Chautauqua scholar Karen Vuranch will introduce audiences to one of history’s most influential women they have probably never heard of when she takes on the role of Gertrude Bell.
“Gertrude Bell is a remarkable woman and largely forgotten,” Vuranch said. “ I learned about her when I did another WWI character and did a workshop on women in the war. I was immediately fascinated by her.”
Bell was born to a wealthy family in the Victorian era, but seemed to break all the rules and patterns. She has an impressive list of firsts and major accomplishments, said Vuranch.
“She was the first woman to graduate from Oxford University with first honors, she was a famous mountain climber and even has an Alp named after her,” said Vuranch. “She was an archaeologist, photographer, mapmaker, accomplished linguist (15 languages) and scholar.”
While Bell was all of that, she was also a spy for the British Empire and, according to many historians, the greatest woman mountaineer of her age. Her greatest influence, however, may have been in Baghdad in 1921 where she drew the boundaries of the country that would became Iraq.
As an official of the British administration in Baghdad after the first world war, Bell ensured that an Arab state was founded from the three Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, but one which was too weak to be independent of Britain.
“I wondered why this woman was so little known,” Vuranch said. “But I think it comes down to the fact that she was a woman in a man’s world.”
Bell spent years traveling through the deserts of the Middle East. She befriended sheiks and tribal leaders and was known as Queen of the Desert. It was also said she was the only English-speaking person for whom the Arabs had any respect. When World War I began, she was clearly the most knowledgeable British person about the Arabic countries.
Bell worked with T.E. Lawrence, best known as “Lawrence of Arabia,” in the Arab Bureau during World War I. Based in Cairo, the bureau gathered and analyzed information to help the British push the Ottoman Empire from the region. The British had suffered several military defeats against them when Lawrence devised a new strategy. He wanted to recruit Arab peoples to oppose the Turks, and Bell helped him to drum up support for this effort.
As a mountaineer, Bell gained renown for surviving 53 hours on a rope on the unclimbed north-east face of the Finsteraarhorn, when her expedition was caught in a blizzard in the summer of 1902.
Bell had begun to learn Arabic in Jerusalem in 1897, wrote about Syria and taught herself archaeology. She immersed herself in tribal politics and in 1914 made a dangerous journey to Hail, a town in northern Arabia that was the headquarters of a bitter enemy of Britain’s new ally, the founder of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud.
With the outbreak of war that summer, and the entry of the Ottoman empire on the side of Germany that November, Bell was swept up with Lawrence and other archaeologist-spies into an intelligence operation in Cairo, known as the Arab Bureau. Bell traveled to Basra, where a new army was assembling. When Baghdad fell to the reinforcements in 1917, she moved up to the capital and eventually became responsible for building relationships with the Arab population.
After the war, Bell sought to help the Arabs. She wrote “Self-Determination in Mesopotamia,” a paper that earned her a seat at the 1919 Peace Conference in Paris. Bell continued to explore related political and social issues in her 1920 work “Review of the Civil Administration of Mesopotamia.” She was involved the 1921 Conference in Cairo with Winston Churchill who was the colonial secretary, that established the boundaries of Iraq.
Bell also helped bring Faisal I to power as Iraq’s new king. For her work on their behalf, Bell earned the respect of the peoples of Mesopotamia. She was often addressed as “khutan,” which means “queen” in Persian and “respected lady” in Arabic.
“I don’t think I shall ever be able to detach myself permanently from the fortunes of this country.... it’s a wonderful thing to feel the affection and confidence of a whole people round you,” Bell said in a letter home from Baghdad May 26, 1917. “But oh to be at the end of the war and to have a free hand!”