We’re closing the weekly column “Eminent Figures” by talking about another woman, this time English, who can be considered the first modern archaeologist and explorer and an example for all those who aspire to investigate the past and understand the present. We remind readers that “Eminent Figures” will continue every two months in ArcheoMe magazine, available from February 2021.
Gertrude Margareth Lowtian Bell was born on July 14, 1868 in Washington Hall, England, the daughter of an upper middle class English family, owners of several coal mines in County Durham.
Curious and not at all docile (contrary to what was expected of a girl of her social extraction at the time), after graduating from Oxford in Modern History in 1887, she wanted to continue her studies in antiquity and art history, despite the family’s opposition.
The first trip to Iran
She never married and turned down several suitors when, in 1892, she finally obtained permission from her father to spend time in Iran as the guest of her maternal uncle, Sir. Frank Lascelles, British ambassador in Tehran. He described his trip to Iran in the book Persian Pictures: in Iran he was able to visit many archaeological sites of ancient Persia and learned to read and write Persian.
Persian was only one of the foreign languages mastered by Gertrude Bell: in fact, in her life she had the opportunity to learn, in addition to French, also Turkish, Arabic and even Italian.
Arabs of the desert
Back in Europe, she spent the following years to deepen the study of languages and archaeology and to travel around Europe and the Middle East. In 1899 she traveled to Palestine and Syria and the following year she settled in Jerusalem. From there, Bell spent many years traveling through the Syrian-Palestinian region and meeting the many Arab tribes that lived there. She had the opportunity to live side by side with the nomadic peoples of the desert, learning their names and customs and getting to know personally the most influential tribal leaders (with whom she used to converse about Islamic poetry and exchange gifts).
In her book Syria: the desert and the sown she described her expeditions through photos and reports, helping to introduce the European public to a civilization until then considered barbaric and elusive. From the letters that the explorer wrote to her family we know that she used to travel with many servants and with a rich luggage, which included, in addition to a tent with a travel bed, a portable bathtub (which Gertrude used as much as possible).
In 1907 she began excavations with paleo-Christian archaeologist William Ramsay and two years later visited Karkemish, Babylon and Najaf. At Karkemish she met a student of Sir Leonard Woolley, T.E. Lawrence, a few years before he became the legendary Lawrence of Arabia.
It was the journey to Arabia in 1913, however, that definitively consecrated Gertrude Bell to history and legend: alone, with her caravan this time reduced to a minimum, with a few trusted men, Gertrude Bell crossed the Arabian desert to the stronghold of Ha’il, an inhospitable place for Westerners and reached until then only by another woman, Lady Anne Blunt.
The Great War and the Arab revolt
At the outbreak of World War I, Bell applied for an operational post in the ranks of British intelligence in the East, but was turned down. She enlisted, therefore, as a volunteer in the Red Cross.
The following year, however, she was summoned to Cairo, at the Arab Bureau, with the unofficial task of providing information on the Arab tribes of which the British intended to foment the revolt in anti-Ottoman function.
In 1916 Bell was sent to Basra, in what is now southern Iraq, occupied by the British two years earlier, as an advisor to Percy Cox, the official in charge of managing the British dominions in Iraq: she was the only woman to have taken on the role of political officer in the British armed forces and was later appointed liaison officer at the Arab Bureau. After the capture of Baghdad, in 1917, Gertrude Bell settled permanently in Iraq. We know from her private correspondence that after the Arab revolt she was deeply disappointed by the behavior of the British. In fact, the British army had taken advantage of the uprising of the Bedouins, but had then disregarded the promise of independence of a great Arab nation.
Until 1921 she was still active, together with Lawrence, in seeking an arrangement that would lead to the independence of the states into which the Middle East had been divided after the Sykes-Picot agreements.
In Baghdad Gertrude Bell lived until her death, in a splendid residence overlooking the Tigris. The Iraqis called her al-khatun (feminine of the word khan, “chief”, “sovereign”) and someone called her “the uncrowned queen of Iraq”. Friend and confidant of King Faysal I of Egypt, in 1926 she founded, on the sovereign’s mandate, the Iraq Museum, one of the largest archaeological museums in the Arab world.
In the letters of the last years the great explorer complains more and more about the illnesses and the unhealthy climate of Iraq (probably she had contracted malaria). She appears to be a lonely woman, disillusioned by the colonial aggressiveness of the English, fatigued by years of work without rest.
She died on July 12, 1926, perhaps by suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills. She was buried in the British cemetery in Baghdad, in the district of Bab al-Sharji. The Queen of the Desert, the first great archaeologist of the Near East, a friend of the Arabs, had opposed the division of the Middle East between the British and the French, the installation of the conservative Salafists Al-Saud as the custodians of Mecca and remained extremely doubtful about the Zionist project in Palestine, but left life and work too soon to know that History would have agreed with her.