Thursday, March 5, 2015

Gertrude Bell

This months cover by K.K.W,
with layout by Aleksandar Ares.
On the cover, Stephanie Cunningham.

Al-Khatun, The desert Queen: Gertrude Bell. By K.K.W
Gertrude Bell. Image courtesy of,
You don't have to be an historian to know that few women [depending on which area of the world] had the same, or even half the freedom and rights of men - even in late 19th century Western Civilization. However, there were always some who broke on through to the other side; who's life seems the stuff of legend, or a great film. 

Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell, was born on July 14th 1868 in Washington Hall, County Durham, England. Her family's wealth would enable her to travel.[1] Her grandfathers liberal membership in Parliament during Benjamin Disraeli's second term would have major influence on her.[2] At the age of 3 her mother died [giving birth to a son, Maurice], which would lead to a life long relationship with her father [Sir Hugh Bell - 2nd Baronet, three times mayor of Middlesbrough, High Sheriff of Durham, Justice of the Peace, etc]. Some would write that the loss of her mother would have underlying childhood trauma, revealed through periods of depression and risky behavior. 

Gerturde Bell. Image courtesy of Wikipedia
Bell's stepmother Florence [Playwright, author of children's stories, and of a study of the family's factory workers ] would instill concepts of duty and decorum in her, while contributing to her intellectual development. Many restrictions were placed on women at the time, even what they could study - which lead Bell to study Modern History, receiving a first class honour's degree in two years [Oxford University, Lady Margaret Hall].  She never married, despite her beauty, intelligence, etc, but did have an unconsummated affair with Maj. Charles Doughty-Wylie, a married man [they exchanged love letter from 1913 - 1915].[3] When he died at Gallipoli, Bell immersed herself into her work.

In May 1892, after leaving Oxford, Bell traveled to Persia to visit her uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles [British Minister, at Tehran]. The journey is described in her book, Persian Pictures, published in 1894. The next decade would be spent traveling around the world, developing a passion for archeology and languages [she became fluent in Arabic, Persian, French, German, Italian, and Turkish]. She would again travel to the "Middle East" in 1899, visiting Palestine and Syria, later going to Jerusalem to Damascus in 1900 where she became acquainted with the Druze living in Jabal al-Druze.[4] 

Gertrude Bell, courtesy of the Gertrude Bell Archives, Newcastle University
Bell would climb and conquer a number of mountains, including the La Meije, Mont Blanc as she recorded 10 new paths or first ascents in the Bernese Alps. She almost died climbing the Finsteraarhorn in 1902, as snow, hail and lighting forced her to spend "forty eight hours on the rope" with her guides, clinging to the rock face. I doubt few men would be able to be a woman like this, even in todays world. Her book Syria: The Desert and the Sown [1907]  in which she described, photographed her trip to greater Syria, opened up the Arabian deserts to the world. 

She journeyed to the Ottoman Empire and worked with New Testament Scholar Sir William M Ramesy, excavating Binbirkilise. By 1909 she was in Mesopotamia, where in Carchemish she met T. E. Lawrence [one of the archaeologists on site]. Bell's initial request for Middle East Posting, at the outbreak of World War I was denied, which would see her volunteer for the Red Cross in France. It was only when the British needed to get their soldiers through the deserts, was she brought in by British intelligence. Her travels had gained her close relations with various tribal leaders across the Middle East, and also being able to have access to the chambers of their wives giving her another important perspective. In 1915 she was assigned to Army intelligence for war service [no official position]. She helped in processing data about the locations & disposition of tribes that could be induced to join the war-effort against the Ottoman Empire. 

Advising chief political officer Percy Cox, Bell would create the maps need to get troop's from Basra to Bagdad safely. She would receive the title of Liaison Officer, Correspondent to Cairo, and was Harry St. John Philbys field controller [instructing him on the finer arts of behind-the-scenes political maneuvering]. 

"Oriental Secretary", she was asked to attend the 1921 Cairo Conference. Throughout it, she Lawrence and Cox worked tirelessly to promote the establishment of the countries of Transjordan and Iraq to be presided of by Kings Abdullah and Faisal [sons of the instigator of the Arab Revolt - Hussein bin Ali, Sharif & Emir of Mecca]. Know as al-Khatun to the Persian's, a confidante and advisor of King Faisal of Iraq and instrumental in the creation of Iraq and an integral part of its administration through the 1920's. The more one reads of her it becomes a strange thought that perhaps she was an individual more suited for the times then most men around her.  

Gertrude Bell Photographic Archive,
Newcastle University. 
Image courtesy of the
Gertrude Bell.
Image courtesy of

Possibly the only thing more amazing then her life is her death on July 12th, 1926. Her body was discovered by her maid, an apparent overdose of sleeping pills. 
There is much debate on her death, but it is unknown whether the overdose was an intentional suicide or accidental since she had asked her maid to wake her.[5]

 David W. Del Testa, ed. (2001). "Bell, Gertrude". Government Leaders, Military Rulers, and Political Activists
#2 O'Brien, Rosemary, ed. (2000), Gertrude Bell: The Arabian Diaries, 1913–1914, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press #3  Lukitz, 2006. pp. 14–17 #4 "Gertrude Bell and the Birth of Iraq" 15 November 2011. Retrieved6 December 2011. #5 Helen Berry: BBC History Magazine September 2013. Info for this article was gathered from 'Art is the reason, art is the way'

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