Thanks to the blockbuster movie, Lawrence of Arabia, most people have heard of T. E. Lawrence and are familiar, to some degree, with his accomplishments in the Middle East. However, I suspect that very few of you have heard of Gertrude Bell. In point of fact, as you will see, Bell was every bit as accomplished and influential in the affairs of late 19th and early 20th century Middle East and in the formation of the ME as we know it today, as Lawrence.
Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell was born on July 14, 1868 in County Durham, England. Her family was wealthy and influential, which greatly impacted how she was able to live her life. For example, one of her grandfathers was a wealthy and prominent industrialist and a former Member of Parliament under the renowned Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. Her step-mother, Florence, was an accomplished author of children’s stories. Her father, Sir Hugh Bell, 2nd Baronet, was a prominent progressive mill owner, which was unusual for the time, who believed in equitable treatment of his workers, including, among other things, paying them a fair wage.
Due to the foregoing, Bell was able to engage in a lifestyle, which, though not unique, was certainly unusual for a woman in the late 19th century. She studied at Queens College and, later, at Oxford University, where she became immersed in modern history. She graduated with the highest honors.
After graduation, unsure of what to do next but being rather independent and adventurous and enjoying the support of her family (financial and otherwise), she decided to travel. In 1892 she went to Persia (present-day Iran) where one of her uncles was England’s “minister” (equivalent to ambassador). Later, she travelled extensively throughout Europe and the Middle East developing a passion for archaeology, mountain climbing and history.
She exhibited a real gift for languages, becoming fluent in French, German, Arabic and Persian, and conversant in Italian and Turkish. Finally, in 1899 she returned to the ME. She fell in love with the area, travelling throughout it extensively over the next several years. During this period she developed close relationships with many of the tribal leaders in the area, notably, the Hashemite and ibn Saud clans. Furthermore, she was a prolific writer and photographer. She sent many letters and photographs home to her family, which portrayed her travels in vivid detail. (Think a more modern version of Marco Polo.) For many Europeans, these provided their first insight into the ME. Even today, they provide valuable insights into life in the area at the turn of the 20th century.
With the advent of WW1 Bell’s skills and knowledge became extremely valuable to the British. The British were fervently trying to enlist the various Arab tribal leaders’ support against the Germans and Turks. At the time, the ME was part of the Ottoman Empire, but the Turks were losing their grip on it, and the area was ripe for the plucking. In addition, oil had been discovered in the area, and then as now, all the world powers coveted it. Initially, the British denied Bell access to the area, and she volunteered with the Red Cross in France. By 1915, however, someone in the British hierarchy had awoken to the reality of her unique knowledge, skills and connections in the ME and recommended her to British Intelligence. She was based in Cairo in the Arab Bureau where she worked with Lawrence and others. Some of her accomplishments were:
- Drew maps of the area for the Army, which was critical since the area was largely unmapped, and getting lost in the desert does not usually end well.
- Served as a guide for soldiers on missions.
- Acted as liaison between the British and various tribal leaders. Due to her years of extensive travel she had developed close relationships with them and, being a woman, enjoyed unique access to their wives as well, which proved to be invaluable.
- In 1917 she was appointed “Oriental Secretary,” a high honor for a woman.
- In 1921 she, along with Lawrence and a few others, was selected to attend a special conference in Cairo (the only female), whose purpose was to determine the national boundaries of newly-formed countries, such as Iraq and Transjordan. In this regard, her relationships with various Arab leaders, such as Hussein bin Ali, Sharif and Emir of Mecca, and his sons, Abdullah and Faisal, were invaluable to the success of the process. She helped install Faisal I as the ruler of Iraq. She often acted as mediator between the British and various Arab tribes.
- Regarding the formation of Iraq, Bell, after extensive study and analysis, issued a report entitled “Self-Determination in Mesopotamia,” which advocated that the locals govern themselves. This was diametrically opposed to the British idea of placing Arab governments under their influence and control. Eventually, the British realized that their method would have been considerably more costly, so self-determination won out. Bell was one of the, if not the, chief architects of the boundaries of the modern ME as we know it today.
- Bell adamantly believed that antiquities were the property of the country in which they were discovered and should remain there. Toward that end, she was instrumental in the creation of the National Museum of Iraq.
- Throughout the intervening years much criticism has been levelled at these planners for creating an “artificial” country consisting of three factions Sunnis, Shias and Kurds, that hate each other and are unlikely ever to work together. Only a brutal autocrat, like Saddam Hussein, was able to suppress the intense internecine and intractable hatred among these groups. Today, it looks like a serious miscalculation. At the time, however, Bell’s papers indicated that the possibility of these difficulties was recognized, but it was felt that there was no better solution. I, for one, disagree, but we are stuck with the situation as it is.
The end of Bell’s life was unfortunate. In 1925 ill health and a substantial decline in her family’s financial situation forced her to return to England. In 1926 she returned to Baghdad only to develop pleurisy. On July 12, 1926 she was found dead of an overdose of sleeping pills. it was never determined definitively whether the overdose was intentional or accidental.
An obituary by one of her peers, D. G. Hogarth, renowned British archaeologist and ME scholar, aptly summed up Bell’s life and accomplishments thusly: “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.”
Bell and her accomplishments have been portrayed in various films. A documentary called Letters from Baghdad, is currently playing in selected theatres. I have seen it, and I heartily recommend it.