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BELL, GERTRUDE MARGARET LOWTHIAN (1868 - 1926), traveller, archaeologist, and government servant, was born 14 July 1868 at Washington Hall, co. Durham, the elder child and only daughter of (Sir) Thomas Hugh Bell, ironmaster, afterwards second baronet, by his first wife, Mary, daughter of John Shield, of Newcastle. Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, first baronet [q.v.], was her grandfather. Her mother dying in 1871, her father married secondly in 1876 Florence, daughter of Sir Joseph Francis Olliffe [q.v.], physician to the British embassy at Paris and sister-in-law of Sir Frank Cavendish Lascelles [q.v.], the diplomatist. She was educated at Queen's College, Harley Street, and at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where her intellectual power and eager naïveté made an impression in a university still unused to women students of a serious type. In 1888, while still under twenty, she obtained a first class in modern history, being the first woman candidate to achieve that distinction.
The next ten years of Gertrude Bell's life were filled with various activities: social duties in her London and Yorkshire homes, a season's climbing in 1897, a voyage round the world, and long visits to Sir Frank and Lady Lascelles at Bucharest (1888-1889), Teheran (1892-1893), and Berlin (1897). She learned Persian, and in 1897 published an admirable verse translation of the Divan of Hafiz (Poems from the Divan of Hafiz); a volume of Persian sketches, Safar Nameh, had already appeared in 1894. But her true call to the East came in 1899, when she settled for the winter in Jerusalem in order to learn Arabic. Adventurous visits to Petra and Baalbek awoke in her an enthusiasm for desert travel and Syrian archaeology. Her first long journey, however, was delayed for five years. Meanwhile, in 1901, 1902, and 1904, with Ulrich Führer as guide, Gertrude Bell made her name as an Alpinist, her main achievements being an exploration of the Engelhörner group, an ascent of the Matterhorn from the Italian side, and an attempt, which nearly proved fatal, on the then unclimbed north-east face of the Finsteraarhorn, when her courage and endurance were the mainstay of the party, caught by bad weather near the summit and forced to spend forty-eight hours on the rope before reaching safety.
In January 1905 Gertrude Bell set out from Jerusalem on a journey through Syria and Cilicia to Konia in Asia Minor. Her vivid account of the Syrian portion, The Desert and the Sown, appeared in 1907; she described the later stages in the Revue archéologique, 1906 and 1907. She had by this time made herself, without formal apprenticeship, a competent field archaeologist. In 1907, in company with Sir W. M. Ramsay, she explored the Hittite and Byzantine site of Bin-bir-kilisse, near Isaura; the results of their work were described in a joint publication, The Thousand and One Churches (1909). In the latter year, journeying from Aleppo down the Euphrates, she was led to the almost unvisited site of Ukhaidir, a ruined early Islamic palace near Kerbela. She returned by way of Bagdad and Mosul to Asia Minor, and her account of this journey, Amurath to Amurath (1911), reflects her first impressions of the Young Turk revolution. She went back to explore Ukhaidir in 1911; and The Palace and Mosque of Ukhaidir (1914) is her most important archaeological publication.
Meanwhile, Gertrude Bell's thoughts had turned again to the project, which / p.75 / she had long nursed, of a journey into central Arabia proper, whither, of European women, only Lady Anne Blunt [see BLUNT, WILFRID SCAWEN] had preceded her. Starting from Damascus in December 1913, she reached Hail in safety, but could get no further. The emir of Hail was absent and on bad terms with his southern neighbour, Ibn Saud; his deputies, alarmed at her arrival amongst a fanatical population, kept her an honoured prisoner until, seeing no other way out, she agreed to make for Bagdad; thither she arrived, tired and suffering under a sense of failure, in April 1914. But she had gained, together with much new geographical material, a unique knowledge of north Arabian personalities and politics.
The outbreak of the European War in August 1914 did not at once send Gertrude Bell back to the East. In November 1914 she joined the Red Cross organization for tracing the missing, and after service at Boulogne, in February 1915 was called to reorganize the head-quarters in London — a task which she performed with fierce thoroughness. In the autumn of 1915, when an Arab movement against Turkish rule began to take shape, the military authorities in Cairo mobilized a number of British subjects with expert knowledge of pre-War Arabia for service with a newly-formed Arab intelligence bureau. Among them was Gertrude Bell. She reached Cairo on 30 November 1915 and was allotted the task of collecting and summarizing information about the Bedouin tribes and sheikhs of Northern Arabia. In January 1916 she undertook a mission of liaison to Delhi, where the government of India was preparing a gazetteer of Arabia. The viceroy, Lord Hardinge, asked her to visit Basra on her return journey in order to link up her tribal information with that coming in to the head-quarters of the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force. Landing at Basra in March 1916, she was at first attached to the military intelligence staff; three months later she joined the secretariat of the chief political officer with the Expeditionary Force, Sir Percy Cox, was gazetted as an assistant political officer, and undertook the duties of Oriental secretary. In this capacity her special knowledge of Arab politics and her pre-War Arab friendships were of great value in the work of keeping friendly touch with the desert tribes on the left flank of the British force, and of explaining British intentions to the Arabs who ventured to head-quarters, while her energy, warm loyalty, and trained powers of statement and analysis made her a trusted and effective government servant and colleague. Moving to Bagdad soon after its capture in March 1917, she continued to act as Oriental secretary to Sir Percy Cox, now civil commissioner, and to his successor, Sir Arnold Wilson. In 1920 the latter commissioned her to prepare a Review of the Civil Administration of Mesopotamia, which was published in 1921 as a white paper, and acknowledged to be a masterpiece in its kind.
Liberal by instinct and upbringing, Gertrude Bell was a convinced believer in early political independence for the Arab people, and was out of sympathy with those who wished for some form of administration on British-Indian lines. With the return of Sir Percy Cox to Bagdad in 1920 as British high commissioner in Mesopotamia, charged with the task of setting up an Arab government, she found herself possessed of great influence; and in the following months that culminated in 1921 in the election of the Emir Feisal to the throne of Iraq, she was the adviser both of Sir Percy Cox and of the Arab ministers. The success of the new and doubtful venture was in large measure due to the trust which Feisal and the leading notables of Iraq placed in the British high commissioner and herself.
With the establishment of the new state, and as political negotiation gave way to administrative problems in which she claimed no special competence, one side of Gertrude Bell's work for Iraq was virtually accomplished. She remained at her post as Oriental secretary, but began to give her thoughts and few leisure hours to the organization of a service of antiquities. In 1918 she had been appointed honorary director of antiquities , and now she set herself to realize the project of a national museum at Bagdad. The museum was inaugurated in 1923, and installed in permanent quarters in 1926. While on sick leave in England in the summer of 1925, she spoke of coming back to England as soon as a permanent director of antiquities could be found; but first she was determined to pass one more summer in Iraq, and launch the museum on its course. Ten years in the country, however, broken only by three spells of leave in Europe and England, had worn down her reserves of strength. She died suddenly in her sleep in the night of 11–12 July 1926 at Bagdad, and was buried the following day. A large concourse, both Arab and British, / p. 76 / followed her to the grave in the British cemetery, close to the south gate. At the suggestion of King Feisal in 1927, a wing of the Bagdad Museum was named after her.
Gertrude Bell was of middle height, slender, and erect, with auburn hair and piercing greenish-brown eyes set in finely cut features. Her look and manner conveyed an impression of intense vitality and high intelligence. No less characteristic were her loyalty to and affection for her friends and colleagues in archaeology and political service. A drawing of her by J. S. Sargent is in the possession of Sir Maurice Bell, Bart., at Mount Grace, Yorkshire, and a bust, executed by Anne Acheson, is in the Bagdad Museum.
[The Times, 13, 14, and 15 July 1926; The Letters of Gertrude Bell, selected and edited by Lady Bell, 2 vols., 1927; Alpine Journal, November 1922 and November 1926; Geographical Journal, July 1927; private information.]