Gertrude Bell, a sort of woman Indiana Jones

by Andrada Costoiu

Photo:British author and archeologist Gertrude Bell, in Babylon, Iraq, WikiCommons

Ignored or completely unknown, Gertrude Bell was another remarkable woman who left traces in our history. I have written about her before, but that is being published somewhere else and since I cannot share it on my website, I’m still going to tell you about her ….in a different way.

She was a misfit, one that naturally went against the stereotyped woman of the early twentieth century.  She was born in England, in 1868, into a wealthy family. Her mother died while giving birth to her brother Maurice and her father remarried Florence Bell soon after, while Gertrude was seven years old. Florence, now her stepmother, was also a woman with visions. She was a playwright and author of children’s stories and she instilled in Gertrude a sense of responsibility. 

Getting an education

She studied at Oxford. In a time when women were not allowed to study almost anything, history was one of the few subjects they could tackle.   Did you know that back then women at Oxford had to remain silent in lectures and could not interact freely with professors or male classmates? Ah, I wonder where did these women found grace to behave as they were asked. Anyway, it is said that Gertrude was the first woman to graduate in Modern History at Oxford.

The wow Gertrude

A lot of records list her as an archeologist or as a writer, but for me the accent should be put on her travels, on her quest to uncover unknown paths and on her cultural and political power in the Middle East. A rebel against gender convention, she became successful in the male-dominated fields of geography, archeology and statecraft.

Mountain climbing

Yes, she climbed mountains! She started in 1899 and she changed her skirt in for pants to make climbing more comfortable. We heard of Tom Ballard, the king of Alps, but back in the very beginning of 1900’s, Gertrude climbed several famous mountain peaks in the Swiss Alps. Today, there is a mountain, the Gertrudespitze, which is named in her honor.

Middle East travels

Photo:Sgt. Reeves. A.F.M. Miss Gertrude Bell, Iraq; Repository San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive

Gertrude felt at home in the desert, here is where her heart was.

I’ve been in the desert myself. Despite what the word “desert” summons in our imagination and feelings, the desert is an astounding place. Its quietness goes down into your being and you feel more alive and more you than in any other place in the world. Here you’re undisturbed by the constant murmur of the world.

So Gertrude, I understand.

Her desert odyssey started in 1900 and she travelled across the Arabian desert many times. Many people thought of her as a specie of lunatic British explorer. I think the fact that they underestimated her was her lucky charm.

Her knowledge helped the European powers decide how to carve Arabia after the war. There is a movie made about her and her travels: “Queen of the desert”.

Under the cover of archaeological research, she traveled to Hail, to assess the Rashids, a historic Arabian House who were the most formidable enemies of the House of Saud. I don’t know what she saw or what she said but we all know that Ibn Saud was the one that became the founder of Saudi Arabia.

Many say that Gertrude was a spy. I don’t know how I feel about this, I guess if you’re not there, you don’t know the reasons, or if you didn’t read enough, you should not speak. So, I will not speak. I want to highlight her courage rather than the political games.

 She was also involved and played a big role in the creation of Iraq, she played the role of mediator between the Arab government and British officials and later on she played an important part in the administration of Iraq.

Love…love….but not so much love….

Gertrude never married, but she had several love affairs.

Her first love was an Englishman, Henry Cadogan. She was so in love and wanted to marry him, but her father did not approve. Henry died nine months later. 

This is a picture of Nicole Kidman who plays Gertrude and James Franco(Cadogan) in the Queen of the Desert movie

Later in her life, she had a passionate affair with Sir Frank Athelstane Swettenham, a colonial administrator. I don’t know much about him, if you’re interested you can find more at the link above. I think he was a man full of life, as he remarried at the age of 89…

There are so many other many aspects of Gertrude’s life that made her remarkable: she volunteered for the Red Cross in France during the World War I, she worked for the British Intelligence, she helped form The Baghdad Archaeological Museum, now called The Iraqi Museum, she worked with archaeologist Sir William Ramsay in Anatolia and together they wrote a book….and I’m sure there are many other things that I cannot remember and hence I didn’t mention.

Remarkable woman; an example of courage and of YES, YOU CAN!


© Andrada Costoiu and, 2019 . Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrada Costoiu and, 2019 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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