Gertrude Bell 1868-1926
(Full name Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell) English nonfiction writer and archaeologist.
Bell was one of the first Western women to travel and do archaeological research in the deserts of the Middle East. She wrote extensively on the ancient cultures of the region, and documented the daily experience of her travels as a prolific letter writer. Bell also established and was the first director of the State Museum for Antiquities in Baghdad, Iraq.
Bell was born into an upper-class family in county Durham, England. Her father was a knighted industrialist; her mother died when Bell was two. Bell's step-mother, Florence Eveleen Eleonore Olliffe, was a noted dramatist, novelist, and nonfiction writer. After graduating from Oxford in 1888 with honors in history, Bell was forbidden by her parents from marrying Harry Cadogan, a man she apparently loved and who died a year later. In 1892 she visited Persia—now Iran—for the first time, and inaugurated a peripatetic life devoted to the study of ancient cultures and the preservation of antiquities. Her accomplishments include traveling around the world twice, attaining fluency in Arabic and Persian, climbing the Swiss Alps, and conducting major explorations of the Middle Eastern deserts, many never before visited by a Westerner. She was also made a Commander of the British Empire and a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society. With her travels restricted by the events of World War I, Bell worked first for the Red Cross as a tracker of missing persons, and then for the British intelligence service out of Cairo, Egypt. After the war, she worked with Thomas Edward Lawrence—immortalized as "Lawrence of Arabia"—helping to establish the nation of Iraq. An accomplished and seemingly independent woman, Bell was a founding member of the Woman's Anti-Suffrage League, believing that strident feminism, symbolized by the right to vote, was a hindrance to the progress of women in English society.
Bell's first work, Safar Nameh (1894), a book of essays on her travels in Persia, was first published anonymously; she was not happy with the quality of the work at the time. It was subsequently published under her name, with an introduction in which she somewhat disclaims the book as a youthful effort. Safar Nameh has been praised for evoking the natural beauty of what is now Iran, and for conveying the romantic enthusiasm of the author. Her first major work, Syria: The Desert and the Sown (1907), is an account of her first serious expedition in the Middle East, started in 1905, during which she journeyed through Syria, Turkey, and Yemen. The title of the book comes from Omar Khayyam's The Rubaiyat (eleventh-twelfth century), in Edward Fitzgerald's 1859 translation; "The strip of herbage strown that just divides the desert from the sown." In Amurath to Amurath (1911) Bell describes her experiences during a 1909 journey that took her along the Euphrates river from Aleppo to Hit, then to Karbala and Baghdad. During this trek she met with Kurdish tribesman and visited the castle at Ukhaidir, considered a superlative example of Sassanian architecture and reminiscent of pre-Muhammadan buildings. This book was criticized by some commentators at the time for emphasizing architectural detail and history over the narrative of her trip. Palace and Mosque at Ukhaidir (1914) describes her return to this site, and is copiously illustrated with Bell's drawings and photographs.
Safar Nameh. Persian Pictures. A Book of Travel (nonfiction) 1894; also published as Persian Pictures, 1928
Poems from the Divan of Hafiz (translation) 1897
Syria: The Desert and the Sown (nonfiction) 1907
The Thousand and One Churches [with Sir William Ramsay] (nonfiction) 1909
Amurath to Amurath: A Study in Early Mohammadan Architecture (nonfiction) 1911
Palace and Mosque at Ukhaidir (nonfiction) 1914
The Arabs of Mesopotamia (nonfiction) 1917
The Civil Administration of Mesopotamia (nonfiction) 1920
*The Letters of Gertrude Bell (letters) 1927
†The Earlier Letters of Gertrude Bell (letters) 1937
The Arab War: Confidential Information for General Headquarters (nonfiction) 1940
‡Gertrude Bell: A Selection from the Photographic Archive of an Archaeologist and Traveler (photographs) 1976
*This work was edited by Lady Florence Bell.
†This work was edited by Elsa Richmond.
†This work was edited by Stephen Hill.
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SOURCE: "A New Art of Travel," in Fortnightly Review, Vol. 95, No. 8, March 1, 1911, pp. 470-92.
[In the following essay, Robins recounts a trip she took with Bell to Arabia and discusses Bell's writings on Arabia.]
There is a natural freemasonry among travellers. Even he whose journeying has been brief, and scarce beyond the borders of his native land, will nevertheless come home with a better knowledge, not of other places only, but of his own relation to his fellow-man; so little can the best-equipped carry with him, so much at every turn does he find himself in need of the knowledge and goodwill of those he meets.
No amount of couriers or maps will relieve the traveller of dependence upon those, he goes amongst. The situation in which he finds himself, abroad, sets in a high, clear light certain facts that only the stay-at-home may disregard.
I am moved to these reflections by a journey I have just made under conduct of the person whose name is at the head of this paper. The lands through which she led me were as strange to me as they could be to any pilgrim. That they are strange no longer, that I know my way now to new sources of beauty and refreshment, that I come home with a sense of exhilaration so keen, bringing memories of adventure in the desert and Arabian Nights entertainment in Khans and Palaces, I owe to the two volumes named in my sub-title....
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SOURCE: Preface to Persian Pictures by Gertrude Bell, Boni and Liveright, 1928, pp. 5-11.
[In the following preface to Persian Pictures, Ross discusses Bell's early impressions of Persia and includes a lengthy excerpt from a letter Bell wrote to her cousin Horace Marshall.]
The letters of Gertrude Lowthian Bell are so fresh in the public mind, and seem so clearly destined to become a classic, that there is little need in this place for biographical details. It will suffice to say that she was born on July 14, 1868, at Washington Hall, Durham, then the residence of her grandfather, the late Sir Lowthian Bell. In 1885 she entered Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and in 1887 took a brilliant First in History. During her student days in Oxford, when she indulged in games with no less zeal than in her studies, she seems to have caught the fever of the Orient, so that when in 1891 her uncle Sir Frank Lascelles was appointed Minister in Teheran we find her declaring that the great ambition of her life was to visit Persia. Thus it came about that in the spring of 1892 Gertrude Bell set out for Teheran with Lady Lascelles, and the little book now re-issued was the fruit of this her first excursion into the East. Part of it was written on the spot and part of it after her return to England. In a letter dated 1892 (presumably in December) she writes, 'Bentley wishes to publish my Persian things, but wants more of...
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SOURCE: "The Emma of the Desert," in A Small Part of Time: Essays on Literature, Art and Travel, 1957. Reprint by Dufour Editions, 1961, pp. 129-37.
[In the following essay, Swan discusses a volume of published letters Bell wrote to her father and stepmother from abroad.]
There is evidently some special quality in the British national character which has produced so long a succession of indomitable women travellers; it is almost impossible to imagine a Lady Mary Wortley Montagu from France recounting her lively stories of adventure in the harems of Stamboul, or a Lady Hester Stanhope from Italy dominating the caravanserais of the Syrian desert. The Latin mind must find lives so adventurous as theirs alarmingly unfeminine; the Moorish invasion of Spain and those Saracenic raids on the littorals of Italy left behind them the indelible mark of female sequestration.
All the same, it seems to have been the achievement of our women travellers rarely to lose their feminity, to produce, in fact, an often delightful form of hermaphroditism: they will gossip as women but outmarch the strongest man; they will show feminine will by insisting on reaching a desert ruin before sunset, but show a masculine appetite for scholarship when the time comes to make the account of the journey. In this century we have had two great descendants in the line from Lady Mary and Lady Hester; Miss Freya Stark and...
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SOURCE: "Bell of Baghdad," in Archaeology, Vol. 44, No. 4, July/August, 1991, pp. 12, 14, 16.
[In the following essay, Fagan discusses Bell's influence on archeological expeditions in Persia as well as her important role in the creation of the Iraq Museum.]
For all its troubles in recent months, Baghdad's Iraq Museum remains one of the world's great repositories of antiquities. Like so many other major museums, it owes its existence to the vision and drive of an inspired archaeologist, in Baghdad's case the indefatigable Gertrude Bell. Born in 1868, the daughter of a wealthy English industrialist, Bell was accustomed to having her way. She entered Oxford at the age of 18 at a time when female students were not allowed outside the college precincts unchaperoned. It is said that she had the un-heard-of temerity to disagree with her examiners during her orals, a portent of things to come.
After leaving Oxford in 1892, she set out on the first of her many travels, which included a seven-month stay in Jerusalem. The literary reviews were quick to take notice of her writings, among them some poetry and a travel book on Persia. She had the luxury of ample means and could afford to take her time. In Jerusalem, she improved her Arabic and had her first taste of desert travel, enduring "tents with earwigs and black beetles, and muddy water to drink." She acquired an addiction to the desert and...
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Burgoyne, Elizabeth. Gertrude Bell: From Her Personal Papers, 1889-1914. London: Ernest Benn, 1958, 320 p.
Early biography of Bell. The volume includes many of her letters and other autobiographical writings.
Hill, Stephen. "Gertrude Bell." Antiquity 50, Vols. 199-200 (September-December 1976): 190-93.
Overview of Bell's life and work.
Kamm, Josephine. Daughter of the Desert: The Story of Gertrude Bell. London: The Bodley Head, 1956, 191 p.
Sympathetic account of Bell's life and career.
Winstone, H. V. F. Gertrude Bell. London: Jonathan Cape, 1978, 322 p.
Examination of Bell's life that makes use of material unavailable to previous biographers. Winstone claims his portrait of Bell is less one-sided than earlier accounts.
Review of Persian Pictures, by Gertrude Bell. Life and Letters 1, No. 4 (September 1928): 318-20.
Positive assessment of an early work. The reviewer also praises Bell's Poems from the Divan of Hafiz, a volume of poems by the fourteenth-century Persian mystic Hafiz that Bell translated, and for which she wrote an extended historical introduction.
Review of Persian Pictures, by Gertrude Bell. The London Quarterly XXXV (1928):...
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