Daughter of the Desert

Renowned as the Uncrowned Queen of Iraq, Gertrude Bell was once the most powerful woman in the British Empire

Gertrude Bell's workers at the excavations of the Byzantine settlement of Madenşehir, Binbirkilise, Turkey 1907 (Wikimedia Commons)
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Adventurer, archaeologist and Arabist, Gertrude Bell was a counselor to kings and prime ministers; a colleague of Winston Churchill and Lloyd George; a crony of T.E. Lawrence and St. John Philby, and an intimate of Arab sheiks.

"Few such moments of exhilaration can come as that which stands at the threshold of wild travel," she once wrote. And travel she did. In Switzerland the brilliant and bold Victorian climbed unexplored icy peaks, in Turkey she visited remote ruins, in Mesopotamia she studied Arabic and rode sidesaddle across the Arabian Desert, venturing where few Westerners had dared go. The Arabs pronounced her a "daughter of the desert."

In World War I, Bell became a vital source of information to the British. She "had mapped uncharted sands, noting the location of water wells and railway lines," writes author Janet Wallach. "Furthermore, she could fathom who would be friends and who would be foes of the British." As a result, she was the only woman drafted as an intelligence agent in the Arab Bureau in Cairo.

Bell's firsthand knowledge of Iraq and Persia continued to be invaluable during the postwar years. When Winston Churchill was made Colonial Secretary in 1921, he summoned his greatest experts on the Middle East to a conference in Egypt to determine the future of Mesopotamia. He invited 39 men and one woman--Gertrude Bell. She was instrumental in determining the borders of the new nation of Iraq and in choosing its first ruler, Prince Faisal. For years she was his closest personal and political adviser, a position that earned her the title of "Uncrowned Queen of Iraq."

"I don't care to be in London much," she once wrote. "I like Baghdad, and I like Iraq. It's the real East, and it is stirring; things are happening here, and the romance of it all touches me and absorbs me."


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