Dear Sir Aurel Stein
June 26th 1929
Dear Sir Aurel Stein,
I have just finished “On Alexander’s Track Of The Indus”. It has recalled many pleasant memories of days on the Frontier & many of the people you mention. My husband built the new British Legation in Kabul & was up there for five years.
I enclose a few photographs he took at Bamian. I thought you might care to see them. If you would like copies I will have enlargements properly done for you, there are a few more I will look up, but none giving the faithful detail of Monsieur Hackin’s in the Guimet Musée Paris. He very kindly showed me his collections last year.
I have never been lucky enough to get up to Bamian British ladies were not encouraged to travel in Afghanistan & quite rightly but I regret Bamian & the Moving Sands. I met you at Government House Peshawar just before you left for Swat with the Metcalfes.
We hope to be at the dinner of the Central Asian Society next Wednesday, (my husband gave a lecture a semi-private one to the Cen. As: Soc: last year on his return from Kabul) & we are hoping to have the great pleasure of meeting you there.
May I say with what pleasure I have read your books though my scientific knowledge is lamentably small.
Yours v. truly,
I am approaching my 100th blog on this site, an alarming thought, but this one takes me back to two of my very first.
Back in 2013 Dilek Taş, a Turkish researcher I was helping, had been investigating the Aurel Stein archival material in the Bodleian Library. There she came across some photos of Bamiyan that had been sent to Stein, and Dilek thoughtfully shared them with me. The late 1920s were an interesting time in Afghanistan, radical reforms by the modernising king Amanullah followed by a rebellion by Habibullah Kalakani–known less respectfully as Bacha-ye Saqao, “Son of a Water-carrier”, and more respectfully as King Habibullah II–and Amanullah’s overthrow. I wrote two blogs about the photos as I learned more about them. You can read here about life in the British Legation in Kabul as a civil war raged around it, and the first humanitarian airlift (and see some film of all that, too); and here about Mary Amps’ successful later career as a breeder of (appropriately) Afghan Hounds.
Things would’ve been a whole lot easier in 2013, and a bit less fun, if I’d known about the letter I’ve transcribed at the top, sent by Mary Amps in 1929 along with the photographs. I didn’t find it then partly because the Special Collections of the Bodleian were at that time in the process of being rehoused (hence among other things Dilek being allowed to access the original photos, which seems pretty tricky now), but mainly because I’m a Classicist who doesn’t have the faintest clue how archives work.
What does Mary Amps’ letter tell us, though? It confirms that the Ampses, Mary and Major Leon Williamson, left Afghanistan in 1928, thus were not caught up in the airlift. It also squarely contradicts a suspicion I had had that Mary Amps herself was the figure third from the left in this photo:
In actual fact, as Mary explains, she didn’t have any opportunity to travel around Afghanistan while based in Kabul. The male residents of the Legation certainly did: I’ve had the good luck of seeing two albums of photos of Afghanistan taken by the head of the Legation, Sir Francis Humphrys, and now in the possession of his grandson. I know who the central figure is in this image, Sheikh Mahbub Ali Khan, Oriental Secretary at the Legation, and talk about his later life here, but I now have very little idea who else is in the photo aside from the Buddha himself.
Something else the letter confirms, if it needs confirming, is that in the 1920s Bamiyan was the place every foreigner in Afghanistan wanted to visit. Monsieur Hackin, who showed Mary Amps his photographs of Bamiyan in the Musée Guimet in Paris, is Joseph Hackin, later the director of the French archaeological mission in Afghanistan (DAFA), who, with his wife Ria Hackin (French women evidently were allowed to travel), knew Bamiyan well. Here’s one of Hackin’s photos from a later visit, an excellent one: Jean Carl (a friend and colleague of the Hackins) abseiling down the larger Buddha.
The other site Mary regrets not visiting, “the Moving Sands” or Reg-e Rawan (ریگ روان), wasn’t familiar to me, but it was vividly described, and its celebrity explained, by Alexander Burnes in the 1830s (and by Babur before him), and here is contemporary film of the place. (20.07.2021: Francis Humphrys’ grandson Owen has a clutch of documents indicating that the interest of the British Mission in the Reg-e Rawan was provoked by a private request from Lord Curzon, Foreign Secretary, for more information about it.)
To me personally what the letter revealed was that interests of mine that I had thought were separate were in fact intertwined. The motivation for Mary Amps’ letter to Aurel Stein, and the photos enclosed, turns out to have been Stein’s On Alexander’s Track to the Indus, Stein’s account of his travels in Swat in 1926, the book that took me to Swat last summer. Her letter in fact intersects with the early part of the book, where Stein meets Sir Francis Humphrys in Peshawar before motoring up the “once blood-soaked heights of the Malakand” and into independent Swat with Herbert Metcalfe, Political Officer for the British territories in this section of the Frontier. Well, the Ampses were also at Government House when Stein was staying there. Mary Amps’s letter to Stein is a piece of fan mail, then, but it’s also clear that this cadre of Frontier operatives was small, and its members knew each other pretty well.
I belatedly discovered this letter pursuing a request from a graduate student for the photos Dilek had found (and it was an opportunity to give myself a break from Ovid, it is true), but it’s all jolly serendipitous, because I think Mary Amps’s letter will be where I start my Gandhara Connections lecture in a month’s time.