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Monday, September 12, 2011

Famous English traveler, administrator in Arabia, and a writer of renown


Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell, CBE (14 July 1868 – 12 July 1926) was an English writer, traveller, political officer, administrator, and archaeologist who explored, mapped, and became highly influential to British imperial policy-making due to her extensive travels in Greater Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Arabia. Along with T. E. Lawrence, Bell helped establish the Hashemite dynasties in what is today Jordan as well as in Iraq. She played a major role in establishing and helping administer the modern state of Iraq, utilizing her unique perspective from her travels and relations with tribal leaders throughout the Middle East. During her lifetime she was highly esteemed and trusted by British officials and given an immense amount of power for a woman at the time. She has also been described as "one of the few representatives of His Majesty's Government remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection".

Bell was born in Washington Hall, County Durham, England - now known as Dame Margaret Hall - to a family whose wealth enabled her travels. She is described as having "reddish hair and piercing blue-green eyes, with her mother's bow shaped lips and rounded chin, her father’s oval face and pointed nose". Her personality was characterized by energy, intellect, and a thirst for adventure which shaped her path in life. Her grandfather was Isaac Sir Lowthian Bell, an industrialist and a Liberal Member of Parliament, in Benjamin Disraeli's second term. His role in British policy-making exposed Gertrude at a young age to international matters and most likely encouraged her curiosity for the world, and her later involvement in international politics.

Bell's mother, Mary Shield Bell, died in 1871, while giving birth to a son, Maurice. Bell was just three at the time, and the death led to a close relationship with her father, Sir Hugh Bell, 2nd Baronet, who was three times mayor of Middlesbrough, High Sheriff of Durham 1895, Justice of the Peace, Deputy Lieutenant of County Durham, Lord Lieutenant of the North Riding of Yorkshire. Throughout her life she consulted with him on political matters. Some biographies say the loss of her mother had caused underlying childhood trauma, revealed through periods of depression and risky behavior. At seven Bell acquired a stepmother, Florence Bell, and eventually, three half-siblings. Florence Bell was a playwright and author of children's stories, as well as the author of a study of Bell factory workers. She instilled concepts of duty and decorum in Gertrude and contributed to her intellectual and anti-feminist activities in the Anti-Suffrage League. Florence Bell's activities with the wives of ironworkers in Eston, near Middlesbrough, may have helped influence her step-daughter's later stance promoting education of Iraqi women.
Gertrude Bell received her early education from Queen's College in London and then later at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University at age 17. History was one of the few subjects women were allowed to study, due to the many restrictions imposed on them at the time. She specialized in modern history, in which she received a first class honours degree in two years.

Bell never married. She had an unconsummated affair with Major Charles Doughty-Wylie, a married man, with whom she exchanged love letters from 1913-1915.Upon his death in 1915 at Gallipoli, Bell launched herself into her work.
Bell's uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles, was British minister at Tehran, Persia. In May 1892, after leaving Oxford, Bell travelled to Persia to visit him. She described this journey in her book, Persian Pictures. She spent much of the next decade travelling around the world, mountaineering in Switzerland, and developing a passion for archaeology and languages. She had become fluent in Arabic, Persian, French and German as well as also speaking Italian and Turkish. In 1899, Bell again went to the Middle East. She visited Palestine and Syria that year and in 1900, on a trip from Jerusalem to Damascus, she became acquainted with the Druze living in Jabal al-Druze.She traveled across Arabia six times over the next 12 years.

She published her observations in the book Syria: The Desert and the Sown published in 1907 (William Heinemann Ltd, London). In this book she described, photographed and detailed her trip to Greater Syria's towns and cities like Damascus, Jerusalem, Beirut, Antioch and Alexandretta. Bell's vivid descriptions opened up the Arabian deserts to the western world. In March 1907, Bell journeyed to the Ottoman Empire and began to work with the archaeologist and New Testament scholar Sir William M. Ramsey. Their excavations were chronicled in A Thousand and One Churches.

In January 1909, she left for Mesopotamia. She visited the Hittite city of Carchemish, mapped and described the ruin of Ukhaidir and finally went to Babylon and Najaf. Back in Carchemish, she consulted with the two archaeologists on site. One of them was T. E. Lawrence. Her 1913 Arabian journey was generally difficult. She was the second foreign woman after Lady Anne Blunt to visit Ha'il.

She never married or had children. Some say the death of Major Charles Doughty-Wylie affected her for the rest of her life and may have added to a depressive state. She was buried at the British cemetery in Baghdad's Bab al-Sharji district.Her funeral was a major event, attended by large numbers of people including her colleagues, British officials and the King of Iraq. It was said King Faisal watched the procession from his private balcony as they carried her coffin to the cemetery.

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