Gertrude Bell – extraordinary woman

I really recommend this exhibition at the Great North Museum (open till 3 May) about one of the North East’s most influential women.

Gertrude was the wealthy daughter of a family of iron makers - her father owned foundries in Middlesbrough and she had a house in Redcar. Not the obvious start in life for someone who would have a profound effect on Middle East politics in the twentieth century and even today.

Gertrude went to Tehran in 1892 at the age of 24 and so began her fascination with the region. Gertrude was extremely clever – she was the first woman to take a first in history at Oxford at the age of only 19 – but she was not a feminist and opposed women’s suffrage!

Gertrude took lessons in Persian and when she returned to England published two volumes of Persian poetry in translation. She travelled widely – to India, Japan, and Canada, but spent most of her time exploring in what was then the Ottoman Empire – modern day Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Palestine. She led archaeological digs in Turkey and Iraq. So when World War I broke out, her Arabic expertise was unrivalled and she worked in intelligence in Cairo and Basra and at the end of the war she was made British Oriental Secretary in Baghdad.

She attended the Cairo Conference of 1921 with Churchill and TE Lawrence (of Arabia). See the photograph.

Her report the Civil Administration of Mesopotamia was hugely influential. She backed Faisal for King (within a British Protectorate); drew the southern, eastern and western borders of Iraq and persuaded Churchill to incorporate the Kurdish lands into the country.

Her nation building project seems to have been hugely, perhaps excessively, influenced by her archaeology.

After the war she continued her excavations and set up the Iraq Museum in Baghdad.

Her influence on politics and cultural policy in Iraq were unrivalled and remain significant. All these issues are explored in this exhibition with her marvellous photographs. For more information go to





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