Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1304, (21 - 27 July 2016)
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1304, (21 - 27 July 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Gertrude of Arabia?

A new selection of British archaeologist Gertrude Bell’s letters and diaries allows readers to see an intriguing figure in the round, writes David Tresilian

Gertrude of Arabia?
Gertrude of Arabia?
Al-Ahram Weekly

British writer Georgina Howell published her biography of the British archaeologist and colonial administrator Gertrude Bell, credited with setting up the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad during the British occupation of the country in the early 1920s, in 2006, and much has happened in the decade since then. 

The contemporary situation in Iraq has in many respects become even worse than it was when Howell published her biography, with large parts of the country occupied by the Islamic State (IS) group forces since late last year and Iraq as a whole now threatened with disintegration. 

Meanwhile, the renewed interest that Howell detected in Bell and her activities in what was to become the modern state of Iraq after the collapse of Ottoman rule in the country at the end of the First World War has increased, notably through the release last year of Queen of the Desert, a biopic of Bell directed by German director Werner Herzog and starring Australian actress Nicole Kidman as Bell, James Franco as Bell’s sometime lover the British diplomat Henry Cadogan, and Robert Pattinson as a somewhat unlikely T.E. Lawrence (the “Lawrence of Arabia” of popular legend). 

The film was universally panned when it was released, and it may be the last nail in the coffin of Herzog’s career. While some critics have written that Herzog, the director of some of the most important German films of the 1970s, could not possibly have been responsible for what they agree is a truly dreadful film, the evidence is there for all to see in the credits. Herzog not only directed the film but also wrote the screenplay, perhaps the most toe-curling aspect of the whole exercise and making enormous demands on the actors.

Commenting on Howell’s biography in early 2007, the Weekly pointed out that no fewer than three biographies of Bell, of which Howell’s Daughter of the Desert was the third, had appeared in English in the previous decade, starting with Janet Wallach’s Desert Queen in 1997 and continuing with Liora Lukitz’s A Quest in the Middle East in 2006, the same year as the publication of Howell’s biography.

Was Bell worth the trouble, the Weekly asked, suggesting that she probably had not played a very important role in the division of the Middle East between the British and French colonial powers in the years after 1918 and had probably not played a very important role in Iraq either, where the decisions that counted were taken by the military men and the British government in London. 

On the other hand, she was undoubtedly an intriguing, lively figure, the paper wrote, and she deserved better than to be turned into some kind of “Gertrude of Arabia”. Thanks to Howell’s efforts since Daughter of the Desert appeared, readers now have the opportunity to read a new selection of Bell’s diaries and letters, published late last year as A Woman in Arabia. This presents Bell in her own words and in the round with useful commentary by Howell on the background and context. 

Born in 1868 into a wealthy industrial family, Bell was one of the first women to study at Oxford University, where she gained a first-class degree in history. Oxford turned out to be a springboard for a round of visits abroad, among them to Tehran where a relative was British ambassador, before a period spent mountain climbing in Europe – the Gertrudspitze, a peak in the Alps, is named after her – and then expeditions to what are now Syria and Saudi Arabia, recorded in her books The Desert and the Sown (1907) and Amurath to Amurath (1911).

Bell visited archaeological sites throughout the region and worked on excavating some of them, her book on the Abbasid fortress at Ukhaidir in what is now Iraq being published in 1914. During the First World War she was recruited by the British intelligence services because of her knowledge of her region, and she worked for a time in Cairo alongside her younger compatriot T.E. Lawrence who had also travelled in the Middle East before the War and worked as an archaeologist. 

Later she was sent to Basra in what is now Iraq, and, when it fell to British forces in 1917, eventually Baghdad, where she worked in the nascent British colonial administration of a country that had previously been three Ottoman provinces before the First World War. 

Her 1920 report “Review of the Civil Administration of Mesopotamia” is considered to be an important contribution, and after the installation of Faisal, son of the former Ottoman governor of Mecca, as king of Iraq, she turned to her new role of establishing professional standards of archaeology in the country and setting up the Iraqi Museum in 1923.


AN UNCONVENTIONAL CAREER: There were few female university graduates in Britain at the end of the 19th century and even fewer female mountain-climbers and archaeologists. 

While the Bell family’s enormous wealth clearly aided Gertrude Bell in her choice of future career, it does little to explain why she chose to take up a career at all, still less the uncomfortable, and at the time often physically dangerous, one she eventually chose as a desert traveler and Middle Eastern archaeologist.

In Bell’s writings from the period, she often says that she has become “a person” as a result of her exploits, by which she apparently means much more than achieving public recognition, which in any case was hardly important to her. She had no need of money, and her family’s position in British society meant that she could be assured of a friendly welcome almost anywhere she chose. What held her back was her sex, and becoming “a person” for Bell seems to have meant shedding the disadvantages that could have come from having been born a woman in a society that was only really programmed to recognise the achievements of men.

Visiting a group of religious leaders in Baghdad in 1917, she was “restored to my true place,” she says, when one of the sheikhs remarked that “this is a woman – what must the men be like,” presumably asking after the British soldiers who were sure to arrive hot on Gertrude’s heels. She has nothing good to say of British women abroad –“idle” and “second-rate” is the best she can manage when describing them, whereas having climbed the Jebel Druze in what is now Syria, or ended up at a local reception in Haifa, she says that “I am much entertained to find that I am person in this country – they all think I am a person” and presumably not a woman at all.

Lecturing a group of Iraqi women on the ancient history of Iraq and modern excavations in January 1924, Bell was almost as severe on her Arab sisters as she had earlier been on her British peers. “Some of them listened and some of them didn’t,” she remarks. “They haven’t got the habit of attention. But they’ll have to learn it.” Earlier, climbing Mont Blanc in the French Alps in 1901 she writes that “I am a person. And one of the first questions everyone seems to ask everyone else is ‘Have you ever met Miss Gertrude Bell?’”

“Mapping the Euphrates in 1909,” Howell writes, “Gertrude examined 450 miles of sites before arriving south of Baghdad. Not far from Karbala at Ukhaidir she found an immense and beautiful desert palace in a remarkable state of repair.” There was some disappointment when Bell discovered that French and German teams were also planning on excavating the site, but nevertheless, she writes in March 1909, “as soon as I saw it I decided that this was the opportunity of a lifetime. It doesn’t matter in the least if someone else publishes on it before I do. I shall learn more of eastern art in the sixth century by working at it than I should learn from all the books that ever were.”

Bell realised that she could cut an unconventional, sometimes even frightening, figure. Arriving at an excavation in Warka in southern Iraq in 1924, the excavators “all screamed and cried when they saw me,” she comments. “As the prospect of marriage and children receded,” Howell remarks, more or less out of the question after 1900, “she felt an increasing need for self-fulfillment” by travelling in the Middle Eastern deserts, organising a series of extensive journeys through what are now Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Bell travelled in a certain style, according to Howell because “local tribes would judge her by her possessions and her gifts and treat her accordingly.”

Particularly in the journeys around the region she made after 1909, Bell’s mode of travelling was “little short of majestic.” According to Howell, she “packed couture evening dresses, lawn blouses, linen riding skirts, cotton shirts, a fur coat that could double as a blanket, sweaters, scarves and canvas and leather boots… She carried Egyptian cigarettes, insect powder, a Wedgwood dinner service, silver candlesticks and hairbrushes, crystal glasses, linen and blankets, folding tables, and a comfortable chair.” There was a small army of retainers, cooks, and servants. 

This gave Bell the reputation she never really shook off of being the grande dame of British archaeology, though the effect could also be that of British crime writer Agatha Christie’s famous detective Miss Marple, always keen on taking charge. “Gertrude had begun to think in terms of exacting the country’s rights to its own past,” Howell writes, once Bell had installed herself as the first director of the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad. 

“In cloche hat and 1920s short skirt, she became a dreaded figure at British, American and German excavations in Iraq, walking briskly from her office car to the table of finds to claim or bargain for the most precious objects” for the new Museum, she comments.


VISIONS OF IRAQ: Howell’s selection includes extracts from Bell’s political writings, notably the reports she prepared on the future of the former Ottoman provinces occupied by the British in 1917 and soon to become the new state of Iraq.

Before the War Bell had already had premonitions that the Middle East was changing, whether or not the old Ottoman order survived. Outside Aleppo in what is now Syria in 1909 she wrote that “there is a moment when one is newly arrived in the East when one is conscious of the world shrinking at one end and growing at the other till all the perspective of life is changed.” German influence was growing for one thing, though this collapsed and was replaced by British and French rule after Ottoman and German defeat in the First World War.

Sitting on a hill in Ashur in northern Mesopotamia five years before the outbreak of the War, Bell “considered the history of Asia that was spread out before me. Here Mithridates murdered the Greek generals, here Xenophon began to have his command… a little further east I could see the plain of Arbela where Alexander conquered Asia.” In March 1914 in Baghdad she wrote of the “native boats loaded with steel rails, the steam cranes working under the palm trees, the great locomotives of the latest pattern standing in all stages of completion in the middle of a devastated palm garden, the blue-clad, ragged Arabs working and singing as they worked, and among them the decisive military Germans, sharp of word, straight of carriage,” competing with the British for control of what would later become Iraq.

Bell’s “Review of the Civil Administration of Mesopotamia,” extracts from which are given here, is very critical of the Ottoman government of the region and recommends what would seem to have been sensible reforms. Things changed with the appointment of Sir Arnold Wilson as the resident British commissioner in Baghdad, replacing Sir Percy Cox, and Wilson lost little time in demoting Bell. 

Howell’s commentary becomes a little cloudy at this point – she writes of Bell’s fears that “strands of minority dissent, fanned into flames by Turkish agents, would grow into outright revolt,” as indeed they did in the 1920 uprising against British rule, but she gives little sense of the stakes involved. In fact, Bell, like Cox and the rest of the British administration in Baghdad, was convinced that the new state should remain under minority Sunni Arab rule, even if, as she put it in October 1920, “anything like really representative institutions would have a majority of Shias.”  

This meant that relations between the different religious and ethnic groups making up the new state of Iraq were likely to be poisoned from the start, though Bell says here that “we as outsiders can’t differentiate between Sunni and Shia [but should] leave it to them and they’ll get over the difficulty.” A referendum was organised among “a great number of tribal representatives including three hundred notables,” the question being “do you agree to Faisal as king and leader of Iraq?” The answer was positive, and Faisal became the first king of the new Kingdom of Iraq, a British League of Nations mandate, with the signature of a treaty in October 1922. 

According to Bell, the treaty was “a stroke of genius” because “it solved the difficulty of reconciling the fervid aspirations of the nationalists for complete and immediate independence with Great Britain’s responsibilities to the League of Nations for securing (1) the financial stability, (2) the foreign relations, and (3) the adequate defence of the new state.”

“Unfortunately, the term ‘Mandate’ (particularly in the Arabic translation) implied a subjection which was intolerable to the nationalist patriots and which the King [Faisal] could never afford to accept; but a treaty between ‘High Contracting Powers’ in which one freely agreed to some limitations of its sovereign rights (as all treaties do) in return for financial, military and diplomatic assistance from the other, was a very different proposition and could be accepted without the stigma of ‘colonialism’.”

It is a pity that the book does not contain more on Bell’s work setting up the Iraqi Museum and protecting the country’s antiquities. But perhaps the documents on this no longer exist, since in her biography Howell also only devoted a couple of pages to this important period in Bell’s life. 


Georgina Howell (ed.), A Woman in Arabia. The Writings of the Queen of the Desert, Penguin: London, 2015, pp272.

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