Gertrude Bell (1868–1926) – Mountaineer, Explorer, Diplomat and Spy. Travelled widely through the Middle East, spoke every dialect of Arabic and Persian and was responsible for drawing the lines of what became modern Iraq. Founder of the Museum of Iraq in Baghdad. Overlooked when the Feminist movement reclaimed historical women in the Seventies because of her anti-suffrage stance.
This is what I first learned about Gertrude Bell when I just happened upon a picture of her as part of an exhibition of Victorian woman explorers at the National Portrait Gallery. I’d only popped in for a cuppa and there she was, looking severe and – as I remember – wearing a striking hat. She caught my eye and on reading the note about her, I was instantly fascinated and wanted to find out more.
A woman in a man's world
Durham-born Gertrude studied History at Oxford in one of the only two colleges that permitted women at the time. Alongside her academic studies, she had to submit to instruction in things like the proper way to open and shut doors and producing neat handwriting (spoiler: that lesson did not take). Gertrude skilfully navigated this male-dominated environment, graduating after just two years with a First in Modern History – the first woman to do so.
Also unusual for a woman at the time was her love of sport and mountaineering. In fact, she was so frustrated by the lack of appropriate clothing for female climbers that she wore her undergarments to climb, pretty radical in the early 1900s. She even has a peak named after her – Getrudspitze in the Swiss Alps – in recognition of her 8,635ft ascent in 1901.
Gertrude’s sense of adventure also came out in her love of travel, and in 1892 she visited Iran for the first time. Then in 1900 she travelled through the desert, from Jerusalem to Palmyra, Damascus, Baalbek and Beirut. This was a key moment in her life. She fell in love with the desert and went on to learn Farsi and Arabic, gaining the respect of the local tribes by understanding their dialects, traditions and cultures. She even translated the work of the great 14th-century Persian poet Hafez into English.
Her travels around the Arab peninsula led to some dangerous encounters with local people, who were understandably suspicious of this British woman traversing the desert. She would certainly have stood out as she went among the dunes with damask tablecloths, silver cutlery and formal dinners - not to mention baths – in her tent. On one trip in 1913 from Damascus to Riyadh, she was captured and put under house arrest before being returned to the UK. She was soon back in Basra and Baghdad though, taking on a range of political and diplomatic roles during and after the First World War.
A Museum in Baghdad
Throughout this period Gertrude’s fascination with antiquities grew. In 1922 she began drafting an antiquities law for Iraq, aiming to ensure that artefacts that were found in the country would not be taken away. She was named the Honorary Director of Antiquities for Iraq and started working in earnest on a museum in 1923. It was a gargantuan task – there were thousands of objects housed in little more than a storeroom with no system for logging them. By 1926 Gertrude had acquired a new home for the museum and was able to open one room – the Babylonian Stone room – to the public. She died not long after, a few days before her 58th birthday. Though there was no suicide note, it seems likely that the overdose of sleeping pills that killed her was taken intentionally.
Her legacy lives to this day, not only in the Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, but also through the British Institute for the Study of Iraq (BISI), which was founded in memory of Gertrude as the British School of Archaeology in Iraq in 1932. To this day BISI funds and organises lectures, study days and other public events in the UK and Iraq as well as supporting, re-training and re-equipping the cultural heritage professionals of Iraq.
In this little blog I’ve barely touched on the richness or complexity of Gertrude’s life. If after reading this – and hopefully coming to see A Museum in Baghdad – you want to find out more about her, you can read Georgina Howell's biography, Queen of the Desert: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell. There’s also a very interesting documentary available called Letters from Baghdad and you should definitely check out the University of Newcastle’s wonderful archive, where you can read all of Gertrude’s letters and diaries and see her photographs online. Best of all, someone else has done the hard work of deciphering Gertrude’s appalling handwriting for you....