A Woman In Arabia

Having had more than an inkling she might be remembered long after her untimely death, she left behind a paper trail — 16,000 letters, 16 diaries, seven archeological field books, dozens of notebooks, hundreds of political position papers and eight published books.

Gertrude Bell, probably the most remarkable British woman of her generation, was a writer, poet, spy, explorer, archeologist, linguist, Arabist and colonial nation builder instrumental in the founding of the modern state of Iraq.

A contemporary of the legendary Lawrence of Arabia, and the first woman to gain a first class honors degree in modern history at Oxford University, she was born in 1868 and died just shy of her 58th birthday.

Thanks to her family’s fabulous wealth, Bell crammed an awful lot into her relatively brief life, earning the admiration of her peers.

In A Woman of Arabia: The Writings of the Queen of the Desert,  published by Penguin Books, edited by Georgina Howell and arranged in chapters according to her interests, Bell reveals herself through letters as an intelligent, inquisitive and courageous person who thrived in a man’s world.

The Bells, formerly sheep farmers and blacksmiths, were the sixth richest family in Britain by the late 19th century, having established an industrial empire of factories and mines with 45,000 employees.

A child of privilege, Bell met famous scientists and novelists such as Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens, survived seven desert expeditions to the remotest corners of the Middle East and wrote, among other books, Persian Pictures and The Arabian Diaries, 1913-1914.

During World War I, when Britain and France conspired to supplant the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, Bell — an Arabic speaker –worked as an analyst for the British intelligence bureau in Cairo. An expert on the Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, she wrote handbooks — Review of the Civil Administration of Mesopotamia and The Arab of Mesopotamia — for army officers and civil servants stationed in what would be Iraq.

A champion of the Arab national cause, she was a stauch opponent of Zionism. After the first draft of the 1917 Balfour Declaration was presented to the British cabinet, Sir Edward Montagu, the Jewish secretary of state for India, voiced opposition to it. In support of his argument against a Jewish homeland in Palestine, Montagu read a letter written by Bell, and it’s reprinted in the opening pages of A Woman of Arabia.

“Palestine for the Jews has always seemed … an impossible proposition,” she observed. “I don’t believe it can be carried out — personally I don’t want it to be carried out, and I’ve said so on every possible occasion … to gratify Jewish sentiment you would have to override every conceivable political consideration, including the wishes of the large majority of the population.”

Howell, in this tour d’horizon of Bell, portrays her as a woman of many parts.

Writing in Haifa in 1902, she complained of the difficulty of learning Arabic, though she was proficient in six languages, including Persian. In Baghdad, she expressed pity for “hysterical and nerve-ridden” house-bound Muslim wives who were not permitted to venture outside alone.

Small but strong and athletic, Bell bicycled, played golf, fished and fenced. As a result of a holiday in the French Alps, she discovered mountain climbing. Eventually, she succeeded in scaling Mont Blanc, the highest summit in the Alps.

Fascinated by archeology, following a trip to Greece at the age of 31, Bell set out to learn practical skills like map making. Bell travelled to what is now Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Howell writes, “She had great advantages: her energy and enthusiasm, her willingness to go into dangerous territories, and, not least, the financial freedom … No mountain was too high for her, no cave too full of snakes and spiders, no journey too far.”

As a desert traveller, she explored the east bank of the Dead Sea, Jericho and Petra, the magnificent Nabatean ruins in Jordan. She travelled in grand style, believing that Arab tribes would judge her status by her possessions.

Bell’s knowledge of the region prompted Lord Cromer, the former British consul general in Egypt, to gush, “Miss Gertrude Bell knows more about the Arabs and Arabia than almost any other living Englishman or woman.”

An attractive woman with green eyes and long auburn hair who was partial to beautiful clothes, Bell was unlucky in love. The man she adored, Charles Hotham Montagu Doughty-Wylie, a British army officer, was married. They spent a night together, but did not consummate their affair. By Howell’s conjecture, she remained a virgin.

In 1915, she joined the Arab Bureau, where T.E. Lawrence worked. “She spoke better Arabic than Lawrence and was fluent in several other Middle Eastern languages,” writes Howell. “She was better travelled, and skilled in surveillance and cartography.” And her knowledge of Arab tribes was encyclopedic.

By Howell’s estimation, Bell was among the Arabists who convinced Winston Churchill, the then colonial secretary, that Emir Faisal was the best candidate to sit on the Iraqi throne. Bell argued that Faisal had played a key role in the Arab revolt, which unseated the Ottomans, and represented the strongest hope for achieving stability in Iraq.

Upon being annoited king, Faisal repaid Bell in kind, appointing her honorary director of archeology. On her recommendation, he signed a decree intended to protect the historical sites and treasures of Iraq.

Howell speculates that Iraq’s scorching summer weather affected Bell’s health adversely. She died on July 12, 1926, and was buried in the British cemetery outside Baghdad.

Bell dreamed of creating a “free, prosperous and cultivated Iraq, the mainspring for a revival of Arab culture and civilization.” And while there were times when Iraq seemed on the cusp of becoming a model Arab state, Iraq descended into turmoil, dictatorship, war and isolation after Saddam Hussein, the Baathist Party apparachik, assumed control of the country in the late 1970s, thereby dashing Bell’s hopes and dreams.

Iraq, the nation to which Bell devoted herself selflessly, continues to be roiled by sectarian divisions, and is now threatened by Islamic State incursions and conquests.

She must be rolling in her grave.

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal,