Gertrude Bell: The Queen of the Desert

Born today in 1868, British explorer, diplomat and accomplished archaeologist Gertrude Bell has been described as "the female Lawrence of Arabia." Read about her extraordinary life.
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Born today in 1868, British explorer, diplomat and accomplished archaeologist Gertrude Bell has been described as "the female Lawrence of Arabia." Read about her extraordinary life.
Gertrude Bell Photo Hulton Archive/Getty Images

English archaeologist and world traveller Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell, circa 1900. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Born into an affluent, progressive family, Gertrude Bell lived a life of adventure and intrigue. She defied the expectations of a woman in Victorian England, becoming a world traveler, a skilled mountaineer and an accomplished archaeologist. Well versed in the lands and cultures of Mesopotamia, Bell put her knowledge to work for the British government during World War I. After the war ended, she was instrumental in the creation of the country we now known as Iraq.

Bell’s life found its way onto the big screen in the biopic Queen of the Desert, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2015. Actress Nicole Kidman plays Bell in the film. As she explained to The Guardian newspaper, she was thrilled to get the role. Kidman described Bell as “the female Lawrence of Arabia.” She said that Bell “basically defined the borders between Iraq and Jordan that exist today.” But before checking out Kidman’s fictionalized version of Bell, read below for the inside scoop on the real life of this extraordinary woman.

Bell was the first woman to earn first-degree honors in modern history at Oxford. At the time, few women attended college, but Bell was fortunate to have a supportive family who allowed her to advance her education. She attended Lady Margaret Hall, one of the only colleges in Oxford that accepted women. 

Bell was unlucky in love. The first man she fell for was Henry Cadogan, a member of the foreign service she met while visiting Iran in 1892. The couple shared a love of literature, including the poetry of Rudyard Kipling and the stories of Henry James. Unfortunately for Bell, her father disapproved of the match. He objected to Cadogan’s gambling habit and its accompanying debt.  

Later Bell became enamored with a married British officer, Dick Doughty-Wylie. According to an article in the Telegraph newspaper, the pair exchanged numerous letters expressing their affection for each other. Bell wanted Doughty-Wylie to leave his wife for her, and his wife threatened suicide if he did. The whole tragic mess ended when Doughty-Wylie died in the battle at Gallipoli in 1915. 

A skilled mountaineer, Bell almost met her end on a slope in 1902. She started climbing years earlier during a family holiday in La Grave, France, in 1897. She tackled greater heights with her 1899 ascents of the Meije and Les Ecrins in the French region of the Alps. Bell continued to challenge herself with other peaks in the Swiss Alps the following year. Becoming one of the leading female climbers of her day, she helped tackle some of the virgin peaks of the Engelhorner range. One of these previously uncharted peaks was named Gertrudspitze in her honor.  

Bell, with her guides, tried to climb another mountain, the Finsteraarhorn, in 1902, when a blizzard hit. She spent more than 50 hours on a rope on the mountain’s northeast side before she was able to make it back to a local village with her guides. The experience left Bell with frostbitten hands and feet, but it did not end her love of climbing. She went on to scale the Matterhorn in 1904. She described her experience in one of her letters, according to A Woman in Arabia: The Writings of the Queen of the Desert. “It was beautiful climbing, never seriously difficult, but never easy, and most of the time on a great steep face which was splendid to go upon.”

Gertrude Bell in Iraq in 1909 Photo Gertrude Bell Archive Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Gertrude Bell posing for a photograph in Babylon, Iraq in 1909, (Photo: Gertrude Bell Archives, Public Doman via Wikimedia Commons)

Bell’s fascination with the Middle East began with a visit to Iran in 1892. Her uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles, was the British ambassador at the time she made her first journey to the region. To prepare for the trip, Bell studied Persian and continued to actively work on learning the language while in Tehran. She later took up Arabic, a language she found especially challenging. As she wrote in one of her letters, “there are at least three sounds almost impossible to the European throat.”  

Later traveling extensively through the region, Bell found inspiration for several of her writing projects. She published her first travel book, Safar Nameh: Persia Pictures, in 1894. In 1897, her English translations of Poems from the Divan of Hafiz were published and are still considered some of the finest versions of these works today. 

Bell was passionate about archaeology. She had developed this interest during a family trip in 1899, visiting an excavation of the Melos, an ancient city in Greece. Bell undertook several archaeology-related journeys, including a 1909 trek along the course of the Euphrates River. She often documented the sites she found by taking photographs. In one of her projects, she worked with archaeologist Sir William Mitchell Ramsey on The Thousand and One Churches (1909), which featured Bin-Bir-Kilisse, an archaeological site in Turkey.

During her career in military intelligence and civil service, Bell was the only woman working for the British government in the Middle East. She worked with T.E. Lawrence, perhaps better known as “Lawrence of Arabia,” in the Arab Bureau during World War I. Based in Cairo, the bureau gathered and analyzed information to help the British oust the Ottoman Empire from the region. The British had suffered several military defeats against them when Lawrence devised a new strategy. He wanted to recruit Arab peoples to oppose the Turks, and Bell helped him to drum up support for this effort.

After the war, Bell sought to help the Arabs. She wrote “Self-Determination in Mesopotamia,” a paper that earned her a seat at the 1919 Peace Conference in Paris. Bell continued to explore related political and social issues in her 1920 work Review of the Civil Administration of Mesopotamia. She was involved the 1921 Conference in Cairo with Winston Churchill, then colonial secretary, that established the boundaries of Iraq. Bell also helped bring Faisal I to power as Iraq’s new king. For her work on their behalf, Bell earned the respect of the peoples of Mesopotamia. She was often addressed as “khutan,” which means “queen” in Persian and “respected lady” in Arabic. 

Gertrude Bell Cairo Conference Photo Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Gertrude Bell (second row, second from left) at the 1921 Cairo Conference. (Photo: Author Unknown, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Bell helped establish what is now the Iraq Museum. She wanted to help preserve the country’s heritage. In 1922, Bell was named the director of antiquities by King Faisal and she worked hard to keep important artifacts in Iraq. Bell aided in the crafting of the 1922 Law of Excavation. A few years later, the museum opened its first exhibition space in 1926. She spent the final months of her life working on the museum, cataloguing items found at Ur and Kish, two ancient Sumerian cities. Bell died on July 12, 1926, in Baghdad.