Gertrude Bell: a Shaping Force in Iraq

Gertrude Bell in front of her tent in Iraq

Gertrude Bell in Iraq, 1909

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.

 

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Those Trypilians could show Egypt and Sumer a thing or two

Trypilian Pot 2I must say, I’m not used to thinking of the ancient Egyptians or Sumerians as latecomers in the “civilization” department.

But after visiting the Royal Ontario Museum last weekend and seeing the exhibit, “Mysteries of Ancient Ukraine: The Remarkable Trypilian Culture,” I’m forced to reconsider everything I thought I knew about the beginnings of history.

To say this was a sophisticated society is an understatement. Where I expected perhaps some bits of primitive pottery and rough arrowheads (the culture went back to 5000 BCE, after all), there were large, elaborately painted pots, small models of houses, detailed figurines, bowls and cups, and other sculptures. The Trypilians were already living together in surprisingly large numbers, with a surprisingly complex society of art and culture, when the Egyptians and Sumerians were only starting to stir.

trypilian-figureThis culture was the first to build what can only be called cities, the biggest settlements with populations as large as 15,000 people. They were both hunters and farmers, living in large dwellings, some of them two storeys high. According to the posted information, there’s nothing yet that reveals their political structure, and strangely, no one has ever found cemeteries or discovered their funerary arrangements. But every three or four generations, they would burn down their settlements and move elsewhere.

The Trypilian culture is still not well known in the wider world, even though it was discovered in 1896, near the village of Trypillia, by archaeologist Vikenty Khvoika. Perhaps political matters in that area overshadowed archaeology for a few decades, meaning that the world didn’t get a chance to become familiar with this society.

trypilian-potWhatever the case, we’ve had a good look at it now, thanks largely to the request of Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko. During his election to office in 2004, he met with the chair of the ROM’s board of directors, James Temerty, then in the country as a Canadian observer. Yushchenko, who has himself collected some pieces of Trypilian pottery, asked Temerty if the ROM would put this exhibition together, so the world would finally become aware of Ukraine’s deep cultural roots.

And so it transpired, four years later, with the ROM having the distinction of organizing the entire exhibit, and being the first museum in the world to bring this culture out of Ukraine on such a scale.

trypilian-binocularsThe atmosphere in the exhibit is warm and intimate. Curving corridors walled with lattices of dark wood imitate the complex sworls that decorate the huge pots, each short hallway curving into another section of the exhibit. The largest pots, several loaned by Yushchenko himself, stand on pedestals so observers can circle them and take in the detail of their painted designs. Smaller objects are placed in well lit cases, the figurines gazing distantly back through the glass, and the odd “binoculars” (like two tankards connected together, but with open bottoms) providing an unsolved mystery, since no one knows what they were used for.

My friend and I are always sceptical when some ancient artifact is automatically deemed to be of a religious nature. And I mused, wandering from case to case, whether having a look at Ukrainian cultures that succeeded this one might give a clue to the real beliefs of the Trypilians. Some ideas do survive through folk tales, songs, and so on.

trypilian-playhouseThis fact struck us as we looked at the miniature houses, thinking of them as doll houses rather than ritual objects. We were mystified about why these miniatures were all on stilts or legs, when real Trypilian dwellings stood firmly on the ground.

Then my friend remembered the Slavic story of the Hut on Fowl’s Legs. Could we have been observing the truly ancient root of that old folk tale? It’s an intriguing idea.

The exhibit’s last day is this coming Sunday (March 22, 2009). Rumour has it that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City now wishes to show this Trypilian collection, and has engaged in negotiations. If true, Victor Yushchenko’s wish is coming true. The world is finally discovering that its earliest great civilization may have originated in Ukraine, and not farther south. This could force historians the world over to rethink their assumptions about humanity’s early history.

Egypt and Sumeria, move over!

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(For an account of the exhibit’s opening, and more information about it, see this article originally published in the National Post.)