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Gertrude Bell ( 1868 - 1926 )  Category ( women_in_history ) [suggest a correction]

Gertrude BellBorn in 1868, Englishwoman Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell lived a life that included opportunities and adventures rarely available to other women of her day and culture. She was a writer, traveler, political analyst, Arabian administrator, and an archaeologist who mapped and identified Anatolian and Mesopotamian ruins. Bell and T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) were, together, almost totally responsible for creating the Hashemite dynasty in Jordan and the modern state of Iraq. At the conclusion of World War I, it was she who drew up borders within Mesopotamia to include the Ottoman Empire vilayets that later became Iraq.

Her birth into a highly placed, influential, and wealthy family allowed for a number of opportunities, including a university education at Oxford, where she earned a first class honors degree in history in only two years. After finishing at Oxford, Bell joined her uncle, British minister Sir Frank Lascelles, at Tehran, Persia. She later wrote a book about her experiences during that time, and then spent the next decade traveling the world. She became fluent in Arabic, Persian, French, and German, and could also speak Italian and Turkish. In 1899 she returned to the Middle East, studying local ruins and staying with and living amongst the local tribes. She published her observations in the book, Syria: the Desert and the Sown (1907). Also that year she journeyed to Turkey and began to work with the archeologist and New Testament scholar, Sir William M. Ramsey. Their work was chronicled in A Thousand and One Churches. Two years later she traveled to Mesopotamia and visited the Hittite city of Carchemish, mapped and described the ruin of Ukhaidir, and then on to Babylon and Najaf. When she returned to Carchemish, she met T.E. Lawrence. She was only the second foreign woman to visit Ha'il.

When World War I began, Bell was unable to continue her work in the Middle East. During this time she volunteered with the Red Cross in France and later became the honorary secretary of the British Women's Anti-Suffrage League. In 1915 she was summoned to Cairo to assist in forming alliances with the Arabs. The following year she was sent to Basra, recently captured by the British, to offer advice to the British army officers. She drew maps that helped the army reach Baghdad safely. She became the only female political officer in the British forces. Once British troops took Baghdad in March of 1917, Bell was summoned to Baghdad, granted the title of "Oriental Secretary," and began to assist in the arduous task of nation building. She, Chief Political Officer Percy Cox, and Lawrence were among a select group of "Orientalists" convened by Winston Churchill to determine the post-war role of British troops in the Middle East. They worked tirelessly to promote the establishment of Jordan and Iraq. Referred to by Iraqis as "Al Khatun" (A Lady of the Court who keeps an open eye and ear for the benefit of the State), she was a confidante of King Faisal of Iraq and helped introduce him to Iraq's tribal leaders at the start of his reign. He helped her to found Baghdad's Iraqi Archeological Museum, which included objects from her own modest collection, and to establish The British School of Archeology, Iraq, for the endowment of excavation projects from proceeds in her will.

Never of a strong physical constitution, the years of stress, turning out a prodigious number of articles and books, and other mental and physical labor took their toll on Bell. She suffered from bronchitis, malaria, and the extreme heat of Baghdad. Despite her frailty she could ride for hours through the desert, though she, like T.E. Lawrence, died prematurely after recurring bouts of depression, burnout, and exhaustion. Her efforts in the Middle East are sometimes criticized today as possibly leading to the current strife in the region, particularly in Iraq. Such criticism may hold merit, but even at the time the boundaries were being drawn up, Bell, Lawrence, and others could already see that there may never be a satisfactory resolution to the troubles in the Middle East. In 1925, Bell returned briefly to Britain, only to be met with family difficulties and continued poor health. Her family's fortune was in decline, and she lost a brother to typhoid. Later that year she was discovered to have overdosed on sleeping pills, though it remains unknown whether she was an intentional suicide. She never married or had children. She was buried in the British cemetery in Baghdad. Her funeral was a major event and attended by numerous people.

Image: Bell, aged 41, before her tent while visiting archaeological excavations in Babylon (1909).

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