Gertrude of Iraq

The Visiting by Philip Edmondson

The Visiting by Philip Edmondson

“One of the enduring problems with certain societies in the world – and…in the Middle East – is that capacity for self- governance and self- organizing just isn’t there. It has to do with history.” (P.J. O’Rourke)

“The past is a foreign country where they did things differently”. (L.P. Hartley)

“Think of going out before you enter”. (Arab Proverb)

Iraq, as it now exists, along with other Middle Eastern and African countries, was primarily shaped by colonial powers who carved out states and divided resources amongst themselves without consideration for existing ethnic, religious or cultural realities. In both Africa and the Arab worlds, the European concept of nation state was imposed upon complex and poorly understood, multi-generational systems of warring tribes and ethnic clans. None of our present day Arab countries existed prior to colonialism. Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Gulf Countries were all parts of the Ottoman Empire, which had served as a major center for interactions between vastly different, eastern and western civilizations, for over six centuries. (Donald Quataert, The Ottoman Empire:1700-1922, 2005). When this massive, senescent entity finally collapsed; along with the Czarist Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian empires in the aftermath of World War I, victorious British and French diplomats, military and other officials, gathered to divide the spoils. America was not officially included in many of these transactions. We declared war on Germany in 1917 but not upon the Ottoman Turks, who had entered into that dreadful episode of folly and death, in November 1914, on the side of the Axis Powers. Germany had gained influence with the Turks by offering assistance in building railroads from Constantinople through Syria (and modern day Jordan) to Saudi Arabia.

By the time the First World War (1914-1918) massive blood sacrifice was over, more than 10 million soldiers were dead; two million Germans, a million British, if we count the Canadians, South Africans, Australians, New Zealanders, and east Indians, half a million French, nearly a million Italians, uncounted Turks and at least 120,00 Americans. Bear in mind that, none of these figures take into any account the vast numbers wounded and psychologically and physically maimed, as well as the sadly inevitable legacy of trans-generational war trauma, civilian deaths and the widespread destruction of civil and private property. (uk.telegraph, “The start of World War I was a seminal moment in modern history”, August 3, 2014).

Then, as now, wars generate huge profits for individuals and corporate entities, who are not the same people who risk life and limb. And so it was that victorious European allies, along with Bolshevik Russia, drafted artificial boundaries for their newly created nation-states that they planned to rule and plunder; without consideration for existing ethnic, religious and cultural boundaries. Never mind that none of these territories had any history of a national identity. (Robert Savio: Ever wonder why the world is a mess?,, July 14, 2014). In view of these exploitive colonial origins, the current disintegration of Iraq into warring ethnic and religious factions appears as yet another, and perhaps inevitable, iteration within a widespread, ongoing fractal, deeply rooted within disputed areas of longstanding regional conflict.

Among an international cast of imperial stage managers operating during these turbulent times, you may recognize T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) whose vainglorious legend was brought to the big screen along with the cerulean eyes and splendidly exotic, burnoosed figure of Peter of O’Toole. While I saw and was duly impressed with the spectacle of David Lean’s 1962 Oscar-winning epic, Lawrence of Arabia, in truth I had absolutely no idea what Lawrence, the Arabs, and all those camels were doing out there in the desert; arguing in tents and blowing up Turkish bridges and trains. There was no internet at that time, nor Google search option, and I was young with many other things on my mind. And so I remained completely oblivious as to what anything having to do with that spectacular drama could possibly mean for our future US foreign policy, or for the sad and subsequent fate of family members who willingly “served” in our ongoing, unresolved Gulf Wars.

Anyone who still believes that their government doesn’t lie, hasn’t studied history.

Now, as an elderly historian, I have come to understand that Lawrence’s leadership during the Arab Revolt of 1916-18; that so-called “side show of a side show”, which raged on during the height of World War I, also came to feature him as a minor player, discovered and sensationalized by Lowell Thomas and our Anglo-American media. This obscure desert warrior soon found himself on an international center stage as “the uncrowned King of Arabia”. Complex outcomes of his messianic struggles reverberate to this day. (John E. Mack, A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T.E. Lawrence, 1976)

Thomas Edward Lawrence was born August 16, 1888 on Napoleon’s birthday and died as a result of a solitary motorcycle accident in 1935. He grew up with a fascination with the Crusades and is remembered as an Oxford scholar, archeologist, poet, linguist, and author of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which became one of the classics of English literature.

As a British officer Lawrence was assigned to military intelligence in their hastily constructed Arab Bureau in Cairo. With no formal training whatsoever, Colonel Lawrence became known as a flamboyant operative; eccentric, visionary warrior, tactical genius and expert in desert and guerilla warfare. He rose to fame as the leader of an Arab revolt against the oppressive Ottoman Empire, which he initially believed to be a campaign for their national independence. At that time, the Arabs believed that their best chance for achieving self-rule lay in aligning with the British against the Ottoman Turks. Disparate factions, unified under Lawrence’s messianic leadership, were victorious in several campaigns in the Arabian peninsula designed to protect Britain’s interests in the Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. Moreover, he was successfully able to sabotage German built Turkish trains and bridges, strategically essential for transport and supply routes. Lawrence’s low-tech tactics for constructing “improvised explosion devices” are still used by Iraqi “insurgents” today.

Lawrence became increasingly conflicted throughout this campaign between his loyalty to the Arab nationalist cause and covert knowledge he received that revealed that neither the British nor the French were actually willing to grant independence to any Arab state. During clandestine negotiations of what became the notorious Sykes-Picot Pact, carried out mid-war in 1916, Britain and France agreed that the newly created Arab states would receive their indirect rule through carefully chosen Arab tribal and political leaders. In essence, the Arabs themselves, so strategically useful during the war, were granted total control over nothing.

The 1962 film, A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia, featuring Ralph Feinnes as Lawrence, takes up where David Lean’s epic left off. During this episode, Lawrence and Emir Faisal, his friend and ally during the Arab revolt, travel to the Paris Peace Conference, conducted from January through June of 1919, to campaign for Arab independence. There were other issues on the agenda including the establishment of the League of Nations and to set terms for the defeated Central Powers. This latter effort resulted in the ill-conceived Treaty of Versailles which set the stage for World War II.

In the end, Lawrence’s efforts were unrewarded; as everything that he fought, schemed and even betrayed his country for, turned to ashes. Discouraged and exhausted, his friendship with Faisal strained to the breaking point, he began a gradual process of withdrawal from public view, and primarily focused on writing his memoirs. He developed a craving for anonymity and for the remainder of his life, suffered from recurrent nightmares, severe bouts of depression and suicidal ideation. In view of our current understanding, one might speculate that he was experiencing something like what is currently known as overwhelming, and cumulative, post-traumatic stress. After his death, the desert warrior was eulogized by Winston Churchill: “I fear whatever our need, we shall never see his like again”. (Scott Anderson, Lawrence of Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 2013). While that might well be true, there was someone equally as remarkable and even more important in the creation of the present state of Iraq.

Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell (1868-1926) was Lawrence’s friend and ally, and in many accounts, the most powerful woman in the British Empire in the years after the Great War. Like Lawrence, she was a military intelligence officer and archeologist who had qualified for first class honors in history at Oxford. Unlike Lawrence, however, despite the fact that she had achieved these honors by the age of 19, she was denied a diploma and not allowed to graduate on account of her gender. She was also a linguist, poet, author, adventurer, photographer, cartographer, diplomat, colonial administrator; as well as the greatest woman mountaineer of her age. This high-borne English lady thought nothing of shedding her skirt and climbing the unexplored Swiss Alps in her underclothes. Gertrude gained renown after having survived 53 hours on a rope on an icy pinnacle of the unclimbed north-east face of the Finsteraarhorn when her expedition was caught in a sudden lashing of blizzard, lightning and hail. Sixteen volumes of her diaries and letters are posted on the web by the Robinson Library at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne. (

Gertrude’s mother died when she was only three and she remained very close to a loving and indulgent father, who supported her unconventional ambitions. Politics had been a longstanding topic in their household since her grandfather was a member of Parliament and a close associate of Queen Victoria’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. As a debutante, Gertrude’s superior intellect and direct manner rendered her unsuccessful within the narrow conventions of the Victorian marriage market; “too Oxfordy” it was said. As a sort of consolation, she then taught herself Farsi and traveled to Iran where her uncle was British ambassador. She began to learn Arabic in Jerusalem in1897 and immersed herself in travel and tribal politics. When war broke out in the summer of 1914, followed by the entry of the Ottoman Empire on the side of Germany in November; Bell, Lawrence and other archeologist spies were swept up into a nascent intelligence-operation known as the Arab Bureau in Cairo. Eventually she was given the title of Oriental Secretary, a British euphemism for chief intelligence officer and thereafter was addressed as Major Miss Bell. Her position, as a woman was unprecedented, and also like her younger friend Lawrence, whom she affectionately called “Dear Boy”, she quickly mastered the dark arts of bureaucratic intrigue.

Throughout her career, Gertrude Bell cut a charismatic figure equally as striking as that of her junior colleague, such as he was; all decked out in splendid white Arab robes and gold sashings, normally reserved for senior sheiks. Also slight in stature, Major Miss Bell carried an elegant presence, with her Mayfair manners, ramrod posture, abundance of ginger hair, delicate oval face, fine aquiline features, and piercing blue-green eyes. Fashionably dressed and always at the center of a circle of men, she remained exquisitely manicured, whether in London, Cairo, Baghdad or the Desert. (Janet Wallach, Desert Queen,1996).

Gertrude’s first-hand knowledge of desert landscape and cartography, as well her linguistic abilities, which in addition to Farsi and Arabic, included French, Italian, German and Turkish, were all of great value to the British war effort. Her surveying skills as a cartographer gained mention in the 1996 film The English Patient, again starring Ralph Fiennes, whereby field agents express their appreciation for “the Bell maps” although she is referred to as man.

In retrospect, one could imagine that desert travel presented her with challenges not all that different from mountaineering, or even the rigors of academia, as yet another test to Gertrude’s physical strength, and also her emotional equilibrium, curiosity, creativity and courage. She learned to straddle horses and camels, made easier by a specially designed divided skirt, and to carry at least one pistol strapped to her thigh. During these often harrowing journeys across hostile Bedouin deserts, her expensive caravans usually consisted of at the very least, cook, provisions, water and guide, as well as her trusted personal servant Fattuh; who would shield her body from view during those awkward and inevitable times when the lady needed to relieve herself. Essential supplies included a variety of medicines, photography and surveying equipment, a folding canvas bath tub, a complete set of Wedgewood china, sparkling crystal tableware, gleaming silver dinner service, along with her very latest Parisian gowns, deemed essential for formal dining.

We have an eye witness account from Sir William Wilcocks who encountered her out in the desert while he was engaged in his great survey of Mesopotamia:

“Coming towards me was a party of camel riders. They were clearly all Arabs except one, who seemed to be a woman. As they came nearer I was hailed in English. It was Gertrude Bell, just arrived from her 500 mile journey from Damascus. I was not expecting her and could hardly believe my eyes when I saw a well-dressed Englishwoman, looking spick and span in spite of her weeks in the desert travel. I never forgot that impression”. (Elizabeth Monroe, Gertrude Bell (1868-1926), Bulletin: British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 7, no.1, 1980, p.3).

Those desert reconnaissance missions were to produce a priceless collection of those now famous Bell Maps of uncharted desert wastes, along with locations of vital water sources. These intrepid ventures also procured a wealth of on-site information gleaned from visits with desert sheiks and their wives and harems. In this sense, her gender was an advantage, not available to her male colleagues. Throughout her career, these interactions with Arab women proved to be a vital source of inside information, as she came to appreciate their often unfortunate plight, as well as how much influence these often-veiled women had with the many men in their lives. There was no central government out there in the desert and she spent hours drinking coffee and sipping sweet almond tea, talking and listening, with special interest as to how the locals were faring under the hammer of Turkish rule. On occasion, desert-dwelling Arab men were said to have often received their extraordinary British visitor as an “honorary man”.

After the war, in March, 1921 when newly appointed Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill convened a Conference in Cairo to decide a future for the unstable Arab territories, everyone who was anyone in the Middle East king-making business, gathered for the two week conference. The always elegant Major Miss Bell was the only woman amongst the 39 other invitees whom Churchill had dubbed the “Forty Thieves”. As a known proponent of Arab self- rule and in an unprecedented role as female delegate, her forward manner and presence, within what was generally considered to be a man’s world, was resented by many. In particular, Sir Mark Sykes, the co-author of that dreadful secret Sykes-Picot pact, had already complained in a 1904 letter to his wife in which he called Gertrude a “bitch” and wished 10,000 of his worst bad words on the head of “that damned fool”… “wherever, she went, she caused an uproar…the terror of the desert…a silly chattering, windbag of conceited, gushing, flat chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump wagging, blithering ass.” (Wallach; 1996). While this diatribe might well betray a hint of forbidden fascination with her alleged “rump wagging”, Sykes was surely not alone in his resentment of this female entity over which he was unable to exercise any control. (Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac: Kingmakers: The Invention of the Modern Middle East, 2008).

Bell, who knew far more than most delegates about the complexities of Middle Eastern affairs, was tolerated by policy makers only as a necessary annoyance. The British economy had collapsed, their Empire was overstretched and there was not much support for further imperial adventures. Secretary Churchill readily conceded that Lebanon and Syria would remain under French jurisdiction. Assisted by Lawrence and Bell, Churchill also agreed that Emir Faisal, having been recently deposed as King of Syria, now 36, would become Faisal I, in the newly fabricated constitutional monarchy of Iraq, as a kind of consolation prize. Never mind that Faisal had never set foot in the territory that was now Iraq. In response, Gertrude immediately moved to Baghdad as her permanent home and began her process of installing the new country’s new king. At that time, Iraq’s new capital, was hardly the image of an imperial city, with its one muddy main street and collection of mud brick houses and no structure suitable as a palace. The new monarch, therefore, was temporarily installed in a nearby citadel and his throne, modeled upon the royal chair at Westminster, reportedly cobbled together from old Ashai Beer crates.

Faisal was initially reliant on Gertrude’s expertise in local matters and customs as she supervised his selection of cabinet appointees for his new government. Since Churchill had insisted upon a constitutional monarchy, she set about drafting an Iraqi constitution. Shortly thereafter, she “arranged” an election whereby Sunni King Faisal was endorsed by a suspicious 96% of the vote; even though he was the only candidate, the majority of the population illiterate, and the Kurds and Shiites didn’t vote. Gertrude invented “traditions”, designed a coat of arms and national flag and set about drawing the new nation’s borders, including the oil rich territories of ethnically and linguistically separate Kurdistan. Drawing upon her skills as a cartographer she drew borders with Turkey to the north, Iran to the east, and Kuwait to the southeast and Saudi Arabia to the south, which were subsequently sanctioned by the League of Nations. As she related to her father, “It’s an amusing game when you know the country intimately, as I do thank goodness, almost all of it. Was anything ever so fortunate than that I should have crisscrossed it in nearly every direction?” Such power was intoxicating. In another letter she wrote; “I feel at times like the Creator about the middle of the week. He must have wondered what it was going to be like, as I do.”(Wallach, 1996).

While Churchill viewed Faisal as a British vassal, Gertrude found him not all that easy to manage and turning him into an Iraqi was proving very taxing, indeed. In general, they got on well as she was impressed by his elegant hawk-like visage, calculating and profound intelligence, sly humor and considerable charm. She rode with him, furnished his houses and set protocol for the royal ladies and state dinners. The tasks of fostering nationalism together with the making of a king turned out to be quite a learning process. “I have been so dreadfully occupied in making kings and governments”… she wrote in a letter to family back home, “You may rely upon one thing; I’ll never engage in creating king’s again; its too great a strain”. In time, a modest two story royal palace was constructed.

While fashioning a royal court, there was a necessity of a queen and Gertrude encouraged a reluctant Faisal to bring his wife and family to Baghdad. Upon arrival it became clear that her monarch was not all that fond of his wife, always mute in his presence, and likely theirs had been an arranged marriage. Gertrude deemed Faisal’s Queen, Hazaima to be “a coarse and uneducated woman”, hopelessly shy and unsuitable for assuming any forward role in these very new, staged and carefully orchestrated, court proceedings. Taking matters in hand, this unconventional British lady saw no option other than to step into the role of “informal” consort, which soon gained her the title of “uncrowned Queen of Iraq.”

As time wore on King Faisal and the British government needed her less. While her luxuriant hair was thinning and turning from grey to white, she retained her willowy elegance and fine chiseled beauty as can be seen by John Singer Sergeant’s portrait of her drawn in 1923. Grande Dame that she was, Gertrude was often lonely, and in desperation returned to her earlier passion for desert archeology. Beginning with her own modest collection of artifacts she founded the Baghdad Antiquities Museum in 1926 and her friend, King Faisal, appointed her as honorary director. Her plan, she said was to make it like the British Museum, but a bit smaller. She was very clear in her intention that Iraq’s priceless artifacts and relics should remain in their country of origin. This institution came to be recognized as one of the world’s finest antiquities museums. Now known at the National Museum of Iraq, it was savagely trashed and looted during the invasion of 2003 while the newly arrived and clueless Americans passively looked on. (Meyerand & Brysac, 2008). While the museum has undergone renovation and reconstruction, efforts to re-open have been made difficult by an ongoing climate of political instability. Some of the stolen items have been returned and many spectacular items from the museum collection can be viewed through a virtual tour available on line:

Gertrude’s health continued to decline and while always frail, she became increasingly emaciated after several bouts of malaria; recurring bronchitis followed by pleurisy, all aggravated by a life-time of heavy smoking. She was reportedly both lonely and despondent despite her success with the new museum. Gertrude Bell never married, nor had children. Like so many professionally successful father’s daughter’s she was unlucky in love, having been drawn to unavailable or otherwise inappropriate men.

On July 12, 1926, a few days before her 58th birthday she was found dead from an overdose of sleeping pills. It is not known whether the fatal dose was accidental or intentional. It has been suggested that she may have sensed the presence of an inevitably fatal, more serious disease, and pragmatist that she was, simply chose to fall asleep.

Being keenly aware of the importance of her work, this amazing historical figure left behind a wealth of written materials including, The Desert and The Sown, Palace and Mosque of Ukhaidir, and The Arab War. Again, like Lawrence, her story may reach the popular imagination through the big screen in the forthcoming film: Queen of the Desert, starring Nicole Kidman. While Gertrude Bell has been referred to as “the female Lawrence of Arabia”, given the facts, I would suggest that she might more accurately be known as “Gertrude of Iraq”. (see also : Rosemary O’Brien, Gertrude Bell: The Arabian Diaries 1913-1914, 2000)

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