Gertrude Bell was one of the most remarkable women of this or any other age. Archaeologist, linguist, writer, spy and the greatest woman mountaineer of her age, she was also the architect of the modern Iraq.
Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell was born into a wealthy family at Washington New Hall in what was then County Durham in north east England in 1868 and it was her family’s wealth that ensured her education and enabled her travels.
Bell’s mother died in childbirth in 1871 and she was to have a close relationship with her father, Sir Hugh Bell, who was a progressive mill owner and had served in several government positions.
She was educated at Queen’s College London and the at Oxford University. Bell studied history, one of the few subjects that women were allowed to study, and she specialised in modern history receiving a first class honours degree in two years.
After leaving Oxford, she travelled to Tehran in Persia where her uncle was the equivalent of the British ambassador and she wrote about her travels in her book, ‘Persian Pictures’, published in 1894.
Bell spent much of the following decade travelling the world and developed a passion for archaeology and languages. She became fluent in Arabic, Persian, French and German and also spoke Italian and Turkish.
She travelled extensively in Arabia and in 1907 published her book Syria: The Desert and the Sown in which she described, photographed and detailed her trip to towns and cities like Damascus, Jerusalem, Beirut, Antioch and Alexandretta.
In 1907, Bell journeyed to the Ottoman Empire and worked with the archaeologist and New Testament scholar Sir William M. Ramsay. Their excavations in Binbirkilise were chronicled in ‘A Thousand and One Churches’. Then in 1909, she visited the Hittite city of Carchemish in Mesopotamia and mapped the ruin of Ukhaidir. In her travels, she met fellow archaeologists, one of them none other than T E Lawrence.
I could also write about Bell’s mountaineering exploits, how she conquered the La Meije and Mont Blanc, or recorded new paths or first ascents in the Bernese Alps, or had one of the peaks named after her (Gertrudspitze) but I hurry on to the outbreak of World War One.
Bell initially volunteered to serve with the Red Cross in France but was recruited by British Intelligence to put her knowledge of the Middle East to guide soldiers through the desert. Then in 1915 she was summoned to Cairo to join the newly formed Arab Bureau along with Lawrence.
The two had a great deal in common: they had both graduated from Oxford with first class degrees in modern history, both had intimate knowledge of the desert tribes and had travelled extensively and both had proved their resilience and riding ability in the harshest of conditions.
The British forces had captured Basra in 1914 and since this was an area that Bell knew better than anyone, she was ordered there to advise the Chief Political Officer. She became the only female political officer and became the field controller of St John Philby, then a budding intelligence agent, and taught him the finer points of espionage and political manoeuvring. (He was also father of Kim Philby, the infamous double agent, but that’s another story)
Bell’s expertise was recognised in 1917 when she was given the titles of Oriental Secretary responsible for relations with the Arab population and with the end of the war, she 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.
Bell believed passionately in Arab independence and persuaded Churchill the idea of an independent Iraq was viable, although there is no doubt that she underestimated the force of religion in Iraqi affairs. But she had her way and Lawrence’s protege Faisal was acclaimed king and his mandate settled through an Anglo-Iraqi treaty that was railroaded through the Iraqi parliament.
‘I’ll never engage in creating kings again; it’s too great a strain,’ Bell wrote to her father, but she was and remains a significant figure in Iraq. She was given the nickname Khatun, which means fine lady or gentlewoman and is still remembered in Baghdad today while Lawrence is all but forgotten.
From 1923 she devoted herself to her archaeological pursuits and she established the Baghdad Archaeological Museum which still survives today, but Bell died suddenly in July 1926. She had taken an overdose of sleeping tablets, whether by accident or design, and she is buried in Baghdad.
Thanks to crude oil, found in commercial quantities at Kirkuk in 1927, the Iraqi monarchy survived Turkish intrigue, Saudi aggression and repeated uprisings, the worst in 1941 when pro-German officers drove the king into exile. But the republican coup d’etat of 1958 and the murder of Faisal II marked the end of the Iraq that Bell created, one that lasted just 37 years.