Gill Suttle in Syria

Gill Suttle MA (OXON) FRGS

She is not easy to pin down; writer, teacher, horsewoman, linguist, explorer, athlete, and academic, Gill is a woman of many parts. You have to meet her to start to paint a picture. Red haired, determined, focused; she has her own way of doing everything.  Gill collected honors at Oxford to MA level. She competed in the Full Blue Athletics and then Half-Blues in Modern Pentathlon and Riding.  No small feat.

In 1989, Gill was cut down by the paralyzing illness, ME. She was literally stricken with it, flaying under the effects of her damaged immune system, struggle with everyday life. Even getting up in the morning was a momentous event. I never called her up after about 7 o’clock. She was always resting, recovering from the effect of a single day, in bed. Yes this woman, travelled through Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. She rode a horse in Turkmenistan, a place few people have visited and then managed somehow to have him shipped back to England.

If that wasn’t enough she continued to record her journeys in beautiful prose, close to poetry, well worth the reading. She travelled to Syria, and also Mongolia. Yet after each journey she knew she would pay for the effort. The books often took many years to complete.  She had long gaps between returning and publishing as long as 8 or 9 months and finally finished the last two books in 2011. A tour de force by any standards but from someone with ME and serious ME at that, it shows a remarkable intellect and grit.

It is her determination that has kept her going, not muscle but will power, she like Ranulph Fiennes is a fighter, one of that strange brand of people who simply never give up.

In 2001, I was invited to help her by riding her lovely Akhal Tekke stallion Atemkaan through remote rural Wales on a journey from the South Coast to the Scottish Border to raise money for ME research. It was quite an adventure.

I can highly recommend all her books, listed here but the one which I feel most should be revisited is the books about her journey through Syria.

Gill Suttle

“Between the Desert and the Deep Blue Sea”

It begins,

‘The man in the cornfield paused and straightened, letting he scythe fall to his side. The neat stacks of barley about him threw hard golden light up from the evening sun, now fading slantwise across the oasis gardens.”

Do read this book, it is a reminder of the joys of peacetime and also by comparison with news of the devastation of civil war and the effect it has on ordinary people. Let us hope that Syria can soon returns to normality and once again the barley can be scythed in the dying heat of the evening sunshine.

To those for whom the name of Syria conjures up images of George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil”, or who picture the Middle East in general to be a place of endemic unrest or squabbling religious factions, this book will come as a revelation. Here they will discover a nation where all clans and creeds live in enviable harmony, their goodwill towards each other exceeded only by the warmth of their welcome to an eccentric foreigner.

Syria’s people represent the top layer of a multi-dimensional mosaic;  for few countries possess such a diversity of culture, religion, topography or historical legacy. This is the story of a journey into more than one landscape.

A passion for Arab horses and a long acquaintance with Syria inspired the author to travel on horseback into the backwoods of this fascinating land in 1998. Here is an account greatly differing from those of most recent equestrian travel books, which usually describe heavily organised expeditions complete with logistics team, back-up lorry, spare horses and all the latest equipment. In contrast, this traveller enjoyed a relaxed, spontaneous ramble, living out of home-made saddlebags, enjoying the hospitality of local people and often sleeping rough. Best of all, her companion was that of her wildest childhood fantasies: an Arab stallion.

Together horse and rider traversed the gorges and cornfields of the Orontes valley, where Roman water wheels still work alongside modern irrigation; lost themselves among the ridges and passes of the Alawi Mountain, whose various minority sects live happily together and whose ruined castles recall the times of the Crusades; briefly touched the Mediterranean shore, before crossing the western reaches of the Badiat ash-Sham, or Syrian Desert, on the way down to the Damascus Oasis. They trod where the Egyptian Pharaoh gave battle, supped with descendants of Biblical Assyrians and mediaeval Assassins, and visited the Jebel-ad-Din, or Mountain of Faith, where villagers still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ.

While briefly informed by history, Islam and its offshoots, geography and – where absolutely unavoidable – politics, this delightful book is principally an account of the people of Syria – and of a gallant and memorable horse.

Illustrated with maps and a fine selection of photographs.

Jailbreak, A Slow Journey through Eastern Europe. by Gill Suttle.

From the heights of Berlin’s biggest big wheel in Europe to the depths of a Czech pothole… mummies in a Slovakian crypt to nudists on an Estonian beach… watching Polish wild beavers to eating Lithuanian elk… riding among Hungarian cowboys to midnight arrest by gun-toting Soviet-style police – this is a wide view of Eastern Europe at its best (and worst), as well as a personal journey.