Gertrude Bell and the Creation of Iraq

Everyone not living in a thermos bottle has heard of Lawrence of Arabia, T. E.  Lawrence, if only because of the movie.  If you haven’t I must strongly suggest that you get out more.  Yet in spite of his heroic exploits in Arabia and the middle east, he is not remembered with fondness by Arabs today.  Lawrence encouraged Arab tribes to fight the Ottomans during WW1, making promises of British support for Arab independence and self-rule which the British did not keep.  Afterwards he went home and died in England.

While you may have heard of Lawrence, have you heard of the female version of Lawrence?

Her name was Gertrude Bell and you may have seen a couple of movies based on her life.  She led a life of supreme adventure totally unbecoming a young Victorian woman.  And it is she that is largely responsible for the creation of modern Iraq.

She was a writer, traveler, mountain climber, explorer, political officer, administrator, and archaeologist who ventured into the desert, mapped, and became highly influential to British imperial policy-making due to her knowledge and contacts, built up through extensive travels in Greater Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Arabia.  Bell  supported the installations of Hashemite dynasties in what is today Jordan as well as in Iraq.

She was also an adventurer and spy, a political force who travelled into the uncharted Arabian desert and was recruited by British Military Intelligence to help reshape the Middle East after World War I. She drew the borders of Iraq, helped install its first king and established the Baghdad Museum of Antiquities which was infamously looted during the 2003 American invasion. A true visionary, she advocated for Iraqi self-rule and openly criticized colonial policy.

Bell was born on July 14, 1868 in Washington New Hall – now known as Dame Margaret Hall – in Washington, County Durham, England to a family whose wealth ensured her education and enabled her travels.   Her grandfather was Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, an industrialist and a Liberal Member of Parliament in Benjamin Disraeli’s second term.

Bell’s mother, Mary Shield Bell, died in 1871 while giving birth to a son,  Maurice.  Gertrude Bell was just three at the time, and the death led to a lifelong close relationship with her father, Sir Hugh Bell, 2nd Baronet, a progressive capitalist and mill owner who made sure his workers were well paid and cared for.  Throughout her life, Gertrude consulted on political matters with her father, who had also served for many years in various governmental positions.

While it was unusual for a Victorian woman to attend college, her family supported her thirst for higher education.  She entered Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford University, studied history and was the first woman to graduate in Modern History at Oxford with a first class honors degree, a feat she achieved in only two years.  It was at Oxford that she first met T. E. Lawrence.

Bell at an archeological dig at Babylon

Bell’s uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles, was British minister (similar to ambassador) at Tehran, in what was then called Persia. In May 1892, after leaving Oxford, Bell travelled to Persia to visit him. She loved the place and wrote a book about her travels.  She spent much of the next decade travelling,  mountaineering in Switzerland, and developing a passion for archaeology and languages. She had become fluent in Arabic, Farsi, French and German, and also spoke Italian and several Ottoman languages.. In 1899, Bell again went to the Middle East. She visited Palestine and Syria that year and in 1900 traveled from Jerusalem to Damascus.  She travelled across Arabia six times during the next 12 years with her own caravan of camels.

In 1913, her heart set on visiting Arabia, she completed her last and most arduous Arabian journey, travelling about 1800 miles from Damascus to the politically volatile Ha’il, back up across the Arabian peninsula to Baghdad and from there back to Damascus. She was only the second foreign woman to visit Ha’il and, arriving during a period of particular instability as well as unexpected, was held captive in the city for eleven days in the company of women, concerned she was a spy.  She was released, given a box of gold and sent on her way.

Being a woman, she held the distinct advantage of being able to meet with the wives of tribal leaders where she would get a different perspective than that which a male visitor would receive.  She learned of the local tribal rulers who had held her captive , the Al-Rashid and of their conflict with their southern neighbors, the Al-Saud.  She became a life long supporter of the Al-Rashid in a struggle they would eventually lose.

With the outbreak of war she volunteered for a position in the middle east and was asked by British Intelligence to get soldiers through the deserts, and from the World War I period until her death she was the only woman holding political power and influence in shaping British imperial policy in the Middle East. She often acquired a team of locals which she directed and led on her expeditions. Throughout her travels Bell established close relations with tribe members and their wives across the Middle East.

In November 1915 she was summoned to Cairo to join the nascent Arab Bureau where she again met T. E. Lawrence.  They worked closely together, Bell providing information on the various tribal loyalties and importnt local figures as Lawrence went out into the desert to persuade the Arabs to join the fight against the Ottoman Turkes.

Besll was abruptly sent to Basra to assist the political officer there as she had more knowledge of the area than any other westerner.  She provided maps for the troops from her travels which safely guided them to Baghdad and became the only female political officer in British intelligence.

Gertrude Bell was a witness to the Armenian Genocide. Contrasting them with previous massacres, she wrote that the massacres of preceding years “were not comparable to the massacres carried out in 1915 and the succeeding years.” Bell also reported that in Damascus, “Ottomans sold Armenian women openly in the public market.” In an intelligence report, Bell wrote:

The battalion left Aleppo on 3 February and reached Ras al-Ain in twelve hours….some 12,000 Armenians were concentrated under the guardianship of some hundred Kurds…These Kurds were called gendarmes, but in reality mere butchers; bands of them were publicly ordered to take parties of Armenians, of both sexes, to various destinations, but had secret instructions to destroy the males, children and old women…One of these gendarmes confessed to killing 100 Armenian men himself…the empty desert cisterns and caves were also filled with corpses…No man can ever think of a woman’s body except as a matter of horror, instead of attraction, after Ras al-Ain.”

After the war Bell was summoned to Baghdad, given the title of “Oriental Secretary” and asked for recommendations as to the future of Mesopotamia.  She presented a paper, “Self Determination in Mesopotamia”  calling for an independent nation.  The British government had other ideas – a puppet state.

At the Cairo Conference of 1921, attended by Winston Churchill, Bell and Lawrence, it was decided to set up an independent Iraq; Lawrence recommended Faisal bin Hussein, son of Hussein, Sheriff of Mecca, former commander of the Arab forces that helped the British during the war, we chosen as King.

Bell realized that Iraq would be s Shia majority country; after all she drew the map.  But she firmly believed that the country should be controlled by its Sunni minority; in her opinion if the Shia dominated the country it would wind up being ruled by Ayatollahs and would never evolve into a constitutional monarchy.  As for Kurdish independence. it was never envisioned by the British government.  And after what she saw, the atrocities committed by the Kurds in the Armenian genocide, she never pressed for it.

She became a close advisor and confidant  to the King as he slipped into his new role among Iraq’s tribal leaders.   She advised him on local questions, including matters involving tribal geography and local business. She also supervised the selection of appointees for cabinet and other leadership posts in the new government. Referred to by Arabs as “al-Khatun” (a Lady of the Court who keeps an open eye and ear for the benefit of the State), she was a confidante of King Faisal of Iraq.  She even helped design the flag.

Historians have pointed out that the present troubles in Iraq to be derived from the political boundaries Bell conceived to create its borders. Her reports, however, indicate that problems were foreseen, and both Bell and her British colleagues believed that there were just not many (if any) permanent solutions for calming the divisive forces at work in that part of the world. However, her lobbying for the Sunni minority to control the Shia majority created a template for the Sunni dictatorships that followed.  Faisal eventually tried to rid himself of control by British advisors, including Bell with only limited success.  The royal family was eventually murdered in the courtyard of the palace after surrendering by Saddam.

She and Lawrence also worked tirelessly to establish the Kingdom of Jordan, also under Hashemite rule.   And at the Cairo conference she opposed the Balfour Declaration calling for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine on the grounds that it would be unfair to impose Jewish rule on Arab inhabitants of Palestine. She wrote that she regarded the Balfour Declaration with “the deepest mistrust” and that “It’s like a nightmare in which you foresee all the horrible things which are going to happen and can`t stretch out your hand to prevent them”.

On 12 July 1926, Bell was discovered dead, of an apparent overdose of sleeping pills. There is much debate on her death, but it is unknown whether the overdose was an intentional suicide or accidental since she had asked her maid to wake her.  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 including her colleagues, British officials and the King of Iraq.

Gertrude Bell never married.  Her lover, a married man who was in the process of divorcing his wife to marry her, was killed at Gallipoli in 1915.

“No woman in recent time has combined her qualities – her taste for arduous and dangerous adventure with her scientific interest and knowledge, her competence in archaeology and art, her distinguished literary gift, her sympathy for all sorts and condition of men, her political insight and appreciation of human values, her masculine vigour, hard common sense and practical efficiency – all tempered by feminine charm and a most romantic spirit.”

“No one knows exactly what they do want, least of all themselves, except that they don’t want us.” – Gertrude Bell



About toritto

I was born during year four of the reign of Emperor Tiberius Claudius on the outskirts of the empire in Brooklyn. I married my high school sweetheart, the girl I took to the prom and we were together for forty years until her passing in 2004. We had four kids together and buried two together. I had a successful career in Corporate America (never got rich but made a living) and traveled the world. I am currently retired in the Tampa Bay metro area and live alone. One of my daughters is close by and one within a morning’s drive. They call their pops everyday. I try to write poetry (not very well), and about family. Occasionally I will try a historical piece relating to politics. :-)
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6 Responses to Gertrude Bell and the Creation of Iraq

  1. leggypeggy says:

    Thank you for this. Forward to my daughter who was born in Syria.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. toritto says:

    You’re welcome Peggy. I lived in Cairo for awhile as well as Dubai and have visited Saudi Arabia. Regards from Florida..

    Liked by 1 person

  3. jfwknifton says:

    TE Lawrence was appalled that the British had broken the promises he had made to the Arabs on their behalf. He returned to England and lived under other names. His death too was suspicious, either an ordinary motorcycle crash or, as many have speculated, British security forces acting to protect a government wounded by his criticisms.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. beetleypete says:

    She was a formidable woman indeed, and her quote at the end is just perfect.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Jennie says:

    Fascinating! Thank you, Frank.

    Liked by 1 person

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