Sophisticated, intelligent, and wildly overachieving, Gertrude Bell is the greatest explorer and political mover and shaker you’ve never heard of.
As the first woman to gain a first class degree from Oxford in 1892, she went on to become one of the most renowned archaeologists, mappers and explorers of all time. Some have described her as the ‘female Lawrence of Arabia’, but Gertrude Bell deserves far more credit than this for her achievements.
Born in northern England in 1868 into a wealthy family of ironmasters, Bell’s upbringing was privileged. While this allowed her to travel the world, the adventures she embarked upon were long, arduous and at times perilous, especially for a woman. Yet Gertrude undertook these fearlessly, mastering eight languages along the way and becoming familiar with the intricacies of a largely misunderstood part of the world.
A keen mountaineer, Gertrude conquered extreme peaks including Mont Blanc and La Meije and was the first to complete a number of undiscovered mountain paths and perilous ascents. As if this wasn’t enough, she then undertook a number of desert voyages considered at the time too dangerous for a group of men, let alone a woman travelling alone.
Even in the depths of the desert, Gertrude remained sophisticated and dressed in the finest attire London and Paris had to offer, catching the attention of a number of influential – and sometimes menacing – Arab sheikhs. But it was her constant awareness of tribal etiquette and her impressive knowledge of local politics that truly earned their respect.
On her travels she learned more than anyone has ever learned, except perhaps T. E. Lawrence, about the tribes of the Arabian Desert. She gained a deep understanding of tribal culture, intertribal feuds and the geography of the merciless desert she traversed. This eventually made her invaluable to the British government which, when facing the expansion of World War 1 to the East, desperately needed her expertise.
Gertrude, third from the left, flanked by Winston Churchill and T. E. Lawrence on a visit to the Pyramids in 1921 (image: New York Times)
Gertrude worked first in Cairo, then in Basra and Delhi for the first generation of MI6, as the government struggled to secure its Middle Eastern trade routes to India in the face of Turkish attacks. She had a better understanding of the region than anyone else at the time, but was often disregarded by a Whitehall that failed to listen to the warnings of those on the ground.
One such instance of this was the British government’s betrayal of the famous McMahon-Hussein agreement, which promised to award the Arabs independence in return for their revolting against the Turks – a campaign that put the Ottoman Empire on its deathbed, effectively winning the allies the war.
Bell, like Lawrence, was passionately dedicated to the notion of Arab independence, and was constantly frustrated by Whitehall’s attempts to sideline the people whom she had grown to love. She tirelessly fought the government’s attempts to exploit the region where she felt so at home. But while she may have won small battles – like successfully appointing the Hashemite tribal leader Faisal as King of Iraq (then Mesopotamia) – she by no means won the war.
Bell’s advice to the British government was founded on a deep knowledge and understanding of the Middle East, and based on this she made a number of predictions about the future of the region. Firstly, she predicted trouble in the Palestinian lands if the government should continue to push for a Jewish state there. She also suggested that conflict would ultimately erupt in Iraq and Syria if Britain and France were to colonise and rule there without consideration for the precarious balance of ethnic and religious groups.
Alarmingly, both of these predictions have repeatedly come true over the last century. In fact, we can draw a number of parallels between Gertrude’s Arabia and the Middle East today. The issue of Kurdish autonomy remains disputed, and many Arabs still lack a sense of national identity due to years of unpopular colonisation and the subsequent authoritarian rule that emerged out of bloody independence struggles.
As Gertrude once saw arbitrary borders drawn in the Middle East by aloof Western politicians, today we see those same borders crumbling, while our own generation of politicians can do little but watch.
One area where Gertrude was seemingly less successful, however, was in love. Georgina Howell’s book, Daughter of the Desert: The Remarkable Life of Gertrude Bell, offers an insightful account of the life, both professional and personal, of this great achiever. According to Howell, Gertrude fell in love twice, first in her twenties to Henry Cadogan – who was deemed unsuitable by her parents and later died of cancer. Later in life, Gertrude fell in love with Charles Doughty-Wylie, a married colonel in the army with whom she developed an intense, yet unconsummated, relationship until his untimely and tragic death at Gallipoli in 1915.
As Bell aged, her heath increasingly struggled through Iraq’s bitter winters and scorching summers. Yet many believe that it was in fact loneliness that killed this great explorer at the age of fifty-eight. She was found dead by her maid in July of 1926 after taking an overdose of sleeping pills. It is not known whether this was intentional or accidental, although her letters suggest that she was apprehensive about her future, particularly feeling the absence of a family of her own.
But Bell’s legacy lives on, not only in her extraordinary achievements but also in the hearts and minds of Arabs who have grown up hearing tales of this Desert Queen and her remarkable contribution to their homeland. And as the Middle East faces its worst period of turmoil in years, her remarkable intellect, regional expertise and cultural sensitivity have never been more desperately needed.