How G.I. Gurdjieff dug the well
George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1866-1949) was born in
Alexandropol, Armenia, during the Russian-Turkish war. His father
was Greek and his mother Armenian. His father's name was Giorgios
Giordades; this first became Gurdjian in Armenian and then Gurdjieff
in Russian (pronounced Gurd-zhee-ev). His father was a wealthy shepherd,
but more importantly, he was also an Ashok, a bard, who could still
recite the Gilgamesh epos, then 3000 years old! Towards the end
of the war, he settled in Kars with his family. After Turkey was
conquered by the Russians, this area saw disastrous forced migrations
of peoples, including 80,000 Turks fleeing westward to escape from
the Russians. To replace these Turks, the Russians had invited groups
of Greeks, Armenians, Yezidis and Assyrians to settle in the region.
In this meltingpot of races, nations, and cultures,
permeated by ancient traditions and customs, the young Gurdjieff
grew up. He learnt to speak Armenian from his mother and Turkish
from most of the peoples around him. Later on he learnt Tibetan,
some Persian dialects, English and French, so that he could be at
home in an area ranging from the Black Sea to the Gobi Desert, as
well as in most parts of the Western world.
When, in 1949, Frank Lloyd Wright announced during
a meeting of the Cooper Union in New York that "recently a man had
died - G.I.Gurdjieff - whose work will have more influence on the
future of the world than any other man of this millennium", we will
also have to take into account that he was raised in that derelict
town of Kars, cut off from the mainstream of civilisation.
John Bennett describes Kars as he found it on his
visit in 1952. The houses were in fact built under the ground with
an entry through the roof. It was a mode of living that has persisted
in Asia Minor for 8,000 years because of the climatic conditions,
with winters of 40 degrees Celsius below and summers 40 degrees
In the cathedral of Kars, Gurdjieff received his
first education as a choirboy, and was chosen by Dean Borsch to
become a doctor or a priest, because he turned out to be very bright.
However, he became neither, perhaps through the influence of his
grandmother who told him on her deathbed: "My son, never act
in your life as other people do. Either do nothing - just go to
school - or do something that nobody does." He certainly followed
His father gave him a Spartan education, with hard
physical work, little sleep, bathing outside in the frost, and handling
poisonous snakes. But soon he went off to find answers to questions
which neither his father nor the Dean could answer.
There is a story that as an eleven-year old he disappeared
for five days with a few gypsies to learn from them everything he
could, and by the time he was fourteen he had visited Constantinopel
and many other places in Armenia. He was confronted with strange
phenomena, for which nobody could give him an explanation, like
clairvoyance, miraculous cures, rain-dances, and people who were
trapped in a circle.
In his book Meetings with remarkable men, he writes:
"If there are phenomena, the reality of which we cannot deny,
but which cannot be fitted into our accepted conceptual framework,
then something is wrong with that framework and we must look for
Together with his friend Pogossian and a small group
of young scientists, musicians and linguists who called themselves
'Seekers of the Truth', he began to search for hidden knowledge,
because they were convinced that "there was a certain something
which people formerly knew, but that now this knowledge was quite
forgotten." One day they find a pot with a papyrus inside it containing
a reference to the Sarmoun Brotherhood, an esoteric school founded
in 2400 BC. On the papyrus was drawn a map of pre-sand Egypt and
a symbol of the enneagram. Thus, they set out to find this brotherhood.
It was not until ten years later that he finds a
remnant of this brotherhood in Bokhara in Central Asia, where he
is led to blindfolded and remained for three months. He never talked
about this later, or about what he learnt there, but it is almost
certain that here he became acquainted with the sacred symbol of
the enneagram and with the sacred dances or movements, which he
later passed on to his pupils as an essential part of the teaching.
'Sarmoun' is an old Persian word that means: 'enlightened'.
The brotherhood was active in the golden Babylonian time of Hammurabi
(1728-1686 BC) and is connected with Zoroaster (606 BC), the teacher
of Pythagoras, during the latter's twelve-year stay in Babylon.
His Heroic Journeys
Between 1896 and 1900, he went to Tabriz, Turkestan,
Orenburg, Sverdlovsk, Siberia, Bokhara, Merv, Kafiristan, the Gobi
Desert, Chardzou, the Pamirs and North India. He also goes to Tibet
where he stayed for more than a year, studying the language, rituals,
dance, medicine, and psychic techniques. These journeys sometimes
returned him to his father's door penniless, exhausted and ill.
He complained of Bokharian malaria, Beluchistan dysentery, Kurdistan
scurvy, Ashkhabadian Bedinka and Tibetan hydropsy. In addition,
he revealed the scars of three successive bullets wounds. He had
been to unusual places indeed.
How did he manage to stay alive all that time? He
was a real entrepreneur. He made a fortune in every possible type
of business: antiques, carpets, oil wells and pickled herrings.
He repaired typewriters and sewing machines; cured drug-addicts
and remodelled ladies' corsets; and painted sparrows to sell them
as 'American canary birds'.
In 1908, after a schooling period of twenty years,
he stands all-alone in Tashkent, for his companions either left
him or died. He was now left with the task to pass on to humanity
the knowledge he had gathered.
He started working as a professional hypnotist and
healer of drug-addicts and alcoholics, for which Tashkent, as a
centre of opium, hashish and vodka, had plenty of opportunity.
Between 1909 and 1912, he organised three groups to
work with, but in the end he abandoned this and chose to work in
Russia instead. He went to Moscow, where he arrived with a fortune
of one million roubles and two costly collections of carpets and
Chinese porcelain. He began to give lectures, bought an estate,
and even organised the publication of his own newspaper. This would
happen again and again: he amassed a lot of wealth and used the
money for the work or to maintain his followers and family. He married
Julia Yussovna (also known as Ostrowska) one of the Tsarina's ladies
in waiting, who would accompany him for the rest of her life as
his wife and dedicated pupil.
Who was this mysterious Mr. Gurdjieff, the dancing
teacher, monsieur Bonbon, the Tiger of Turkestan?
Many people have asked this question and those who
were close to him seemed equally puzzled. Hundreds of books have
been written about him and still you wonder who this man was.
What we do see is that it was clearly his task to
seek for answers and to gather and unify what he found. It was urgent.
A hundred years later, the effects of the two World Wars would be
stark: the beliefs, customs and rituals of millennia would be swept
away forever by the 'muddy flood' of modernism of the West. It was
as if he had read the signs of the times with rare and painful foreknowledge.
One of his remarkable characteristics, which indicated
the strength of his unique personality, was that he took three oaths
at certain intervals in his life:
The first, at the age of 30, was to give up his extraordinary
power of hypnotism.
The second, in 1911, was to bind himself for 21 years
to lead a highly principled life. The maxim was: to play a role
outwardly, never to identify inwardly.
The third he took in 1928: to dismiss the followers
who had assisted him faithfully for ten years, like the De Hartmanns,
because their association had served its purpose both for him and
What kind of impression did he make on his followers?
When Ouspensky met Gurdjieff for the first time,
in 1915, he gave the following description:
"I saw a man of oriental type, no longer young,
with a black moustache and piercing eyes, who astonished me first
of all because he seemed to be disguised and completely out of keeping
with the place and atmosphere (a small café), the sight of whom
embarrasses you because he is not what he pretends to be and yet
you have to speak and behave as though you do not see it."
There are a number of people who have mentioned the
power of his eyes on first meeting him:
"I just had enough time to carefully look at a
dark oriental looking man, whose life seemed to dwell in his eyes."
And Henri Tracol wrote:
"Who is Mr. Gurdjieff? I don't know him. This
seemingly foolish old man - truth falls from his lips as from a
child. This peasant from the Donau with the ingenuity of a Chinese
diplomat. Who is he behind those masks? And yet behind the roles
he plays, we feel the power of his unity - but that is of course
What did he teach and how?
One of the central themes of the esoteric teaching
he gave was that man is a tri-cerebral being consisting of three
parts, intellect, emotion and a physical body, and these three should
be brought into harmony with each other. Another central theme was
that man is asleep and lives a totally mechanical life. He expounded
this through the principles of the law of three and the law of seven
or octaves, which in combination form the sacred symbol of the enneagram.
About the enneagram he said:
"All knowledge can be included in the enneagram.
Each completed whole, each cosmos, each plant is an enneagram. A
man can be quite alone in the desert and he can trace the enneagram
in the sand and in it read the eternal laws of the universe, and
every time he can learn something new that he did not know before."
The explanation of the enneagram in terms of nine
character types, which one can find described in many books nowadays
and on many websites, does not originate from him, it is a modern
Because of man's mechanical nature, he had to invent
pretty drastic means to bring about a transformation in the people
who followed him. He demanded exceptional physical and emotional
efforts and never failed to create a little extra friction.
He tried two experiments in 1917 and in 1918, which
were the most turbulent years of the revolution, where he worked
with forty students for periods of a few months each.
The first was in Essentuki where Ouspensky and also
Olga and Thomas de Hartmann were present.
Thomas de Hartmann (1886-1956) belonged to the Russian
aristocracy and his star as a composer was rising when he met Gurdjieff
in 1916. Pavlova and Nijinski danced to his music in the presence
of the Tsar. He wrote some hundred compositions, operas, symphonies,
sonatas and even music for the plays of Kandinsky, but he did not
become famous for that. His fame rose through his dedicated service
to Gurdjieff. As an army officer he narrowly escaped the revolutionary
forces in St. Petersburg by joining Gurdjieff in Essentuki the last
minute. A day later and he would surely have been shot.
Gurdjieff tested this group of fourteen people quite
hard to break their mechanical patterns. He gave them relaxation
exercises; made them look at their own postures and gave them gestures
for hands and feet by means of which they had to communicate for
a whole week not using words at all, and he introduced the 'stop
Suddenly he told them that they would go to Persia
and, as they had no money, he wanted to go there by breaking stones
on the road. As this was too rough for the ladies, he would not
take Olga De Hartmann, who begged to come. Eventually he allowed
her to come, provided she washed the men's feet. Little did they
know that after four days of walking, having experienced every kind
of deprivation, they arrived in a town where Gurdjieff had rented
a villa. They never got to Persia, it was a test to see who would
be prepared to follow.
Thomas de Hartmann wrote about this in Our life with
"I think that Gurdjieff is the only man on earth
who ever led people on an expedition that, when looked at from the
outside, seemed so unnecessary and ended with 'nothing'. But it
was full of meaning and value for those who took part in it and
who remembered why they came."
When the experiment was over (a few months before
the October Revolution in 1917) he dismissed the whole group, saying
that he would stop all work, to the dismay of everyone and especially
of Ouspensky, who began to lose faith in Gurdjieff from that time
onwards. Gurdjieff's sister and family joined him on their flight
from the armies more dead than alive, and brought him the sad news
that his father had been killed by the revolutionaries.
In spite of everything he continued.
The next year, in 1918, he had the second experiment,
this time in Tuapse, on the Black Sea. They stayed there for two
months with forty people, including Ouspensky and the De Hartmanns.
This became the new phase of the work with a strict system and discipline
of exercises, movements, gymnastics, discussions, lectures and physical
A few examples of this 'discipline' were:
- when they ran out of money, he asked Thomas de
Hartmann, the aristocrat, to sell silk in the town where many of
his old friends lived.
- on another occasion he asked the ladies to hand
in their jewellery, except for their wedding ring. Olga de Hartmann
cried all night about having to part with the family heirlooms,
and when she handed them in the next day, Gurdjieff merely nodded
and pointed her where to put them. A little later, however, he called
her back and returned them to her, which unfortunately did not happen
to all the ladies.
This second expedition ended full of adventures and
dangerous situations as they tried to escape from the Bolsheviks,
with Gurdjieff guiding them skilfully past the Red and White lines
five times, it was often a matter of life and death. This expedition
ended in Sochi and for the second time he told them that it was
all over, that they had to look after themselves, as he had run
out of money. Five people remained, however. This time Ouspensky
was not one of them, he had already left.
From Sochi they went to Tiflis, where they were joined
by Alexandre and Jeanne de Salzmann. He was a designer and painter
and she a Dalcroze pupil. With their help, the work on movements
began to develop, with the first public performance in the Opera
House in Tiflis in 1919. He accepted Oligivanna Hinzenberg (later
the wife of Frank Lloyd Wright) as his pupil, who also became one
of the great movement teachers. They remained with him till the
end and assisted him in every way with the development of his work,
while Jeanne de Salzmann would continue the work after his death.
From Tiflis they travelled to Constantinopel, then to Berlin and
finally to Paris, where he stayed till his death.
Music played a great part
Gurdjieff had been exposed to music from an early
age. He had been a choirboy in the cathedral in Kars, played the
guitar, and a small hand organ, as well as the piano. He carried
out many experiments with the vibrations of sound, also for the
purpose of healing people. He had searched for the universal meaning
of the octave, and on his journeys heard and remembered many unusual
melodies and sacred songs in the old monastic communities he visited.
Later, he wrote them down with the help of Thomas de Hartmann. Thus
this musical oeuvre composed by two people is a unique collection
consisting of some three hundred compositions.There have been orchestral
compositions as well, but these seem to have been partly lost until
today. Perhaps they will surface one day like it happened before,
when at the time the Prieuré was put up for sale, an unknown pupil
of Gurdjieff found a suitcase full of manuscripts in the chaos of
the auction, and luckily hid it from the auctioneer!
There is a description by De Hartmann about the way
they worked together on the compositions:
"Mr. Gurdjieff would repeat several sections,
but often - to vex me, I think - he would begin to repeat the melody
before I had finished writing it, and often with subtle differences,
which drove me to despair. This was not only a means of recording
for posterity, but equally a personal exercise for me to grasp the
essence of the music. When the music was written, he would tap on
the lid of the piano a rhythm on which to build the accompaniment.
Then I had to perform at once what he had been given, improvising
the harmony as I went. Once Gurdjieff said: 'It must be done so
that every idiot could play it.' But God saved me from taking these
The music served several purposes, one was to accompany
the readings of Beelzebub Tales when the students would gather in
his Paris apartment. He would play the music himself, improvising
mostly on his small handorgan. But most of the compositions were
made to accompany the movements.
Madame Solange Claustres, one of his few surviving
pupils and movement teachers, gives a remarkable description of
"His music has nothing to do with what we generally
know and recognise as music. Gurdjieff's music is a world of sounds
of a universe unknown to us, as it were beyond time. Parts of his
music bring back images of forgotten lives hidden here and there
in the world. It is as if Gurdjieff wanted to pass on to us rapidly
disappearing sounds. Some parts resemble a call which comes from
afar and which may resonate in us in a very subtle and profound
way. This very special music carries not only a message but also
a question and helps us to listen to a voice which speaks directly
to our being and heart."
The movements or sacred dances also originate from
his journeys to the East, which, like the music, he discovered in
ancient monasteries, where they were practised as spiritual exercises.
He passed these on and later invented his own as well. They are
meant to bring about a harmonious state of being so that the three
centres, head, hart and body would become one whole living organism.
For this to take place, a great precision, attention and self-observation
was required on the part of the student.
There are two periods in which these movements were
created. The first period was between 1918 and 1924. In 1924, he
suffered a very serious car accident, after which he no longer gave
movements until the second period in the last ten years of his life
from 1940-1949. In that period he concentrated on movements alone,
and gave no other form of instruction.
There are now some 120 movements left, a third of
what had existed, and they are still being practised by groups all
over the world.
Gurdjieff did not just keep these movements behind
closed doors, but had them performed on the great world stages,
as in the Theatre de Champs Elysées in Paris, and in Carnagy Hall
in New York in 1924. A journalist who did not know what to make
of what he saw, remarked: "Mr. Gurdjieff, these dancers look
like automatons." "Yes", he answered, "but inside
they are free."
Between 1922 and 1932, he lives with his family,
who had come as refugees from the Caucasus, and many followers,
especially British and Americans, in the Prieuré, near Fontainebleau,
under the name of The institute for the harmonious development of
They work on the land, look after the cattle, and
build a 'Study House' for the performance of movements. In the English
Daily News of 1923, they were called 'the forest philosophers'.
In 1924, the Institute was dissolved because of his car accident,
and he moves to an apartment in Paris where he stays until his death
Here he holds his legendary lunches, with people
packed together in his apartment, listening to the readings from
Beelzebub and drinking the toasts of the idiots. He is visited by
a number of famous French writers and artists, Luc Dietrich, Henri
Tracol, René Zuber, René Daumal, as well as Frank Lloyd Wright from
America. But he still carries on with composing new movements and
teaching them to a class of some seventy people every night, as
well as inspiring a group of the younger generation which he called
'the calves', and whom he gave extra attention. No doubt he had
in mind the future of his work. In order to secure the correct passing
on of the movements after his death, he put his best movement teachers
in charge in various countries, a task they have executed with devoted
precision. Thus, Jessmin Howarth was put in charge of America, her
daughter Dushka in charge of England, and Jeanne de Salzmann of
France. This way, he prepared himself and his followers for his
Two days before he was taken to hospital, he called
in four people who happened to be sitting in the salon, and he just
looked at them for a long time, saying not a word. They believed
he was saying goodbye.
The Priest at the Russian Church stated that there
had never been such a funeral before; that he had never seen such
mass grief, or such a concentration of attitude, on the part of
the mourners. Even the undertaker who had never seen Gurdjieff before,
broke down at the grave and wept.