This article first appeared in the September 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
Gertrude Bell defies stereotypical ideas about Victorian women. Before she became a well-known archaeologist, traveller and Middle East diplomat, her first career was as a mountaineer. Between 1899 and 1904, not satisfied with conquering the Meije and Mont Blanc, she traced 10 new paths or first ascents in the Swiss Bernese Alps.
In August 1902, an audacious attempt on the unclimbed north-east face of the 4,274-metre Finsteraarhorn nearly cost her her life. She spent two terrifying nights roped to her guides, clinging to the rock face during relentless snow, hail and lightning. “Forty eight hours on the rope,” she noted in her diary afterwards. “Went to bed and [ate] four eggs and drank quantities of milk. My feet frostbitten a little.” Though she failed on this occasion, another Alpine peak, Gertrudspitze, still bears her name.
Born in 1868, Gertrude Lowthian Bell was the daughter of a north-east industrialist. A brilliant scholar and linguist (she could speak eight languages), she was the first woman to gain a First in modern history at Oxford. Via family connections in the diplomatic service, her travels began in Romania and Persia and she soon developed a passion for learning Arabic and the history of the Arab peoples.
Bell went on to spend the early 1900s mapping and photographing the sites of Byzantine churches in Anatolia and Turkey, and ancient fortifications in Mesopotamia. She became an expert in Syrian archaeology, and was well known in Britain for her vivid travel writings such as The Desert and the Sown (1907). On one 1,400-mile expedition along the Euphrates, she discovered the early Islamic palace and mosque of Ukhaidir that had been beyond the reach of western explorers. Her account of the journey, Amurath to Amurath (1911) was one of her most famous books.
As a lone European and woman among a retinue of Arab men, Bell learned how to put on a queenly show, heading a train of camels and carrying prestigious gifts to cement good relations with the Bedouin whose trade routes she traversed. Her most daring expedition was to Ha’il in central Arabia (1913–14), home to the warring Banu Rashid dynasty, unvisited by Europeans for over a decade.
Bell’s fluent Arabic and first-hand experience of the Middle East proved invaluable to the British government. In the First World War she was seconded to British military intelligence in Cairo and worked alongside TE Lawrence in the Arab Bureau, the objective being to secure British interests in the Middle East and to speed the demise of Turkish influence in the region. Bell was sent to Basra as the viceroy of India’s personal envoy, and she proceeded to gather intelligence on the Bedouin in central Arabia. She was the only woman to hold office among the staff of the chief political officer, Sir Percy Cox, and helped write the Arab Bulletin, which updated the British government on Middle Eastern events during the war.
Bell was among the delegates at the Paris peace conference, which shaped much of the postwar world, in 1919. An advocate of Arab self-rule, she was co-author of an influential report that eventually contributed to the establishment of Britain’s legal mandate over Iraq in 1920. In the turbulent years that followed, she continued to work with Cox, now high commissioner in Baghdad. At the Cairo conference in March 1921, Cox and Bell persuaded Winston Churchill, then secretary of state for the colonies, of Britain’s continued interest in Iraq. Bell played a significant role in securing the Iraqi throne for Feisal ibn Hussein and was instrumental in the 1922 Anglo-Iraqi treaty which replaced the former British mandate. Her political role waned after the introduction of a new Iraqi constitution in 1924.
The Lady of the Court
In the last years of her life, Bell became the first director of antiquities in Iraq, founding the Iraqi Archaeological Museum in Baghdad. An energetic supporter of educational development for rural communities, she helped promote Muslim women’s education.
Bell had no fear of debating high politics with powerful men. She relished discussing “Mesopotamia and other sensible things,” and disparaged the small talk expected of women of her class. Her forthright ‘Oxfordy manner’ and high status in the British government gave her the kudos of an ‘honorary man’ who could appear unveiled even among chief religious figures in the Islamic world, such as the revered Naqib of Baghdad.
To many Arabs, Bell was known as Khatun, or ‘Lady of the Court’. Rivals saw her as a political troublemaker, but the men she encountered, British and Arab alike, acknowledged her shrewdness. On the rare occasion when Gertrude Bell failed to win an argument, she either ignored or over-rode whoever was trying to stop her. When one Mudir, an agent of the Ottoman state, tried to block her way to Damascus, saying “It cannot happen,” Gertrude retorted in fluent Arabic: “It must happen. English women are never afraid.”
Yet Bell is a problematic feminist icon, with attitudes reflecting her own time and class, and sitting uncomfortably with 21st-century sensibilities. She was a founder member of the northern branch of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League, which campaigned against votes for women. In a letter to The Times (dated 12 October 1908), she urged action against the “regrettable programme” being pursued by the suffragettes.
Like many who found their cause in times of political unrest and war, Bell did not adapt well to peace. Though no stranger to love, she never married and could neither find contentment by returning to England, nor by settling in Baghdad. She died in 1926, just before her 58th birthday, of an overdose of sleeping tablets. It’s not known whether her death was an accident or suicide.
The Gertrude Bell Archive at Newcastle University forms an important part of her legacy – a collection of several thousand photographs and documents that offer rich evidence of archaeological sites in the Middle East, many subsequently destroyed. Her book The Thousand and One Churches (1909) remains the standard work on early Byzantine architecture in Anatolia. A more controversial legacy was her contribution in 1923 to fixing the boundaries of modern Iraq with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The unresolved question of how Kurdish interests were to be safeguarded in the new Iraq was to have long-term and tragic consequences.
Writer Vita Sackville-West once recalled Gertrude’s “gift of making every one feel suddenly eager, of making you feel that life was full and rich and exciting.” But beyond the world of archaeology it is astonishing how quickly she has been forgotten.
Helen Berry is professor of British history at Newcastle University. Her books include The Castrato and His Wife (OUP, 2011)