The Female Scholar Behind Iraq’s Independence

Gertrude Bell refused to heed the dictates of conservative British society. Instead, she toured Africa and Asia, becoming an important scholar and an adviser on the Middle East for the British Empire

Rachel Goldberg
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Gertrude Bell

Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) was a female pioneer. The daughter of wealthy industrialists, she was born into a life of comfort with a clearly defined path set out, one ending in marriage and family. It was a life she wasn’t interested in, since Gertrude, who stood out for her intelligence from an early age (she received first-degree honors in modern history at Oxford in just two years), had no desire to spend her days attending balls and tea parties.

After she completed her studies, she spent some two years in the social circles of London, but failed to take a real interest in them. At 24, she went to visit her uncle, then Britain’s ambassador to Tehran. This visit ignited Bell’s love of the Middle East, and she would return to the region again and again for extended periods of time.

Bell published a number of books. The first, released in 1894, was dedicated to her experiences during her first trip to Iran, and titled Safar Nameh, Persian Pictures: A Book of Travel. In 1897, she published an English translation of the Divān of Hafez, a classic collection of Persian poetry. Her other books deal with her experiences and scholarly impressions from her trips across the Middle East.

Interestingly, she hardly wrote anything on her great trek to Ha’il in the Arabian Peninsula. Ha’il is a harsh and dangerous desert region, and Bell was only the second woman to ever cross it successfully. Her skill at riding horses helped her on her journey. Although she rejected the life of luxury she was born into, she was known for always bringing along a Wedgewood set of China and lavender soap.

Bucking the custom of the time, Bell travelled alone. Josephine Kamm, who wrote a brief biography of Bell, wondered whether Bell would have continued her life of adventure and travelling to distant lands if she had married her first love Henry Cadogan, who died of pneumonia.

Her expertise in the history, geography, and politics of the Middle East made her a central figure in Britain’s struggles in the region during and after the First World War. Indeed, Bell was among the major participants at the Cairo Conference convened in 1921 by Winston Churchill, then serving as Colonial Secretary.

The Cairo Conference of 1921. Source: Wikipedia

Gertrude Bell stands out in photos from the conference in that she was the only woman among the dozens of men who took part. She was not invited as a “token” but as an adviser to the British High Commissioner in Iraq. The conference aimed to find a solution to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after its defeat in WWI and to resolve the contradictory promises given by the British and French to the Arabs during the war years. Bell and Sir Percy Cox, the British High Commissioner in Iraq, presented their plan for the country, based on Bell’s acquaintance with the different tribes of the area and her vision for Iraq. The plan was adopted without objection by Churchill and other participants of the conference. In line with decisions taken at Cairo, Gertrude Bell proceeded to aid Faisal, of the Hashemite dynasty, in becoming the first King of Iraq.

After the founding of modern Iraq, she returned to her first great love: archaeology. She established the Iraqi National Museum, and helped to pass a law stating that antiquities excavated in a particular location would remain in the country where they had been dug up.

Gertrude Bell died in Iraq in July 1926, from an overdose of sleeping pills. There is some dispute as to whether this overdose was intentional or accidental; her letters to her stepmother do not suggest suicidal tendencies, though she did ask her friends to care for her pets if anything happened to her.

At the National Library of Israel, one can find a collection of Persian poetry dedicated to Gertrude Bell. The book was dedicated in 1921 to this exceptional, trailblazing woman, who stood out so remarkably in the Middle East of those days.

The item reached the National Library courtesy of Abraham Shalom Yahuda. Yahuda was a well-known trader in manuscripts who donated his impressive collection to the National Library in 1951, along with his personal archive. The Yahuda Collection includes thousands of Islamic manuscripts covering the fundamental cornerstones of Muslim culture: Qurans, Hadiths, Islamic law, and the sciences. The collection also includes Christian books of hours as well as the theological writings of Isaac Newton.

But how did a manuscript dedicated to Gertrude Bell reach Abraham Shalom Yahuda and ultimately end up in the National Library? Gertrude Bell’s archive at Newcastle University contains her letters and diaries, donated by her stepmother. A search of the archive reveals that Bell and Yahuda crossed paths in 1902, on the deck of the S.S. Cleopatra, a ship which sailed from Izmir to Haifa. Yahuda was in the company of a group of Americans whom Bell also befriended. In a letter to her stepmother, she describes Abraham Shalom Yahuda in unflattering terms.

This only strengthens the question: If Abraham Shalom Yahuda and Gertrude Bell met only once, and weren’t even friendly, how did her manuscript end up in his possession?

A manuscript that once belonged to Gertrude Bell, and which somehow ended up in Abraham Shalom Yahuda’s possession



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