Writer, Explorer, Spinster, Spy

By Wheelwright, Julie | The Middle East, February 1996 | Go to article overview

Writer, Explorer, Spinster, Spy


Wheelwright, Julie, The Middle East


The image of te Lawrence in billowing white robes, galloping through undulating sands to negotiate critical deals with desert rulers on behalf of "the Empire" is a popular European image of the influence exerted by the British in the Middle East during the early 20th century. However, a new biography of writer, archaeologist, spinster and spy, Gertrude Bell, argues that it was she, rather than the dashing Lawrence, the man who `made kings' and `drew lines in the sand', who played a major part in the creation of the modern Gulf states. And next month a British Council exhibition arrives in Cairo on the first leg of a tour - which will include the Gulf states - intended to publicise the intrepid Gertrude Bell's largely-ignored accomplishments.

The very fact that Iraq exists today, says American biographer Janet Wallach, is due to the achievements of Miss Gertrude Bell. "She was responsible for everything from the creation of the flag to the selection of Faisal as the country's first king", says Wallach whose biography Bell of the Desert, will be published later this year. As Oriental Secretary to Baghdad's High Commissioner, Bell was among those who vociferously promoted the Hashemite Prince Faisal as the man to become ruler of Iraq. She also founded Baghdad's National Museum, devised a law, which is still in existence, to protect the country's antiquities and promoted the concept of education for women.

Bell, the daughter of a wealthy industrial family from Cumbria in the north of England, first travelled to Persia after studying Modern History at Oxford University in 1892. Her parents, concerned that at 24 years old their daughter was still unmarried, sent her on a tour with the intention of meeting a suitable husband. Their plan backfired when, while visiting Tehran where her uncle was British ambassador, Bell fell in love with `an impecunious diplomat', of whom her parents disapproved.

Tragically, her lover died shortly after she returned to England. "I think she returned to the desert in search of his soul", says Wallach, "and the further she travelled, the more she fell in love with the people." A love of the region paid dividends.

Bell's acute powers of observation of the various tribes, factions, feuds and friendships during the pre-war period became a valuable source for the British Foreign Office to which she made regular reports. In 1915, she joined the nascent Arab Bureau in Cairo, was involved in intelligence work in Basra two years later and stationed in the British Legation in Baghdad from 1917 until her death.

Bell was also an accomplished archaeologist who meticulously recorded her journeys and her finds in more than 6,000 photographs. To her surprise and great disappointment she narrowly missed the honour of claiming the discovery of Mesopotamia's Palace of Ukhaidhir when two French archaeologists managed to publish their findings first. This setback aside, Bell's accomplishments reached a far wider audience in her best selling books such as The Desert and the Sown and through regular reports in The Times. …

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