Bell, aged 41, before her tent during
archeological excavations in Babylon .
Bell and T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) are recognized as almost wholly responsible for creating the Hashimite dynasty in Jordan and the modern state of Iraq. During her life, she was an unrecognised force behind the success of the Arab revolt in World War I. At the conclusion of the war, she drew up borders within Mesopotamia to include the three Ottoman Empire vilayets that later became Iraq.
Read Syria: The Desert and the Sown, by Gertrude Bell, free from Google Books. Early life
Bell was born in Washington Hall, County Durham, England, to a family of great affluence. She was a granddaughter of industrialist Isaac Lowthian Bell. At age 16, she went to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where she gained a first class honours degree in history in only two years.
Travels and writings
Bell's uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles, was British minister at Tehran, Persia. In May 1892, after leaving Oxford, Bell travelled to Persia to visit him. She described this journey in her book, Persian Pictures. She spent much of the next decade traveling around the world, mountaineering in Switzerland, and learning archaeology and languages — Arabic, French, German, Italian, Persian and Turkish.
In 1899, Bell again went to the Middle East. She visited Palestine and Syria in that year and in 1900 traveled to Jerusalem dressed as a male Bedouin to look for the Druzes. She reached Jebel Druze and befriended the Druze king Yahya Bey. In 1905, Bell was again in the Middle East and traveled widely, studying local ruins and staying with both the Druzes and Beni Sakhr and meeting many Arab chieftains, emirs and sheiks. She published her observations in the book The Desert and the Sown. Bell's vivid descriptions opened up the Arabian deserts to the western world. In March 1907, Bell journeyed to Turkey and began to work with the archaeologist and New Testament scholar Sir William M. Ramsey. Their excavations were chronicled in A Thousand and One Churches.
In January 1909, she left for Mesopotamia. She visited the Hittite city of Carchemish, found the ruin of Ukhaidir and finally went to Babylon and Najac. Back in Carchemish, she worked closely with the two archaeologists on site. One of them was T. E. Lawrence. Her 1913 Arabian journey was generally difficult. She was the second foreign woman after Lady Anne Blunt to visit Ha'il.
Bell also became honorary secretary of the British Women's Anti-Suffrage League. Her stated reason for her anti-suffrage stand was that as long as women felt that the kitchen and the bedroom were their domain and that they were not worthy of being included in political debate, they were truly unfit to take part in deciding how the nation should be ruled.
War and political career
At the outbreak of World War I, Bell's request for a Middle East posting was initially denied. She instead volunteered with the Red Cross in France.
Work in the Middle East
In November 1915, however, she was summoned to Cairo to the nascent Arab Bureau, headed by General Gilbert Clayton. She also again met T.E. Lawrence. At first she did not receive an official position, but, in her first months there, helped LtCmdr David Hogarth set about organizing and processing her own, Lawrence's and Capt. W. H. I. Shakespear's data about the location and disposition of Arab tribes that could be encouraged to join the British against the Turks. Lawrence and the British used the information in their dealings with the Arabs.
On March 3, 1916, after hardly a moment's notice, Gen. Clayton sent Bell to Basra, which British forces had captured in November 1914, to advise Chief Political Officer Percy Cox regarding an area she had visited the most. She drew maps to help the British army reach Baghdad safely. She became the only female political officer in the British forces and received the title of "Liaison Officer, Correspondent to Cairo" (i.e. to the Arab Bureau where she had been assigned)." She was Harry St. John Philby's field controller, and taught him the finer arts of behind-the-scenes political maneuvering.
When British troops took Baghdad (March 10, 1917), Bell was summoned by Cox to Baghdad and presented with the title of "Oriental Secretary." She, Cox and T. E. Lawrence were among a select group of "Orientalists" convened by Winston Churchill to attend a 1921 Conference in Cairo to find a way to reduce the expense of stationing British troops in its post-WWI mandates. Gertrude is supposed to have described T.E.L. as being able "to ignite fires in cold rooms", but so could she. Throughout the conference, the two worked tirelessly to promote the establishment of the countries of Transjordan and Iraq to be presided over by the Kings Abdullah and Faisal, sons of the instigator of the Arab revolt against Turkey (ca. 1915-1916), Hussein ibn Ali, Sherif and Emir of Mecca. Until her death in Baghdad, she served in the Iraq British High Commission advisory group there. Referred to by Iraqis as "Al Khatun" (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 helped him nip several problems in the bud, especially at the start of his reign. He helped her to found Baghdad's great Iraqi Archealogical Museum from her own modest artifact collection and founded The British School of Archeology, Iraq, to endow excavation projects from proceeds in her will. The stress of authoring a prodigious output of books, articles of correspondence, intelligence reports, reference works, white papers and recurring bronchitis attacks brought on by years of heavy smoking in the company of English and Arab cohorts; bouts with malaria; and finally, Baghdad's summer heat, took a toll on her health. Seemingly frail to start with, she became nearly emaciated.
Like T. E. Lawrence, she had attended Oxford and earned a "First" in Modern History. Bell spoke Arabic, Persian, French and German. She was an archaeologist, traveler and photographer in the Middle East before WWI. Under the mentorship of David Hogarth, Bell was recommended to the Arab Bureau in Cairo in 1915 for war service. Bell and Hogarth stood slighly more than 5'5", yet both could ride with great determination through the desert for hours on end. Both died by accident/suicide after recurring bouts of depression, burn-out and exhaustion. Her work was specially mentioned in the British Parliament, and she was awarded the Order of the British Empire. Some consider the present troubles in Iraq are derived from the lines Bell helped draw to create its borders. Perhaps so, but Gertrude's reports indicate problems were foreseen; there were just not many (if any) permanent solutions for the forces at work at the time. Unlike T. E. Lawrence, Bell did not have a Lowell Thomas to publicise in the USA her adventures and deeds, but she is well known in Britain.
Creation of Iraq
When the Ottoman Empire collapsed in late January 1919, Bell was assigned to conduct an analysis of the situation in Mesopotamia and the options for future leadership in Iraq. She spent the next ten months writing what was later considered a masterful official report. When her conclusion was largely favorable to Arabic leadership, her superior, A. T. Wilson, turned against her.
On October 11, 1920, Percy Cox returned to Baghdad and asked her to continue as Oriental Secretary, acting as liaison with the forthcoming Arab government.
Bell's influence led to the creation of a country inhabited by a Shi'ite majority in the south, and Sunni and Kurdish minorities in the center and north respectively. By denying the Sunni Kurds a separate, autonomous area or state, the British tried to balance the heavy predominance of Shi'ites in Iraq and keep control of the potential oilfields in their territory.
The British thought that Sunnis should lead the Iraqi nation, because the Shi'ite majority was regarded as too volatile to govern due to its largely tribal and nomadic base in Iraq, and hard to assimilate because of an unyielding religious bias for the "Ali" faction of the Muslim schism. "I don't for a moment doubt that the final authority must be in the hands of the Sunnis, in spite of their numerical inferiority," Bell once said. "Otherwise you will have a ... theocratic state, which is the very devil."
The rivalries and differing religious attitudes continue to cause friction within Iraq.
Bell and T. E. Lawrence persuaded Winston Churchill and 1921 Cairo conferees to endorse Faisal bin Hussein (the son of Hussein, Sherif of Mecca), former commander of the Arab forces that entered Damascus at the culmination of the Arab revolt and recently deposed by France as King of Syria, as the first King of Iraq, Faisal I. When Faisal arrived in Iraq in June 1921, Bell advised him in local questions, including matters involving tribal geography and local business. Bell also supervised the selection of appointees for cabinet and other leadership posts in the new government.
Faisal was crowned king of Iraq on August 23, 1921. Due to her influence with the new king, Bell earned the nickname, "the Uncrowned Queen of Iraq." Working with the new king was, however, not easy: "You may rely upon one thing — I'll never engage in creating kings again; it's too great a strain."
Baghdad Archaeological Museum
After the situation stabilized, Bell began forming what would later become the Baghdad Archaeological Museum, located at first within the confines of the royal palace.
She supervised excavations and examined finds and artifacts. Against European opposition, she insisted that excavated antiquities should remain in their country of origin, thereby ensuring that her museum would retain a collection of Iraq's antiquities. The museum was officially opened in June 1926.
Bell briefly returned to Britain in 1925, and found herself facing family problems and ill health. Her family's fortune had begun to decline due to the onset of post WW I economic depression in Europe. She returned to Baghdad, Iraq, and soon developed pleurisy. When she recovered, she heard that her younger brother Hugo had died of typhoid.
On July 12, 1926, Bell was discovered to have committed suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills. She had never married or had children. She was buried at the British cemetery in Baghdad's Bab al-Sharji district. Her funeral was a major event, attended by large numbers of people.
A year after her death, in 1927, her stepmother edited and published two volumes of Bell's collected correspondence written during the 20 years preceding World War I.
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