Posted February 15th, 2013 at 9:22 am4 Comments
(At the time of writing, two Hollywood directors, Ridley Scott and Werner Herzog, are both reportedly shooting films of Gertrude Bell’s life.)
In The Sword of Moses, in Ava’s office in the National Museum of Baghdad, there is a photograph of Gertrude Bell—archaeologist, explorer, diplomat, spy, architect of modern Iraq, and founder of the museum.
Gertrude was born on 14 July 1868 (the year of England’s last public hanging) in the north-eastern village of Washington, County Durham—ancestral home of George Washington, first president of the United States of America.
Despite the tragic loss of her mother in childbirth when she was three, Gertrude soon began to excel. After attending the pioneering Queen’s College in Harley Street, the first school in England devoted to the serious education of girls, she went up to Oxford.
Within two years, and aged only nineteen, she scored a brilliant first in history—the second woman ever to pass degree exams at Oxford. (Incredibly, she was never officially awarded the degree—women were not granted the right to graduate until 1920.)
Her sharp repartee and educated opinions proved too intimidating for most men, not helped by her skill at fencing, rowing, tennis, and hockey. When she came out as a debutante in London, she failed to find a suitor within the allotted three seasons, and was passed over by society as a failure.
Undeterred, she decided to see the world. She taught herself Persian, and visited her uncle in Tehran, where he was the British minister. She followed this adventure with two round-the-world trips in 1897–8 and 1902–3, also finding time for arduous mountaineering in the Alps, where she famously survived fifty-three hours on the end of a rope in a terrifying lightning storm and blizzard.
Her travels offered her an escape from the rigidity of English society, and gave her what was to become a lifelong passion for the Middle East. She taught herself Arabic, and became fascinated by Middle-Eastern archaeology, about which she published extensively.
Returning to the region repeatedly, she began travelling it widely, always with a collapsible canvas bath and crystal tableware. She journeyed deep into the blistering sands of the Arabian deserts where few Westerners, let alone women, had ever been, including a notable and hairy trek across the Nefud to Ha’il in central-northern Saudi Arabia, where she was held captive for eleven days.
She fell in love with the romance of the Arab world, and especially Mesopotamia, the area she was to help turn into the modern state of Iraq.
‘Have I ever told you what the river is like on a hot summer night? At dusk the mist hangs in long white bands over the water; the twilight fades and the lights of the town shine out on either bank, with the river, dark and smooth and full of mysterious reflections, like a road of triumph through the midst.’ (Letter to her father, 11 September 1921, Baghdad)
Her knowledge and wide friendships meant that when the First World War broke out in 1914, she was drafted into the intelligence department’s ‘Arab Bureau’ in Cairo alongside her friend and fellow explorer T E Lawrence (“of Arabia”).
When the British took Baghdad from the Ottomans in 1917, she was appointed its Oriental Secretary, responsible for relations with the people.
She fiercely believed in the Iraqi people’s right to independence, and modelled British policies accordingly—almost single-handedly drawing up the country’s new borders, and in 1921 engineering Prince Faisal of Makkah (who led the Arab revolt with TE Lawrence) onto the throne of the new state of Iraq.
In the new state of Iraq, she was friend and confidant to the royal court, where she was a frequent visitor and honoured with the title of khatun (or queen).
Gertrude had no desire to be anywhere else.
‘… it’s a shocking affair how the East has wound itself around my heart till I don’t know which is me and which is it. … I’m acutely conscious always of its charm and grace which do not seem to wear thin with familiarity. I’m more a citizen of Baghdad than many a Baghdadi born, and I’ll wager that no Baghdadi cares more, or half so much, for the beauty of the river or the palm gardens, or clings more closely to the rights of citizenship which I have acquired.” (Letter to her father, 30 January 1922, Baghdad)
With Iraq established, the British authorities had less need of her, and she fell out of favour. Undaunted, she returned to her passion of archaeology, devoting herself to creating an archaeological museum in Iraq. She dedicated the remainder of her life to the task, becoming Honorary Director of Antiquities in Iraq, and founding the Baghdad Archaeological Museum.
She never married. Her father rejected her first love, a penniless diplomat in Persia, and her forties were spent in a doomed and unconsummated relationship with a married British army officer with whom she exchanged love letters until he was killed at Gallipoli. In her fifties in Iraq, she fell in love with a married British diplomat, but her affections were not returned.
She wrote tirelessly throughout her life. In addition to many travel books, she recorded her adventures in sixteen volumes of diaries, one-thousand-six-hundred letters, and seven-thousand photographs. (They are all online at http://www.gerty.ncl.ac.uk.)
“Miss Bell”, as she is still affectionately known in Iraq, died in Baghdad aged 57 during the night of 11/12 July 1926. She had taken a fatal number of sleeping pills, but there was no evidence she had intended to kill herself. She was buried that evening in the dusty British Cemetery in the city’s Bab al-Sharji district, where her tomb is still tended by locals.