The Life + Lessons of Gertrude Bell

The Life + Lessons of Gertrude Bell

By Niamh Ni Mhaoileoin



Because this extraordinary explorer, archaeologist and spy provided insight into the Middle East that could help the troubled region today. 

By Niamh Ni Mhaoileoin

As the Middle East spirals out of control, Western leaders could learn a lot from their World War I predecessors. They recognized the vast complexity of the Arab world and, to gain a better understanding, drew together a small group of intellectuals with unparalleled knowledge of the region and its language, politics and culture. 

The most famous member of Britain’s “Arab Bureau” was T.E. Lawrence, but the title of most intriguing goes to Gertrude Bell, the first woman employed by the British Intelligence Service and one of the pre-eminent desert explorers of her time. An archaeologist, mountaineer, writer and unofficial diplomat, Bell played a decisive role in the foundation of modern-day Iraq.  

Bell earned entry into circles that few, if any, women had ever joined before.

Gertrude Bell in Iraq, 1909

Gertrude Bell in Iraq, 1909

Source Corbis

Born to a wealthy English family in 1868, Bell was, like all women of her class, expected to become a wife and mother and to acquire the skills necessary to circulate in high society: dancing, music and languages. But her parents soon realized that Gertrude — far more intelligent than her governesses — would not be satisfied with that life. They sent her to school in London and Oxford, where she became the first woman to earn a degree in modern history with top honors.

She traveled extensively throughout her 20s and became an Alpine mountaineer. In 1892 she visited relatives in Tehran, a pivotal trip that prompted her to study advanced Persian and Arabic, eventually attaining fluency. 

Bell’s early adventures may have been made possible by her family’s wealth, but by the time war broke out in 1914, she had established herself as one of the best-qualified “Arabists” in the British Empire, earning her a place in the Cairo Bureau.

Over the next 12 years, Bell traveled across the Middle East six times, visiting Iraq, Iran, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. She crossed the desert on horseback, with a team of Arab guides, servants and guards, meeting with nomadic Bedouin leaders. Arab communities had then, as now, conservative views regarding the role of women, but Bell’s foreignness and her careful attention to etiquette gave her access to circles that few, if any, women had ever joined before.

Bell played a decisive role in the foundation of modern-day Iraq.

Their work was dedicated to tipping the balance of Arab loyalty in Britain’s favor. Housed in the smoke-filled rooms of grand Cairo hotels, this think tank would eventually instigate the Arab Revolt, which was essential to the Allied victory over Turkey. 

Bell certainly stood out among her colleagues, sporting a wartime uniform that, according to biographer Georgina Howell, consisted of “blue and white striped cotton dresses with flowers at the waist and large straw hat.” Yet she matched her colleagues in every task and, like many women spies, sometimes used her gender to her advantage, teasing valuable information out of those who didn’t take her seriously.


From 1915 onwards, she advised the British government on its wartime strategy, outlining the influence and personality of Arab leaders to powerful figures back home, including Winston Churchill, with whom she corresponded directly. Her insight was right on the money: She highlighted, for example, that a young man called Ibn Saud was the most influential leader in the region, a theory borne out today as the House of Saud continues to rule Saudi Arabia.

After the war, she attended the Paris Peace Conference and lobbied the victorious allies to uphold their promises of Arab independence, and wrote an authoritative white paper on civil administration in Mesopotamia, which was applauded by both Houses of Parliament and laid the groundwork for her greatest achievement: the establishment of modern Iraq. Bell helped map the boundaries of the new country, contributed to the design of its constitution and was a trusted adviser to King Faisal I. Later, she founded the Baghdad Archaeological Museum and supported social projects, including the construction of schools for Iraqi girls. 

[Bell had] an intimate knowledge of the Arab world, which she used to map boundaries, suggest policies and smooth international tensions.

Bell’s role in establishing the Middle East as we know it today could be used to implicate her in its current crises. And while that’s true to an extent — Faisal was, for example, a Sunni leader whose appointment alienated many Shi’a and Kurds — Bell in fact opposed many of the West’s most damaging interventions in the Arab world. She was not informed of and later vocally criticized the Sykes-Picot agreement which, secretly signed in 1916, is an ideological focal point for today’s Islamic State. The militants reject the Sykes-Picot borders between Iraq and its neighbors.

Iraqi gravekeeper Ali Mansur points to the tomb of Gertrude Bell in Iraq, April 30, 2006.

Iraqi grave keeper Ali Mansur points to the tomb of Gertrude Bell in Iraq on April 30, 2006.

Bell also questioned Britain’s early promises of a Zionist homeland in what was then Palestine, fearing that the British administration had not given due consideration to the existing population, which she believed would breed a Jewish-Arab conflict.  

Unfortunately, Bell saw little of Iraq’s development. Intense work, the harsh climate and a string of personal tragedies combined to take a toll on her physical and mental health, and in 1926, at just 57, she overdosed on sleeping pills.  

In a period of ever-increasing hostility between Arab and Western nations, it’s difficult to imagine the emergence of a contemporary Gertrude Bell. While she freely roamed the desert, today’s diplomats need security vetting, an armored car and bodyguards to venture outside the Green Zone. She, too, faced considerable risk, but Bell’s extensive travels equipped her with a far-reaching and intimate knowledge of the Arab world, which she used to map boundaries, craft policies and ease international tensions.

Sadly for today’s aspiring Middle East diplomats, no amount of schooling can translate to Bell’s extraordinary level of access and expertise.