The story of the dashing British officer, known as Lawrence of Arabia, credits him with leading the Arab revolt against the Turks during World War I. He’s a legend of history. Yet, there is another whose story we should know. The “Daughter of the Desert,” Gertrude Bell, made archeological, sociological, and political contributions to history. Significant enough, we should recognize her name along with (or more than) Lawrence of Arabia’s. Yet, history forgot or overlooked her story, a woman’s story, for years.
Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell, CBE, was born on the 14th of July 1868 in Washington, England. She had the good fortune of being born into a wealthy British family. Her grandfather was the Ironmaster Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell (1816-1904), an industrialist and a Liberal member of Parliament. Her father, Sir Hugh Bell, 2nd Baronet, (1844-1931) was a progressive capitalist and mill owner. He made certain his workers were paid fair wages and had paid sick days. Her mother, Maria (née Shield) Bell, died after the birth of her second child, Gertrude’s brother, Maurice. Gertrude was three.
Gertrude’s father married Florence Ollie, a playwright and author) when Gertrude was seven. Florence eventually gave birth to Gertrude’s three half-siblings, Hugh, Florence, and Mary3. Gertrude, already close to her Father, grew close to her step-mother as well.
She was outspoken and independent and enjoyed horseback riding, among other activities. Her father and stepmother realized Gertrude wasn’t like the other girls. When she wasn’t reading or writing, she engaged in various “naughty behaviors” like scaling cliffs and other heights3. Unlike the parents of most girls of her class, who were tutored at home, her parents sent Gertrude to school.
At first, fifteen-year-old Gertrude was unhappy at Queen’s College, a girl’s school in London. But her insatiable appetite for learning helped her adjust. She excelled at her studies.
Normally, at seventeen, girls in her class were presented at court and introduced to society. Society expected them to find a husband within three seasons.
Gertrude completed her schooling at Queen’s College in 1886 and asked her father for permission to continue her studies at Oxford, which had recently allowed females to be included in certain programs. She first met T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) during her studies there. In 1888, she was the first woman to graduate in Modern History at Oxford. Hers was an honorary degree. Only males received academic degrees.
Social Life & Travel
She went to Bucharest with her uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles, and his family. Visits to Paris and other European cities followed.
From 1890 to 1892, she made the rounds of London’s balls and banquets where young ladies met eligible bachelors, but didn’t find her match.
Gertrude’s uncle, Lascelles, became British minister at Tehran, Persia (Iraq). She joined him in May 1892, where she studied the Arabic and Persian languages. Describing Persia as “paradise,” Gertrude spent six months there and wrote a book, Persian Pictures, about her time there.
She took advantage of her privilege and family wealth to travel widely. Her travels include a world tour with her brother Maurice and a trip to Italy with her father. During her Alpine climbing adventures, she recorded ten new paths or first ascents in the Bernese Alps. Once she suffered frostbite after she and her guides clung to a rope on the side of a cliff for forty-eight hours during a terrifying storm of snow, hail, and lightning.
Gertrude traveled to Turkey, Germany, and Jerusalem. She visited ancient sites in Syria, Lebonon, and Athens. All the while, she studied languages. She mastered Arabic, Persian (Farsi), Italian, French, German, and Turkish.
She Loved the Desert
But the Mesopotamia was the area she returned to over and over. She hired a guide, Fattuh, who became her confidante.
Throughout her travels to the desert, she learned about the people and cultures, established close relations with inhabitants and tribes. Being a woman, she could meet the wives and daughters of local notables. She didn’t take as much advantage of this as she might have. Her principal focus was meeting the shaikhs and leaders of Arab society.
It was in Tehran that she met one of her uncle’s secretary, Henry Cadogan. She and Cadogan bonded over their love of poetry by Hafiz. They spent a lot of time together and eventually announced their engagement. Unfortunately, Cadogan was poor and in debt. Gertrude’s father would not approve the match. She returned to England to convince her parents to give their permission for her to marry Cadogan. While in England, Cadogan had died of pneumonia2 in 1893. Gertrude was heartbroken. She left England for Italy and Switzerland.
Her second chance at love came fourteen years later. She met the married British officer, Charles “Richard” Doughty-Wylie, in 1907. They never acted upon their feeling but exchanged letters expressing deep devotion to each other. He was killed in action at Gallipoli in April 1915.
Some claim Gertrude, not Mrs. Doughty-Wylie, laid a wreath on his grave in November of that year.
Writing & Photography
In 1886, Gertrude published Persian Pictures, a photographic account of her trips to the Persian area.
She published a book of poems translated from Persian to English, The Divan of Hafez, in 1897. It continues to be regarded as the best translation of that poet’s work in existence3.
During her first solo journey through the desert in 1899, she photographed ancient sites, including Petra, Palmyra, and Baalbek. Once she learned photography and how to develop her photographs, she always took her camera and photographic equipment on her trips. Some of her photographs are the only remaining evidence of some antiquities that were destroyed later.
Her grandfather died in 1904 and left her a large inheritance. She used the money to fund an archeological trip through the Near East. During the latter part of that trip, she hired Fattuh, her guide and confidante who traveled with her through the desert for years.
In 1907, she published Syria: The Desert and the Sown, a book of her photographs and observations about the Middle East. She explored and mapped a swath from the remotest parts of Syria to the Persian Gulf.
She co-wrote The Thousand and One Churches with Sir William M. Ramsay in 1909.
She published Amaranth to Amaranth in 1911 and The Palace and Mosque of Ukhaidir: A Study in Early Mohammadan Architecture in 1914.
Gertrude met archaeologist David Hogarth in Italy during a trip there with her father. It was then she began an in-depth study of Greek antiquities3.
In Binbirkilise, she worked with Sir William M. Ramsay, an archeologist and New Testament scholar. Gertrude, Ramsay, and their staff excavated destroyed churches and buildings from the Byzantine era.
Also in 1909, in the Hittite city of Carchemish, Gertrude met art historian Josef Strzygowski. He believed that Near East art, architecture, as well as religious and cultural concepts, influenced those of Europe. She worked with him on in writing about the influence of Armenian architecture on Europe.
It was also in Carchemish that she met her old school friend T. E. Lawrence again. Their friendship rekindled. They exchanged letters for years.
In 1909, Fattuh led her to the Fortress of Al-Ukhaydir (c750-775 CE), which no Westerner had yet seen. Gertrude mapped, measured, and photographed Ukhaydir. She wrote home about how her discovery would make her name a recognized archeologist2. On her return, she visited archeologist Robert Koldewey’s site and team at Babylon. She told them of her discovery. Several of them quickly went to the fortress, photographed it and published their work in 1912, beating her publication date of 1914.
World War I
In August 1914, the British entered World War I. The Ottoman Empire entered the war in late fall. After a highly placed friend’s recommendation, the British War Office asked Gertrude for her assessment of the situation in Ottoman Syria, Mesopotamia, and Arabia. Her response detailed her thoughts.
Gertrude volunteered with the Red Cross in France and England. She served as part of the Wounded & Missing Enquiry Department that coordinated communications about the wounded and casualties between army, hospitals, and worried families.
The leaders of the Arab Bureau summoned her to Cairo in November 2015. Headed by Colonel G. Clayton and Lt. Cmdr. David Hogarth (the archeologist and historian she’d worked with). T. E. Lawrence was also there. He had joined the Arab bureau in late 1914.
As part of the Arab Bureau, she spent part of her time in British India, then in Basra. She joined the staff of Chief Political Office Perry Cox. She traveled the region from Basra to Baghdad, assessed the locals reactions, wrote reports, and drew maps. An unpaid position at first, it became a formal paid position in June 1916. She became the first and only female political officer in the British forces2. There was no established way to address females. They addressed her as Major Miss. She impressed many, others mocked her.
To win against the Ottomans, the British promised Sharif Hussein arms and advisers. They sent T. E. Lawrence to help conduct a guerrilla war against them, focusing on the railway. Later, David Hogarth credited Gertrude’s intelligence on the region for the success of the Arab Revolt.
On March 10, 1917, the British forces took Baghdad. Cox called Gertrude back to Baghdad and made her Oriental Secretary.
Despite a secret agreement in 1916 between the British, Italians, and Imperial Russians to divide the land between them, Gertrude argued for the free Arab state promised to Hussein. In April 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour issued the Balfour Declaration, which promised Palestine to the Zionist movement as an autonomous Jewish state. Hussein understood he would receive Palestine while the French thought it promised to them in 1916.
In late 1917, Gertrude stayed in the hospital for exhaustion.
The war ended November 1918.
They assigned Gertrude to “sort out the Middle East Problem”. She wrote up an official report, “Self Determination in Mesopotamia” which detailed the creation of an independent state, Iraq. British officials didn’t believe the people were capable of self-government.
A New Country
After the Iraqi Revolt in 1920, Gertrude and T. E. Lawrence suggested Faisal bin Hussein (r. 1921-1933), son of Sharif Hussein, be the King Western-friendly Iraq. The Cairo Conference of 1921 approved of this idea. It became Gertrude’s responsibility to advise Faisal I on how to govern. She encouraged him to preserve the history of Mesopotamia. In 1922 she helped Faisal establish the Baghdad Antiquities Museum (now the Iraq Museum) with artifacts donated from her own private collection. She drew the boundaries of the newly founded country, which also established the boundaries of Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Many of her friends left Iraq in the early 1920s, including Percy Cox. Gertrude stayed on as the Oriental Secretary when Henry Dobbs became the new High Commissioner. But Dobbs consulted her less frequently than Cox. She was no longer consulted as much by Faisal, either. This may have left her depressed.
By 1925, she returned to England with severe health problems for a brief stay.
The war and subsequent coal strikes had exhausted her family’s fortune. They planned to move out of their mansion to reduce costs. About that time, Gertrude returned to Baghdad.
She developed pleurisy soon after.
On July 12, 1926, her maid discovered Gertrude dead of an overdose of allobarbital sleeping pills. It is unknown whether it was an accidental overdose or intentional suicide. She had asked to be awakened in the morning, but she’d also made arrangements for her new dog to be looked after and had written to her mother about how lonely she was.
A large crowd attended her funeral. King Faisal watched the funeral procession from his balcony. They buried her in the Anglican cemetery in Baghdad’s Bab al-Sharji district4.
Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell, CBE, left an astounding legacy. The boundary lines of Iraq that she drew remain today. Her work documenting archeology in the desert is priceless by many. Scholar, author, translator, and adventurer, Gertrude’s books, military documents, and personal letters remain fascinating.
Dedicated to her memory, a stain glass window is in St. Lawrence’s Church, East Reunion, North Yorkshire.
In the 2010s, John Miers, the cartoonist, and a team from Newcastle University released a comic book version of her life.
An exhibit at the Kirkleatham Museum in Redcar memorializes her family home.
Newcastle University’s Gertrude Bell archive was added to UNESCO Memory of the World Program in 2017.
A new genus of wild bees discovered in Saudi Arabia were named Belliturgula najdica to honor her.
Films that include portions of her life include: A Dangerous Man: Lawrence of Arabia (1992), the film, Queen of the Desert (2015), chronicles her life (though not all of it is factual), and the 2016 documentary, Letters from Baghdad.
Besides the books Gertrude wrote, her step-mother curated and published the first of two volumes of Gertrude’s correspondence in 1927.
The Daughter of the Desert is an address some Arabian people gave Gertrude. She may not have been born there, but she cared enough about the area to spend much of her time and energy there.
This blog post, though long, doesn’t truly do justice to her work and influence. Her mix of interests, her zest for adventure, her willingness to buck the system, made her an amazing woman of history.
If you liked this post, you may like my other posts about women of history.
Had you heard of Gertrude Bell before? Did you know she was a contemporary of Lawrence of Arabia?
1. “The Controversial Story of Gertrude Bell, the British Desert Queen of Iraq,” Yesterday is History.
2. “The Woman Who Made Iraq,” The Atlantic.
- Eight yr old & father : Edward Poynter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
- Bell & Fattuh outside a tent, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
- The Gates of Ha’il, Gertrude Bell (1868 – 1926), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
- Under the face of the Sphinx and from left to right : Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell and T.E. Lawrence Image by GM Georgoulas, via Wikimedia Commons