Skip to main content

The archaeologist’s letters

Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell (1868-1926) was a traveller, writer, political officer, administrator, and archaeologist. She is perhaps most well-known today for her role as the first woman to map Arabia and for her involvement in the politics of the area, leading to the creation of Iraq. She was also the first women to be awarded a first-class honours degree in Modern History from the University of Oxford.

In this letter to her stepmother Florence Bell in 1920, Gertrude Bell discusses the political situation in the Middle East, her hopes for resolution and her intended involvement.  She states -  

“I pray that the people at home may be rightly guided and realize that the only chance here is to recognize political ambitions from the first, not to try to squeeze the Arabs into our mould and have our hands forced in a year – who knows? perhaps less, the world is moving so fast – with the result that the chaos to north and east overwhelms Mesopotamia also. I wish I carried more weight. I’ve written to Edwin and this week I’m writing to Sir A. Hirtzel. But the truth is I’m in a minority of one in the Mesopotamian political service – or nearly – and yet I’m so sure I’m right that I would go to the stake for it – or perhaps just a little less painful form of testimony if they wish for it!

Gertrude Bell’s interest in the Arab region and people began after her graduation from The University of Oxford when she began to travel widely. Her knowledge of the region led to her involvement with the British Intelligence Service and by 1920 she was appointed as Oriental Secretary of the British High Commission in Iraq.

The following year, in March 1921, Bell was present at the conference held at the Semiramis Hotel in Cairo alongside others including T.E. Lawrence and Winston Churchill. The British Government met to discuss the future political shape of the Arab region and it was decided that Faisal I bin Hussein bin Ali al-Hashemi, who Bell had advocated for, would become the first king of the newly formed Kingdom of Iraq.  The events of the Cairo Conference are documented by Bell in the letters she sent to her family in Britain and are also part of the archive.

Reference:GB/LETT/370, Letter from Gertrude Bell to Dame Florence Bell on 12 Jan 1920 regarding the political situation in the Middle East (1920), Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186.

Potential research ideas

Bell’s correspondence and writings during this period can contribute significantly to our understanding of early 20th Century politics in the Middle East.  You can start by asking how her experiences of Iraq help shape the future direction of the Middle East? Did her advocating for Faisal I bin Hussein bin Ali al-Hashemi impact upon the region?  Bell’s personal correspondence identifies her opinions on political matters.

In the letter to her stepmother Bell claims that she is in the minority in her opinions – does Bell differ significantly from the beliefs that underpinned the British colonial service in the Middleast? Bell’s archive and collection clearly demonstrates her interest in the culture, languages and people – to what extent do these interests shape her political service? How is Bell’s legacy in Iraq viewed, both here and in the region? Given she died 5 years later, what do her private and public writings reveal about how satisfied she was with imperial policy in Iraq.

Selected background reading

For further bibliographic reading and information about Bell’s influence in Iraq:

Shillue, E. & Howell, G., 2008. Daughter of the Desert: The Remarkable Life of Gertrude Bell. Gender, Place and Culture, 15(5), pp.550–551. London: Macmillian

Wallach, J., 1996. Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia. New York: Doubleday

Granger, S, 2019. Letters From Baghdad. The video Librarian, Jan/Feb 2019, Vol.34(1)

Lukitz, L.A, 2005. Quest in the Middle East: Gertrude Bell and the Making of Modern Iraq 1914-1930. London: I. B. Tauris.

What can I find here in Special Collections?

The Gertrude Bell Archive is one of the most important and widely accessed within Newcastle University Library’s Special Collections and Archives; recognised by UNESCO a globally significant collection. It contains over 1,800 letters, 8,000 photographs, diaries and other papers including lecture notes, reports and newspaper cuttings.

Transcripts of all Bell’s existing diaries, many of her letters and photographs can be found at the Gertrude Bell website which is managed by Newcastle University’s School of History, Classics and Archaeology.

We also hold published versions of Gertrude Bell’s Letters:

  • Bell, G.L. & Bell, Florence Eveleen Eleanore Olliffe, 1930. The letters of Gertrude Bell, London: E. Benn. 20th C. Coll. 915.6 BEL. 20th Century Collection. Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186

As well as the Archive you can also access the Gertrude Bell Collection which features over 2000 books on Arabic and Persian history and language that Bell collected during her lifetime.  Titles include:

What can I find elsewhere?

Sir Winston Churchill acted as Colonial Secretary between 1919-1922. The Churchill Archive has its own website and includes papers from Churchill’s role as colonial secretary and some correspondence regarding Gertrude Bell in her role as Oriental Secretary of the British High Commission in Iraq.

Thomas Edward Lawrence, known as Lawrence of Arabia, was a British archaeological scholar and military strategist. In 1921 Lawrence became an adviser on Arab affairs to the colonial minister Winston Churchill. You can see the details of repositories that hold archives related to Lawrence at the National Archives website.

Middle East Centre Archive - provides a list of its holdings by country, subject and by individual. Specifically, the Percy Cox’s archive includes correspondence from Gertrude Bell.

Locally, you may also be interested in the Sudan Archive at Durham University, specifically the papers of F.C.C. Balfour - who served in Iraq between 1917-1920.  Correspondence between Bell and Balfour is included in our holdings at Newcastle and in the Balfour Archive at Durham. 

The Gertrude Bell Research website also contains information about research events and publications and using the archive for learning and teaching resources.