Tuesday, 9 July 2013

The Great Gertrude Bell (NZ311564)

One individual more than any other helped spread British influence and drive its foreign policy in the Middle East in the early twentieth century. Moreover, that individual was a single, unmarried woman … and she was born here in the North-East of England. Her name was Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell.

Born at Washington Hall (now known as Dame Margaret Hall), a little to the south of Washington Old Hall, Gertrude entered this world in July 1868. She was the daughter of a well-to-do family whose general wealth enabled her to indulge her passions and interests across the globe to considerable effect. Although her mother died when she was three, she enjoyed a privileged upbringing and graduated from Oxford University before she was 20.

Thanks to her family contacts, she was afforded the opportunity of an early visit to Persia in 1892 – and stayed overseas for a decade, travelling widely and writing profusely. She was passionately interested in history, archaeology and languages – dabbling, too, in mountaineering – and began spending more and more time in Syria and Palestine in the years immediately before the First World War. The delights of the Ottoman Empire, Mesopotamia, Arabia, Babylon and many other exotic places were also devoured by her insatiable appetite for knowledge.

She served with the Red Cross in France in the early stages of World War I, before returning to the Middle East, where the British government used her in an official capacity to help shape and build their imperial ambitions. Her knowledge and relationships with local tribesmen paved the way for many a British success in their international manoeuvrings with the Arab nations. Gertrude worked periodically alongside the famous T.E.Lawrence during this period – essentially as a spy during hostilities.

From 1915 until her death in 1926, Bell spent most of her days in the country now known as Iraq, helping to establish its borders (among other things). For several years leading up to her death in Baghdad, she served in the Iraq British High Commission advisory group and was a confidante of King Faisal. She effectively acted as a mediator between the burgeoning Arab government in Iraq and the British government (who were keen to see Iraq established as a self-governing state). She was awarded a CBE for her considerable efforts in the region over many years.

In addition to all of this, Bell did much to preserve the new Iraq’s heritage and culture, thanks to her interest in archaeology and history. The setting up of the National Library of Iraq and the Iraqi Museum were largely down to her. The strain of her workload made her frail, and she eventually died, aged 57, soon after a bout of pleurisy in July 1926 – possibly from an overdose of sleeping pills. She may or may not have committed suicide. Such was her reputation that her funeral in the Iraqi capital was a major public event.

It is fair to say that the lines Gertrude Bell helped to draw in the sands of the Middle East during the creation of Iraq (and Jordan, in fact) have indirectly led to the troubles of late in the region. But Bell herself certainly foresaw these problems, and made the best of what may be considered an almost impossible job. In fact, if others since had been blessed with the diplomatic skills of the frail little spinster from Washington, Co.Durham, then things may have panned out a good deal better in this tender part of the world. 

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