Gertrude Bell: Creator of Modern Iraq

When it comes to the history of the modern Middle East, the name of Gertrude Bell is, for the most part, omitted. Yet Gertrude’s work as a historian, writer, translator, archaeologist, administrator and policy-maker had as much of an impact as Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot. Her knowledge of the various Middle East tribes, their alliances and geographical boundaries influenced British policy after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

In 1918, Gertrude was tasked with drawing up the map of a new country: Iraq. Along with T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia), she also influenced the British decision to appoint Emir Faisal as the first leader of modern Iraq and his brother Abdullah as the first leader of Transjordan (modern day Jordan).


Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell was born in Washington in the North East of England on 14th July 1868. Her father, Hugh, was a wealthy iron industrialist. Her mother, Mary, died in childbirth when Gertrude was three.

Hugh was well-read and determined. From all accounts, Gertrude inherited these characteristics. Gertrude was schooled in London and studied Modern History at Oxford University, gaining a first class degree in 1886, the first woman to do so.


The travel bug bit when Gertrude crossed Europe to visit Bucharest in 1888 and Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1889. But it was on her trip to Tehran in 1892 that she fell in love with the Middle East.

For the next twenty years, Bell would travel extensively throughout the region, learning the local languages and customs, and documenting her experiences in several books. These include Persian Pictures, The Desert and the Sown, Amurath to Amurath, Mountains of the Servants of God, and a translation of the works of Persian poet Hafiz. She also undertook two world tours in 1897 and 1902.


The 19th century saw the decline of the Ottoman Empire, and its role in World War I accelerated its demise. When Bell returned to the UK in 1914, she recommended that the British side with the Arabs in a revolt against the Ottomans.

In 1915, she worked in Egypt for British military intelligence. In 1916, she found herself as a negotiator between the British and the Arab tribes in Eastern Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). Apart from business and leisure trips to the UK, she was to remain in Iraq for the rest of her life. Her reports greatly influenced the work of her good friend, T.E. Lawrence, whom she met in 1911.

At the end of World War I, Gertrude was asked by the British government to draw up the map of a new country, Iraq, out of the remains of Ottoman Mesopotamia. Oil had recently been discovered in the area and the British were determined to have an interest in exploration. Gertrude had to bear this in mind during her cartography work.

In 1921, at the Cairo Conference, Bell and Lawrence convinced Winston Churchill to appoint Faisal, son of Hashemite Sharif Hussein, as the new King of Iraq. When Faisal was crowned later in the year, Gertrude became an advisor to him. He appointed her Director of Antiquities and helped her found Baghdad Museum.


Gertrude met Henry Cadogan in 1892 in Tehran who later proposed marriage, to her delight. Unfortunately, Gertrude’s father refused permission for the marriage. Soon after, Cadogan drowned on a fishing expedition although authorities in Persia suspected suicide.

In 1907, she became involved with Charles Doughty-Wylie, a married British officer based in the Middle East. He was killed in the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915.

While acting as an advisor to King Faisal in Baghdad, she became close to Kinahan Cornwallis, a married British diplomat. The relationship petered out after Cornwallis’s divorce.

Bell was found dead in her bed on 12th July 1926, two days before her 58th birthday. She overdosed on sleeping tablets but it remains to be seen whether it was accidental or suicide. The public report stated natural causes due to the former. Her large funeral was attended by people from all sides of the Iraqi political spectrum. She is buried in Baghdad.

The Gertrude Bell Archive is held by the Robinson Library at Newcastle University in England. In 2017, her archive was placed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.


Critics of Bell’s work point to the continuous difficulties that have plagued modern Iraq since she marked out its borders. The Sykes-Picot Agreement determined the fate of the Middle East prior to the fall of the Ottoman Empire so some might say Gertrude was simply doing her job.

However, Bell’s opposition to my own country’s self-determination point to an imperialist ideology. Also, for such a resolute and pioneering woman, Bell inexplicably opposed the suffragette movement.

Her choice of Abdullah for King of Transjordan was more successful than her Iraq pick. Abdullah’s great grandson is the current King of Jordan and the country has enjoyed relative stability in the modern era.

But her story resonates with me for a number of reasons. Firstly, she had an ability to connect with people of other cultures and her linguistic skills were astonishing.

Her ability to overcome challenges and thrive in difficult circumstances are admirable, particularly when expectations were vastly different for women at the time. She had to contend with sexism, jealousy and suspicion from within the British ranks, and wasn’t provided with a salary when she initially went to Iraq. Like T.E. Lawrence, she felt more comfortable in Arab company. 

She was a free spirit and did what felt right for her. She had status and freedom in the Middle East while Victorian and Edwardian Britain constrained her within the borders of tradition. This is ironic considering she was eventually entrusted to plot the borders of a new country by the same people who upheld that restrictive tradition.

Finally, Gertrude Bell and her achievements have been overlooked, especially as the creator of modern Iraq. Whether you agree or disagree with her ideology and the results of her work, her endeavours still need to be acknowledged. Because that’s history, folks.

Gertrude Bell

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