Gertrude Bell: the “Uncrowned Queen of Iraq”

From left to right, beneath the face of the Sphinx: Winston Churchhill, Gertrude Bell, and T.E. Lawrence, Cairo, Egypt, 1921.

T.E. Lawrence — best known as Lawrence of Arabia — gets all the press.  But Gertrude Bell — who worked with Lawrence in Cairo – was, like Lawrence, an archaeologist, intelligence agent and author.  Like Lawrence, her sex life – or lack thereof – has been the subject of much debate.  And like Lawrence, Bell – who has been called the “Uncrowned Queen of Iraq — for better or worse helped define and shape the modern Middle East.

Bell was born in England on July 14, 1868 to a wealthy family.  After earning a degree in history from Oxford University, she began to travel.  She established a reputation as a skilled mountain climber, and is credited with 10 first ascents in the Bernese Alps. These include the Gertrudspitze, which was named for her.

Bell’s greatest fame as a climber, however, came from a failed attempt.  It was to have been a first ascent of the northeast face of 14,000-ft. Finsteraarhorn.  But an unexpected blizzard trapped Bell and two companions on the mountain.  Through freezing temperatures and lightning storms, they survived roped together for 53 hours.

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The T. rex and other bloodsucking leeches

leeches

There are between 700 and 1,000 species of leeches throughout the world.  Most prey on insects, snails and other small creatures.  Some swallow their prey whole.  Others have an extendible proboscis, which they use to spear their prey and suck up their juices.

And then there are the “bloodsuckers.”  These sanguivorous (blood-feeding) leeches feed on fish, reptiles, waterfowl, small mammals, earthworms (their closest biological relatives) and, yes — humans.  Sanguivorous leeches generally have either two or three jaws, which contain small teeth or a sharp cutting edge.  A bite from a two-jawed leech leaves a V-shaped bite, while that of the three-jawed variety results in a Y-shaped one.

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Death and destiny: the Moirai a/k/a the Fates

fates

In Greek mythology, the Moirai – better known as the Fates – are the three goddesses who carry out a person’s destiny.  When someone is born, Clotho spins the thread of his or her life, while Lachesis measures the thread and Atropos it cuts with her shears when it is time for that person to die.

The Moirai acted more or less independently of the other Greek gods to ensure that everyone’s eternal fate proceeded without obstruction.  Even the gods had to submit to them — though some sources say that Zeus could interfere with someone’s fate when he really wanted to.

Ancient sources describe the Moirai as stern, old women who are ugly and, sometimes, lame, to boot.  Clotho is usually depicted with a spindle, while Lachesis holds a staff and Atropos a pair of shears. Continue reading

Cinco de Mayo and the Battle of Puebla

battle of puebla

Cinco de Mayo celebrates the 1862 victory of the Mexican army over a superior French army at the Battle of Puebla.  Although France eventually prevailed and installed Maximilian, Archduke of Austria, as Emperor of Mexico, the battle has become a symbol of Mexican unity and patriotism.

The Mexican-American War had devastated the Mexican treasury.  By 1861, Mexico was essentially bankrupt.  To remedy the situation, President Benito Juarez suspended the repayment of foreign debts for a period of two years.  At the end of this period, he promised, such payments would resume. Continue reading