Queen of the desert

Gertrude Bell was many things: an archaeologist, an intelligence officer and a great British eccentric. Above all, however, writes Iris Mostegel, she was a key figure in the Middle East during the First World War and the woman who shaped modern-day Iraq

By Iris Mostegel

23 August 1921: as the sound of a twenty-one gun salute resounds around Baghdad, a woman smiles. "Long live the king!" proclaims the master of ceremonies. Arabs, Jews and Christians in the palace courtyard applaud. As the new monarch catches the eye of the female officer in the front row, she gives a modest salute.

Gertrude Bell is satisfied. The coronation of her protege Faisal I, King of Iraq, is the culmination of her life's work. "But you may rely upon one thing," she previously wrote to her father, "I'll never engage in creating kings again; it's too great a strain."

The years that followed the First World War were historic ones. With the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, the map of the Middle East was redrawn. The terms of the Sykes-Picot agreement (1916) meant that the Arab territories formerly under Ottoman rule were divided between Britain and France, which carved up the different provinces, creating new countries as they did so. As a result, the Ottoman vilayets (provinces) of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul were united to form a new coherent entity, known from 1921 onwards as the Kingdom of Iraq.

Gertrude Bell was instrumental in creating this entity. After all, it was she who drew up the majority of the country's borders and selected its ruler. The Uncrowned Queen of Iraq, Daughter of the Desert, Mother of the Faithful ... these were just some of the sobriquets applied to Bell. On that day in 1921, she was at the height of her power.

It was all a far cry from her early adult years. In fact, the story of Gertrude Bell and, by extension, the history of Iraq began with a ball gown.

Cannon in Fort Seddil-Bahr, which was occupied by British and French troops, Gallipoli, 1915 (photo: picture-alliance/bildarchiv)
The British Empire on the back foot: Britain was coming under pressure in its military campaign against the Ottoman Empire. After the defeat at Gallipoli and the siege of Kut al-Amara soon after, things looked bleak for the British in 1915

From the ballrooms of London society to the tents of the Arabian desert

London, 1889. Gertrude Bell was 21 years old and in the market for a husband. Having obtained a first class honours degree in history at Oxford, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist family danced her way through London society's ball season, the marriage market for upper class progeny.

Three years later, and still without a spouse, she went travelling, indulging along the way in unusual activities such as mountaineering in Switzerland (the 2,633-metre-high Gertrudspitze in the Bernese Oberland still bears her name).

But as fascinated as she was by the mountains, it was the desert that captured her heart. Bell's passion for the Middle East stemmed from an early trip to Persia in 1892. She began learning Arabic, studied archaeology and undertook her first research expedition into the Syrian Desert.

Intrigued, the polyglot redhead immersed herself in this strange world over a period of many years. Then one day in November 1915, she received a telegram: the British Empire needed her. The First World War was in full swing.

Britain was coming under pressure in its military campaign against the Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany and Austria-Hungary. With the defeat at Gallipoli in 1915, followed just a couple of months later by the siege of Kut al-Amara, things were looking bleak for the British. Now was the time to launch the tide-turning plan that had long been under discussion in secret diplomatic circles: the idea was to win over the Arab tribes as allies and incite them to revolt against the Turks. To achieve this, however, they needed crucial information: which tribes were well-disposed towards the English? Who were the potential troublemakers? Only a handful of English nationals were in a position to provide the answers to these questions and Bell was one of them. She had travelled thousands of miles across the deserts of Arabia on the back of a camel, had shared bread and salt with the Bedouin as a sign of friendship and listened attentively when they expressed their political opinions.

A tribal leader once said of her, "She is only a woman, but she is a mighty and valiant one." The local people trusted this strange green-eyed foreigner who spoke eight languages, regarding her more as an Arab than an English woman.

The British delegation in Cairo visiting the pyramids at Giza on 20 March 1921 (photo: Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, King's College, London)
The architects of the new order in the Arab world following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire: the British delegation in Cairo visits the pyramids at Giza on 20 March 1921. The group included Clementine Churchill, Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell and T. E. Lawrence

Major Miss Bell

On the morning of 3 March 1916, a British troop carrier docked at the port of Basra in southern Mesopotamia. A woman disembarked, hitching up her long skirt with one hand, holding her hat in the other. It was Gertrude Bell. After a brief stint working for the Arab Bureau in Cairo, this "remarkably clever woman with the brains of a man" had been drafted to Basra by the Viceroy of India.

She set to work immediately: drawing up maps indicating the best line of advance towards Baghdad for the army, developing profiles on the Bedouin tribes and exploiting her contacts with their leaders in a bid to convince them to enter into an alliance with Britain.

Suddenly Bell's knowledge was highly coveted; her dizzy ascent began. Initially, as the British army's first ever female intelligence officer ("Major Miss Bell"), she was above all needed for her knowledge of the region and her status as confidante to the Arab desert sheikhs. Later on as oriental secretary, from 1917 onwards, she helped shape the political framework of the future state of Iraq. In addition to her expertise, it was her political insight that caused a stir in London; where others could only see the details, she (often) had an eye for the big picture.

But Gertrude Bell had a problem. She annoyed people, especially the generals on the ground. Many felt threatened by her intellect and her self-confidence – like the time she dressed-down an officer in the mess, calling him a "little imp!" Tit-for-tat followed. One colleague spoke of her "boundless complacency", while the diplomat Mark Sykes, Britain's chief negotiator of the Sykes-Picot agreement, had dismissed her years before as a "silly, chattering windbag of conceited, gushing, flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blethering ass."

Bell's political views inevitably led to an escalation. She had become a fervent advocate of Arab self-determination, and that at a time when her fellow countrymen still frequently disparaged the locals as "frocks".

Modern Iraq: model for the rest of Arabia

People began to scheme against her, exclude her and keep her in the dark. Nevertheless, she declared she was prepared to "go to the stake for it" or worse. Indeed, at this stage, her vision of the future country of Iraq had already begun to take shape. She wanted to create a tolerant, modern flagship state, one that would serve as a model for the rest of Arabia – albeit under the supervision of Britain, that is, of herself. Though a staunch supporter of the Arab cause, she remained British, bent on serving the interests of her homeland. In the case of Mesopotamia, that interest was (principally) oil.

Despite the bickering that dogged her work, however, Bell blossomed in Baghdad, where she lived from 1917 onwards. She loved the horseback-riding, the picnics under date palms with her confidant, the fruit and vegetable farmer Haji Naji, and the hours of conversations with bazaar merchants (it was over sweet tea and cigarettes with them that she picked up the latest rumours circulating in the region).

At the same time, she also relished her role as the influential hostess of PSAs, "pleasant Sunday afternoon(s)" – garden parties hosted at her home. Here she discussed political developments with society′s most influential figures, fascinating them with her ability to analyse complex tribal feuds one minute, only to chat about the latest dances from England – or how many knots per inch the perfect Persian rug should have – the next. She seemed to have all but forgotten the two unhappy liaisons in her past, which had once almost broken her.

"Long life to the Arab Government!"

King Faisal I of Iraq (photo: dpa)
The coronation of Gertrude Bell's protege Faisal I, King of Iraq, was the culmination of her life's work. "But you may rely upon one thing," she wrote to her father, "I'll never engage in creating kings again; it's too great a strain"

Then, in the autumn of 1920, things in Baghdad suddenly began to move very quickly. Triggered by an uprising of Iraqis, the British mandate opted in favour of affording the country its long-awaited independence. "Long life to the Arab Government! Give them responsibility and make them settle their own affairs and they'll do it every time a thousand times better than we can", exclaimed a gratified Bell. An Iraqi government was formed, a prime minister appointed and a voting system developed.

All the country now needed was a ruler. For Bell, admittedly, it had long been clear who would be "the absolute first choice": Faisal, the 36-year-old son of the Sharif of Mecca and the leader of the Arab revolt against the Ottomans. In her eyes, he was the person most capable of holding together the fragile country with its Shia, Sunni, Kurdish, Christian and Jewish communities.

Bell prevailed: firstly by persuading the colonial secretary, Churchill, at the Cairo Conference of 1921 and later, after months of protracted negotiations, the Iraqis themselves. Faisal was confirmed by a referendum result of 96 percent. Preparations for the coronation began.

Bell was exhausted but satisfied, believing she had done her best for Iraq. Little did she know that her decisions, whether taken alone or in consultation with others, sowed the seeds of today's bloody conflicts – the intentional institutionalised political side-lining of the Shia in favour of the Sunnis, for instance, or the integration of the (oil-rich) province of Mosul and its Kurdish population in Iraq.

Waning influence

At six o' clock in the morning on 23 August 1921, the master of ceremonies proclaimed "Long live the king!", a 21-gun salute sounded over Baghdad and the band played "God Save the King". The fledgling state did not yet have either a national anthem or final borders. This would be one of Bell's last major projects, which she concluded with the words, "I had a well-spent morning at the office making out the southern desert frontier of the Iraq." Subsequently her influence began to wane; she was needed less and less. Her time was indeed past.

Bell became lonely and depressed. She resumed work as an archaeologist – a poor substitute for her former position of power. At the age of 54, the grey-haired Major Miss Bell fell in love for a third and final time, only to be disappointed again.

On the evening of 11 July 1926, Bell asked her maid to wake her at six o' clock the following morning. She went to bed, never to wake up again. On her bedside table was a bottle of sleeping pills. She had taken an additional dose. Was it intentional? No-one will ever know. Two days before her 58th birthday, she slipped away. To this day, she remains buried, in accordance with her wishes, in Iraq – the country for which she had such great plans.

Iris Mostegel

© Qantara.de 2015

Translated from the German by Lucy James

The film "Queen of the Desert", directed by Werner Herzog and starring Nicole Kidman, will go on theatrical release in Germany on 3 September 2015.