She came into Baghdad after months in one of the world’s most forbidding deserts, a stoic, diminutive 45-year-old English woman with her small band of men. She had been through lawless lands, held at gunpoint by robbers, taken prisoner in a city that no Westerner had seen for 20 years.
She was, in fact, a spy and her British masters had told her that if she got into trouble they would disclaim responsibility for her. Less than 10 years later Gertrude Bell would be back in Baghdad, having rigged an election, installed a king loyal to the British, re-organized the government, and fixed the borders on the map of a new Iraq. As much as anyone can be, Gertrude Bell could be said to have devised the country that nobody can make work as a country for very long—no more so than now.
The Middle East as we know it was largely the idea of a small coterie of men composed of British scholars, archaeologists, military officers and colonial administrators who were called the Orientalists—this is the “orient” according to the definition first made by the Greeks, meaning everything east of the Mediterranean as Alexander the Great advanced to seize it.
For decades, beginning in the mid-19th century, the Orientalists had explored the desert and found there the ruins of the great powers of the ancient world—Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia. Through archaeology they revealed these splendors to the modern world and, from their digs, stuffed Western museums with prizes like the polychromatic tiled Ishtar Gates of Babylon, moved to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, or the Cyrus Cylinder, containing the Persian king Cyrus’s new creed of governance as he conquered Babylon, shipped to the British Museum.
They wondered why such resplendently rich and deeply embedded pre-Christian urbanized cultures ended up buried by the drifting sands of the desert, completely unknown and ignored by the roaming Arab, Turkish and Persian tribes above. The many glories of Babylon, for example, lay unexplored not far from the boundaries of Baghdad.
The Ottomans had managed Arabia through a decentralized system of provinces called valyets, run by governors they appointed. Tribal, sectarian and territorial conflicts made it a constantly turbulent place, despite the hammer of Ottoman rule. Under a more centralized system the place would have been ungovernable. But the Turks never entertained the Western idea of nation building, it was as much as they could do to keep even a semblance of order.
The Orientalists thought differently. The Western idea of nation building was the future of Arabia. As World War I drew to its end and the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the Orientalists saw an opportunity to bring modern coherence to the desert by imposing new kingdoms of their own devising, as long as the kings would be compliant with the strategic interests of the British Empire.
Into this coterie of schemers came two mavericks, both scholars, both fluent Arab speakers, both small in stature and psychologically fragile, both capable of extraordinary feats of desert exploration—a young man called T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell, a more seasoned connoisseur of the desert life.
Both had been recruited before World War I to gather intelligence on the Ottomans. Both were hard to accommodate within a normal military and diplomatic machine and so ended up working for a clandestine outfit in Cairo called the Arab Bureau, which was more aware of their singular gifts and more tolerant of their habits.
Bell’s epic desert trek in 1913-14 was already legendary. Her objective had been a city called Hail that no European had reached since 1893. Under the cover of archaeological research, her real purpose was to assess the strength of a murderous family called the al Rashids, whose capital Hail was.
The Rashids had been kicked out of Riyadh by the young Abdul Aziz bin Abdurrahman al Saud, otherwise known as Ibn Saud, who was to become the founder of Saudi Arabia.
Despite the rigors of the terrain, Bell was as susceptible to the spiritual appeal of the desert as others like her young protégée Lawrence. “Sometimes I have gone to bed with a heart so heavy that I thought I could not carry it through the next day,” she wrote. “Then comes the dawn, soft and benificent, stealing over the wide plain and down the long slopes of the little hollows, and in the end it steals into my heart also….”
When she reached Hail, the Rashids were suspicious and put her under what amounted to house arrest in the royal complex.
But as a woman, Bell enjoyed an advantage over male colleagues that she was to deploy on many missions: molesting or harming women was contrary to the desert code of conduct, even in a family as homicidal as the Rashids. For a week or so, Bell was warmly entertained by the women of this polygamous society, and the women’s gossip provided a rich source of intelligence on palace intrigues, of which there were many. From this she was able to see what her British minders valued: That the Rashids were yesterday’s men and the Saudis would likely be a formidable and independent power in Arabia. The Rashids released her, and she went on to Baghdad, Damascus, and home to London.
It was inside knowledge like this that put Bell in an influential position when the war ended and the European powers decided how they would carve up Arabia. Lawrence had committed himself to the princes of the Hashemite tribe, notably Feisal, with whom he had fought against the Turks, and promised Damascus to them. But unknown to Lawrence, a secret deal had been cut with the French, who wanted control of the eastern Mediterranean and were to get Damascus while Britain would fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire by re-drawing the map of Arabia.
The British were more aware than the French of the importance that oil would assume. Syria, the new French subject state, was unpromising as an oil prospect. The first Middle Eastern oil field began pumping in Persia at the head of the Persian Gulf in 1911, under British control, and geologists suspected, rightly, that vast oil reserves lay untapped in both Persia and Iraq.
While Lawrence left the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 stricken by the guilt for a British betrayal of his Arabs to which he had not been a party, Bell was sent to Baghdad, where Feisal was to be given his consolation prize: the throne of a new Iraq.
As well as the prospect of huge oil reserves, this new Iraq was crucial to the lines of communication to the great jewel of the British Empire, India. And, ostensibly, it was the diplomats and generals of the Indian administration who ran the show in Baghdad. But they depended on Bell as an expert and a negotiator, fluent in Arabic and used to the schisms and vendettas of the region. In fact, many of the decisive meetings as the British struggled to create a provisional government took place in Bell’s own house.
On August 23, 1921, at a ceremony in central Baghdad, Feisal was installed as the monarch of Iraq, even though he had no tribal roots in the country to assist his legitimacy. “We’ve got our king crowned,” wrote Bell with relief. And she made a claim about this election that would be echoed decades later by Saddam Hussein, that Feisal had been endorsed by 96 percent of the people, even though he was the only candidate and the majority of the population was illiterate.
Indeed, Bell was so carried away with her confidence in the nation she had helped to create that she crowed: “Before I die I look to see Feisal ruling from the Persian frontier to the Mediterranean.”
In reality, the Iraqi borders had been arbitrarily drawn and disregarded 2,000 years of tribal, sectarian, and nomadic occupation. The Persian frontier was the only firmly delineated border, asserted by mountains. Beyond Baghdad the line drawn between Syria, now the property of France, and Iraq was more cartography than anthropology. Nothing had cooled the innate hostilities of the Shia, in the south, who (in a reversal of the current travesty in Baghdad) were virtually unrepresented in Bell’s new assembly, and the Sunnis to the north, as well as the Kurds, the Armenians and the Turks, each with their own turf. Lawrence, in fact, had protested that the inclusion of the Kurds was a mistake. And the desert border in the south was, in Bell’s own words, “as yet undefined.”
The reason for this was Ibn Saud. Bell wrote in a letter to her father, “I’ve been laying out on the map what I think should be our desert boundaries.” Eventually that line was settled by the Saudis, whose Wahhabi warriors were the most formidable force in the desert and who foresaw what many other Arabs at the time did: Iraq was a Western construct that defied thousands of years of history, with an alien, puppet king who would not long survive and internal forces that were centrifugal rather than coherent.
For a while, Bell was the popular and admired face of the British contingent in Baghdad. An American visitor pleased her by calling her “the first citizen of Iraq.” The Arabs called her “Al Khatun,” meaning a noble woman who earned respect. She went riding and swimming every day, somewhat diminishing the benefits of that by chain smoking in public. She also made no secret of the fact that she was an atheist. It seemed that she was more comfortable in the company of Arabs than she had been among her peers in Cairo.
Lawrence, for example, while respectful of her scholarship, thought that Bell “had no great depth of mind” and politically was a poor judge of people and “changed direction like a weathercock.” Sir Mark Sykes, a crusty diplomat who had colluded with the French to give them Damascus, was more defiantly a misogynist. He called her “a silly chattering windbag, an infernal liar, a conceited, gushing, rump-wagging, blethering ass.”
Sometimes Bell revealed a dark self-knowledge. In 1923 she wrote to her father: “At the back of my mind is that we people of war can never return to complete sanity. The shock has been too great; we’re unbalanced. I am aware that I myself have much less control over my own emotions than I used to have.”
By then she had only three years to live, and was becoming frail from overwork. She described her routine in a letter: “I get up at 5:30, do exercises till 5:45 and walk in the garden till 6 or a little after cutting flowers. All that grows now is a beautiful double jasmine of which I have bowls full every day, and zinnias, ugly and useful. I breakfast at 6:40 on an egg and some fruit…leave for the office by car at 6:55 and get there at 7…”
As well as administrating in the manner of a colonial official, she often acted like a viceroy, receiving a stream of tribal sheiks, Arab officials or simply citizens with grievances. The king had to be managed, as he sat in his garden “in full Arab dress, the white and gold of the Mecca princes.” But she also devoted much of her time to a personal passion: creating the Iraq Museum in Baghdad where she gathered a priceless collection of treasures from the world of antiquity—reminding herself and the Iraqi people how the earliest urban civilizations had flourished around the Tigris and Euphrates.
There were, though, other loves that belied the appearance of a desiccated, workaholic spinster. She lived with the memories of two passionate romances, both thwarted.
At the age of 24 she became engaged to a young diplomat but her rich industrialist father deemed it an unsuitable match and, in the compliant Victorian manner, she ended it. Her second affair was far deeper, tragic and, in its effects, everlasting. She fell in love with Colonel Charles Doughty-Wylie, a soldier with a record of derring-do with appropriate movie star looks. But Doughty-Wylie was married, and as long as the war occupied them both neither could see a way out. Bell was, however, completely besotted:
“I can’t sleep,” she wrote to him, “I can’t sleep. It’s one in the morning of Sunday. I’ve tried to sleep, every night it becomes less and less possible. You, and you, and you are between me and any rest; but out of your arms there is no rest. Life, you called me, and fire. I flame and I am consumed.”
He responded in kind: “You gave me a new world, Gertrude. I have often loved women as a man like me does love them, well and badly, little and much, as the blood took me…or simply for the adventure—to see what happened. But that is all behind me.”
Doughty-Wylie died in the amphibious assault on the Turks at Gallipoli in 1916—ill-conceived by Winston Churchill as an attempt to strike at the “soft underbelly” of the Ottoman Empire.
Bell died at her house by the Tigris in Baghdad in July 1926 at the age of 57. She had taken an overdose of barbiturates, whether deliberately or accidentally it was impossible to tell. Lawrence by then was a recluse, in flight from the road show devised by the American journalist Lowell Thomas that had turned him, as Lawrence of Arabia, into the most famous man on Earth.
But it was Gertrude Bell, who was never a public figure, who had left the greater mark on the Middle East, for better or worse.
King Feisal, who had been ailing for some time, died in Switzerland in 1933, at the age of 48, to be succeeded by his son Prince Ghazi. The monarchy was brought down by a pro-British military coup in 1938, a regime that would ultimately mutate into that of Saddam Hussein’s in 1979.