Birthday: July 14, 1868
Died At Age: 57
Sun Sign: Cancer
Also Known As: Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell
Born Country: England
Born in: Washington, United Kingdom
Famous as: Writer, Diplomat
father: Sir Hugh Bell, 2nd Baronet
mother: Mary Shield Bell
Died on: July 12, 1926
place of death: Baghdad
U.S. State: Washington
education: University of Oxford, Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, Queen's College, London
Gertrude Bell, CBE, was an English writer, archaeologist, traveler and diplomat, who was highly influential in helping the British Empire exert its dominance in the Transjordan, Ottoman and Mesopotamian regions of the Middle East. She was a key member in British policy-making in the Middle East. She was appointed as ‘Oriental Secretary’ because of her extensive knowledge of the Middle East, its cultures, differing religious sects, and languages. Together with T. E. Lawrence better known to the world as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, she helped establish the Hashemite Kingdoms in what is better known today as Jordan and Iraq. She is said to have been the consummate diplomat as many of the people she negotiated with, became her admirers later on. Bell was found dead of an apparent overdose of sleeping pills at the age of 58. She was conferred upon the Order of the British Empire and her work was specially mentioned and acknowledged in the British Parliament.
Childhood & Early Life
Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell was born on 14 July 1868 in Washington Hall, County Durham, England to Sir Hugh Bell, 2nd Baronet, and Mary Shield Bell. She had one brother, Sir Maurice Hugh Lowthian Bell, a half-brother, Reverend Hugh Lowthian Bell and two half-sisters, Florence Elsa Richmond and Mary Katherine Trevelyan, OBE.
Bell’s mother died in 1871 while giving birth to her brother Maurice Bell. Gertrude was only three when her mother died. As a result of her mother’s death, she became close to her father who was a progressive capitalist and mill owner.
Bell’s grandfather was the ironmaster Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, a liberal Member of Parliament during Benjamin Disraeli’s second term.
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In May 1892, Gertrude Bell traveled to Tehran to visit her uncle Sir Frank Lascelles, the British ambassador to Persia. She narrated her experiences in her book ‘Persian Pictures’, published in 1894.
She spent most of the next decade traveling around the world. Through her travels, she became well versed in Arabic, Persian, German, French as well as a little bit of Turkish and Italian.
She traveled to the Middle East again in 1899. She wandered across the Arabian peninsula six times over the next 12 years. Her experiences in the Middle East were published in 1907 in the book ‘Syria: The Desert and the Sown’.
She traveled to the Ottoman Empire in March 1907, to work with the archaeologist Sir William M. Ramsay. Their excavations were documented in the book ‘A Thousand and One Churches’.
She left for Mesopotamia in January 1909. She traveled to the Hittite city of Carchemish where she met T. E. Lawrence, popularly known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, for the first time.
In November 1915, Bell was summoned to join the nascent Arab Bureau in Cairo. This is where she met T. E. Lawrence for the second time.
In 1915, both Bell and Lawrence were assigned to the Army Intelligence Headquarters in Cairo for war service, because of their extensive knowledge of the region and languages spoken therein.
She became a witness to the Armenian Genocide while in the Middle East. The horrors she witnessed had a profound effect on her.
Gertrude Bell was opposed to the Zionist movement because she felt it was unfair for Jewish rule to be imposed on the Arab inhabitants of Palestine.
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She played an integral part in the administration of Iraq throughout the early 1920s. She also played a key role in designing the Iraqi national flag as we know it today.
Gertrude Bell was invited to speak at a promotional event for the public library in Baghdad in November 1919. She subsequently served as the President of the Library Committee from 1921 to 1924.
Her love for archaeology led her to form the Baghdad Archaeological Museum, now known as the Iraqi Museum, by bringing in extensive collections of artifacts from the Babylonian empire.
On 10 March 1917, Bell was summoned to Baghdad by Chief Political Officer Percy Cox after the British forces had overtaken Baghdad. She was conferred upon the title of ‘Oriental Secretary’.
Gertrude Bell along with her colleague Lawrence and Cox were part of a group of ‘Orientalists’ specially selected by Winston Churchill to represent British interests at the 1921 Conference in Cairo to determine the boundaries of the British Mandate.
Bell, Lawrence, and Cox were said to have worked incessantly towards the establishment of the ‘Transjordan’ countries as well as Iraq in the conference which was presided by King Abdullah, King Faisal and their sons.
Awards & Achievements
Gertrude Bell was awarded the Order of the British Empire and her works got a special mention in the British Parliament.
To honor her memory, a stained-glass window was erected in St Lawrence’s Church in East Rounton, North Yorkshire.
Personal Life & Legacy
Gertrude Bell never got married or had any children. She had a brief relationship with Sir Frank Swettenham, a British colonial administrator in Singapore.
Bell also had an affair with a married man, Maj. Charles Doughty-Wylie, whom she is said to have exchanged love letters between 1913 and 1915.
The physical and mental pressure of authoring numerous books, intelligence briefings, correspondence work along with years of heavy smoking and the heat of Baghdad, took a toll on her health.
Gertrude Bell was discovered dead on 12 July 1926, after an overdose of sleeping pills. Bell was buried in Baghdad’s Bad al Sharji district. Her funeral was attended by large numbers. King Faisal was said to have watched the procession from his balcony.
A campaign was launched in 2016 to turn Gertrude Bell’s family estate called ‘Red Barns’ into a museum and memorial to her.