Gertrude Bell

By: Elina Shatkin
July 14, 2013

From left: Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell, T.E. Lawrence
From left: Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell, T.E. Lawrence

GERTRUDE BELL (1868–1926) was as complicated as the country she helped to found. The granddaughter of a wealthy British ironmonger, she was the first woman to earn a First in Modern History at Oxford. She then set out with her aunt for Persia, and continued her travels in Europe — summiting peak after peak in the French and Swiss Alps (including the Meije, which she climbed in her undergarments). At 31, she was finally allowed to travel unchaperoned; in her letters home she wrote: “Here, I am a person.” She visited Damascus, Beirut, Antioch, and chronicled her journey across Syria in her acclaimed 1907 book The Desert and the Sown. Fluent in Arabic (and five other languages), she pursued her passion for archaeology, later founding the Iraqi Archaeological Museum from her collection of antiquities. With her grasp of the politics and personalities in the Middle East, she was pressed into service as a “liaison officer” during WWI; “Major Miss Bell” would become the first woman in British military intelligence. As the question of Arab independence raged, she was torn between the colonialist ambitions of Winston Churchill and the militant romanticism of T.E. Lawrence — both of whom sought her counsel. It was Bell who renamed Mesopotamia “Iraq” and, in high imperialist fashion, helped draw the borders of the country, carving it out from the three Ottoman provinces of Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul. She had no children, but she mothered a country; like many parents, she perceived her offspring’s gifts and faults. The brutally honest Bell described the new nation as an “immense failure” and “an inchoate mess of tribes.” She was right: Iraq’s constitutional monarchy was deposed 17 years later. Bold, proud, indefatigable, and unlucky in love, she was beset by health problems and depression. Two days before her 58th birthday she overdosed on sleeping pills in her home on the banks of the Tigris river. All of Baghdad turned out for her funeral.


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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Northrop Frye, Woody Guthrie, Angelique Kidjo, Gerald Finzi.

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