Saturday, 9 February 2019

Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations.

Published by Faber, Strauss and Giroux, New York 2007.

It's a fine biography of a remarkable, courageous, wise, foresighted, and utterly determined Englishwoman.

Born to a prosperous Co. Durham family, (wealthy industrialists with a liberal conscience), she obtained a First in History at Oxford in just two years; traveled in Europe and became a renowned mountaineer (in the days before crampons were invented, and women climbers were rare).  

She was fluent in six languages.

But her passion became what we used to call the Near East, or Mesopotamia:  the modern lands of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Palestine.

There she traveled the great deserts, seeking and exploring  ancient archaeological sites; making maps of  the ancient desert cities and camel routes.

She might have gone down in history as a great archaeologist, but Gertrude Bell could not be placed in a convenient small box.   

She began to delight in the various and sundry Arab cultures, clans, tribes, religions; (Sunni and Shia Muslims and other faiths) she respected them and learned from them. She was certainly the most brilliant and wise "Arabist" of her generation ( 'though T.E. Lawrence gets most of the credit).

Above all, she became a fierce and determined advocate for the right of self determination of the Arab peoples, when and if the Ottoman Empire overlords were driven out.

She became the most trusted English person by the various Arab leaders in the Arab world.

At the end of WWI  many of her insightful hopes for Mesopotamia were not realised, partly because of the secret Anglo/French "Sykes/Picot" agreement; and partly because the British Government, having been given a League of Nations mandate to oversee modern Iraq was largely deaf to her wisdom ( the most deaf being one Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill  to Gertrude Bell's left in the book cover picture, who always knew that he knew more about any topic under the sun that anyone else knew).

Gertrude Bell's life defies all our stereotypes about Victorian/ Edwardian English woman.   

And a tip of the hat to her father Hugh Bell who was one of her greatest boosters, financial supporters, and tenderly loving Dad,

Gertrude Bell probably took her own life in 1926.   She was buried with all Iraqi State and Protestant Church ceremony and honours in Baghdad.   I hope that her grave is yet well cared for.

The wikipedia article below will introduce you to Gertrude Bell.

It's good as it goes, but it is more like the bones on a nice piece of (say) Trout.  Read the book  (see above) to savour the flesh.

No comments:

Post a Comment