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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