mile long and waist deep in water), bicycling from Jericho (the oldest walled city in the world; 7,000 years old) to the Dead Sea and back, wearing my kaffiyeh, going to midnight mass at Bethlehem, being chased by a bull while following the footsteps of the shepherds from Shepherd’s Field to Bethlehem, eating with Arabs on the floor and reaching into a common dish with our hands, renting and smoking an oriental water-pipe in an old (non-touristy) café, going to the Dome of the Rock (where Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac), the 2nd most holy of the Moslem shrines, walking in the Garden of Gesthemane where Christ spent his last night on Earth, flying from Beirut to Jerusalem over Lebanon and Syria and Jordan, crossing Lebanon twice by taxi in the middle of the night and passing a camel caravan in the moonlight, visiting the ancient city of Jerash (as fantastic as Pompeii, but in the wilderness; it was a Roman caravan city), going through the Palestine museum several mornings, getting sun-burned a week before Christmas on a Mediterranean cruise through the Aegean Islands, stopping at Alexandria Egypt for a few hours, being stoned in an Arab refugee camp. From here, where? — Palmyra, Baalbek, Byblos, Sidon, Tyre – if money holds out!

Looking out from Shepherd’s Hill, Bethlehem.

The Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem.

Gethsamane, Jerusalem.

January 5, 1956
*If this comes by slow mail, it means I didn’t have enough money for air mail.*

Here I sit in a freezing hotel room in Damascus – just having finished a banana and some tea for dinner – and wishing to anything that I had a typewriter I have so many things to tell about. I’ll undoubtedly forget much, but here goes:

I left Jerusalem and had an uneventful ride by taxies to Damascus several days ago. Taxi is the cheapest and fastest means of transportation in this country and they have 9-seaters leaving every few hours. You cannot imagine such complete bliss as whizzing across the Syrian desert at 75 miles an hour and suddenly having a program on the radio begin to play western ballet music.

We drove all afternoon across the desert…finally we got to the little village of Palmyra and got off. We asked for the only hotel (Hotel Zenobia) and found that we had passed it about a mile back down the road…So we started back into the pitch-black desert, unable to see but the faintest traces of the road. We heard the most horrible screams, all around us in the desert – it was really unearthly – and the howling of dogs. We decided we must have missed the hotel and started back, when we made out a faint light and went to it. It was a low building and I found the door and opened it and there we were in the middle of a huge, high room with tables set and chairs all around – but the only light came from a kerosene lamp at the other end of the room. We walked a little way down some of the long corridors, under arched doorways, but they were completely black and no one answered our calls. We decided that this had to be the hotel, however, and with Margaret saying that it was certainly the perfect setting for a murder mystery, we all sat down and waited.

Finally, somewhere far off in the building, we heard a door creaking and footsteps and there appeared in the doorway a large Arab, with a flowing dress down to his feet and a kaffiyeh on his head. I really almost expected him to say, “The master wishes to see you,” but I guess I’d seen too many horror movies, for he said, “Est-ce que vous parlez français?” A little later we had a wonderful meal with soup, omelettes, french fries, etc – but before that he started the generator and soon electric lights made the whole place look more like a hotel than a vault of horror! (The next day I saw a desert fox running through the ruins, so I imagine we had heard them and other animals the night before – but it sure was weird.)

 

For me, Palmyra was just like Xmas! I woke up on my own at 5:30 A.M. and tried to wake up the others, but they called out of their rooms they were too sleepy, so I went out into a drizzling morning and walked bout 20 minutes until I could see the sunrise. Palmyra is impossible to describe or to photograph. On one side the desert, absolutely flat, stretches as far as the eye can see – then Palmyra itself, the ancient Roman caravan city, surrounded by the palm trees of the oasis where it is built. On the other side are completely bare rock mountains that turned pink and cast long shadows in the early sunlight. The size of the place is amazing. I just can’t describe it. Huge columns on either side of the streets, going off into the distance.

Palmyra is an ancient Semitic city located in modern-day Syria, dating back to the Neolithic period. Much of the site was destroyed between 2015 and 2017 by ISIL, including temples, the Arch of Triumph (pictured at right) and several tower tombs.

The end of a journey — January 21, 1956
If there are any impatient fools who can’t wait for several years to see my slides of the Near East, go to your nearest book store or library and get Julian Huxley’s new book, From an Antique Land. It has beautiful color pictures of everywhere I’ve been. I haven’t read it yet, but I hear the descriptions are good too. Palmyra, Damascus, Baalbek, Jerash, Byblos, Ankara (two years ago), and so forth. It just made me sick to have missed Petra after seeing his colored pictures of it.

Last night I read about half of Qataban and Sheba, the book about Albright’s South Arabian expedition, by “Philips of Arabia.” Philips and his friends all wear kaffiyehs in the photos. Wait’ll you see mine.

The Arab castle at Palmyra, Syria, seen through the Triumphal Arch of the great colonnade.

 

All images, unless otherwise stated are from the George Bass collection at ACOR. First published 21st June, 2017.

The George Bass collection is now available on the ACOR Photo Archive (2019).  

N.B. Due to sellotape affixed to the original slide mounts, some of the images in the George Bass collection show the affects of the adhesive on the film, distorting the color into orange halos. ACOR has uploaded these complete images, as well as cropped copies, to share the history of the slides in the collection as photographic objects worthy of study themselves.

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