Memories of Gertrude Bell stirred by troubles in Iraq

A North East woman who helped to create modern Iraq left revealing letters and diaries which are now accessible to all

Gertrude Bell
Gertrude Bell

The news from Iraq is generally terrible and has been for years. Most of us reading about it and watching it from our homes in the North East will probably have been doing so with a blend of horror, bemusement and despair.

It was bad enough when the dictator Saddam Hussein ruled the country with an iron fist, presiding over wars, invasions and attacks on his own people, but at least then the story appeared to be about countries with borders, the lines drawn pretty clearly in the sand.

With the dictator dead (hanged in 2006 for crimes against humanity), the story has become about tribes, militias, factions and sects. An elderly new president (Fuad Masum) has just been installed and he has nominated a new prime minister (Haider al-Abadi) to replace a disgruntled Nouri al-Maliki but there are more questions than answers.

Who’s good, who’s bad and who represents the lesser of perceived evils in the trouble spots of the Middle East?

Suddenly there has been talk of another dictator, Assad of Syria, being someone the West can do business with. Many who rose up heroically against him, it seems, are not as heroic as we’d thought.

A group of Yezidi tribesmen photographed by Gertrude bell in April 1911
A group of Yezidi tribesmen photographed by Gertrude bell in April 1911

They are among the armed extremists of the self-styled Islamic State (IS) who have been rampaging across northern Iraq, shooting and beheading. From the news we learned that the Yezidi people of the area had fled into mountains around the city of Sinjar to escape, having been ordered to convert to a particular brand of Islam or die.

At which point, a news editor on The Journal, researching the Yezidi online, came across the name Gertrude Bell and was excited at the North East link.

You don’t have to search too hard to make the connection between Iraq and Gertrude Bell.

But one small good thing that has come out of this bloody Middle East mess is another flurry of interest in the extraordinary archaeologist, adventurer, writer and linguist who played an important part in creating the country – formerly Mesopotamia – that we now call Iraq.

They’re even making a feature film about her. Queen of the Desert might sound a bit of a cheesy title but it can be justified by what she achieved, a rare woman operating at the highest level of international affairs when, in Britain, women were still campaigning for the vote.

The Journal news editor had stumbled on Gerty – or, rather, . This is the website of the Gertrude Bell Archive, the treasure trove of diaries, letters and photographs left by Gertrude Bell on her untimely death in 1926, aged just 57, and presented to Newcastle University.

“No Englishwoman of her distinction,” wrote a friend, Elizabeth Robins, after her death, “was ever so little known to the English-speaking public.”

But that’s changing. The growing online profile of Gerty and a feature film starring Nicole Kidman as Bell must help the cause. Damian Lewis, who is cast in Werner Herzog’s film as married army officer Charles Doughty-Wylie, with whom Gertrude exchanged love letters before his death in 1915 at Gallipoli, visited the Newcastle University archive to delve into the source material.

Shrine of the founder of the Yezidi faith, with a black snake carved and painted by the door, photographed in May 1909
Shrine of the founder of the Yezidi faith, with a black snake carved and painted by the door, photographed in May 1909

He will have been entertained by what he read. Dipping into some of her diaries and letters for the first time, I was hooked. Gertrude Bell was shrewd, observant and funny. She could write well and did so at length, describing people and places.

She was born into a family of wealthy industrialists in County Durham in 1868. Her grandfather was a politician who had made his fortune in the iron industry.

Her mother died in childbirth when Gertrude was three so she grew up very close to her father, Sir Hugh Bell, who was High Sheriff of Durham and three times mayor of Middlesbrough. Many of the letters in the archive are addressed to him.

Gertrude studied History at Oxford University and then travelled to Teheran where an uncle was a British official. It was the start of a love affair with the Middle East and its people, its history and its archaeology. In 1909 she visited Mesopotamia for the first time and during the First World War she was asked by British Intelligence to share her knowledge of the deserts.

Back to those Yezidi people. Most of us won’t have heard of them until they were forced at gunpoint into the inhospitable mountains and, subsequently, the international headlines.

News reports told that they were regarded as “devil worshippers” by their IS persecutors helped to grab people’s attention.

But as Dr Mark Jackson, an archaeology lecturer and one of Gerty’s minders at Newcastle University, points out, the same misguided slur was around over a century ago.

He shows me the passage in Gertrude Bell’s book The Desert and the Sown, documenting her trip across the desert from Jericho to Antioch, where she remarks on the Yezidi, “whom the Mohammedans call Devil Worshippers though I fancy they are a harmless and well-meaning people”.

The book, written in characteristically breezy and readable style, came out in 1907.

Two years earlier, in a diary entry of March 31, Gertrude writes that it is “hot and stuffy and misty”. She goes to look at a wonderful church and photographs it. She takes a stab at the date – 6th or 7th Century – and describes it in detail.

She goes on to study “a fine building with an arch and columns” on a hillside. After surmising that it could be a tomb, she writes: “So back to lunch. It was very hot.”

Afterwards “an agreeable party called Musa” accompanied her to see some more tombs.

Musa and his family, members of the Yezidi, photographed by Gertrude Bell in April 1905
Musa and his family, members of the Yezidi, photographed by Gertrude Bell in April 1905

In wrapping up her account of the day, Gertrude notes almost in passing: “Musa is a Yezidi. They worship the sun every day at dawn, have no churches, but a sheikh who apparently leads the prayers on important days – Wed. Fri. and Sunday are lucky days. Thursday unlucky. They marry one wife only.”

Dr Jackson has books about Gertrude Bell in his office and a filing cabinet containing print copies of all the fragile photographs in the archive.

“She wrote travel books like this one but she also wrote archaeological publications for an academic audience,” he says.

“She was really trying to establish herself as an archaeologist and as an explorer and as a travel writer.

“During the First World War she and several other archaeologists were sent to Egypt to work for the Arab Bureau. She went to Egypt in 1915 and then, in 1916, to Mesopotamia – first to Basra and then to Baghdad.”

The Arab Bureau was part of Britain’s intelligence network, set up to keep an eye on the Germans and the Turks – the Ottoman Empire had lined up alongside the Germans in 1914 – and to make sure they didn’t win the propaganda war in a strategically important area.

Gertrude’s knowledge made her a valuable asset. As the Ottoman Empire crumbled, Britain was keen to guard its interests, notably a route to India and vast reservoirs of oil.

Gertrude worked with Sir Percy Cox, High Commissioner of Iraq, and was present at the 1921 Cairo Conference, called by new Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill when Britain was seeking to cut costs by withdrawing its troops from the country and putting a new ruler, King Faisal, on the throne.

Ali Beg, high priest of the Yezidis (seated), and others photographed by Gertrude Bell in May 1909
Ali Beg, high priest of the Yezidis (seated), and others photographed by Gertrude Bell in May 1909

In a letter dated July 8, 1921, Gertrude described an important dinner attended by King Faisal: “the robes and the uniforms and the crowds of servants”; and “the ordered dignity of it and the real solid magnificence and the tension of spirit which one felt all round one as one felt the burning heat of the night. For after all to the best of our ability we were making history.”

She added a human touch: “But you may rely upon one thing – I’ll never engage in creating kings again; it’s too great a strain.”

Reading all this you can’t help but hear echoes of what is happening today, the West wringing its hands as it tries to solve problems (arguably of its own making) of others far away.

“Gertrude’s submissions to the British Government in London, her analysis of the situation, were a really important part of her work,” says Dr Jackson.

“But in addition to the official documents we also have, in her letters to her father, her very honest and frank opinions of colleagues and the political situation there.

“There are letters where she expresses her concerns and these represent an important part of the historical record of that time.”

Clearly she had advantages by virtue of her wealth and connections but Dr Jackson thinks her remarkable. “It was unusual then to be a female archaeologist but it was also unusual for a woman to be recruited as a political officer.

“She was involved in Faisal becoming King of Iraq but another contribution was in lobbying really hard for Baghdad to have its own museum. One of her concerns was that the heritage of Mesopotamia should be kept in the country. If people wanted to take stuff out, they had to negotiate with her.”

To those who might suggest the lines drawn in the sand by Gertrude Bell and her colleagues have led to the problems of today, Mark points out: “Well, they did last for 100 years.”


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