WHO WAS GERTRUDE BELL
—And Why Might You Want to Know?
By Linda and Rob Mohr
Was she “the uncrowned Queen of Iraq” whom more than any other foreigner, enabled the founding of modern of Iraq; or “…a silly chattering windbag of conceited, gushing, man-woman, rump-wagging blathering ass!” as her not un-fascinated arch-enemy Sir Mark Sykes wrote of her?
The unconventional, intrepid Gertrude Bell (1862-1926), British explorer, writer, archaeologist, and close friend of Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), was an extraordinary woman, who, with impassioned sensibility, shaped the history of the Middle East. Her intimate knowledge of the desert tribes in Mesopotamia and understanding of Arab and Persian realities helped Great Britain shape a strategy that enabled these ancient and complex cultures to enter the twentieth century, leading, ultimately, to the creation of modern Iraq.
Yet her insightful understandings of the Middle East were completely ignored during America’s rush to judgment in the region. Even now, as the Obama administration takes control of US Middle East policy, Iraq continues to wrestle with the problems and divisions Bell foresaw a century ago.
Born into a wealthy family in England, Gertrude graduated from Oxford University with a “First” in Modern History at the age of 19. A visit in 1892 with her uncle, a British diplomat in Tehran, Iran, ignited a life-long passion for Arab and Persian culture.
World War I, the defining event of her generation, profoundly marked Gertrude Bell. Her fiancé died at the battle of Gallipolli. Having lost her true love, she ignored any further possibility of marriage, and devoted herself to advocacy for the Arabs. Joining the war effort, she served in the British government’s Arab Bureau in Cairo. Her knowledge of the Arabs became instrumental in encouraging the Arabs to join with the British and revolt against Turkey.
Fluent in English, French, German and Italian, Gertrude added a mastery of Arabic, Persian and Turkish to help her navigate the new world she entered. And navigate she did—trekking the vast deserts of Arabia alone for years with male Arab guides and servants, mapping, photographing, and recording observations accurate enough to guide British troops from defeat in Basra to a triumphal entry into Baghdad. “We shall, I trust, make (Baghdad) a center of Arab civilization and prosperity,” wrote Gertrude Bell on that occasion.
She developed a network of deep personal relationships with a wide range of desert people from sheiks to ordinary Bedouins, who collectively discovered that Gertrude was not a woman as they understood women. She spoke their language and could freely quote mystical Arab poems. Ever attentive, keeping a daily diary, she stayed up-to-date about tribal movements and essential routes and water sources, which later proved to be useful for other travelers and British military expeditions. While her diaries indicate that she was capable of considerable self-indulgence, Gertrude Bell rose above norms of status to gain a rare understanding of the culture and people that gave her unique credibility among the Arabs and Persians. She was never happier, she wrote, than when “I am in the real desert, with the real desert people, the Bedouin, who never touch settled life.”
After the war, guided by Gertrude Bell’s and T.E. Lawrence’s understandings of Arabia Deserta, the British drew the borders of the new nation of Iraq (the name means deeply-rooted). Realizing that the Sunnis were best prepared to govern, Bell argued for a single nation that tied Shi’a, Kurds and Sunni together under Sunni rule. Following her lead, the Sunni Hashemite Faisal was crowned king of the new nation. Bell was willing to accept the possibility of these internal squabbles to insure the broader balance of power between Persians in what is now Iran and Arabs in Iraq as the only viable route to long-term stability in the Middle East. The wisdom of her counsel prevented major destabilization in the region until the US invasion in 2003.
Gertrude Bell remained in Iraq as advisor to King Faisal during the formational years of the young nation of Iraq, where she helped to draft a constitution and structure the government, and worked on what proved to be her special legacy, the founding of the Baghdad Archaeological Museum and the British School of Archeology. To insure the museum’s success, she wisely set up guidelines which insured that the museum staff would monitor all excavation in Mesopotamia, and insisted that artifacts discovered at the great Mesopotamian sites such as Ur and Carchemish be declared treasures of national heritage. Her wishes were respected until the final US invasion of Iraq, when, in the absence of any law enforcement, the museum was looted.
Exhausted, suffering from lung cancer, financial problems, and the unexpected loss of her younger brother, Hugh, Gertrude Bell died from an accidental overdose of sleeping pills on July 12, 1926. Fittingly for the “Queen of Iraq,” she is buried in the British cemetery in Baghdad.
Gertrude Bell lived on the vast desert stage of the Middle East, fully committed to insuring the peaceful co-existence of all the tribes and religions in the Middle East. Had past American administrations taken advantage of this remarkable woman’s knowledge, much of recent history might well have been written in ways that respected the people and the unique gifts of their civilization. This able and intelligent woman, without restraint or fear, exerted wide-ranging influence in a world almost totally dominated by men, offers the world a clear example that knowledge and understanding of people and their culture, coupled with wise negotiation, offer a far better way to solve human problems than the use of violence which has too often been the knee-jerk response of mediocre men in power.