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.

Upon retiring from mountaineering, Bell journeyed extensively through the Middle East. She developed an interest in archaeology.  She became fluent in Arabic, Persian, French and German, and conversant in Italian and Turkish.  Her extensive personal correspondence from this period includes love letters to Charles Hotham Montagu (“Dick”) Doughty-Wylie, a married army major she met in 1907.

The affair with Doughty-Wylie was never consummated. Nevertheless, it seems to have been Bell’s only significant romantic entanglement. After the major’s death in 1915, Bell devoted herself to work.  In 1927, her diary entries and personal correspondence — including some of the love letters — were published  as the Gertrude Bell Papers.

During WWI, Bell joined the Arab Bureau, a British intelligence unit headquartered in Cairo, Egypt.  Drawing on her extensive knowledge of local territory and politics, Bell drew maps for the British Army. These troops aided the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, one of Britain’s WWI enemies. The revolt was famously depicted in 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia, starring Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence.

Like Lawrence, Bell believed in Arab independence.  Both attended the 1921 Cairo Conference, convened by Winston Churchhill — then the British Colonial Secretary.  The purpose of the conference was to define the boundaries of a new self-governing Arab state, which the British named “Iraq.”  The story of Iraq’s creation is far too complicated to present here. Suffice it to say that the new state’s borders were arbitrary.  Iraq was cobbled together from territories controlled by the Shi’as, Sunnis and Kurds.  These were — and still are — ethnic and religious groups whose interests have never coincided.

Bell and Lawrence recommended that Iraq’s first king be Faisal bin Hussein. Faisal was the commander of the Arab fighters who had sided with the British during the Arab Revolt. When he arrived in Baghdad, Bell helped organize the elections for the constitutional assembly. She supervised the selection of cabinet appointees and other posts within the new government, and became the king’s advisor on local geography and tribal business.

Bell’s role in the creation of Iraq is controversial.  But she was, nevertheless, a strong believer in the local culture.  With King Faisal’s support, she founded the Baghdad Archaeological Museum (later renamed the Iraq Museum).  The museum (which was extensively looted in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq) opened in June 1926.

By that time,however, depression and poor health had taken their toll on Bell.  On July 12 1926 – just two days shy of her 58th birthday – she died from an overdose of sleeping pills, most likely a suicide.

88 years after her death, however, Bell may finally be getting her due. A Kickstarter campaign to fund a documentary film called Letters From Baghdad recently raised over $90,000.  And a new feature film, Queen of the Desert — starring Nicole Kidman as Bell – is set to open later this year.  The film — which was directed by Werner Herzog — costars James Franco, Damien Lewis, and Robert Pattinson as T.E. Lawrence.

And, yes — Peter O’Toole was an acclaimed Shakespearan actor by the time he played Lawrence.  But Robert Pattinson is… well, um, he’s, like — you know — totally dreamy.





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