Gertrude Bell in 1909, visiting archaeological excavations in Babylon
Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell
14 July 1868
Washington New Hall, County Durham, England
|Died||12 July 1926 (aged 57)|
|Education||Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford|
|Occupation||Traveller, political officer|
|Era||Victorian, Edwardian – 1900s|
|Known for||Writer, traveller, political officer, archaeologist, explorer, cartographer in Greater Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Arabia|
|Parent(s)||Sir Hugh Bell|
Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell, CBE (14 July 1868 – 12 July 1926) was an English writer, traveller, political officer, administrator, and archaeologist who explored, mapped, and became highly influential to British imperial policy-making due to her knowledge and contacts, built up through extensive travels in Greater Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Arabia. Along with T. E. Lawrence, Bell helped support the Hashemite dynasties in what is today Jordan as well as in Iraq.
She played a major role in establishing and helping administer the modern state of Iraq, utilizing her unique perspective from her travels and relations with tribal leaders throughout the Middle East. During her lifetime she was highly esteemed and trusted by British officials and exerted an immense amount of power. She has been described as "one of the few representatives of His Majesty's Government remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection".
Bell was born on 14 July 1868 in Washington New Hall – now known as Dame Margaret Hall – in Washington, County Durham, England to a family whose wealth ensured her education and enabled her travels. Her personality was characterised by energy, intellect, and a thirst for adventure which shaped her path in life. Her grandfather was the ironmaster Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, an industrialist and a Liberal Member of Parliament, in Benjamin Disraeli's second term. His role in British policy-making exposed Gertrude at a young age to international matters and most likely encouraged her curiosity for the world, and her later involvement in international politics.
Bell's mother, Mary Shield Bell, died in 1871 while giving birth to a son, Maurice (later the 3rd Baronet). Gertrude Bell was just three at the time, and the death led to a lifelong close relationship with her father, Sir Hugh Bell, 2nd Baronet, a progressive capitalist and mill owner who made sure his workers were well paid and cared for.:33–34 Throughout her life, Gertrude consulted on political matters with her father, who had also served for many years in various governmental positions.
Some biographies suggest that the loss of her mother caused underlying childhood trauma, revealed through periods of depression and risky behaviour. But when Gertrude was seven years old her father remarried, providing her a stepmother, Florence Bell (née Olliffe), and eventually, three half-siblings. Florence Bell was a playwright and author of children's stories, as well as the author of a study of Bell factory workers. She instilled concepts of duty and decorum in Gertrude and contributed to her intellectual development. Florence Bell's activities with the wives of Bolckow Vaughan ironworkers in Eston, near Middlesbrough, may have helped influence her step-daughter's later stance promoting education of Iraqi women.
Gertrude Bell received her early education from Queen's College in London and then later at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, at the age of 17. History was one of the few subjects women were allowed to study, due to the many restrictions imposed on them at the time. She specialised in modern history, and it was said that she was first woman to graduate from Modern History at Oxford with a first class honours degree, a feat she achieved in only two years.:41 Actually eleven people graduated that year. Nine were recorded because they were men but the other two were Bell and Alice Greenwood.
Bell never married or had children. She befriended British colonial administrator Sir Frank Swettenham on a visit to Singapore with her brother Hugo in 1903 and maintained a correspondence with him until 1909. She had a "brief but passionate affair" with Swettenham following his retirement to England in 1904. She also had an unconsummated affair with Maj. Charles Doughty-Wylie, a married man, with whom she exchanged love letters from 1913 to 1915.:14–17 After his death in 1915 during the Gallipoli Campaign, Bell launched herself into her work.
Bell's uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles, was British minister (similar to ambassador) at Tehran, Persia. In May 1892, after leaving Oxford, Bell travelled to Persia to visit him. She described this journey in her book, Persian Pictures, which was published in 1894. She spent much of the next decade travelling around the world, mountaineering in Switzerland, and developing a passion for archaeology and languages. She had become fluent in Arabic, Persian, French and German as well as also speaking Italian and Turkish. In 1899, Bell again went to the Middle East. She visited Palestine and Syria that year and in 1900, on a trip from Jerusalem to Damascus, she became acquainted with the Druze living in Jabal al-Druze. She travelled across Arabia six times during the next 12 years.
Between 1899 and 1904, she conquered a number of mountains including the La Meije and Mont Blanc as she recorded 10 new paths or first ascents in the Bernese Alps in Switzerland. One Alpine peak in the Bernese Oberland, the 2,632 m (8,635 ft) Gertrudspitze, was named after her after it was first traversed by her and her guides Ulrich and Heinrich Fuhrer in 1901. However, she did fail in an attempt of the Finsteraarhorn in August 1902 when inclement weather including snow, hail and lightning forced her to spend "forty eight hours on the rope" with her guides, clinging to the rock face in terrifying conditions which nearly cost her her life.
She published her observations of the Middle East in the book Syria: The Desert and the Sown published in 1907 (William Heinemann Ltd, London). In this book she described, photographed and detailed her trip to Greater Syria's towns and cities like Damascus, Jerusalem, Beirut, Antioch and Alexandretta. Bell's vivid descriptions opened up the Arabian deserts to the western world. In March 1907, Bell journeyed to the Ottoman Empire and began to work with the archaeologist and New Testament scholar Sir William M. Ramsay. Their excavations in Binbirkilise were chronicled in A Thousand and One Churches. In 1907, they discovered a field of ruins in northern Syria on the east bank of the upper course of the Euphrates to the steep slope of the former river valley. From the ruins, they created a plan and described the ramparts: "Munbayah, where my tents were pitched – the Arabic name means only a high-altitude course – was probably the Bersiba in Ptolemy's list of city names. It consists of a double rampart, situated on the river bank."
In January 1909, she left for Mesopotamia. She visited the Hittite city of Carchemish, mapped and described the ruin of Ukhaidir and finally went to Babylon and Najaf. Back in Carchemish, she consulted with the two archaeologists on site. One of them was T. E. Lawrence, assistant to Reginald Campbell Thompson. In 1913, she completed her last and most arduous Arabian journey, travelling around 1800 miles from Damascus to the politically volatile Ha'il, back up across the Arabian peninsula to Baghdad and from there back to Damascus. She was only the second foreign woman after Lady Anne Blunt to visit Ha'il, and arriving during a period of particular instability was held in the city for eleven days.:218–219
Later, she was asked by British Intelligence to get soldiers through the deserts, and from the World War I period until her death she was the only woman holding political power and influence in shaping British imperial policy in the Middle East. She often acquired a team of locals which she directed and led on her expions. Throughout her travels Bell established close relations with tribe members across the Middle East. Additionally, being a woman gave her exclusive access to the chambers of wives of tribe leaders, giving her access to other perspectives and functions.
Both Bell and Lawrence had attended Oxford and earned a First Class Honours in Modern History, both spoke fluent Arabic and both had travelled extensively in the Arabian desert and established ties with the local tribes before World War I. Renowned archaeologist and historian Lt. Cmdr. David Hogarth recognised the value of Lawrence and Bell's expertise and upon his recommendation first Lawrence, then Bell, were assigned to Army Intelligence Headquarters in Cairo in 1915 for war service.
Arriving in February 1916, she did not, at first, receive an official position, but instead helped Hogarth set about organising and processing her own, Lawrence's and Capt. W. H. I. Shakespear's data about the location and disposition of Arab tribes that could be encouraged to join the British against the Ottoman Empire. Lawrence and the British used the information in forming alliances with the Arabs.
On 3 March 1916, Gen. Clayton abruptly sent Bell to Basra, which British forces had captured in November 1914, to advise Chief Political Officer Percy Cox regarding an area she knew better than any other Westerner. Cox found her an office in his headquarters, where she was employed for the two days per week she was not at Military GHQ Basra. She drew maps to help the British army reach Baghdad safely. She became the only female political officer in the British forces and received the title of "Liaison Officer, Correspondent to Cairo" (i.e. to the Arab Bureau where she had been assigned). She was St. John Philby's field controller, and taught him the finer arts of behind-the-scenes political manoeuvering.
I went out last week along the light railway 25 miles into the desert it's the Nasariyeh Railway - ...it was so curious to travel 50 minutes by rail and find...General Maude, our new army commander, has just arrived. I've made his acquaintance..."
While in the Middle East, Gertrude Bell was a witness to the Armenian Genocide. Contrasting them with previous massacres, she wrote that the massacres of preceding years "were not comparable to the massacres carried out in 1915 and the succeeding years." Bell also reported that in Damascus, "Turks sold Armenian women openly in the public market." In an intelligence report, Bell wrote:
The battalion left Aleppo on 3 February and reached Ras al-Ain in twelve hours....some 12,000 Armenians were concentrated under the guardianship of some hundred Kurds...These Kurds were called gendarmes, but in reality mere butchers; bands of them were publicly ordered to take parties of Armenians, of both sexes, to various destinations, but had secret instructions to destroy the males, children and old women...One of these gendarmes confessed to killing 100 Armenian men himself...the empty desert cisterns and caves were also filled with corpses...No man can ever think of a woman's body except as a matter of horror, instead of attraction, after Ras al-Ain."
After British troops took Baghdad on 10 March 1917, Bell was summoned by Cox to Baghdad:274–276 and given the title of "Oriental Secretary." As the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire was finalised by the end of the war in late January 1919, Bell was assigned to conduct an analysis of the situation in Mesopotamia. Due to her familiarity and relations with the tribes in the area she had strong ideas about the leadership needed in Iraq. She spent the next ten months writing what was later considered a masterly official report, "Self Determination in Mesopotamia". The British Commissioner in Mesopotamia, Arnold Wilson, had different ideas of how Iraq should be run, preferring an Arab government to be under the influence of British officials who would retain real control, as he felt, from experience, that Mesopotamian populations were not yet ready to govern and administer the country efficiently and peacefully.
On 11 October 1920, Percy Cox returned to Baghdad and asked her to continue as Oriental Secretary, acting as liaison with the forthcoming Arab government. Gertrude Bell essentially played the role of mediator between the Arab government and British officials. Bell often had to mediate between the various groups of Iraq including a majority population of Shias in the southern region, Sunnis in central Iraq, and the Kurds, mostly in the northern region, who wished to be autonomous. Keeping these groups united was essential for political balance in Iraq and for British imperial interests. Iraq not only contained valuable resources in oil but would act as a buffer zone, with the help of Kurds in the north as a standing army in the region to protect against Turkey, Persia (Iran), and Syria. British officials in London, especially Churchill, were highly concerned about cutting heavy costs in the colonies, including the cost of quashing tribal infighting. Another important project for both the British and new Iraqi rulers was creating a new identity for these people so that they would identify themselves as one nation.
British officials quickly realised that their strategies in governing were adding to costs. Iraq would be cheaper as a self-governing state. The Cairo Conference of 1921 was held to determine the political and geographic structure of what later became Iraq and the modern Middle East.:365–369 Significant input was given by Gertrude Bell in these discussions thus she was an essential part of its creation. At the Cairo Conference Bell and Lawrence highly recommended Faisal bin Hussein, (the son of Hussein, Sherif of Mecca), former commander of the Arab forces that helped the British during the war and entered Damascus at the culmination of the Arab Revolt. He had been recently deposed by France as King of Syria, and British officials at the Cairo Conference decided to make him the first King of Iraq. They believed that due to his lineage as a Hashemite and his diplomatic skills he would be respected and have the ability to unite the various groups in the country. Shias would respect him because of his lineage from Muhammad. Sunnis, including Kurds, would follow him because he was Sunni from a respected family. Keeping all the groups under control in Iraq was essential to balance the political and economic interests of the British Empire.
Upon Faisal's arrival in 1921, Bell advised him on local questions, including matters involving tribal geography and local business. She also supervised the selection of appointees for cabinet and other leadership posts in the new government. Referred to by Arabs as "al-Khatun" (a Lady of the Court who keeps an open eye and ear for the benefit of the State), she was a confidante of King Faisal of Iraq and helped ease his passage into the role, amongst Iraq's other tribal leaders at the start of his reign. He helped her to found Baghdad's Iraqi Archaeological Museum from her own modest artefact collection and to establish The British School of Archaeology, Iraq, for the endowment of excavation projects from proceeds in her will. The stress of authoring a prodigious output of books, correspondence, intelligence reports, reference works, and white papers; of recurring bronchitis attacks brought on by years of heavy smoking in the company of English and Arab cohorts; of bouts with malaria; and finally, of coping with Baghdad's summer heat all took a toll on her health. Somewhat frail to start with, she became emaciated.
Some consider the present troubles in Iraq to be derived from the political boundaries Bell conceived to create its borders. Her reports, however, indicate that problems were foreseen, and that it was clearly understood that there were just not many (if any) permanent solutions for calming the divisive forces at work in that part of the world.:413–419
Throughout the early 1920s Bell was an integral part of the administration of Iraq. The new Hashemite monarchy used the Sharifian flag, which consisted of a black stripe representing the Abbasid caliphate, white stripe representing the Umayyad caliphate, and a green stripe for Fatimid Dynasty, and lastly a red triangle to set across the three bands symbolising Islam. Bell felt it essential to customise it for Iraq by adding a gold star to the design.:149 Faisal was crowned king of Iraq on 23 August 1921, but he was not completely welcomed. Utilizing Shi'ite history to gain support for Faisal, during the holy month of Muharram, Bell compared Faisal's arrival in Baghdad to Husayn, grandson of Muhammad.
However, she did not find working with the new king to be easy: "You may rely upon one thing — I'll never engage in creating kings again; it's too great a strain."
Bell, Cox and Lawrence were among a select group of "Orientalists" convened by Winston Churchill to attend a 1921 Conference in Cairo to determine the boundaries of the British mandate (e.g., "the British Partitions") and nascent states such as Iraq.:365–369 Gertrude is supposed to have described Lawrence as being able "to ignite fires in cold rooms".
Throughout the conference, she, Cox and Lawrence worked tirelessly to promote the establishment of the countries of Transjordan and Iraq to be presided over by the Kings Abdullah and Faisal, sons of the instigator of the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire (ca. 1915–1916), Hussein bin Ali, Sharif and Emir of Mecca.:365–369 Until her death in Baghdad, she served in the Iraq British High Commission advisory group there.
Bell opposed the Zionist movement, on the grounds that it would be unfair to impose Jewish rule on Arab inhabitants of Palestine. She wrote that she regarded the Balfour Declaration with "the deepest mistrust" and that "It's like a nightmare in which you foresee all the horrible things which are going to happen and can`t stretch out your hand to prevent them".
In November 1919, Bell was an invited speaker at a meeting for the promotion of a public library in Baghdad, and subsequently served on its Library Committee, as President from 1921 to 1924. The Baghdad Peace Library (Maktabat al-Salam) was a private, subscription library, but in c.1924 was taken over by the Ministry of Education and became known as the Baghdad Public Library (or sometimes as the General Library). In 1961, this became the National Library of Iraq.
Gertrude Bell's first love had always been archaeology, thus she began forming what became the Baghdad Archaeological Museum, later renamed the Iraqi Museum. Her goal was to preserve Iraqi culture and history which included the important relics of Mesopotamian civilizations, and keep them in their country of origin. She also supervised excavations and examined finds and artifacts. She brought in extensive collections, such as from the Babylonian Empire. The museum was officially opened in June 1926, shortly before Bell's death. After her death, at the Emir's suggestion, the right wing of the Museum was named as a memorial to her.
When Bell briefly returned to Britain in 1925, she faced family problems and ill health. Her family's fortune had begun to decline due to the onset of post-World War I strikes by workers in Britain and economic depression in Europe. She returned to Baghdad and soon developed pleurisy. When she recovered, she heard that her younger half brother Hugh had died of typhoid.
On 12 July 1926, Bell was discovered dead, of an apparent overdose of sleeping pills. There is much debate on her death, but it is unknown whether the overdose was an intentional suicide or accidental since she had asked her maid to wake her. In her final years she became acquainted with Kinahan Cornwallis who later wrote an introduction to the posthumously published book The Arab War, Confidential Information for General Headquarters from Gertrude Bell, Being Despatches Reprinted from the Secret "Arab Bulletin".
She was buried at the British cemetery in Baghdad's Bab al-Sharji district. Her funeral was a major event, attended by large numbers of people including her colleagues, British officials and the King of Iraq. It was said King Faisal watched the procession from his private balcony as they carried her coffin to the cemetery.:235
An obituary written by her peer D. G. Hogarth expressed the respect British officials held for her. Hogarth honoured her by saying,
No woman in recent time has combined her qualities – her taste for arduous and dangerous adventure with her scientific interest and knowledge, her competence in archaeology and art, her distinguished literary gift, her sympathy for all sorts and condition of men, her political insight and appreciation of human values, her masculine vigour, hard common sense and practical efficiency – all tempered by feminine charm and a most romantic spirit.
Gertrude Bell is remembered in Iraq in the 21st century. The British diplomat, travel writer and Member of Parliament Rory Stewart wrote:
When I served as a British official in southern Iraq in 2003, I often heard Iraqis compare my female colleagues to "Gertrude Bell." It was generally casual flattery, and yet the example of Bell and her colleagues was unsettling. More than ten biographies have portrayed her as the ideal Arabist, political analyst, and administrator.— Rory Stewart
Stewart notes that Bell was "both more lively and more honest" than political statements in his time. He quotes six examples of her writing, the shortest of which is "No one knows exactly what they do want, least of all themselves, except that they don’t want us." He quotes Bell's colleague, T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), as saying that she was "not a good judge of men or situations", and observes that "If there was no ideal solution, however, there were still clear mistakes. Bell should never have acquiesced in the inclusion of the Kurdish-dominated province of Mosul in Iraq." However, Stewart praises her 1920 White Paper, comparing it to General Petraeus's report to the US Congress.
A stained-glass window dedicated to her memory, made by Douglas Strachan, was erected in St Lawrence's Church, East Rounton, North Yorkshire. It depicts Magdalen College, Oxford, and Khadimain, Baghdad. The inscription reads:
This window is in remembrance of Gertrude Versed in the learning of the east and of the west Servant of the state Scholar Poet Historian Antiquary Gardener Mountaineer Explorer Lover of nature of flowers and of animals Incomparable friend sister daughter.
In 2016, a campaign was launched to transform Bell's family estate, Red Barns, into a memorial and museum. The family were patrons of the Arts and Crafts movement in England, and the home, located in Redcar, features wallpaper by William Morris. Although the building is Grade II* listed, it has not been maintained in recent years. Turning the building into a memorial to Gertrude is partially the result of a popular 2015 exhibition about her at the Great North Museum in Newcastle. The exhibition moved to the Kirkleatham Museum in Redcar after its run in Newcastle.
He is going to give me a room in his office where I shall go two or three mornings a week... the other days I shall go on working at GHQ....Sir Percy's office is a quarter of an hour away.
He is going to give me a room in his office where I shall go two or three mornings a week... the other days I shall go on working at GHQ....Sir Percy's office is a quarter of an hour away.
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