IN 1908 A BRITISH ENGINEER effectively reengineered geopolitics—and daily life—for the foreseeable future. Early on the morning of May 26, George Reynolds and his crew struck oil in western Persia. In the decade following, the region took on more meaning to the Western world than simply a patchwork of empty deserts, Ottoman territories, and tribal fiefdoms. Yet in the early 20th century, that was what it was.
One person who understood that reality was a middle-aged, Oxford-educated Englishwoman (a rarity in that time) named Gertrude Bell. In the years just prior to Reynolds’s strike, Bell had become well acquainted with Tehran, Constantinople, Damascus, and the desert world of what was then called the Near East. Assembling her own small caravans, she had crisscrossed Syria and gained fame as an explorer with the 1907 publication of her travels, The Desert and the Sown. The vastness of the desert and unbridled exoticism of the Near East suited her better than the carefully contrived British society of the time, and like George Reynolds, she would leave a lasting mark—for better or worse—on the region.
Bell initially came to the Near East in 1892, visiting family friends in Tehran. Her pedigree stood her in good stead in her early travels. The Bells, Newcastle iron manufacturers and industrialists (her grandfather had brought aluminum manufacturing to Britain), were among the empire’s wealthiest moguls, and Gertrude moved freely among the diplomats tending British interests across the Near East, Europe, and India. While diplomats generally had little interest in tribal affairs, Bell found those affairs and intrigues a source of endless fascination. She drank coffee in Bedouin tents, befriended the fiercely territorial and secretive Druze, swallowed lambs’ eyeballs at Arab feasts, and having ventured into Arabia’s brutal Najd Desert at the age of 46, spent weeks in Ha’il as a semicaptive guest of the ruling Rashid family. It was 1914, and her time in captivity was well deployed. She came away convinced that family strife would dismantle the Rashids’ power and leave their enemy, Ibn Saud, victor in Arabia. Unbidden, she reported her findings to a British official in Constantinople, who wired the foreign secretary to say that “Miss Bell’s journey, which is in all respects a most remarkable exploit, has naturally excited the greatest interest here.” As war threatened, she was asked for her impression of political conditions in Syria, Iraq, and Arabia. “Syria…is exceedingly pro-English,” she reported, while “Iraq would not willingly see Turkey at war with us and would take no part in it….Kuweit depends for his life on our help and he knows it….I think we could make it pretty hot for the Turks in the Gulf.”
Despite her growing reputation, when war came, Bell did what other British women did—volunteered in the Red Cross. Then in late 1915 archaeologist David Hogarth wrote from Cairo to say her expertise on Arab tribes was needed there. Hogarth was working at a newly formed information-gathering agency that would shortly become the Arab Bureau. Elated, Bell set sail. In Cairo she became reacquainted with the “little fellow”—T. E. Lawrence—a young archaeologist she had met several years earlier on a visit to Hogarth’s excavations at Carchemish, in northern Syria. Both Bell and Lawrence understood that the Arab tribes were key to the region and should be courted and cajoled by the British.
Bell served in Cairo only briefly before she was asked to move to Iraq. “The intention was that having thoroughly mastered…the intricacies of Arab politics in the Hejaz she should now work on tribal questions from the Iraq side,” her friend and mentor Sir Percy Cox wrote. Bell would do that, and more, for 10 years to come, among other things writing dispatches for the inter-intelligence Arab Bulletin that have become legendary.
BELL WAS ARROGANT, HEADSTRONG, CHAIN-SMOKING, opinionated, and generally indispensable. She moved easily in the company of men and enjoyed hosting her own social events, including the “pleasant Sunday afternoons of Miss Gertrude Bell,” where Frank Balfour, Sir Edgar Bonham Carter, and other British officials mingled with Arab intelligentsia. Fluent in Arabic herself and sympathetic to the cultures of Mesopotamia, Bell became known to the people of Iraq as khatun, queen. “As long as I am here I can get all the new stuff [intelligence], but much of it walks in on two feet, in the shape of a sheikh down from Nasariyah or elsewhere, and when I am gone there will be no one to collect it,” she wrote early in her Iraqi tenure, when the Arab Bureau lobbied to bring her back in Cairo. From Iraq, she still advised on the tribal situation, and “Lawrence, relying on her reports, made signal use [of them] in the Arab campaigns of 1917 and 1918,” David Hogarth reported.
In 1919 Bell left Iraq briefly for Paris and the peace conference called by the Allies to address the postwar world and divvy up among them the lands of the vanquished Central Powers. Along with Faisal, Lawrence’s compatriot in the Arab Revolt, Lawrence himself, and others, Bell watched and offered up opinions on European mandates and the best way to move forward on the Arab Question. “Our Eastern affairs are complex beyond words,” Bell wrote to her father from the conference, “and until I came there was no one to get the Mesopotamian side of the question at first hand.” Bell’s British colleague (and later nemesis) in Iraq, A. T. Wilson, more or less agreed: “[No] one except Miss Bell had any first-hand knowledge of Iraq or Nejd, or indeed of Persia. The very existence of a Shia majority in Iraq was denied…, and Miss Bell and I found it impossible to convince either the Military or the Foreign Office Delegations that Kurds in the Mosul vilayet were numerous and likely to be troublesome, that Ibn Saud was a power seriously to be reckoned with.”
Even before the conference, Bell had been asked to draw the borders for a potential state of Iraq, and she had included within it the provinces of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra. Her boundaries defined a nation that had not existed, and the mere concept of a unified Iraq did nothing to ensure its cohesion. The majority Shia were rural, seminomadic tribal peoples, while the Sunni, favored by the British and the Ottomans, were often wealthy and urbane. Tensions between the two sects only grew in the newly proclaimed Iraq, and Bell attempted, sometimes covertly but always cautiously, to mediate between the two and at the same time quell the Arab nationalist fervor for independence. “Whatever our future policy is to be we cannot now leave the country in the state of chaos which we have created, no one can master it if we can’t,” she wrote her father in August 1920.
But Britain was paying an enormous cost to administer Iraq, impelling Churchill to call a conference in Cairo the following year to discuss the future of Iraq, Transjordan, and Palestine. At the conference Bell and Lawrence successfully lobbied Churchill to support Faisal as Iraq’s first king; he had recently lost his Syrian homeland and its kingship when he attempted an uprising against the French mandate. Bell was convinced Faisal could lead Iraq, but he proved a disastrous choice. An outsider, he had no following in Mesopotamia and no taste for the enormous task of uniting and controlling it.
As Iraq foundered on a sea of uncertainty, Bell became less and less the great khatun. Her increasing despair was exacerbated by her father’s situation. The vast family fortune had melted away in the face of bad decisions, labor strikes, and a generally changing world. Increasingly, Bell turned to archaeology and the establishment of a museum in Baghdad to house the new nation’s antiquities, but depression dogged her. She was two days away from her 58th birthday, when in the heat of a Baghdad summer, she took an overdose of sleeping pills that ended her life.
On her 1892 trip to Persia, 24-year-old Bell had written her cousin, “Are we the same people I wonder when all our surroundings, associations, acquaintances are changed?” If she had never been disabused of British superiority or its imperial mandate, Bell nonetheless had surely been changed by—and had profoundly changed—Iraq.