Gertrude Bell was truly a woman of wisdom. I learned about her when I interviewed Andrina Lever (See Part Two of her interview). A biography of Gertrude Bell, The Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia by Janet Wallach, profoundly impacted Lever, and Bell is one of the five people that she listed as wanting to meet. Gertrude Bell was a woman ahead of her time and someone we can learn a tremendous deal from. The Profiles in Wisdom, Women in Wisdom and Wise People are meant to expand your general knowledge, and also give you a great conversation starter at cocktail parties.
Gertrude Bell was a restless soul, and lived the life of a wealthy socialite for several years after she studied history at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, until she found her passion for the desert, and archaeology when she went to study Arabic in Jerusalem in 1899. In 1905 Bell embarked on her travels in the Middle East – through Syria, Asia Minor where she excavated Byzantine sites, the Euphrates where she visited Baghdad – while returning through Turkey her travels and explorations were disrupted by a rebellion by Young Turks. Bell subsequently continued her archaeological career. She also worked as an intelligence officer for the British government starting in World War I. From 1923 to 1926 she founded the national museum in Baghdad.
Woman in Wisdom: Gertrude Bell
Birth Date: July 1868 – July 1926
Job Functions: Archaeologist, traveller, writer, historian, linguist, mountaineer, and explorer
Fields: Archaeology, history, travel
Known For: Founded the national museum in Baghdad
Gertrude Bell was the first woman to graduate from Oxford University with a first class honours in history in 1888. It took awhile for Bell to discover her true calling in life. But fortunately for her, she found her passion for the desert and archaeology when she travelled to Jerusalem to study Arabic in 1899. During her restless years, from graduation to when she found her passion, Bell traveled extensively. In 1892, she first traveled to the Middle East after her uncle Sir Frank Lascelles received a diplomatic posting in Tehran, Persia. From 1893 to 1897, Bell traveled throughout Europe.
Bell excelled in several areas as archaeologist, traveller, writer, historian, linguist, mountaineer, and explorer. She became a skilled and famous alpine climber during the expeditions she went on between 1901 and 1904. Bell started her travels in the Middle East in 1905, journeying through Syria, Asia Minor, the Euphrates, visiting Baghdad, returning through Turkey where she faced a disruption because of a Young Turks rebellion. Bell traveled thousands of miles into unmapped territories by camel or horse and went where few Westerners had traveled.
In 1913, Bell set off for Damascus, but was stopped in Hail because of a political disturbance – she had to retreat to Baghdad, but was the first European woman traveling alone who had penetrated so far into Arabia. From 1915 to the early 1920s Bell worked with the British government in various capacities – intelligence office, oriental secretary to the British High Commission in Iraq, and subsequently became the first director of antiquities in Iraq. When she first joined the government in 1915, they wanted Bell to gather intelligence on Northern Arabia to mobilize the Arabs against the Turks.
Bell and her friend Lawrence of Arabia (Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence) campaigned for Arab independence. She was an advisor to both the British and newly appointed Hashemite Emir Feisal spearheading them through difficult negotiations to consolidate a new regime in Baghdad. When she believed that Feisal was on firm ground, Bell turned her focus to her position as Director of Antiquities and founded the national museum in Baghdad between 1923 and 1926.
Gertrude Bell did a lot of good work in the Middle East, and were she still around today, she would have been able to use her diplomacy and political savvy to help resolve the many issues there today. However, in 1908, Bell became the founding secretary of the Anti-Suffrage League, and for years opposed women’s right to vote.
Why Gertrude Bell’s Contribution Matters
While Gertrude Bell traveled throughout the Middle East she observed and learned about the cultures of the people, the various tribes and rivalries between them, trading patterns and internal politics. Bell often sat with desert leaders and recited classic Arab poetry with them. This thorough knowledge of the region and peoples proved invaluable to the British government.
While she served as Oriental secretary in the British administration, her contributions were significant – Bell was the only female British intelligence officer. She drafted the borders for modern day Iraq and ensured that the three Ottoman provinces Mosul, Baghdad and Basra formed a new Arab State. Because of the relationships that Bell had with the tribal leaders, she was able to persuade them to support the newly created state. Her diplomacy and political analysis was critical in negotiations in appointing Hashemite Emir Feisal as head of the new Arab State – Iraq.
Steps to Success
- After Gertrude Bell discovered her passion for the desert and archaeology she pursued them relentlessly.
- Took the time to get a sense of the regions she traveled to, immersing herself in the culture and understanding the major issues of the day.
- The body of the knowledge she created on the Middle East made her invaluable to the British government.
- Her body of knowledge on the region helped her to draft the boundaries for modern day Iraq at the 1921 Cairo Conference.
- Was politically savvy and an expert negotiator.
- Had great courage and traveled great distances and in areas that most wouldn’t travel.
- Knowledge of history and languages served her well.
Lessons from Gertrude Bell
- Become the expert in your field and be the go-to-it person. Be the best at something.
- Take the time to figure out your passion in life and pursue it relentlessly.
- Travel beyond your own country to become exposed to different cultures.
- She stood up for what she believed.
- It’s okay to change your mind. Originally, Bell was opposed to women’s right to vote, and it’s surprising since she did many things that were predominantly done by men.
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More Information on Gertrude Bell
Gertrude Bell, Jacqueline Winspear
Gertrude Bell, Encyclopaedia Britannica
Women in World History
Geographical Archive, http://www.geographical.co.uk, March 2006
The Continuum Dictionary of Women’s Biography
The Concise Dictionary of National Biography
Dictionary of Women Worldwide
The Cambridge Biographical Dictionary
Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2007, “Gertrude of Arabia”
Evening Gazette, July 10, 2010
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