St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Iraq's current situation would mortify its creator

Published August 31, 2003

One man called her "the most objectionable and intolerant person I've ever met." Another deemed her "mighty and valiant." But none could deny that in her fur boas and flowered hats, Gertrude Bell cut a unique figure as she roamed the Middle East in the early years of the 20th century.

In an age when the goal of most British women was to marry well, the brilliant and sharp-tongued Bell remained a spinster. Yet she gave birth to a remarkable offspring: the modern nation of Iraq.

It was Bell, fluent in Arabic, who gathered intelligence that led to the Arab revolt against the Ottomans in World War I and cleared the way for the British rule, or mandate, over much of the Middle East.

It was Bell who drew the maps that combined the old Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul into a new country rich in oil and rife with religious tensions.

And it was Bell who convinced Winston Churchill that the best way to retain respect - and influence - in Iraq was by letting the Arabs rule themselves.

"Give them responsibility and make them settle their own affairs and they'll do it a thousands times better than we can," she wrote.

In her lifetime, Bell was as famous as her British ally, the legendary Lawrence of Arabia, T.E. Lawrence. But while he was immortalized in an Oscar-winning epic, Bell lives on primarily in her own writings and the biography Desert Queen by Janet Wallach.

If Bell were here today, what would she think of the country she did so much to shape?

"There's no question she would have despised Saddam Hussein, but I think she would have been furious about the disrespect for the antiquities sites, the uncivil behavior, the looting and the chaos of society that we are now allowing to happen," Wallach said in a phone interview.

"What is so interesting is that these times are so parallel to what happened to the British - there was all this rioting and inciting that went on both before and after the mandate. She was very much in favor of the Iraqis running the country even though there were times she was furious at them for not appreciating what the British had done."

Bell was born in 1868 to a rich industrialist and a frail mother who died when she was 2. From her father, she got her energy, intellect and love of politics; from her stepmother, a beautiful playwright, she acquired a taste for literature, fashion and the arts. Though young Victorian women were expected to stay home until they wed, Bell persuaded her parents to send her to Oxford where she excelled in modern history.

Bell had red hair and striking blue-green eyes, but her long nose kept her from conventional prettiness. And her keen intellect did not suffer foppish young suitors. Unable to find a husband, the restless Bell began to travel the world.

In Switzerland, she climbed peaks that scared veteran mountaineers. In Persia, she rendered what is still considered the finest translation of works by the great poet Hafiz. But it was on a trip to Jerusalem that she began her intense affair with the Middle East.

Led by native guides, she traveled by camel from Damascus to Palmyra to Babylon, dining with desert sheiks in their tents. Even in the chauvinistic Arab society, tribal leaders were so dazzled by this extraordinary British woman that one dubbed her "an honorary man."

As Bell's knowledge of the Arab world grew, so did her value to the British government. The Ottoman Empire was dying, and the British coveted Mesopotamia - as Iraq was then called - for its oil wealth and to secure the route to India's riches.

Bell, given the key intelligence post of Oriental secretary, did such a superb job of gathering information on the tribes that she drew much of the credit for the successful Arab revolt against the Ottomans and Britain's subsequent occupation of Baghdad.

Were she alive, Bell would be "absolutely disgusted" by how little intelligence U.S. and British forces had before entering Iraq, Wallach says.

"The idea that we didn't have people in the country and had no sense of what was going on either before or after the invasion/liberation would have just appalled her. If you're going in and setting up a whole new regime, how can you do it without knowing who the people are and having some sense of what might come next?

"I think all of these attacks going on now could probably have easily been predicted and what's more she would have known the mood of the country and who the real potential leaders had been."

Churchill worried that Britain could not afford to occupy all of Mesopotamia and wanted to keep just the southern province of Basra, on the Persian Gulf. But Bell thought it would be folly to give up Baghdad and the oil-rich Kurdish province of Mosul.

She had another motive in uniting all three provinces, one that showed her keen awareness of the religious differences that plague Iraq to this day. She feared that Shiite Muslims - who outnumbered Sunni Muslims in the region - would form an Islamic state.

In creating Iraq, Bell wanted to make sure it was a secular, moderate government, Wallach says. "She was extremely aware of the power and strength of the Shiite holy leaders and in fact that is why the Kurds were included in Iraq, both for the oil and the fact they are Sunni Muslims."

In the bloodshed that followed the British occupation, Bell at times considered Iraq an "inchoate mess" and despaired of Arabs governing themselves. But she eventually decided that was the only option, and persuaded Churchill to install a descendant of the prophet Mohammed as Iraq's ruler.

At first, Bell stayed busy helping the new King Faisal set up a government. As his confidence grew, she devoted more time to one of her great passions, archaeology. She founded the Iraqi Museum, considered one of the world's great museums of antiquities. She also pressed for better education and health care for women.

But although she often entertained at her Baghdad villa, Bell had few close friends. Sick, lonely and depressed, she took an overdose of sleeping pills on July 11, 1926. She was 57.

Today, the "Mother of Iraq" lies in a British military cemetery in Baghdad. Few remember her, but her legacy endures.

"She did create an important country, which was for a while the most progressive of all Arab states," Wallach says.

"Can it ever return? Why not - the people have tremendous spirit, they're incredibly hard working and it's their rich history that gives them so much pride and determination. (Bell) had faith in people - she may not have had religious faith - but she believed in people and the strength of people."

- This story contains information from Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia by Janet Wallach Anchor Books. Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.