Gertrude Bell – queen of the desert

Gertrude Bell is the subject of a film, Queen of the Desert, scheduled for release later this year, so I’d better tell the story of this extraordinary woman before Hollywood distorts it. Gertrude was born in 1868 in county Durham, to a wealthy industrialist. She studied at Oxford where, despite a male tutor who insisted that women sat with their backs to him, she became the first woman to gain a first class degree in modern history. Because she was a woman, she was unable to graduate, and her Oxford education made her ‘unmarriageable’ so in in 1892 she jumped at the chance to travel with her aunt to Iran, where her uncle was the British Ambassador. She fell in love with the culture, visiting archaeological sites, and developing a great affection for the people. As a self-styled ‘queen of the desert’, she surrounded herself by an entourage of camels and male guides and travelled the Middle East, giving lavish gifts wherever she went. The locals were usually shocked to see a female traveller but Gertrude’s ability to speak their language (she spoke French, Persian, Arabic and Turkish) won her many friends; she was treated as an honorary male and not judged in the way she had been at home. In fact, many assumed she was a man until she opened her mouth.

Gertrude spent much of the next decade travelling the world and learning about archaeology, as well as developing a passion for mountaineering; she became the greatest women mountaineer of the time and was renowned for surviving 53 hours on a rope, clinging to a rock face while caught in a blizzard in an attempt to climb an unconquered mountain in the Alps.

In the First World War, her knowledge of the tribes, geography and politics of the area attracted the attention of British Intelligence, who recruited her for an intelligence operation in Cairo known as the Arab bureau, along with T.E. Lawrence. But history has largely forgotten her; she was not mentioned in T.E. Lawrence’s biography and has more recently been patronisingly referred to as the female Lawrence of Arabia. But while few Arabs remembered T.E. Lawrence, even now ‘Miss Bell’ is spoken of in Baghdad with affection.

Gertrude was an official of the British administration in Baghdad after the war, receiving a CBE and writing a white paper reviewing the civil administration in Mesopotamia and in 1921 attended a conference in Cairo, the only female delegate, where she drew the boundaries of the Arab state that became Iraq, as well as choosing its first leader, King Faisal. A lone woman among Arab men, she became a confidante of King Faisal and gained the nickname El Khatun, the lady of the court.

Gertrude never married but had an affair with a married man, Major Vahrles Doughty-Wylie between 1913 and 1915, with whom she exchanged passionate letters. She begged him to leave his wife, telling him, ‘it’s that or nothing. I can’t live without you.’ Unable to choose, Doughty-White chose to lead a dangerous mission in Gallipoli in 1915 and was killed by a Turkish bullet. Reports of his strange calmness that day – he made no attempt to avoid bullets – have led to speculation that he was suicidal.

Gertrude described herself as an antiquarian at heart and she devoted her later years to archaeology, establishing the Baghdad Archaeological Museum but died unexpectedly aged 58 of an overdose of sleeping pills. It was not known whether her death was accidental or deliberate. An obituary praised her ‘masculine vigour, hard common sense and practical efficiency – all tempered by feminine charm and a most romantic spirit.’