Queen of the desert from Tynedaleleisure-tynedale
She was a popular visitor to her half-sister Molly’s home at Wallington Hall, Cambo, but she was also a contemporary of Winston Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia. With a Hollywood blockbuster about the life of the maverick adventurer Gertrude Bell released this year, we delve into the archive of a woman who founded the Iraq Museum in 1923
TO her nieces and nephews at Wallington she was simply Aunt Gertrude who would entertain her young relatives with fascinating desert tales that could have leapt straight from the pages of The Arabian Nights.
When they were children she would arrange picnic parties for them and her niece, Lady Pauline Trevelyan remembered her standing “with her back to the fire smoking a Turkish cigarette in a long holder, and discoursing on… people past and present, history, letters, art and architecture, her travels, archaeology, our family and how devoted she was to all at home, above all to her father.”
Thanks to David Lean and Lawrence of Arabia most people know all about the part played by T.E. Lawrence in the fight for Arab self-determination in what is now the Middle East.
However, the role played by Gertrude Bell, so crucial to the establishment of Iraq following the First World War, has historically been glossed over. As Helen Berry, professor of British history at Newcastle University, observes: “She’s missing from that film. David Lean wrote her out of history.”
Hopefully though, a new Hollywood blockbuster by director Wernor Herzog will restore this remarkable woman’s place in our heritage. Starring Nicole Kidman as Gertrude and Damian Lewis as the acknowledged love of her life, Dick Doughty-Wylie, it was premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, though as yet no general distribution date has been given.
Gertrude was born in 1868 at Washington New Hall, her grandfather’s home, into the sixth richest family in England. Sadly her mother, Mary, died of pneumonia when Gertrude was three and she was brought up by her stepmother, Florence, whom her father, the Middlesbrough iron master, Sir Hugh Bell, married when his daughter was eight.
The couple went on to have more children of their own, including Molly, who in 1904 married Charles Trevelyan, the man who placed Wallington into the guardianship of the National Trust, and Elsa, later Lady Richmond, who donated the Gertrude Bell archive to Newcastle University in 1926 following her sister’s death at the age of 58.
It was an amazing gift which comprises more than 7,000 photographs, mostly of the archaeological sites Gertrude visited on her seven journeys around Arabia. Indeed Damian Lewis visited the university last year in order to read the love letters between Gertrude and Doughty-Wylie in preparation for his film role.
Professor Berry and Dr Mark Jackson, lecturer in archaeology and manager of the Gertrude Bell photographic archive are busily putting together an exhibition to be mounted at the Great North Museum in January 2016 that will tell her story.
Professor Berry said: “She spoke six foreign languages fluently and was the first woman to get a first in history at Oxford, but she wasn’t allowed to graduate because women weren’t allowed to be awarded degrees.”
Her taste for travel began in 1888 when her parents, eager to dispel what Florence termed, her ‘Oxfordy manner’ suggested she go to Bucharest, one of the smartest capitals of Europe.
She spent several months in Bucharest and then visited Tehran. Her travels continued with two round the world trips in 1897-1898 and in 1902-3.
Gertrude could easily have settled for a cosseted life as an heiress, but she was a courageous adventurer intent on making her mark. She mastered archaeology, cartography and mountaineering, becoming the most prominent female climber of her time. She scaled the Matterhorn in 1904 and even has an Alpine peak named after her – Gertrudspitze in the Bernese Oberland.
But it was the deserts of Arabia that drew her and between 1905 and 1914 she embarked upon several ambitious, archaeological expeditions to the Middle East travelling to Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
She documented her 1905 expedition through the Syrian desert to Asia Minor in The Desert and the Sown, whilst her 1907 study of Binbirkilise in Turkey was published, with Sir William Ramsay, as the Thousand and One Churches. Her meticulous diaries, along with the photographs she took throughout her travels, form the core of the Newcastle University archive.
Dr Jackson said: “It’s the archaeological content of the photographs and what she writes about them in her books that’s really important because much of that is lost for many of the sites. No one has been back to do such work in such detail since and, even if they were to do that, they would not be able to record the same things she recorded.”
Gertrude became a fluent Arabic speaker and learned the etiquette of desert life – particularly how to deal with the different sheikhs she met from the many and varied nomadic tribes.
Professor Berry said: “She realised she needed to surround herself with a queenly entourage so she could pass safely through quite dangerous areas. She had a train of camels; she knew to bear gifts; she had a show of arms and weaponry and she got around the fact that she was a woman by demonstrating her power in a way that the local people could understand. They understood the idiom of the queen and she would always go straight to the most powerful local person.”
Dr Jackson added: “The first thing you do is you find the person in charge and as long as you have drunk tea with that person then everything else falls into place. She knew how it worked and played that system. She was conforming to their understanding.”
It was Doughty-Wylie, a war hero in the Welch Fusiliers, whom she met and fell in love with at the age of 38, and who called Gertrude his ‘queen of the desert’.
But their love affair was doomed. Doughty-Wylie had already been married three years before meeting Gertrude, the year she scaled the Matterhorn and, although they obviously loved each other passionately, this was the early 20th century and the relationship was never consummated. Doughty-Wylie was to die at Gallipoli in 1915 and was awarded the VC.
Gertrude’s first-hand knowledge of the Middle East had made her a target of British intelligence recruitment during the First World War and she worked with T.E. Lawrence and others in the Arab Bureau in Cairo, as Major Miss Bell, the first woman officer in the history of British military intelligence.
When in 1921 the British government held a conference at Cairo to decide the political future of the region, Gertrude was the only woman amongst 40 delegates, including Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence.
She became a king maker when her preferred choice Faisal (son of Hussain Ibn Ali, the Sharif of Mecca and King of the Hejaz) was crowned king of the new state of Iraq.
But Gertrude’s first love remained archaeology and as Honorary Director of Antiquities in Iraq, she established the Iraq Museum in Baghdad where a bronze plaque was dedicated to her after her death a couple of days before her 58th birthday in Baghdad in 1926. She died from ‘dial poisoning’ – diallylbarbituric acid, used then as a sedative but discontinued because of its widespread use in suicide attempts.
Professor Berry said: “There’s some suggestion that she took her own life, but we just don’t know. I think people don’t adapt well to peace time. She had had an extraordinary life and had been involved in the cut and thrust. I would not be surprised if she took her own life. It might have been, in her mind, the rational thing to do.”
Dr Jackson is ambivalent
“She was in the midst of working on the museum collection when she died. Fifty years after her death, Agatha Christie’s husband published a piece in the Journal of Iraq where he talks about her last months and she has clearly been working very hard and is clearly quite tired and engrossed in this enormous task so in some ways it seems surprising that she stops in the midst of that but as Helen says, enormous tasks can become too much.”
Professor Berry believes Gertrude’s absence from mainstream history may be to do with her politics. Gertrude was the secretary of the Northern branch of the Anti Suffrage League just as Emily Pankhurst’s followers were becoming very radical.
“There was a distaste amongst the establishment that women were behaving very badly and inappropriately. It had moved into hunger strikes and so on so I think Gertrude’s response was very much of her class. She identified very strongly with people in authority who worried that this was going to lead to a breakdown in society. It was more important (for Gertrude) to maintain stability in the Empire and women should stick to their correct role, although she regarded herself as completely exceptional to that.”
Professor Berry added: “I think later generations have stereotyped her as this rather mannish, masculine, strident person. I don’t think she fits that description at all. She was not this two dimensional, harridan – that’s not true. She was a three dimensional passionate woman who had friendships and emotions.”