Women in History-Gertrude Bell
Gertrude Bell, Queen of the Desert
Gertrude Bell was born July 14, 1868, in Washington Hall, County Durham, England. (The wuthering heights of Yorkshire.) She died on July 12, 1926, at the age of almost 58 years, in Baghdad.
At one time, the name "Gertrude Bell" was a household word in England, and she was more famous than Lawrence of Arabia. Ms. Bell accomplished many more things than Lawrence of Arabia for her country; Gertrude's maps were in use during the war. The Bell family owned many mines, collieries iron foundries, and factories. The Bells were very rich; but it wasn't money that got Gertrude a First at Oxford in History; or helped her to survive encounters with murderous Bedouins in the desert. It wasn't money that made her volunteer to be a spy in the British army, or made her deliver the most impeccable service in the British army, eventually being elevated to the rank of Major. Gertrude Bell was a poet, scholar, historian, mountaineer, photographer, archaeologist, gardener, cartographer, linguist, and performed distinguished service to England.
T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) once wrote that Gertrude was "born too gifted". It is true that she had a diversity of talents, and used them all in her lifetime. Born in an age when women of her class typically divided their time between running a household and pampering the men in their lives, Gertrude Bell was unusual. In an age where women were "designed to be Adam's helpmeet" and encouraged to "develop the minor graces", Gertrude Bell emancipated herself early on from the trap of being a woman in society. Her rigorous mind cut right through political or social correctness: she could cut an opinionated bishop or a pompous statesman or a smug professor right down to size, with her incisive, true wit. She met people head on--she was intimidated by no one at all. She dealt on equal terms with such various people as a patronizing Don at university, a knife-waving Bedouin, a corrupt English government official, or English lord.
It's hard to give a coherent picture of Gertrude's life, she did so many things. After taking the first at Oxford, Gertrude wanted to travel. The spell of the East was upon her: one of her first extended trips took her Persia, to visit her uncle Sir Frank Lascelles, who was then an ambassador at Tehran, Persia Gertrude Bell published a book "Persian Pictures" describing what she found there. Gertrude later took a more extended trip through what was then Mesopotamia, and into Arabia. Gertrude loved the desert--the challenges to survival, the feeling of charting unknown territory; the idea that buried in the desert were archaeological treasures to be found. Gertrude spent much of the decade of her middle twenties into her middle thirties travelling the world. She mountaineered in Switzerland; she most notably climbed the Matterhorn, and was a famous mountaineer. E.L. Strutt, then the editor of "Alpine Journal", a professional's mountaineering magazine, said of Gertrude Bell:
Everything that she undertook, physical or mental, was accomplished so superlatively well, that it would indeed have been strange if she had not shone on a mountain as she did in the hunting-field or in the desert. Her strength, incredible in her slim frame, her endurance, and her courage, were so great that few surpass her in technical skill and she has no equal in coolness, bravery, and judgement.
She also mastered several languages, including Arabic, Persian, French, German and Turkish.
In 1899, she went again to the Middle East, to visit Palestine and Syria, and in 1900, on a trip from Jerusalem to Damascus, she made friends with the Druze living in Jabal al-Druze. She published these observations in a book entitled "Syria: The Desert and the Sown".
Gertrude went to the Ottoman Empire to begin work on the excavations there with archaeologist Sir William Ramsey, and they co-wrote a book called "A Thousand and One Churches".
At the outbreak of World War I Gertrude Bell volunteered for a Middle East posting. This was denied her at the time, in spite of her experience in the Middle East and her skill as a cartographer. She instead volunteered with the Red Cross, in France.
"The Thousand and One Churches
William M. Ramsay and Gertrude L. Bell. Edited by Robert G. Ousterhout and Mark P. C. Jackson
618 pages | 6 x 9 | 267 illus.
Cloth 2008 | ISBN 978-1-934536-05-6 | $49.95s | £32.50 | Add to cart
Distributed for the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
Published in 1909 and long out of print, The Thousand and One Churches remains a seminal study of the postclassical monuments of Anatolia. Now a new generation of readers can learn of the extensive remains of the sprawling early Christian site known as Binbirkilise ("Thousand and One Churches," near Konya), excavated by Ramsay and Bell in 1907. The book provides extensive analysis of other early Christian and Byzantine sites across Anatolia that Bell visited at that time. Because many of the monuments have long since disappeared, this documentation is now invaluable, and Bell's extensive photographs provide a unique view of travel and archaeology more than a century ago."
It is difficult for me to understand why the British Army was initially reluctant to post Gertrude Bell to the Middle East. It was, after all, the area of her greatest experience and expertise, and she had already proven herself fit to compete with any man in a man's world. Whether the British army was as full of misogynists as the aristocracy, or whether there were political games afoot, the fact remains that Gertrude Bell's initial contributions to the war effort took place in France, where she went to Boulogne, to work in the new Red Cross Office for the Wounded and Missing. Gertrude was very instrumental in restructuring that office to an efficiently functioning system: it was a hard grind and a lot of filing. This office answered queries of loved ones who had ceased to hear from their soldier men during the course of the war. The loved ones didn't know if their soldier was missing, wounded or dead, or taken prisoner, and the War Office was unable to cope with the avalanche of enquiries, so the people were referred to the Red Cross. Gertrude did the grunt work to organize the available documents. It was an unglamorous but necessary task, and Gertrude performed it diligently.
In November of 1915, the Foreign Office in Cairo cabled for Miss Bell, to lend them assistance in the Middle East. Her knowledge of the area was encyclopedic, first-hand and recent; she was familiar with the different cultures and languages, and she had already proved herself to be a meticulous map-maker. The English Foreign Office asked her to investigate how far the German influence had penetrated in the Turkish Empire in northern and eastern Arabia. Because she was a woman, Major Bell was not suspected of espionage, and she sipped coffee and exchanged gossip with every sheik along the way. She boldly walked into a military encampment where German officers were retraining Turkish soldiers, and photographed it. Her information was vital to the Foreign Office. She was the first woman officer in the history of British military intelligence. She was very influential in shaping British foreign policy in the Middle East. She wrote reams of position papers in Basra and Baghdad; she also had established close relations with tribe members all across the Middle East. She was awarded the Order of the British Empire for her work in the Middle East. She was very instrumental in shaping the new government and giving newly-created Iraq independence from the British Empire, as the Ottoman Empire fell apart after WWI, in January of 1919. Her years of work, from the end of WWI to 1925, had finally paid off.
Gertrude Bell briefly returned to England in 1925. She died in Baghdad on July 12, 1926. She was deeply mourned by the Arab people. This is her eulogy, in part:
"No woman in recent time has combined her qualities--her taste for arduous and dangerous adventure with her scientific interest and knowledge; her competence in archaeology and art; her distinguished literary gift, her sympathy for all sorts and condition of men, her political insight and appreciation of human values; her masculine vigor, hard common sense and practical efficiency--all tempered by feminine charm and a most romantic spirit."