story of the British intelligence agent who rigged an election,
installed a king loyal to the British, drew new borders—and gave us
today’s ungovernable country.
came into Baghdad after months in one of the world’s most forbidding
deserts, a stoic, diminutive 45-year-old English woman with her small
band of men. She had been through lawless lands, held at gunpoint by
robbers, taken prisoner in a city that no Westerner had seen for 20
It was a hundred years ago, a few months before the outbreak of World
War I. Baghdad was under a regime loyal to the Ottoman Turks. The
Turkish authorities in Constantinople had reluctantly given the
persistent woman permission to embark on her desert odyssey, believing
her to be an archaeologist and Arab scholar, as well as being a species
of lunatic English explorer that they had seen before.
She was, in
fact, a spy and her British masters had told her that if she got into
trouble they would disclaim responsibility for her. Less than 10 years
later Gertrude Bell would be back in Baghdad, having rigged an election,
installed a king loyal to the British, re-organized the government, and
fixed the borders on the map of a new Iraq. As much as anyone can be,
Gertrude Bell could be said to have devised the country that nobody can
make work as a country for very long—no more so than now.
The Middle East as we know it was largely the idea of a small coterie
of men composed of British scholars, archaeologists, military officers
and colonial administrators who were called the Orientalists—this is the
“orient” according to the definition first made by the Greeks, meaning
everything east of the Mediterranean as Alexander the Great advanced to
For decades, beginning in the mid-19th century, the
Orientalists had explored the desert and found there the ruins of the
great powers of the ancient world—Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia.
Through archaeology they revealed these splendors to the modern world
and, from their digs, stuffed Western museums with prizes like the
polychromatic tiled Ishtar Gates of Babylon, moved to the Pergamon
Museum in Berlin, or the Cyrus Cylinder, containing the Persian king
Cyrus’s new creed of governance as he conquered Babylon, shipped to the
They wondered why such resplendently rich and deeply embedded
pre-Christian urbanized cultures ended up buried by the drifting sands
of the desert, completely unknown and ignored by the roaming Arab,
Turkish and Persian tribes above. The many glories of Babylon, for
example, lay unexplored not far from the boundaries of Baghdad.
Middle East as we know it was largely the idea of a small coterie of
men composed of British scholars, archaeologists, military officers and
colonial administrators who were called the Orientalists.
the explorers, a state of mind developed that was patronizing and
paternalistic. If they had not made these discoveries, who would know of
these great cities? If Arabs took the artifacts it would be, to these
men, mindless looting; if the Western scholars shipped them home, often
in vast consignments, it was to preserve them for posterity.
The Ottomans had managed Arabia through a decentralized system of provinces called valyets,
run by governors they appointed. Tribal, sectarian and territorial
conflicts made it a constantly turbulent place, despite the hammer of
Ottoman rule. Under a more centralized system the place would have been
ungovernable. But the Turks never entertained the Western idea of nation
building, it was as much as they could do to keep even a semblance of
The Orientalists thought differently. The Western idea of
nation building was the future of Arabia. As World War I drew to its end
and the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the Orientalists saw an opportunity
to bring modern coherence to the desert by imposing new kingdoms of
their own devising, as long as the kings would be compliant with the
strategic interests of the British Empire.
Into this coterie of
schemers came two mavericks, both scholars, both fluent Arab speakers,
both small in stature and psychologically fragile, both capable of
extraordinary feats of desert exploration—a young man called T.E.
Lawrence and Gertrude Bell, a more seasoned connoisseur of the desert
Both had been recruited before World War I to gather
intelligence on the Ottomans. Both were hard to accommodate within a
normal military and diplomatic machine and so ended up working for a
clandestine outfit in Cairo called the Arab Bureau, which was more aware
of their singular gifts and more tolerant of their habits.
epic desert trek in 1913-14 was already legendary. Her objective had
been a city called Hail that no European had reached since 1893. Under
the cover of archaeological research, her real purpose was to assess the
strength of a murderous family called the al Rashids, whose capital
The Rashids had been kicked out of Riyadh by the young
Abdul Aziz bin Abdurrahman al Saud, otherwise known as Ibn Saud, who was
to become the founder of Saudi Arabia.
Despite the rigors of the
terrain, Bell was as susceptible to the spiritual appeal of the desert
as others like her young protégée Lawrence. “Sometimes I have gone to
bed with a heart so heavy that I thought I could not carry it through
the next day,” she wrote. “Then comes the dawn, soft and benificent,
stealing over the wide plain and down the long slopes of the little
hollows, and in the end it steals into my heart also….”
When she reached Hail, the Rashids were suspicious and put her under what amounted to house arrest in the royal complex.
as a woman, Bell enjoyed an advantage over male colleagues that she was
to deploy on many missions: molesting or harming women was contrary to
the desert code of conduct, even in a family as homicidal as the
Rashids. For a week or so, Bell was warmly entertained by the women of
this polygamous society, and the women’s gossip provided a rich source
of intelligence on palace intrigues, of which there were many. From this
she was able to see what her British minders valued: That the Rashids
were yesterday’s men and the Saudis would likely be a formidable and
independent power in Arabia. The Rashids released her, and she went on
to Baghdad, Damascus, and home to London.
It was inside knowledge
like this that put Bell in an influential position when the war ended
and the European powers decided how they would carve up Arabia. Lawrence
had committed himself to the princes of the Hashemite tribe, notably
Feisal, with whom he had fought against the Turks, and promised Damascus
to them. But unknown to Lawrence, a secret deal had been cut with the
French, who wanted control of the eastern Mediterranean and were to get
Damascus while Britain would fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the
Ottoman Empire by re-drawing the map of Arabia.
The British were
more aware than the French of the importance that oil would assume.
Syria, the new French subject state, was unpromising as an oil prospect.
The first Middle Eastern oil field began pumping in Persia at the head
of the Persian Gulf in 1911, under British control, and geologists
suspected, rightly, that vast oil reserves lay untapped in both Persia
While Lawrence left the Paris Peace Conference in 1919
stricken by the guilt for a British betrayal of his Arabs to which he
had not been a party, Bell was sent to Baghdad, where Feisal was to be
given his consolation prize: the throne of a new Iraq.
As well as the prospect of huge oil reserves, this new Iraq was
crucial to the lines of communication to the great jewel of the British
Empire, India. And, ostensibly, it was the diplomats and generals of the
Indian administration who ran the show in Baghdad. But they depended on
Bell as an expert and a negotiator, fluent in Arabic and used to the
schisms and vendettas of the region. In fact, many of the decisive
meetings as the British struggled to create a provisional government
took place in Bell’s own house.
On August 23, 1921, at a ceremony
in central Baghdad, Feisal was installed as the monarch of Iraq, even
though he had no tribal roots in the country to assist his legitimacy.
“We’ve got our king crowned,” wrote Bell with relief. And she made a
claim about this election that would be echoed decades later by Saddam
Hussein, that Feisal had been endorsed by 96 percent of the people, even
though he was the only candidate and the majority of the population was
Indeed, Bell was so carried away with her confidence
in the nation she had helped to create that she crowed: “Before I die I
look to see Feisal ruling from the Persian frontier to the
In reality, the Iraqi borders had been arbitrarily
drawn and disregarded 2,000 years of tribal, sectarian, and nomadic
occupation. The Persian frontier was the only firmly delineated border,
asserted by mountains. Beyond Baghdad the line drawn between Syria, now
the property of France, and Iraq was more cartography than anthropology.
Nothing had cooled the innate hostilities of the Shia, in the south,
who (in a reversal of the current travesty in Baghdad) were virtually
unrepresented in Bell’s new assembly, and the Sunnis to the north, as
well as the Kurds, the Armenians and the Turks, each with their own
turf. Lawrence, in fact, had protested that the inclusion of the Kurds
was a mistake. And the desert border in the south was, in Bell’s own
words, “as yet undefined.”
The reason for this was Ibn Saud. Bell
wrote in a letter to her father, “I’ve been laying out on the map what I
think should be our desert boundaries.” Eventually that line was
settled by the Saudis, whose Wahhabi warriors were the most formidable
force in the desert and who foresaw what many other Arabs at the time
did: Iraq was a Western construct that defied thousands of years of
history, with an alien, puppet king who would not long survive and
internal forces that were centrifugal rather than coherent.
while, Bell was the popular and admired face of the British contingent
in Baghdad. An American visitor pleased her by calling her “the first
citizen of Iraq.” The Arabs called her “Al Khatun,” meaning a noble
woman who earned respect. She went riding and swimming every day,
somewhat diminishing the benefits of that by chain smoking in public.
She also made no secret of the fact that she was an atheist. It seemed
that she was more comfortable in the company of Arabs than she had been
among her peers in Cairo.
Lawrence, for example, while respectful of her scholarship, thought
that Bell “had no great depth of mind” and politically was a poor judge
of people and “changed direction like a weathercock.” Sir Mark Sykes, a
crusty diplomat who had colluded with the French to give them Damascus,
was more defiantly a misogynist. He called her “a silly chattering
windbag, an infernal liar, a conceited, gushing, rump-wagging,
Sometimes Bell revealed a dark self-knowledge. In
1923 she wrote to her father: “At the back of my mind is that we people
of war can never return to complete sanity. The shock has been too
great; we’re unbalanced. I am aware that I myself have much less control
over my own emotions than I used to have.”
By then she had only
three years to live, and was becoming frail from overwork. She described
her routine in a letter: “I get up at 5:30, do exercises till 5:45 and
walk in the garden till 6 or a little after cutting flowers. All that
grows now is a beautiful double jasmine of which I have bowls full every
day, and zinnias, ugly and useful. I breakfast at 6:40 on an egg and
some fruit…leave for the office by car at 6:55 and get there at 7…”
well as administrating in the manner of a colonial official, she often
acted like a viceroy, receiving a stream of tribal sheiks, Arab
officials or simply citizens with grievances. The king had to be
managed, as he sat in his garden “in full Arab dress, the white and gold
of the Mecca princes.” But she also devoted much of her time to a
personal passion: creating the Iraq Museum in Baghdad where she gathered
a priceless collection of treasures from the world of
antiquity—reminding herself and the Iraqi people how the earliest urban
civilizations had flourished around the Tigris and Euphrates.
were, though, other loves that belied the appearance of a desiccated,
workaholic spinster. She lived with the memories of two passionate
romances, both thwarted.
At the age of 24 she became engaged to a
young diplomat but her rich industrialist father deemed it an unsuitable
match and, in the compliant Victorian manner, she ended it. Her second
affair was far deeper, tragic and, in its effects, everlasting. She fell
in love with Colonel Charles Doughty-Wylie, a soldier with a record of
derring-do with appropriate movie star looks. But Doughty-Wylie was
married, and as long as the war occupied them both neither could see a
way out. Bell was, however, completely besotted:
“I can’t sleep,”
she wrote to him, “I can’t sleep. It’s one in the morning of Sunday.
I’ve tried to sleep, every night it becomes less and less possible. You,
and you, and you are between me and any rest; but out of your arms
there is no rest. Life, you called me, and fire. I flame and I am
He responded in kind: “You gave me a new world, Gertrude. I have
often loved women as a man like me does love them, well and badly,
little and much, as the blood took me…or simply for the adventure—to see
what happened. But that is all behind me.”
Doughty-Wylie died in
the amphibious assault on the Turks at Gallipoli in 1916—ill-conceived
by Winston Churchill as an attempt to strike at the “soft underbelly” of
the Ottoman Empire.
died at her house by the Tigris in Baghdad in July 1926 at the age of
57. She had taken an overdose of barbiturates, whether deliberately or
accidentally it was impossible to tell. Lawrence by then was a recluse,
in flight from the road show devised by the American journalist Lowell
Thomas that had turned him, as Lawrence of Arabia, into the most famous
man on Earth.
But it was Gertrude Bell, who was never a public figure, who had left the greater mark on the Middle East, for better or worse.
King Feisal, who had been ailing for some time, died in Switzerland
in 1933, at the age of 48, to be succeeded by his son Prince Ghazi. The
monarchy was brought down by a pro-British military coup in 1938, a
regime that would ultimately mutate into that of Saddam Hussein’s in