Who Was Gertrude Bell?
Gertrude Bell 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.
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 Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. She grew up in a wealthy family in Redcar, a Yorkshire town, in a home built by her father, businessman and industrialist Sir Thomas Hugh Bell. Her mother Mary died in 1871 after giving birth to her younger brother Maurice. Bell gained her first exposure to politics and world affairs through her grandfather and his associates. Her father married again when Bell was still a young child and the union added a half-brother and two half-sisters to the family. Bell would go on to attend Oxford University, where she studied history.
In 1892, Bell graduated with honors from Oxford and shortly thereafter traveled to Tehran, Iran, where her uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles, was serving as 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, Bell returned to the Middle East and visited Palestine and Syria, touching off a period of sustained travel there and in Asia and Europe. 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). Bell also maintained a vast correspondence during this period, which was eventually compiled and published in 1927.
During World War I, Bell worked for the Red Cross in France before joining the British intelligence unit in Cairo, Egypt, known as the Arab Bureau. There, she collaborated with famed British traveler T. E. Lawrence to try to forge alliances with Arab tribes. Her writings about her experiences in the Middle East — particularly in Iraq — continue to be studied and referenced by policy experts in the 21st century.
British forces eventually 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 of Iraq by the United States.
After taking a fatal dose of sleeping pills, Bell died on July 12, 1926, in Baghdad. 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. Scott's project eventually foundered, but Herzog's biopic, Queen of the Desert, which stars Nicole Kidman as Bell, Robert Pattinson as Lawrence and James Franco as a colleague of Bell's, premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2015.
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