Uncrowned Queen of Iraq


Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell

Oh Hafiz, seeking an end to strife,
Hold fast in thy mind what the wise have writ:
"If at last thou attain the desire of thy life,
Cast the world aside, yea, abandon it!"

- Hafez Shirazi poem translated by Gertrude Bell

Renowned as the uncrowned queen of Iraq,
Gertrude Bell was once the most powerful woman in the British empire

by Joel R Siebring, Dheera Sujan and Chris Calder

Gertrude Bell was born on 14 July 1868 in Washington Hall Durham County, England to a family of great affluence.  Her education began with home schooling, but she showed extraordinary brilliance as a child, and at the age of 16, went up to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, where she gained a first class Honours Degree in History in only two years.  (She was the first woman to obtain first-class honours there.)  Bell spent time on the social round in London and Yorkshire, but after three years on the "marriage market," she was unsuccessful in finding a husband, so she decided to visit a friend in Mesopotamia.  She fell in love with the area, learned both Persian and Arabic and how to ride camels.  Gertrude eventually met a man she wanted to marry but her father disapproved of her fiancé.  True to a daughter of the times, she obeyed her father’s wishes and returned home to England.  She received a message not many months later that her friend had died.

Gertrude afterward travelled extensively in Europe, and visited Persia.  Her travels continued with two around-the-world trips in 1897 - 1898 and 1902 - 1903.  She was an avid mountain climber; her climbing exploits in the Alps gave her recognition as a mountaineer.  In Jerusalem in 1899 - 1900 she learned to speak the Arabic language and investigated Arab archæological sites.  The Arabs called her "Daughter of the Desert".  She was renowned as the "Uncrowned Queen of Iraq."

Accompanied by large caravans of camels carrying her furs and pearls, her Wedgwood china and fine stemware, portable furniture, a canvas bath and several tents, she made several forays into the deserts of Arabia, where she took extensive notes on the tribes and customs of the Arabs.  Bell very genuinely fell in love with the people of Arabia.  (When she first visited the area, the land was a set of vilayets, or provinces of the Ottoman Empire).  Bell's fascination and affection were returned, and she received a warm welcome from people who might have shot a lone male British explorer.

Bell's biographer, Janet Wallach, recounts the first journey Bell took from Jerusalem to Damascus in 1900: "In the heart of the mountains called the Jebel Druze, she rode through one tiny village after another, causing a stir as she passed the white-turbaned, black-robed men.  At Miyemir she stopped to water her horse.  The veiled women, dressed in their long blue and red robes, were filling their earthenware jugs, dipping them into the pool.  Gertrude dismounted, and a young man about 19 approached; like all the Druze men and women, he had outlined his enormous eyes in black kohl.  The beautiful boy took her hands, and, to her surprise, kissed her on both her cheeks.  Other men followed, shaking her hand, eager to inspect the stranger."

Bell was hooked, it was clear, when she wrote at the end of her trip from Damascus, "with the desert almost up to its gates, and the breath of it blowing in with every wind, and the spirit of it passing in through the city gates with every Arab camel driver.  That is the heart of the whole matter."

Her dealings with the local sheiks and detailed knowledge of their alliances and lineages were considered so valuable that she was recruited into the British intelligence services of the Arab Bureau during World War I where she served under Sir Percy Cox and Sir Arnold Wilson.  In 1915, she was appointed to the Arab Bureau in Cairo, whose goal was to gather information for mobilisation of Arabs against Turkey.  She was part of the Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force in Basra and Baghdad.

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War left the winners scrabbling for their own pieces of the pie in the Middle East in a power vacuum that has an eerie resemblance to the one in Iraq today.  The British knew of the presence of oil in Mesopotamia and that played an important role in their power politics.  But oil was not the main factor.  The British needed to safeguard their role in the region, and most importantly, the route to India - their jewel in the crown.  In 1920, Bell became Oriental Secretary to the British High Commission in Iraq.  When Winston Churchill was made Colonial Secretary in 1921, he summoned the greatest experts on the Middle East to a conference in Egypt to determine the future of Mesopotamia.  This conference included Gertrude Bell and 39 men.

Bell was afraid of a Shia majority in Iraq.  She believed that if the Shiites had majority status in the new country, they'd soon be demanding an Islamic republic that would be anti-western and anti-modern.  Many Middle East specialists have compared the current situation to that left behind after the First World War.  The fall of Saddam Hussein has left a power vacuum where many vested interests are clawing each other for their share of the takings.  After the Ottomans were brought down, the British were determined to guard their interests in the region, and, after much wrangling between different factions, Her Majesty's government followed the advice of Gertrude Bell and TE Lawrence and installed an Arab ruler on the throne, the Hashimite dynasty ruler Faysal I, the first king on the throne of Iraq.

The person Bell and Lawrence had so strongly and successfully advocated, the Emir Faisal, was a charismatic and intelligent warrior-aristocrat who had led the Arab revolt.  But, despite that fact that he was a descendent of the Prophet and the son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca, he faced great opposition in the land he was going to rule - mainly because he'd never set foot in Iraq before he took on the throne.  It was Gertrude Bell who took him on a tour of the region, introducing him to the important sheikhs, teaching him about the lineages and clan loyalties, and generally shaping him into the kind of king she'd hoped for.  However Faisal had to walk a fine line between the British - who had not only put him on the throne, but were keeping him there with financial and military backing - and his Arab people, while a budding nationalist movement was demanding an Iraq for the Iraqis.

After the Cairo Conference, according to Wallach, "almost everything (Bell) had wished for now had a chance of coming true.  The country would consist of three vilayets — Baghdad, Basra and Mosul; the Sunnis, Shiites, Jews, Christians and Kurds would be united under a Sharifian king; and Iraq, rich, prosperous and led by Faisal, would be a loyal protégé of Britain.  If Gertrude could bring it all off, it would be more than interesting, it would be a model for the entire Middle East."

The wrench in Britain's plans was named Ibn Saud.  A powerful chieftain who had also been in the pay of the British for decades, he refused to submit to Faisal's rule.  The lands that his tribes and flocks roamed were not Iraq, he claimed, but Arabia, and his own.  All other methods failing, the British decided to carve a kingdom for Ibn Saud out of Transjordan and Iraq.  The following passage describing how the deal was made is worth quoting at length.  It is Wallach's description of the birth of the modern Middle East, with hints of how things could have been:

Ibn Saud's slaves prepared for (Cox's) arrival.  Lavish white tents of various sizes were pitched in the sand for sleeping, bathing, dining and entertaining; thick carpets were laid, luxurious furnishings installed and ample supplies of fresh fruits, Perrier water, Cuban cigars and Johnny Walker Scotch were stocked for (Cox.)

The negotiations over the boundary lines went on for five days and nights while Cox, dressed in his suit, bow tie and felt fedora, served as a mediator between the robed representatives of Iraq, Kuwait and Arabia.  Ibn Saud demanded that the borders be based on tribes, not territory, and according to his scheme, two groups — Fahad Bey's Anazeh and part of the Shammar — would belong to Arabia, regardless of how far north they travelled.  The two tribes would become a movable border, expanding and contracting, adjusting as they searched for grazing grounds; the border would change according to their nomadic needs.  "East is East and West is West," Kipling had written, and the two were never farther apart.  To Cox and the British, the notion of property revolved around territory, but for Ibn Saud and the Bedouin, the idea of property was tied to people.

No progress could possibly be made, and by the sixth day Sir Percy lost his temper.  With only Major Dixon at the meeting, he berated Ibn Saud as if he were a schoolboy.  At the rate both sides were going, he told the perfumed Arabian ruler, nothing would be settled for a year.  Ibn Saud was on the verge of tears; Sir Percy Cox was his father and mother, he cried, the one who had made him and raised him from nothing to the position he held.  He would surrender "half his kingdom, nay the whole," if Sir Percy ordered.

With that, Sir Percy took hold of the map.  Carefully drawing a red line across the face of it, he assigned a chunk of the Nejd to Iraq; then to placate Ibn Saud, he took almost two thirds of the territory of Kuwait and gave it to Arabia.  Last, drawing two zones, and declaring that they should be neutral, he called one the Kuwait neutral zone and the other the Iraq neutral zone.  When a representative of Ibn Saud pressed Cox not to make a Kuwait neutral zone, Sir Percy asked him why.  "Quite candidly," the man answered, "because we think oil exists there."

"That," replied the High Commissioner, "is exactly why I have made it a neutral zone.  Each side shall have a half-share."  The agreement, signed by all three sides at the beginning of December 1922, confirmed the boundary lines drawn so carefully by Gertrude Bell.  But for 70 years, up until and including the 1990 Gulf War involving Iraq and Kuwait, the dispute over the borders would continue."

The Americans would be wise to keep in mind that the Hashemites didn't long survive Faisal.  His successors weren't made of the same mettle and the discontent in the land grew.  When Iraq's last prime minister, Nuri Said, took the side of the British, French and Israel in the Suez issue, against Egypt's Nasser, the great pan Arabist leader, it was the straw that broke the Iraqi camel's back.  The Hashemite king and Said were murdered in a military coup.  After several more coups Saddam Hussein took power and kept the country together with an iron-fisted rule.  If the Americans plant a ruler who is seen to be too pro-American, he may well share the same fate as the unhappy Hashemites.

Bell (third rider from left) is flanked by Winston Churchill, on her right, and T E Lawrence at Giza during the 1921 Cairo Conference.

Also in 1921, Gertrude Bell published Review of the Civil Administration in Mesopotamia.  Between 1923 and 1926 she founded an archæological museum in Baghdad and became Iraq's Director of Antiquities.  But, facing ill health and loneliness, Bell took a lethal dose of sleeping pills and died 12 July 1926, in Baghdad, Iraq.  She left money to fund the British Institute of Archæology in Iraq.  A year after her death, Letters of Gertrude Bell, a two-volume set, was published by her stepmother in 1927.  The Gertrude Bell papers consist of around 1,600 letters to her parents and 16 journals, which she kept while she was travelling, and 40 other miscellaneous items.  There were also about 7,000 photographs taken by her from 1900 - 1918.  Those of Middle Eastern archæological sites are of great value because they record structures that have since been damaged or in some cases disappeared altogether.

Sources: www.mnsu.edu 2001, www.rnw.nl 18 May 2003, www.theava.com, www.thrasherqawwal.com; photo credit: Gertrude Bell Photographic Archive, Department of Archæology, University of Newcastle upon Tyne.  In part based on Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell, Adventurer, Advisor to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia, by Janet Wallach, Random House, 1996.

-------- Original Message --------

Subject: Re: Gertrude Bell and the Birth of Iraq
Date: Thu, 3 Jun 2004 16:29:55 -0500
From: Cody Hatch <cody@chaos.net.nz>
To: Ruth Hatch <ruth@chaos.net.nz>

Mmm - some interesting bits.  The idea that monarchies are stable, and stability is good for oil extraction has been the driving force behind most countries diplomacy in the region for the past century or so, certainly.  I'm not sure if it's a correct idea (it worked, more or less, so far, in Saudi Arabia, but not in Iran or Iraq, for example), but I think it's quite a horrible idea regardless.  I don't have a problem with constitutional monarchies per se, but I do have a problem with absolutist states of any stripe, so I find the idea that "If Gertrude could bring it all off, it would be more than interesting, it would be a model for the entire Middle East" to be vaguely horfifying.  Also racist - for all of Bell's love of the region and its population, one suspects she was happy to live in a democracy, but she didn't seem to think the Arabs deserved one?

Another view of Britain in Iraq the first time around:

More info on the above:

One of the pilots mentioned was Arthur Harris - more commonly known for his role in ordering the fire bombings of European cities, including Dresden.  100,000 people (mainly refugees) may have died in Dresden, and perhaps 600,000 civilians in total from his program of "area bombing" (known in Germany as "terror bombing").

From my point of view, the world is, by and large, a happier, stabler, more civilised, and safer place these days.

Cody Hatch
<cody@chaos.net.nz> chaos.net.nz

"A society that puts equality...ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom."

- Milton Friedman

Could Digging up a General in a Lead-Lined Coffin Save the World?

An extraordinary life: Sir Mark Sykes, soldier, MP and diplomat

by Michael Hanlon

Many people live extraordinary lives.  Many have extraordinary deaths.  But very, very few can hope to save the world 90 years after they have passed away.

One such man was the remarkably colourful Sir Tatton Benvenuto Mark Sykes, one of those larger-than-life Victorians who lived in an era when great men really could, and did, change the shape of the world.  Sir Mark Sykes was a baronet, a diplomat, a father of 6 children, Tory MP, a senior general in the Army and a skilled negotiator.  A close friend of T E Lawrence (of Arabia) and Chaim Weizmann - who went on to become the first President of Israel - Sir Mark championed Zionism, was a friend of the Arabs and had a real passion for all things that were Turkish.

His commanding achievement in life was when, aged just 39, he skilfully directed the carve-up of the defunct Ottoman Empire after the World War I armistice in 1918 - representing the British government at the Paris Peace Conference.  It was his hand which drew the arrowstraight lines that crisscross the deserts of Arabia to this day, delineating frontiers.  Sykes is also credited with helping to create the modern state of Israel, as well as championing the causes of the Armenians.

But it was his death that was to bring Sir Mark what may be his longest-lived legacy.  In an extraordinary development, it is now thought that this eccentric genius may hold the key - 88 years after he died - to averting what many scientists believe is the biggest medical threat facing the world today: a bird-flu pandemic.  During the Paris peace talks, which led to the Sykes-Picot Agreement, Sir Mark contracted a nasty fever, from which he died, at the Hotel Lotti in Paris, on 16 February 1919.  In fact, Sir Mark may have been one of the very last victims of the terrible epidemic which had swept the world for more than 2 years, the so-called Spanish Flu.  This pandemic killed far more than were slaughtered in the Great War.  Sir Mark would have been just one of the 50 million or so whose lives prematurely ended (and so often in their prime; the flu struck mostly those in their middle years), but for one thing.  After his death, the remains of Sir Mark were buried in a lead-lined coffin.  This was a standard, if expensive, protocol for bringing bodies back from abroad.  He was buried in St Mary's Church, Sledmere, in Yorkshire, and slowly passed into history.

But thanks to his lead-lined coffin, scientists believe that there is a good chance Sir Mark's body will have been extremely well-preserved.  A team led by Professor John Oxford, renowned virologist at Queen Mary University of London, and one of the world's leading experts on bird flu, has applied for permission to exhume Sir Mark's body in the hope that they will be able to extract samples of the virus that killed him.  "We have permission from the relatives.  We have permission from the bishop," Professor Oxford says.  "All we need now is permission from the Home Office and from the Health & Safety Executive.  We hope to start work in 6 months."

It is thought that if permission is given - which looks likely - it will be the first time a body has been exhumed after so long for medical research purposes.  The body of Sir Mark's wife, Edith, is buried in the same grave, although her remains will not be disturbed.  The plan to exhume Sir Mark's body is more than a gruesome academic exercise.  It is now known that the Spanish Flu which swept the world just as the flames of World War I were dying was an avian influenza - one of the viruses so worrying to the world's health chiefs today.  By isolating and examining any viruses still present in the body, Professor Oxford's team hope to learn more about the workings of this virus, named H1N1, and how it may be genetically related to the current bird flu germ, H5N1, which has been terrifying the world in recent years.

"He died very late in the epidemic, when the virus had almost burnt itself out," Prof Oxford adds.  "We want to get a grip on how the virus worked both when it was at its most virulent and when it was coming to the end of its life."  Considering the 1918 pandemic was the most destructive plague in modern times, we know little about the workings of the virus that caused it.  There are some poor-quality samples of the virus in labs, some extracted from the tissues of bodies found in the Greenland tundra a few years ago.  It is hoped that Sir Mark's remains will massively increase the amount of pristine material for the scientists to work on.  It is probably only a matter of time, Professor Oxford and most virus experts believe, before the current avian flu virus, H5N1, or one of its relatives mutates into a form that is both virulent and transmissible between human beings.

One thing we know about the 1918 epidemic is that it had nothing to do with Spain.  Instead, it probably arose in the misery and deprivation of the War, either among American servicemen or in northern France.  Some scientists believe the flu began in the fishing town of Etaples, on the French Channel coast.  There, a huge camp received injured soldiers from the front.  In fact, some epidemiologists even claim to have identified the first victim of the pandemic, a Tommy from New Malden, called Harry Underwood.  He had been gassed and shot, before being transferred to Etaples to recuperate.  Thousands of men lived there in cramped, unhygienic conditions ripe for an epidemic.  Crucially, Etaples lies directly under one of the world's greatest bird migration routes, and it is known that the recovering soldiers and medics shot thousands of possibly bird-flu-infected wildfowl for food.

One of Sir Mark's descendents is his great-granddaughter, the author Plum Sykes.  "It is rather grisly, but it is a great story," she says.  "It is such a shame he died so young.  People said he could have gone on to great things.  He was a modest man, but I think he would have been very proud if he'd known what an amazing thing he could achieve after his death."

Whether the scientists are successful will depend on the state of the body.  Certainly, cadavers buried in lead coffins can be well preserved.  Some, after two centuries, have looked almost as fresh as the day they were buried.  It is supposed that a combination of hermetic sealing and the action of lead compounds from the coffin itself cause the action of putrefaction to slow.  When the coffin is opened, full safety procedures will be in place, including the wearing of isolation suits.  Nevertheless, surely there is still a chance that the plague which caused so much death and destruction in 1918 could escape to do the same thing again?  "There is no risk," Professor Oxford says.  "The virus will be dead.  I've got children and grandchildren.  I wouldn't do this if it were exposing them to that sort of risk."

If Professor Oxford is right, then thanks to the late Sir Mark Sykes science will soon know more about one of the biggest killers of the 20th Century - a fitting end to a very extraordinary life - even if it occurs nearly 90 years after it came to such a premature close.

Source: dailymail.co.uk 11 April 2007

See also:

bulletPlan for Quick Victory (in the History section) - for more about the peace conference in Paris and the world-wide influenza epidemic...
bulletThe Terror of the Black Death (also in the History section) - for more about pandemics, including a projection about what might be the next one...

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