The Leading Lady: Gertrude Bell
Spy, excavator, archaeologist and pioneer, Gertrude Bell wasone of Britain’s, nay the world’s, greatest explorers.
Though many are familiar with the likes of Christopher Columbus or Sir Walter Raleigh, the late Victorian age of adventure bred a new wave of curious characters and aspiring globetrotters in Britain, including a number of pioneering female explorers.
Intrepid explorer and political officer, Gertrude Bell, remains an influential figure in history for her 1900 Desert Tour from Jerusalem to Damascus. Often referred to as one of the most powerful women in Britain after the First World War, Bell’s close ties to British officials and tribal leaders led to her succession in reshaping foreign policy in the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Described as ‘one of the few representatives of Her Majesty’s government remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection’, her remarkable influence in the formation of Iraq can still be observed in modern times.
Born on 14 July 1868 to a wealthy family in Durham, England, Bell hotfooted around the world twiceover – or should that be, took many years sailing round it – stopping at the likes of Petra, Babylon, and Cairo along the way. Here she would attend to archaeological excavations and political engagements in the pursuit of building close relationships with tribes and establishing the Hashemite dynasties as heads of state in Jordan and Iraq. Not to mention making some legendary discoveries along the way, even though others sometimes stole the credit.
In 1899, Bell embarked upon her first solo journey through the desert. Travelling on camelback from Jerusalem, the explorer stopped over at Petra to photograph the ancient site. Speaking of her time in the red-rose city, Bell’s letters document her experience and paint a clear picture of the awe-inspiring landscapes that remain mostly untouched since her visit over a century ago.
In 1909, before Bell’s influence shaped Iraq as we know it, the explorer was guided to the Fortress of Al-Ukhaidir by longstanding guide and servant Fattuh.It was a landmark that no Western explorer had seen before, andBell mapped her new discovery with sketches and wrote home with great excitement, hopeful that this would make a name for herself. On her return, she briefly stopped at the Ancient city of Babylon where she bumped into fellow excavator, Robert Koldewey, who was working with his team. She announced her recent achievement and went on her way. Upon hearing the news, several of Koldewey’s team travelled to the site, photographing it and publishing their findings before Bell had the chance.
Gaining valuable information and building close friendships along her travels, Bell went on to be scouted as an intelligence officer in Cairo with orders to provide insights on tribes and sheikhs. Having a trusting relationship with the region’s leaders, Bell provided essential knowledge for the 1921 Cairo conference. Accompanied by Winston Churchill and T. E . Lawrence, her loyalty to the people of the Middle East became evident and was reciprocated by the state as she went on to be labelled as ‘the uncrowned Queen of Iraq’ for her work across the land and devotion to the people.
Following the First World War and her political achievement, Bell went on to make her home in Baghdad where she returned to her archaeological work.
Ahead of her time and anticipating issues that are still troubling Iraq today, Bell has since become an icon for her unique character and persistence in politics. Daring in her pursuits amongst men of superior standing in her field but passive in nature, Bell shared a distaste for Britain’s suffragettes due to their acts of violence in their fight for equality. Though showing an acknowledgement for her lower standing in society, this had little impact on how she chose to live her life and, unbeknownst to her, her ambition earnt her influential status as a symbol of the modern woman long before their time. With a strong dose of courage that a strong head and rigid education afforded her, Bell was able to rub shoulders with some of the world’s most powerful leaders and make a difference that is still visible today.
An Olfactive Expedition
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