Series 2: Gertrude Bell (1868 – 1926)

Archaeologist, explorer, diplomat, spy. These are words not often used to describe the career of one person, let alone a woman of the early 20th century. But these words do describe Gertrude Bell, one of the first women to study at Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford. At a time when women were meant to be subdued housewives, Gertrude bucked the trend by refusing to settle and instead choosing a life full of solo travel and daring exploits. A true force to be reckoned with, Gertrude Bell soaked up the opportunities that being educated at the university offered her and used them to go out on her own adventures, eventually becoming a crucial player in the events of WWI in the Middle East and working with Churchill and TE Lawrence to carve up the Ottoman Empire upon its collapse. But despite her pioneering importance, few have heard of this extraordinary woman’s achievements.

Early Life

Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell grew up in the North-East of England, the daughter of a rich industrial family who had made their money from founding the iron industry in Yorkshire. She moved in elite cosmopolitan circles and was exposed to international politics from a young age through her grandfather Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, a Liberal MP. She excelled at school, becoming one of the first students to be admitted to the newly created women’s college of Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford. Gertrude threw herself into the opportunities offered to her, untroubled by the male opposition to female students at the university. She took part in all aspects of college life from rowing, swimming, tennis and hockey to acting, dancing and debating. Along with this intense extra-curricular activity, Gertrude was also passionate about her subject and very studious. She spent her wealth on books and became one of the first women to achieve a first in History in 1888 at only 19 years old. These early years show us her clear academic potential as well as her outgoing, energetic, sociable personality and her inquisitive, curious nature to proactively learn as much as she could from both her studies and the people around her. These virtues were to set her in good stead for the life she would embark on.

Sense of adventure – early travels

After graduating from Oxford, it wasn’t long before Gertrude was eager to set her mind to something new and exciting. In 1892 she went to Tehran to visit her uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles, who was the British ambassador there at the time. This was Gertrude’s first foray into the Middle East and it was on this journey that she developed her passion for its languages, history, and undiscovered archaeological sites. French consuls had only just started to excavate the lands of ancient Mesopotamia in 1843 and much of it was still quite unknown territory considering the harsh terrain and landscapes. Gertrude decided to take photographs of the sites she visited and published the story of these initial travels in a book called Persian Pictures in 1894. Not only was Gertrude’s avid photography unusual for a woman, but the art was still a relatively new phenomenon in itself. Yet Gertrude understood the importance of documenting the sites she was visiting for posterity – at one point her belongings were stolen by some wandering tribes and Gertrude’s primary concern was getting her camera and notebooks back so she could keep up her work.

It wasn’t long before Gertrude was aiming to come back to the Middle East to discover more of the early Christian, Islamic and Hittite archaeology and art that was waiting to be documented and excavated. She taught herself Arabic and Farsi and even translated the poems of Hafiz which are still admired in present day Iran. In 1899 she travelled across the Middle East on a route through the Ottoman Empire including Palestine, Jerusalem and Damascus. Unlike other archaeologists at the time, she did not seek to hark back to Biblical interpretations of these famous sites but instead wanted to understand their significance to the people inhabiting these areas. She travelled deep into the deserts to look for archaeological sites, travelling with Bedouin tribes to guide her way. Things were not all peaceful for Gertrude, enduring extreme temperatures whilst traversing the difficult terrain from the Nejd desert to Hayyil in the centre of Arabia. Her camel train was attacked by Druze tribesmen and she was even kept prisoner for two weeks in the haremlik of the Emir of Hayyil. The British Foreign Office vehemently opposed her adventures into these unknown lands without British escorts but her persistence prevailed.

Gertrude Bell (date unknown)

Her knack for social interaction and great memory allowed her to recount tribal stories and remember small details of the people she met on her journeys, allowing her to return and be welcomed by the Bedouin tribes time and time again despite being a foreigner. Her writings are useful not only to hear the voice of an early 20th century woman but also to hear the even more secluded voices of the Bedouin women who Gertrude shared her time with, who are otherwise almost totally invisible in history.

Gertrude’s introduction to her 1907 book The Desert and the Sown makes the clear distinction between ‘tourism’ (which was starting to become more fashionable with the improvements in transport during the 19th century) and what she dubbed ‘wild travel’, making a clear preference for the latter in being able to gain a greater appreciation of a country and its people. There certainly wasn’t much more ‘wild’ than camping out in uncharted territory with the Bedouins alone – unheard of for anyone, let alone a woman of high society who had been to Oxford.

Outbreak of WWI – A woman in a man’s world

Despite simply travelling for her own academic interest and spirit of adventure, her knowledge was to become key when the First World War broke out in 1914. The Ottoman Empire that had ruled this area for five centuries was falling apart and the imperial European powers were eager to step in and carve it up according to their own interests. The British Foreign Office realised that this travelling archaeologist who had spent so many years in these Ottoman held lands, who had been the first to map many of the areas, who could speak Arabic and knew the leaders of different tribes so well, would be invaluable in their diplomatic strategies. In 1915 she became the first female officer employed by British Military Intelligence. Her task was to collect information on the inner workings of the different peoples living in the areas held by the Ottomans – an easy task for Gertrude considering she had already travelled so widely and had so many personal friendships with local tribes.

This position, of course, meant that Gertrude was certainly no stranger to the sexist attitudes of the day. There was great hatred towards her from the military men around her that resented her intelligence and knowledge that was needed to work on these important international diplomatic matters. To quote the many words of Mark Sykes, architect of the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 that split up areas of influence for the Allied powers if the Ottoman Empire collapsed during the war, Bell was a “conceited, gushing, flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rumpwagging, blethering ass”. But although the men around her may have been terribly misogynistic, they knew that they depended on her expertise.

Yet though she was often the lone female captured in British diplomatic photographs of the time, Bell was mostly written out of history. The minutes of the 1921 Cairo Conference where the Iraq borders were drawn show that she was at every discussion and yet none of the men mention her in their memoirs. William Manchester’s 1983 three part biography of Winston Churchill captions one famous photo of Bell, Churchill and TE Lawrence riding camels as simply a ‘friend’. Indeed the relationship between Lawrence and Bell is intriguing since Lawrence went on to achieve such fame, despite the fact he was twenty years Bell’s junior and involved in the same activities as Bell, travelling with her and learning from her. They had met back in 1909 at the excavation of the Hittite city of Carchemish when Lawrence was fresh out of university and Bell had already travelled through the deserts and written several books. While Bell has been called the “female Lawrence of Arabia” among her growing legions of fans, there are those who believe Lawrence should really be called the “male Gertrude Bell”.

In the negotiations after the First World War, Bell was always an advocate for Arab self-rule. Her knowledge of the Bedouin tribes and their lifestyle led Gertrude to even suggest a flexible border to account for their nomadic movements. But the British government wanted the boundaries set in typical Empire style according to their vested interests. Many of the problems about the Middle East that Gertrude raised at these initial meetings are still issues today – in one letter Gertrude accurately notes that ‘oil is the trouble of course’. Nevertheless, Gertrude did feel happy that she managed to get Faisal, leader of the Arab revolt against the Ottomans, crowned king rather than a foreign monarch.

Gertrude Bell (third from left) at Giza during the 1921 Cairo Conference

However, despite his dynastic ties to Mecca and the Hashemite rulers, Faisal was regarded by certain tribes as little more than a foreign monarch installed by a foreign monarchy. In fact, prior to becoming king, he had never travelled to the regions he was to rule. He relied on Bell for explanations on everything from local business practices to the customs of Iraq’s nomadic tribes. Despite the obvious challenges, Bell defended the group’s choice, writing several months after the conference: “I don’t for a moment hesitate about the rightness of our policy. We can’t continue direct British control…. You may rely upon one thing—I’ll never engage in creating kings again; it’s too great a strain.” Instead, she turned her energy to another cause – preserving the region’s cultural heritage. She returned to her archaeological work, trying to gather artefacts from across Iraq for safe-keeping and founding the National Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad in 1926 to house the treasures she had discovered.

Surprising views and personal life

Bell was always known as incredibly quick-witted and confident in asking searching questions, even correcting her Oxford tutors during her viva exam at university. Her family worried about her ‘Oxfordy manner’ being too confrontational and that she would ‘scare men with her intelligence’. However, she was encouraged to speak her mind by her father and despite attempts to make her a debutante to find a husband, he allowed her to travel and explore. Indeed, Gertrude’s travels perhaps encouraged her to stay away from England as she could be more ‘free’ and not restrained to marriage and childbirth. She realised that her status as English, despite the fact she was a woman, afforded her more privileges in the Middle East to travel, work, write and explore.

As a pioneering woman, it is surprising that Bell was in fact opposed to women’s suffrage, even acting as the honorary secretary of the British Women’s Anti-Suffrage League. One of her obituaries even praised the fact she “escaped” from being drawn into feminist movements which other “distinguished women have suffered from”. Though this may seem odd, her reservations to extending the vote to women perhaps stemmed from an awareness of other gender inequalities that needed to be tackled first for example women being allowed to attend school and university and not have their property controlled by their husbands. As a professional woman that had faced opposition and acted confidently in male spheres of influence, she feared that the militancy of Pankhurst’s WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) was going to wreck the slow progress that professional women had won through showing their competence to work in similar jobs to men.

Bell experienced her first heartbreak in 1892 on her post-university stay in Tehran with Henry Cadogan, a member of the British foreign service. However, Cadogan did not have enough money to get married and Bell’s family forced her to end the engagement and return home. Cadogan died nine months after her departure. Later, in her journeys through Turkey and Syria, she fell in love with the married British army officer Charles Doughty-Wylie. Their letters profess their love though it is unclear whether Doughty-Wylie would have actually left his wife. Unfortunately, there was not enough time to find out as he was killed at Gallipoli in 1915. Gertrude never married and remained a lone adventurer in the Middle East, travelling solo and continuing her diplomatic and archaeological work for the rest of her life.

Bell died in 1926, aged 57 from an apparent overdose of sleeping pills. There is debate about whether this was suicide or not as she had asked her maid to wake her up in the morning, though this could have been to protect the maid from prosecution as suicide was still a crime. It is believed Bell had suffered from severe depression for many years, perhaps angry at her body being unable to cope with her adventurous lifestyle anymore. There is certainly much to be said that Gertrude’s constant striving for difficult challenges could have been a deliberate distraction from her mental state of mind. Whilst Bell had an illustrious career and could stride confidently through international corridors of power, Gertrude suffered privately, pained by loneliness and lack of support.

Gertrude’s Legacy

Gertrude Bell certainly left many legacies. Academically, Bell wrote several books during her travels, leaving behind 7,000 negatives of photographs from her journeys which are now kept with her papers at the Gertrude Bell Archive at Newcastle University. Some of Bell’s photos are the last remaining evidence of priceless sites including Aleppo and Raqqa that have been destroyed in the Syrian civil war. The National Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad, which Bell founded, kept the precious Mesopotamian sculptures and treasures from across the country safe until the museum was looted during the US invasion in 2003. Some of these looted items have been returned though many of the 13,864 items stolen are still unaccounted for.

Politically, the shaky monarchy Bell helped install only lasted two generations before being brutally overthrown in a coup d’etat in 1958. But the lines she drew on maps lasted longer – the borders Gertrude Bell created for Iraq are still used to this day. In Iraq, opinion on Bell is divided. Some see her as the very epitome of imperialist attitudes – a foreign power carving up the map for the advantage of Britain. But others recognise her efforts to try to take into consideration the views of the desert tribes she had met on her travels and her deep understanding of their migration routes.

Aside from her impressive career, what is perhaps more important from Gertrude’s example is her fierce determination not to let societal limitations stop her from having the adventures that characterised her lifetime. At a time when women were simply told to ‘serve and obey’ she was the one giving the orders. She had a clear vision to live her life with as much zest as she could, seizing opportunities that came her way, pushing herself to the physical and mental edge and succeeding whilst disregarding the opposition against her. She is certainly a woman who the female students of LMH can look to as a true figurehead of what women can achieve and aim for, even when things stand in their way.

Laura Aitken Burt is an archaeologist and researcher.

Sources and Further Reading

Gertrude Bell, The Desert and the Sown (1907)

Lady Florence Bell (ed.), The Letters of Gertrude Bell (1927)

Gertrude Bell archive – Newcastle University

Letters from Baghdad – 2016 documentary narrated by Tilda Swinton

Georgina Howell, Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations (2006)

Liora Lukitz, A Quest in the Middle East: Gertrude Bell and the Making of Modern Iraq (2005)

Janet Wallach, Desert Queen (1996)

Obituary: Gertrude Lowthian Bell – D. G. H. The Geographical Journal, Vol. 68, No. 4 (Oct., 1926), pp. 363-368

Obituary by Janet E Courtney The North American Review, Vol. 223, No. 833 (Dec., 1926 – Feb., 1927), pp. 656-663

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