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Women in History-Gertrude Bell

Updated on August 11, 2011

Gertrude Bell, Queen of the Desert

Gertrude Bell is on the camel, third from the left
Gertrude Bell is on the camel, third from the left

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.

Gerturde at Home
Gerturde at Home
Gertrude in Arabia, with Lawrence
Gertrude in Arabia, with Lawrence

"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."


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    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR

      Paradise7 

      7 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thanks for the comment. I'll be writing many more of this series, once I'm well enough again. I'm always so very glad to hear from a fellow pro-feminist.

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 

      7 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      Paradise 7....I'll be visiting often. However long it takes me to read your Women in History series....and I hope you keep on writing them. I'm a fan of all stories of our female heroes & Fascinating women in history. I see you are from Upstate N.Y., as am I. So I'm not passing on any surprising info to you about the "Women's Hall of Fame," in Syracuse, N.Y. Have you ever been? Love your hubs, genius writing. Voted Up across the board.

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR

      Paradise7 

      7 years ago from Upstate New York

      Enjoy!

    • maddot profile image

      maddot 

      7 years ago from Northern NSW, Australia

      Yeh..she is very interesting. I just went to library and ordered in one of her books set in Kuwait and Iraq. She worked for the Baghdad Times at one stage..should be good!

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR

      Paradise7 

      7 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thanks for the comments, maddot, and I'm glad you found what you were looking for. I'm going to check Freya out--sounds very interesting to me. Thank you!

    • maddot profile image

      maddot 

      7 years ago from Northern NSW, Australia

      Back again! Found who I was after..Freya Stark! brilliant.. thank for your hub it pushed me in the right direction!

    • maddot profile image

      maddot 

      7 years ago from Northern NSW, Australia

      Hi Paradise

      great hub! I'm wondering if Gertrude Bell was regarded as the first English female travel writer.I had a book, (but unfortunately loaned the book to someone..need I say more) anyway I am trying to track down this book again..and I though you may be able to help..can't remember the name of the book but it was written in first person as a travel diary/story

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR

      Paradise7 

      7 years ago from Upstate New York

      I think you're right. Thanks for the comment, RNMSN.

    • RNMSN profile image

      Barbara Bethard 

      7 years ago from Tucson, Az

      I always thought that Lady Anne Davenport in Hidalgo was based on Ms Bell..

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR

      Paradise7 

      7 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thanks, Simone. I also found her to be such an awesome person. I can't imagine doing all the things she did in one lifetime.

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      7 years ago from San Francisco

      Gertrude Bell is AWESOME, and this is a fantastic Hub on her! What an enjoyable read. Thanks for putting her history together so nicely and sharing it with us!

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR

      Paradise7 

      7 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thanks, epi. I enjoy writing these. There have been some awesome women who accomplished much, going against the odds in society. Their names are not remembered--and it's a shame. I think the history books must be written by men, women are so marginalized in them.

    • epigramman profile image

      epigramman 

      7 years ago

      ........please keep doing your Women in History series necause I really love them and bring me in touch with some women I've never heard of - what an education and an enlightenment when I arrive here at your hubs.

      Hubbravo and I will be posting this great one to my FACEBOOK page with a direct link back here.

      lake erie time 8:29am full moon last night glorious sun here today - hanging onto summer. 2011

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR

      Paradise7 

      7 years ago from Upstate New York

      She's worth a look. She had her issues, which I haven't focussed on here--it makes her even more interesting, in a way.

    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 

      7 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      I wasn't familiar with Gertrude Bell before. I'll have to look into her more. Thanks for the interesting hub.

      Rob

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR

      Paradise7 

      7 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thanks, Kitty.

    • kittythedreamer profile image

      Kitty Fields 

      7 years ago from Summerland

      What a beautiful and fascinating woman! She did a lot for our gender and is definitely an inspiration to me. Voted up and beautiful, Paradise7. I love these "women in history" hubs that you've been writing. Bravo!

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR

      Paradise7 

      7 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thanks, Leann, for the comment. Yes, really an impressive person. It's kind of embarrassing to me, to see what all the women have accomplished. It makes me feel very pale by comparison!

      And yes, Lambservant, very tired, also! (LOL)

    • lambservant profile image

      Lori Colbo 

      7 years ago from Pacific Northwest

      Wow! what an amazing woman. I had never heard of her before. Hearing about all her pursuits in life makes me exhausted. Gertrude was a multi-gifted woman for sure. Thank you for a fascinating hub. Good job.

    • profile image

      leann2800 

      7 years ago

      What an amazing woman! This is such a beautiful story about such an impressive person. Up and awesome!

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR

      Paradise7 

      7 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thanks for the comment, DR. She was, actually quite famous in her day. How soon we forget! She was such a remarkable person, it seems a shame to let her fade out altogether.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      7 years ago from south Florida

      This is a beautiful well-written tribute to Gertrude Bell who was a remarkable woman who did not seem to be appreciated sufficiently during her lifetime. You made her live again with this hub, Paradise. Thank you.

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR

      Paradise7 

      7 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thanks, John.

    • WhatBigJohnThinks profile image

      WhatBigJohnThinks 

      7 years ago

      I love history and I love this. Good work.

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR

      Paradise7 

      7 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thanks for the comments, Loren and Rochelle. I admire this woman so very much--she accomplished so very much in her lifetime, in spite of the fact that women were extremely marginalized in her society at that time. No, Rochelle--not making this up! I'm sorry she's so forgotten, today.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish MS 

      7 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      I think I once saw her name in an old book in the antique bookstore. A series of books about her adventures would be a treat! Up and shared.

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 

      7 years ago from California Gold Country

      I did not know of her either-- You didn't make this up, did you? :)

    • LorenAyBe profile image

      LorenAyBe 

      7 years ago from Belgium

      Great woman! I knew so little about her. Thanks for changing that.

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR

      Paradise7 

      7 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thanks for the comment Lillee! How soon we forget...it was only a hundred years ago!

      Thanks for the comment, Marellen. I enjoy writing these; thank you for reading.

    • profile image

      marellen 

      7 years ago

      Very fascinating life and a very independent women, way ahead of her time. Thank you for the history lesson... find them very enjoyable.

    • Lillee McLoflin profile image

      Lillee McLoflin 

      7 years ago from Texas

      Very interesting! I had never heard of her before but am now completely intrigued!

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR

      Paradise7 

      7 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thanks so much, Das.

    • daskittlez69 profile image

      daskittlez69 

      7 years ago from midwest

      Loved the hub and the pictures made it even better. Keep up the good work. Here's your up!

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