Bell, Gertrude (1868–1926)

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Bell, Gertrude (1868–1926)

British intelligence agent and advisor, author, archaeologist and world traveler. Born Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell on July 14, 1868, at Washington Hall in County Durham, northeast England; died on July 12, 1926, in Baghdad, Iraq; eldest of two children of Sir Hugh (an iron and steel industrialist) and Mary Bell; granddaughter of Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell; graduate of Oxford University; never married; no children.

Became a distinguished scholar, poet, author, historian, archaeologist, linguist, explorer, and mountaineer, and is best known for her role in the Middle East as an intelligence advisor for the British government; traveled into interior of Arabia (1913); appointed to military intelligence staff, then as political secretary at Baghdad (1917); helped mold postwar administration of Mesopotamia, siding with forces bringing Faisal to throne of Iraq (1921).

Selected writings:

Safah Nameh—Persian Pictures (1894); Poems from the Divan of Hafiz (1897); The Desert and the Sown (1907); (with Sir William Ramsay) The Thousand and One Churches (1909); The Monasteries of Tur Abdin (1910); Amurath to Amurath (1911); (archaeological work) The Palace and Mosque of Ukhaidir (1914).

Gertrude Bell was one of the most remarkable figures of her time. She had entered the world stage long before her publication The Desert and the Sown attained the bestseller list in the United States in 1907. To her fellow travelers, including the legendary Lawrence of Arabia, she remained a source of inspiration. Once, during the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire in World War I, Lawrence asked the Bedouin Auda abu Tayi, who was probably Arabia's greatest warrior, to divert to a portion of the Syrian desert which "Gertrude Bell and other storied travelers" had crossed. And yet, there was little in Bell's background to suggest she would carve such a redoubtable career in the East, even though at the earliest age there was much evidence that her life would be no ordinary one.

Born on July 14, 1868, at Washington Hall in County Durham, northeast England, Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell was fortunate to have been born into a wealthy family: her paternal grandfather, Sir Lowthian Bell, had made a fortune in the iron and steel industry, while her father, Sir Hugh Bell, had successfully continued the family business.

Gertrude was the older of two children born to Hugh and Mary Bell. Her mother died shortly after giving birth to Gertrude's younger brother, Maurice. Left without a mother at the age of three, Gertrude was raised by family governesses. Then, when she was eight, her father remarried, this time to Florence Olliffe , daughter of the Irish doctor Sir Joseph Olliffe. A devoted attachment soon formed between the new Lady Bell and the children. Although Gertrude played with dolls and tended her flowers and garden, she displayed an unusually adventurous energy around the family estate and often got her younger brother into difficulties. She also displayed a fondness for her new half-siblings,

Hugo, Elsa, and Molly who were added to the family from 1878–81.

In the words of Sarah Graham-Brown , Bell was fortunate "not merely because she was born into a socially privileged class, but because her parents recognized the talents of their physically restless and intellectually gifted child." Consequently, at age 15, she was sent to Queen's College, London, in order to complete her secondary education. Although Bell displayed little talent or interest in sewing, cooking, music, religion, or spelling, she made outstanding marks in history. Thanks to this proclivity, she was accepted to Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford before turning 18. A fellow student, Janet Hogarth , described the teenaged Bell in her early days at Oxford for biographer Elizabeth Burgoyne :

She was only seventeen, half child, half woman, rather untidy, with auburn hair, greenish eyes, a brilliant complexion, a curiously long and pointed nose, and a most confiding assurance of being welcome in our society. Obstacles had a trick of melting away when she encountered them, there were so few that she could not take in her stride. She could swim, she could fence, she could row, she could play tennis and hockey, she could keep pace with modern literature and was full of talk about modern authors, most of whom were her childhood friends. Yet she could, and did, put in seven hours a day of solid reading.

In 1888, Bell received a "First" Honors in Modern History. Before leaving Oxford, she had already gone on vacation to Germany but at matriculation was free to begin her far-flung travels. That year, she was invited to stay with her aunt, whose husband was serving as British minister in Bucharest, Rumania. There, she met two men who would figure prominently in her life: Valentine Chirol (later "Sir"), who would be a lifelong friend, and the future Lord Hardinge of Penshurst, who, in 1916, while serving as viceroy of India, would be responsible for sending her to Iraq. From Rumania, she traveled to Constantinople, capital of the aging Ottoman Empire, where she began to fall in love with the exotic mysteries of the East.

After returning to England, she next went to the Middle East in 1892, after her uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles, received a diplomatic posting in Teheran, Persia. While in Persia, she experienced her first broken heart when she fell in love with a junior civil servant, Henry Cadogan. Unfortunately, her parents refused to consent to a marriage devoid of obvious prospects, and Cadogan died suddenly within months of the ill-fated courtship. These events plunged Bell into a profound emotional abyss.

From 1893 to 1897, she returned to England and variously traveled throughout Europe before going to live again with her aunt and uncle who had been transferred to the British Embassy in Berlin. Bell had already studied Arabic and Persian (Farsi), and during these years had published her first two books, Safah Nameh—Persian Pictures (1894) and Poems from the Divan of Hafiz (1897), which she had translated from Farsi into English.

While in Germany, Bell tried her hand at mountaineering, and she suffered another emotional blow when her aunt died. Then, in 1899, she journeyed once more to her increasingly beloved East when she received permission to join the entourage of a family contact, Dr. Fritz Rosen, who was then the German consul in Jerusalem. Bell recommenced learning Arabic and, from 1899–1900, began her first excursions into the desert from Jerusalem, excursions which included Petra, Deraa, Palmyra, Beirut, Damascus, and other locations in Syria and Palestine which were at that time under the banner of the Ottoman Empire. Historian H.V.F. Winstone has commented that her photographs, sketches and notes, while "chiefly of Islamic and Crusader buildings and historical sites," also revealed German engineering accomplishments along the Hejaz railway between Damascus and Medina, and that this information later would be valuable to British military, cartographical, and intelligence specialists. As she prepared to return to Britain, she wrote her father an exuberant letter which ended with the words: "I shall be back here before long! One does not keep away from the East when one has got into it this far."

True enough, from 1901 to 1902, Bell returned home, then proceeded to Switzerland where she earned a name for herself with the Alpine Club. Her climbing adventures, which included a side excursion to Mount Carmel in Syria, won her the accolade of British Colonel E.L. Strutt who would contribute the following passage in the Alpine Journal shortly after her death in 1926:

Everything that she undertook, physical or mental, was accomplished so superlatively well, that it would indeed have been strange if she had not shone on a mountain as she did in the hunting-field or in the desert. Her strength, incredible in that slim frame, her endurance, above all her courage, were so great that even to this day her guide and companion Ulrich Fuhrer—and there could be few more competent judges—speaks with an admiration of her that amounts to veneration.

Gertrude Bell lost little enough time after climbing before once more taking to the road—this time an around-the-world tour which took her through India, Burma, Java, China, and the United States with her traveling companion Hugo Furse. En route, she made a determined effort to learn Hindustani and Japanese. After returning to England in July 1903, she went on to Berlin with her father and passed much of 1904 in Switzerland and in studies at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.

The first five months of 1905 were spent in the Middle East where she visited castles, churches, and other archaeological ruins in Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, and Asia Minor. Bell passed the balance of 1905 and 1906 between London, studying in Paris, and writing at the family estate, Rounton Grange, near Northallerton, in North Riding, Yorkshire. The year 1905, in fact, was a pivotal time in her life; thenceforward, the Middle East would increasingly dominate.

From Rounton Grange, she wrote The Desert and the Sown (published 1907) and, during the next years, collaborated with Sir William Ramsay on the book The Thousand and One Churches (1909), and authored other books on Middle Eastern subjects: The Monasteries of Tur Abdin (1910), Amurath to Amurath (1911), and The Palace and Mosque of Ukhaidir (1914). While writing these works, Bell found the time to travel extensively throughout Asia Minor in 1907, visit Italy in 1910, and spend the first half of 1911 in Syria, where she crossed the desert to Mesopotamia and had her first meeting with the not-yet-famous T.E. Lawrence, who was participating in archaeological digs. Prophetically, Bell had written home that Lawrence "is going to make a traveler."

Ironically, for a woman who had to her credit so many singular accomplishments, Gertrude Bell not only refused to join the growing women's suffrage movement in Britain, but in 1908 had joined the Women's Anti-Suffrage League alongside such redoubtables as Lord Cromer and Lord Curzon. Author Graham-Brown has suggested that precisely because of her accomplishments, Bell may not have been sympathetic to "the constraints under which most British women laboured." Further, Graham-Brown has pointed out that Gertrude Bell's mentors had been men, from her father, to whom she wrote extensive letters, to Dr. David G. Hogarth, who would champion her entry into the Arab Bureau in 1915, to Sir Percy Cox, who became high commissioner in Iraq in 1922. Certainly, she felt most content in the companionship of men, although she did not suffer fools of either gender lightly. According to Graham-Brown, Bell's attitude was "one of considerable self-confidence." She believed "that she was the equal, intellectually, of most of the men she knew."

By 1912, Bell's travels had given her a critical insight into the increasing turmoil in the Middle East. One of her letters presaged the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire: "I should not be surprised if we were to see, in the course of the next ten years, the break-up of the empire in Asia also, the rise first of Arab autonomies, then of Armenian perhaps." In the case of the Arabs, at least, she was completely correct. By the end of 1913, Bell set out once more for the Middle East. She was driven not only by her consuming passion for the people and archaeology of the region, but by the need to escape England and find relief from her own emotional anguish, for she had fallen in love with a married man. The man in question was Captain Charles Doughty Wylie (nephew of the famed desert explorer Charles Doughty), who would be killed at Gallipoli in 1915. Because of the need in Edwardian times to keep such matters circumspect, few details of the relationship have survived.

His first and most inspired find was Gertrude Bell, for a woman with an ability to speak Arabic, the resourcefulness to survive long spells in the desert, and a keen understanding of archaeology and ancient architecture to justify her travels, was at that time almost too good an intelligence prospect to be true.


Bell's 1913–14 adventure took her into Haïl (Hayil), in the Arabian Peninsula, and into the camp of Ibn Rashid, who was destined to be one of the key players in any Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire. The diaries of Colonel Alfred Chevalier Parker reveal that Bell was in no little danger, for the Ottoman administration was not happy with the prospects of a suspected British agent taking up even temporary residence in northcentral Arabia. Ibn Rashid, in fact, kept her as a house prisoner until her release was negotiated. On the way home, in May 1914, she stopped in Constantinople and visited the British ambassador, Sir Louis Mallet. The information she acquired in Haïl would become of national value when World War I began, scarcely three months after her trip, for Britain soon found herself grouped with France and Russia against Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. The journey was the most rigorous of her life, and, in appreciation for her achievement, the Royal Geographic Society presented her with a gold medal.

When the European nations went to war in August, Gertrude Bell was at Rounton Grange. Almost immediately, she began a speaking tour on behalf of the British war effort, then spent the balance of 1914 and January through October of the following year engaged first in hospital duties, then as staff for the office of Missing and Wounded located in London as well as in Boulogne, France.

In November, her unique skills were finally called on by Dr. David Hogarth of the Royal Geographic Society, who was assembling a team of Middle-Eastern experts and explorers in Cairo. This group, known as the Arab Bureau, was, in the words of author Edward Said, "bound together by contradictory notions, and personal similarities: great individuality, sympathy and intuitive identification with the Orient, a jealously preserved sense of personal mission."

While in Egypt, Bell met with Hogarth and the young man she earlier had correctly assessed as a rising star in Middle-Eastern affairs, T.E. Lawrence. The British were negotiating with Hussein ibn Ali, Sherif, Amir of Mecca, and Keeper of the Holy Cities, who was sounding out the possibility of military aid should he promote an Arab rising against Ottoman Turkish imperial rule. The British, for their part, had much to gain politically, for Hussein's position within the Islamic world would be an effective counter-weight to the Turkish caliph's call to Holy War against the allied powers of Britain, France and Russia.

While in Egypt, Bell lived at the Grand Continental Hotel in Cairo. Her initial work with the Arab Bureau, who as a band were sometimes known as the Instrusives, involved cataloging the sheiks and tribes with which she had become familiar over the years and storing the information in the intelligence files. In the meantime, the impetus for a British-backed Arab Revolt had grown, yet the intelligence departments in Egypt and India were at odds over spheres of responsibility in the Middle East. Consequently, in January 1916, Bell was transferred to Delhi, India, for a short tour as a liaison agent between the departments, and came to advise none other than the viceroy, Lord Hardinge, who happened to be an old and friendly professional acquaintance. From India, Bell was transferred to the Intelligence branch of the General Headquarters staff of General Sir Percy Lake in Basrah, Mesopotamia. In addition to acting as intelligence advisor, she continued in her role as a liaison agent with the Arab Bureau in Cairo.

Next, in 1916, she was transferred onto the staff of the chief political officer, Sir Percy Cox. Over the next ten years, Bell and Cox would form a warm and mutually supporting professional relationship, while advising General Headquarters in Mesopotamia—known after the war as Iraq—as well as diplomatic and political representatives of the British government. Her work during 1916–18 was published in the Bureau's intelligence circular, the Arab Bulletin, and covered such topics as "The Basis of Government in Turkish Arabia," "The Situation in Haïl," and a profile on the future leader of Saudi Arabia, Ibn-Saud. Sir Kinahan Cornwallis said of these reports:

She wrote them as an official for official purposes, but officialdom could never spoil the freshness and vividness of her style or the terseness of her descriptions. Throughout them all can be seen the breadth of her knowledge and her sympathy and understanding for the people whom she loved so well.

When Baghdad fell to the advancing British troops in formerly Turkish-administered Mesopotamia in March 1917, Bell moved with Cox to the British Residency buildings where she would work to the end of her life. The times were as exciting as they were unsettling. British General Sir Edmund Allenby opened an offensive against the Turks from Palestine in September 1918 and succeeded over the next weeks in driving them from the war. On November 1, the crumbling Ottoman Empire signed an Armistice with Britain and the stage was set for a major restructuring of the Middle East.

As oriental secretary, Bell would ably assist Cox in his post as British high commissioner in the troubling times ahead and exerted disproportionate influence which made itself felt beyond Baghdad and Cairo to London and even Paris, where the Treaty of Versailles was being hammered out at the end of the world war to end all wars. By August 1920, Britain received from the League of Nations a mandate to administer the territory of Mesopotamia, which stretched from Mosul in the north to the Persian Gulf.

The British helped sponsor elections in which the son of the Sherif [Hussein] of Mecca, the Amir Faisal [I], was named king of Iraq, an Iraq which with the passage of time was to become an independent state. Bell had been vociferous in her support of Faisal and continued to back him in the years ahead. She worked for Cox until May 1923 and then for Sir Henry Dobbs who succeeded him as high commissioner in Baghdad. From 1923, Bell split her labors between official work as oriental secretary, and the new museum she had helped found in Baghdad which housed the antiquities of Iraq.

The new Iraq was far from tranquil: some of the tribes were rebellious, there were continuing border disputes with Ibn Saud to the south and with the Turks to the north, and there was serious religious disaffection between the Sunni and Shi`a sects of Islam. By June 1926, however, several encouraging events had transpired. An Iraqi parliament had been formed, and the boundary disputes had been settled. Gertrude Bell attended the ceremonious state banquet held by King Faisal on June 25, 1926, to celebrate the signing of the boundary treaty with the Turks, but it would be the last official function she would attend.

Syrian writer Amin Rihani provided a portrait of Gertrude Bell in her sunset years:

Her figure is quite English—tall and lank; her face is aristocratic—rather long and sharp; and her silver hair is not inharmonious with the persistent pink in her delicate complexion…. She keeps the reins of con versation in her own hand. She speaks Arabic almost without an accent, often mixing it with her English and emphasising it with a dogmatic though graceful gesture. Her energy and agility amazed me.

And yet, it was an energy that was failing. Bell had become increasingly ill over the years with various local maladies, and her chief reason for not wishing to visit England in 1926 was her fear the doctors might not let her return to Iraq. Tellingly, one of her English friends commented with great sadness that she looked "like a leaf that could be blown away by a breath." On July 11, she went to sleep and passed away in the early morning hours of the following day, one day shy of her 58th birthday.

Gertrude Bell was given a military funeral. In attendance were all the key British and Iraqi officials who could be assembled on such short notice. In memoriam, King Faisal ordered the principal wing of the Museum of Iraq, where she had served as honorary director of antiquities, to be named for her, and later, friends established a bronze monument with bust and inscription inside the museum. Condolences arrived for her family from the four corners of the globe.

Sir Henry Dobbs published the official notification of her death wherein he commented: "At last her body, always frail, was broken by the energy of her soul." Her stepmother, Lady Bell, provided a final capstone for one whose life had encapsulated so much achievement in its brief 58 years: "But let us not mourn, those who are left, even those who were nearest her, that the end came to her so swiftly and so soon. Life would inexorably have led her down the slope—Death stayed her at the summit."


Bell, Gertrude. Introduction by Sir Kinahan Cornwallis. The Arab War. Privately printed, England: The Golden Cockerel Press, 1940.

——. Introduction by Sarah Graham-Brown. The Desert and the Sown. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1985.

Bell, Lady [Florence Bell], selected and edited by. The Letters of Gertrude Bell. 2 vols. NY: Boni and Liveright, 1927.

Burgoyne, Elizabeth. Gertrude Bell: From Her Personal Papers, 1889–1914 and 1914–1926. 2 vols. London: Ernest Benn, 1958.

Lawrence, T.E. Revolt in the Desert. London: Jonathan Cape, 1927.

Osband, Linda, ed. Famous Travelers to the Holy Land. London: Prion, 1989.

Richmond, Lady, ed. The Letters of Gertrude Bell. London: Penguin Books, 1953.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. NY: Pantheon Books, 1978.

Winstone, H.V.F., ed. The Diaries of Parker Pasha. London: Quartet Books, 1983,

——. Gertrude Bell. London: Jonathan Cape, 1978.

——. The Illicit Adventure. London: Jonathan Cape, 1982.

suggested reading:

Kamm, Josephine. Gertrude Bell: Daughter of the Desert. Vanguard, 1956.

Wallach, Janet. Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell. Doubleday, 1996.

David L. Bullock , Ph.D., author of Allenby's War: the Palestine-Arabian Campaigns, 1916–1918 (London: Blandford Press, 1988)

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