Gertrude of Arabia and the Makings of Iraq
Gertrude Bell conquered the male-dominated fields of her time: history, archeology, politics, and diplomacy. She also created a country sized chimera.
As the first anniversary of the United States’ troop withdrawal from Iraq approaches, it feels appropriate to look to the past rather than the future—a practice often ignored in a country whose identity is intermingled with notions of progress and “moving forward.” Today, same as nine years ago, Iraq’s early history exists as a cautionary tale to would-be Mesopotamian interventionists.
For almost a decade, Americans and Iraqis fought, died, and struggled, spilling their blood across the desert sand in a feeble attempt to produce unity in a state fabricated from historically opposed factions. Iraq’s borders were not formed out of a sense of nationalism or common identity. Instead, the “lines in the sand” that bind disparate peoples together were drawn at the behest of a single scholar and imposed by the British Government. 1
Until Gertrude Bell drew the lines that demarcate modern Iraq, the area in question had almost always been part of a larger empire. The region, however, was rarely strictly governed and as such, knew no definite borders. “Iraq” spent substantially more time divided than united. 2
From the Ancient era to the 20th century, each of the regimes that ruled the area successfully divided the Mesopotamians into northern, central, and southern districts that roughly matched the main ethnic populations’ native lands. In a case of ideology trumping reality, Bell envisioned a single Arab nation formed from those scattered creeds. 3
At a time when women existed primarily as footnotes, Gertrude Bell dominated the Britain’s involvement with the Middle Eastand as a result deserves the moniker “of Arabia” as much as her male counterpart, T.E. Lawrence. Bell’s scholarship as much as Lawrence’s work, laid the foundation for the chaotic nation whose conflicts America drove itself just as deeply into as Britain did eighty years prior. 4
The future “queen of the desert,” hailed from an English family of wealth and standing, affording Gertrude significant privilege throughout her life. 5 Bell’s background and exceptional work as a student propelled her from the girls’ academy all the way to Oxford University. At Oxford,Bell studied history, and as a forerunner of things to come, became the first woman to earn “first class” marks in history (1888). 6 After Oxford, Bell shunned débutante balls in favor of the study and travel that led to her arrival in the Middle East and career in foreign affairs.
Four years removed from Oxford, Bell accompanied family to Constantinople and romanced a British diplomat. Sadly, the diplomat Henry Cadogan died within the year from cholera. 7 The brief exposure to diplomatic affairs via Cadogan steered young Gertrude toward similar pursuits. 8 Trips in 1899 and 1900 cemented Bell’s love of the desert and increased her command of the Arabic language.
In her early travels, Bell journeyed about the region known then as “Arabia” (the area lacked national boundaries and was simply a vast expanse of the Ottoman Empire) as a tourist, albeit a luxuriously encumbered one. As her Arabic improved,Bell embarked on the adventures that would increase her knowledge of the desert culture to the point that the British Consul General would utter the words, “Miss Bell knows more about Arabs…than any other living Englishman or woman.” 9
Bell’s travels during the first decade of the 20th century fixated upon archaeological spaces and unmapped regions. Bell learned: archeology as she went, to handle the unwieldy cameras of her day, and proper technique for documentation of finds. As important and pioneering as Bell’s archaeological work was and still is, what she gained as a result, would create for her a lasting legacy of even greater importance. 10
Bell differed from many of her colleagues in her willingness to venture through dangerous areas in search of sites. In doing so, she liaised a network of contacts throughout the Arabian expanse. Her encounters with nomads and herders, bestowed a quasi ambassador status on her to the desert peoples. More importantly, Bell’s knowledge about the inner workings of Mesopotamian culture made her the penultimate powerbroker in the area. Her delicate exterior and femininity made her a curiosity among the male-dominated desert cultures. 11 In 1914 though, Bell’s desert wanderlust and scholarship were forced into hiatus by the outbreak of WWI.
From beginning of the war, Bell’s understanding of the relationships and interactions among Arab factions lent her enormous influence among Allied leaders. The Allies were anxious to find out which side the Arabs would choose in the coming struggle with the Ottomans. The “Bell Report” made its way to the top of the British chain of command and cemented the name “Gertrude Bell” in the British political scheme. 12 At the behest of Bell, in 1915 the British sent agents to Arabia to organize a desert revolt against the Ottoman rule. 13
Gertrude returned to the desert as part of the Arab Bureau. The Bureau oversaw the intelligence operations of the British Middle East. Bell set upon the work of cataloging, and documenting the multitudinous Arab factions in the “Arabian” region. In 1917, using maps and reports written by Bell, the British army overtook Baghdad and secured Mesopotamia from Ottoman rule. Additionally, T.E. Lawrence and Faisal Bin al Hussein’s Arab rebels secured multiple victories against the Ottoman Turks, again using reports and maps drawn from the memory of Gertrude Bell. Her efforts earned her the position of Oriental Secretary and further influence in the area. In 1918, Mesopotamia was officially liberated and lay in political shambles. Britain had secured mandate over the region, but the question of who should rule remained unanswered. This uncertainty, allowed Bell to step into her most famous role: kingdom maker.
Following WWI, Ms. Bell was consumed by effort of cobbling together a nation that did not exist, nor ever had. Bell was one of several administrators, but she possessed the most extensive contacts among the region’s Arab populace, who saw her in a more benevolent light than they did the imperial government of Great Britain. As Oriental Secretary, Bell oversaw much of the reconstruction in Iraq that followed WWI. The area was in shambles as the Ottomans had left nothing behind them, save for chaos.
As the future capital, Baghdad, and other cities were pieced together, it became clear that the British had no desire to rule this territory directly as they had with other colonial possessions and mandates. WWI had thoroughly exhausted Britain’s resources and manpower. Britain sought to minimize commitments to the area while maintaining access to oil supplies (crucial since the Royal Navy’s recent conversion from coal power to exclusively oil fueled ships).
Despite efforts to prevent anarchy, the numerous creeds, races, and religions made it impossible to control the constant violence. The Arab region threatened to completely drown itself in its own bloodshed. In 1920, even though she was in the midst of a violent power vacuum, with Arabs violently rebelling against the British forces stationed inIraq,Bell wrote in her journals that she still had hope and a vision for a pan-Arab nation.
Desperate to unite the Arabs and create something of an Arab state, Bell latched onto one Faisal bin Al Hussein of Saudi Arabia. A descendent of Muhammad, Faisal had fought against the Turks alongside Lawrence of Arabia. In this man, Gertrude Bell found the a symbol behind which the Arabs could unite. In 1921, Faisal was the unanimous choice of British officials to rule the area now called Iraq. To muster support, Gertrude Bell organized a procession during which Faisal made a journey from city to city rallying supporters. With Bell traveling with him, Faisal secured enormous support. Upon Faisal’s arrival, he “won” a pan-Arab election. Working with Faisal, Bell established a new nation that would be administered centrally from within. With Faisal in place and the new nation roughly stable, the British army retired to India. By 1924, the only British influence that remained was the Royal Air Force, who maintained control over insurgents with intermediate bombing runs.
As the 1920s progressed, Bell’s influence waned rapidly, and by the time of her death in 1926; Gertrude Bell held little sway over the Middle East goings on that she had once brokered. The legacy of Gertrude Bell is more complex than that of any other archaeologist. Despite her work with antiquities of the Byzantine Empire, Bell will be forever remembered for role in the birth of a nation comprised of diametrically opposed factions.
All that Bell formed seems to have fallen victim to the very unrest King Faisal’s 1921 appointment was supposed to quell. The nation of Iraq remains divided along similar lines as it was over eighty years ago. Even the national Iraqi museum which Bell helped found and donated her own collection to fill was looted in 2003. Through her archeology, Bell became an authority not just on antiquities, but on the Arab culture as it evolved and she set new precedents for the achievement of woman in typically male dominated fields.
- Naiden, F.S.. “Lines in the Sand.” Wilson Quarterly Vol. 31 (2007), 52-63. ↩
- Naiden, “Lines in the Sand.” ↩
- Howell, Georgina . Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. ↩
- Ellis, Kerry. “Queen of the Sands.” History Today Vol. 54 (2004): 35-6. ↩
- Bodley, Ronald, and Lorna Hearst. Gertrude Bell.New York: Macmillan Company, 1940: 5-6. ↩
- Howell, 33. ↩
- Bodley and Hearst, 30-32. ↩
- Winstone, H.V.F.. Gertrude Bell. Great Britain: Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1978: 69-75. ↩
- Howell, 94-5. ↩
- Bell’s 1909 published work The Thousand and One Churches is well regarded for setting a higher standard for archaeological surveys of Byzantine sites. ↩
- Ellis, 30-1. ↩
- Howell, 217-220. ↩
- Ellis, 32. ↩