Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) was the best known traveler in the Middle East and Arabia in the years before World War I. The British intelligence bureau in Cairo hired her as an advisor on Arabia. After the war, she was very involved in the political negotiations that divided the Arab world into new countries and established British political influence in the region.
Gertrude Bell was born into a wealthy family in the English county of Durham on July 14, 1868. Her father owned an iron works. Her mother died in childbirth two year after Bell's birth, and a stepmother raised the young child. At sixteen she attended Queens College and then went to Lady Margaret Hall, a womens college at Oxford University. She graduated with high honors in history.
First Trip to the Middle East
Bell traveled to the Middle East for the first time in 1892 to visit her uncle, who was the British ambassador to Tehran in Persia (now Iran). There she met a young diplomat and wrote to her parents asking for permission to marry him. They ordered her home instead (the young man died nine months later). She wrote a book about her experiences called Persian Pictures, A Book of Travels that was published in 1894.
In 1899 Bell studied Arabic in Jerusalem. During the spring of 1900 she went to visit the Druse in the mountains of southern Lebanon. Bell also visited Palmyra, the ruins of a Roman city in Jordan. She described it as "a white skeleton of a town, standing knee-deep in the blown sand." She then went mountain climbing in the Alps and took two trips around the world with her brother.
In January 1905 Bell made her first extended trip to the Middle East. She traveled through Syria to Cilicia and Konya in Asia Minor (Turkey). Bell was alone except for Arab servants and stayed in tents as well as in the houses of the wealthy, where her family could provide her with introductions. At the city of Alexandretta in southern Turkey she hired a servant, Fattuh, who was to stay with her for the rest of her life. She visited many ruins along the way and became interested in archeology. Bell wrote about her experiences in Syria: The Desert and the Sown, published in 1907.
Excavated Christian Churches
In 1907 Bell returned to Asia Minor with the British archeologist Sir William Ramsay to help excavate early Christian churches. The two of them collaborated on a picture book of their discoveries. In 1909 she left from Aleppo in Syria and traveled through the valley of the Euphrates River to Baghdad, visiting Babylonian sites along the way. She also went to the Shi'ite holy city of Karbala. Along the way Bell was robbed of her money and, most importantly, her notebooks. The whole countryside turned out to try to find the thieves, but the objects reappeared on a rock above her camp. When the Turkish soldiers of the Ottoman government arrived, they found a nearby village deserted, the inhabitants having fled for fear of retribution. Bell blamed herself for having been careless and causing all the difficulty.
Bell returned in 1911 to revisit the great castle at Kheidir and crossed the desert between Damascus and Baghdad. She then returned to England where she joined a movement that opposed women's suffrage. She also had an unhappy love affair with a married man.
Bell decided to return to Arabia to forget her unhappiness. This time she traveled to the city of Ha'il in the center of Arabia that had rarely been visited by Westerners. There, in 1913, Bell was held captive and robbed. When she was finally released, Arab hostility forced her to cut her journey short rather than continue to Riyadh as she had originally intended. Bell returned to Damascus in May 1914, having gained an unprecedented knowledge about the deserts of northern Arabia and the ruined cities that are found there.
Advisor to British Intelligence
This knowledge was to be of great value. When war broke out in Europe in August 1914, Turkey, which then controlled all of the Middle East, joined Germany in the fight against Great Britain. The British intelligence bureau in Cairo hired Bell as an advisor on Arabia. She became friends with T.E. Lawrence (the famous "Lawrence of Arabia") and helped formulate the British strategy of encouraging the Arabs to revolt against the Turks.
In 1916 Bell was sent to Basra in Iraq as an assistant political officer. She was transferred to Baghdad the following year, where she made her home for the rest of her life. Bell was very involved in the political negotiations that divided the Arab world into new countries and established British political influence in the Middle East. She also started and directed the Iraq Museum. Bell died of an overdose of drugs on the night of July 11-12, 1926 at her home in Baghdad.
Burgoyne, Elizabeth. Gertrude Bell, from Her Personal Papers, 2 vols. E. Benn, 1958 and 1961.
Goodman, Susan. Gertrude Bell, Berg, 1985.
Kann, Josephine. Daughter of the Desert: The Story of Gertrude Bell, Bodley Head, 1956.
Tibble, Anne. Gertrude Bell, A. and C. Black, 1958.
Winstone, H.V.F. Gertrude Bell, Jonathan Cape, 1978.