The glow of celebrity surrounding T.E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, first brought to the public’s attention by American journalist Lowell Thomas and later immortalized by Peter O’Toole in David Lean’s feature film, has eclipsed all other British intelligence officials working in the region at the time. One of those individuals, who worked side-by-side Lawrence in Cairo, was much more influential and had a more lasting impact on the Middle East. She was also a woman.
Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) was a British explorer, spy, political powerhouse, author and archaeologist. Fluent in Arabic and tribal dialects, she traveled widely in Arabia before being recruited by British military intelligence during WWI. After the war, she helped draw the borders of Iraq and shape the modern Middle East. She was the most powerful woman in the British Empire in her day. One of her most enduring legacies was the Iraq Museum, which she founded. It was infamously ransacked during the American invasion in 2003.
Astonishingly, Bell is virtually unknown in the west. Like so many other extraordinary women, she has been written out of history.
Five years ago, we began producing a documentary film about Gertrude Bell, Letters From Baghdad. America had pulled the last of our troops from Iraq and the war no longer took center stage in the headlines. But we were drawn to Bell’s story—she was a complex, fascinating woman who was pivotal in the tangled history of the modern state of Iraq. She left behind more than 1,600 letters detailing her journeys into the uncharted desert and into the exclusively male halls of colonial power. We were attracted to the parallels between the 1917 British occupation of the region and the 2003 invasion of Iraq by American forces. Tragically, recent events in Iraq and Syria have made Bell’s story much more timely and urgent.
We were amazed to find in Bell’s archive her unparalleled work in documenting and photographing ancient sites. The destruction of ancient sites by ISIS has shined a spotlight on her work as an archaeologist and photographer. The devastating fighting in Syria has damaged or destroyed countless other ancient buildings that she documented over a century ago in Aleppo and Raqqa. Bell would have been heartbroken to know that her photographs are among the only evidence left of many of these sites.
It was an interest in archaeology that helped propel Bell’s many trips into the desert, beginning in 1900 to Palmyra. She nurtured the ambition of being the first to discover and document a site. Early in her travels she recognized the importance of photographic documentation, along with notes, drawings, rubbings and casts. Bell left more than 7,000 photographic negatives. Of these, an estimated 5,000 are of ancient sites and antiquities, shot primarily between 1900 and 1918. Tireless in her creation of a photographic record, she sometimes pasted individual photographs end-to-end to create panoramas, before acquiring a panorama camera. At times, she processed and printed her own negatives, and experimented with flash lamps. Her panorama photographs of ancient sites are stunning; the negatives are nearly 12 inches wide.
Compiled by Dr. Elisabeth Cooper, author of In Search of Kings and Conquerors, the following is a brief listing of the sites ISIS has destroyed that Gertrude Bell photographed 100 years ago: Palmyra, a major caravan stop and trading center at a desert oasis in the Syrian Desert that thrived during the Greco-Roman Period; Nimrud, in northern Iraq, was a major city of the Neo-Assyrian Empire from 9th-7th centuries BCE; Nineveh, located outside Mosul was the last capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire; Hatra, a caravan stop and trading center in the desert steppe of northern Iraq flourished during Parthian and Roman eras; Mar Behnam, a Syriac Christian monastery near Mosul originally built in the 4th century; Imam al-Dur Mausoleum, an Islamic Shi’a shrine near Samarra, dated to the 11th century CE.
Preservation of ancient sites and antiquities was second nature to Bell and she quickly became an advisor on the subject to the British High Commissioner in Baghdad, where she was stationed as a high-ranking official. She wrote to her parents in 1918:
“On my way home yesterday…I stopped at Babylon, having been asked by Sir Percy to advise on what we ought to do about the preservation of antiquities.”
Bell became Honorary Director of Antiquities and set about finding a home for thousands of artifacts. The establishment of the Iraq Museum was a huge undertaking and Bell overcame multiple challenges in order to find a home for the vast collection of artifacts and make sure that they would be properly looked after. She understood the value of the ancient artifacts and her plans for the new museum included a security plan.
“I also discussed with the police how we should protect the new museum. We have such a number of valuable things which you can’t keep in safes for they must be exhibited and safes are not good for that.”
During the American invasion of 2003, the museum was left unguarded, and was looted and ransacked. Thousands of artifacts went missing, although some have since been returned. More than 4,000 cylinder seals that Gertrude Bell painstakingly catalogued and exhibited are still missing.
In the spring of 1926, Bell’s father began pressuring her to return to England, for health reasons. She demurred, writing:
“It isn't merely a responsibility to the 'Iraq but to archaeology in general. I could not possibly leave things in this state except for the gravest reasons. I work at it as hard as I can, but it’s a gigantic task - of course I love it…”
When we exclude women from history, we also lose their stories and their accomplishments, their passions, their labors of love and their private obsessions. In Gertrude Bell’s case, we hope to restore not just a forgotten woman, but possibly, a vanishing world.