The Forgotten Story of 'Gertrude of Arabia,' Who Created Modern Iraq

She rode camels alongside Churchill and T.E. Lawrence, and questioned the wisdom of the Balfour Declaration. Now, 90 years after her death, Gertrude Bell is back in the spotlight.

Gertrude Bell (just below the Sphinx), flanked by Winston Churchill (left) and T.E. Lawrence, in 1921.
Gertrude Bell Archive/Newcastle University

On the evening of July 11, 1926, Gertrude Bell took an overdose of sleeping pills and tranquilizers in her Baghdad home and fell asleep. Her lifeless body was discovered early on the morning of July 12, two days before her 58th birthday. Friends later spoke of her severe depression and compromised physical health, compounded by the brutal heat of a Middle Eastern summer. She was eulogized by a local newspaper for being a friend of many Iraqis, but above all a friend of Iraq.

Bell was many things. Historian, archaeologist, diplomat, spy, mountaineer and a daring adventurer, and became known as “the female Lawrence of Arabia.” However, most of her fame is thanks to her contribution to the new political order in the Middle East after World War I. Her knowledge, expertise and experience helped British officials draw up the borders of Iraq, and put Faisal I at the head of the new kingdom.

Gertrude Bell. Keen Arabist whose place in history was overlooked by male historians.
Gertrude Bell Archive/Newcastle University

Ironically, with the collapse of the very political order in which she had a guiding hand, Bell has been rediscovered in recent years. This complicated character – exceptional on the Arab, predominantly male scene – is now starring in biographies, films (“like “Queen of the Desert,” starring Nicole Kidman) and even comics.

Not long ago, a documentary was added to that list. With rare period photographs, “Letters From Baghdad” is the outcome of extensive research that included visits to 25 archives around the world.

The film, which will be screened at the Haifa Film Festival on October 20, shows one of the most intriguing and enduring images of Bell. She was photographed in 1921 at the foot of the Sphinx of Giza. The reason for the photo was the Cairo Conference, at which the British – who after World War I received the mandate for Iraq and Palestine – discussed instability in the Middle East.

Bell, mounted atop a camel, looks pleased – as befits someone who has just participated in the birth of a new country. On one side of her is Winston Churchill, who was Britain’s colonial secretary at the time. On her other side is Thomas Edward Lawrence, the British officer known as Lawrence of Arabia.

“To our astonishment we learned that [Bell] ... had been the most powerful woman in the British Empire during her era, yet had been largely forgotten,” says U.S. filmmaker Zeva Oelbaum, in a director’s statement about the documentary.

Treasure trove

The person who first “rediscovered” Bell was Dr. Liora Lukitz, an Israeli historian of Iraq. “The first time I saw the mass of material she left, I discovered a treasure trove,” she tells Haaretz. “I wondered how come no one had ever written anything serious about a woman like this, who left a tremendous collection with evidence of her huge contribution to the shaping of the Middle East and the fact that, without her, modern Iraq would never have been created.”

In 2006, Lukitz published her comprehensive biography of Bell (in English): “A Quest in the Middle East: Gertrude Bell and the Making of Modern Iraq.” She is now working on a follow-up.

Gertrude Bell. Exceptional physical strength allowed her to ride through the desert for hours on end.
Gertrude Bell Archive/Newcastle University

Why was Bell forgotten for so many decades? “As a woman, the major historians – who were men – took her less seriously,” says Lukitz, partly because Bell’s writing style was very personal and also included “reports on frocks and social encounters.”

“She was an extraordinary woman, who came to the region on her own and succeeded in forging strong ties with the ‘who’s who’ in Iraq,” says Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Ofra Bengio, an expert on the modern history of Iraq. “Even though she was a woman, she succeeded in associating with the sheikhs and leaders of the local tribes.”

And London-based archaeologist Dr. Lamia Al Gailani Werr told The Telegraph in 2014 that Bell “was a colonialist, yes, but she seemed completely devoted to [Iraq].”

It’s unlikely Bell would have maintained that proud smile on her face had she seen what would happen to the modern Arab nation-states she and her colleagues shaped. “Bell would have been disappointed with what has happened in the Middle East,” says Lukitz, “but it isn’t her fault. She should be judged in the context of her times and not in light of 21st-century insights.”

Bengio adds: “Her vision was to establish a single Iraq, unified under proper government. But what remained of it was a patchwork that didn’t manage to create a single national identity shared by the whole population. In fact, as time passes, the Iraq Bell helped establish is disintegrating at an accelerating pace.”

From drawing rooms to the desert

How did a British lady from a wealthy background go from the drawing rooms of London to the Middle East? She was born in 1868 to a family of industrialists. In 1886, she became the first woman to obtain a first-class honors degree in history at Oxford. However, she very quickly turned her back on a life of comfort and routine, preferring to travel far from home.

The list of her destinations included Japan, the United States and South America. But it was a visit to Paris in 1892 that first opened the window on the East to her. Subsequently, she visited pre-state Israel, Damascus and Baghdad – and studied Persian, Arabic and Turkish. The desert and archaeological sites fascinated her and she captured them for posterity with her camera.

At the height of her activity, around the time of World War I, stories circulated about her and the impression she made on everyone she met – from heads of the British army to tribal heads. In an article he wrote called “From London to Baghdad,” Prof. Eli Shaltiel wrote that a sheikh impressed by Bell’s strength said, “If the Britons’ women are so strong and energetic, imagine the power of their men.”

Even 90 years after her death, Bell remains an enigma with many contradictions in her character. Some consider her a groundbreaking feminist, but she never challenged the patriarchal structure of society and was even disdainful toward women who fought for the right to vote.

At the Cairo Conference, 1921. Gertrude Bell (left), with Winston Churchill (front row, center)
\ Hulton-Deutsch Collection / COR

“She was the epitome of feminism,” says Lukitz, “but you might say she was a feminist for herself. She forgot that lower-class women didn’t have the conditions to achieve as she had.”

In the films and biographies, Bell is depicted as having excellent physical fitness, which enabled her to ride for hours on end in the burning desert heat as few other women – and relatively few men – did in her day. However, she never relinquished her aristocratic habits from home, and wherever she went she brought along a bathtub, dishes and evening gowns. She also had dozens of pairs of shoes in her collection.

In 1916, thanks to her knowledge of the geography of the Middle East and her acquaintance with its people and history, she was given an official position in the British diplomatic service. In an article on Bell, archaeologist and historian Dr. Eleanor Scott wrote that Bell showed great maturity in understanding human motives.

As an example, she cited one of the reports Bell wrote to her superiors in 1917: “Human nature being what it is – and at the bottom the same in the Arab as in the European, pugnacious, ambitious and covetous, sometimes loyal but mainly treacherous, occasionally enlightened but always restless – ... may be expected to exhibit the same to and fro, change and interchange, of alliances as may be found in the history of the relations between the various nations which compose Europe.”

In Bell’s papers, there is also her opinion regarding plans for the creation of a homeland for the Jews, which she shared with her family after the Balfour declaration. “I hate Mr. Balfour’s Zionist pronouncement with regard to [Greater] Syria. It’s my belief that it can’t be carried out; the country is wholly unsuited to the ends the Jews have in view; it is a poor land, incapable of great development and with a solid two thirds of its population Mohammedan Arabs who look on Jews with contempt. ... To my mind it’s a wholly artificial scheme divorced from all relation to facts and I wish it the ill-success it deserves – and will get, I fancy.”

In her last years she was put in charge of antiquities on behalf of the Iraqi government and worked to establish the Baghdad Archaeological Museum (now known as the National Museum of Iraq). With great energy she battled antiquity thieves and dealers who wanted to smuggle the treasures of the past out of the new Iraq.

In 2003, the museum was plundered and, along with many other treasures, a statue of Bell disappeared along with the sign alongside it that proclaimed: “Gertrude Bell, whom the Arabs will always remember with affection.”