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Gertrude Bell, third from left, was flanked by Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence on a visit to the Pyramids in 1921. Credit The Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University.

‘Queen of the Desert’

Gertrude Bell Scaled the Alps, Mapped Arabia, and Midwifed the Modern Middle East

In a picture taken to mark the Cairo Conference of 1921,?Gertrude Bell?- characteristically elegant in a fur stole and floppy hat, despite being on camel back – sits right at the heart of the action. To one side is Winston Churchill, on her other TE Lawrence.

Bell was his equal in every sense: the first woman to achieve a first (in modern history) from Oxford, an archaeologist, linguist, Arabist, adventurer and, possibly, spy. In her day, she was arguably the most powerful woman in the British Empire?- central to the decisions that created the modern Middle East and reverberate still on the nightly news.

Yet while Lawrence is still celebrated, she has largely been forgotten.

Newspaper articles of the time show she was known all over the world. The minutes of the Cairo Conference record her presence at every key discussion but not one of the men mentions her in their memoirs. It?s as if she never existed

How to chart the life of an Englishwoman ? an explorer, spy, Mountaineer, translator, and archaeologist ? who?s been all but written out of colonial Middle Eastern history? Luckily Gertrude Bell was a prolific letter writer? and ?early photography enthusiast and? she left behind some 1,600 letters and over 7,000 photographs.?It was an interest in archaeology that helped propel Bell?s many trips into the desert, beginning in 1900 to Palmyra. She nurtured the ambition of being the first to discover and document a site. Early in her travels, she recognised the importance of photographic documentation, along with notes, drawings, rubbings and casts. Bell was a complex, fascinating woman who was pivotal in the tangled history of the modern state of Iraq.

Miss Bell Credit Keystone View Company

Bell left more than 7,000 photographic negatives. Of these, an estimated 5,000 are of ancient sites and antiquities, shot primarily between 1900 and 1918. Tireless in her creation of a photographic record, she sometimes pasted individual photographs end-to-end to create panoramas, before acquiring a panorama camera. At times, she processed and printed her own negatives, and experimented with flash lamps. Her panorama photographs of ancient sites are stunning; the negatives are nearly 12 inches wide.?When we exclude women from history, we also lose their stories and their accomplishments, their passions, their labours of love and their private obsessions.?Preservation of ancient sites and antiquities was second nature to Bell and she quickly became an advisor on the subject to the British High Commissioner in Baghdad, where she was stationed as a high-ranking official.

The glow of celebrity surrounding T.E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, first brought to the public?s attention by American journalist Lowell Thomas and later immortalised by Peter O?Toole in David Lean?s feature film, has eclipsed all other British intelligence officials working in the region at the time. One of those individuals, who worked side-by-side Lawrence in Cairo, was much more influential and had a more lasting impact on the Middle East.

Gertrude Bell was fluent in Arabic and tribal dialects, she travelled widely in Arabia before being recruited by British military intelligence during WWI. After the war, she helped draw the borders of Iraq and shape the modern Middle East. One of her most enduring legacies was the Iraq Museum, which she founded. It was infamously ransacked during the American invasion in 2003. Astonishingly, Bell is virtually unknown in the west. Like so many other extraordinary women, she has been written out of history.

Writer, traveller, archaeologist, diplomat, spy ??Gertrude Bell was at one time described as ?the most powerful woman in the British Empire?, her legacy acknowledged as being more profound than that of her revered contemporary T.E. Lawrence (AKA Lawrence of Arabia). Yet, as a female in a male dominated world, her death in 1926 saw her myriad political and cultural contributions swiftly forgotten, and today her name is most typically met with a blank stare.

Gertrude Bell has been described as part proper Victorian and part modern woman, one who found her feet at Oxford University, where she became the first woman to achieve Highest Honours in Modern History. She began spending time in London and took up smoking and riding the underground, a rebel in her parents? eyes. ?Gertrude had gone on such an orgy of independence,? her half-sister wrote, years after her death.

The ?orgy? continued in the early 1890s when Bell made her first trip to the Middle East, organised with family friends who were well established in Britain?s foreign diplomatic society. Over the next few years, she undertook the Grand Tour, travelling to Tehran, Jerusalem, Damascus, Samarra, and Constantinople; she wrote of being overwhelmed with appreciation for the ?living east.? That sort of language soon disappears, replaced by the mature voice of someone who?s eager to learn the customs of the societies she?s encountering. She realized early on that the best way to do this was to maintain her identity (and wardrobe) as an Englishwoman and remain conscious of her role as visitor: ?The European will be wiser if he doesn?t ape their habits; he will meet with far greater respect if he adheres strictly to his own.?

Bell would ultimately crisscross the Ottoman Empire numerous times, returning to sites in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq. She was constantly on the move ? in 1914, she became the first woman to chart a course through Arabia. She spent time on archaeological digs, insisting that antiquities remain where they were found, met with Bedouin sheikhs to understand tribal loyalties and schisms, and was eventually made the first female intelligence officer in the British Military, after World War I began. She went on to become fluent in Persian and a number of Arabic dialects and write five books, one a translation of 14th-century Persian poetry.

Gertrude Bell in 1900 ? Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University.

Bell, was born in County Durham in 1868 and went on to study history at Oxford, before developing a fascination with Arabia and archaeology, visiting the area several times and frequently embarking on digs, such as one in 1909 at Carchemish, ruins found on the Syrian-Turkish border, where she first met Lawrence of Arabia and ‘intimidated’ him with her intelligence and ability to speak Arabic ‘better than him.’

Bell, granddaughter of Liberal MP Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell was born in 1868, in County Durham. Bell was born in 1868 in Durham to a wealthy industrialist family. Her mother died when she was just a child, but she fostered a cherished relationship with her father, stepmother and four siblings throughout her life, frequently writing letters home and punctuating her travels with visits to the family abode in Yorkshire.

Raised by a family of steelmakers who supplied the railways of Britain’s ever-expanding empire, Bell could just have been married off into the aristocracy, as many industrialists’ daughters were.

But the Bell family’s riches came with a social conscience. Her father, Sir Hugh Bell, was an active supporter of the trade union movement, and her stepmother, Florence, conducted a pioneering study of the working poor. Hence Gertrude’s education at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where, despite a male tutor who insisted that females sat with their backs to him, she became the first woman to gain a First in modern history.

That honed intellect, though, led to her being deemed “too Oxfordy” for success at society balls in London, where she moved after university for her “coming out”. More interested in metaphysics than marriage, in 1892 she jumped at a chance to accompany her Aunt Mary to Tehran, where her spouse was an ambassador.

She was beguiled, and thus began her lifelong love affair with the Middle East. A quick spell in western Europe ensued thereafter, during which time she indulged her inner-thrill seeker while deftly clambering mountain summits; before long she had returned eastwards hell-bent on an adventure.

?I prefer the East to the West,? Bell wrote in one of her evocative, early correspondences. ?You will find? a wider tolerance borne of greater diversity. A man may go in public veiled up to the eyes or clad, if he pleases, only in a girdle. He will excite no remark. Why should he? He?s only obeying his own law. So to the European will be wiser if he doesn?t ape their habits. He will meet with far greater respect if he adheres strictly to his own.? From the start, as her words evidence, Bell was blessed with an inherent understanding of the traditions and the people she encountered, and how best to gain their confidence. The letter also explains her insistence in wearing fashionable and elaborate clothing regardless of her location. In countless images, taken over the years in the sweltering desert climes, she is decked in long, heavy dresses, while draped in white pearls and fur stoles, her pointy featured face topped with eccentrically feathered hats.

A Diplomat is Born. The digital comics present snapshots of Gertrude’s life and work.

Those early travels with her aunt were to shape the rest of her life. For, as many others have since found out, the Middle East can be a welcoming place for Western women, a place where men may be men but where women can be too, treated as they often are as honorary males. In the company of sheikhs, imams and tribal potentates, first in Tehran and later in Damascus and Baghdad, Bell suffered none of the social judgments made upon her in parlour society back home. Falling in love with the region almost instantly, she mastered Arabic, despite complaining that it had “three sounds almost impossible to the European throat”.

She paid her first visit to the Middle East after Oxford when she went to stay with her uncle, who was minister (what we would now regard as ambassador) to Tehran, then in Persia.

The city set her imagination alight. ?I have landed in the Garden of Eden,? she wrote to her father, adding ?I have had my first Persian lesson with a sheikh who is a darling.?

The trip resulted in her first book,?Persian Pictures, and a lifelong love affair with the region began. ?I never weary of the East and I never feel it to be alien,? she wrote a few years later. ?I don?t expect to be in England again ? inshallah.?

There were brief visits home and a period of daring mountain exploits in the Alps during the 1890s, in which she climbed Mont Blanc and almost died after spending ?forty-eight hours on the rope? in a storm. But her life from then on was largely spent in the deserts and cities of Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Mesopotamia (now Iraq).

She became known to the Sunni, Kurd and Shia tribes as ?al-Khatun? (The Lady) and cut quite a figure as she roamed the deserts, recording and photographing ancient sites. The writer Vita Sackville West encountered Bell in Constantinople where she ?appeared out of the desert with all the evening dresses, cutlery and napery she took on her travels.?

She never dressed in Arabic clothes, she felt very strongly that you have to meet the other person as who you are and have an honest exchange, not try to be one of them. One of the reasons men probably saw her as a threat was that she got on famously with the Arabs.?

Gertrude Bell, second from left, was flanked by Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence on a visit to the Pyramids in 1921. Credit The Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University.

Bell first met Lawrence of Arabia at the ruins of the ancient city of Carchemish, which today would be in Turkey near the border with Syria.

On an archaeological dig at Carchemish in Mesopotamia, she met TE Lawrence, who later said: ?she was a wonderful person, not very like a woman? – something he presumably meant as a compliment.

Bell had red hair, green eyes and a thoughtful, fine-boned face. Small in stature, she was nonetheless forceful in nature: intelligent, energetic and sometimes brusque to the point of rudeness.

She was roaming deserts where many other explorers feared to tread, relying on trusted local fixers and her own charm with local Bedouin sheikhs, who were always the key to securing safe passage. Wearing a “divided skirt” that allowed her to ride like a man, she would spend up to 12 hours a day in the burning heat, and drink water from stagnant pools. Yet her travelling caravan also included a tin bath, a full Wedgwood dinner service and a formal dinner dress for evening wear.

To the sheikhs she drank tea with, the small, waiflike figure with the ivory cigarette holder was a fascinating enigma. According to Georgina Howell’s acclaimed 2007 biography of Bell,?Daughter of the Desert, many assumed she was a man until she opened her mouth.

Such encounters, though, gave her an unrivalled knowledge of the way Arab society worked. And so it was that in 1917, as a British invasion via Basra sought to oust the Turks from oil-rich Mesopotamia, she was enlisted as the first female military intelligence officer, tasked with assessing Arab willingness to join Lawrence’s anti-Ottoman revolt. The Turks eventually capitulated after fierce resistance. But what followed bears uncanny resonance with the campaign of 2003.

Just like Saddam’s vanquished Ba’athist regime, the Ottomans left behind a corrupt, ramshackle infrastructure that virtually collapsed overnight, forcing the British to rebuild schools and hospitals from scratch. And as Bell drily remarked: “If it took rather longer to open some of the Baghdad schools than expected, the delay may be attributed to the people themselves, who looted all the furniture and carried off the doors, windows and other portable fittings.”

Her letters are incredibly articulate and amusing but she could impatient, especially of other women. She must have made the lives of the embassy wives in Baghdad a misery at times, regarding them as silly.?

Bell with archeological finds.

Gertrude’s first love remained archaeology and, as Honorary Director of Antiquities in Iraq, she established the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. Her 1905 expedition through the Syrian Desert to Asia Minor was published as The Desert and the Sown and her study, in 1907, of Binbirkilise on the Kara Dag mountain was published as The Thousand and One Churches and remains the standard work on early Byzantine architecture in Anatolia.

She photographed ancient sites like Palmyra and began working with archaeologists uncovering ancient treasures. ?I?ve never felt the ancient world so close,? she wrote home.

She gathered many such antiquities for her greatest achievement; founding the Baghdad Museum, (which was heartbreakingly looted after the 2003 invasion but has since reopened). But perhaps what resonates most strongly today is her assessment of the political situation.

From the turn of the century, Gertrude developed a love of the Arab peoples – she learned their languages, investigated their archaeological sites and travelled deep into the desert. This intimate knowledge of the country and its tribes made her a target of British Intelligence recruitment during the First World War.

At the outbreak of World War One, Bell volunteered with the Red Cross in France but British Intelligence had other ideas: few could rival her intimate knowledge of the area, and she was asked to help soldiers find routes through the Middle Eastern deserts. It was the beginning of a new career that later saw her become a senior adviser to the military governor of newly-created Iraq.

At the end of the war, Gertrude focused on the future of Mesopotamia and was to become a powerful force in Iraqi politics, becoming a kingmaker when her preferred choice, Faisal (son of Husain, the Sharif of Mecca and King of the Hijaz) was crowned King of the state of Iraq in August 1921.

Being a woman in a man?s world was seemingly more difficult for Bell in British politics than among desert tribes. In 1920, she produced a white paper on the government of Iraq and was exasperated that her peers seemed more interested in its author than contents. She wrote: ?The general line taken by the press seems to be that it?s remarkable that a dog should be able to stand up on its hind legs at all ? i.e. a female write a white paper.?

Consequently, it is difficult to gauge how much influence Bell actually had. Her star waxed and waned according to her superiors: some respected her opinions, others could not stomach working with a woman – especially one who knew so much more about the landscape than they did.

She certainly took part in drawing the borders that created Iraq by merging the provinces of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. And she was partly responsible for selecting Faisal, the new king of Iraq, who was installed in 1921 following the Cairo Conference (though the monarchy was eventually overthrown).

Gertrude Bell on horseback.

Bell was a passionate believer in Arab self-determination and was all too aware of the problems the new set-up might hold. Some of her letters from the time have eerie echoes of recent history.

Bell’s letters home

Whenever there was snow we sank in it up to the waist… I nearly took a straight cut on to the glacier, for I slipped on a bit of iced rock into a snow gully till the rope fortunately caught me. We all cut our hands over that incident, but it was otherwise the most comfortable part of the descent.
The Alps, 18 July 1902

Such an arrival! Sir Percy made me most welcome and said a house had been allotted to me… a tiny, stifling box of a place in a dirty little bazaar. Fortunately, I had not parted from my bed and bath. These I set up and further unpacked one of my boxes which had been dropped into the Tigris and hung out all the things to dry on the railing of the court.
Baghdad, April 20 1917

I don’t think I shall ever be able to detach myself permanently from the fortunes of this country…. it’s a wonderful thing to feel the affection and confidence of a whole people round you. But oh to be at the end of the war and to have a free hand!
Baghdad, May 26 1917

Until quite recently I’ve been wholly cut off from [the Shias] because their tenets forbid them to look upon an unveiled woman and my tenets don’t permit me to veil… Nor is it any good trying to make friends through the women – if they were allowed to see me they would veil before me as if I were a man. So you see I appear to be too female for one sex and too male for the other.
Baghdad, March 14 1920

Have I ever told you what the river is like on a hot summer night? At dusk the mist hangs in long white bands over the water; the twilight fades and the lights of the town shine out on either bank, with the river, dark and smooth and full of mysterious reflections, like a road of triumph through the midst.
Baghdad, September 11 1921

Bell’s workers at the Binbirkilise excavations in 1907.

?Can you persuade people to take your side when you?re not sure in the end you?ll be there to take theirs?? she asked at one point, noting that ?we rushed into the business with our usual disregard for a comprehensive political scheme. Muddle through! Why yes, so we do ? wading through blood and tears that need never have been shed.?

What she never achieved was lasting love. On that first trip to Tehran, she fell for Henry Cadogan, a member of the foreign service staff. Alas, Cadogan had no fortune and though Bell travelled back to England to persuade her father to approve the match, she conceded, ?Henry and I are not allowed to consider ourselves engaged?.

She never saw him again; he died a few months later. The only other man she loved, Major Charles Doughty-Wylie, was already married. They exchanged passionate letters but accepted they could never be together.

Bell was found dead in her room in Baghdad in 1926. Her family?s fortune had been ruined by the war and she suffered from pleurisy. It is believed that she had taken an overdose of sleeping pills, though that may have been an accident: she left no note and had asked her maid to wake her. It was a fittingly mysterious end to an extraordinary and exotic life. She was buried at the British cemetery in Baghdad’s Bab al-Sharji district.Her funeral was a major event, attended by large numbers of people including her colleagues, British officials and the King of Iraq. It was said King Faisal watched the procession from his private balcony as they carried her coffin to the cemetery.

To this day, British women working in Iraq often find themselves smilingly compared to “that Miss Gertrude”, be they diplomats, journalists or simply a bit feisty. “She was a colonialist, yes, but she seemed completely devoted to the country,” says Dr Lamia Al Gailani Werr, a London-based archaeologist who works closely with the Iraqi National Museum. What is more, Werr says, Bell also helped avert an earlier mass looting of Iraq’s artefacts – this time by fellow European archaeologists.

She basically defined the borders between Iraq and Jordan that exist today, borders that she negotiated between Churchill and different Arab leaders. She went out to the desert with the Bedouin and all the different tribes that were feuding at the turn of the 19th century.”

Indeed, given the extraordinary richness of Bell’s life ? she was also an expert Alpine mountaineer. Romance, it seems, was the one area of her life where she did not excel. Born into an immensely wealthy steel family in Co Durham, she was potentially a very good catch, even if her striking, angular looks did lead to her being described as “handsome” rather than beautiful.

But her formidable intellect put off many would-be suitors, and an engagement in her early twenties was broken by her parents because of rumours that her fianc? was a gambler. She spent the rest of her days single

However, over the past decade, new evidence has emerged that challenges Bell’s image as a spinster with better things to do than fall in love. A cache of letters, some released after a 50-year embargo, has revealed the extent of her passionate affair with Major Charles Doughty-Wylie, an unhappily married Boer War veteran who served as a consul in Turkey.

What followed was like a Mesopotamian version of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the strait-laced Victorian husband becoming besotted with the unconventional woman outside his marriage.

Doughty-Wylie, felt unable to leave his wife for Bell, and it is thought their relationship was never consummated. But their exchanged correspondence,? shows their romance was not short on drama.

By the third year of their affair, Doughty-Wylie was at his wits’ end, having been warned by his wife that she would kill herself if he left her, and by Bell that she would kill herself if he didn’t. Scornful of convention as ever, she had urged him to ignore the social disgrace of divorce, telling him in one heartfelt letter: “It’s that or nothing. I can’t live without you.”

Unable to keep either woman happy, he instead chose to lead a group of soldiers on a particularly dangerous beach landing at Gallipoli in April 1915. A Turkish bullet killed him at the moment of victory, and his gallantry won him a posthumous VC. Yet fellow soldiers noticed he seemed strangely calm during battle, taking no weapon with him and making no effort to avoid the Turkish guns. Did he have suicidal intentions of his own that day? Nobody can be sure.

Gertrude Bell and Colleagues.

Gertrude Bell remains a figure of respect among contemporary residents of the British embassy in Baghdad, who keep her original writing table in the ambassador’s dining room. “Any Arabist in the Foreign Office is always conscious of the remarkable people who first got to know the Arabs, and Gertrude Bell was one of them,” says Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain’s special envoy to Iraq from 2003-04. “As for her favouring Sunni rule – it was simply a different era. All over the globe, the British were looking for people whom they could work with in administration, so they tended to go for whoever was more educated.”

Today’s Foreign Office staff also envy the freedom she enjoyed. Bell roamed at will for months on end, meeting kings, beggars and jihadists alike. For her successors, every trip outside Baghdad’s Green Zone is security-vetted and requires an armoured car and bodyguards, depriving them of the richness of encounter that made her such an authority. Such knowledge, indeed, was sorely lacking in the post-2003 period, although as Sir Jeremy points out: “We have to be realistic – resources and the politics of dealing with other countries do not allow our diplomats to work like that anymore.” Either way, it is doubtful that Bell would be happy with the Iraq of today.

Much of Baghdad still lies in ruins, and the small Christian cemetery where Bell’s body still rests is overgrown and bereft of visitors. In similar fashion, Doughty-Wylie remains buried at Gallipoli, where a few months after his death there was a mysterious postscript to their affair.

Towards the end of 1915, and well before the fighting had finished, soldiers reported seeing a visitor at his grave – a woman in a black veil who laid a wreath. Was it a grieving Bell on yet another daring mission?

Many scholars of her life believe it was, but the letters in Bell’s archive shed no real light on the matter. On this particular matter, it seems, the lady who made her mark in so many other ways left no clues.

From her early adult years, Bell had been extremely fit, active and adventurous; plus, she was a risk taker. Physically, it seemed that she could do everything, and easily. She pushed herself with extreme challenges which would have led to intense adrenaline highs. Prior to 1911 and her third major journey across the Middle East, at the age of 43, she had recorded ten mountaineering first ascents in the Bernese Alps. James Buchan describes her as ‘the greatest woman mountaineer of her age’. On one of her ascents she nearly died, apparently swinging from her ropes for over two days. She had also travelled extensively in Iran, Turkey, Syria and Palestine, spending long days in the saddle in difficult terrain.

By the time of her death on 12th July 1926, she was very frail and very ill. Bouts of malaria had taken their toll, and Bell developed bronchitis and pleurisy in quick succession. There are suggestions that Bell – a very heavy smoker -?had, in her final visit home to England in early 1926, been diagnosed with lung cancer. Georgina Howell’s biography points out Bell’s ambiguous references in 1925 to a ‘last summer’, which could indeed be read as a stoic farewell to friends and family.

She been prescribed the drug that eventually killed her, Dial (diallyl barbituric acid or allobarbital) at some point prior to her death. A barbiturate, it was used at the time as a sedative, as well as an anti-convulsant and in pain relief. The need for this drug alone suggests that Bell was very unwell, as the side-effects would have outweighed the benefits were this not the case. It also carried risks – even for those who had built up a considerable tolerance, exceeding the maximum dose was very often fatal.

The heat in the Baghdad summer would have been stifling the heat orders your day and overwhelms your senses. If you do fall ill, it’s really hard to recover if there are times of the day where you never feel cool;?and it’s hard to sleep and feel properly rested. The constraints of western clothing and the framework of the western working day make everything seem ten times worse.

In 1926, given Bell’s state of health, there is some evidence in Bell’s letters home that she was very unhappy. In her last two letters home to her father and step-mother, written on the 7th July, five days before her death, she gives the impression of being worn down whilst trying to be upbeat, of being tired and weary of the daily grind whilst trying to talk up her achievement of founding the museum – and of being permanently conscious of the need to try to escape the heat. Her last words in writing to the woman she called ‘mother’ were: ‘There is the lunch bell and I’m dreadfully in need of some iced soda water. Your very affectionate daughter Gertrude.’ Her last words to her father were also of the heat: ‘Darling, I must stop now; summer does not conduce to the writing of very long letters. Your loving daughter Gertrude’.

Her choices for relationships showed an uncharacteristic lack of judgement, notably her adoration of the married Dick Doughty-Wylie, and, in later years, for the married Ken Cornwallis. She asked both to divorce their wives in order to marry her. Neither did. Doughty-Wylie was killed during WW1 at Gallipoli, apparently causing her massive heartache.

The behaviour of Ken Cornwallis around the time of Bell’s death is very interesting. He’d been in England at the same time as Bell in 1925, and had basically poured cold water on her desire for marriage. Bell returned to Baghdad in early September 1925, and Cornwallis also returned there for his work. In her biography, Howell observes that Bell had sent him a note the day before she died, asking him to look after her dog Tundra ‘in case anything happened to her’.

Cornwallis later claimed that he’d been unwell and didn’t understand the significance of the note, which is why he ignored it – which I have to say, in a society that ran on the efficient delivery of and responses to handwritten notes and letters between colleagues and friends, seems to be stretching the truth. He later claimed it was for this reason that he didn’t look after the dog (he knew how to – he was a dog lover himself), and eventually Marie had it transported back to Bell’s parents.

Cornwallis, ignored the note, and ignored the implicit ‘cry for help’ within it. Gertrude Bell, already lonely and still grieving for her younger brother Hugo who had died of typhoid some months earlier, may well have felt this final rejection to be too much.

She died just before her birthday – 2 days before her 58th birthday to be exact. It can be the case that once past our middling years, there’s nothing quite like a birthday to remind us of our own mortality and what a speck of dust in the universe we are. What have I achieved? Who is there in my life? What lies in my future?

Cornwallis had effectively abandoned her to her maid and her allobarbital. Her close colleagues had moved on. Cox, who sought her counsel, was long gone. Dobbs, his replacement, did not need her counsel. Bell, out of all the British advisers in Arabia,?had wanted to keep the British promises over the region and pushed for an independent state. Whilst she kept more moral integrity than the rest of them, by 1926 it must have becoming clear that the new states created after World War 1 were not coalescing into successful countries.

Her day to day life was labelling exhibits in her museum – quite the come-down for the trained archaeologist and the brilliant intellect upon which others had relied previously.

For Bell, a dose of Dial, far too big for her fragile body to sustain, ended her life. She was buried with honours in Baghdad that same day, her coffin draped with the British and Iraqi flags and carried by junior officers from the High Commission. It was reported that she had asked her maid to wake her – no suspicion of suicide was to attach to Bell, whatever her intention, nor to Marie. Bell was very careful about that, to her immense credit. The death was not recorded as suicide.

Distance was the metaphor of her life, from her early 20s onward. She always been able to solve a problem, to punctuate boredom, to remove herself from awkward situations, to find a better place, by going on a journey.

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