Gertrude Bell biography
Gertrude Bell was born on July 14, 1868, in Durham, England. She studied history at Oxford and embarked on a career as a writer, traveler and archaeologist. Fluent in Persian and Arabic, Bell worked for the British government in Cairo during World War I. She contributed to the construction of the Iraqi state in 1921, as well as the National Museum of Iraq. Bell died in Baghdad on July 12, 1926.
Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell was born on July 14, 1868, in Durham, England. Her grandfather, Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, was a member of Parliament who worked alongside Benjamin Disraeli. Gertrude Bell gained her first exposure to politics and world affairs through her grandfather and his associates. Raised in a wealthy family, she attended Oxford University, earning a degree in history.
Following her graduation from Oxford, Bell traveled to Tehran, Iran, where her uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles, was serving as a British minister. This trip sparked her interest in the Middle East, the region on which she would focus much of her energy for the remainder of her life.
Early Writings and Political Career
In 1899, Gertrude Bell visited Palestine and Syria, touching off a period of sustained travel in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Her writings on her experiences across the globe informed British audiences about the distant parts of their empire. Bell's works published during the two decades preceding World War I include Safar Nameh (1894), Poems from the Divan of Hafiz (1897), The Desert and the Sown (1907), The Thousand and One Churches (1909) and Amurath to Amurath (1911). She also maintained vast correspondence, which was compiled and published in 1927.
Bell helped to shape political relationships in the Middle East after the conclusion of World War I—becoming the first and only British woman to participate so fully in the process. During the war, she worked in France before joining the Arab Bureau in Cairo, Egypt. There, she collaborated with famed British traveler T.E. Lawrence to try to forge alliances with Arab tribes. Her writings about her experience in the Middle East—particularly Iraq—continue to be studied and referenced by policy experts in the 21st century.
British forces captured Baghdad in 1917. Subsequently, Bell became involved in the political reinvention of Mesopotamia, where she helped colonial authorities install ruler Faisal I as monarch of Iraq. Fluent in Arabic and Persian, Bell assisted British diplomats and local rulers in the construction of a stable government infrastructure. She was the only woman present at the 1921 Conference in Cairo, convened by Winston Churchill to determine the boundaries of the Iraqi state.
Despite her own political achievements, Bell actively opposed women's suffrage in Britain. She argued that the vast majority of her contemporaries lacked the education and knowledge of the world necessary to participate meaningfully in political debate.
Bell remained in Baghdad after Faisal's 1921 ascension, working to fund and construct an archaeological museum.
She pioneered the idea of retaining antiquities in their country of origin rather than transporting them to European centers of learning. The result of Bell's efforts was the National Museum of Iraq, which holds one of the world's greatest collections of Mesopotamian antiquities. The museum collections were damaged in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion by the United States.
After taking a fatal dose of sleeping pills, Gertrude Bell died on July 12, 1926, in the city of Baghdad, Iraq. Her death has been interpreted as a suicide, given her persistent health problems and the recent death of her brother. She is buried in a British cemetery in Baghdad.
In 2012, directors Ridley Scott and Werner Herzog were both planning feature films based on Bell's life.