Gertrude Lowthian Bell (“GLB” in her British Intelligence Reports) was many things in her extraordinary life, but amidst the global-trotting, international politics, and alpine ascents, she managed to fit in archaeological investigations and the creation of the National Museum of Iraq.
Born in 1868, GLB was something of a prodigy, attaining a First Class in Modern History at the University of Oxford in 1885, after only five terms at Lady Margaret Hall. Her travels began soon afterwards, and it was through this and voracious reading that she developed an ever-growing social network with the great and the good of Victorian and Edwardian society, scattered around the British Empire. Her capacity to learn new languages and develop new skills made her a proficient self-teacher and a fascination with the Near and Middle East led her to eventually settle there.
Gertrude started learning Persian in the early 1890s when she spent time in Tehran with her aunt and uncle, Mary and Frank Lascelles. During this decade she travelled with family or friends who had important social and political connections, constantly expanding her network wherever she went. She visited historic places and spent hours each day reading on new subjects. By 1897 she could publish her translations of Poems from the Divan of Hafiz. She wrote hundreds of letters and kept her diary, all the time building up her knowledge of the people, history, and culture of the places she experienced.
GLB started to learn Arabic in 1899 when she visited Jerusalem and from 1900 began to make desert journeys in what was then part of the Ottoman Empire. In the spring of 1900 visited the ruins of Mashetta, Petra, Bosrah and Palmyra. By this time she had also become a proficient photographer.
In January 1902 she was photographing and drawing Maltese ruins; by March, excavating at Byzantine sites on the Turkish coast including at the Ionian city of Colophon and surveying the temples and palaces of Pergamos. She also began printing her own photographs, in improvised darkrooms. At the end of the year she went to India, encountering Agra, Jaipur and the remains of the Moghul Empire. This typified her curiosity as a wide-ranging scholar “with an almost intuitive understanding of ancient architecture and archaeology.”
In 1904, Salomon Reinach (Director of the French National Museum of Antiquities) asked Bell to review Josef Strzygowski’s book on Turkish church architecture and art, Kleinasien: ein Neuland der Kunstgeschichte. Unsurprisingly, she made an expedition in 1905 to visit these sites, via Syria, Palestine, and the Levant. Whilst visiting Homs, the Greek colonial sites at Hama and Apamea, Aleppo, and Adana, she also familiarised herself with the tribal groupings of the region – a lifetime obsession that would equip her for intelligence and political work during and after the First World War.
This trip led to her research with Sir William Ramsay at the Anatolian Byzantine churches of Binbirkilisse (Barata), her first episode of sustained, recorded, and published fieldwork. It resulted in The Thousand and One Churches which they wrote together. In 1909 her most important journey of geographical discovery took her along the Euphrates, including her first visit to the castle at Ukhaidir, 120 miles south-west of Baghdad. Although previously described, Bell surveyed the massive structure and returned to it in early 1911. Her interest having opened up the site to other researchers, she published her work in 1914 in collaboration with a German expedition. Over the years she was to meet with a number of German and British archaeologists as she explored the cultural, political and archaeological character of the region.
In mid-1914 Bell was back in London. Her first contributions to the war effort were at home and in France with the Red Cross, but in 1915 she was invited to join British Intelligence in Cairo, using her expert knowledge to assess the political situation of the Near and Middle East, Arabia and Persia. From March 1917 her office was located in Baghdad. Both during the First World War and after she was extremely concerned about the security of the archaeology of Iraq. She took it upon herself to visit sites to check for looting, examined wartime damage to the arch of Ctesiphon, and toured Baghdad’s bazaars to intervene in artefact sales.
Although her archaeological expertise equipped her to pursue this work, the wider context of GLB’s intervention was her desire to see Iraq become “a centre of Arab civilisation and prosperity”, as she explained in a letter of 10 March 1917 to her father. While her boss Sir Percy Cox intended to send antiquities to London, in early 1922 the new leader of Iraq, King Faisal, appointed GLB Honorary Director of Archaeology in the Department of Antiquities, part of the new Iraqi Ministry of Works. Her responsibilities included ensuring that the growing number of expeditions were not using out-dated excavation methods, and that artefacts were shared fairly between the research teams and Iraq itself.
To this end, GLB supervised the new generation of British and American diggers coming to the country, and in 1923 established the Baghdad Archaeological Museum (now called the National Museum of Iraq). She had a proper building for the museum by mid-1926, but died on 12 July that year having taken an overdose. The foundations of scholarship that she laid were further cemented by £6,000 which she willed towards the creation of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq (founded in 1932 as a memorial to Gertrude). For someone whose only formal qualification in field skills was a course of instruction in survey methods and map projection at the Royal Geographical Society in October 1907, Gertrude Lowthian Bell achieved a phenomenal amount of well-received archaeological exploration and research. Established at a time of immense political turmoil and considerable violence, her archaeological legacy in the region is still being championed.
Goodman, S. (1985) Gertrude Bell Leamington Spa: Berg Publishers Ltd
Winstone, H.V. (1978, 1980) Gertrude Bell London: Quartet Books Ltd
Written by Katy Whitaker
Drawing of Gertrude Bell by Nathan Gelgud, inspired by Gertrude Bell’s ‘A Woman in Arabia,’ in 2015 and originally published in Signature. Reproduced here with permission. Map drawn by Katy Whitaker and used with permission.
The Gertrude Bell archive at the University of Newcastle includes digitised photographs, letters and diary entries available online at http://www.gerty.ncl.ac.uk/