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Queen of the Desert

Gertrude Bell (1868–1926) was a woman ahead of her time: a pioneering archaeologist, writer and servant of the state, she travelled extensively in the Middle East in the early 1900s and was instrumental in the establishment of Iraq following the fragmentation of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. A major motion picture released in 2015 envisions one chapter in her life, but the real story behind Bell’s legacy lives on in thousands of fascinating documents bequeathed to the University by her father, as Dr Mark Jackson, Lecturer in Archaeology, explains.

Queen of the Desert, directed by Werner Herzog, stars Nicole Kidman as Gertrude Bell and Damian Lewis as love-interest Charles Doughty-Wylie, with James Franco and Robert Pattinson also having main roles. The film deals mainly with a period of Bell’s life before the end of the First World War, but in fact she is probably most famous for her role in Mesopotamia (Iraq) during the decade leading up to her death in 1926. Her unusual story began almost 150 years ago, in the North East of England.

Born on 14 July 1868 in Washington, a few miles south of Newcastle, Bell grew up in the seaside town of Redcar. She was the granddaughter of Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, a wealthy industrialist who had made his fortune pioneering the production of iron in the North East of England. Educated first at home and then in London, Gertrude read history at Oxford University, where she relished being surrounded by people involved in politics, history, languages and diplomacy.

Life and exploration

Bell’s first visit to the Middle East was as a graduate in 1892 when she went to Tehran to visit her uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles, Minister to Persia. Throughout her 20s and 30s, she travelled extensively in Europe and around the world.

In 1899 she accompanied her father to Greece where she would meet archaeologist David George Hogarth, the brother of a friend from her time at Oxford, whom she would later work alongside. The following year, Bell spent time visiting ancient sites in the Levant (the western region of the Middle East), before making a second journey around the world between 1902 and 1903. Then, between 1905 and the outbreak of the First World War, she returned to travel extensively in the Ottoman Empire. While carrying out fieldwork in 1907 she met the British Military Consul, Charles Doughty-Wylie and his wife, at Konya, a city in the Central Anatolia region. Her affair with Doughty-Wylie a few years later is the focus of the film Queen of the Desert.

Gertrude Bells camp, her servant Fattuh and men of the Zagarit tribe, at the Palace at Ukhaidir, Iraq, 1911.

Back home in the UK – and controversially – in 1908 Bell became Honorary Secretary of the UK’s Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League, a movement which opposed women being granted the vote in UK parliamentary elections. Away from her role as Secretary, Gertrude continued to spend much of her time travelling and came to know the topography, languages and people of Mesopotamia, Syria, and eastern Turkey, something very few other Westerners did at that time. She published narratives of her travels, The Desert and the Sown (1907) and Amurath to Amurath (1911). As well as multiple scholarly articles, in 1909 she wrote The Thousand and One Churches, a study of postclassical monuments which remains the standard work on early Byzantine architecture in Anatolia, and in 1914 Palace and mosque at Ukhaidir, a study of an important early Islamic site.

Doughty-Wylie was killed in 1915 during the Allied invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula. Later that year, Bell was recruited by Hogarth to assist the war effort in Cairo alongside Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Edward (TE) Lawrence in what became the Arab Bureau. The Bureau was created to advise the British government on policy in the Middle East. Bell’s knowledge of the country and its tribes made her ideally placed to be part of British Intelligence. Ultimately, the War would propel these three rather eccentric archaeologists – Bell, Lawrence and Hogarth – into a new sphere of influence.

After the war, Bell was sent by the Bureau to Basra in southern Mesopotamia to work for the Chief Political Officer; by 1917 she was based in Baghdad where she remained for much of the rest of her life. Future UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill would call on Bell in 1921 to attend a conference, seeking a way to grant independence to the area while ensuring the protection of British interests. The conference recommended the creation of the Kingdom of Iraq, with Bell arranging the coronation and implementation of King Faisal, third son of the Grand Sharif of Mecca.

Gertrude Bell, between Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence, with others on camels at the Cairo Conference, March 1921

Bell would ultimately serve in King Faisal’s administration, but spent her final years labouring as Honorary Director of Antiquities. In March 1926, she established the first national museum in Baghdad, the Baghdad Antiquities Museum (now the National Museum of Iraq). Sadly, in July of that year, Gertrude Bell died following a fatal overdose of sleeping pills a few days before her 58th birthday. She is buried in a British cemetery in Baghdad.


After her death, Bell’s father Sir Hugh Bell wrote to the Principal of Armstrong College to offer his daughter’s oriental library, letters, diaries and photographs. These documents now represent an important part of Newcastle University’s Special Collections.

For students and staff at Newcastle University, Bell’s library and detailed diaries, letters and over 7,000 photographs provide a wealth of opportunity for research. Every year thousands of people from across the world visit the University’s online Gertrude Bell Archive. From politicians and diplomats, film-makers and journalists, schoolchildren and members of the public, everyone has the opportunity to follow her story through the words and images she left behind.

Newcastle University was recently a collaborator with the British Institute for the Study of Iraq (Gertrude Bell Memorial) and the British Academy for the Gertrude Bell and Iraq – A Life and Legacy conference hosted at the Royal Society and the British Academy. From January to May 2016, the University will host an exhibition about Gertrude Bell at the Great North Museum: Hancock.

Damian Lewis visits Special Collections, January 2014

In January 2014, a touch of Hollywood glamour came to the University when Golden Globe-winning actor Damian Lewis (right) visited the Robinson Library’s archive, as part of his preparation to portray Doughty-Wylie. The Gertrude Bell Archive contains correspondence between Doughty-Wylie and Bell, which helped him prepare for the role.

You can visit the Gertrude Bell Archive online at:

Dr Mark Jackson (BA Archaeology 1995, MA Archaeology 1997, PhD Archaeology 2001) is Lecturer in Archaeology and a Degree Programme Director in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology. He first studied Gertrude Bell as an undergraduate at Newcastle and continues this research alongside his own fieldwork. He is now Manager of the University’s Gertrude Bell Photographic Archive.


published on: 17 August 2015