Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations


“She is only a woman, but Y’Allah, she is a mighty and valiant one …

If the women of the English are like her, the men must be like lions

in strength and valor.” Fahad Bey

Georgina Howell’s fascinating 2006 biography describes Gertrude Bell as an archaeologist, spy, Arabist, linguist, author, poet, photographer, mountaineer, and at one time the most important and respected woman in the British Empire. She also founded the Baghdad Archaeological Museum

As a wealthy Victorian Englishwoman with family connections, Bell had options most women didn’t, but amazingly in the late 1800’s, she made lifestyle choices that would smack of outrageous behavior even today.

With the goal of visiting archaeological sites from Baghdad to Istanbul, Gertrude spent her first years in the Middle East mapping uncharted territory and charming influential sheikhs along the way, often in their own language. Her knowledge of Mesopotamia was well known in the black, goat hair tents of desert tribes. When asked about the geographical boundaries of his tribe, one Iraqi sheikh told his questioner, “Ask Gertrude Bell.”

Saddlebags packed with bribes, money and guns, Gertrude spirited her way through one dangerous situation after another interspersed with endless days of crossing empty desert with only a few devoted servants. Once, she was held against her will as an “honored guest” for almost two weeks.

Gertrude advised Britain how best to make alliances before World War I’s turmoil in the Middle East. After the war she helped draw the boundaries for the country of Iraq, with instructions to look out for Britain’s oil interests. As we’ve seen in recent years, it was an impossible task given the three distinct religious groups within. She promoted Arab self-rule to the colonial minded heads of Britain, even suggesting the wisest, most powerful (and most secular) sheikhs upon which to rely, notably the future King Faisal.

Tune in next Saturday for the next chapter of her life, including how Gertrude solved the problem of being stuck mountaineering in the Swiss Alps in Victorian clothing.