Queen of the Sands
Kerry Ellis recalls the remarkable career of the Englishwoman who saw it as her destiny to establish a pro-British monarchy in Iraq.
In April 2003, reports concerning the looting of Baghdad Museum reached the West and provoked outrage from academics and laymen alike. While the argument still rages over whether the looting was in fact as widespread or as malicious as first reported, one fact remains. Gertrude would have been furious.
Gertrude Bell (1868-1926), grand-daughter of renowned scientist, industrialist and ironmaster Isaac Lowthian Bell, was the first woman to graduate from Oxford with a First in Modern History. Her acumen was matched by her determination, and Gertrude was determined to travel. Her uncle, Frank Lascalles, had been appointed British envoy to the Shahanshah of Persia, and a visit was arranged.
Gertrude arrived in Teheran in May 1892 with her aunt. Her first letter home was jubilant. ‘Oh the desert around Tehran!’ she wrote:
... miles and miles of it with nothing, nothing growing; ringed in with bleak bare mountains snow crowned and furrowed with the deep courses of torrents. I never knew what desert was till I came here …
The following years were spent mountaineering in the Alps and travelling the world. However, Gertrude was captivated by the desert and its people, and in 1900 she returned. Around a hundred miles north-east of Jerusalem, and dressed like a Bedouin man, she rode out into the Hauran plain in search of the Druze.
The Druze, a secretive militant Muslim sect living in territory uncharted by Westerners, had been fighting the ruling Ottoman Turks for two hundred years. Cleverly evading the Turkish authorities, Gertrude reached the Jebel Druze mountains and was taken to Yahya Beg, the Druze king. She was impressed with him (‘a great big man, very handsome and with the most exquisite manners…’) and they ate and talked together – Gertrude being fluent in Arabic, along with French, German, Italian, Persian and Turkish – and earned each other’s friendship and respect. Weeks later, Yahya Beg asked a visitor: ‘Have you seen a queen travelling?’
The following year Gertrude was studying under the French archaeologist Saloman Reinach, who urged her to study Roman and Byzantine ruins in the Middle East in order to ascertain the impact of these civilisations upon the region. Gertrude agreed, and planned to make a more thorough study of the Bedouin and the Druze. In January 1905, she went back to the Middle East.
No ruin or individual was too inconsequential to be recorded in her diary. She lunched in the tents of both the Druze and their sworn enemies, the Beni Sakhr, and met with the sheiks of various Bedouin tribes. Her observations, grasp of the inadequacies of Ottoman rule, eye for detail and exhaustive descriptions would not only benefit her book The Desert and the Sown (1907) but, ultimately, the British government.
In March 1907, Gertrude journeyed to Turkey to work with the archaeologist William Ramsey, a venture that resulted in a joint book, A Thousand and One Churches (1909), about their excavations and which secured Gertrude’s reputation as a serious archaeologist.
It may seem ironic that an independent traveller and scholar like Gertrude would also have been active in the anti-suffrage movement. In fact, many other eminent women were opposed to giving women the vote, not least Queen Victoria herself, who as far back as 1870 had written ‘This mad, wicked Folly of Women’s Rights … a subject which makes the Queen so furious that she cannot contain herself.’ Gertrude, as honorary secretary of the Women’s Anti-Suffrage League, believed herself an equal of any man, but certainly did not think the same could be said of all other women.
But the struggle over suffrage in Britain would not hold her attention for long. Gertrude planned another book and, in January 1909, left for Mesopotamia where she intended to map the uncharted wastes.
This time, she visited the ancient Hittite city of Carchemish and recorded countless inscriptions there, then stumbled upon the spectacular yet undocumented fortress ruin of Ukhaidir where she set about taking photographs and drawing precise plans. Next came Babylon: ‘an extraordinary place … I have seldom felt the ancient world come so close,’ then Najav, the holy Shi’ite city of pilgrimage. Returning to Carchemish, she found two young British archaeologists nervously awaiting her arrival. Observing their excavations, she declared their methods ‘prehistoric’ and proceeded to instruct them in the modern techniques of digging. In a last-gasp attempt to impress her, the two, Campbell and Lawrence – ‘an interesting boy, he is going to make a traveller’ – seated Gertrude for dinner and proceeded to entertain her with knowledgeable and lively conversation. She warmed to them. It was the first – but not the last – time she would advise the future ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.
The Ottoman government, crippled by financial strife, had lost its grip on its Balkan provinces in the later nineteenth century and in the Balkan wars of 1912; the fate of Ottoman interests in Syria, Mesopotamia and Arabia was now in the balance. In the early years of the century the Germans had financed a railway from Berlin to Baghdad, and had become increasingly close to the Ottoman Turks. This unnerved the British, who in 1912 signed for a major share in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company after Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, had decreed that the nation’s battleships convert their coal-burning engines to oil. The British were keen to know who among the Arab tribes in the Ottoman provinces would be dependable allies should war break out.
In June 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne, was assassinated, starting a chain of events that would plunge Britain into war. The Turks allied themselves with the Germans in a secret treaty on August 2nd and Gertrude was called upon by the director of Military Operations in Cairo to submit a report on everything she had gleaned from her visits to Syria, Mesopotamia and Arabia.
Having seen the Ottomans lose influence over the Arab tribes, she was confident that Britain could benefit from the situation and recommended the Arabs be organised by British agents to revolt against the Turks. Gertrude asked to be posted in the Middle East, but her request was denied; it was considered too dangerous for a woman. Frustrated, she journeyed to France to volunteer with the Red Cross.
In November 1915, she was summoned to Cairo to the Arab Bureau: a small espionage branch that occupied three rooms at the Savoy Hotel. Also present were archaeologists T.E. Lawrence and Leonard Woolley who had been recruited to make maps, write geological reports and manage press releases. All were under the supervision of General Gilbert Clayton, a passionate believer in the Arab revolt. Success, however, depended upon Military Intelligence winning the confidence of the strong leaders among the Arabs. But first, they would need to discern who those leaders were.
Gertrude was not offered an official position but worked at length, cataloguing the Arab tribes in detail. Her amazing memory proved invaluable as she remembered lineages, water sources, terrain and each sheik’s areas of influence. In the meantime, the British had been in the process of negotiating terms of an alliance with Sharif Hussein of Mecca, one of the three most powerful men in Arabia along with Ibn Saud and Ibn Rashid. His territory extended over a vast area that included the holy sites of Mecca and Medina and therefore, as a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, the Sharif was the most religiously important of the three.
For ultimate success against the Ottomans, though, Britain needed Mesopotamia. Its grain supplies would feed her army, its oil would fuel her navy and its strategic location would impede the Turks. Gertrude was sent to persuade Mesopotamia to co-operate. On March 3rd, 1916, she arrived in Basra. An Anglo-Indian force had captured the strategically important city in November 1914, and the province of 33,000 Arabs was now British Occupied Territory and under military rule. Chief Political Officer, Percy Cox, overseer of the new administration in Mesopotamia, already believed the General Command in London to be incompetent and was not reassured when they chose to send a woman to Basra. But Gertrude soon proved her worth.
In the early spring of 1916 British forces were struggling towards Baghdad. They were suffering from the heat and shortage of food; before them lay unmapped deserts and swamps, a sizable Turkish force and the threat of ambush from Arab tribes. In March the local commander of the India Expeditionary Force invited Gertrude to dinner and desperately asked her advice.
Gertrude knew the importance of personal ties to the Arabs. Indeed, she knew many of the sheiks of the region by name, and had dined in their tents. With her help, she argued, the Arabs could be convinced to aid the British. Further, she would draw maps so that the army could reach Baghdad without mishap. That afternoon, Gertrude and her maps were removed from previously cramped working conditions onto a great veranda and she was given the title Liaison Officer, Correspondent to Cairo. Major Miss Bell was the sole female Political Officer in the British forces.
On March 10th, 1917, the British army finally took Baghdad and, a few days later, Percy Cox, now Civil Commissioner, summoned Gertrude to the city and presented her with the title of Oriental Secretary. She was charged by her work. ‘It’s amazing,’ she wrote to her father. ‘It’s the making of a new world.’ She admired Percy Cox and thrived under his leadership. She was somewhat distressed when, towards the end of summer, she learned that he was departing to watch over the situation in Persia, leaving A.T. Wilson as Acting Civil Commissioner.
During the summer of 1916, tribes in Arabia who had been age-old enemies now united behind Faisal, the third son of Sharif Hussein who defeated the Turkish garrison in Media in June. A strong and shrewd leader, Faisal, with T.E. Lawrence acting as his political officer, led the Arab army to victory after victory against the Turks in the Hejaz, Palestine and Syria campaigns of 1917-18. The success they enjoyed was in no small part thanks to the reports written by Gertrude in Cairo in 1915 but, like Lawrence, she eschewed any notion of fame and even rebuked her parents for talking to journalists about her.
Malaria landed Gertrude in bed for much of the autumn of 1918, but she was cheered when news arrived that General Allenby and the Arab army had taken Damascus. On October 1st, Faisal, accompanied by several hundred mounted Arab soldiers, entered the city and within three days, with the assistance of T.E. Lawrence, an Arab government was put in place in Syria with Faisal at its head. On October 31st, Gertrude received news that the Allies had made peace with Turkey then, eleven days later, with Germany also. ‘It’s almost more than one can believe.’
The Ottoman Empire had collapsed and was in chaos. A secret agreement had been made in 1916, between the French and the British, to determine spheres of influence for the two nations in the region, and when the Anglo-French declaration of November 8th, 1918, announced the ‘final liberation of the populations living under the Turkish yoke and the setting up of national governments chosen by the people themselves’, the Arab world was thrown into further confusion – nowhere more so than in Iraq.
In Baghdad, which fell within the British-controlled area, most of the people wanted an Arab emir, but could not decide upon whom. The Kurds in the north sought independence, and the Shi’ites and Sunnis both wanted their religious leaders to preside over them. The Jewish community disliked the idea of being ruled by Arabs so intensely that they were clamouring for British citizenship, while Turkish sympathisers newly returned to Baghdad were themselves stirring up unrest in an anti-British campaign.
In London too, the question of who should lead Iraq was also unresolved, and in late January 1919 Gertrude was asked for a report. She was wildly excited by the prospect of helping to rebuild Iraq. ‘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.’
It took her ten months to compile the report, which contained everything from Zionism to Arab nationalist factions. But most importantly, it contained a change of heart. She had previously believed that the Arabs could never govern themselves, but having visited Damascus where Faisal’s government had been in place for a year, she was not only convinced that they could, but must:
An Arab State in Mesopotamia … within a short period of years is a possibility, and … the recognition or creation of a logical scheme of government on those lines, in supercession of those on which we are now working on Mesopotamia, would be practical and popular.
Gertrude’s notion of an Arab-ruled Mesopotamia so angered her superior A.T. Wilson that he made sure the report reached London with a covering letter stating that he felt her assumptions were ‘erroneous’ and indignantly turned the Political Officers against her. Ostracised and miserable, Gertrude buried herself in her work.
At Whitehall, Mesopotamia was still an object of heated debate. Many thought it too costly to maintain a presence, but Gertrude argued against withdrawal:
If Mesopotamia goes, Persia goes inevitably, and then India. And the place which we leave empty will be occupied by seven devils a good deal worse than any which existed before we came.
Finally, on April 25th, 1920, Britain and France came to an agreement regarding the Arabic lands. Arabia would remain independent but under the guidance of the British, Syria would be mandated by the League of Nations to France and Mesopotamia to Britain until they ‘could stand on their own’, and both France and Britain would share in the production of oil in Mesopotamia.
However, eighteen months after the expulsion of the Ottomans there was still no Arab government in place, and a rebellion started by the Euphrates tribes was in full swing. A.T. Wilson’s punishment of those responsible was swift and brutal, but only served to fuel the insurrection. Meanwhile in Syria where Faisal had proclaimed himself king, France refused to recognise him and sent an army from Beirut to Damascus carrying an ultimatum that demanded acceptance of France’s rule over the Arab forces, the railroads and the economy. Faisal abdicated and left Damascus. Gertrude commented:
We have made an immense failure here. The system must have been far more at fault than anyone suspected … I suppose we have underestimated the fact that this country is really an inchoate mass of tribes which can’t as yet be reduced to any system. The Turks didn’t govern and we have tried to govern … and failed.
By late autumn 1920, the rebellion in Mesopotamia had cooled, but not before claiming the lives of 10,000 Arabs and several hundred Britons.
On October 11th, 1920, Percy Cox returned to Baghdad. He was welcomed by a cheering crowd and an overjoyed Gertrude. Cox asked her to continue as Oriental Secretary – for liaising between the High Commissioner and the new Arab government – when it was in place – meant she could keep an eye on both.
It was finally decided that the Naqib – the Sunni holy man of Baghdad – was the best candidate to be prime minister. Respected by the Sunnis and Shi’ites alike, his religious and social standing commanded respect and raised him above suspicion. However, Iraq still needed a king, and for Gertrude, there was only one choice. Faisal, with his military and administrative experience, his diplomatic flair and charisma made him the perfect choice, and Gertrude would do everything in her power to make him king.
A few weeks later, Churchill, now Colonial Secretary, summoned a group of Orientalists to Egypt to determine the future of Mesopotamia, Transjordan and Palestine. Amid the forty official delegates, Gertrude was the only woman. She and T.E. Lawrence outlined a plan for bringing Faisal to Iraq so that he might gain popularity before the vote for a leader was put to the Iraqis; it was vital – though it would not be easy – to convince the Iraqis that Faisal was their choice rather than the choice of the British.
In June 1921, Faisal arrived in Basra, and journeyed on to the holy cities of Kerbala and Najav to emphasise his religious worth as a descendant of the prophet. After cool receptions in both cities, he arrived in Baghdad to a warm welcome from a large crowd of dignitaries. Having not set foot in Iraq before, Faisal knew little of its people and history, and even spoke a different dialect of Arabic. Gertrude took it upon herself to advise him in everything from tribal geography to the best way to deal with Baghdadi businessmen; the two soon became friends.
Faisal won acceptance from almost all, and when the vote went out to the general public, their decision was nearly unanimous. On August 23rd, 1921, he was crowned King of Iraq. Delighting in her triumph, Gertrude supervised the appointment of the rest of Iraq’s government and formulated grand plans for the country, which prompted Britons and Arabs alike to refer to her as ‘the Uncrowned Queen of Iraq.’ Indeed, no one seemed closer to Faisal, nor wielded as much influence over him.
A treaty of alliance between Britain and Iraq was still to be signed. Faisal considered that signing the treaty would make Iraq a sovereign state, the equal of Britain, as he expected the treaty to supersede the League of Nations Mandate. Britain, though, presented the King with a choice: to reject both the treaty and the underlying Mandate (and with it Britain’s aid), or to accept them both. Gertrude explained to a friend:
From the beginning the King told us with complete frankness that he would fight the Mandate to the death. His reason is obvious. He wants to prove to the world of Islam which is bitterly anti-British that in accepting the British help he has not sacrificed the independence of an Arab state.
Finally a pledge arrived from Churchill stating that, if the treaty was signed, he would do everything he could to have Iraq accepted into the League of Nations. Faisal agreed.
On May 1st, 1923, Sir Percy Cox retired and left Iraq. It was a poignant moment for Gertrude. ‘I think no Englishman has inspired more confidence in the East,’ she lamented. But with Cox’s departure, Gertrude’s duties also waned and it wasn’t long before melancholy descended. ‘I want to feel savage and independent again,’ she declared, and drove out into the desert.
Arriving at what was once the Sumerian city of Uruk, she discovered the ancient mound crawling with natives hunting for treasure. Rounding them up, she demanded to know if they had any anticas and offered to pay baksheesh for anything they had found. A cylinder and a seal were produced and Gertrude paid for them and left, taking the objects directly to her new museum of Iraqi antiquities.
The museum, temporarily housed within the royal palace in Baghdad, now became Gertrude’s new focus. Supervising digs and personally examining even the tiniest of finds, Gertrude worked to bring the fragments of ancient Iraq together beneath one roof where she could identify and catalogue them.
But Gertrude felt lonely and depressed. Most of her friends had left Baghdad, and as Iraq stabilised, she began to feel redundant. She spent an ‘infernal’ fifty-sixth birthday in ill health, and by the end of August was bedridden. She returned home briefly in 1925, but her childhood home had become a cheerless place. Due to the wider economic circumstances, the Bell family fortune was slipping away. Her parents had no choice but to abandon their home. As the house was being emptied around her, Gertrude again left for the Middle East:
I don’t care to be in London much … I like Baghdad, and I like Iraq. It’s the real East, and it’s stirring; things are happening here, and the romance of it all touches me and absorbs me.
Soon after her return, she developed pleurisy. She recovered, only to learn a month later that her brother Hugo had succumbed to typhoid and died. Overcome with grief, Gertrude nevertheless reflected that he’d ‘had a complete life. His perfect marriage and the joy of his children.’ Two things Gertrude had long desired.
June 1926 brought respite in the way of celebration. After the gathering of over 3,000 items, Gertrude’s new Baghdad archaeological museum was officially opened. Furthermore, a treaty was signed with the Turks, ceding the city of Mosul to Iraq. At the state banquet in honour of the treaty, Faisal gave thanks to the representatives of the British government for all they had done for Iraq. Now Gertrude truly realised her work was done. Her power and influence had diminished, the family fortune had disappeared, she was in poor health, and despite a small number of passionate but ill-fated affairs, she was still – and more significantly than all else – alone.
On the evening of Sunday July 11th, 1926, Gertrude retired to bed, took an extra dose of sleeping pills and fell asleep for the last time.
Under King Faisal’s direction, Iraq was admitted to the League of Nations in 1932, signifying the country’s independence. One year later, however, Faisal died unexpectedly on holiday in Switzerland.
Ghazi, his twenty-one year old son succeeded him, and while his intentions were good, he lacked his father’s ability to rule. After six years, King Ghazi was killed – perhaps intentionally – in a road accident, The kingdom was left in the hands of his four-year-old son Faisal II with his maternal uncle, Prince Abd al-Ilah, acting as regent. Faisal was enthroned in 1953, reigning for five years before a military cop overthrew the monarchy and Iraq was declared a republic. The regime that Gertrude had worked to establish lasted only thirty-seven years before falling to the revolutionaries.
‘The real difficulty here,’ she once wrote, ‘is that we don’t know exactly what we intend to do in this country … it’s not the immediate war problems here I think of most; it’s the problems after the war, and I don’t know what sort of hand we shall be able to take in sorting them.’
Such insight would have been invaluable today.
Kerry Ellis is an independent writer and researcher.
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Food & Drink
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology