The explorer, writer, archaeologist and adventurer Gertrude Bell worked tirelessly to unite Arab dynasties into modern Iraq. Alasdair Soussi introduces us to this pioneer on the 85th anniversary of her death.
Gertrude Bell: Midwife to a nation
"When death entered her low, rambling, exquisitely luxurious home in Bagdad [sic], Great Britain lost the most remarkable and certainly the most charming woman who has served the Empire in a century."
Such words, as expressed by Time magazine on July 26, 1926, in lamenting the death of Gertrude Bell, may have appeared grandiose, but for someone who spent most of her life breaking down barriers, it was, in truth, a tribute not without merit.
A slender woman with red hair and piercing green eyes, Bell, who died 85 years ago this week, possessed an intellect so fierce and a wanderlust so insatiable that, in the distinctly man's world of the early 20th century, she was a force who was hard to ignore. So when these two elements combined in the cut and thrust of Middle East realpolitik, it was, perhaps, hardly surprising that this trailblazer, who engaged the region with a vigour comparable to the likes of her contemporary TE Lawrence - or "Lawrence of Arabia" - assumed the mantle of "uncrowned queen of Iraq" following her involvement in the country's troubled birth in the aftermath of the Great War.
Yet in the final analysis, any political success she enjoyed as Iraq's architect lay less in heralding the arrival of a new nation-state and more, by virtue of her extensive writings - letters home, diaries and so on - in documenting the grim realities of nation-building, which continue to resonate within the still fragile Middle East today.
Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell was born on July 14, 1868, in County Durham, north-east England, to a family of wealthy steel magnates. Her father, Sir Thomas Hugh Bell, was the son of Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, who was a major patron of the Arts and Crafts movement and who was friends with Charles Darwin and Thomas Henry Huxley. In 1886, Bell won a place at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where two years later she became the first woman to secure a first-class degree in modern history, though women were not entitled to receive official degrees until 1920.
In 1892 she travelled to Iran and published her first travel book, Persian Pictures. By the end of the 19th century she was scaling the Swiss Alps, surviving a blizzard and frostbite as she clung to a rope for 53 hours on the unclimbed north-east face of the Finsteraarhorn in 1902.
Having already taught herself Persian, Bell began learning Arabic in Jerusalem in 1897. In 1913, the self-taught archaeologist traversed the Arabian Peninsula where she braved the Nejd Desert and hostile Arabian tribes and journeyed to the town of Hail in north-central Saudi Arabia. By late 1915, Bell found herself in Cairo and employed by British military intelligence - the first woman officer to gain this distinction.
It was her appointment as a political officer in Basra in 1916, however, that would thrust her into the political and diplomatic limelight. There, in that ancient land of Mesopotamia, she would, for the next decade, win the hearts of Arab statesmen, found a national museum and have significant input into the design and constitution of the new Iraq, established under a British mandate in 1920 from the Ottoman provinces of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul. Yet when this fledgling state rose up that year in revolt, Bell described events that could easily have come from the dispatches of a beleaguered western diplomat in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq:
Ÿ "There's no getting out of the conclusion that we have made an immense failure here. The system must have been far more at fault than anything that I or anyone else suspected. It will have to be fundamentally changed and what that may mean exactly I don't know."
Ÿ "We are largely suffering from circumstances over which we couldn't have had any control. The wild drive of discontented nationalism ... and of discontented Islam ... might have proved too much for us however far-seeing we had been; but that doesn't excuse us for having been blind."
For the delivery of a flawed Iraq, Bell is no less culpable than her colleagues. Her failings - "She was not a good judge of men or situations", Lawrence observed - are not without foundation. But the fact that her writings rarely glossed over the unpalatable truths of being an occupying power - "It's difficult to be burning villages at one end of the country by means of a British army and assuring people at the other end that we really have handed over responsibility to native ministers" - is to her enormous credit.
Bell died of an overdose of sleeping pills on July 12, 1926, and was buried in Baghdad. But, as Rory Stewart, a former British governor of an Iraqi province, observed in The New York Review of Books in 2007, her legacy in Iraq remains a salient one:
"If Bell is a heroine, it is not as a visionary but as a witness to the absurdity and horror of building nations for peoples with other loyalties, models and priorities."