The Englishwoman who created modern Iraq

Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki
Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki
Published Jun. 20, 2014

Editor's note: This is an updated version, including new reporting, of a story that ran shortly after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

One man called her "the most objectionable person I've ever met." Another deemed her "mighty and valiant." But none could deny that in her fur boas and flowered hats, Gertrude Bell cut a unique figure as she roamed the Middle East in the early years of the 20th century.

In an age when most British women sought to marry well, the brilliant, sharp-tongued Bell remained a spinster. Yet she gave birth to a fascinating and deeply troubled offspring: the modern nation of Iraq.

It was Bell, fluent in Arabic, who gathered intelligence that led to the British rule, or mandate, over much of the Middle East.

It was Bell who drew the maps that combined the provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul into a new country rich in oil and rife with religious tensions.

And it was Bell who convinced Winston Churchill that the best way to retain respect — and influence — in Iraq was by letting the Iraqis rule themselves.

"Give them responsibility and make them settle their own affairs and they'll do it a thousand times better than we can," she wrote.

Far more prophetically, she often considered Iraq "an inchoate mess.''

During her era, Bell was as famous as her British colleague, the legendary Lawrence of Arabia, T.E. Lawrence. But while he was immortalized in an Oscar-winning epic, Bell lives on primarily in her own writings and the biography Desert Queen by Janet Wallach.

If Bell were here today, what would she think of the country she did so much to shape, a country now degenerating into a existential war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims?

"I keep asking myself that question, and I'm beginning to wonder if she wouldn't agree with those who say the Iraqis have to figure it out for themselves,'' Wallach mused last week as President Barack Obama prepared to send 300 U.S. military advisers to Iraq.

"I think she would agree that we've tried, we've done what we could, we've messed up where we could and now it's up to the Iraqis.''

Born in 1868, the Oxford-educated Bell had a keen intellect that did not suffer foppish young suitors. Unable to find a husband, she began to travel the world. It was on a trip to Jerusalem that she began her intense affair with the Middle East.

Led by native guides, she journeyed by camel from Damascus to Babylon, dining with desert sheiks in their tents. Even in the chauvinistic Arab society, tribal leaders were so dazzled by this extraordinary British woman that one dubbed her "an honorary man." As Bell's knowledge of the Arab world grew, so did her value to the British government. The Ottoman Empire was dying, and the British coveted Mesopotamia — as Iraq was then called — for its oil wealth and to secure the route to India's riches.

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Bell, given the key post of Oriental secretary, did such a superb job of gathering intelligence on local tribes that she drew much of the credit for the successful Arab revolt against the Ottomans and Britain's subsequent occupation of Baghdad.

But while they emerged victorious from World War I, the British had paid a heavy price in men and treasure. Churchill worried that his country couldn't afford to occupy all of Mesopotamia, and wanted to keep just the southern province of Basra on the Persian Gulf.

Bell disagreed. She thought it would be folly to give up Baghdad and the oil-rich Kurdish province of Mosul.

She had another motive in uniting all three, one that showed her keen awareness of the religious differences that now threaten to tear apart Iraq. She feared that Shiite Muslims — who outnumbered Sunni Muslims in the region — would form an Islamic state.

In creating Iraq, Bell wanted it led by a secular, moderate government. "She was extremely aware of the power and strength of the Shiite holy leaders,'' Wallach said, "and that is why the Kurds were included in Iraq, both for the oil and the fact they are Sunni Muslims.''

Were Bell alive today, she would have seen her fears of sectarian calamity realized.

She certainly would have cheered the end of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni who ruthlessly persecuted Shiites and Kurds. But she also would have been appalled by the U.S. decision to dissolve Iraq's largely Sunni army and back governments dominated by hard-line Shiites, including the current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.

Bell "believed very sternly that whoever was in power in Iraq would have to work with both Shiites and Sunnis," Wallach said. "That's where I think we made our mistake, we laid the groundwork for what (Maliki) did, which was take away everything from the Sunnis and punish them the way the Shiites had been punished early by the Sunnis.''

In the bloodshed that followed Britain's own occupation of this tortured land, Bell at times despaired of Arabs' ability to govern themselves. But she ultimately decided that was the only option, and persuaded Churchill to install a descendant of the prophet Mohammed as Iraq's ruler.

At first, Bell stayed busy helping the new King Faisal set up a government. As his confidence grew, she devoted more time to one of her great passions, archaeology. She founded the Iraqi Museum, considered one of the world's finest museums of antiquities until it was looted and heavily damaged after the 2003 invasion.

Bell also pressed for better education and health care for women. But though she often entertained at her Baghdad villa, Bell had few close friends. Sick, lonely and depressed, she took an overdose of sleeping pills on July 11, 1926. She was 57. Today, the "Mother of Iraq" lies in a British military cemetery in Baghdad, where Shiite fighters are poised to battle Sunni Muslim extremists. As President Barack Obama considered what action to take, a voice from the past suggested that the best course might have been no action at all. In her book, Wallach wrote of Bell's conversations with Jafar Pasha, an Arab leader in the early days of the 20th century.

"Bell wanted to work with him and the British to form this new Iraqi government and let (the Iraqis) know they would be given independence. He said to her, 'My lady, complete independence is never given, it is always taken.' There we are — now it's up to the Iraqis.''

Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at