Famous Londoners – Gertrude Bell…

Having been granted the honour of having an English Heritage Blue Plaque unveiled at her former Chelsea home last year, Gertrude Bell is actually famous for the time she spent elsewhere.

A traveller, archaeologist and diplomat, Bell’s legacy includes a mountain named after her in the Alps – Gertrudspitze – and the key role she played in the creation of the modern state of Iraq.

Born on 14th July, 1868, in Washington, County Durham, Bell was the daughter of affluent and progressive mill-owner Sir Hugh Bell and Mary Shield Bell, who died just three years after she was born. Her paternal grandfather was industrialist and MP Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell whose role in international policy-making undoubtedly influenced her interest in the world and politics.

Bell was educated at Queen’s College in London and then at Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford University and was the first woman to graduate in modern history at Oxford with a first class honours degree. Following her graduation in 1892, he travelled to Persia to visit her uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles, a British ambassador based in Tehran.

It was the start of more than a decade of travels which included mountaineering in Switzerland – where she conquered peaks including La Meije and Mont Blanc and recorded 10 new paths or first ascents in the Bernese Alps (one previously uncharted peaks was named after her) – and visits to the Middle East including to Palestine and Syria.

During this period, Bell became fluent in Arabic along with a number of other languages and developed an interest in archaeology, working with Sir William M Ramsay on excavations in Binbirkilise in what was then the Ottoman Empire (and is now modern Turkey).

In 1909 she traveled to Mesopotamia, mapping and describing the Hittite city of Carchemish and visiting Babylon and Najaf. Her last journey across the Arabian Peninsula – a 1,800 mile trek – took place in 1913 during which she travelled from Damascus in Syria to Ha’il in Saudi Arabia.

Bell volunteered with the Red Cross in France during World War I before British intelligence put her to work using her expertise to get soldiers through the deserts, working in places including Basra, Damascus and Baghdad.

Following the war she was involved in mediating between Arab and British officials and played a significant role in the creation of the nation of Iraq, becoming an advisor to Faisal bin Hussein, the first King of Iraq, who named her director of antiquities. She was also among attendees at the 1921 Conference in Cairo.

Bell, who wrote a number of books about her travels, including Safar Nameh: Persia Pictures (1894) and Syria: The Desert and the Sown (1907), returned to Britain in 1925 where she faced family problems and ill-health before returning to Iraq where she died in Baghdad on 12th July, 1928, apparently from an overdose of sleeping pills. She was buried at the British Cemetery there.

PICTURE: An image of Gertrude Bell in Iraq in 1909. (Wikimedia Commons

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