Gertrude Bell, with Winston Churchill and T E Lawrence, in front of the Sphinx and Pyramids
Image credit Gertrude Bell Archive
BBC NEWS Tyne & Wear reports on the archaeologist Gertrude Bell who was –
A woman in a man’s world, Bell immersed herself in the Arab culture and became an “uncrowned Queen of the Desert”, according to Helen Berry, professor of British History at Newcastle University.
Born on 14 July 1868 in Washington New Hall, in what was then County Durham, Gertrude Bell was the daughter of a wealthy family of ironmasters. After being home schooled, she went to London to be taught at the age of 15, before going on to become the first woman to gain a first-class degree in Modern History at Oxford. Because of her sex, she was unable to graduate. Prof Berry said that Bell had the opinion that “what applied to other women didn’t apply to her. She thought that the fact she was a woman didn’t stop her from doing anything she wanted.”
In 1892, after leaving Oxford, Bell travelled to Tehran, in what was then Persia, to visit her uncle Sir Frank Lascelles, who was British minister to the country. Prof Berry said it was on this visit that she developed a love for the Arab people as she visited archaeological sites, learnt their language and travelled deep into the desert. “I couldn’t do it, it was very dangerous, but obviously she liked danger,” the professor said. “I think she decided she was going to play this role as ‘Queen of the Desert’. She surrounded herself with this grand ensemble of camels, prestigious gifts and male guides and travelled the Middle East. I don’t think they knew what to do with her, especially being a woman, [but] I think she won them over with her ability to communicate.”
A lone woman among Arab men, to many she became known as “El Khatun”, the Lady of the Court. She spoke eight languages, including French, Persian, Arabic and Turkish, and it was her knowledge of the tribes, geography and politics of the area that attracted the attention of British Intelligence.
Production has begun on a film telling the story of Gertrude Bell; archaeologist, writer and explorer who spent the early 1900s travelling alone across the Middle East.