Chattering Class

Who Was Gertrude Bell? ‘Letters from Baghdad’ Highlights the Explorer’s Unsung Legacy

The directors behind the new documentary expound on Bell's trailblazing travels and the influence she had in the Middle East post-World War I… despite the opinion of her male peers.

(Photo Credit: Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University, All right reserved)

“Lawrence of Arabia” is one of the most lauded films of the 20th century and it also cemented the legacy of archaeologist and diplomat T. E. Lawrence. While his involvement in the Middle East during World War I was legendary, another person of equal influence has kind of been forgotten.

Her name was Gertrude Bell, and a new documentary called “Letters From Baghdad” is reviving her memory. Bell’s accomplishments easily equaled Lawrence’s — she traveled throughout the Middle East, became the first female officer in the British forces, and even helped draw the borders for present-day Iraq.

In the audio above and below, the film’s directors, Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl, explain the extent of Gertrude’s travels, how she came to advise Winston Churchill in the Middle East, and more.


On why there wasn’t a “Gertrude of Arabia” movie

Sabine Krayenbühl: T. E. Lawrence’s name was sort of created by Lowell Thomas, an American journalist who followed him during World War I, and actually made him famous by going around the country showing his films that he had documented over the time. And that’s sort of how the whole name around T. E. Lawrence started. Gertrude Bell was a contemporary of T. E. Lawrence, but, as is often the case, he sort of took the primary place on the stage, and she was forgotten.

On the thousands of miles she traveled and the places she visited

Brendan Francis Newnam: She called it the Orient. Others called it Arabia. Where exactly did Gertrude go, and what captivated her about that region?

See page for author [Public domain], <a href="">via Wikimedia Commons</a>
Gertrude Bell in Iraq [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sabine Krayenbühl: The love for the East actually started in Persia. She was sent there as a young woman right after she finished with a First in History at Oxford by her parents, who had a lot of diplomatic connections. And so, she went to visit them, and that, basically, lit the fire in her for the East. And then, [she] moved on to Jerusalem in 1900, and then started her first trip sort of through the Levantine area — Syria, Lebanon.

And finally, her sort of culminating trip was to the desert city of Hail, which is in Saudi Arabia today. That was a very groundbreaking trip for her. It took her four months over 1,500 miles on camelback, and she was the first woman to do this trip solo.

On how she became one of the few Middle East advisors to Winston Churchill

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, during that journey, she took meticulous notes. She wrote a book, she kept detailed letters, and she started to gain knowledge about the tribes in those regions and their customs, more than almost anyone else at the time had. And it seems like that knowledge is what led from her being just a curious traveler to, ultimately, being one of the handful of people in the room with Churchill, advising him how to carve up the Middle East.

Sabine Krayenbühl: That’s right.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, what were some of her strengths that made her a real trusted, important player in the Middle East?

Zeva Oelbaum: Well, she had a number of qualities that all came together to make that happen. The first was that she was very gifted in languages. She set a goal to learn Arabic. When she was traveling, she picked up all the dialects of all the tribes. And the second thing that really made her stand apart from other Victorian travelers of the time was that she was truly interested in the people that she met. She had an authentic respect for them.

Gertrude Bell seated between Winston Churchill and T.E.Lawrence at the Cairo Conference 1921. (Photo Credit: Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University)
Gertrude Bell seated between Winston Churchill and T.E.Lawrence at the Cairo Conference 1921. (Photo Credit: Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University)

So, she was able to make these relationships in a way that many people were not able to. And the fact that she was a woman and dressed as a British woman of a certain class made it easier, in some ways, for her to walk into the tents of the sheiks and sit down and…

Brendan Francis Newnam: How so?

Zeva Oelbaum: Well, because she was a bit of a curiosity, because out of the desert rode this British woman with all of her china and dressed beautifully in the Western clothing of the day, and I think she took them a little off guard.

Sabine Krayenbühl: She was, in that way, as a woman, not a threat. A man would potentially be really a threat and be much more questioned in terms of his intention, whereas for her, she came across as so sincere and straightforward and truly interested that she wasn’t, in any way, felt as a danger.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And yet, some of her peers in the British Foreign Service were a little bit threatened about working alongside such a knowledgeable woman.

Zeva Oelbaum: We have a really great quote from one of our academic advisors, who is Priya Satia at Stanford University. And she said that, for many, many decades, that going out into the desert was a test of masculinity for the Brits and that when Gertrude Bell went out into the desert by herself, that it stopped being such a very special accomplishment. And so, she was…

Sabine Krayenbühl: Took the wind out of…

Zeva Oelbaum: She took the wind out of their sails.

The delegates of the Mespot Commission at the Cairo Conference. Gertrude Bell is standing on the far left side of the photo. (Photo Credit: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS)

On the end of her exploration and final years

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, it seems like Gertrude’s energy rose and fell parallel with the British project in the Middle East. When they took over Baghdad and they were trying to figure out what to do with it, she was motivated and alive and instrumental in making things happen.

And then, after a local king was elected or installed, depending on how you look at it, the British hold on power loosened, and she grew depressed and ultimately died at the relatively young age of 58. Can you talk about the end of her career and her life?

Zeva Oelbaum: She died of an overdose of sleeping pills, and we really have thought a lot about that and given that a lot of thinking and a lot of researching, and it was a combination of different things, but certainly, one of the aspects was that she was marginalized in the Colonial office.

Sabine Krayenbühl: I mean, all her life, we think of her as an adrenaline junkie. She was always like something needed to happen, something needed to be…something… There had to be either something for her to do or something for her to be involved with, and so, definitely, when she wasn’t needed anymore, that weighed on her.

Zeva Oelbaum: She has a great quote in one of her letters that says something like, “At this point, the exploration and the beginnings are over, and it’s left to the administrators, and I’ve never been very good as an administrator.”