From time to time, I have written about iconic and pioneering women in relative recent history, well recent by British standards 🙂 I also sometimes write about the Middle-East which is actually the one area of life that I can actually claim to have some academic expertise. So I have finally taken the opportunity to put both of these themes together over the last few months in the form of this blog post of Gertrude Bell who despite having had more influence and importance than any other lady in the Middle East for at least 1400-2000 years (depending on your religion of choice) is almost entirely unknown.
In a picture taken to mark the Cairo Conference of 1921, Gertrude Bell – characteristically elegant in a fur stole and floppy hat, despite being on camel back – sits right at the heart of the action. To one side is Winston Churchill, on her other TE Lawrence, later immortalised in David Lean’s 1962 epic, Lawrence of Arabia.
Bell was his equal in every sense: the first woman to achieve a first (in modern history) from Oxford, an archaeologist, linguist, Arabist, adventurer and, possibly, spy. In her day, she was arguably the most powerful woman in the British Empire – central to the decisions that created the modern Middle East and reverberate still on the nightly news.
Yet while Lawrence is still celebrated, she has largely been forgotten.
Newspaper articles of the time show she was known all over the world. The minutes of the Cairo Conference record her presence at every key discussion but not one of the men mentions her in their memoirs. It’s almost as if she never existed. Even if you go to the north of England, where both myself and Gertrude were born, most people seem not to have ever heard of her.
Gertrude Bell was the granddaughter of Liberal MP Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell and was born in 1868, in County Durham. She paid her first visit to the Middle East after Oxford when she went to stay with her uncle, who was the minister to Tehran in Persia or what we would know now as being an Ambassador in Iran.
The city set her imagination alight. “I have landed in the Garden of Eden” she wrote to her father, adding “I have had my first Persian lesson with a sheik, who is a darling.”
The trip resulted in her first book, Persian Pictures, and a lifelong love affair with the region began. “I never weary of the East and I never feel it to be alien,” she wrote a few years later. “I don’t expect to be in England again – inshallah.”
Gertrude did return home from time to time but only briefly, sometimes to indulge her daring mountain exploits in the Alps during the 1890s, in which she climbed Mont Blanc and almost died after spending “forty-eight hours on the rope” in a storm. But her life from then on was largely spent in the deserts and cities of Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Mesopotamia (now Iraq).
So who exactly was the lady known as khatun, or “Desert Queen”? Raised by a family of steelmakers who supplied the railways of Britain’s ever-expanding empire, Bell could just have been married off into the aristocracy, as many industrialists’ daughters were.
That honed intellect, though, led to her being deemed “too Oxfordy” for success at society balls in London, where she moved after university for her “coming out”. More interested in metaphysics than marriage, in 1892 she jumped at a chance to accompany her Aunt Mary to Tehran, where her husband was ambassador.
Those early travels with her aunt were to shape the rest of her life. For, as many others have since found out, the Middle East can be a welcoming place for Western women, a place where men may be men but where women can be too, treated as they often are as honorary males. In the company of sheikhs, imams and tribal potentates, first in Tehran and later in Damascus and Baghdad, Bell suffered none of the social judgments made upon her in parlour society back home. Falling in love with the region almost instantly, she mastered Arabic, despite complaining that it had “three sounds almost impossible to the European throat”.
Soon she was roaming deserts where many other explorers feared to tread, relying on trusted local fixers and her own charm with local Bedouin sheikhs, who were always the key to securing safe passage. Wearing a “divided skirt” that allowed her to ride like a man, she would spend up to 12 hours a day in the burning heat, and drink water from stagnant pools. Yet her travelling caravan also included a tin bath, a full Wedgwood dinner service and a formal dinner dress for evening wear.
To the sheikhs she drank tea with, the small, waiflike figure with the ivory cigarette holder was a fascinating enigma. According to Georgina Howell’s acclaimed 2007 biography of Bell, Daughter of the Desert, many assumed she was a man until she opened her mouth.
Such encounters, though, gave her an unrivalled knowledge of the way Arab society worked. And so it was that in 1917, as a British invasion via Basra sought to oust the Turks from oil-rich Mesopotamia, she was enlisted as the first female military intelligence officer, tasked with assessing Arab willingness to join Lawrence’s anti-Ottoman revolt. The Turks eventually capitulated after fierce resistance. But what followed bears uncanny resonance with the campaign of 2003.
Just like Saddam’s vanquished Ba’athist regime, the Ottomans left behind a corrupt, ramshackle infrastructure that virtually collapsed overnight, forcing the British to rebuild schools and hospitals from scratch. And as Bell drily remarked: “If it took rather longer to open some of the Baghdad schools than expected, the delay may be attributed to the people themselves, who looted all the furniture and carried off the doors, windows and other portable fittings.”
By 1920, the thinly stretched force of 60,000 troops was fighting an anti-British jihad, waged by fundamentalist Shias and Ottoman-bribed tribes. With the war-battered British Empire already wary of expansion, the solution was self-government under a British mandate. Bell then played arguably her most influential role, lobbying successfully for King Faisal, a Sunni leader of the Arab revolt, to be installed as Faisal I of what was now Iraq.
Unlike Lawrence, Gertrude never dressed in Arabic clothess. In fact she felt very strongly that you have to meet the other person as who you are and have an honest exchange, not try to be one of them. One of the reasons men probably saw her as a threat was that she got on famously with the Arabs.
On an archaeological dig at Carchemish in Mesopotamia she met TE Lawrence, who later said “she was a wonderful person, not very like a woman”. I’d imagined that Lawrence presumably meant this as a compliment.
Bell had red hair, green eyes and a thoughtful, fine-boned face. Small in stature, she was nonetheless forceful in nature: intelligent, energetic and sometimes brusque to the point of rudeness.
In later life, especially, she was quite hawkish. At her archive at Newcastle University, her letters are incredibly articulate and amusing but she could impatient, especially of other women. She must have made the lives of the embassy wives in Baghdad a misery at times, regarding them as silly.
In 1907, Bell published The Desert and the Sown, chronicling the Arabian desert and cities for a rapt audience. She photographed ancient sites like Palmyra and began working with archaeologists uncovering ancient treasures. “I’ve never felt the ancient world so close,” she wrote home.
She gathered many such antiquities for her greatest achievement; founding the Baghdad Museum, which was heartbreakingly looted after the 2003 Allied invasion but has since reopened.
Perhaps what resonates most strongly today is her assessment of the political situation.
At the outbreak of World War One, Bell volunteered with the Red Cross in France but British Intelligence had other ideas: few could rival her intimate knowledge of the area, and she was asked to help soldiers find routes through the Middle Eastern deserts. It was the beginning of a new career that later saw her become a senior adviser to the military governor of newly-created Iraq.
Being a woman in a man’s world was seemingly more difficult for Bell in British politics than among desert tribes. In 1920, she produced a white paper on the government of Iraq and was exasperated that her peers seemed more interested in its author than contents. She wrote: “The general line taken by the press seems to be that it’s remarkable that a dog should be able to stand up on its hind legs at all – i.e. a female write a white paper.”
Consequently, it is difficult to gauge how much influence Bell actually had. Her star waxed and waned according to her superiors: some respected her opinions, others could not stomach working with a woman – especially one who knew so much more about the landscape than they did.
She certainly took part in drawing the borders that created Iraq by merging the provinces of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. And she was partly responsible for selecting Faisal, the new king of Iraq, who was installed in 1921 following the Cairo Conference though the monarchy was eventually overthrown and replaced by the Ba’athist regime in 1968 that culminated with Saddam Hussein.
The arrangement did not stand the test of time. While the Arab world saw many worse governments, Faisal’s son, who succeeded him as king, was murdered in a military coup in 1958, paving the way for the Ba’athist takeover a decade later. Perhaps a more damning indictment of Bell’s political judgment, though, was that she saw Iraq’s better-educated Sunni minority as the natural party of government. The more devout Shias, she said, were too easily swayed by “fanatic” clerics, despite being the two-thirds majority. Thus was sectarian division institutionalised in both the monarchy and Saddam’s Sunni dictatorship, paving the way for the Sunni-Shia civil war that raged from 2006-07.
“In a sense, Gertrude Bell was right – the Shia are more emotional people, but her ideas did lay the framework for people like Saddam,” says Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, a Shia politician who saw the downside of Bell’s legacy first-hand. Tortured by Saddam, he was among the witnesses at the Iraqi dictator’s hanging in 2006, and today displays the gallows rope in his Baghdad home as a reminder of the bad old days. “There was a huge democratic fault in her thinking that would have minority rule forever.”
However, Bell was a passionate believer in Arab self-determination and was all too aware of the problems the new set-up might hold. Some of her letters from the time have eerie echoes of recent history.
“Can you persuade people to take your side when you’re not sure in the end you’ll be there to take theirs?” she asked at one point, noting that “we rushed into the business with our usual disregard for a comprehensive political scheme. Muddle through! Why yes, so we do – wading through blood and tears that need never have been shed.”
These days Iraq with its unstable ethnic mix is now considered a textbook case of imperial meddling, it may seem surprising that anyone in Iraq today might have a kind word for Bell. But thanks to her legendary fondness for its people – she spoke much better Arabic than Lawrence – her memory has lived on far longer than the average colonial viceroy. To this day, British women working in Iraq often find themselves smilingly compared to “that Miss Gertrude”, be they diplomats, journalists or simply a bit feisty.
Nonetheless, she remains a figure of respect among contemporary residents of the British embassy in Baghdad, who keep her original writing table in the ambassador’s dining room. “Any Arabist in the Foreign Office is always conscious of the remarkable people who first got to know the Arabs, and Gertrude Bell was one of them,” says Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain’s special envoy to Iraq from 2003-04. “As for her favouring Sunni rule – it was simply a different era. All over the globe, the British were looking for people whom they could work with in administration, so they tended to go for whoever was more educated.”
Today’s Foreign Office staff also envy the freedom she enjoyed. Bell roamed at will for months on end, meeting kings, beggars and jihadists alike. For her successors, every trip outside Baghdad’s Green Zone is security-vetted and requires an armoured car and bodyguards, depriving them of the richness of encounter that made her such an authority. Such knowledge, indeed, was sorely lacking in the post-2003 period, although as Sir Jeremy points out: “We have to be realistic – resources and the politics of dealing with other countries do not allow our diplomats to work like that anymore.” Either way, it is doubtful that Bell would be happy with the Iraq of 2014.
“She was a colonialist, yes, but she seemed completely devoted to the country,” says Dr Lamia Al Gailani Werr, a London-based archaeologist who works closely with the Iraqi National Museum. What is more, Werr says, Bell also helped avert an earlier mass looting of Iraq’s artefacts – this time by fellow European archaeologists.
Sadly, despite being the founder of the wonderful museum in Baghdad, there is no record of all about the pioneering Gertrude Bell. Nestling in one of the museum’s Art Deco-style archways used to be a bust of Gertrude Bell, the formidable British diplomat, explorer and archaeologist. Sometime before 2003, though, her bust went missing, along with a plaque beneath that read: “Gertrude Bell, whose memory the Arabs will ever hold in affection.”
“It is a shame the bust and the plaque of her have been stolen from the museum,” Werr adds. “Personally I would like to see one back there.” As of yet, the British government has no plans to insist that the bust is reinstated, despite the British Museum working closely with its Iraqi partner. Today’s politically correct curators, after all, might well balk at insisting that a museum honour its colonial benefactors, even one so key as Bell.
To quote the many words of Mark Sykes, architect of the Sykes-Picot agreement that carved up the Ottoman Empire, she was a “conceited, gushing, flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rumpwagging, blethering ass”.
A century on from the start of the British Mesopotamian campaign, the country is still struggling against Isis and sectarian strife. Much of Baghdad still lies in ruins, and the small Christian cemetery where Bell’s body still rests is overgrown and bereft of visitors.
I feel quite an affinity with Gertrude Bell in so much as we both come from the same part of England and both love the people and places of the Middle East so much. I’ve never met or read of a single modern day politician who has the slightest idea about the region but I’m sure with Gertrude, I could have quite a natter.
Gertrude Bell was the subject of a quite big budget Hollywood movie starring Nicole Kidman in 2015 entitled ‘Queen of the desert’ but like the impressive Gertrude Bell herself, it seems to have been largely forgotten.