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Works and Contributions to Art and History of Gertrude Bell

As a prolific journalist, she wrote extensively about the ancient traditions of various regions and recorded the day-to-day impressions of her journeys. She is the first curator of the State Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad, Iraq, and the first European to visit and do archaeology studies in the Middle Eastern deserts. Though she may not be a well-known artisan to some, Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell will be remembered as the courageous woman who, while living in a society where women were not highly valued, contributed significantly to political activity, especially as an activist. She was highly influential to British imperial policy-making because of the wide knowledge and ideas that she got during her broad and vast travels.

Focusing on a woman who was far ahead of her time, how did Bell gain influence as she grew up when there were much of social restrictions to women? How did she even grow to have such a strong interest in politics and even embark on personal travels across the Middle East? How was she regarded or taken by her community? What was her the impact and challenges as she chronicled her travels through Iraq, Persia, Syria? This paper shall be aimed at addressing these questions.


Gertrude Margaret Bell was born on July 14, 1868, in Durham, England. She was brought up in a wealthy family in Yorkshire town in a home her father had built. Her father, Thomas Hugh Bell, was a businessman and industrialist. Bell’s mother, Mary, died in 1871 after she gave birth to her young brother Maurice. Her father later married Florence Bell while Gertrude was still of a young age. Through this marriage, Gertrude had three more siblings. Florence Eveleen Eleonore Olliff was a notable dramatist, novelist, and nonfiction writer. Gertrude Bell started to learn a lot about politics and international affairs from other countries through her grandfather and his associates. Gertrude’s grandfather, Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, was one of the members of parliament who always worked along the then Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (Bell, 1911)

Gertrude was one of the most influential women during her time. This was during the era of Victorian and towards the end of the 1920s. She enabled a revolution in her education against the chauvinist preconceptions during her time. This even inspirited her to herself as an extraordinary lady. She was able to break new grounds in different fields. When Gertrude was 12 years old, she picked up on the books of John Richard, The History of the English. She later skimmed through the letters and memoirs of Mozart, Macaulay and many others. So, when she finally joined Oxford it wasn't shocking (Bell,1907). Most of the girls in her class were taught at home until they reached the age of 17. They were later introduced to the Queen. In about three to four seasons after been introduced to the society, these girls were expected to find husbands. This meant that only a few women during the Victorian era attended university or even aspired to. Girls were brought up to look up Britain’s greatest role model Vitoria. Gertrude could have been taught to be a better wife, mother and decent woman. The queen was supposed to follow her household’s activities of motherhood and devotion to her husband.

In Gertrude’s time, women were exempted from many subjects. For instance, at Oxford, lectures separated to prevent women from poisoning the environment as it was referred to be. However, when Gertrude turned fifteen years old in 1883, her father took her to Queen’s College in London. Due the smartness and keenness that Bell had, her history lecturer later recommended to Gertrude’s stepmother, Florence, to allow Gertrude go for further studies at the Modern History School of Oxford at Lady Margaret Hall (Bell, 2015). One of Oxford’s theologian made a controversial comment that the Lady Margaret Hall was an informative development that ran counter to the wisdom and experiences of all the centuries of Christendom. Nonetheless, with all the pessimism targeted to Bell and her fellow peers, Bell still remained focused and strong minded. She wanted to prove the pessimists how wrong they were (Bell,1911). As a student at Oxford, History was her preferred subject. She excelled. Her history teacher at Lady Margaret Hall made remarks that Bell was the only girl she had ever known to have taken her school work and examinations in a very remarkable way. When Gertrude died, one of her old classmates wrote that Bell Lowthian was the bravest student Oxford had ever had. At the end of two years, she had already won the first class in the school of modern history (Lukitz, 2006).

Gertrude Bell was able to graduate from Oxford with honors. Afterwards, she traveled to see her uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles who lived in Tehran, Iran. Her uncle served as a British minister. This trip was able to trigger her interest in the Middle East, the region that she could later in her life focus much of her energy. Gertrude Bell invested in a travelling life; dedicated to the study of ancient cultures and the preservation of antiquities. In the next 10 years after she arrived the now Iran, Gertrude Bell killed in a two-round world of travels. First was the Alps, a place Bell got known after enduring several hours on a rope on the unclimbed north-east face of the Finsteraarhorn. This was after her adventure was trapped in a storm in the summer of 1902. She had already started to teach herself Arabic in Jerusalem in 1897, began writing about Syria and teaching herself Archaeology. While at Persia, she studied Farsi and Persian Poet, Hafiz. This led Gertrude to later become one of the English translators. In the 14th century when Hafiz was born in Persia, he became the court poet of Abu Ishak. Iranians highly revered the work of Hafiz.

Gertrude Bell had about 17 translations. These were the most noteworthy translations of Hafiz. They were different from the other past translators because they mostly addressed three most important issues; purpose, audience and aesthetic value separately (Bell, 2015). Some believed that Bell’s translation served as an indirect disobedience against familiar strictures and also against the British colonial dislike. This work of Bell developed her solidness as a linguist and an interpreter of the culture of the Middle.

Gertrude was a well and most renowned European traveler and writer in the Middle East, who without fears traveled through the Arabian deserts sated with diseases and raiders. Bell reported her work as an account of the people she met. She showed what the world was like, described how the people she met lived and how it appeared to them. The Arab Sheiks nicknamed Bell as The Daughter of the Desert. In addition, Bell was highly respected since the Iranians had never met such a strange woman. Bell’s writing mainly elaborated on how the Empire of Ottoman ruled its people. Besides, she wrote on the culture of the Middle East. Because of her broad knowledge, she was amongst the team that carved out the modern borders of the Middle East.

Probably Bell’s most known journey shortly before the First World War broke was when she traveled from Damascus to Hayyil. This expedition was one of Bell’s most dangerous travel due to the volatile nature of her destination. Its objective was for Gertrude to spy about the revival tribes of Wahabi and Shammar and gather information for the British government. This particular journey might not have been very notable. Nevertheless, the information Gertrude obtained on the Ottoman government and Rashid was of great ambassadorial importance. This was a contribution to the decisions which were made at the start of the World War 1 (Bell, 1927).

Bell made tremendous contributions to archaeology. While she was in her 30s, she was not satisfied with most of her achievements and decided that if she did archaeological work, she might meet her exact standard for achievement. Between the 5th and 11th centuries, Bell conducted a study and made records on abandoned Abbasid and Byzantine architecture. She was able to learn the ways of the desert. Gertrude also traveled to Syria and Anatolia in 1905, where she conducted a customary survey of the remains she had come across. A book resulted thereafter because of the work she had done. It was completed by an ecclesiastical archaeologist called William Ramsay. Her work was described as the most abiding works of scholarship on the Byzantine monuments of Asia minor, even after 100 years later. It’s still considered as the standard work on this subject (Lewis, 2010).

Gertrude’s second contribution to archaeological work was in her book “The Palace and Mosque at Ukhaidir”. It’s measured as being most important to archaeology; according to archaeologists. In this work, Bell found out that Mesopotamia was in a state of denial when she arrived back in 1917. Being one of the westerners who had traveled widely to Levant, Palestine, her information was exceptional. She used the brochures she had compiled priceless to the government of Mesopotamia in the early years. Still on her contributions to archaeological work, the Iran government was able to appoint Bell as the titular leader of the department of the antiquities which was under the ministry of the communal work. As the director, Gertrude was able to write laws on archaeological sites which was passed by the Iran government. This brought a stable political climate resulting to request to demeanor mines at Iraq’s most archaeological sites flooding from different parts of the world. This shows how the need for an updated antiunitary legislation was needed.

In 1923, Gertrude worked with the department of public works on a suggestion for the museum so that the antiquities Bell had claimed for Iraq could be displayed. Due to her tremendous effort within a short time frame, Bell had the most valuable collections in the world of the objects which represented the history of Iraq. They were displayed in the palace in Baghdad. Later on, Bell was able to acquire a more useful building of the museum she had started. The first building for the museum was called the Babylonian stone room (Bell, 2016). It was this time period that Gertrude wrote about how she went to archaeology and that she had nothing better than an antiquarian of a heart. She simply referred to the lack of drill in spite of her skills for the archaeological work she did. She had only taken few instructions from David Hogarth while she was on holiday.

It can be inferred that Gertrude was a diffident and self- critical. The certainty that Gertrude was just a European archaeologist who fought for so many valued objects of the origin of another country made her more than just an antiquarian (Lewis, 2010). Gertrude’s role in politics started diminishing as the logic of Iraq patriotism guided her into the study of archaeology during her later days. Even though Bell was not the leader of pro-independence ideas in Iraq, she was able to give citizens of Iraq a controlling power over their antiquities. As a result, people of Iraq had a sense of national identity and embraced the museums.

The national museum of Iraq remains as an evidence of the legacy Gertrude left behind. The collections in the museums are ruminated as the most significant in the world since collections which features more than the 5000 years of the history of Mesopotamia. However, back the year 2003 during the Gulf War, the museum was burgled. The robber had stolen 170,000 valuable collections, but the looted items were later restored (Bell, 2016). Today, the National Museum of Iraq is beautifully refurbished. Its galleries are safe as they are heavily guarded from any attack. Bell had written a law of excavations which was sanctioned in 1922. She ended the era of a self-taught layperson and treasure hunters. Today, new methods of excavation have developed and archaeology is in the hands of the Iraqis (Howell, 2010).

Gertrude became the first ever woman to join the secret intelligence services. This made her a pioneer in the history of women. Because Gertrude was among the few westerns specialists on the east, she was requested to join the British Intelligence in Basra. She was titled as the Major Miss Bell in 1916 when she was appointed as the official correspondent to Cairo. Her contributions included producing intelligence summaries and several memos on the sheiks within and out of Mesopotamia. Sometimes, she held a translation and codification of the Shia customs and reported on Syria and Mesopotamia. Bell later took over the editorship of the Arabic newspaper which was called the Al Arab. She depended on knowledge she had in the deserts to consult various sheiks and many religious leaders to discover and know how they viewed the future of their country.

In the same vein, Gertrude was able to work with T.E Lawrence so that they could organize and conduct an investigation on the Arab Revolt. However, their equals debated if the Al Iraq could have strictly imperial authority, European Government with the Arab government. Bell and Lawrence were able to influence London to take the best option. After a fruitful research, Gertrude discovered that Faisal who was then the new marionette leader of Iraq could be easily be used and manipulated by the British government. This was later proven to be true. Faisal was also an eligible leader since he was a Sayyid which was most dominant Shia Iraq and was popularly accepted (Lewis, 2010).

Since Gertrude was so close with the ruler, this made even some historians to hypothesize that there was a romantic affair between the two. Nevertheless, Bell’s impact on the leader could have been because of the underpinning of Bell’s identity in Iraq. The ruler later attempted to proclaim his independence in 1922. The king could disagree on the discussions of a potential agreement of association between Iraq and England. The government could then ignore the interests of its people, induce antitreaty protest meetings and create instabilities in the Shiite. This resulted to the high commissioner introducing and using a direct rule so that the radical parties could be suppressed, banish any opposition politicians and order the bombings of any rebellious tribal in the mid of Euphrates. Gertrude tried to convince the ruler Faisal to allow the alliance. During the subsequent 17 years, the constitution of the monarchy was overthrown by the military group. At the moment, Iraqis face a foray to then British imperialists who experience the same problems with controlling the Shias. Some of the residents of Iraq do believe that the past lives within them (Bell, 1927).

Some protagonists argue that the legacy Bell left is hanging by a thread. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militants are now seeking to eradicate the borders of Iraq and Syria that Gertrude worked so hard to develop. The desire of ISIS is an all Sunni Islamic state. This is the area that was taken by Caliph and Koran. Such insurgence can be inferred as a strong rejection of the colonial superiority that the Sykes-Picot embraced for most of the secular Arabians. Furthermore, the Iraqi monarchy that Bell advocated is also gone. On the other hand, some think that Gertrude’s history of the Middle was dishonest due the romanticizing by nationalist orientalist whose reflections might have masked several other important relationships. However, they were in a grave position to consolidate, shift or even under the genuine operational and working of the imperial power.

Gertrude attempts to unite the different ethnic and religious groups to form a modern Iraqi state has seen equals in the determination of the United States of America to form a post-­Saddam government. This would make it more important to analyze Bell. Some learned professors now claim that the letters of Gertrude Bell are being spread all over the Pentagon. The military leaders find Bell’s writings perspective. Generally, it can be incurred that Gertrude Bell might not be given the credit she deserves as a pioneer woman. This is because it is hidden in the shadows of her men foils. For example, in the movie The English Patient, some military soldiers attempted to study a map. In the movie, one of the soldiers asked if they would go through the mountains, another solder answered that the Bell maps would show them the way. They referred to Bell’s map and maybe some assumed that it would have been a man who travelled though Arabia (Bell, 2015).

Though Gertrude died later in 1926, her legacy still resonates till today in her writings which are very important to many nations. While in Iraq, she gave the Iraqis the nationalism they lacked through the museum she started. For the Hashemite Dynasty, she aided to create stable rules over Jordan. Bell is one of the influential women that will forever be remembered for what she did in the women’s history.

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Bell, G. L. (1894/2015) Persian Pictures. eStart Books, LLC.

Bell, G. L. (1907) The Dessert and the Sown. New York, New York: E. P. Dutton & Company.

Bell, G. L. (1911) Amurath to Amurath.

Bell, G. L. (1927). Letters of Gertrude Bell.

Bell, G. L. (2015) A Woman in Arabia: The Writings of the Queen of the Desert. New York,New York, Penquin Books.

Bell, G. L. (2015) Tales from the Queen of the Dessert. Hesperus Classics.

Bell, G. L. (2016) Safar Nameh. Wentworth Press.

Howell, G. (2010). Gertrude Bell: queen of the desert, shaper of nations. Farrar, Straus andGiroux.

Lewis, E. (2010). 5 Gertrude Bell and Archaeology in Iraq: from World War I to the ‘War onTerror’. The Post Hole Issue 9, 16.

Lukitz, L. (2006) A Quest in the Middle East. New York, New York. I. B. Tauris & Co. Ltd.

August 18, 2021




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