THE RED RUGS OF TARSUS
THREE CHRISTMASES AND THE SEVEN SLEEPERS
Written by Helen Davenport Gibbons and originally published in 1917
College classes going at full swing today. It is not Christmas for the boys. Some of the early missionaries to Turkey had it in their noddle that December twenty-fifth was really the day Christ was born, and they were shocked to see the Greeks celebrating January sixth and the Armenians January nineteenth. Missionaries were unimaginative, too, wrapped up in their own narrow ideas, too sure they were right and all the rest of mankind wrong (else why had they sacrificed everything to come way out here?) to realize that the Eastern calendar is thirteen days behind ours.
The missionaries couldn’t call the Greek aberration a sin. They could not logically hold out for a calendar made in Rome! But they did get after their Armenian converts on the theological question, and for many years insisted on an American celebration. Absurdities like that have now happily passed in missionary work, and your missionary of today is better able to distinguish between essentials and non-essentials than the old-fashioned Puritans, who were every bit as bigoted as medieval Catholics.
But I am getting away from Christmas in Asia! Herbert and I taught our classes this morning as usual. We are going to celebrate tonight. We have a turkey roasting, and there is a jar of cranberry sauce that did not arrive in time for Thanksgiving. I have just come from the kitchen, flushed with the stove and the triumph of having really succeeded in doing the trick I learned at Simmons College last year. My fruits and nuts are genuinely glacéd.
If I haven’t lived up to Simmons College cookery, Mother, I’ve made some use of Bryn Mawr. Herbert’s schedule is twenty-five hours a week. What time was there left for private study? To take advantage of next year in Paris, he simply must do some groundwork on his fellowship thesis. So I have taken over ten of his hours—the two English courses: preparatory boys learning the first rudiments of our language, and—joy of joys!–his Sub-Freshman class. They know pretty well how to speak and write English, so I am giving them rhetoric—and incidentally I am getting myself more than I give. One has to teach to learn!
I have kidnapped that Sub-Freshman class, and Herbert will not get them back. I may grow weary of beginners’ English, and find some excuse for putting the beginners again on Herbert’s schedule. But the Sub-Freshmen give me a splendid chance for letting loose my theories on helpless beings, and I confess that I am vain—or is conceited the word?–enough to like the sensation of handing out knowledge ex cathedra.
I am teaching the boys how to plan and construct an essay. Many of my teachers thought they had finished their work when they had given us a subject and corrected the essay. Not so Mrs. G. We began with words. Then came the sentences. Then separate and related paragraphs. We keep juggling with the principles of unity, clearness, and force. Once a week we do a formal essay. I do not simply announce my subject and leave my struggling boy to evolve an atrocious piece of writing. No. I write the subject on the board. Then call for concisely stated facts about it. These facts are numbered and copied by the boys. When we have about twenty facts, we indicate roughly possible combinations. The boys have a clear idea of the difference between a Subject and a Theme. We have forged ahead a bit into the study of the figure of speech (_Mejaz_, as it is called in Turkish). This appeals deeply, because Orientals see and think and speak in figures. They are poets.
I had a whole week of lectures on figures, and now the boys are learning the way to make and recognize the different ones. This has been done entirely without a text-book. I found early in the game that the boys could memorize rapidly. Put this with the fact that they think excellence in scholarship consists in giving you back again what you said. I reversed the old-fashioned way of clearing the decks for action by lining up a lot of stupid and meaningless definitions. Absorb information first, I say; handle it, get acquainted with it, digest it—then, with a background of experience, classify your ideas and concentrate them into definitions.
You lost the chance of your lifetime, Mother. I broke off suddenly the learned lecture on rhetoric. Henri Imer and Herbert were coming in from their ride, and I had literally to jump down the stairs to get the glacé fruits out of the way in the kitchen before Herbert would burst in and find them there, spread out all over the room on buttered paper. We are a big family, and I made a lot. I am thinking of my Christmases. This is the first I have ever spent away from you.
January eighth, Nineteen-nine
It isn’t because my husband is brand-new, or that we are living what is supposed to be “that difficult first year” that I object to separations. If this first year is difficult, come on the rest of the years, I say. But I already know, from our engagement days, what separations mean. Still, I saw quite distinctly, when Herbert’s father sent him a check to go to the Holy Land, that he ought not to miss the chance. We may not get out this way again. I put it to myself: it will be a glorious thing to have done! So I told him he must seize the day. I could not accompany him for a reason that you may guess. I have not told you before: one doesn’t always know one’s self.
Our holidays and examinations are arranged according to the Oriental Christmases. So they come in January to take in the period from the sixth to the nineteenth. It isn’t a long time for a trip: but the Holy Land is not far away. Herbert started off two days ago on the Greek Christmas, and I took Socrates down to Mersina with me to see him off. Being Socrates’ Christmas, we could avoid our own lack of gaiety in the last meal by blowing him to a big dinner at the hotel.
You ought to have seen Herbert embarking for Syria, with Mr. Gould, an Englishman on our faculty, and half a dozen boys who live at Alexandretta, the next port—near enough and cheap enough to go home for the holidays. Mr. G. and Herbert took deck passage with the boys. It is January, with snow on the Taurus and cold winds on the Plain, but the Mediterranean blew hot on the day they left, and they could change to a cabin the next day, if it was too cold to spend the second night to Jaffa on deck. Herbert wore an old suit that we intended to throw away, and a black fez. With the beard he has grown to make him look older in the classroom, he is for all the world like a Russian pilgrim.
Herbert is to be gone two weeks. Work is an antidote for the “mopes.” I tell myself that he may be delayed in returning, and that I may have to tide over the first few days of the new term. So I am working up psychology lectures. I chew over a phrase like William James’s “states of consciousness as such” until I fall asleep. I have to begin all over again the next morning, for I cannot remember what he means by “as such.”
Dr. Christie knows how to handle women to perfection. We are a small circle, and he says that wives must share in the faculty meetings. He declares that he wants our opinion and our advice, and that “the very best example set to the Orientals is to show them how we respect and defer to our women.” But I know this is only half the truth. He takes us in, so that we won’t be able to criticize decisions in which we had no part. I knit in faculty meetings. My college education never destroyed the woman’s instinct to have hands constantly occupied. Only, I sometimes forget and go ahead at my knitting mechanically. The first baby-band I made in faculty meeting was big enough to go around Herbert. So I called it a cholera belt and gave it to him. Orientals love to talk and talk and talk and talk. So do Occidentals. And in faculty meetings I have discovered that men are not a bit less garrulous than women. Since I committed matrimony I’ve found to my surprise that the other sex has very much the same failings as mine. This comes out in faculty meetings. I bet I’d find the same thing in corporation board meetings. Every one loves to talk, listens impatiently to others when they talk, watches for an opportunity to get another word, and gives in through weariness or indifference rather than through conviction. The best talker has it over the best thinker every time.
I have written you about the Doughty-Wylies, how they stopped for lunch with us in Tarsus on their way from Konia, the summer British Consulate, to the winter Consulate at Mersina, and what joy it was for us to meet them. A few days later, a letter came with the inscription “For the Youngest Bride at St. Paul’s College.” It was a week-end invitation for Herbert and me. We went down to Mersina the very next Saturday. That was in October. Since then, week-ends with the Doughty-Wylies have been in a certain sense oases—you understand what I mean. The British Consulate means that world of ours which seems far away, and is missed occasionally in spite of the novelty of Tarsus life and the cordiality of the missionaries. At the Dougthy-Wylies, I am able to dress in the evening, and Herbert always looks best to me in his dinner-coat. We are unconventional until we get back into convention: then we wonder how and why we ever broke loose.
With tea served when you wake up, ten o’clock help-yourself-when-you-want breakfasts, a morning canter, siesta after lunch, and whiskey-and-soda and smokes in the evening—we are thirty miles only from Tarsus, and yet three thousand. We are back in an English country home. We can smell the box and feel the cold and fear the rain—so strong is the influence of the interior—until we step out-of-doors into the sunshine that makes us thankful, after all, that “back in England” was only a dream.
The Major is still in his thirties but has had a whole lifetime of adventure crowded into fifteen years of active service in India, Somaliland, Egypt, and South Africa. He has not been robust of late, and was given this consular post temporarily. Intends to return to active army service. Mrs. Doughty-Wylie is a little woman full of life and spirits. She loves nursing—has been after the bubonic plague in India and followed the British army in the Boer War. Frank and outspoken, you never know what she is going to say next. She is as vehement as the Major is mild, as bubbling over as he is cool, as Scotch as he is English. They are lovely to us, and as they have taken on with travel a sense of humor, we have great sessions, sitting around a log-fire until all hours of the night. The Major is keen on the Seljuk Turks. He is going to wean Herbert away from French to Ottoman history, I think. Plays up the possibilities of the field for research in glowing terms.
You can imagine how I whooped when Mrs. Doughty-Wylie wrote just after Herbert left that I “really must spend the time your husband is away with us.” Socrates was brushing and cleaning Herbert’s clothes, and an iron was on to press the trousers. I left them hanging on the line, with caution to Socrates to be sure to take them in that night. Suitcases were quickly packed. I took the next train to Mersina. Wouldn’t you have done so to be able to wake the next morning at nine, and have a maid push back the curtains while you sipped tea and munched thin toast? Then, too, I hated everything about our quarters at Tarsus, cozy as they were, with Herbert away.
After a week of a lazy, restful relaxing, just as I was beginning to fell in the frame of mind to wonder how we ever happened to get out into this country and to feel sure that we would never come back, and when I was speculating on the mysterious phenomenon of the best of England’s blood content always to live away from home, Herbert returned. I woke up one morning, and there he stood in the room, looking down at me. He declared that ten days in the Holy Land—without me—was enough for him. He had “done” Jerusalem and bathed in the Dead Sea—but Galilee could wait for another time. There was a swift Italian steamer up the coast. He saw it posted at Cook’s in Jerusalem. Hurried down to Jaffa and caught it. We have decided that separations are not a success. May there be no more.
As we do not have to go back to Tarsus for two days, we are staying on to pass Armenian Christmas with the Doughty-Wylies. They are going to take us pig-sticking to-morrow.
Today we rode across the Plain to the Cave of the Seven Sleepers.
I enjoy “training the Turks.” They let their wives walk while they ride. Sometimes the poor woman will have a child or some other load on her back. You can imagine they do not turn aside to give a woman the path, not even a foreign lady. Sometimes I jar their sensibilities by standing my horse sturdily in their path. It never enters their head that I do not intend to turn out. When I rein up with the nose of my horse right in their face (they are generally on little donkeys) they have an awful shock. Reluctantly they give way to me, always looking injured and surprised. Sometimes they express their feeling in language that I fortunately cannot understand. I love to speak to them in English. I say something like this: “You old unwashed villain, I am sure you haven’t used Pears’ or any other soap this or any other morning. Hurry up, and get out of my way.”
We came across a donkey standing patiently by the roadside. His halter-rope was tied around the leg of his rider, a boy who lay moaning on the grass. We had Socrates ask him in Turkish what the matter was. He responded that he had a fever and was too ill to go on. Herbert told Socrates to set the boy on his donkey. He went several miles with us, groaning all the way. We encouraged him, and fortunately soon met some people from his village. The Turks are absolutely indifferent to human suffering, and would have let him die there like a dog. Outside of large centers of population, they have no physicians, no hospitals, no medicines—it is only through the missionaries that such things are known at all.
At last we reached our mountain-goal, and climbed up to the cave. The Mullah received us cordially. Turks are polite and hospitable to travelers. I will say that for them. The Mullah’s servant stabled our horses, brought us water, and allowed us to spread our lunch on the front porch of the mosque. It is a pretty little mosque, and right beside it is a home for the Mullah built of stone. Both are close to the entrance of the cave. The group of buildings looked beautiful from the bottom of the hill. But as is invariably the case in Turkey, close inspection revealed the primitiveness and roughness.
After lunch, during which the servant and his little boy gravely sat and watched us, we went into the cave. We took our shoes off against our will, for the cave looked dirty and mussy. Down a long flight of stone steps the beturbaned guardian led us into a sickening atmosphere of incense and goatskin. We were told that the cave was large, but, as we were in stocking feet and had noses, we elected not to explore it. During the Decian persecutions, seven young men fled from Tarsus to this cave to escape. Here they fell asleep. They were miraculously kept asleep for one hundred years. Waking they thought it was the next day, and went down to a nearby village. They were surprised to learn that the whole world was Christian. This is the genesis, or at least the Oriental version, of the Rip Van Winkle story. The Christians built a shrine at the cave. The invading Mohammedan conquerors took it over and adapted shrine and legend to their own religion, as they have done with most Christian holy places.
We sketched the mosque in the afternoon. Then we sat looking out over the plain to the sea. It is great to have a chance to talk to one’s husband. We are so busy during the week that we save up our talks for Saturday and Sunday, and we are just getting to know each other. The keeper told us through Socrates that his wife had died seven years before and that he lived there all alone, except for the Mullah, with his little five year old boy. The kid sang a song for us. We gave him slices of bread thickly spread with jam, which he ate with gusto. It was probably the first jam he had ever tasted—certainly the first Crosse & Blackwell’s strawberry jam. After the feast was over, he crept up slyly, seized Herbert’s hand, and imprinted on it a sticky kiss. We were saddled and ready to start homeward immediately after tea, but not soon enough to get away from the hail-storm that came up all of a sudden. Before we were out of the stable, the storm broke, great big hailstones that stung when they hit you. We rode hard for twenty minutes, enjoying it keenly. It rained just long enough to make the sunset richer and the air sweeter than usual. We do not mind a bit getting wet like that when we are on horse. By riding fast, the wind soon dries our outer garments and the rain does not penetrate. By the time we reached home, we were dry and did not need to change our clothes before dinner. After our exercise a good warm bath made us sleep like the pair of healthy children we are.