Photo of British author and archeologist Gertrude Bell, in Babylon, Iraq. By Unknown - picture copied from the Gertrude Bell Archive , Public Domain.
While conducting research into the history of sites for possible inclusion in our recently-concluded Seven Wonders of Arabia series, the name of one particular English traveler/ explorer/ adventurer/ writer/ archaeologist/ mountaineer/ scholar/ diplomat/ linguist/ spy/ politician/ Arabist/ imperialist/ anti-suffragette/ poet/ polymath kept popping up on our laptop screen, that of Gertrude Bell. We knew of Bell, of course, and of some but not all of her exploits, but, as it turned out, not nearly as much as we should have liked about this remarkable woman.
Our curiosity piqued by those frequent mentions of her name, we delved more deeply into the life of this fascinating figure in the history of the Arab world. The more we learned, the more we wanted to know. The richness and scale of her story has astonished us in much the same way as they’ve captivated legions of readers over the years seeped in the travel literature and history of imperial Great Britain and the Middle East during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Few writers from those or any other era can match Bell— an avid diarist, letter writer, journalist, memorialist, political pamphleteer, poet, and author of scholarly works—in the volume and quality and incisiveness of her literary output. She was a seminal, protean force in word and person. Her manifold accomplishments defy ready belief when you consider that she was a solitary, unmarried woman acting on her own initiative at a time and in places where the obstacles barring the path forward of anyone like her were formidable. But Gertrude Bell was a fearless trailblazer, a history-maker. To this day, she continues to serve as an inspiration to generations of women who followed.
Bell was instrumental in informing the outside world of life in Mesopotamia, Arabia, and surrounding lands. As did T. E. Lawrence—popularly known to history as Lawrence of Arabia—Bell lived a life that demanded a place on the silver screen. In 1962, English director David Lean delivered for Lawrence with his epic, Oscar-winning movie Lawrence of Arabia starring Peter O’Toole as Lawrence, universally regarded as one of the greatest films in the history of cinema. In 2015, Bell at last had her own David Lean in the person of German director Werner Herzog with the release of his sprawling biopic Queen of the Desert starring Nicole Kidman as Bell and Robert Pattinson as Lawrence. Bell and Lawrence knew each other well—a fact Herzog highlights in the film with obvious affection for his characters.
Their stories intertwined with and echoed one another’s to such an extent that Bell has often—perhaps too often—been called “The Female Lawrence of Arabia,” most recently by Nicole Kidman herself. Admirers of Bell such as myself could rightly argue the opposite, that Lawrence was “The Male Gertrude Bell,” not the other way around. She was initially the better known of the two up to the final stages of the Great War when the legend of Lawrence of Arabia was born. In peacetime, the latter’s fame soon grew to oversized, mythic proportions, thanks in part to an elaborate multimedia international roadshow mounted by noted American adventure travel journalist Lowell Thomas.
However distinctive her story may be, Bell was not alone. She had company as one of a noteworthy group of over 40 women chroniclers who wrote of their journeys through the Middle East in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Still, no one else among them influenced the region’s history as much as she.
Bell’s quest for adventure and thirst for knowledge inspired repeated journeys to the lands bordering the eastern and southeastern Mediterranean basins, from Greece to Turkey through the Levant and onward along the full sweep of the Fertile Crescent to North Africa. She described the powerful sensation resulting from such travel:
To those bred under an elaborate social order few such moments of exhilaration can come as that which stands at the threshold of wild travel. The gates of the enclosed garden are thrown open, the chain at the entrance to the sanctuary is lowered, with a wary glance to right and left you step forth and behold! the immeasurable world.
On a journey to explore and photograph archaeological sites along the Euphrates River beginning at Aleppo in Syria, Bell described Syrian cities in an insightful way typical of her keen eye:
I have never come to know an Oriental city without finding that it possesses a distinctive personality much more strongly accentuated than is usually the case in Europe, and this is essentially true of the Syrian towns. To compare Damascus, for example, with Aleppo, would be to set side by side two different conceptions of civilization. Damascus is the capital of the desert, Aleppo of the fertile plain. Damascus is the city of the Arab tribes who conquered her and set their stamp upon her; Aleppo, standing aside the trade routes of northern Mesopotamia, is a city of merchants quick to defend the wealth that they had gathered afar. So I read the history that is written upon her walls and impressed deep into the character of her adventurous sons.
At Aleppo, the current of the imagination is tributary to the Euphrates. With Xenophon, with Julian, with all the armies captained by a dream of empire that dashed and broke against the Ancient East, the thoughts go marching down to the river which was the most famous of all frontier lines.
Worthy of special note are Bell’s observations about the land to the south of the Fertile Crescent that soon became the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and her characterizations of its people. In The Arabian Diaries, written in 1914 and including numerous letters addressed to her married, unrequited lover at the time, Charles Hotham Montagu (addressed as “Dick” by Bell in her letters) Doughty-Wylie—a Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Welch Fusiliers who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross in 1915 for conspicuous bravery during a beach landing at Gallipoli—she offers a vivid account of the most dangerous adventure of her life.
On the eve of the Great War, she undertook a perilous journey across the unmapped Nefud Desert—the same desolate, blazing, sand-and-rock inferno where, further to the west, Lean depicted Lawrence crossing as he attacked the port city of Aqaba through its sparsely-guarded back door—to the city of Ha’il in northwestern Arabia.
“We have ridden for two days over very desolate country and today has been quite featureless,” she wrote to Doughty-Wylie, referring to the Nefud. “There are no words to tell you how bare and forbidding is this land.”
Bell was essentially spying for British Intelligence at the behest of the Arab Bureau in Cairo. What is particularly notable about this journey is that she undertook it alone, without a military escort or a husband or family members to protect her, accompanied only by a small group of trusted Arab cohorts. Few other women in that age proved so daring. None were as knowledgeable of the language and cultures they observed along the way. Gertrude Bell had moxie oozing out of her every pore.
Bell’s trek to Ha’il is the best known and most dangerous of her Middle East travel adventures. On this and other journeys she undertook into the Arabian hinterlands, her admirable command of Arabic proved essential in opening doors, lowering barriers, and winning trust. She’s left us with a valuable record of the Ha’il region in transition, most of whose past history had been shrouded in mystery to the world at large.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Ha’il was the center of the Rashidi emirs who were among the foremost contenders for control of the Arabian Peninsula. When the last of them was ousted from power by Ibn Saud in 1921, the father of modern Saudi Arabia ordered the destruction of the Barzan palace and the removal of Rashidi leaders from Ha’il. From November 1913 till May 1914, Bell undertook a half-year journey by camel from Damascus to Ha’il and on from there to Baghdad, choosing in her characteristic sang froid fashion to ignore the significant dangers posed to travelers by on-going warfare between competing Arab factions. She traveled without an official permit from the Ottoman government, making her an outlaw—a fact she freely acknowledged in her letters. The Turks heard rumors of her journey, but their efforts to stop her failed.
After initially being welcomed to Ha’il by a steward of the emir (who was not present in the city at the moment), Bell was made a captive and forced to live in the harem for 11 days, during which span she collected vital information on conditions in the region which she meticulously recorded in her diary. By the time she was set free and allowed to leave, she had concluded that the House of Rashid was too weak to survive the internecine tribal warfare rampant in the land. In letters written on the road to Baghdad, she advised the British government that it should throw its support behind ibn Saud.
The Diaries are comprised of scores of letters exchanged between Bell and her parents, and between Bell and Doughty-Wylie. In them, she shares her views on Islam and Arabs in general. Many of the letters are concerned with the inspiring beauty and fearsome danger, the measureless vastness and vibrant colors of the Arabian desert. She declares her desire to write a book about her journey to Ha’il, but she never did. In its absence, we have The Arabian Diaries, written in both English and Arabic. In certain instances, she recreates entire conversations in Arabic.
It’s thought that she naturally turned to Arabic after speaking that language exclusively through most of her journey to Ha’il, and after concluding that there were no equivalent English words capable of conveying the same meaning. Bell’s mastery of Arabic sets her apart from other women chroniclers of Arabia, including her better-known predecessor, Lady Anne Blunt. Bell’s dislike of Victorian strictures is well-known, and her travel to Arabia was a way for her to powerfully break free from the cage she felt trapped in at home in England. In the terrible and terrifying deserts of Arabia she found exhilarating freedom.
“I wish you were here to see this wide desolate landscape and breathe an air which is like a breath from the very fountain of life,” she wrote to Doughty-Wylie.
“For the first time in my life, I know who I am,” Herzog quotes Bell directly in a key exchange in the movie, “my heart belongs to no one but the desert.”
Bell was awarded the Order of the British Empire for her work in Ha’il. One of her most fateful recommendations was that the government in London should back Ibn Saud in his struggle against other Arab factions to establish hegemony on the Peninsula.
Gertrude Bell wrote of her travels in Arabia and the Middle East in a non-Eurocentric fashion atypical of the travel literature of Great Britain in the Age of Empire. She saw herself not as a conqueror of primitive peoples in savage lands, but rather as a thoughtful human being seeking to connect with and understand the cultures and people that she was observing. A basic humanity and goodness and compassion emanates from her words. The overall picture of Arabia, its deserts, and its people as drawn by Bell is nuanced and complex and difficult to categorize. It’s up to us as thoughtful readers to draw our own conclusions. We dare not make them too simple if we wish to remain true to the spirit of Gertrude Bell.
Herzog’s Queen of the Desert opens with a scene based largely on known facts. It captures vividly how some men viewed women like Bell at the time. Winston Churchill is conducting a meeting discussing the pending political division of the Middle East. Seeking advice, he asks,
“Who knows best about tribes? Lineages? Affiliations? Rivalries? Who knows best about Bedouin tribes? And who is going to rule over all of this? We are talking about potential future kings. Who knows the candidates? Who knows them best?”
“The woman Gertrude,” someone says.
“Gertrude who?” Churchill asks.
“Gertrude Bell,” Lawrence answers.
“A silly bitch,” adds Mark Sykes—an Arabist like Bell and Lawrence who, along with his French counterpart, Francois Georges Picot, co-authored the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement that divided the Arab lands of the Ottoman Empire into separate British and French spheres of influence at the end of the First World War. “A chattering windbag of conceited, gushing, heavy-chested man-woman,” he continues in Herzog’s cinematic account—his words a close-but-not-exact quote from a letter he wrote to his wife at the time—“a globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blethering ass.”
In another scene a quarter of the way through Herzog’s Queen, he has Robert Pattinson’s T. E. Lawrence saying to Nicole Kidman’s Gertrude Bell, “Gertie, I don’t think the right man for you has been born yet.” One can’t help but wonder if there’s ever been a match for an elemental force such as Bell, before or since.
When Bell died unexpectedly in Baghdad in July 1926, huge thongs attended her services representing every class of society from near and far. Such was the love and respect she engendered.
Today’s Iraq—historically known as Mesopotamia—owes its borders largely to Bell, who played a major role in their drawing. Further, she personally helped persuade Winston Churchill to endorse Faisal, recently deposed by the French as King of Syria, as the first King of Iraq. In recognition of the pivotal role she played in the country’s creation, she has been called “The Mother of Iraq.” Given two Gulf wars and unsettled conditions in Iraq today, her role in the country’s history is being critically reexamined.
Whatever the final judgment on that matter turns out to be, there can be no denying that Gertrude Bell, “The Queen of the Desert,” was one of the most memorable sui generis characters in the modern history of the Arab world. As for T. E. Lawrence, to true fans of Gertie he was “The Male Gertrude Bell.”