Gertrude Bell, the Female Lawrence of Arabia

Most of you are familiar with the story of T. E. Lawrence, whose exploits in the Middle East provided the basis for the 1962 blockbuster movie “Lawrence of Arabia.” Of course, Hollywood fictionalized, altered and exaggerated certain elements of Lawrence’s exploits, but the basic premise was accurate. He was instrumental in instigating an Arab uprising against the Ottoman Empire during WWI, which was of great help to the Allies. Less known, were the exploits of Gertrude Bell. One could argue that her accomplishments were even more impressive than Lawrence’s since she was a female interacting in the highly patriarchal, tribal society of the Middle East in the early 20th century.

Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell was born on July 14, 1868 in County Durham, England. Her family was wealthy and influential. For example, her grandfather, Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, was a prominent industrialist and a Member of Parliament specializing in foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. Her father, Sir Hugh Bell, was a liberal-minded mill owner. Due to the family’s wealth and influence Gertrude was able to indulge in her passions, which were education (highly unusual for a female at that time) and a thirst for adventure.

She graduated from Queens College in London and Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University. She specialized in Modern History, which, at the time, was one of the few subjects open for women to study. In fact, she was the first woman to graduate from Oxford with a first class honors degree in Modern History.

Upon graduating, she indulged her thirst for adventure by travelling extensively throughout Europe, a highly unusual pursuit for a woman at that time. Thus, she was able to indulge in three of her major passions – mountaineering, archaeology and languages. Additionally, she traveled extensively throughout the Middle East. She became fluent in Arabic, Persian, French and German and conversant in Turkish and Italian. The first two would serve her well, prospectively. She became very knowledgeable of the customs of the many diverse tribes in the area. In particular, she spent a lot of time in Persia, where an uncle was the British minister (ambassador), Palestine and Syria.

During WWI British Intelligence, cognizant of her experience, knowledge and connections in the region recruited her to guide British soldiers through the deserts. One of her tasks was to map the area. She was very successful in this endeavor. She developed an entire network of locals to assist her. Furthermore, she was able to utilize the relationships she had developed with the various tribal leaders in the region over the years. She found that being a female was advantageous in one respect. It gave her entrée to the wives of the tribal leaders who were able to provide her with perspectives and intelligence not available to men. Bell was the only female political officer in the region and earned the title of “Liaison Officer.”

In 1915 she attended a conference in Cairo dealing with England’s Middle East policy. Here she worked with Lawrence, among others. Interestingly, they had similar backgrounds. Lawrence had also earned a first class honors degree in Modern History at Oxford, spoke Arabic, fluently, and had established relationships with tribal leaders in the region. The Arab Bureau utilized them both extensively to advise on Arab policy.

After WWI concluded Britain was tasked with reorganizing the former Ottoman Empire. It was an extremely sensitive undertaking. The Shiites, Sunni and Kurds who populated the area deeply hated and mistrusted each other. The people were loyal to their tribal leaders rather than to any central government, so the all-powerful and influential tribal leaders had to be dealt with. The Ottomans had managed to control all of these factions, at times, with brutal force. Now that they were out of the picture long-festering feuds began to surface.

Due to her knowledge and connections with tribal leaders in the area Bell was a natural choice to analyze the situation and make recommendations to the British hierarchy. Over a ten month period she compiled a thorough report titled “Self Determination in Mesopotamia.” (FYI, the name “Mesopotamia,” from the Greek meaning ‘two rivers,’ was not and is not a particular country. It refers to the region in the area of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, roughly corresponding to modern-day Iraq, Kuwait, and parts of Iran, Turkey and Syria.)

Bell strongly favored Arab self-determination, as did the Arab leaders in the region. However, the British government, adhering to a longstanding colonialist philosophy, felt just as strongly that the Arabs were not yet ready to govern themselves. They favored an Arab government under the influence and control of Britain. I believe this position was influenced by the large oil deposits in the area. Further complicating matters and adding to the turmoil was the “Balfour Declaration,” issued by Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, which, essentially carved out a “national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.” This pleased the Zionists, but the Arab leaders who had understood that their support of the British against the Turks was a quid pro quo for being ceded control of the entire area, felt betrayed.

Of course, eventually, the wishes of the British government prevailed. The Brits utilized Bell as a mediator among the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. It was a difficult and thankless task. Each of these groups was fervently pressing for its own country. It was not to be. Eventually, these disparate factions were combined into what became Iraq. It should have been obvious that this artificial country was doomed to fracture eventually, and, of course, it has. But, I can understand the Brits’ point, strategically. Firstly, there were huge oil deposits in the area that the Brits wanted to control. Secondly, Iraq would serve as a buffer and military counterpoint in the region against Iran, Turkey and Syria.

In 1921 the Brits installed Faisal Bin Hussein, the former commander of the Arab forces that had fought beside the Brits against the Turks in WWI, as the first “King of Iraq.” Faisal relied heavily on Bell as he eased into the role. She helped him interact with certain tribal leaders, and advised him on political appointees and other matters. She became known as “al-Khatun,” roughly “Lady of the Court.” He, in turn, helped her establish an archaeology museum.


One could argue that the current turmoil in Iraq can be traced directly to the partitioning in which Bell was heavily involved. But, in fairness, she did point out these potential problems to the Brits, and most historians realize that there was no easy solution at the time. In my opinion, the blame lies more on the Brits and,in particular, on Balfour and his allies.

Eventually, the stress of this job as well as years of arduous travel and heavy smoking had an adverse affect on her health, and Bell returned to Britain in 1925. She soon developed pleurisy. Not only was she plagued by ill health, but also by a decline in the family’s fortunes.

On July 26, 1926 she was discovered dead of an apparent overdose of sleeping pills. Historians are uncertain as to whether or not it was an intentional overdose as she had told her maid she was taking a nap and to wake her up. In any event, it was a sad ending to a life of great accomplishment.

Generally, British government officials held her in very high regard as illustrated by the following excerpt from her obituary penned by one of her peers, D. G. Hogarth:

“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 a feminine charm and a most romantic spirit.”


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