Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Gertrude Bell: Shaper of the Modern Middle East

By Diane Rooney

Gertrude Bell

When most people think about World War One campaigns in the Middle East, chances are only one name comes immediately to mind: T. E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence truly made significant contributions to the Middle East campaign, but he also benefited from being "discovered" by writer and film maker Lowell Thomas. Thomas filmed Lawrence and the Middle Eastern environment in 1918. After the war, he toured the world, relentlessly promoting his film, With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia, much of which had been shot on site in the desert. A subsequent generation came to know Lawrence in the person of Peter O'Toole in David Lean's epic film, released in 1962. 

Gertrude Bell (1868–1926) never had a promoter like Lowell Thomas, but her contributions were remarkable, especially given both the British and Arab cultures she was working with. In addition to her skills as a linguist, archaeologist, mountain climber, world traveler, photographer, and diarist, she worked as a British intelligence agent at the Cairo-based Arab Branch during World War I, where she was a close associate of Lawrence.  She attended the Versailles treaty conference in 1919 and was the only woman at the 1921 Cairo Conference which outlined Britain's Middle East policy for several decades. For many years she was based in Baghdad and worked as a critical member of the British team that created the modern nation of Iraq, and she developed and organized collections for what became the Baghdad Archaeological Museum, which opened in 1926. 

Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell, and T.E. Lawrence During the 1921 Cairo Conference

Her education, broad interests, and family connections and support helped prepare her for her extraordinary career. Gertrude spoke six languages beyond her native English (Arabic, Persian, French, German, Turkish, and Italian). She graduated with first class honors in modern history from Oxford University in 1887.

And finally, long after T.E. Lawrence, she is getting her movie. Werner Herzog's film Queen of the Desert premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February. Nicole Kidman plays Gertrude Bell; Lawrence is played by Twilight and Harry Potter star Robert Pattinson. 

An enormous archive of Gertrude Bell's materials, including photographs, letters, and diaries, is available online through Newcastle University in the UK at this website:

Our longtime editorial team member Diane Rooney is presenting her talk, "Gertrude Bell and the Great War in the Middle East" at the August meeting of the SF Bay Area Chapter of the World War 1 Historical Association. The meeting is Saturday August 8 at 10:30 a.m. at the Albany Veterans Center, 1325 Portland Avenue, Albany CA. Free admission, free street parking. Refreshments provided.


  1. She was a unique woman for her times and I've always greatly admired her. And now she's getting her own movie--with Nicole Kidman, no less! I'm really looking forward to that. Thank you for the review and information. DBeer

  2. I'm reading "A Peace to End All Peace: the Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East " by David Fromkin and Gertrude Bell appears quite regularly in it. She is not quite as unknown as this blog entry makes her seem.