“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 vigor, hard common sense and practical efficiency – all tempered by feminine charm and a most romantic spirit.”
This obituary was written by a man with impressive credentials: British archeologist David George Hogarth who worked with the likes of T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) and Arthur Evans who unearthed the palace of Knossos on Crete and pieced together the concept of the Minoan civilization.
Who is the woman who impressed Hogarth? Gertrude Bell. Explorer, archeologist, mountaineer, king maker, and author.
Bell was a striking picture with red hair and blue/green eyes, she never married or had children-the two main expectations of women of the time-but explored and influenced the Middle East in ways that affect the world to this day. Ms. Bell traveled, mapped, and influenced countries that include modern Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.
She gained the respect of British and Arab leaders and had significant influence, especially at a time when women were not generally seen in the same light as men.
A Silver Spoon and Golden Brain
In 1868, Gertrude was born into a rich family that enjoyed the benefits of British nobility connections as well as being owners of industry.
She demonstrated her brainpower early by studying at Queen’s College and, at 17, entering Oxford. In two years, she received a First Class Honors Degree in Modern History.
It didn’t take long for Gertrude to hit the road.
She traveled to Romania then on to Tehran and wrote of the journey in her book “Persian Pictures”.
She continued traveling and learned mountaineering, archeology, and languages. Her mountaineering led to having a challenging peak in the Alps (Gertrudspitze) named after her.
Another sign of her mental prowess: Ms. Bell spoke fluent Arabic, French, German, and Persian along with a bit of Italian and Turkish.
Gertrude then voyaged to Palestine and Syria, and she visited Arabia six times.
She wrote another book titled “Syria: the Desert and the Sown”, in which she colorfully described Arab lands to Westerners.
In 1907, Bell began helping to excavate Binbirkilise–meaning Thousand and One Churches–in what was then the Ottoman Empire. Bell wrote about these times in her book “A Thousand and One Churches”.
In 1909, Gertrude left for an area encompassing modern Iraq and parts of Syria, Turkey, and Iran. She mapped and described the ruin of the large, rectangular fortress of Ukhaidir, which was 50 miles south of Karbala, and then moved on to other towns and sites.
In Ha’il, an oasis city in what is now northwestern Saudi Arabia, she was what has been described as the first “foreign” woman to visit the city after only Lady Anne Blunt: another talented and interesting woman.
In Karkemish, a site on what is now the Turkish/Syrian frontier, Gertrude Bell consulted with T.E. Lawrence. “Lawrence of Arabia”. Some have described Bell and Lawrence as having particular influence on the Middle East at that time.
A Slight Change of Path
When World War I broke out, Bell joined the Red Cross in France. Later, however, she was asked by British Intelligence to get soldiers through desert areas.
Known as “Major Miss Bell”, she is reported to have been the first woman employed by British military intelligence.
Gertrude established close relations with tribes throughout the Middle East, directed teams of locals on her expeditions and, until her death, was likely the only woman holding political clout in determining British policy in the Middle East.
In Cairo, she toiled to gather information about the disposition of Arab tribes, created maps, and advised the British. Winston Churchill called her to a conference regarding the drawing of boundaries in the Middle East.
She was an important part of the creation and administration of Iraq out of the old Ottoman Empire. An important part of this was her help as confidante to King Faisal of Iraq.
The Iraqis called her “al-Khatun” meaning “a lady of the court who keeps an open eye and ear for the benefit of the State”.
She was a confidant of King Faisal of Iraq and held sway in decisions that impact the Middle East even now. It was tough on her as is evidenced by this quote:
“You may rely upon one thing — I’ll never engage in creating kings again; it’s too great a strain.”
Beyond political intrigues, Gertrude Bell founded what would become the impressive Iraqi Archeological Museum and established the British School of Archeology, Iraq.
The political implications of Bell’s effect on the Middle East are fuel for debate; however, it remains without question that Bell led an adventurous life that influenced others.
The Death of Gertrude Bell
Though she did all this, and although she exhibited incredible endurance, health problems dogged her. Stress, bronchitis, malaria attacks, and Baghdad’s summer heat all took their toll. Add to this recurring bouts of depression, burn-out and exhaustion.
Gertrude died on July 12, 1926 from what might have been an accidental overdose and was buried in Baghdad’s Bab al-Sharji district. The funeral was an important occasion. Many people attended including her colleagues, British officials and King Faisal of Iraq.
After all of the study, climbing, trekking, archeology, clandestine operations, and nation building, perhaps one of the most important descriptions of her life is that she was “one of the few representatives of His Majesty’s Government remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection.”
In an upcoming article, we will meet another woman of international adventure who painted quite a different picture with her life that included entering Tibet under disguise, singing opera in Vietnam, influencing Jack Kerouac and others, and joining secret societies.
© 2013 Mark Dorr, All Rights Reserved.
References & Image Credits:
(2) Wikipedia: Gertrude Bell
(3) The Atlantic
(4) Meyer, Karl E. and Shareen B. Brysac. Kingmakers: The Invention of the Modern Middle East. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2008, p. 162.
(5) SomeHoosier via photopin cc