Gertrude Bell

Gertrude Bell was a writer, explorer and archaeologist. She was a woman ahead of her time and became known as ‘Queen of the Desert’. Gertrude came from the well-known Bell family, who had become very wealthy through the Tees Valley iron and steel industry. Her grandfather, Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, co-founded the company that would go on to become the iron and steel giants ‘Bell Brothers’ and was a member of Parliament who worked alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.

There were few opportunities for women in Britain in the late 1800s. Even women from wealthy families were expected to do little more than enter ‘Victorian Society’, find a suitable husband and settle down. Instead, Gertrude studied hard, becoming the first woman to gain a first class degree in history at Oxford University, and travelled the world. During her travels she fell in love with the ‘Arabian world’ (what is now the Middle East) and the Arab peoples. She learned their languages, investigated their archaeological sites and travelled deep into the desert.

She wrote about the people and places she encountered, sharing her knowledge with the people back in Britain through letters, articles and books. Gertrude was one of the only Europeans at the time to have developed such an in-depth understanding of the area. This led her to become heavily involved in complex political dealings – highly unusual for a woman of her time – including drawing the boundaries for a new country named Iraq, in 1920.

Gertrude’s first love was archaeology. Rather than removing the precious historical things her digs uncovered, and taking them back to museums in Britain (as others of the time had done), she worked with the Iraqi people to develop their own museum to preserve their heritage and help establish a new national identity. The museum opened in Baghdad in 1926, shortly before Gertrude died.

A Hollywood film about Gertrude’s exceptional life and achievements ‘ Queen of the Deserts’ was released in 2015, starring Nicole Kidman and Robert Pattinson.

Image courtesy of Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University (Pers_B_004B)