Gertrude Bell had a lot of authority in Mesopotamia and Iraq around the time of World War 1. A lot. She hobnobbed with people like the young Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence (i.e. Lawrence of Arabia), helped draw the borders of the newly created country of Iraq, and even tried to educate its first king, Faisal I.
But all of this happened in the first two decades of the twentieth century – a time when women having this kind of authority was virtually unheard of, whether it was in Bell’s homeland of Great Britain, or in Mesopotamia. So how did she end up wielding such influence?
According to UBC’s Dr. Lisa Cooper during a lecture for The Canadian Society for Mesopotamian Studies last Wednesday, what catapulted Ms. Bell into those rarefied levels was her background in archaeology. Bell knew the region intimately, having engaged in extensive travels and making detailed measurements and notes for the important ancient sites she encountered. On one trip, in 1909, she began at Aleppo in Syria, journeyed down the Euphrates to Babylon, came back up along the Tigris River, and then headed west into Anatolia, which is modern day Turkey.
These were not the idle travels of a gentlewoman trying to keep herself amused. Bell’s meticulous measurements and detailed photographs are sometimes all we have left of sites that were later looted or even destroyed. And when modern archaeologists return to many of the sites she described, her descriptions and conclusions still stand, and are often still cited authoritatively.
Dr. Cooper showed us one primary example of Bell’s expertise, on the site of the Ukhaidir Fortress, about seventy five miles southwest of Baghdad. Bell was able to examine the vaulting of the roofs and the types of domes used, and accurately pinpointed the influences — both western and eastern — that went into their construction. She recognized some elements learned from western Iran and others that seemed to have originated in pre-Christian Roman times.
The Newcastle University Library in Britain contains Bell’s archives, including all her photographs, diaries, and letters. In her diary entry of March 25, 1909, you can read how matter-of-factly she decided that Ukhaidir must be mapped:
The size and splendour of the place were a revelation and at once decided that I must plan it. Lunched with Mr Watts and then set to work. He gave me the measurements.
Astonishingly, despite that “size and splendour,” Bell had finished her work in three days. And the entry for the day (March 27) she spent writing out all her observations is very telling:
At night we went into the great hall to hear Ghamin[?] the guide sing to the Rebaba. A wood[?] fire and two wicks placed in the square holes above the columns. Ma’ashi made coffee and Ghamin sang the kasida of Abd ul Aziz ibn Rashid, then the kasida of the the Beni Sakhar and finally that of the Anazeh. There is a song too about this castle. They say it belonged to Na’wan ibn Munthir. Chosroes came and beseiged him here and was put to flight. Then one of his chief men induced him to cut off his ears and send him to Na’wan crying for vengeance against Chosroes. Na’wan received him well and wished him to take up his abode with him. He said in that case he must bring all his goods, 150 camels loads. He brought them and set them down in the big court and in the night armed men stepped out and sacked the castle.
This passage is significant because it shows another aspect of how Bell achieved the authority and influence she did. She didn’t just examine ruins, but she interacted with the people in the areas she studied. She learned the history of these regions not just from dead ruins but from living beings who could tell her stories and legends.
Dr. Cooper brought Gertrude Bell very much to life for the fervent and knowledgeable audience who attended her lecture. With extensive photographs and her own expert storytelling, she helped us understand why this woman stood with Lawrence, Churchill, and others as a historical authority and a nation builder.