Gertrude Bell and the Archaeology of the Middle East

In Search of Kings and Conquerors:
Gertrude Bell and the Archaeology of the Middle East

Lisa Cooper
I.B. Tauris  314pp   £20

The female Lawrence of Arabia, the woman who made Iraq, the uncrowned queen of the desert: there have been many attempts to encapsulate the complex essence of Gertrude Lowthian Bell since her death in 1926 in Baghdad. Born to a wealthy industrial family, Bell transformed herself from an under-employed globetrotter into a renowned expert on Middle Eastern antiquity. 

During the Great War, she was plucked from Red Cross work in France to help develop the conquered Ottoman territory of Mesopotamia into the British-mandated monarchy of Iraq. Her role in king-making done, she then managed the country’s archaeology and heritage. Bell died of an overdose of sleeping pills at 57, shortly after the opening of ‘her’ Iraq Museum.

Bell was an inveterate self-documenter, a life-long diarist, correspondent and photographer and the author of several books, articles and official reports. Her digitised private archive is now at Newcastle University. Biographies abound, including Georgina Howell’s Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert (2006), which is strong on Bell’s background and youth, though less comprehending of her later years; and Liora Lukitz’s more dispassionate A Quest in the Middle East: Gertrude Bell and the Making of Modern Iraq (2008).

At Newcastle, Mark Jackson and Andrew Parkin have edited an excellent introduction to her life, The Extraordinary Gertrude Bell (2015). There is also a powerful documentary, Letters from Baghdad, featuring previously unseen film and photography, and Werner Herzog’s bodice-ripper movie, Queen of the Desert.

Lisa Cooper’s monograph is the first to take Bell’s academic side seriously. It does not pretend to be a biography, or even a comprehensive survey of her fieldwork in Anatolia, Syria and Mesopotamia over the period 1905–14. Rather, Cooper reconstructs two trips Bell took on horseback in 1909 and 1911, down the Euphrates from Aleppo to Baghdad and back up the Tigris to Diyarbakir in Turkey, accompanied by her trusted Armenian guide Fattuh and a small group of porters and guards. 

In the course of these journeys, Bell documented, planned and photographed the remains of many hundreds of ancient and medieval structures, from Hittite, Babylonian and Assyrian archaeological sites to the minarets, mosques and palaces of early Islam. A few weeks into the first expedition her party came across Ukhaidir, an extremely well-preserved castle in the Iraqi desert, seemingly never before studied. Bell systematically recorded it and then spent two years collecting comparative evidence, in Rome and back in Mesopotamia, in order to date it and understand its historical significance. She wrote up her findings in the intriguingly titled Amurath to Amurath (1911), while the second trip produced the academically ambitious Palace and Mosque of Ukhaidir: A Study in Early Mohammedan Architecture (1914). Meanwhile, Bell was beaten to publication by German colleagues whom she had considered friends and magnanimously swallowed what must have been a bitter disappointment. 

Cooper also assesses the lasting value of Bell’s work, in relation to later scholarship and to the current state of the sites and buildings she visited. Many have continued to deteriorate through natural exposure and decay. Others have fallen victim to modern development and still others, more recently, to deliberate destruction by ISIS. Thus, even if many details of her interpretations have been superseded, Bell’s systematic and crisp photographic documentation has increased in value over the years. Sadly the paper quality and (otherwise comfortable) physical size of the book do not do justice to the multitude of Bell’s photographs, especially those more panoramic in scale. 

Bell comes out of this study as a serious fieldworker, more architectural historian than archaeologist, focused primarily on reconstructing the ground plans of ruined buildings in order to tell a long-term story of architectural development in the Middle East, from earliest antiquity into the late first millennium ad. She was, Cooper shows, largely taken seriously by professional male colleagues, despite her womanhood and auto-didacticism. At least in the period to 1911, Bell’s all-consuming intellectual interests were definitively not, as is commonly assumed, merely a front for intelligence gathering.

Cooper’s book opens a new chapter in the study of Bell but by no means closes it. Bell’s ambiguous imperial legacy is still felt in Baghdad today, where the Iraq Museum – in a post-Bell 1960s building – stands full of glorious finds that Bell and her successors curated, but largely empty of visitors.

Eleanor Robson is Professor of Ancient Middle Eastern History at University College, London and the Chair of Council, British Institute for the Study of Iraq.

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