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Gertrude Bell: Traveller Extraordinaire


Gertrude Bell was an adventurer, spy, archaeologist and powerful political force who travelled into the uncharted Arabian desert and was recruited by British Military Intelligence to help reshape the Middle East after World War I. Elizabeth Chandler tells her story


Gertrude at Kubbet Duris, Baalbek, Lebanon. (Image used with kind permission from the University of Newcastle archives. W.055)

'To those bred under an elaborate social order few such moments of exhilaration can come as that which stands at the threshold of wild travel. The gates of the enclosed garden are thrown open, the chain at the entrance of the sanctuary is lowered, with a wary glance to right and left you step forth, and behold! The immeasurable world'.

Once wrote Gertrude Bell in the first chapter of The Desert and the Sown, the account of her travels through Syria in 1905. In her preface, she remarked “I desired to write not so much a book of travel as an account of the people whom I met or who accompanied my on my way.” Her approach – people to people – was to characterise Bell’s journeys through the Middle East in her earlier years and, ultimately, her work and life dedicated to Iraq during and post WWI.

British-born Gertrude Bell was an adventurer, spy, archaeologist and powerful political force who travelled into the uncharted Arabian desert as early as 1900, and was recruited by British Military Intelligence in 1915 to advise them using the knowledge and relationships she had gathered during her extensive travels in the region. After the war was over, she stayed on in Baghdad as a member of the British occupying administration and was influential in forming British policy that reshaped the Middle East post the fall of the Ottoman Empire and redistribution of the empire to the western Allies. Bell drew the borders of the modern state of Iraq, helped to install its first king, Faisal Ibn Hussein, son of the Sharif of Mecca, and took part in drafting the country’s first constitution. With a mandate from King Faisal, she wrote Iraq’s Law of Antiquities and established the Baghdad Museum of Antiquities, infamously looted during the 2003 American invasion.

Early Travels

Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) was part proper Victorian and part modern woman. As a young woman, she was precocious, intensely curious and full of unbounded energy. It was inevitable that she would seek to break free from the constraints imposed by Victorian society, particularly on women. Her fascination and passion for the Middle East began soon after she became the first woman to receive highest honours in Modern History at Oxford when she visited relatives in Persia. An interest in archaeology was sparked by subsequent travels to iconic sites such as Petra, Palmyra, and Baalbek and, in 1905, she embarked on a journey to Konia in Asia Minor, where she pursued her interest in the Byzantine churches of Anatolia.

During these early forays, she committed herself to becoming fluent in Arabic, later crucial to her archaeological and political work, and to the lasting relationships that she developed with the tribes in Arabia.

After her 1905 journey, Bell returned several times to her architectural and archaeological researches: exploring the Hittite and Byzantine site of Bin-bir-kilisse in Turkey, and to Mesopotamia to survey the Roman and Byzantine fortresses on the banks of the Euphrates, and the palace of Ukhaidir southwest of Baghdad, considered to be one of the finest remaining examples of Islamic architecture. She was a prolific writer and published numerous and widely acclaimed scholarly papers as well as travel books about the Middle East.

Her landmark 1500 mile journey through the Central Arabia desert – for which she received the Founders’ Gold Medal from the Royal Geographic Society – took place in early 1914 just prior to the outbreak of WWI. She set out from Damascus via camel to reach the city of Hayil, home of tribal leader Ibn Rashid, chief rival to Ibn Saud, who later became the ruler of Saudi Arabia. After two months of arduous desert travel, she reached Hayil where she was held captive for eight days as the Rashid family tried to determine whether she was friend or enemy.

They eventually released her but made sure she continued straight on to Baghdad and not to the Sauds, much to her great disappointment. After resting, visiting old acquaintances and restocking supplies in Baghdad, she returned to Damascus via a northerly route back through the inhospitable desert.

The extensive and detailed knowledge of the geography and local tribes gained through these

travels became, according to David Hogarth (President of the Royal Geographic Society, 1927) “of signal use” to British Military Intelligence during the Arab Revolt of 1916-18 that made Lawrence of Arabia famous. When the British defeated the Turks taking Baghdad in 1917, Gertrude Bell joined British High Commissioner Sir Percy Cox as Oriental Secretary with the challenge of establishing the modern state of Iraq. Her knowledge of the geography of the region and experience as a mapmaker again served her and the country well. “Maps are my passion; I like to see the world with which I am dealing ...” (November 15, 1917, Baghdad).


This article was first published in Issue 1 of Timeless Travels Magazine.

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