Gertrude Bell - More Than A 'Free Booting Scholar'

Cairo Conference 1921. Item F 3, Gertrude Bell Archive Newcastle University. Bell is the only woman on a camel. 

Cairo Conference 1921. Item F 3, Gertrude Bell Archive Newcastle University. Bell is the only woman on a camel. 

I wrote this piece in the early 1990s - not too long after 'Gulf War 1', when there was a great deal of topical western angst about the role that the British played in the creation of Iraq in 1921. This piece was written as the basis for a lecture to the Palestine Exploration Fund in London; and ended up on an earlier website of mine, which was deleted by BT (cheers for that) some time ago. But I recently found it on someone else's website, and retrieved it. I've left it whole, with the exception of a few extra photographic images which have since become publicly available from the Gertrude Bell Archive at Newcastle University. Sources and acknowledgements are at the end.

Cairo Conference 1921. Item F 5.1, Gertrude Bell Archive Newcastle University. Gertrude Bell is the only woman.

Cairo Conference 1921. Item F 5.1, Gertrude Bell Archive Newcastle University. Gertrude Bell is the only woman.

I've also written a recent (2017) Archaeology Blog post about the death of Gertrude Bell here

My work on the Getrude Bell Photographic Archive in Palestine is here.


Gertrude Bell - more than a 'Freebooting Scholar'

This discussion seeks to highlight Gertrude Bell as an archaeologist and historical photographer, rather than portraying in the now usual manner of diplomatic bon viveur, and contends that the value of Bell’s archaeological work has been neglected in favour of somewhat stereotypical accounts of her more ‘romantic’ activities.

Indeed, there have been recent attempts to disparage her life’s achievements. During the Gulf War [Gulf 1], the Observer published a photograph of the assembled delegates at the 1921 Cairo Conference [above], which redrew the map of the Middle East after the First World War. The conference, among other things, created Iraq and installed Faisal as its head of state. The author of the accompanying article, Lawrence Marks, wrote of the delegates: “They had been summoned by Winston Churchill to put the finishing touches on the carve-up of the collapsed Ottoman Empire. Their faces shine with imperial confidence…Behind [Churchill and Percy Cox] stand T.E. Lawrence (who had complained of acute boredom) and Gertrude Bell (in rampant flowered hat and fur stole), two of the free-booting scholars the British Government had mobilised to advise on Middle Eastern policy.”

Gertrude Bell, a “free booting scholar”? Hardly. Such attacks on Bell – who was a brilliant workaholic – might perhaps be best seen in the context of current British unease with their colonial role in the creation of countries such as Iraq. Bell excelled in the fields of languages (especially Persian), translation, photography, diplomacy and archaeological exploration. In 1918 she was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographic Society of London for her exploration of the Arabian Desert and her archaeological surveys. In 1919 the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act became law in England and Wales, and, subsequently, Gertrude Bell became the third woman to be voted into that prestigious male bastion, the Society of Antiquaries of London. Plus, by all accounts Gertrude Bell had little time for the dissolute Lawrence.

The life of Gertrude Bell is reasonably well known as a result of the publication on many (edited) letters and selected portions of her diaries, and she regarded as an interesting and important figure in the Edwardian politics of the Middle East. Biographies of Bell have concentrated on this role as diplomatic figure, highlighting her then uncommon presence in the world of formal male authority overseas; she moved in circles which included Winston Churchill, T E Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) and King Faisal. Also discussed at length is the supposed “romance” of her life, an aura she herself helped to promote though her prolific output of the letters and journals which greatly informed her biographers’ texts. How Bell actually wrote herself is therefore important. It is her own concentration, in her letters and diaries, on her political and emotional involvement with the Middle East and its male institutions, and her desert travels, which has led to the comparative neglect of the other aspects of her life and work. Little attention has been paid to her work as a historian and archaeologist, for example, notably her important archaeological photography and surveys, and the significance of the fact that she founded the first of the British School abroad (in Baghdad). In addition to this, numerous academic accounts of early photography in the Middle East have excluded her from their accounts.

The life and subsequent writing and rewriting of Gertrude Bell clearly charts more than a simple tale of British heroine abroad and subsequent role model for women. Bell’s preferred “route to power” is a complex and ultimately depressing story (she hated the suffragettes; she took her own life at the age of 58), and her virtual non-relationship with the then archaeological establishment in Britain is a sad indication of the intransigence of both parties concerning her own perception of the importance of her work abroad. She was blunt and prickly, by many accounts, but she was extremely gifted; her great failing, in the eyes of the great men of the reading rooms of England, was that she knew too well just how brilliant she was. Her fluency in languages – Persian and Arabic among them – and her detailed knowledge of the landscapes made her indispensable at times in Middle Eastern diplomacy, but she was but a woman and her role was always an informal (and unpaid) one.

What are the structures that hold La Dame de Baghdad (as biographer M-J Simpson calls her) in place? It is useful to contemplate the myth versus the reality of Gertrude Bell, and to consider that the romanticising of her character has led to a diminution of appreciation of her work. Further, the vested interests of individuals – notably biographers and archivists – who feel that want Bell to “be” a particular kind of person, and Gertrude Bell herself, have influenced the way in which she is perceived.

Gertrude Bell: formative years

Gertrude Bell was born into a wealthy upper class family in County Durham in 1868. At the age of 18, when University education for woman was still a rarity, she “went up” to Oxford where she obtained First Class Honours in Modern History after only two years of study – the fist woman to achieve such distinction in this subject. Bell now began to travel, suitably accompanied, with her family’s blessing (and money). She visited Persia with her cousin Frances Lascelles whose father was then ambassador in Tehran, and it was here that Bell began her successful foray into the learning of other languages: Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Italian and German lessons were all enthusiastically undertaken (she already knew French). During this early trip to the Middle East she discovered that she enjoyed mingling with the European diplomatic personnel abroad; and they, in turn, whilst not accepting her as a complete social equal – she was, after all, a woman – certainly respected her social standing, her intelligent interest in political affairs and her linguistic abilities.

Gertrude Bell 1899, A34 Western Wall Old City Jerusalem, Gertrude Bell Archive Newcastle University.

Gertrude Bell 1899, A34 Western Wall Old City Jerusalem, Gertrude Bell Archive Newcastle University.

The story of Gertrude Bell, traveller, diplomat, archaeologist and photographer really begins in Jerusalem in 1899. Amongst the earliest of her archaeological photographs are views and details of the Old City walls and gates, the Temple Mount and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. She also began to photograph people – Arab residents, Christian pilgrims, Jews at prayer, Bedouin encampments, Europeans at leisure – they all caught her eye.

Gertrude Bell A86 1900, "Jews from Bokhara" By Roadside. Gertrude Bell Archive Newcastle University

Gertrude Bell A86 1900, "Jews from Bokhara" By Roadside. Gertrude Bell Archive Newcastle University

She used a early Kodak, but she belongs to the second generation of archaeological photographers. In fact she was one of a fairly large band of British late Victorian and Edwardian archaeologists in the Middle East who benefited from the invention of flexible negative film in 1884, and so were able to travel widely with a camera, and to photograph so much that was to disappear forever during the Great war and the subsequent upheavals. [Source: Dr Jeremy Johns, lecture manuscript.]

Gertrude Bell 1900, A129, Keeper of the Jordan Bridge. Gertrude Bell Archive Newcastle University

Gertrude Bell 1900, A129, Keeper of the Jordan Bridge. Gertrude Bell Archive Newcastle University

Expeditions and Politics

Gertrude Bell’s very first desert expedition began in Jerusalem in March 1900, and it took her to Jericho, the Jordan Valley, Kerak and Petra. The party camped in tents brought with them on pack mules. She was smitten.

From Gertrude Bell’s journal, March 1900. Approaching Kerak: “Immense…ruins, some columns, the end of a temple standing. On and on over gigantic furrows with no view till at 4 we came to the top of the last [furrow] and saw Kerak ringed with forts standing up on its hill. Down 1000ft. and up, no water in the valley… Very hot fine day. I got up at 7 and photographed. Breakfasted at 8 and then took an old ruffian called Girius, a Christian, to guide me…The lamb has not arrived!”

Arriving back in Jerusalem in April, she immediately made plans for her next journey into the desert – again with correct entourage of course, with usually comprised members of the household of Dr Rosen, a German diplomat known to the Bells. Her second foray out of Jerusalem in April 1900 comprised quite a party:

“Left Jerusalem at 2 after a hot morning of packing and rode to Jericho in a dust-storm with Dr R and Nina, arriving at 7. We have Hanna, Musa and Hassan with us, a cook of Dr R’s Costanzi and five mules.”

Photographs taken down at the Dead Sea during this journey reveal the tight riding garments required of respectable Europeans. Even in March and April the heat must have been oppressive, though Bell did improve her personal comfort on this journey by wearing a divided skirt and riding astride, not side saddle.

Gertrude Bell's Party at the Dead Sea 1900, A130, Gertrude Bell Archive Newcastle University.

Gertrude Bell's Party at the Dead Sea 1900, A130, Gertrude Bell Archive Newcastle University.

Now 32 years old, she was starting to display some spirit and a genuine fascination for the ancient ruins. The entirety of the Middle East began to engage her mind and her natural photographer’s eye, kick-started by the special photogenic qualities of the Old City of Jerusalem and the surrounding landscape.

The realisation seems to have begun to grow within her that her travels need a purpose – a visible, public purpose – and that astute observation would be required to differentiate her from the common herd and tourist caravans. Her expeditions would have to be ambitious, reaching far-flung outposts, and meticulously recorded and reported. She herself would need to be respected and assisted throughout the region. And thus she very deliberately began carving out her niche in the Middle Eastern world, finding it relatively easy to be introduced to the Europeans and easterners with power and influence. Her ambitious journeys impressed the middle Eastern community. One diplomat, Wilfred Thesiger, always maintained that Bell’s last arduous and dangerous three-month camel journey, made in 1913-14, across the Nejd Desert from Damascus to Hail, then over the Euphrates to Baghdad and back across the desert to Damascus, made her the serious woman traveller of all time. To add to this, Bell not only photographed and chronicled such journeys in diaries and letters – she took some 700 photographs on her final journey alone – but she also published a number of academic books about the landscapes and archaeological remains which she encountered, examined and recorded. Perhaps the best known of these is the evocatively titled The Desert and the Sown, first published in England in 1907. She also gave public lectures during her visits to England, famously packing out the lecture room of the Royal Geographical Society in London on one such occasion.

Gertrude Bell 1900, Church of the Holy Sepulchre Old City Jerusalem, Gertrude Bell Archive Newcastle University

Gertrude Bell 1900, Church of the Holy Sepulchre Old City Jerusalem, Gertrude Bell Archive Newcastle University

In her beloved Middle East, Bell absorbed it all: the wild, the cultivated and the built landscapes; the ancient monuments so well preserved but, at the time, so little understood; and the peoples and the tribes – Arab, Bedouin, Druse, Jew, Christian, European – who endlessly brushed shoulders and jostled for position. These were the turbulent years when the Ottoman Empire was in decline and the western colonial powers – especially Britain – were busy creating modern political geography. Ultimately she gave herself body and soul to this region. It was particularly during and after the First World War, as a direct result of her mastery of Arabic languages and her first-hand knowledge of the tribal allegiances and the geography of the region that Bell became involved in politics and diplomatic activities in the Middle East. She was attached to the Arab Bureau first in Cairo and then in Baghdad, and was particularly influential in the establishment of her friend King Faisal, a Saudi, as Head of State in the new state of Iraq after the War. In 1922 she declared that she had obtained “the love and confidence of a whole nation”. But Faisal’s Iraq was not a success, and, in the ensuing turmoil, Bell found herself increasingly excluded from political matters. On her last visit to England she was, reportedly, thin and wan. One wonders if her exclusion from political life, combined with the depression which is apparent on occasions in her writing, had become a real problem for her. (See journal entry below). She died from a laudanum overdose, administered by her own hand, in 1926, in Baghdad. This was rather “hushed up” by the British authorities there, and accorded the status of an accident; of course the possibility remains that it was indeed an accident. Suffice to say, she died alone in her bedroom in Baghdad in 1926.

She had made plans before she died. Her love of archaeology never waned and she spent the last years of her life setting up the Baghdad Museum and left money to establish the British School of Archaeology in Iraq at Baghdad, an event which took place in 1932 six years after her death. (British Schools were later set up in Rome, Jerusalem, Amman, Athens and Ankara.) She bequeathed her books, papers and photographic archives to the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Gertrude Bell was not the first woman to travel in and be captivated by the Middle East, nor was she the last. Lady Hester Stanhope had made a number of famous journeys in the first half of the 19th century, residing awhile in Palmyra, for example, in 1820. But Lady Hester was a dreaming aristocrat, a romantic who yearned to “find herself” in the desert and for whom her journeys were a means and a reason for literary self-expression. Freya Stark, the redoubtable traveller of the 1920s and 1930s, was also inspired to journey in the Middle East by a love of writing and romantic inclination – “inspired more by the glamour of T E Lawrence’s World War I exploits than by scholarly interest in other cultures”, writes her biographer Molly Izzard.

Gertrude Bell, however, was no Romantic; she was a workaholic pragmatist with a piercing intellect. The meticulous recording of her journeys in the eastern deserts, and the purpose she brought to them, are in a class of their own. Yet this was a life of contrasts: an existence predicated on adventure and independence, certainly, but also one based on difference and solitude, which occasionally revealed itself in her writings:

“I have known the loneliness in solitude now, for the first time, and in the long days of camel riding and in the long evenings of winter camping, my thoughts have gone wandering far from the camp fire into places which I wish were not so full of acute sensation. Sometimes I have gone to bed with a heart so heavy that I thought that I could not carry it through the next day. Then comes the soft dawn, stealing over the wide plain and down the long slopes of the little hollows, and in the end it steals into my dark heart also … That’s the best I can make of it, taught at least some wisdom by solitude, taught submission, and how to bear the pain without crying out.”

Originally published at [this website is now deleted]; Retrieved from [].


Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University Library [now online at];

Dr Jeremy Johns, unpublished manuscript and papers [from the period when part of the collection was physically in the Department of Archaeology, the Quadrangle, Newcastle University];

HVF Winstone Gertrude Bell: A Biography;

M-J Simpson La Dame de Baghdad;

Acknowledgements and thanks also to Lynn Ritchie and Lindsay Allason-Jones. Molly Izzard cited above.