Celebrity

Gertrude Bell: The Queen of the Desert

Aug 19 2019 By Sriya

One of Britain’s most famed icons and explorers of the Arabian Peninsula, Gertrude Bell is well-known as Queen of the Desert.

Gertrude Bell was a diplomat, writer and accomplished archaeologist born in the North East of England famed for her journeys to Arabia.

The woman is as responsible as anybody for the unstable national state first known as Mesopotamia, and now as Iraq.

Here’s, everything you need to know about the queen of the desert from her birth to death.

Early Life of Gertrude Bell

Gertrude Bell was born on 14 July 1868 in Washington New Hall in Country Durham.

She was a British writer, politician, and archaeologist whose knowledge and travels in the Middle East made her a valuable and influential person in Britain.

Born into an affluent, progressive family, Bell lived a life of adventure and intrigue.

Gertrude Bell’s grandfather, Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, was an ironmaster and reputed politician.

Similarly, her father Sir Hugh Bell, was a baronet before joining the family manufacturing firm, Bell Brothers.

Also, her father gained a reputation for being a progressive and caring boss.

Similarly, Gertrude Bell’s mother, Mary Shield Bell, died giving birth to a son, Maurice, when Bell was three years old.

Later, Bell’s father remarried after four years to Florence Olliffe.

Gertrude Bell’s family was wealth and influential. Therefore, her family ensured her education and enabled her travels.

Her stepmother, a playwright and children’s author became a major influencer in Gertrude Bell’s life.

She not only taught Bell etiquette, but also encouraged her to gain intellectual curiosity and social responsibility.

Well-educated Gertrude Bell attended Queen’s College and later, Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford University.

Despite the limitation placed on female students, Bell graduated with first-class honors in just two years.

Hence, later Gertrude Bell become one of the first two Oxford women to achieve those honors with a modern history degree.

World Travels

Gertrude Bell began travel around the world after completing her degree in 1892.

First she headed to Persia to visit her uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles, who was a minister at the embassy.

Later, after two years, she published her first book named Persian Pictures describing her travel journey.

Then, Gertrude Bell quickly became a bonafide adventurer, doing mountaineering in Switzerland.

Thereafter, she learned several languages including French, German, Persian, and Arabic.

Similarly, she developed a passion for archaeology and continued her interest in modern history and people.

Later, in 1899, she returned to the Middle East, visiting Palestine and Syria and stopping in the historic cities of Jerusalem and Damascus.

In the course of her travel, she became acquainted with the people living in different region.

Additionally, Bell continued some of her more daring expeditions by climbing Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps.

Bell, with her guides, tried to climb another mountain, the Finsteraarhorn, in 1902, when a blizzard hit.

There 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.

Personal Life

Gertrude Bell never married or had any children. She had only few attachments.

Firstly, she fell for was Henry Cadogan, a member of the Foreign Service whom she met while visiting Iran in 1892.

They shared a love of literature, including the poetry of Rudyard Kipling and the stories of Henry James.

Unfortunately, Bell’s father disapproved their match accusing Henry for being a gambler.

Later, she met the administrator Sir Frank Swettenham on a visit to Singapore, and kept up a correspondence with him.

Despite their 18 years age gap, they had a brief affair in 1904 after his return to England.

Lastly, Gertrude Bell had exchanged passionate love letters from 1913 until 1915 with Lieutenant Colonel Charles Doughty-Wylie.

He was an army officer and was already married. Unfortunately, their affair remained unconsummated after his death in action in 1915.

Since then Gertrude Bell had no other known romances in her life.

Archaeologist in the Middle East

In 1097, Gertrude Bell began to work with archaeologist and scholar Sir William M. Ramsay.

They worked on excavations in modern-day Turkey, as well as the discovery of a field of ancient ruins in the north of Syria.

Later, after two years, she shifted her focus to Mesopotamia, visiting and studying the ruins of ancient cities.

There, she became only the second foreign woman to journey to Ha’li, an unstable and dangerous city in Saudi Arabia.

Queen of the Desert

When World War I broke out, Gertrude Bell tried to obtain a posting in the Middle East.

She started to work as a volunteer with the Red Cross after getting denied. 

However, British intelligence was soon in need of her expertise in the region to get soldiers through the desert.

So, she collaborated with famed British traveler T.E. Lawrence to try and forge alliances with Arab tribes.

During her trips, she forged close relationships with locals and tribe leaders.

Afterwards, Bell became a remarkable influencer in shaping British policy in the area.

Additionally, Gertrude Bell become the sole female political officer in the British forces and was sent to areas where her expertise was needed.

Despite her own political achievements, Gertrude Bell actively opposed women’s suffrage in Britain.

She argued that the vast majority of her fellow women lacked the education and knowledge of the world necessary to participate in political debate.

Political Career

Gertrude Bell got the title of Oriental Secretary and ordered to assist in the restructuring of the area that had previously been the Ottoman Empire.

She got the honor after British forces captured Baghdad in 1917.

In particular, Gertrude Bell focused on creating the new Iraq.

In addition to her report, she laid out her ideas about how the new leadership should work based on her experience.

Unfortunately, the British commissioner, Arnold Wilson, believed that the Arab government needed to be overseen by British officials.

However, Gertrude Bell continued on as Oriental Secretary liaising between the various different factions and interests.

In 1921, during the Cairo Conference, she was critical in discussion on Iraqi leadership and advocated for Faisal Bin Hussein to be named the first King of Iraq.

Gertrude Bell advised him on a wide variety of political matters and supervised the selection of his cabinet and other positions.

Not only that, Gertrude Bell also participated in the drawing of borders in the Middle East.

She remarked on the likelihood that none of the possible borders and divisions would satisfy all factions and keep long-term peace.

Gertrude Bell’s close relation with King Faisal also resulted in the foundation of the Iraqi Archaeological Museum and an Iraq base of the British School of Archaeology.

Therefore, over the next few years Gertrude Bell remained a key part of Iraqi administration.

Death

Gertrude Bell’s workload with combination of the desert heat and a slew of illness took her life.

She suffered from recurrent bronchitis and began losing weigh rapidly.

Gertrude Bell returned to Britain in 1925, where she faced more family problems and ill health.

Her family’s fortune had started to decline due to the onset of post-World War I strikes.

She returned to Baghdad but soon she became ill with pleurisy almost immediately after her brother died of typhoid fever.

On July 12, 1926, her maid discovered her death, apparently due to overdose of sleeping pills.

However, it was unclear whether the overdose was accidental or she was murdered on purpose.

Later, Gertrude Bell was buried at the British cemetery in the Bab al-Sharji district in Baghdad.


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