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Desert Queen: Gertrude Bell

Updated on March 14, 2016

Gertrude Bell

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Desert Queen: Gertrude Bell

Life for a girl growing up in the Victorian England was not easy or enjoyable—just ask Gertrude Bell. When she was young, Gertrude’s parents had a chaperone follow her everywhere, every day, never allowing her to be by herself. If she wanted to visit a friend, they first had to be approved of by her parents and she had to be accompanied by her chaperone. If she wanted to read a book, Gertrude had to have it approved by her parents first. Even as an adult, Gertrude’s parents tried to control whom she would marry by picking out a husband for her. This is where Gertrude drew the line, finding a way out of each of the proposed marriages—and there were several. Somehow Gertrude managed to convince her parents to let her get a higher education—nothing any respectable woman of the period should waste her time on when she should be getting married—and was the first woman to graduate from Oxford University, earning a degree in modern history.

Likely needing to put some space between her and her helicopter parents, Gertrude began traveling. Each time she would go further and further out until she discovered a land that made her fall in love: the Middle East. The landscape and the culture were breathtaking for her, and Gertrude found many new archeological sites to put her skills to use at. Some of these sites were very remote, requiring Gertrude to travel by camel caravan. Many Western women of the time might have sneered at the idea of riding a camel, but Gertrude did it in style, carting along trunks filled with volumes of Shakespeare, a full tea service, crystal goblets and a canvas bathtub. When she rode her camel Gertrude wore divided skirts and men’s jackets, but once she dismounted she went back to gowns, furs and fancy hats. She was a good-natured traveler—unless her clothes were late to arrive.

Much of the route Gertrude traveled was dangerous, infested with brigands and ruled by tribal Bedouin laws. Once while crossing the Syrian desert, her caravan was attacked by a dozen thieves who made off with all of their coats and weapons, a “preposterous and provoking episode,” she called it. Another time she was kidnapped and held prisoners for two weeks. Luckily, Gertrude was skilled at negotiations and was able to talk herself out of many scary situations. “English women are never afraid,” she declared … but all the same, she kept two loaded revolvers hidden in her underwear in case she needed them.

In one such episode, Gertrude was visiting the palace of Hayil, becoming only the second European woman to ever visit. Ibn Rashid welcomed her and gave her accommodations, but then kept making excuses to stop her from leaving. After enduring several weeks of this, Gertrude finally lost her temper, marched up to Ibn Rashid and demanded, in fluent Arabic, that she was leaving whether he liked it or not. Stunned, Rashid set her free, even giving her additional supplies and guides to take her to Damascus.

Gertrude’s demeanor impressed the local Bedouin tribes, and many thought that she must have been a queen. They welcomed her to their camps, but were a little surprised when she wouldn’t use the women’s quarters and refused to wear a veil. Instead, Gertrude would sit cross-legged with the men in their tents, smoking Egyptian cigarettes, drinking Turkish coffee, and ate the sheep’s eyes that were offered to her, a dish reserved for an honored guest.

Gertrude spent so much time in the Middle East she became intimately familiar with the land. Because of her knowledge of the terrain, her friendship with Bedouin chiefs and her ability to speak seven languages, Gertrude was recruited to work as a spy in the Middle East during World War I. Many considered her the most powerful woman in the British Empire.

With WWI drawing to a close, much of Europe’s territories were being restructured, and many—Europeans and Arabs included—felt that it was also time to restructure the borders of the countries of the Middle East. Since she knew the land so well, Gertrude was called upon to help draw a map of the new country of Iraq. In 1918, on a piece of tracing paper, Gertrude drew the boundaries for the new country, and helped to pick its first ruler, King Faisal. She became his closest advisor, once telling him, “We are making history.” Gertrude worked hard to keep Iraq free of foreign influence, but she made sure that Great Britain, whom she saw as the savior of the world, had a stake in the oil exports.

Even though Gertrude rode as well as any man, fought off outlaws, worked in blazing hot temperatures on archeological digs, ate with the men in the men’s quarters, pitied the Arab women and fought to establish girls’ schools, drew the boundaries of Iraq and served as the king’s advisor and generally did everything Victorian women weren’t supposed to/encouraged to/believed to be mentally and emotionally capable enough to do, Gertrude was very anti-suffragist. She thought that she herself was equal to any man on the planet, but no other women was, and therefore shouldn’t be given the ability to vote.

When she wasn’t discovering ancient ruins or helping to establish governments, Gertrude liked to spend time climbing mountains, riding her horse with her Arab greyhounds at her side, took over 7,000 archeological photos, and wrote thousands of letters home to her parents, some fifteen pages long. In one letter home, Gertrude remarked, “What I really need is a wife.”

She would on occasion return home to Britain to visit, but they were never very enjoyable; her nieces and nephews thought that she was imperious, and men generally hated her, calling her a “conceited, gushing, flat-chested man-woman.” When asked about her travels in the Middle East during one of her visits home, Gertrude once said, “I have seen strange things, and they have colored the mind.” Still, those things must have been preferable to what she endured at home, and Gertrude quickly returned to Iraq.

In time, Iraq developed into a powerful country with an operational government. King Faisal relied on Gertrude less and less, until her services were no longer needed. Finding no purpose in life now that she felt discarded by the people she had tried to help, Gertrude became severely depressed and tragically took her life by an overdose of sleeping pills while living in Baghdad in 1926. She was 57.

Gertrude Bell works cited:

The Usborne Book of Famous Women,

by Richard Dungworth & Philippa Wingate

Lives of Extraordinary Women,

by Kathleen Krull

Desert Queen,

by Janet Wallace

Cool Women,

by Dawn Chipman et al

Gertrude Bell's Excavators in Turkey, by Gertrude Bell

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